The Vicuna

Ice cold in Norfolk

This month I’m delighted to welcome my colleague Ken Hamilton, Listing Adviser, Listing Projects and Marine Team, Historic England. On the anniversary of the loss of the Vicuna, 136 years ago, he discusses what happened on 6-7 March 1883, and revisits the evidence for the remains on the beach.

Over to Ken:

Great Storms are more common that one might think – 1703 and 1987 come to mind, and they occur regularly in between. One particular Great Storm was on 6 March 1883, where force 9 and 10 winds heralded one of the coldest Marches in 300 years. The storm resulted in the loss of over 50 vessels and over 200 crew around the North Sea, mostly fishermen from Hull and the Netherlands.

One vessel affected was the Vicuna, a 330 ton barquentine bound for her home port of Hull with a cargo of ice. The ship had left Larvik on 23 February, and anchored within the entrance to the Humber on 5 March. The wind rose overnight, and the ship’s master, John Sawyer, ordered the dropping of a second anchor at 8am on 6 March. One of her anchor cables parted at 9am, so the ship requested a tug to tow her into Hull. Both tow rope and the remaining anchor cable parted, but she then ran aground on Sand Haile on the southern shoulder of the entrance to the Humber. She was towed off the sand bank, set sail and sailed east to clear the coast and ride out the storm at sea. The Vicuna rode out the night at sea, but struck the Woolpack Sand off the Norfolk coast in the middle of the afternoon on the 7th. They came off the Woolpack Sand, and Captain Sawyer decided to head for Brancaster, but was blown south onto the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea, running aground at 4.30pm. The Hunstanton lifeboat was launched, the crew were taken off at 7.30pm and landed at Hunstanton at 10pm on 7 March.

Map of the North Sea coast between the Humber and Norfolk, showing the 50 miles travelled by the Vicuna between 9am on 6 March and 3.30pm on 7 March, and the two sandbanks where she grounded en route.
Route of the Vicuna. Modern Ordnance Survey mapping. © Crown Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number: 100024900. Marine mapping © British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Ltd., All rights reserved. Product licence number 102006.006 © Historic England

The Vicuna‘s departure from the Humber was reported in the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette as the schooner Vienna (a confusion continued into the 21st century, as the two words are difficult to distinguish in 136 year old newsprint even when digitised!). Harder to explain are three entries in Lloyd’s List for 9 March 1883, two for the Vicuna, of Hull, and one for the Vicuna of Bristol (? Hull). It is not clear why the third mention (which is clearly the same vessel) was assigned a different port of registry!

The Vicuna was carrying 500 tons of ice, a not uncommon cargo in the late 19th century. The international ice trade began in 1806, when Frederic Tudor began to export ice from the United States to Martinique, in the Caribbean. Tudor, known as the “Ice King”, made his fortune transporting ice from the United States to the Caribbean and India. In England, William Leftwich started to import ice from Norway in 1822, and the trade grew from there. While Tudor did start to export ice from the USA to England in 1844, Leftwich’s main competitor was Carlo Gatti, who began to import Norwegian ice in the 1850s. Despite the invention of ice-making machines and refrigerated ships by 1882, the ice trade continued to grow until 1900 and did not seriously begin to drop until 1915 when the German blockade of the North Sea made its transport difficult. The last import of ice to the UK from Scandinavia was in 1921.

Ice was cut from south Norwegian lakes in winter, transported to the coast and packed into ships. The journey to England was between 500 and 600 nautical miles, and took between 5 and 10 days, depending on the weather. During that time, the ice would start to melt, with an average loss of between 5 and 10% of the cargo (the ice was insulated, usually with sawdust, but not refrigerated). On arrival, the ice was unloaded into commercial ice houses and ice wells. William Leftwich leased a former private ice house in Park Crescent West (Scheduled: NHLE 1427239), and constructed another in 1829. Carlo Gatti stored and distributed ice from his ice wells in King’s Cross (constructed in 1862: part of the London Canal Museum). A number of commercial ice houses survive across the country, particularly in fishing ports, for example in Berwick (Listed Grade II: NHLE 1396572) and Great Yarmouth (NHLE 1096794). Hull’s ice house was converted to a Salvation Army citadel in the late 19th century, and demolished in the late 20th century (the location survives as Icehouse Road).

It is interesting to speculate about the fate of the Vicuna, and the role of her cargo in her wrecking. After parting tow, she stood out to sea, heading east, but her subsequent known route was mostly to the south, albeit at about 1.2 knots (suggesting she was hove to or had no sail set). By the time the ship approached the Norfolk coast, she had been out in the storm for 36 hours, and so the crew were likely to have become exhausted. At the same time, loss of cargo through melting increased the risk of the ice shifting and affecting the stability of the vessel.

