Diary of the Second World War: September 1939

Alex van Opstal

As Britain prepared for the much-anticipated onslaught of war during the ‘Phoney War’ period, in which little appeared to be happening militarily, events at sea were already moving fast. Enemy minefields were sown in various locations around the coasts of England virtually from the declaration of war (claiming the Goodwood and the Magdapur in different locations off the east coast just a week into the war).

The worldwide toll of ships attacked by U-boats in September 1939 reached 52, the majority sunk, although a number were captured. At this stage of the war, the majority of the ships attacked were British, and most were forced to stop by an initial warning shot before the crews were forced to leave. A significant proportion of that month’s activity took place in the Baltic region as ships from neutral Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were stopped and, if discovered to be bound for the UK, captured and diverted to German ports, or sunk.

The first neutral ship to be lost in the war within English waters was the Belgian motor vessel Alex van Opstal, belonging to the Compagnie Maritime Belge, 5,965 tons, built in 1937 and named after the company’s recently-deceased president. The Alex van Opstal left New York for Antwerp on 6 September, three days into the war, with a general cargo, predominantly grain (3,400 tons), 59 crew, and eight passengers. (1) All must have been anxious as to what awaited them in European waters, but none could have predicted what happened next.

On 15 September, while proceeding up Channel, she was ordered to call at Weymouth for examination by the British authorities. It was after ‘making a stopover in England’, as a French newspaper put it, (2), that there was a sudden explosion under No.2 hold.

The news likewise exploded around the world. Plans for press censorship and a Ministry of Information were well established in advance of the outbreak of war, and in fact it was a retired naval commander, Rear-Admiral George Pirie Thomson, who became the Chief Censor for the War: he was new in post in those early days. (3)

It was therefore an official Ministry of Information press release the following day which revealed the recent loss of four ships, three British and the Alex van Opstal. No dates or locations were released for the British ships, but the MoI was happy to offer more information regarding the date and place of loss of the loss of the Belgian vessel ‘late last night [15th September] off the Shambles lightship, near Weymouth.’ (4) The Ministry statement added further information from the master, Vital Delgoffe, who believed that the vessel had struck a mine, although at that stage a torpedo had not been ruled out. In either case the British authorities made it extremely clear that it was seen as an ‘infraction’.

‘If his opinion is well-founded, the Ministry adds the mine must without doubt have been dropped by an enemy minelayer, as at no time have the British laid live mines anywhere near the spot where the Alex van Opstal sank.’ (5) The propaganda war had begun along with the physical war, and here the British took the offensive. In Belgium an artist’s impression of the scene made the cover of the weekend magazine Ons Volk, with the highly inaccurate but emotive detail of a nursing mother escaping in a boat (there were no children or infants on board).

The press in Britain, France, and the Netherlands reported the reaction in the German press to the sinking, which suggested that ‘the sinking could undoubtedly be ascribed to Mr. Churchill’ and that the vessel, ‘if, indeed, torpedoed at all’ was not torpedoed by a German submarine. (6) Yet a portrait of the Alex van Opstal appeared in the Kriegsmarine magazine of the German Navy in October 1939, and we now know that the mine had been laid five days previously by U-26, Kapitänleutnant Klaus Ewerth. (7) 

According to Alfred Thorne, assistant engineer aboard the ship, following the explosion ‘we were plunged into darkness and fuel oil poured down like a torrent . . . We rushed up on deck and found that the ship had been cut clean in two.’ All the passengers and crew left in the ship’s boats and pulled over to the Greek steamer Atlanticos. (8) 

A seaplane then reported the Atlanticos‘ location to boats to which the crew and passengers were transferred. Several of the passengers and crew were taken to hospital suffering from ‘fractures and shock’, including an ‘elderly’ female passenger with a broken arm, who was allowed to go on to a hotel afterwards, although six men were detained in hospital. (9) With the exception of the master and four other men, who remained in hospital in Weymouth, one man evidently having been discharged, two days later the crew were back home in Ostend. (10) 

By the time a Devon newspaper reported that an empty lifeboat from the Alex van Opstal was found adrift 14 miles south of the Bill of Portland and towed into Brixham by her compatriot, the trawler Bolnes, another shipping loss was making headline news – the warship HMS Courageous(11)

As we can see, the wreck of the Alex van Opstal was extremely well documented at the time, notwithstanding the press censorship of the event, and on 25 September the wreck was located and marked by a buoy, establishing a secure identification of the site that goes back to 1939. By 1940 that buoy had gone missing but was not, understandably in the light of other marine priorities during the war, replaced, and the site was not investigated again until the post-war period. By 1949 it had been dispersed. (12) 

The wreck is a popular dive today, and even post-dispersal, clearly lies in two parts. A wreck tour published on Divernet contains a dive plan and photo gallery. (13) 

This wreck encapsulates many of the characteristics that would define shipping losses over the course of the Second World War. War causes were common to all, of course, and there would be decisions taken which placed ships in a danger zone, often unwittingly. There would also be official secrecy and propaganda, both of which intensified over the course of time. In its loss there was also a harbinger of the future: 3,400 tons of grain failed to reach its destination on a continent appearing increasingly embattled and vulnerable – hence the need, recognised from the very beginning of the war, to keep the Atlantic open.

In this loss, too, we can also see another trend that would emerge during the Second World War, as during the First: a complex interrelationship of ships in a common underwater cultural heritage woven into the history of the war.

This is best illustrated by what happened next to some of the other players in the story: U-26 would meet her end south-west of Ireland on 1 July 1940, depth-charged and bombed by an Allied air-sea force; the Atlanticos would be herself mined and sunk off the Thames Estuary, carrying a cargo of North American grain, in February 1942; and some of the crew would go on to serve aboard other ships that would in turn be lost: for example, Second Officer Fernand van Geert would serve throughout the war in the Belgian mercantile marine, surviving the torpedoing of the Mercier in June 1941 and the Belgian Airman in April 1945.

(1) Evening Star (Washington), 16 September 1939, No.34,836, p7; Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(2) Le Journal, 17 September 1939, No.17,133, p3

(3) Thomson, G. 1947 Blue Pencil Admiral: The Inside Story of the Press Censorship (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd.)

(4) e.g. Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette, 16 September 1939, No.20,571, p1, and widely reported in similar articles in the British press  

(5) ibid.

