Musical instruments in the Sea

The tale of a harp

Earlier this year Historic England were contacted by the finders of a diverse assemblage of artefacts from the wreck of a steamer off the coast of Sussex, including a metal plate which was all that was left of a harp, its wooden body and catgut strings having long since disappeared. The identity of the wreck was unknown – and colleagues passed on the enquiry to me to see if I could find a potential match for the site among the records on the Historic England shipwreck database.

Curved metal plate with pegs and holes on a wooden table.
Figure 1. Harp plate from the unknown wreck off Sussex. © Mike Rountree

On the whole musical instruments are very rarely represented in the documentary record although they turn up occasionally as archaeological finds. Occasionally they are named in the cargo, from the Charles, wrecked in 1675 off the Lizard with unspecified music instruments from Lisbon, to the Preussen (subject of a recent post), which stranded off Dover in 1910 en route from Hamburg to Valparaiso with a cargo which included pianos.

More often we come across references to musical instruments as personal possessions, and not always on board the wrecked vessel either. During the collision of the Belgian steamer Jan Breydel with the Norwegian steamer Salina near the Goodwin Sands in 1921, the Salina came off worse and sank with loss of life, but those on board the Jan Breydel also feared for their lives. One passenger gave a press interview, saying that: “If our boat had been fifty yards further on, there would have been no interview this morning, for the Salina would have struck just about the point where I was sitting.”

That passenger was the violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik (1880-1940), who also said that his first thought was for his precious Stradivarius, known as the ‘Emperor’ Stradivarius, around which he placed a lifebuoy. (1) That instrument still exists today – so a near-shipwreck was just one of many incidents in its 300-year history. It also reminds us that many high-status instruments have a traceable history. (By contrast, the Wreck of the Week War Diary for June 1918 shows that a young violinist survived, although his violin did not, but as it was not ‘his best’ it was clearly the least of his worries!)

The history of the harp would prove crucial in helping to unlock the possible identity of the ship, together with the context of the cargo. Other finds from the same wreck included a number of ‘teardrop’ or ‘torpedo’ bottles marked “Bradey and Downey, Newry”, “F W Kennedy, Limerick”, and “Bewley, Evans and Company, Mary Street, Dublin”.

Green bottle with moulded lettering reading BEWLEY EVANS AND visible, against a white background.
Figure 2. Torpedo bottle, probably for mineral water, which was part of Bewley Evans and Company’s bottling business. © Mike Rountree

The latter were mineral water bottlers and suppliers with a company history which seems to fizzle out around 1863, (2) suggesting a terminus ante quem for the date of loss, and a voyage beginning in or calling at Ireland. Other finds appeared more likely to be of Continental European origin, such as a large blue and white painted earthenware pot, and are as likely to be interpretable as personal household effects as cargo.

Enter the engraved metal plate from the harp. It was still legible, though much corroded, revealing that it was made by Erard, specialists in prestige harps at their London showroom during the 19th century. The firm had been founded in France, but the French Revolution drove Sébastien Erard out of the country, leaving his brother-in-law to carry on the Paris business.  The London and Paris branches then came to specialise respectively in harps and pianos.

Each of Erard’s harps sold from the London showroom was individually numbered with a ‘patent number’, the ledgers for which survive at the Royal College of Music Museum and Archives. The patent number on this example was extremely difficult to read after so long in the sea, and was initially interpreted as 6331 or 6339. Harp 6331 was sold to a clergyman in 1871 and returned for repair in 1874: he retired on the grounds of ill-health in 1875 and died in London in 1906, and harp 6339 was sold in 1864. Both of these post-date the apparent cessation of Bewley and Evans’ operations in Dublin by 1863, and there were no obvious wrecks that fitted the criteria in terms of location, date, or origin post-dating 1864.

Further examination of the patent number in a higher-resolution photograph kindly provided by the finders, and comparison with the lettering of other surviving Erard harps in online collections at the V&A and National Trust suggested that the number could well be 5331, which was the suggestion I put forward to the finders. (Figure 3) The numerals are engraved just to the right of the word ‘Patent’, at the point where the plate begins to curve downwards, (Figure 4) so that each numeral is smaller than its predecessors (compare the two 3s). They are set in an ornamental cartouche of engraved curlicues which have provided a matrix for the further pitting of the metal around the digits.  The semi-circular feature between the tops of the second ‘3’ and ‘1’ was especially ambiguous.

