By Haydn Brown.
From amongst all the major gales that have imposed themselves on to Norfolk over the years, the 1st September gale of 1833 must rank as the worst. That storm ranged wide over the North Sea and as far south as the English Channel when it wrecked hundreds of ships in the North Sea alone. Out of this undefined figure, over 60 ships were driven on to the County’s coastline alone. Areas inland weren’t safe either; the spires of St Margaret’s and St Nicholas Churches in Kings Lynn were blown down and forty wagon-loads of wreckage were removed from the beaches of Hunstanton and Snettisham. On the following Sunday, 8 September Bell’s ‘Life in London’ looked back at, what was referred to as ‘the great gale’, and recalled:
“……the loss of life and property in all parts of the country presents a dreadful catalogue of calamities, which must fill the minds of our readers with horror………On Monday, the public mind was shocked by the description of the disaster of the most appalling description, and everyday since has produced some new account equally heart-rending”
It was from the accounts written at the time that the public learned of dead bodies floating ashore throughout the storm ” from one end of the Norfolk coast to the other”. Cromer, which sits at the top right-hand edge of Norfolk, collected eighty-four bodies from its beach over two days. They were buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church. East Anglian reports following the storm emphasised the damage to homes, fields and orchards. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, the rain and tide-swollen Ouze River breached its banks and:
“……such was the immense body and impetuosity of the water, that in a few hours, upwards of 1,500 acres of land were laid under water……many acres of standing corn are irretrievably lost and many head of cattle drowned……The damage sustained by the lamentable event has not yet been ascertained, but it is much to be feared that it is to a considerable extent, nor is there any prospect that the water can be got off before the next spring”
Similar accounts from the coast naturally focused on the destruction of ships,crew lives lost and infrastructure damaged. The Times, no less, referred to the coast around Lynn as ‘strewn with vessels, parts of vessels, boats and goods’ Also, in a report unusual for its concern for human life lost, referred to:
” The brig Margaret, Captain Osire……went down on Saturday afternoon, near Whiting Sands and all hands perished. By this awful circumstance there are four women left without husbands, and 22 fatherless children. Better luck attended the crew of the Brig ‘Waterloo’, like ‘Margaret’ carrying a load of coal. After Waterloo went down, the crew ascended the rigging at eight o’clock on Sunday night, and remained lashed in that perilous situation, the sea breaking over them mountains high till one o’clock the next day when they were taken off by fishermen, several of whom manned their boats and succeeded in rescuing eight individuals.”
But, probably. the most tragic tale was that of the Earl of Wemyss, Leith’s Old Shipping Company’s Packet Ship. In common with the Amphitrite, its tragedy became indelibly imprinted in the public’s minds, in part because it revealed men’s failure to behave in an honourable way. The crew and male passengers on board the ,Earl of Wemyss, en route from London to Leith in Scotland, survived the gale off Brancaster, Norfolk, but that the 6 women, one man and 4 children on board drowned. This news was met with the public’s disbelief and anger.
The ships owned by the ‘Old Shipping Company’ of Leith were called ‘White Siders’ to distinguish them from the ships of other trading lines which had a different strip of colour painted on their hulls; the ‘Old Shipping Company’ ships had a white strip. All these companies carried passengers, freight and hauled convicts sentenced to transportation or the home-based hulks from Edinburgh to London, thirty at a time. It was on 29 August 1833 that the Earl of Weymss (pronounced ‘weemz’) set out from London on a return journey to Scotland. In command was a Captain Henry Nesbit; not the same Captain Nesbit who, almost thirty years earlier had been master of the Old Shipping Company’s smack Queen Charlotte when she was attacked by a French privateer. The successful defence of the Charlotte earned Nesbit a £105 reward from the owners. In 1833 Captain Nesbit of the Earl of Wemyss did not appear to be like the hero of 1804!
Ahead of Captain Nesbit was a 400-mile. plus, passage that could take as little as a few days or as much as 2 weeks. It was stated later, at an inquiry at the Hare Arms in Docking into the ship’s disaster, that the Earl of Wemyss had carried 19 passengers on board, 8 men and 11 women and children, but the Captain’s count did not include some passengers not travelling business class in the salons, but travelling economy in steerage. A substantial amount of cargo was also on board, including bales of hops from Kent. After the wreck, men worked for hours to unload the ship’s hold of the then sodden bales and goods packed inside – apparently, none of it insured.