(6) Newcastle Journal, 19 September 1939, No.29,150, p5

(7) Die Kriegsmarine, October 1939, repr. in Ships Nostalgia (nd), with photograph of ship in 1937 from the Kriegsmarine article; uboat.net (nd) 

(8) The Atlanticos was herself mined off the Thames Estuary laden with North American grain in 1942. 

(9) Belfast Telegraph, 16 September 1939, [no issue number on masthead] p7; Lancashire Evening Post, 16 September 1939, No.16,418, p5 

(10) De Banier, 22 September 1939, No.3,507, p10

(11) Torbay Express and South Devon Echo, 18 September 1939, No.5,134, p1, p6

(12) UKHO 18617

(13) Divernet, Wreck Tour No.152, repr. from the print edition of Diver, August 2011. 

(*) Leeuwarder Courant, 19 September 1939, Vol. 188, No.221, p10

 

The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial

What is a shipwreck?

The summer of 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the excavations which led to one of the most spectacular Anglo-Saxon discoveries ever made, the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. In August 1939 the contents of the burial were the subject of an inquest to determine whether or not they constituted treasure trove (they did not). (1) The astonishing finds discussed at the inquest on August 14 attracted a good deal of media attention over the ensuing fortnight, fascinating a public facing the imminent prospect of war.

Building on the previous year’s excavation works, archaeological excavations had resumed in May 1939. As Mound 1 was opened up, both landowner Edith Pretty and archaeologist Basil Brown were keen to see what they would discover. They may have had an inkling from the 1938 excavation, in which a lesser burial mound (Mound 2) had yielded ship rivets and a ‘boat shape’, but which had been robbed of associated grave goods in the past – but nothing could have prepared them for the find of a lifetime.

Within a few days a rivet was also discovered in Mound 1, and as more rivets emerged, it became clear that this was another ship-burial also containing an artefact assemblage which had defied earlier attempts at robbery.

Organic material, such as the hull timbers, had long since vanished in the acid soil. What was left was an intact ‘ghost impression’ of the ship, the disposition of the rivets bearing witness to its original clinker planking, and evenly spaced ridges of sand where the ribs had once been. In the same way the arrangement of personal artefacts, reflecting their natural position on or beside the body, revealed the original resting place of the deceased, whose remains had been similarly consumed by the soil.

Historic 1939 B&W film still showing archaeologists at work within the 'ship-shape' with the ship structure visible in the sand, and all the rivets still in situ.
The ‘ghost impression’ of the buried ship as revealed in 1939. Still from a film made by H. J. Phillips, brother of Charles Phillips: permission for unlimited use granted by son William Phillips and grandson Jeremy Gilbert.

It was a very special ship with a very special ‘passenger’ and ‘cargo’, a high-status male burial containing an extremely diverse, rich, and finely-wrought, assemblage of artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon world and beyond. Since that summer of 1939 this assemblage has been assigned to the early 7th century and has been interpreted as the grave of Raedwald, King of East Anglia, who was noted in a 9th century chronicle as bretwalda with some form of overlordship over other Anglo-Saxon kings.

If the ship was deliberately deposited, hauled up from the nearby River Deben, ten miles from the sea, as the river meanders, and intended for preservation by burial, rather than destruction, why are we making it the subject of a Wreck of the Week?

This article weaves together the diversity of our wreck heritage, the features the Sutton Hoo ship-burial shares with more conventional wreck archaeology, and the context of war, since the find also foreshadows the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

The key driver for interpreting the Sutton Hoo burial as a ‘wreck’ in one sense is because of the very disappearance of the ship itself. By contrast, a number of Viking Age ship-burials in Norway, relatively close in date, cultural milieu and deposit context, have been well-preserved (Oseberg, c.820, discovered 1903-4; Gokstad, c.890, found 1879; and Tune, c.900-910, excavated 1867). Unlike these examples, the ship at the centre of the Sutton Hoo burial has been ‘wrecked’ literally by the sands of time, namely its 1,300 years from deposit to discovery within a mound of sandy and acidic soil.

It is certainly an unusual ‘wrecking’ process, and despite its proximity to the river, one well outside a waterborne context, which makes it all the more unusual. The nearest parallels in the British Isles lie outside an English context, for example the Viking Age ship-burials at Ardnamurchan, Scotland, and Balladoole on the Isle of Man, in both of which the timbers have also leached away.

Also exceptional, from a maritime point of view, is the way the mound has acted as ‘destroyer’ rather than ‘preserver’ of the vessel: unlike the grave mounds built on land by human hands, wreck mounds tend to form by a natural accretion process, helping to preserve timbers and other organic contents within an anaerobic environment that prevents or delays decay (as can be seen on artefacts from the designated Rooswijk of 1740, for example).

Wreck processes in the inter-tidal zone and in or immediately beside rivers often provide visible and accessible illustrations of underwater wreck processes. For example, the scour pit around the wreck of the Amsterdam (1749, also designated) in the inter-tidal zone at Bulverhythe demonstrates on land how sunken vessels can ‘scour out’ a pit for themselves by their own motion against that of the tides and currents of the surrounding water column.

In the same vein, the two wrecks at the designated Salcombe Cannon site (identified from their associated assemblages as Bronze Age and 17th century respectively) demonstrate within the marine zone how the geology of the site environment itself, as at Sutton Hoo, can act as a medium of destruction and decay. A dynamic environment, full of rocky gullies, has eroded any remaining timbers, although those same gullies have sheltered and preserved the cargo scatters.

Elsewhere a cargo may demonstrate the presence of a wreck without an associated hull which may either have degraded or remains to be discovered, such as the Roman-era Pudding Pan Wreck in the Thames Estuary, which has yielded quantities of Samian ware over the centuries. In retaining its rich assemblage without its originating vessel, the Sutton Hoo burial has a point of contact with such wreck sites.

In some ways, the ‘wreck process’ associated with the lesser-known Mound 2 ship was similar to that of Mound 1, with the same acid soil working on its timbers. However, there were other intervening events between deposit and discovery which contributed to the loss not only of the vessel but also of its context. Unlike Mound 2, the rivets were scattered and no longer bore witness to the original vessel structure, having been disturbed by earlier grave-robbing activity. Essentially this activity was a historic example of what we would today designate a heritage crime.

