The Rickmers Line

Wrecks of the Rickmers Line

Bow and masts of a tall ship painted green, with a white band and red keel, in harbour, against a blue sky.
The Rickmer Rickmers (1896), now a museum ship in Hamburg. She recalls two ships of the Rickmers line lost in English waters: in her colours, the Etha Rickmers, while as a steel ship she gives us a good idea how her close contemporary Erik Rickmers once appeared © Andrew Wyngard

As part of our occasional summer season (and before the summer comes to a final end) with a leitmotif of German wrecks, I’d like to turn now to the Rickmers Line, which had its origins in the shipbuilding firm founded by Rickmer C Rickmers in 1836. Rickmer Rickmers was born and bred to the sea in Heligoland in 1807, the son of a fisherman and pilot, and learned the trade of ship’s carpenter, which led naturally to the establishment of his shipbuilding interests. In turn this developed by mid-century to a shipowning empire, which specialised in the grain trade – rice from the Far East and wheat from the United States.

Inevitably his ships had to pass through the English Channel as they went to and fro on their oceangoing voyages, with consequent losses. We have records for four Rickmers ships lost within English waters. The earliest was Etha Rickmers, named after the owner’s wife, lost in September 1870 with all hands on the Goodwin Sands en route from New York, last from Queenstown, with coffee, tobacco, and staves for Rotterdam.

She overtook a ship in the Channel on the 9th, whose master then recognised a ship in distress off the Goodwins on the 10th as the same vessel, as he himself arrived in the Downs. On the 11th she struck and part of the wreckage was described as “an American-built ship of between 700 and 800 tons, painted black and copper fastened, and apparently from two to three years old. The upper portion of the copper was painted green, the lower mast and bowsprit white, the double topsail yards scraped bright and the rigging was of wire.” (1) As descriptions go, this wasn’t a bad one, for the Etha Rickmers was only four years old.

The next loss did not concern the company, as it involved one of their former ships which had, however, retained the name of Ellen Rickmers when sold on in 1875. This ship sank off Plymouth while inbound with a cargo from Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1882.

Two years later, the crew of the Deike Rickmers (named for the owner’s mother) spent what must have been a cheerless and exhausting Christmas Day when their barque stranded and broke her back in snow squalls on the Long Sand off Harwich. They were fortunate because the new lifeboat house at nearby Walton-on-the-Naze had just been commissioned, on the 18th of November 1884. (2)

Thus one of the earliest services of the Walton lifeboat was to attend the Deike Rickmers in the dark of Boxing Day morning, picking the men up at 8am. It took them nearly 12 hours to battle back to shore with all 25 hands from the Deike Rickmers saved. History does not record whether both rescuers and rescued were treated to a slap-up Christmas dinner, but they all surely deserved one!

The final ship of the Rickmers Line lost within English waters was the steel full-rigged ship Erik Rickmers, homeward-bound to Bremerhaven with rice from Bangkok. She struck Scilly Rock in the same dense fog that also led to the loss of the French barque Parame, in October 1899. She remains SE of Scilly Rock, where she struck more than a century ago. It may have been this loss, among other reasons, that prompted the sale of the line’s Far Eastern ships to Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1899. (3) 

The history of a German mercantile family can be traced in wrecks around the coast of England.

(1) Liverpool Daily Post, 19 September 1870, No.4,732, p7

(2) The lifeboat house is now Grade II listed. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1455213

(3) The Ships List, Rickmers Line

 

 

Diary of the War: November 2016

The Goodwin Sands strike again

There are occasions when the Goodwin Sands just seem to claim more victims than usual and the night of 19-20 November 1916 was one of those nights, when two steamers, the Italian Val Salice, and the American Sibiria, bound to London with a cargo of Canadian wheat, stuck fast on the South Sand Head of the Goodwins, in a violent storm with extremely heavy seas which claimed wrecks elsewhere, particularly in Northumberland.

