The Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth was the home-port of HMS Lutine, a 32-gun frigate that had been captured from the French in 1793 and incorporated into the British Fleet. For the rest of 1790’s, she served with the North Sea Fleet and was responsible for keeping an eye on the Dutch coast and the French, ever since they invaded the Netherland in 1795. It was in the springtime 1799 the Britons and Russians began to make preparations for their own invasion of the Netherlands; this was to finally take place in the August. During the planning and implementation stages of this invasion, HMS Lutine was active in the North Sea and at the Waddenzee; her duties at first was to watch the Dutch coast, look out for French ships, and guide friendly ships through the dangerous waters of the Waddenzee and the Zuiderzee. During the invasion and afterwards, her duties also included the ferrying of supplies, troops, messages and instructions to other British ships in the area. The Lutine must have known the area like the back of its hand – you might think!
In late September of 1799, HMS Lutine was again back in Great Yarmouth and lay at anchor waiting, along with her Captain Lancelot Skynner, to receive further orders; normal practice of course. The Captain knew it would be a short respite but, in all honesty, expected the next voyage to be one of helping to relieve the backlog of passengers, mail and supplies that had stacked high as a direct result of the bad weather that had persisted during the summer, placing the British trade with the continent at a standstill. The regular packet boats had failed to arrive in Yarmouth for such a long time. This situation was compounded by the Government’s own blocking policy against some continental ports, leaving Cuxhaven, the only harbour reachable for the British. All this had enormous economic consequences for both the British and the Hanoverian traders who were deprived of profits and caused the Hanover and London Exchanges to close down on several occasions whilst hostilities were in progress. Many Hamburg trade houses were, in fact, threatened with bankruptcy and the Bank of England felt obliged to support the Hamburg trade whilst ensuring that the British troops who were now on Dutch soil were payed. The Bank of Englan decided to send loads of money as a matter of urgency! This decision had a direct influence on the orders that were communicated to HMS Lutine. She would not be transporting troops and provisions, but gold bullion and coinage of considerable value! This also meant that the Lutine would not be pursuing any form of hostile action.
The destination for this valuable cargo was Hamburg, via the port of Cuxhaven, where the Lutine would drop anchor, unload and routinely return to Great Yarmouth to await yet further orders. Compared with the hectic battle-actions during the proceeding months, this voyage was expected to be more like a holiday cruise now that 30 passengers had also been booked on board, despite the Lutine being a ship of war and, supposedly, still required to be on active readiness. Clearly, normal procedure was being dispensed with, and bear in mind that these passengers were not common steerage class; most were, in fact of high standing including, as has been rumoured since, an element of European nobility in the mix. It was this concoction which guaranteed that, once everyone had settled comfortably aboard, spirits would rise and a pleasant party would ensue, safe in the knowledge that they would be cruising in comfort and not likely to be hostages of war.
On the other side of the social class system that existed at the time were those who were expected to work and know their place in the scheme of things. Amongst these were the Yarmouth fishermen who happened to be in close proximity to HMS Lutine and later expressed their surprise of what they had seen aboard and around the ship that night of the 8th of October – a ship of war no less which was fully lit and with an animated party going on in the Captain’s cabin; their view was that it was absolutely unacceptable in times of war. They were also around to witness the final touches being made to loading the Lutine with ‘unidentifiable’ cargo which, unseen to their eyes, would be secured below as best it could, bearing in mind that the gold was apparently stored in flimsy casks bound with weak iron hoops and the silver in casks with wooden hoops.
If common sense prevailed during the planning and loading of this valuable cargo then, surely, it would not have been stowed amidships in the shot lockers, adjacent to the main-cable room, with cannon balls being placed on top for an element of security. Yes, the midship section with its cable-room and shot lockers did occupy a large space, but this was freely open to the crew by reason of the exigencies of service. It would have been difficult to justify the placing of such riches in such an exposed place. On the other hand, the after Magazine of a frigate was a carefully guarded room; so one must assume nowadays that either than compartment, or one of the divisions lying in the same after section of the ship would have been the likeliest place to hold valuables that called for continual surveillance.