Such problems could be exacerbated by the archaeological standards prevailing at the time of discovery. We have covered this before in our earlier post on Anglo-Saxon wrecks in the Manchester Ship Canal but there were others: as far back as 1862 an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial was discovered at Snape, also in Suffolk. Although the site was recorded and published, and some physical evidence survives in the form of the iron rivets which were also found on that site, our understanding of this vessel remains incomplete. Between the site’s original discovery and further archaeological exploration in the 20th century, the landscape was much altered by ploughing with the loss of detail and context. This particular case highlights the importance of careful survey and recording, which guards against knowledge and/or site loss, and acts as ‘preservation by record’.

Four incomplete iron rivets seen against a white background.
Iron rivets from the Snape ship-burial, on display at Aldeburgh Moot Hall Museum. User:Midnightblueowl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
In 1970, another Anglo-Saxon vessel, a clinker-built boat dated to the late 9th century, was discovered at Graveney, Kent, during excavations for a drainage channel in the local marshland. It has been interpreted as a sea-going vessel, abandoned in the marshes approximately a kilometre from the sea, and thus from a different context entirely to a ship-burial.

Such loss through abandonment appears to be typical in the records of many boats discovered archaeologically in the 19th century and early 20th centuries and attributed to the Anglo-Saxon or Viking periods or even earlier. It is plausible that many such vessels were initially laid up over a period of time, with the intention of being brought back into use again (not dissimilar in some ways to the point with which we started, the determination of treasure trove!).

Such vessels, whether as logboats or more formally built with worked timbers, then passed completely out of use, through obsolescence, the economics of repair, or perhaps simply on the death of their original owners. These hulks are analogous to the many Thames barges which worked the river up until the mid 20th century and which now lie rotting on the shores of Essex and Kent. The Sutton Hoo mound likewise looks across the River Deben to two modern hulk assemblages on the opposite bank at Ferry Cliff and Sun Wharf. These hulks have been either forgotten or deliberately abandoned and the long slow process of decay has transformed these vessels into ‘wrecks’, in the sense of vessels  no longer capable of their original navigational function.

Historic sepia photograph of two pine tree tops looking down below to a river scene, with the adjoining bank visible below the trees and the opposite bank in the distance, across the middle of the image.
A late 19th-early 20th century view past pine trees across the River Deben at Woodbridge. The Sutton Hoo ship burial was discovered close to this spot in 1939. Source: Historic England Archive

The relative ease of logboat excavation in the Victorian or Edwardian periods means that these have been particularly prone to being lost post-excavation, because of the archaeological recording and storage standards then prevailing. It is arguable that their discovery can be seen as the final stage of a long-drawn-out ‘wreck process’ regardless of the original owners’ intentions or context of deposit, a fate shared with the subject of a recent post, the Ship under the Power Station.

The most dramatic example of such a fate was a Bronze Age boat discovered in 1886, carefully preserved by Victorian standards and put on display in Hull and East Riding Museum. It was finally destroyed or ‘wrecked’ in possibly the most extreme example of a multi-phase wreck process recorded in England – during a Second World War bombing raid which severely damaged the museum itself in 1943.

It is extraordinary to think that the Hull Bronze Age boat not only shares a multi-phase loss process with many other craft of different types and eras, but also has something in common with vessels of 1940s construction sunk in coastal waters by the 1940s means of air attack.

By any standards the Sutton Hoo ship-burial was an extraordinary archaeological discovery. Although not unknown in a national or international context, ship-burials remain rare finds, while the remarkable grave goods within have done much to inform our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon period. Despite more recent Anglo-Saxon discoveries of comparable magnificence such as the Prittlewell Princely Burial or the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sutton Hoo ship-burial retains its significance and glamour.

One of the ways in which the importance of Sutton Hoo was recognised was immediate: the site was Scheduled as an Ancient Monument in November 1939, two months into the war, and the assemblage would spend the war in storage, along with many other national treasures.

Other Anglo-Saxon boats have also been discovered before and since, but to date there have been no known Anglo-Saxon finds in the marine zone, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a few wreck events. The surviving written record, however, is pitifully thin by comparison to the number of wrecks which must in reality have occurred, simply by the very nature of seaborne traffic (touched on in a previous post, 1066 and All That). It is a reminder that the goods in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, such as the Frankish coins and Byzantine bucket, were all the more valuable for safely arriving following a sea voyage.

The Sutton Hoo ship-burial bridges ‘marine’ and ‘terrestrial’ archaeology, in which patterns shared with wreck archaeology can be clearly seen. Despite some parallels such as at Balladoole, it is also the only ‘wreck’ we know of in an English context discovered by clear evidence of what was once there, rather than a simple absence of surviving ship structure, and thus so far unique within England’s diverse wreck heritage.

Had the burial not been discovered in the summer of 1939, just before Britain went to war, perhaps much of its context would have been compromised. Over the next few years Mound 1 would be subjected to intrusive military activity which has left its scars on the landscape, and which could so easily have damaged or destroyed the ‘negative impression’ of the ship.

This post also paves the way for our upcoming War Diary for the Second World War, commencing in September 2019.

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(1)  It was determined that they were clearly buried as part of a highly public funeral rite, with no intention of recovery, so that ownership passed to the finder (rather than hidden in secrecy with the intention of later recovery, in which case they would have been deemed treasure trove and thus assigned to Crown ownership).

 

The Sirius

For the ‘dog days’ of summer, associated with Sirius, the ‘dog star’, we welcome our guest blogger Tanja Watson, one of Historic England’s Marine Information Officers. Tanja is currently undertaking a project to update our records for Swedish wrecks around the coast of England. Here she highlights the story of a ship named Sirius, wrecked in 1901:

Medal awarded for heroic rescue of Swedish crew

Following on from Ken Hamilton’s recent account of the Swedish vessel Vicuna, lost during the Great Storm of 1883 when over 50 vessels and over 200 crew went down around the North Sea, the Swedish ship Sirius was lost off County Durham, during the Great Storm of 11 to 14 November 1901, which saw around 48 ships lost in England alone. (1) With wind speeds reaching up to force 11 (one point short of a hurricane), it has been described as ‘one of the greatest human disasters before the Great War’. (2)

B&W photo of coastline with large waves crashing on cliffs to the left of the image.
View of storm conditions on the nearby Terrace Beach, Seaham, County Durham, during the ‘North Sea Flood’ storm of 31 January 1953. © and by kind permission of David Angus

The 1901 storm led to a tremendous rescue effort, particularly on the north-east coast of England, which saw some make the ultimate sacrifice to save others, while other rescuers were helpless to save the shipwrecked sailors. (3)

Central to this story is the Silver Medal and official recognition awarded by the Swedish government in gratitude for the bravery and determination shown by the four coastguards who not only managed to rescue the crew of the Sirius, a Swedish barquentine (also described as a schooner) but also that of the Miss Thomas, an English schooner. Both stranded on the same day, Tuesday 12 November 1901, near Hawthorn Hive, between Seaham and Easington in County Durham.