The Val Salice was the first to strike with the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave and Ramsgate lifeboat Charles and Susannah Stephens bringing off all 30 survivors. (The latter’s cox’n would shortly afterwards be awarded a medal by the RNLI for his 25 years’ service.) (1) Captain Bolognini of the Val Salice was widely quoted in the press as never having been shipwrecked before in all his career, but he clearly considered that he had shipped a ‘Jonah’ on board: ‘who during four months had been shipwrecked no fewer than three times’. (2)

It was a long and arduous night for the lifeboat crews who had to resort to the assistance of the searchlights from a patrol vessel to locate the Val Salice, before going out again to the Sibiria, which was being pounded to pieces on the Goodwins. The Sibiria‘s situation was reported while the rescue effort was still in progress as a ‘drama of the seas which may result in tragedy’. (3)

The seas were raging so high that both the Deal and Ramsgate lifeboats and their crews were in danger of being lost. They capsized but fortunately righted without losing any of their crew members overboard, although it was a close-run thing. The impact left several men on both boats so injured that, together with the damage to the lifeboats, they were forced to turn back – leaving behind 52 crew and passengers huddled in an exposed position in the sole portion of bridge still holding together,’in momentary peril of the vessel being engulfed in the treacherous quicksands.’ (4) How desolate those on board must have felt at seeing their rescuers turning back!

It was a race against time to save the crew and passengers of the Sibiria but finally the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave was manned with an uninjured crew comprising members from different lifeboat stations, and towed out by a patrol vessel, which trained its searchlights to find that all 52 persons were still alive awaiting rescue. They were taken off and once more the patrol vessel took the lifeboat in tow ‘weighed almost to the water’s edge with sixty-eight on board,’ i.e. all 52 survivors plus the 16 lifeboatmen. (5) (One of the local lifeboats in service at that period, the reserve lifeboat Francis Forbes Barton, is still extant and is on the National Register of Historic Vessels.)

The warships of the Dover Patrol thus enabled not one but two successful rescues under atrocious conditions. However, the real-life war was followed by a transatlantic newspaper war full of icy innuendo. Neither side overtly stated the issue at hand in so many words but each understood the other all too well.

The Times thundered: ‘The stranding of the United States steamer Sibiria on the Goodwins this week has opened British eyes to the fact that this vessel, which was a Hamburg-Amerika liner, has been transferred to owners in the United States during the war.’ (6)

Note the use of the word ‘transferred’, not ‘sold’. This was enough to elicit a clarification from the vessel’s agents through the New York Times: the Sibiria had been chartered at the time of the outbreak of hostilities to an American company, which bought her outright in May 1915, then sold it on to the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, while retaining her American crew. (7)

The question at issue was the Trading with the Enemy Act 1914, under which the Hamburg-Amerika Linie was defined as an ‘enemy’. (8) The British press continued to niggle at the question of whether ownership of former German vessels in neutral countries (for the United States was not yet in the war) was a ‘front’ or ‘flag of convenience’ with a view to the long-term preservation of the German fleet. (9)  Just a few months after the loss of the Sibiria, their premises in Cockspur Street, London, were offered for sale in 1917, under the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act, 1916.

The sales particulars noted that the premises were partially in the occupation of the Ministry of Munitions for the purposes of ‘the present war’, with the Canadian Red Cross, and the Allan Line, which would soon be subsumed into the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, also tenants.

The particulars had a form of declaration at the back for the buyer to confirm on purchase that they were not purchasing on the behalf on any nation ‘at war with Great Britain’. The cover of the auction catalogue is annotated with the name of the corporate buyer, the unexceptionably British P&O.

Together a wreck and a building tell a tale of socio-economic disruption and atmosphere of suspicion wrought by war, which overshadowed the remarkable rescue of all on board the Sibiria under unimaginably difficult conditions. The former Hamburg-Amerika House at 14-16 Cockspur Street still stands today and is Grade II listed. Despite their relatively recent date, the remains of Val Salice and Sibiria have not been located, but the Francis Forbes Barton still survives as a witness to that dreadful night a century ago.

Front cover of auction catalogue for the sale of commercial premises, with b&w photograph of doorway to the premises in the centre.
Sales particulars for the Hamburg-Amerika Line premises, built 1906-8. The annotation at top right reveals the price realised at auction and the name of the buyer: P&O. SC00686. Source: Historic England Archive

(1) Thanet Advertiser, 23 December 1916, No.2,995, p5

(2) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2. A ‘Jonah’ is a person who brings ill-luck to a ship, from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1-2)

(3) New York Times, 22 November 1916

(4) Ibid.