In the early hours of the 9th of October 1799 HMS Lutine set sail from Great Yarmouth, taking a north-easterly course to the Northern islands of The Netherlands with the intention of changing course from there in a more easterly direction towards the Elbemouth. During the day the weather began to change for the worst and, in the evening, as the ship approached the Dutch islands, the wind turned into a strong gale that blew from a north-westerly direction. At about 11 PM, in complete darkness, the Lutine sailed under considerable speed on a half-wind course on to the outer banks west of Terschelling. The damage to the ship was considerable and the crew understood immediately that it was lost. The heavy breakers that develop on these banks in stormy weather, particular with Northerly winds, were known to be notorious. In just a few hours the HMS Lutine was totally wrecked, but within this time the crew managed to fire a few cannons and launch emergency rockets. These signals were noticed on the islands but such things were not really a surprise to the population – this was just another shipwreck in a long line of tragedies in the area between Terschelling and Vlieland. As it was, the difficult position of the ship, about 4 miles from the beach, together with the gale made immediate rescue impossible. The inevitable outcome was that all the crewmembers and passengers, totalling 270 souls, were drowned – except for one crewmember. He was found alive the next morning when the wind had eased off and rescue-ships had been able to approach the area of the wreck.
Captain Portlock, commander of the English squadron at Vlieland wrote the Admiralty in London:
”Sir, It is with extreme pain that I have to state to you the melancholy fate of his majesty’s Ship Lutine, which ship ran onto the outer banks of the Fly Island Passage on the night of the 9th. Instant heavy gale of wind from the NNW and I am much afraid the crew except one man, which was saved from the wreck, have perished……This man when taken up was almost exhausted. He is of present tolerably recovered, and relates that the Lutine left Yarmouth Roads on the Morning of the 9th instant, bound to Texel, and she had on board Considerable quantity of Money…..”
Both the media of the day and the official conclusion of the British was that a heavy storm had caused the loss of the ship and, on that basis, Lloyd’s paid out a huge sum of insurance money. The case was closed, however, in the case of HMS Lutine, things were not as simple as they looked.
In 1997, during the planning stage for a 200 year commemoration event on Terschelling and Vlieland the organisers revisited the subject of what really caused the Lutine tragedy; they did this by analysing past records and publications. It soon became evident that the story was far from complete. In fact, the relevant details about the shipwreck itself and the official enquiry that followed were remarkably limited in what was revealed; so much so that suspicions were inevitably raised. These suspicions were followed by the conclusion that the storm alone could not have caused the HMS Lutine to sink. The facts were these: – The ship herself was in a perfect state of maintenance, following a complete overall twelve months previously when even the rigging was renewed. Also, the crew was highly experienced, both in handling of the ship and in the navigation in the coastal waters of the Dutch and German islands. In fact, the area of the North Sea just off the Dutch coast had been a primary patrol-area for HMS Lutine before she became involved in the British and Russian invasion of the Netherlands. A storm such as the one which hit this ship, when sailing half-wind, was certainly not a problem for a large frigate; handling it would have been a routine procedure. The conclusion was that the cause of the accident was human failure.
Interest then fell on what the only survivor had to tell; surely this crown-witness would have been interviewed? But, not even his name could be found in the files. The only item that was found was just a brief note in the Logbook of Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow, the ship where the man was subsequently placed. It stated that the man had recovered with the help of the ships-surgeon and gave some information about the Lutine and her destination. But then the information stops, not even his name was mentioned. The relevant files of the Admiralty archives did indicate that a period of intensive correspondence started directly after the accident, this was between the Admiralty in London, Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow and the commander of the invasion-fleet Vice-Admiral Mitchell who was aboard the HMS Isis. But all their correspondence had been subsequently removed from the archives and no records of any further investigation, such as a court-martial, even existed. It seemed self-evident that the absence of such documents, which may have proved exactly what had happened aboard the Lutine leading up to its sinking, pointed to another cause which the authorities chose to hide? Did the only survivor have had an unpleasant story to tell, and could his account have shown that human error had caused the accident?