The Sirius, a 223-ton sailing vessel, was built in 1875 in the tiny harbour village of Sikeå, northern Sweden. (4) Although originally named Sikeå, she was re-registered as Sirius to Nyhamn (now Nyhamnsläge) (5) in southern Sweden. On the day she struck, she was bound from Shoreham-by-Sea to Sunderland in ballast to load coal destined for Helsingborg. (6)

The rocks along this stretch of coastline are broken, rugged and pierced by caverns. Hawthorn, a small agricultural village once surrounded by collieries, with a population of 513 in 1901 (7) had a coastguard station (now a ruin) at Hawthorn Hive and rocket posts at Hawthorn Dene. (8) The station was manned by the Seaham Harbour Life Brigade, (9) one of the Volunteer Life Brigades which once assisted the coastguard services nationally and whose heritage lives on in the three surviving Life Brigades of the nearby coast at Tynemouth, South Shields and Sunderland.

Historic sepia photo of man crossing a small footbridge over a river in light snow and ice conditions. ne gorge lightly dusted with snow.
Hawthorn Dene with the silhouette of the Coastguard Station top left. (HAW 036) © and by kind permission of David Angus

The Sirius struck rocks and stranded half a mile south of the beach. Local newspapers each focus on different aspects of the story. A Swedish newspaper describes it from the point of view of the crew: Captain (Christer or Christian) Pettersson and his crew of 8 were literally between a rock and a hard place. Their lives were at risk either way whether they stayed with the vessel or swam to shore: ‘One of the sailors flung himself into the water with a rope around his waist and attempted to reach land, but it broke off in the strong breakers. Realising what had happened, the rest of the crew quickly donned their life belts, jumped into the sea and started to swim ashore.’ Not long after, the schooner was completely smashed and sank out of sight. Upon reaching the shoreline, the men then discovered the sharp rocks and almost vertical cliffs impossible to scale. (10)

The local news in Tyneside focused on the rescuers’ side of the story:

‘After the crew got ashore, all of them being in an exhausted condition from exposure, they had to be assisted by the coastguards over the rocks and shingle, a distance over a mile, and frequently had to wade breast deep in the surf. They also ran the danger of being hemmed in by the rising tide. The lacerated hands of the coastguards, caused by falling on the jagged rocks, are striking evidence of the heroism and fortitude displayed in the work of rescue.’  (11)

There are a number of clues in the story which tell us where the wreck actually came to grief. The details of ‘half a mile south of the beach’ at Hawthorn Hive, the inhospitable cliffs which confronted the shipwrecked sailors, and the ‘jagged rocks’ which ‘lacerated’ the rescuers’ hands, place the location of the wreck in the vicinity of Shippersea Bay or a little further south at Shippersea Point. The rocks lie in the inter-tidal zone, so also fit well with the incoming tide and the slippery journey over the rocks ‘breast deep’ in water. The distance the coastguards helped the men, ‘over a mile’, would also be well accounted for by the place where they ended up, as we shall see.

Colour photograph taken from the top of grass-covered cliffs on the left, looking down to an empty beach with bare, vertical cliffs rising from it at centre; to the right rocks and sea, all seen under a cloudy sky.
View of the coastline at Shippersea Bay, south of Hawthorn Hive, 2009. CC-BY-SA/2.0 – © Colin Park – https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2152530

Other than the master’s name, we know little about the Swedish crew, but we know a little more about their rescuers, led by two coastguards named Stroud and Baldwin, assisted by Healy and Sanderson, the head- and under-gardeners at nearby Hawthorn Tower. (12) The rescued men were first taken to the coastguard station, then, perhaps at the gardeners’ suggestion, on to Hawthorn Tower, which was the home of John Stapylton Grey Pemberton, MP for Sunderland, and his wife Nira, who personally attended to them.

Hawthorn Tower, near the mouth of Hawthorn Dene, was a large Gothic Revival house built by John Dobson in 1821 and purchased by the Pemberton family in the late 1850s, who remained in residence until circa 1910. Following requisitioning and sale in the aftermath of the Second World War, the house became a ruin and was demolished in 1969. No trace of it now remains, but its private railway platform can still be seen in Hawthorn Dene. (13)

Historic B&W aerial photo of building complex with main courtyard house in centre, set in an open landscape with clumps of trees.
Photograph of Hawthorn Towers, a Gothic-style mansion with 30 rooms. (HAW 027) © and by kind permission of David Angus

Having often lost all their belongings, charities (such as the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society) were set up to help shipwrecked sailors get home as soon as possible from anywhere in Britain. Foreign sailors were sent to their nearest consulate, which would pay for their onward travel, so the crew of the Sirius would have gone to the Swedish-Norwegian consulate in Sunderland, which was only 11 miles away. (At the time Sweden was still in a union with Norway, with both kingdoms sharing the same monarch and a common foreign policy between 1814 and 1905.)

The courage displayed in this one incident, among so many in the disastrous storm of 1901, did not go unremarked. The story was taken up again 14 months later, in 1903, when Mr Pemberton would give a speech at the award ceremony held in honour of the coastguards, where, according to a newspaper from the crew’s home region, ‘he emphasized the bravery of the coastguards’ deeds which he could personally appreciate as he once, seventeen years previously, had managed to save a life on the same coast and under much more benign conditions’. Mr Pemberton ended with ‘thanking the Swedish government for its good memory and highlighting the friendly relationship that has always existed between the British nation and Sweden.’ (14)

The Sunderland press gave further details of the ceremony which enlarged on the nature of the ceremony – not the usual presentation of RNLI or other home awards for gallantry, but one which was a fully-fledged diplomatic affair.