(5) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2; see also comment left below, which establishes the identity of the lifeboat involved. The confusion of that night is reflected in the contemporary sources.

(6) The Times, 25 November 1916, No.41,334, p9

(7) New York Times, 26 November 1916

(8) London Gazette, 29 October 1915, No.29,343, p.10,697

(9) Yorkshire Post, 12 December 1916, No.21,678, p4

No.70 Wreck on the Goodwin Sands

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Bequest of Miss Alice Tully, 1996.67. Photography by Steven A. Crossot, 2014.
Wreck on the Goodwin Sands, J M W Turner. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Bequest of Miss Alice Tully, 1996.67. Photography by Steven A. Crossot, 2014.

This week’s wreck is a work of art and today I’d like to invite ‘audience participation’ focusing on wreck processes.

Wreck on the Goodwin Sands is currently on view at Tate Britain’s Late Turner exhibition as an excellent example of Turner’s late style, loose and impressionistic, yet amazingly precise in every detail. We see the skeleton of a wreck sitting upon the sands at low tide, with part of the sands exposed in streaks of yellow. Economical brushstrokes suggest the ribs of a vessel bowing out towards port and starboard, substantially more intact on both sides towards the middle and left of the painting, less so on the right, where one side is missing. A long downward stroke suggests a partially detached stem-post, with the ribs behind somewhat embedded in the exposed sand. Turner has pencilled some of his bleak poetry in lines only partially legible on the fallacy of hope, clearly identifying the wreck as one on the Goodwins. The view is from seaward of the Sands looking towards the white streak representing the famous cliffs of the Dover area.

My question this week is – what do you think happened to the ship Turner has shown here? Is it potential evidence for a wreck event?

Here are some potential clues: 

The Goodwin Sands were named as the ‘Great Ship Swallower’ as early as the 16th century, which has historically been characteristic of many of our designated wrecks in the vicinity, the Stirling Castle perhaps being the most dramatic of all, being found in a remarkably intact state, despite striking the sands in the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703.

There are other recorded wrecks, such as the Ogle Castle, an East Indiaman lost in 1825, where the ship disintegrated so comprehensively that much of her cargo was picked up in succeeding days as far afield as the Netherlands and Belgium.

Even those ships which floated off were often so badly damaged that they sank in deep water nearby, as happened with the Shepherdess in 1844.

Turner obsessively sketched what he saw and reused many sketches as details in paintings several years or decades later.

We have 24 wrecks recorded on the Goodwin Sands for the period 1840-1849, none for 1845 – the paper being characteristic of Turner’s sketchbooks for 1845. There is the possibility of some under-reporting, of course. Could it represent a wreck event we have not yet recorded?

Note the vertical brushstrokes suggesting ribs, but little in the way of horizontal brushstrokes to suggest the sides of the ship.

Responses will be collated and examined in a post in the New Year.

No.52: The Fortschritt

Pouring oil on troubled waters

As the Fortschritt, of and from Szczecin for Dublin, with a general cargo, struck on the Goodwin Sands in 1848, her crew signalled for assistance, but none was forthcoming. As the tide ebbed, the ship, if not exactly “high and dry”, was not in immediate danger, and the crew remained on her overnight, suggesting that she was not being pounded to pieces on the sands.

By the morning’s flood tide, it was a different story, and too dangerous to abandon ship with breakers on the sands which would have overwhelmed the ship’s boat immediately. The crew, however, were resourceful – they had, after all, had all night to think about it. They used what was to hand, and broke into the barrel cargo, but not, as you might think, to use as floats.

Instead they staved them in.

It was not wanton destruction of a cargo not belonging to them. They were after the oil inside, for a purpose: they poured it overboard, which, it was noted, permitted them to cross the Goodwin Sands in safety. They had literally poured oil on troubled waters.

Stories of this kind are rare, but are certainly not unknown, with at least two other wrecks in English waters being recorded as saved by oil cargoes in this fashion, in 1637 and 1922. That this does not occur more frequently is intriguing, given 188 shipwrecks on the database recorded as carrying cargoes of oil, and as far back as Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) the effects of oil on troubled waters were known.

