By Haydn Brown.
The ‘Minstrel’ was typical of the ships that once provided the bread and butter trade of the Norfolk ports. This topsail schooner was said to have been a handsome and very safe and reliable vessel, which traded along the English coast between the years 1847 to 1904; during its life, it regularly tied up at Burnham Overy, Blakeney, Wells-Next-the-Sea and other ports around the English coast and over the horizon.
Built at Wells-Next-the-Sea in 1847; it emerged at a time when there was a trend towards building larger vessels, capable of trading in much deeper seas and at further distances; vessels such as sloops and schooners of up to 100 tons. The Minstrel went against this trend, being smaller at almost half the size and typical of those that formed the backbone of the Norfolk coastal trade. Minstrel was built at a time when she was able to profit during the best times of 19th century trade, but also becoming old enough to experience its decline. Today, there are but a few 19th century photographs of this ship, accompanied by taped conversations and various written records, all of which is well preserved by the Norfolk Record Office and the Blakeney Area Historical Society (BAHS).
In the Beginning:
During the mid-19th century there were two principal shipyards in Wells-Next-the -Sea, those of John Lubbock and Henry Tyrrell; the ‘Minstrel’ was built by the latter, who’s yard was at the East End of the harbour, just past the Jolly old Sailor’s Yard. The Norfolk Chronicle recorded the ship’s launch thus:
“Yesterday afternoon (25th August) at six o’clock, a very pretty schooner called the Minstrel was launched from Mr H T Tyrrell’s shipyard. She is the property of T.T. Mack Esq. of Burnham.”
Jonathan Hooton, writing in his book ‘Minstrel, Biography of a Sailing Ship’ stated:
“A few months earlier, in April 1847, Tyrrell had launched the ‘Countess of Leicester’, the largest vessel to be built at Wells to that date and described as “a splendid brig” and “the finest specimen of shipbuilding ever constructed at Wells.” The event was also recorded, probably by Tyrrell himself, in a two dimensional ‘model’, consisting of a series of cut-outs mounted on a square baseboard [see photo below]. The relevance of this to the Minstrel is that her construction was well underway by the time that the ‘Countess of Leicester’ was being launched and she must be the vessel shown in the model under construction next to the ‘Countess of Leicester’. She is shown stern on with the hull ready for planking. To have such a representation is very rare…..”
The surveying officer at Wells in 1847 was a Charles Claxton; he was there to witness the registration of the ‘Minstrel’ on 4 September; it being the seventeenth vessel registered at both Wells and Cley that year. Eight of these were small fishing craft built at Sheringham, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Ludham; but four were larger vessels built elsewhere, bought second hand and re-registered at Wells; the remainder had been built at Wells. This was, indeed, a prosperous period for the Wells shipbuilders. In 1847, Tyrrell had built and launched the 151-ton ‘Countess of Leicester’ and the 95-ton schooner ‘Teazer’, whilst, during the same period, the John Lubbock shipyard had built the schooners ‘Sydney Claude’ (84 tons) and ‘Edward Coke’ (87 tons).
The 59-ton Minstrel had two masts and her measurements were; length 57.3 feet, breadth 15.3 feet and depth 8.4 feet. They say she had a graceful square stern and was carvel built, which meant that her planking was laid flush and not overlapped; she also had a scroll rather than a figurehead. She was something that any owner would be proud of, so it was probably inevitable that Thomas Thurtle Mack would commission a painting of ‘his’ Minstrel for posterity. He would have been no exception for it was commonplace throughout the 18th-century for proud masters or owners to purchase a painting of their vessel from one of the artists frequenting major ports who earned a living by faithfully reproducing ships. Here, the ‘Minstrel’ was no exception – and it had an added advantage – the painting would show the vessel in full sail, which is not the case with all the photographs taken of this vessel while in port. By looking at the following painting of Minstrel, the two square sails on her mainmast show that she was a topsail schooner. Two crewmen are shown on deck but it is known that she was in fact crewed by four men.
The vessel was entirely owned by Thomas Thurtle Mack of Burnham Thorpe and her first master was a Henry Howell, who also came from Burnham Thorpe. Thomas Mack himself seems to have advanced his prospects over the years, for whereas he was once described simply as a merchant, he became referred to as a ‘Ship Owner’ with the launch of the Minstrel. His new status went hand-in-hand with his business dealings with Henry Tyrrell, whom he clearly knew and trusted. Thomas Mack had previously dipped his toe into investments when, along with two other business colleagues from Burnham Overy, he had bought a third share in another of Tyrrell’s ships, the 51-ton sloop ‘Hopewell’, which had been built a year earlier in 1846. Mack was obviously happy with his investment, for as well as financing the whole of the Minstrel, he had also taken eight shares in the ‘Countess of Leicester’.
The vessels mentioned above traded from Burnham Overy which had long been under Wells jurisdiction. Although never as important as Wells, Burnham had a steady trade during the first half of the 19th century. White’s Directory of 1845 describes Burnham Overy Creek as:
“navigable for vessels of 60 or 80 tons up to the Staithe, where the spring-tides rise 9 or 10 feet, and where a considerable trade in Coal and corn is carried on, as well as in oysters, of which there is an excellent bed in the offing, where 5 boats and 15 fishermen are regularly employed.”
Thomas Mack was, up until 1846, in partnership with a local person named Wiseman at Burnham. Their business was known as Mack & Wiseman, Corn and Coal Merchants. However, that partnership was dissolved in 1846 – as recorded in the London Gazette of that year:
The timing of what was clearly a change of business direction coincided with Mack’s growing shipping investments which, from now on, did not included Wiseman. Instead, it was possible that Mack was strengthening his business links with a John Savory, miller & maltster of Burnham who, along with Mack, partly owned the ‘Hopewell’ which, together with the Minstrel, were built in order to control the shipping of their produce. The ‘Minstrel’ itself was primarily involved in trading from Burnham, although there was clearly a constant interchange between Wells and all of the North Norfolk ports, with the vessel only taking cargoes to and from Wells when it was not needed at Burnham.