‘To-day a large gathering of villagers and others was held in the schoolroom, Hawthorn, to witness presentations for bravery in rescuing the crew of the Swedish vessel Sirius, which went ashore at Hawthorn Hythe during the gale in November. The circumstances having been reported to the Swedish Government, an intimation was sent to Mr E.U. Wancke, Consular representative at Sunderland, that it had been decided to give medals. —

‘The awards were as follows: -Stroud, a silver medal from the King of Sweden, in case suspended from a ribbon denoting the Swedish national colours. His Majesty also sent to the other Coastguard and gardeners £1 10s each. There were present Mr Wancke and Commander Stokes, R.N., of the Coastguard at Sunderland. The presentations were made by Mr Pemberton, who spoke in a most eulogistic manner of the gallantry of the four men. Mr Wancke also spoke, and thanked Mr Pemberton, on behalf of the Swedish Government, for having kindly undertaken to hand over the awards.’ (15)

Colour photo of two sides of silver medal on black background, suspended from crown and blue and yellow ribbon. To left, profile of bearded man surrounded by Latin inscription; to right Right side: recipient’s name GEORGE JOSEPH STROUD underneath a wreath, also surrounded by a Latin inscription.
Photo of George Stroud’s silver medal, The Medal for Laudable Actions, which surfaced at auction in 2005. The obverse shows Oscar II (1829–1907) in profile with Latin inscription: Oscar II Rex Sveciae et Norvegiae Goth. et Vandal. The reverse names the recipient underneath a wreath, surrounded by the Latin inscription Sui Memores Alios Fecere Merendo (They have through their deeds made others remember them). Image courtesy of Dix Noonan Webb Ltd.

The ceremony apparently closed with three hearty cheers for the Swedish-Norwegian consul, (16) who was probably the prime mover behind the award, being in a position to make a recommendation to the Swedish authorities.

Historic B&W photo of seated man in dark moustache and beard, wearing a formal dress uniform with gold braid to his cuffs and trousers, holding a scroll in his right hand and a gold braided bicorn hat in his left.
Photograph of Mr Elof Ulrik Wancke (1855-1943). Disappointed by the lack of an official diplomatic uniform, he is seen here in one of his own design. © and by kind permission of John Green

The award of medals by foreign powers for gallant sea rescues was not that common, but seems to have peaked around 1880-1920. Examples of foreign medals awarded to British crews around this time included those from the Russian Matador, lost in 1902. For the rescue of the crew, the lifeboat coxswain was awarded the Russian Silver Medal and his crew Certificates of Merit. Of the lifeboat crew who rescued the men from the Norwegian Geir, lost in 1908, the coxswain was awarded the British RNLI Silver Medal, while another received a silver medal from the King of Norway.

The Miss Thomas also deserves a mention, of course. Built in 1864, and thus slightly older than the Sirius, she was also in ballast when she stranded near Hawthorn en route from Dover for the Tyne. Registered in either Plymouth or London (sources vary), her master, G Hitchens, and his crew of five were all rescued in wind conditions of SE force 7.

Local and international papers covered the storm as it unfolded, particularly include the full-rigged French schooner Quillota from Nantes with 19 aboard, wrecked at Sunderland; the Swedish three-masted barque Trio, lost in Hartlepool Bay with seven lives (drawing of the wreck, Kalmar County Museum); and the Norwegian barque Inga with all but one of her 16 crew. The latter, a large iron sailing ship, 1,100 tons and 200 feet long, sank within sight of Tyne Dock having sailed all the way from Adelaide, Australia. We can see therefore that sailing vessels were disproportionately affected by the storm, demonstrating the advantages of the steamship, by now the key vessel type.

At the turn of the century, coastguard stations usually consisted of six to eight men, while smaller or sub-stations would number around three. Recruited exclusively from the Navy and the Naval Reserve, any man connected with the force could be called up for duty. In 1901, the coastguard service numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 men, who were required for both day and night patrol. (17)

Seaham’s coastguard station was much larger than Hawthorn’s and was also involved in the storm. On 12 November their coastguards were battling to rescue the crew of Alkor. a Russian schooner transporting coal, which stranded and was lost in wind conditions E force 10, from which we can see that the violence of the storm was exacerbated by its variability compared to the other wrecks. Three men were saved, while three drowned. (18) It was from Seaham Harbour reports of the Hawthorn rescue were initially sent out to the press, and there would no doubt have been close ties between the two stations.

By interrogating the sources we are not only able to highlight a tale of courage, but also to set it in its historical, social and geographical context: in England, this was one wreck among many, with more detail in Swedish accounts; we can see that rescue was a complete community effort in a small village; and by combining details from the reports we can pinpoint the place of loss.

Historic B&W map of stretch of coastline, showing fields to the left, a contour of rocks and sand and blank white space to the right.

Map of Hawthorn Hive in 1898, with Shippersea Bay to the south. Hawthorn Tower and the Coastguard station are visible respectively north and south of Hawthorn Dene, which lies to the west of Hawthorn Hive.  Historic Ordnance Survey mapping: © and database right Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd (All rights reserved 2019) Licence numbers 000394 and TP0024

Notes:

(1) Evening Chronicle, 8 Mar 2002, Storm turned the North coast into ships’ graveyard; Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database lists 48 known wrecks for this period

(2) Philip Eden, Change in the weather, A&C Black,  2006, p. 104

(3) South Tyneside County Council, 19 Feb 2007, Great Storm of 1901 Remembered

(4) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning 19 November 1901, No.137, p3 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(5) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning, 28 January 1902, No.12, p2 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(6) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning, 14 November 1901, No.35, p2 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(7) Durham Records Online, 1901 Census Hawthorn

(8) Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council, Keys to the Past (nd), Hawthorn (County Durham); Coastwalkblog, (nd) County Durham, Coastwalk #4, Seaham to Hartlepool

(9) The Shields Daily News, 15 November 1901, No.12,496, p3

(10) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning 19 November 1901, No.137, p3 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(11) The Shields Daily News, 15 November 1901, No.12,496, p3

(12) Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 Jan 1903, No.9,046, p6

(13) Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council, Keys to the Past, (nd) Hawthorn Tower; Lost Heritage – England’s lost country houses, Hawthorn Tower

(14) National Library of Sweden, Sydsvenska Dagbladet 20 January 1903, No.18, p3

(15) Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 Jan 1903, p3

(16) National Library of Sweden, Sydsvenska Dagbladet 20 January 1903, No.18, p3

(17) Alfred T Story, “Hands Round the Coast“, The Strand Magazine, Sep 1901, vol. xxii, pp279- 286

(18) Delpher, Rotterdamsch nieuwsblad, 16 Nov 1901, No.24, p3, Scheepstijdningen – London 14 Nov 1901

 

Cross-Channel Trade

Privateers, Onion Johnnies and eco-trading

Look, what day that endelong Bretagne                                                                                        Ye remove all the rockes, stone by stone,                                                                                   That they not lette ship nor boat to gon . . .