There could be many reasons for this. Some may have been ignorant or incredulous of the effects (although according to Benjamin Franklin, who investigated the matter, herring fishermen and whalers noted the same effect with oily water discharged from on-board processing) (1); it may be that in many cases time was not on their side; in others the risk of fire might have been too great; or seamen knew it only worked in certain circumstances.

Franklin noted the varied success of his experiments in pouring oil on water at a pond on Clapham Common and at sea off Portsmouth, suggesting that the calming effect was most likely on the windward side. So what happened next? The wind was reported easterly at London and ESE at Lowestoft on that day (2) suggesting that the vessel was blown onto the Goodwins from the east. Did the crew then pour the oil on the windward side, where deep water rather than breakers across the sands lay beneath? What did they know that so many other seamen either failed to know or feared to use?

(1) Benjamin Franklin, “Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil, Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, LLD, FRS, William Brownrigg, MD, FRS, and the Reverend Mr Farish”, Philosphical Transactions, 1774, 64  http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/64/445

(2) Times, 23 December 1848; Standard, 23 December 1848

No.40: Mahratta I

Jute, Jam and Journalism

Following my call in a recent edition for ‘challenges’ I was asked to investigate what wrecks we might have in the jute trade for Dundee. So here’s the answer: Dundee was famous not only for jute, but for jam (well, marmalade!) and journalism, including those august publications, the Beano and the Dandy. So here are some jute ships which got into a jam, and I shall quote some journalism!

We have seven wrecks that were bound from Calcutta to Dundee with a cargo explicitly described as jute, or including jute, exactly half of our jute wrecks, as other consignments were bound for London and Liverpool. Some may have discharged their other cargoes from the East Indies in London, before sailing on to Dundee with the jute, as the Mahratta was intended to do (I shall talk more about her in a minute). Our earliest jute wreck, the clipper James Baines, was being unloaded in the Huskisson Dock in Liverpool in 1858 when she caught fire, a fate echoed by our last known jute wreck, the Falcon, in 1926. There was a certain inevitability about it: her cargo was jute and matches, a combustible combination if ever there was one.

The time span of the wrecks bound for Dundee with jute parallels that of the heyday of the jute trade, from the late 19th century to the early 1920s, by which time the industry was already in decline. The earliest Dundee-bound wreck was in 1884 on the coast of Northumberland, followed by the Bay of Panama, driven ashore in a snowstorm in 1891 along with three other ships nearby.

The most famous was the Mahratta I, which struck the Goodwin Sands in 1909, her fame heightened by the fact that her namesake, the Mahratta II, struck a mile to the north-east in 1939. Mahratta I shows a wide range of human response to shipwreck: she had a number of passengers on board, some of whom were phlegmatic, and some not. One woman refused to leave the ship until she absolutely had to, when the ship was beginning to break up, objecting to the Customs intending to enforce the quarantining of her pet dog even under the circumstances.

Sadly, after going aground on the Goodwins, the chief engineer committed suicide in his cabin, the sole casualty of this wreck, in which a 90-strong crew, the majority lascar sailors from India, and all the passengers, were saved. Likewise all the salvors, about 100 local boatmen pressed into saving as much of the cargo as possible, were themselves saved. As the salvage proceeded, the ship began to break up, and only 289 bales of jute were taken out of the wreck, out of a cargo of 10,000 tons that also included tea, coffee, rice, iron, gum, and rubber. Much of the jute is said to remain on board what is now a well scattered wreck.

One of the engineers provided a rational but vivid description of the ship’s disintegration, as reported in the Times of 12 April 1909:

‘The vessel was in charge of a Trinity pilot when she struck. Efforts were made to get her off under her own steam, but these failed, and tug services were accepted. Within a short time of the stranding water entered the liner and the main shaft was badly bent. The ship strained severely, and there was a continual grinding and snapping as plates sheered and buckled and heavy iron rivets broke away by dozens. The crew were put to work assisting the boatmen in salving the tea and throwing the jute overboard in order to lighten the vessel, but only about 200 tons had been got out when the Mahratta broke in two. Before this we had been working over our knees in water in the engine room. The ship parted with great suddenness at about 8 o’clock. The noise was like a cannon shot, followed by rending and tearing. The liner broke amidships, across the bunkers and the saloon. There was a great rush for the boats immediately by the labourers who had been assisting to jettison the cargo. One man was so scared that he caught hold of me round the body, and I had a difficulty to get clear from him.’