Detail view of corroded and pitted metal in which the numbers 5 3 3 1 are just legible.
Figure 3. Detail view of number on the recovered harp plate. © Mike Rountree
Detail view of top of harp, showing strings and pegs with engraved lettering on a metal plate underneath.
Figure 4. Detail view of harp made by S&P Erard in 1858, now belonging to the V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum

The record for 5331 also survives in the ledgers, noted as built in 1839 and sold to a Mr S J Pigott of 112 Grafton Street, Dublin, on September 30, 1840. He was very heavily involved in Dublin musical society, with showrooms for the sale or hire of harps and pianos at those exact premises – including Erard harps. (3)

A key selling point highlighted in his advertisements was that the instruments were sourced from London, so clearly regular buying trips were made. It is unclear what happened next in the case of this particular harp: whether it was for sale in his shop following its import from London, or whether it was intended for his personal use. If the former, the customer is also likely to have lived in Ireland; if the latter, it may have either remained within the family or have been sold after his death. This part of the story so far remains untraced.

It seems clear that the harp is likely to have been a personal possession on its final voyage, reinforced by the presence of what are likely to be other domestic effects aboard; that its voyage is likely to have originated in Ireland, given the bottles from Dublin, Limerick and Newry as cargo; that the vessel was a steamer from the site as observed; and that the wreck took place before 1863 as the date by which one of the bottling firms seems to have fizzled out; and somewhere on the coast of Sussex.

The candidate that most closely matches the criteria is the steamer Ondine of Waterford, which sank on 19 February 1860 following a collision off Beachy Head with the schooner Heroine of Bideford. The position of loss as reported does not quite tally with the position of the site as located, but this is not at all uncommon, since wreck remains are often identified some distance from the reported place of loss. This would not, therefore, necessarily exclude the Ondine from consideration, particularly as she otherwise matches the criteria so closely.  Additionally, while steamers were common at this date, they had not yet ousted the sailing vessel, which significantly restricted the pool of potential candidates for the wreck site.

Ondine was a regular visitor to London and left Dublin as usual on 15 February with passengers and a general cargo, calling at Falmouth, Plymouth and Southampton en route. Her profile fits well with the finds on site as she was carrying both passengers, providing the context for the movement of personal effects, and cargo, which would fit with the bottles as found. At each port some passengers disembarked and others came on board, so the total number of passengers is difficult to ascertain, but a ‘good many faces’ were looking down at the survivors in one boat as they got away. (4)

It seems that three boats got away, one led by the captain, one the mate, Edward West, and one the second mate, Richard Burke, with a fourth boat being smashed. The captain’s boat was swamped, and all presumably drowned; the mate managed to save 20 persons, who were seen straight away by the Heroine, which picked them up. Of those who got into the third boat with the second mate, only two passengers survived, one of whom, one Marsh, had been on holiday to his wife’s family. His wife and two children got away with him in the same boat, but he suffered the agony of seeing them perish one by one from exposure or drowning, one child in his arms. The mate and the other survivors were very near the end of their resources, with their boat badly damaged and only saved from sinking by its cork lining, when discovered by the Thetis steamer, who sent a boat to pick them up.

One strange circumstance was the presence of an unnamed lady passenger. Richard Burke recalled in his testimony that the captain most particularly adjured him to look after this lady as she got into his boat. Unfortunately, along with the chief stewardess, she was one of the first to perish from his boat. Was, she, perhaps, the harp’s owner?

Further research on the wreck site and in documentary sources will help to confirm whether the wreck is indeed the Ondine, but no other candidates in the historical record appear to fit the archaeological discoveries so well. It’s very common for a maker’s plate to confirm the identity of a wreck, but who would have thought that a maker’s plate for a harp could put a candidate for a wreck’s identity in the frame? There is more research to be done on both the wreck site and in documentary records before this possible identification can be confirmed or discarded in favour of another, but it is a fascinating story that demonstrates the depth of detective work involved in putting a name to a wreck.