[Chaucer, Canterbury Tales]

 

Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.
A number of 17th century carvings of sailing ships survive on the exterior walls of a number of religious and secular buildings in Roscoff, reflecting the basis of the town’s prosperity.

Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.

As is traditional for Wreck of the Week at this time of year, I’m taking a diversion into our maritime records to illuminate an international aspect of England’s maritime heritage, inspired by my holidays.

This year I take a look at Morlaix and Roscoff in Brittany. Chaucer’s use of a Breton lai or lay in the late 14th century Canterbury Tales points to a strong, well-established and enduring cross-Channel cultural interchange. The appearance of the Canterbury Tales is bookended by the earliest known vessels lost in English waters while bound to or from Brittany: Le Seynt Marie stranded at Dungeness on her passage from Sluis for Brittany in 1364, while in 1421 a French ship laden with wine from Brittany ‘for the king’s use’ foundered in the Thames Estuary. (1)

Thereafter the extant wreck record is silent on trade between England and Brittany until the mid to late 17th century, but this does not mean that there was no trade or that there were no ships lost en route: simply that the documentation is yet to be discovered, has been lost, was never recorded in the first place, or the sources omit to tell us the origin or destination of a voyage (all too common until the 18th century).

Nevertheless, after this period, wreck records provide evidence for both established industries and trade routes, as demonstrated by the 1669 loss of the John, laden with linen from Morlaix, on Chesil Beach. Morlaix prospered in the linen trade and the town’s unique 16th century maisons à pondalez retain shutters which folded out as shopfront counters for the display of linen, decorated internally and externally with symbolic linenfold panelling.

Modern colour photo of 3 glass windows set in a timber building, with horizontal shutters open above and below the windows, the lower shutters acting as counters (used to display literature on the building, formerly as a shop).
Shopfront, Maison a pondalez, 9, Grande rue, Morlaix, with linenfold panelling symbolising the goods once sold on the shutter counters above.

By the late 18th century Roscoff, along with other Breton seafaring towns, was well known as a privateering centre, with 14 prizes sent into the town in 1778. (2) Breton lugger privateers continued to operate in the Channel during the Napoleonic wars. For example, the Incomparable lugger privateer of 14 guns, le Duc, (3) belonging to St. Malo, took the Mary brig of Sunderland in 1812. The Mary would be her last prize, for she was intercepted and engaged by the Hind revenue cutter, with three broadsides enough to sink her off the Dodman on 18 June 1812. The English noted that she was operating out of ‘Roscoe’, which may even suggest that her crew were Breton speakers (Rosko in modern Breton).

The wreck record around the mid to late 19th century suggests the dominance of Channel Island ships in trading between Brittany and England, exchanging English coal for Breton agricultural produce. Two of these Channel Island wrecks from 1898-1899 are especially interesting because they preserve a record of a formerly widespread trade that began after the Napoleonic wars and persisted well into the 20th century.

In particular, Paquebot No.5, sunk in a collision with a steamer off the Goodwin Sands on 13 August 1899, perfectly illustrates this popular trade route: laden with onions from Roscoff, together with ‘lads brought over to England by a merchant, named Henry Tongay, for the purpose of hawking the onions.’ (4)

These young men were the famed ‘Onion Johnnies’ of Roscoff who voyaged to Britain every summer to sell their produce. The 24 men on board, mostly the onion ‘hawkers’ and the date of their voyage, after the Pardon de Ste Barbe in Roscoff in mid-July, tallies well with an account of the ‘Johnny Onions‘ in Wales in the mid 20th century, suggesting that the trade changed little in half a century. (In Roscoff their memory is preserved in the street name rue des Johnnies, in sculptural form as a door corbel on a house in the town, and in a dedicated museum, and as a cultural exchange on both sides of the Channel through the biennial Brittany-Dorset Onion Jack tour.)

Another example of living heritage was the visit of the centenarian schooner De Gallant to Roscoff during my stay. She was bound for Penzance, last from Noirmoutier with salt, following in the wake of her predecessors on the route, with the sailing vessel now seen as an eco-friendly way of trading internationally. Our maritime records also reflect the heritage of this trading route, with two French ships lost on the Cornish coast during the 19th century, while bound from Noirmoutier to Penzance with salt (1839 and 1899).

A common trading and cultural heritage, changing as patterns of trade changed, is illustrated by documented wreck events on this side of the Channel and expressed in architecture on the other.

Colour photo of a schooner's sail being lowered between two masts as she ties up at a quayside.
De Gallant in Roscoff, 25th June 2019.

 

(1) Calendar of Patent Rolls (CPR), Edward III, Vol.XII, 1361-4, p536, membrane 29d (HMSO, 1912); CPR, Henry V, Vol.II, 1416-22, p384, membrane 27d (HMSO, 1911)

(2) NIÈRES, Claude. Les villes de Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2004)

(3) Named as Jean le Duc, Newcastle Courant, 27 June 1812, No.7,081, p4; possibly Anastase Joseph le Duc, recorded as capitaine de corsaire (privateer captain) of St. Malo, commanding the Incomparable in 1812, thereafter recorded as captain of the Embuscade.

(4) Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 August 1899, No.2,981, p10

 

Queen Victoria 200

Friday 24 May 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth. Her long reign (1837-1901) saw an expansion of worldwide trade, facilitated by innovations in ship construction. Brunel’s SS Great Western, for example, was launched only a few months into her reign in 1838, and paved the way for the transatlantic ocean liner that would dominate maritime traffic for over a century.

Queen Victoria herself and the great changes in shipping that took place during her lifetime are both well-documented. Perhaps less well known is Victoria’s intimate connection with ships, shipping and shipwrecks, despite the many Fleet Reviews of her reign that set a precedent for later monarchs.