However, all was not lost in the 1997 investigation into the possible real cause which led to the sinking of HMS Lutine. A small, but valuable, piece of evidence came to light in the form of a Muster List of the HMS Isis no less; this list had recorded the names of newly arrived crewmembers. It also showed that on the 18th of October, nine days after the wreck of the HMS Lutine, a certain Able Seaman John Rogers, came aboard the Isis where the ships-clerk wrote a small note near his name: “from the Arrow, the late Lutine”. When compared with the last existing Muster List of HMS Lutine, it confirmed that not only had John Rogers sailed on the ship, but that he was also, up to that point, the only survivor of the Lutine’s sinking. Although this man’s legs had been seriously wounded, he had been kept on HMS Isis for an exorbitant length of time. Then, when the invasion-campaign was over and the Isis had returned to British waters, in January 1800, this man was sent to the Hospital ship Spanker. However, after treatment he was still not allowed to go ashore but was placed on HMS Grana, moored near Sheerness. Thereafter he disappeared silently from the records and was never heard of again! Someone, or other, seemed to have kept him out of sight and far away from the media of the day. Was it possible that his story would have embarrass the Admiralty and proved negligence for which they would have been responsible. If that had been the case, Lloyd’s would have refused to pay out the insurance money. Then, there were the drowned passengers! Among them was the group of high-standing civilians and nobility from England, France and Luxembourg. One would think that, had the Admiralty been to blame, the relatives of those drowned would have demanded some degree of satisfaction for their losses.
Immediately after the wreckage salvage actions were organised by the Captains of the nearby moored British warships, the Arrow, Swinger and Pelter. They were not the alone. Dutch fisherman also showed much interest, considering the note in the Logbook of the Swinger on the 11th of October: “Sent the Cutter manned and armed with Lieut. Braddel to the wreck to Prevent the Dutch from Robbing Her”. During the few weeks that the English ships stayed near the islands all kind of objects was salvaged from the wreck, like weapons and food. Remarkably however was that nothing is said about the gold or silver.
What happened next was an exercise in salvage and sophisticated reclamation of assets – or, if you like, wrecking – which still attracts scholars to this day. To think that all this started as soon as the vessel hit the seabed and the bed began to eat her up, piling sand up around her and for the coming decades that remained the pattern – the ship being revealed and reburied, revealed and reburied as the sands moved around her. Several companies and groups have made attempts to salvage the cargo. Some have been lucky and some have failed. They were all after a treasure which some have estimated as being as much as ₤10.000.000. If true, then there must still be a huge fortune at the bottom of the IJzergat.
But what then is the difficulty? In such a place, wind, tide and everlasting currents can play freely with everything. In no time at all following the sinking, the Lutine’s remains had been covered with sand and nothing in the Waddenzee ever keeps its position, so the ship was really lost – for a long long time. Modern archaeological research has showed that, within a few hours after the ship ran aground, the rear part of the hull broke off and drifted away, with wind and currents in south-easterly direction, crossed the Ijzergat channel and ran aground again on the banks on the south side. The attention of the first salvers was directed to the main-section of the ship and so the rear-end of the ship was left alone and forgotten. The fact that all the gold and silver bars and most of the coinage so far recovered have been found buried about the remains of the Lutine’s stern, bearing out the belief that the its treasure had, indeed, been originally housed in the Magazine – or nearby. Maybe, at this very moment, new excavations are under way? If so then those undertaking the most recent salvage will be armed with the knowledge that ‘special‘ cargoes were usually stored in the rear section of these old sailing ships. It should not come as a surprise when some shiny bars eventually surface in the not too distant future. Perhaps then, we will finally witness the end of this story.
Anyone familiar with Lloyd’s of London, the insurance underwriting exchange, may also be familiar with this chap, or more specifically the thing he is ringing:
That is the Lutine Bell, in the Underwriting Room. Traditionally, it was rung to announce the fate of a ship which had been late at its destination port. If the ship had arrived safely, the bell was rung twice; if it was sunk, it was rung once, to immediately stop the sale of any further reinsurance on the downed vessel by unscrupulous insiders. These days, the two rings mean there is a distinguished visitor to Lloyd’s. One ring is used to note events or anniversaries, such as Remembrance Day.