With many thanks to Mike and Sue Rountree and to Guy Freeman for sharing their story and photographs of the discovery, and to Dr Anna Maria Barry at the Royal College of Music Museum, who says: ‘The RCM Museum and Library team are delighted to have helped with the identification of this wreck. We are lucky enough to look after the Erard ledgers, and have answered many enquiries about serial numbers – but this is by far the strangest request we’ve had! The story of the shipwrecked harp demonstrates the way in which musical instruments can offer a unique insight into our social history.’ The RCM Museum have also blogged about the wreck: http://www.rcm.ac.uk/about/news/all/2018-05-21museumblogharp.aspx

(1) Shields Daily News, 24 September 1921, No.19,522, p3

(2) British Newspaper Archive searches: no advertisements for the firm later than 1863, supported by (undated) material from Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History

(3) Erard harp ledgers, Royal College of Music Museum. Samuel Pigott announced his move to premises at 112 Grafton Street, advertising Erard and other harps and pianos, in the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, 4 November 1837, No.1,513, p1. The company continued to sell harps and pianos from the same premises even after Samuel’s death in 1853 (British Newspaper Archive searches). In fact the business continues today as McCullough Pigott in Dublin.

(4) Liverpool Mercury, 23 February 1860, No.3,752, p3

A Tale of Two Billyboys

The Swan and the York Merchant

It is my pleasure once more to welcome Jordan Havell for a third blog on his local heritage.

Here he focuses on two Humber billyboys which were lost on routine voyages which ended disastrously on the Lincolnshire coast. Jordan has been honing his research skills in going back to original newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive and trying to trace the history of the ships involved through the Guildhall Library, two of the most important sources of information for any shipwreck historian.

He has helped identify one vessel – the York Merchant – and discovered another – the Swan – and seems to have caught the research bug!  So I would like to thank Jordan very much for passing this information on to us. Potentially one or the other of these two vessels, or perhaps another one that we haven’t yet discovered more about, might tell us where fragments of wreckage recently washed up near Jordan could have come from.

Over to Jordan:

My blog this time relates to the Swan billyboy that was lost at Huttoft on 17th Oct 1869.

I had asked about another vessel – a billyboy that had been listed in Historic England records as a wreck 05.11.1858 carrying shingle. I have now, with the help of The Guildhall, London, been able to name that wreck as the York Merchant of Yarmouth. She was lost along with 3 crew and 3 passengers. The story is told in varying newspapers: the Stamford Mercury, 12 Nov 1858; Leeds Times, 13 Nov 1858; Morning Advertiser 16 Nov 1858, as well as the Dundee Courier Weds 17 Nov 1858 and The Bucks Herald Sat 20 Nov 1858.

There were similarities between the two vessels (the York Merchant and the Swan). Both the vessels had been classified as billyboys. Both had set sail for Gainsborough, Lincolnshire – one carrying wheat, and the other carrying shingle. Both had been hit by severe weather and had both been carrying the family of the masters aboard – sadly in the case of the York Merchant it is known there were fatalities.

I was finding pieces of stranded wood on my local beach over recent weeks. I got in touch with Serena Cant at Historic England as we had been in contact before. She, along with Andy Sherman of Museum of London Archaeology, looked at my photos etc. Andy said the some of the pieces may have come from a billyboy ship.

This, in turn, relit my interest in shipwreck history. We started visiting the library locally and the RNLI records to see if any of these vessels had been wrecked in this area. We found the Swan – a record from a book called Mablethorpe and North Lincolnshire Lifeboats. The vessel had been en route from Boston to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, when she was caught in a violent gale. She was made of wood and was carrying a cargo of wheat believed to be about 200 quarters, of which only 14 was saved. We found reports in various newspapers in The British Newspaper Archive including the Lincolnshire Chronicle and Manchester Courier, as well as the Hull and Eastern Counties Herald that confirmed the story.