I hope that’s a good answer to the question, and please do keep coming with more!

No.39 Late 18th century wrecks on the Goodwin Sands

The Great Ship-Swallower

I recently decided to run a quick little experiment for a presentation to demonstrate the ebb and flow of wrecks on the Goodwin Sands. I chose the years 1760-1780 since every issue of Lloyd’s List survives for this period, giving me reasonable confidence that every major wreck on the Sands will have been recorded and that all the wrecks therein will have come from the same source.

Undoubtedly, as I have observed before, in the 18th century wreck reports in the press were biased towards major ships with losses of little fishing vessels and other minor craft not usually being recorded unless the circumstances were exceptional. 1767, 1770 and 1778 happily saw no losses on the Sands but at least two or three wrecks a year were usual.

There is a significant spike in 1775 with 9 losses. The weather was, naturally, often to blame: the Cranbrook in 1775 was ‘very deeply laden’ and the Kentish Gazette reported that it was ‘blowing hard at NW’ when she was lost. Sometimes, however, other factors were at play. A little salvage vessel was lost in November while going out to a recent wreck – which would clearly not have been out had it not been for other vessels lost a few days earlier, the Charming Sally, the Elizabeth, and an unknown vessel.

Sometimes, the dynamism of the sands was a notable factor. The Nederlandsche Jahrboeken for 1761 prints the inquiry into the loss of the Meermin Dutch warship on the Sands in some detail. The currents were blamed, and the depths as plumbed by the line ‘appearing to be in the fairway’ were found to be misleading. How many of the wrecks on the Goodwin Sands were lost not to the weather, per se, but changes brought about by previous storms, leading to the alteration of safe channels and encroachment of the sands?

Goodwin Sands Table I

A more sophisticated and long-term historical study might produce some interesting results! Any thoughts and ideas very welcome!

26. Totes Meer

There can only be one wreck of the week this week, as everyone is talking about the Do17 Flying Pencil recovered from the Goodwin Sands on Monday. Rather than commenting directly on the wreck, I would just like to set it into some sort of historical and cultural context.

We know from our records that the Do17 was one of 12 aeroplanes which were shot down or crashed on the shore on the same day as the Battle of Britain raged: three in the Humber area, the remainder over Kent and Sussex.

As far as I am aware all the aircraft lost on that day came down into the sea: none crashed on land. Three German aircraft, a He111, a Me109 and our Do17, were lost as against 9 British: two Defiants from the same squadron which attacked the Do17, two Hurricanes, two Spitfires and three Hampdens.

Overall the PastScape database records some 433 German aircraft lost during WWII, of which approximately 364 are known to have been shot down in or near the sea. Undoubtedly there is some under-reporting of both terrestrial and maritime losses of aircraft, an issue not confined to the German side. It is therefore impossible to say definitively from the data available that more German aircraft were shot down over the sea than they were over English territory.

It seems apt then, to look at Paul Nash’s painting, Totes Meer. It was actually inspired by a dump at Cowley in Oxfordshire of crashed German aircraft seen in a terrestrial context, but reworked by Nash into a ‘dead sea’ of twisted wreckage, waves upon waves of German aircraft crashing upon an English shore.

It is virtually contemporary with our Do17, being painted in 1940-1 as part of Nash’s work as an official war artist. Hindsight colours our view of the painting, since we know the outcome: it is easy to forget that, at the time it was made, the war hung in the balance. Did contemporary viewers see each crashed German aircraft as one less to rain bombs on Britain, or do they represent a force as unending and as unyielding as the sea? Or are both views tangled up in the wreckage?

A very visible wheel, not unlike the still inflated wheel seen on the Do17, lends the mangled heap the appearance of the eye of a beached whale or school of whales, reinforced by exposed wing struts suggesting baleen plates. A beached whale is an animal out of context: so, too, are these aeroplanes, lying in the sea instead of flying through the air.