Black and white photograph of a billiard table in a room decorated in late Victorian style, with three lampshades low over the table.
Billiard table at Windsor Castle, fashioned from timbers recovered in the early years of Victoria’s reign from the 1782 wreck of the Royal George, Spithead. Bedford Lemere and Company, 1893. Source: Historic England Archive

Victoria kept a lifelong journal recording her interest in ships from an early age, beginning with her teenage visits to resorts on the Kent and Sussex coasts. She took a lively interest in all the ships and sailors she saw and took great pains to learn their names and nationalities. Then as now, press interest in royalty, was intense, including a stay at St. Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, in late 1834, which coincided with a spell of bad weather: ‘The weather has been very unfavourable, since the arrival of the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria for out-door exercise . . . ‘ (1)

On 20 November, a coal brig homeward-bound to nearby Rye sprang a leak off St. Leonards. A rescue party in a boat was swamped and all on board drowned, a loss that was made all the more poignant because the crew of the original wreck had in fact saved themselves by abandoning ship. The royal visitors ‘most liberally subscribed . . . towards the relief of the several families who have been thrown into great distress . . .’ (2) Victoria’s entry for 5 January 1835 describes an encounter with one of the widows: ‘As we walked along by the towers we met Mrs. Weeks, one of the widows, with her little girl . . . She looks as pale as death . . .‘ (3)

One of the most famous wrecks of the entire Victorian era occurred very early in the Queen’s reign, primarily because its heroine was a young woman not much older than the Queen herself. Grace Darling (1815-1842) won international fame by accompanying her father in the perilous rescue of the survivors of the paddle steamer Forfarshire, wrecked in 1838 among the Farne Islands, Northumberland. In her journal for 28 September 1838 Victoria records hearing of the ‘gallant behaviour of a girl called Grace Darling’ from Lord Melbourne. On a rather boisterous voyage to Scotland in 1842 aboard the Royal Yacht, Victoria was nevertheless eager to discern ‘ . . . Farne Island, with Grace Darling’s Light House on it, & curious rocky islands . . . ‘ (5)

The 19th century saw enormous gains in the matter of ship safety. From 1850 the Admiralty was responsible for compiling records of shipping losses, a duty which devolved to the Board of Trade through the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. For the first time, registers and summary abstracts (Board of Trade Casualty Returns) provided a centralised record from which to distil a statistical overview of shipwrecks and identification of common trends in shipping casualties. Hazards which caused regular or frequent losses could be identified and mitigating measures adopted (such as building new lighthouses where needed). The Returns were very successful and were copied elsewhere, for example in Denmark, and have become one of our key sources for wrecks of the Victorian era.

Similarly, a further Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 enforced the compulsory marking of a load line on British ships to do away with the overloaded ‘coffin ships’ that all too often foundered with all hands or were sent to sea unseaworthy. The load line, which is still used in a much refined form today on modern shipping, is popularly known as the ‘Plimsoll line’ after the MP Samuel Plimsoll, who had campaigned for many years to achieve its adoption.

Not all the legislation in the world could avoid ‘stress of weather’, natural hazards, or tragic accidents. The sheer volume of naval, commercial and leisure traffic in the Victorian period ensured that collisions were a frequent occurrence in crowded waterways, in the Thames, Humber, and English Channel in particular.

On 18 August 1875 the Queen herself was involved in a wreck event when the Royal Yacht Alberta was involved in a collision in the Solent with the sailing yacht Mistletoe. Victoria’s journal gives a vivid impression of the event: ‘When we [n]eared Stokes Bay, Beatrice said, very calmly “Mama, there is a yacht coming against us,” & I saw the tall masts & large sails of a schooner looming over us. In an instant came an awful, most terrifying crash . . . ‘ (6) Victoria was then ‘horrified to find not a single vestige of the yacht, merely a few spars & deck chairs floating about . . . ‘ Some of those on board the Mistletoe had saved themselves, as was common in such incidents, by jumping aboard the colliding vessel. Three lives were lost, including Thomas Stokes, master of the Mistletoe, who was picked up alive and brought onto the Queen’s yacht, but soon afterwards died of his injuries.

The subsequent inquiries were, of course, much reported in the press, and generated much adverse comment on the conduct of the respective crews. Had the Mistletoe approached too close in order for her passengers to catch a glimpse of the royal party? Why had the Alberta not been able to avoid the Mistletoe?

Less than three years later another shipwreck occurred off the Isle of Wight, which again generated huge publicity. This time it was the wreck of the sail training ship Eurydice, homeward-bound from the West Indies, which capsized in a snowy squall off Dunnose Point on 24 March 1878 with the loss of some 300 lives, mostly young men. The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) would paint a vivid word-picture in his poem The Loss of the Eurydice of the ordeal of one of the two survivors, Sydney Fletcher of Bristol:

Now her afterdraught gullies him too down,

Now he wrings for breath with the deathgush brown,

Till a lifebelt and God’s will

Lend him a lift from the sea-swill.

The Queen heard of the wreck at Windsor Castle: ‘Too awful! . . . Too fearful! Could think of little else.’ (7) Over the course of that year the Queen and other members of the royal family, in common with much of the country, would discuss the sad fate of the Eurydice on many occasions. She was presented with a copy of The Last Four Days of the Eurydice by Captain E H Verney (1878). (8)

Spending much of their time at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, or at that year’s Fleet Review at Gosport, the royal family regularly encountered the grim sight of the wreck: ‘As we steamed across, we saw the poor Eurydice, lying close off what is called “No man’s land”, just as we had seen her the day of the Review, in fearful contrast to the beautiful Fleet.’ (9) 

This blog can only scratch the surface of the Queen’s intimate connection with the sea, one she shared with her people, including direct involvement in a form of shipping tragedy which, statistically, became more common over her reign as more people acquired the leisure for pleasure cruising. She became Queen at a time when many individuals and organisations worked tirelessly to improve both navigational safety and the lot of the ordinary sailor, and it was during her reign that the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, founded in 1824, took the name by which we know it today, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Wrecks were interwoven into her life just as much as they were into the lives of Victorians, many of whom would have gone to sea in the navy, merchant marine, or in the fishing industry, or taken advantage of the new opportunities for passenger travel aboard the steam-powered liner. Others still were moved by what they saw for themselves, or read in the newspapers: the Queen shared all these experiences in common with everyone else.

Oil painting of wrecked ship laid up against white cliffs, with boats surrounding her on a slightly swelling sea, a cloudy sky above.
Henry Robins, The Wreck of the Eurydice, signed and dated 1878. RCIN 406265. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

(1) Hampshire Adviser and Salisbury Guardian, 29 November 1834, No.593

(2) ibid.

(3) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 6, (5 November 1834 – 24 May 1835)

(4) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 7 (11 August – 6 October 1838)

(5) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 14 (1 July – 31 December 1842)

(6) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 64 (1 January 1875 – 29 February 1876)

(7) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 68 (1 January – 24 June 1878)

(8) “The Last Four Days of the Eurydice, National Maritime Museum blog, 09 May 2017

(9) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 69 (25 June – 31 December 1878)

 

 

 

A miraculous rescue

The Brig Nérina

In the autumn of 1840 two French brigs left their mark on history in very different ways. One was witness to a key historical moment, the other an unusual tale of survival against all odds. The brig was, in many ways, the characteristic vessel type of the 19th century, sturdy, strong, and adaptable, and accounts for some 7% of our shipwreck records.