The Master is named as Mr John Would. The owners are named as Nicholson and Burkitt of Retford. The crew is listed as 2, and 3 passengers were aboard at the time. They were saved by the National Lifeboat called the Birmingham. A quote taken from the Mablethorpe and North East Lincolnshire Lifeboats reads: “The only other effective service by the Birmingham Number 1 came on Oct 17th 1869, when she rescued the master, his wife and 2 children plus a man and a boy from the billyboy Swan of Hull.”

The saved master and crew were taken to the Jolly Bacchus – which we now know as the Bacchus Hotel – owned at the time by Mr Simons, from one of the newspaper stories of the time. One of the newspaper quotes read ‘the boat (referring to the lifeboat) was happily the means of saving the shipwrecked persons’. An interesting point was that the cost of this lifeboat when built was £190, the funds having been raised in Birmingham, hence its name.

The Lloyd’s Agent was named as Mr Bradshaw.

I have been in contact with the Guildhall Library in London. They have tried to help me find a record for the Swan. The nearest they could find was Swan of Hull, official number 26882, 37 tons, owned by Henry Robinson, 21 Waverley Street, Hull. There were 3 other vessels called Swan, but all appear to be from Goole, so am I assuming that this one above may be the one.

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Jordan’s post brings out some interesting history. As his last paragraph shows, it can be very difficult to trace small ships in the registers: we can eliminate some, but we can’t always be sure that what is left is the ship we are after. Even experienced researchers like me – and I have been doing this for over 20 years – can come up against a brick wall, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.

We can also see that similar ships shared a similar fate on the same stretch of coastline just a few years apart, so this is the type of wreck that could be said to be fairly characteristic of the east coast – you won’t find Humber billyboys on the west coast or Mersey flats on the east coast, because they were generally short-range coasting vessels (though some ships do turn up wrecked in odd places, having been sold out of their local area). The fact that one of the billyboys is called the York Merchant demonstrates that it was intended to serve Yorkshire and to be capable of travelling upriver as well as sailing coastwise.

Another similarity is that on board both vessels the master’s wife and family travelled with him, which shines a light on the role of women on board ships in Victorian Britain. We don’t often read much about this – it’s an under-represented area of history – so well done to Jordan for finding out more.

We also see the importance of community – the local community rallied round and put the shipwreck victims up at the nearby inn. Finally, it is interesting to see that people from the wider community, from inland Birmingham in fact, cared enough to raise money for a lifeboat at Sutton, following the terrible storms of a few years previously.

Here’s some interesting pictures of billyboys – one of 1875 from the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole, showing wheat being unloaded from a billyboy whose voyage was more successful than the Swan, also laden with wheat. Here is another from Goole Museum, painted before 1910, of the Masterman

Just like Jordan, I’ve been following all sorts of clues. If Jordan hadn’t written this article, I wouldn’t have been looking for billyboy images to illustrate it with. When I found the Masterman, I realised that she, too, was a wreck which we hadn’t yet recorded. Like the Swan, she was wrecked with her master’s wife and children, who died, like those on board the York Merchant. So thank you again Jordan – because of you I too have found a new wreck for the records!

 

 

25. Spontaneous Compostion

No, this is not a spelling mistake from the subject line but a bad pun. (Is there any other kind of pun?) The Russo-Finnish barque Ymer caught fire and exploded in 1910 while at anchor with a cargo of “organic manure”. (See WOTW 6 on the Venscapen for more on Russo-Finnish barques.)

Spontaneous combustion of cargo occurs occasionally in the record. Hay is one known offender in this respect, with approximately 6 known hay barges lost to fire, and coal is another. Naturally, it is combustible, or it would not have been intended to be burnt as fuel, but it was somewhat unexpected to find it burnt prior to delivery!

A collier exploded in this way before she even left the Tyne with her cargo in 1857. More worryingly, another collier caught fire at sea in the Downs en route from Hartlepool for Dieppe in 1873.

There were other examples elsewhere, and the situation was deemed serious enough for a Royal Commission on the Spontaneous Combustion of Coal to be set up in 1876, which looked, among other things, at whether different types of coal were more subject to spontaneous combustion than others. It seems that the cause was often inadequate ventilation in cargo holds.