Trading – Overseas:
But Minstrel was not just involved in the coasting trade; occasionally she ventured overseas. In 1863 for instance, she went from Hartlepool to Hamburg and returned to Burnham. Later that year she made two separate trips from Hartlepool to Memel, Klaipeda, in present day Lithuania. The first was when she returned to Blakeney; then, in the September, she made the return journey to Wells, where the crew were discharged. The crew for these voyages were all from Burnham. They were the Master, 44-year-old Henry Howell; Mate, 26-year-old William Smith; Seaman, 23-year-old Joseph Scoles; and Cook, 21-year-old Henry Howell jnr. On his first trip oversea, the latter received a wage of only £1-15s, the lowest of the crew. However, either he must have creditably discharged his duties or, benefitted from his family connection with the Master – or both, for on his second trip his wages rose to £2-00 – more was to come! However, in between these overseas voyages, the Minstrel did undertake nine coastal voyages that year, all but one starting from Burnham, visiting Hartlepool four times and Newcastle once. It may well have been that she was carrying grain north and returning to Norfolk with coal. Also, the crew had joined the ship at Hartlepool at the beginning of May that year, which may be an indication that the ship had over-wintered at a northern port.
As busy as trade might have been during that period, we do find that the following year, on 23 August to be precise, Thomas Thurtle Mack, sold his substantial share stake in Minstrel; 32 shares went to his fellow Burnham merchant, John Savory, and a further 32 shares to Henry Howell, the Master of the Minstrel – it has been speculated that this portion may have been passed on to his son, Henry Jr., mentioned above. This shift in ownership did not seem to change Minstrel’s trading habits; it still remained engaged largely in exporting grain from John Savory’s granaries in Burnham and returning with coal from the north. When not needed in Burnham, Minstrel would visit other ports along the north Norfolk coast which were involved in a similar trade. However, one wonders as to the degree of profit being made at this time, now that growing competition was being felt from the railways; a trend that would eventually lead to an irreversible decline in the cargoes being shipped to and from the North Norfolk ports.
For nigh-on 44 years, Minstrel had been a family concern and a very reliable vessel, skippered also by only two masters during that time – Henry Howell senior and Henry junior. But in 1891 the father decided to sell his half share in the ship. John Savory, clearly still with full faith in the vessel, bought 16 shares of it, increasing his own share of the ownership to 48 shares. The other 16 shares were bought by a new name on the block, Minstrel’s new Master William Temple – he another Burnham man! Temple had already been in charge of the vessel for at some 4 months prior to the purchase, shipping malt to Newcastle and returning to Wells with coal. However, Minstrel, with Temple in charge, did not sail again until after the change in ownership when she left Wells for Blakeney.
Throughout the 1890’s her voyage pattern seldom varied, with the carrying of coals, seed cake or barley, from Wells to Hull, Sunderland and North Shields, with trips to Burnham and Blakeney on the Norfolk coast in between. However, by the end of the 19th century the vessel’s trading pattern was forced to change by the terminal decline which was beginning to grip the North Norfolk harbours. This effectively meant that there was not enough trade to keep the Minstrel permanently employed and she had to go seeking trade wherever it occurred; this meant an unfamiliar coarse setting along the east and south coasts of England. Of the eighteen journeys made in 1901, only four were in Norfolk and, when she left Blakeney in the April, Minstrel did not return for the rest of the year. She ranged from Sunderland in the north to Cowes and Southampton in the south, none of them to Norfolk.
Minstrel’s master, William Temple who described himself as being from Wells and Blakeney – probably depending on whichever place he considered to be home – saw very little of his native Norfolk now that his vessel had to sail the south and east coasts of Britain to search for cargoes. The nature of his crew had changed too. Whereas in 1863 the crew remained the same all year and were all from Burnham, only William Temple came from Norfolk by 1901. One could say that the source of the vessel’s crew was now nationwide, if not international.
The Minstrel’s Demise:
By 1904 the Minstrel was in its 57th year of what some would term an impressive service, but one which required a continued need to travel further afield for employment. Such was the case when she embarked on her final voyage; leaving Woolwich in the February of 1904, bound for York with a cargo of government stores. But disaster struck on 17 February when she became stranded and lost in a Force 7 easterly gale at Chapel Point, near Chapel St. Leonard in Lincolnshire. The crew were all saved, but not so the 57-year-old vessel which was thought not to be worth repairing. She was broken up in the May of 1904 by J. J. Simons of Sutton, Lincs.
It is said that its master, William Temple, went on to become master of the ketch ‘Admiral Mitford’ and it was rumoured that he became famous for sailing her single handed up to the north-east and then returning to Norfolk where he would moor and sell coal out of the ship, often remaining in one port until all the coal had been sold. Allegedly, he would combine this little bit of business with what became his frequent visits to the nearest quayside pubs. With such a development, it was always likely that tale such as this would have a sequel; in William Temple’s case it was an alleged theft from his vessel at Morston. It happened during one of Temple’s lengthy sojourns there, when someone by the name of Billy Holmes was said to have gone aboard the ‘Admiral Mitford’ and stole money. The case was brought to court, but a local merchant by the name of Gus Hill ‘stood up for Holmes and the case was dismissed’. However, William Temple would have none of it; he felt that Holmes was guilty and, in protest, refused to drink in Morston again, instead confining his drinking to the Blakeney pubs. As an aside, it was said that Temple was also the Master of the ‘Reaper’, as well as the ‘Minstrel’ and the ‘Admiral Mitford’.
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