The date is 5 February 1840. Charles Lewis Redwood, ex. smuggler, steers the St Leonard into the Yare and deftly slips the vessel up against the quay from where he oversees his men unloading the ship’s cargo. It is now honest fare that he carries between Harwich and London. Not like the bales of tea and barrels of brandy, stashed in the hulk and discovered when the excise officers intercepted the Nancy crossing the Yarmouth Roads and disguised as a fishing smack way back. He now stands at the helm of the St Leonard and remembers the tightening of his stomach the last time he watched Yarmouth coming into view, shackled as he and his men were aboard the Admiralty cutter as his sloop, the Nancy, was towed into port.
It is in fact four years since he was on this quay when Harwich men were waiting to greet the five smugglers from the Nancy after their six-month imprisonment in Yarmouth. Singing and slapping each other’s shoulders, they marched down to the dock and into the nearest tavern. Redwood was impatient to return home but first he must treat the band of smugglers for supporting his men during their confinement with regular supplies of food and tobacco. It felt ungrateful to watch his friends supping their ale and not join them in a glass. After all this time, he was glad to get the commission to come back to Yarmouth. At last he can call on the prison teacher whom he promised to visit sometime. Now, he seeks directions to Row 57. Will Miss Martin remember him?
She recognizes the sailor instantly, welcoming him into her little room. He’s taken aback by its bare simplicity. Brewing the tea strong, she manages to get two cups out of the teapot, made only for one. It was a hard time, he tells her, when he left the Gaol. Fourteen months he spent, searching for honest work. With his wife and children to feed, it was a sore temptation not to go back to the contraband. But he stood by what his teacher taught him. Now, he says proudly, he is master of a respectable merchant’s ship.
The mariner’s eyes light up when she asks after his family. Sarah, his wife, has another baby on the way. William, his first-born, has become a sailor. He’s a strapping lad. Good and steady. The teacher rummages through a box of envelopes, and takes out the letters of thanks from Edmund Cole and his wife, to read their cheery news. Like Redwood, the first mate had struggled when he returned home. But Cole had visited last summer and told Miss Martin how all the Nancy’s crew had finally left off smuggling. They are doing well, Charles Redwood nods. Fine men. He sees them often. The teacher is happy to hear him confirm Edmund Cole’s reports. Shyly, before he leaves, the former prisoner takes from his sack two presents for the teacher. He bought them in France, a token of his gratitude for all she has done for him. He hopes she will like them. But sat on the table between them, the pretty vase and jewellery box look out of place, he thinks.
Once the master mariner bids her farewell, Sarah Martin opens the Liberated Prisoners book and writes of his visit and gifts—a vase covered in shells, and a curious glass box—his gratitude for what he thought his obligation to me. At the end of their confinement, she remembers smiling, the smugglers asked to speak with the prisoners, and begged them to listen to her advice, and treat her with respect. She picks up the vase and box, and hesitates, weighing the strange trinkets in her hands. I am not sure if she stands them on the mantelpiece or hides them away in a cupboard. The smugglers on the Nancy had been in prison before, as they told Sarah Martin. Why did her teaching touch them when previous correction had failed to deter their illegal activities?
In 1832 Charles Redwood was found in charge of the Union of Ipswich, sailing as a collier hauler with contraband concealed under the coal. His men were pressed into the Navy for five years—a gain for the Admiralty that won the services of experienced sailors, and for the Home Office that saved on the cost of imprisoning them. Of the six crew members, only the cabin boy was acquitted, as at the Yarmouth trial. But the captain must be made an example. Unable to afford the £100 fine, Redwood was sent to Springfield Gaol, a convict prison near Chelmsford.
Housed together at Yarmouth Gaol and able to converse freely, the ‘Nancy’ men laboured keenly at their lessons. While agreeing with the teacher that smuggling was a form of fraud involving habitual lying, they doubted they could afford to leave the trade. Discussing their concerns with Miss Martin, and mulling over the costs and benefits when she left, the five men began to embrace Christian reclamation as a group.
Mateship had bound the Nancy men together on the open seas. It sustained them in prison, with gifts from the smugglers’ band—one of the illicit friendly societies formed by contraband men. The vision of Christian fellowship, offered by the prison teacher, shared much in common with the values of fraternity and mutual obligation expressed by friendly societies across the trades, often symbolized in Christian terms, especially in the figures of the Good Samaritan and St Christopher. They were embedded, too, in the sea-faring life where the maritime spirit of hardy independence was built on the interdependence of crewmen. Those same values girded the men in the difficult months after release, when the older ones kept a careful eye on their younger mates.