It was said that late in the afternoon of the Saturday, “a northeaster blew up in the North Sea and continued to freshen until it became a hurricane” However, this was later contradicted by others who were on board who said that the gale had been blowing since 6.00 am that morning, when the ship was off the Spurn Light. By midday on that Saturday the Earl of Wemyss was out of control on seas – “like mountains of snow”, all her canvas was shredded and her stern boat gone. By the Saturday night the ship had lost both anchors in a failed attempt to wait out the storm and found itself aground off Brancaster, Norfolk. An effort early morning of the Sunday to launch another boat failed and soon afterwards the Earl of Wemyss flooded with water from storm-driven seas breaking over the un protected skylights and breaking through the glass, drowning everyone in the women’s cabin below. Those still living rushed out on to the open deck and stated later at a Magistrate’s Inquiry:
” where we found the captain, crew, and steerage passengers secured to the rigging and the winch, We lashed ourselves in the same manner and continued there with the sea breaking over us for about four hours.”
Two weeks later when the Inquiry, convened by the Home Office, took place at the Hare’s Arms in Docking, its brief was to determine ” whether there had been any loss of life by culpable negligence, or loss of property by dishonesty.” Captain Nesbit’s incompetence was made manifest through him missing at least two opportunities to save his passengers. One was a chance to wade ashore early on the Sunday morning when a lull at low water passed, when he misread a nautical almanac and also confused the flow of the tide with its ebb. He then offered ‘fatal advice’ that sent his female passengers and children into their berths. He failed to protect his ship’s four skylights and their chutes through the main deck and into the space below, thus setting up the circumstances for the drownings of the women and children. They were: Mrs. Hamilton, her son, and a lady ; Mrs. Pyne, her daughter, and child ; Mrs. Carmack ; Miss Susanna Roche and a child—all cabin passengers; total, 9. Mrs. Rymer and child, steerage.
The Reverend Holloway of Brancaster testified that Captain Nesbit told him that the ladies were already dead in their cabin and there was no point in rescuing them as they had been there for over four hours. When the bodies were recovered, they were taken to the Church. The Reverend Holloway believed that if the skylights had been battened down the ladies would have been saved – and if they had been rescued earlier their belongings may also have been saved. Statements referring to the dead said that “whilst their bodies were yet warm” they had been stripped of their valuables by Joseph Newman Reeve, son-in-law of the Brancaster Lord of the Manor. Reeve claimed that he had asked people to help get the bodies out of the ship and took the jewellery to “protect them from ‘revolting indignities’ – such as having their fingers cut off to get the rings off them” Reeve claimed that he had kept everything safely; although others claimed he had refused to give the things back and said that they belonged to the Lord of the Manor, who was entitled to everything cast up on the shore. Reeve admitted that he had unwisely opened one bag, belonging the Mrs Pyne, without witnesses, but said that others gave him jewellery to look after.
Reeve was tried in March 1834 at the Norwich assizes before a Judge Vaughan, but escaped conviction on two charges of felony thanks to being represented in court by Sir James Scarlett, a local MP and a famously competent lawyer. He might also have been helped by the still general belief in England, that coastal residents were “the lawful heirs of all drowned persons” and so entitled to the property providence had cast at their feet. A further trial at the Norwich summer assizes in the July of 1834, of the ship’s steward, cook and a local farmer who had been in charge of the wreck, included some very damaging evidence about people who had offered to lie to protect Reeve – but this evidence was dismissed and the jury of the second trial also gave a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Captain Nesbit was dismissed from his role and was ejected by his Guild and all that is left of the wreck of the Earl of Wemyss is a weathered gravestone inscription in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Brancaster:
The tale of the Leith Packet ship Earl of Wemyss combined all the elements to interest readers: evidence of incompetence at sea, the death of innocents and a suspicion of crimes inflicted on the dead. The reason for such persistent coverage by the press was that all the dead came from the same propertied class as did the readers of The Times and The Scotsman. On 6 May 1834 the rebuilt ‘Earl of Wemyss’ went back into service, carrying passengers and cargo from Scotland to London, under the command of a Captain Brown. Eventually the ship was replaced in the packet service by steam. The Wemyss, now twenty-five years old, could still be seen at sea 15 years later sailing between Aberdeen and the Baltic.
The Norfolk Almanac of Disasters, Brook, P.,Breedon Books Publishing, 2007
Photos: Google Images and Wikipedia.
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