The first was the naval brig L’Oreste, detached from the French Levant (Mediterranean) squadron for St. Helena, where she witnessed the translation of the mortal remains of Napoleon Bonaparte aboard La Belle Poule. L’Oreste then accompanied La Belle Poule and La Favorite out of St. Helena on 18 October 1840, and as she set her course for the Mediterranean, La Belle Poule and La Favorite continued north for Cherbourg with the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte, to be translated to Les Invalides, Paris, where they have lain ever since.

Victorian sepia photograph of ship seen from afar all alone on a calm sea, sunlight striking the sea to the right of the ship from among the clouds.,
The Brig, 1856, by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 67995

The other vessel was the commercial brig Nérina which left Dunkirk for Marseille on 30 October 1840 with a crew of 7, including the captain’s teenage nephew, and a cargo of oil and canvas. What happened next was an incredible feat of survival. The English correspondent assured his readers that it was no ‘Yankee story’ but, as a local resident, had seen the people and events described with his own eyes. (1) In a similar vein, his French counterpart stated that he had both met with the survivors and had obtained a souvenir account of the event printed under the auspices of Richard Pearce, vice-consul at Penzance, as an aide-memoire ‘lest my story be ridiculed’. (2) [The story can be followed in French here.]

The wind was set fair for her voyage with a favourable breeze, but in the English Channel a typical autumn squall set in, as the wind suddenly backed to the south-east. Thereafter the Nérina beat up Channel with extreme difficulty against contrary winds, taking 15 days to reach the Lizard. The wind increased, and the exhausted crew viewed with dismay the fierce Atlantic breakers crashing onto the shore as they passed Land’s End.

They had reached a position some 12 nautical miles south-west of the ‘Sorlingues’ [the French name for the Isles of Scilly] when a heavy sea struck their vessel, which capsized suddenly, sweeping one man off the deck, never to be seen again. ‘The vessel in a moment turned completely over, not allowing time for the water to run into her, by which means the internal air kept the water out.’ (3) This describes what we would now know today as an air pocket.

Three seamen were in the forecastle, of whom one was drowned as he lost his grip, while the other two managed to keep their heads above the rising water and wriggle through a gap, making their way towards voices in the stern cabin, where the master, his nephew, and the mate had been when the ship capsized. The mate had managed to open a hatch into a watertight space and clear away some stores, then helped the master and the boy through the gap. The other two men from the forecastle followed them, and there the five managed to survive for the ensuing three days and nights, with no sustenance or space to stand up, and the air beginning to run out in that confined space. They gained some idea of the passage of time through seeing daylight striking upon the sea being reflected up through the cabin skylight, which, of course, was now below them, and then through the hatchway.

South-west of the Isles of Scilly, they were on course to drift out into the Atlantic, where they must inevitably have perished. They were completely unaware of what happened next, and, as a French journalist wrote, perhaps it was as well that it was so, or they would have suffered even greater agonies of alternating hope and despair than they were already experiencing, although the captain tried his best to maintain their morale. In the meantime the resourceful mate was trying to carve out a hole in the hull in an effort to gain some more air, but his knife broke before he was able to break through (very fortunately, or the water would have rushed in).

Aerial view of the Isles of Scilly, standing green above a calm blue sea, against a blue sky with light white clouds.
The Isles of Scilly looking SW. 23893/12 SV9217/1 © Historic England

Two fishing vessels returning to St. Mary’s spotted crowds of birds gathering over a dark whale-like shape in the water off St. Agnes, and decided to investigate. They found it to be an upturned hull and attempted to take it in tow, but the tow rope broke, and they were forced to abandon the attempt as the weather worsened, not having the least idea that there was anyone on board the derelict.

The attempted tow had, however, taken the vessel out of the currents carrying her inexorably into the Atlantic. In the middle of the night the vessel bumped bows on to the rocks at Porthellick, St. Mary’s, was clawed back by the tide, and again flung onto the rocks, each time more violently. The five survivors were forced to crawl forward as best they could to avoid the rising water, although one man fell lost his footing and drowned. The other four continued on to the ship’s side, where they were able to peer through a hole in the side.

At daybreak a fisherman was out on the beach, and like his fellow fishermen off St. Agnes, he was attracted to the dark shape on the rocks which he could only dimly discern. He clambered down the rocks to investigate, and, spotting the hole, put his arm into it. He received what must have been the shock of his life when the captain eagerly gripped his arm, and hurriedly pulled clear, but as they cried out to him, he grasped the situation and ran back to get help.

Soon the four survivors were pulled out by willing hands and restored with a breakfast and a sound sleep. The dead man, entangled in the shrouds when he was washed out of the vessel, was interred in a simple service, attended by his compatriots: this is most likely to have taken place at St. Mary’s Old Church, Old Town, St. Mary’s, which had until 1838 been the principal parish church of the island and was closest to where the ship had fetched up (now Grade II* listed). The hull broke up almost immediately, as the tide returned, but 50 barrels of oil are recorded as having been saved. (4) The survivors were later waved off from St. Mary’s to begin their journey home via Penzance, thanks to the good offices of Pearce as vice-consul.

The various accounts contain minor discrepancies, not at all unusual for shipwreck reports, gleaned from traumatised survivors and compounded by language difficulties, but the level of detail which made it into the English press suggests that it had been possible to relay the story via an interpreter – again suggesting Richard Pearce’s possible involvement.

In over 20 years’ recording our shipwrecks and reading extraordinary stories of survival and rescue on the coast of England, this is the only air pocket survival I have encountered. A story that seemed almost incredible in the Victorian era has at least two modern parallels, the well-documented rescues of Tony Bullimore in the Southern Ocean in 1997 and Harrison Okene off Nigeria in 2013.

(1) Morning Post, 4 December 1840, No.21,806, and widely reproduced in other UK newspapers

(2) F R de la Trémonnais, “Naufrage de la Nérina“, Revue de la presse: la gazette des familles, Vol.1, 1840, pp408-16

(3) Evening Standard, 14 Decemer 1840, No.5,144, p3, and other UK newspapers

(4) Ibid.

 

 

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