Collapsed hull of wreck still retaining its 'boat shape', half in water to the right, on an extensive beach under a blue sky.
Wreck at Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, known as the Vicuna, February 2019. Courtesy of Ken Hamilton.

Following the wreck, the owners initially intended to refloat the vessel, but later offered to sell the ship and her fittings by auction, although it is worth noting that she was sold as a hull and not as a ‘wreck’. How much of this sale went ahead is not clear, as the remains on the beach do not entirely reflect the documentary evidence. The existence of the wreck was reported again in 1985, but was initially identified as an 18th century collier called the Carrington: the Carrington was, however, a 19th century collier, wrecked on 20 November 1893 on Titchwell beach, east of Holme-next-the-Sea.  Identification of the wreck (and its differentiation from other wrecks along Holme beach) was complicated by the beach itself – it is relatively featureless, so determining accurate locations on the beach was notoriously difficult until the wider availability of GPS systems.

A spread of Scandinavian stone used as ballast, together with oral history testimony, suggested that the wreck was the Vicuna. The spread of ballast was well known locally, and when the Holme-next-the-Sea timber circle (the so-called ‘Seahenge’) was found, the finder noticed it by picking up what he thought was a piece of ballast from the Vicuna that turned out to be a Bronze Age axe head!

Stones scattered over wreck timbers, largest stones in the centre left foreground.
Detail view of the wreck at Holme-next-the-Sea, February 2019. Courtesy of Ken Hamilton.

The writing of this blog has provided an opportunity to review this identification. The auction notice for the ship detailed 60 tons of iron ballast in the Vicuna as well as her 500 tons of ice cargo. An examination of the ballast on the wreck site shows it to be iron slag, and not Norwegian stone. The slag is interesting in itself – it is not blast furnace slag, but slag from a different process, possibly from a finery forge (the process of turning pig iron into wrought iron). Finery forges were replaced by puddling hearths in England in the late 18th century, but continued in use in Sweden until the development of the Bessemer furnace revolutionised steel production in the mid 19th century. If the slag from the wreck is finery slag, it would predate the construction of the Vicuna, and hence raises the possibility that the wreck is another ship entirely.

Lump of brown iron slag with cavities in it, with a scale rule to the right showing it to be 8cm high.
Detail view of iron slag as ballast from the wreck at Holme-next-the-Sea, with visible vesicles (cavities). Courtesy of Ken Hamilton.

There are few records of the nature of ballast on ships, but the existence of large quantities of slag suggests the ship came from an iron-working area. Coincidentally, British iron and steel production in the 18th century relied on Swedish iron, and two ships laden with Swedish iron ran aground between Hunstanton and Brancaster – the Christina, in 1763 and the Sophia Albertina (also identified as the Suffia Britannia Albertina) in 1764. Another, unnamed ship (also laden with iron) was mentioned as running aground the same week as the Christina. Given the lack of detail, the possibility that this third ship is a variant report of the Christina cannot be discounted. A further possible contender is the Hope, another Swedish ship which ran aground on the beach near Holme on 21 May 1771. Without more evidence (and analysis of the ship’s timbers) it is impossible to tell.

Many thanks to Ken for the above blog providing a fascinating new perspective on the Holme-next-the-Sea wreck, and all because he took a closer look at the ballast!

References:

Barraclough, KC ‘Steel in the Industrial Revolution’ in Day, J and Tylecote RF The Industrial Revolution in Metals (1991) The Institute of Metals pp261-306

Blain, BB Melting Markets: The Rise and Decline of the Anglo-Norwegian Ice Trade, 1850-1920 (2006) Working Papers of the Global Economic History Network (GEHN) no. 20/06

Lamb, H and Frydendahl, K Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe (1991) Cambridge University Press p143

Tylecote, RF ‘Iron in the Industrial Revolution’ in Day, J and Tylecote RF The Industrial Revolution in Metals (1991) The Institute of Metals pp200-260

Lloyds List, 9 March 1883 No. 21484, p11

Norfolk News, 17 March 1883, No.1995, p10

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 08 March 1883, No.14213, p4

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 09 March 1883, No.14214, p4

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 27 March 1883, No.14228, p6

National Slag Collection catalogue http://hist-met.org/nsc.pdf Accessed 1 March 2019

Norfolk HER entry for the Vicuna http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?mnf21961 Accessed 1 March 2019

Norfolk HER entry for wreck on Holme beach http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?mnf21962 Accessed 1 March 2019

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Vicuna

  1. A really interesting Blog Ken and Serena. The photo looks pretty much like ballast found here quite frequently. – makes us think and wonder what else is out there in The North Sea yet to be found.

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