Determination to leave the smuggling trade was surely strengthened by the strain their imprisonment had placed on the men’s families and the fear of transportation if they were caught again. When Charles Redwood was arrested in 1836, his son Lewis was just two-years-old. The census returns for the Redwood household suggest the precarious nature of sailoring life but also the principles of kinship and reciprocity that kept the master mariner on the straight-and-narrow and his family together. At each census the sailor and his wife lived at a different address but always in the streets by the harbour. In 1841, five of their eight sons and daughters, were with them in Castle Street. When the children left home, they remained close by.
All Redwood’s sons became mariners and his daughters married sailors or men employed in trades connected with the sea. In 1851 his widowed daughter Jane had returned to live with her parents, while she worked as a charwoman to support her young daughter and new-born son. By 1861, now remarried to another sailor, she was living next door to her mother Sarah, who was caring for two of her grandchildren. The former smuggler had passed away in 1859, aged sixty-five. Proudly, his family or his friends placed notices in the Essex Standard and Chelmsford Chronicle, to note the death at Harwich of Mr Charles Redwood, mariner of that town – and, in the 1850s, a very busy port on Essex’s North Sea coast where the town’s quays had to be extended through land reclamation
At the click of the latch, young Lewis Redwood runs squealing to the door and tugs at his father’s breeches. Sarah is all smiles. He feels the baby, firm in her belly, as he presses her in his arms. This one will not know his Daddy once went to gaol. Sitting in his chair by the hearth, he keeps an eye on the potatoes bubbling on the stove while his daughters set the table. Suddenly he is hungry as the herrings, bought today in Yarmouth, sizzle smoky-sweet on the griddle. Up on the mantelpiece, Sarah has added the vase to the collection of shell decorations, beloved by sailors, which her husband has brought back from his travels. The new jewellery box has pride of place, already containing her blue bead necklace and money for next week’s housekeeping. Its glinting glass casts flickering rays of lamplight onto a picture, cut out from a magazine; it is his favourite print – ‘A Sailor’s Family’ by Thomas Rowlandson:
Though often portrayed as rowdy, drunken womanizers, sailors are rarely shown in that domestic role that many of them played – that of father. In the drawing a jack cradles his infant child in one hand, while embracing his wife with the other. Even a dog joins the happy family, looking up to the sailor for approval or acknowledgement. Though drawn in a year of relative peace for the Crown, the pistol, musket, sword, and powder keg above the family all hint at the ever present threat of war that intrudes on their private moment. The sailor wears a round hat with a low crown and very short brim. His hair is long and unruly. Though it is difficult to make out, the neckcloth appears to be plaid or striped. Our tar’s jacket has unbuttoned slash cuffs. The trousers are very narrowly striped, his stockings are white, and his pointed toe shoes have oval buckles.
Redwood turns away from the happy picture and looks at his own equally happy family, gathered around the table, his wife beckoning him. For a moment he thinks of Miss Martin, sitting at the table in her spartan room, writing out verses for the prisoners to copy. Charles Redwood shakes his head and then joins the homecoming supper, beaming.
They say that everyone loves a sailor, so here are few more returning
smugglers and sailors ………
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His name was Allison Davie and it was said that he was born on 4 May 1796; presumably at Great Yarmouth because, as one biography stated, he was “baptised privately the next day at Great Yarmouth, England”. Confusingly however, another source stated that he was born in Scotland! Solely on the basis that it would not have been possible for a barely one-day old baby to be carried from 18th century Scotland to Norfolk in one day, this blog will continue with the following:
Allison Davie was the son of a Captain Allison Davie who, by the way, was buried at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth in 1818; his mother was Elizabeth Cock. Apparently, young Allison Davie came from an old English family line that can be traced back to 1603 when an ancestor, William Davie lived in Stanfield, in Norfolk. Allison was to be the eldest of eight children, four boys and four girls.
It was during the Napoleonic Wars (18 May 1803 to 20 November 1815 – some 12 years, 5 months and 4 weeks) and while still young, Davie entered the service of the East India Company and took part in transporting British troops in the Mediterranean before transferring to the Atlantic route; he had gradually risen in rank. It was whilst he was on a trip to Quebec as a Captain, in early 1825, when he met Elizabeth Johnson Taylor; she was the only daughter of George Taylor, a shipbuilder, and Elizabeth his wife.
Daughter Elizabeth had been born at North Shields, England in 1803 and had left her native land aboard the clipper, Three Brothers – “The largest sailing ship in the world” – with her parents on 27 May 1811, reaching Quebec on 9 August that year. There, her father had immediately opened a shipyard on the southwest shore of Île d’Orléans at a place known as St Patrick’s Hole. Just over twelve months later, in December 1812, the war with the United States caused George Taylor to suspend his activities at St Patrick’s Hole and go with other sailors and carpenters to build ships in Upper Canada. On returning to Île d’Orléans after hostilities had ended, he resumed his original business operations.
Taylor’s yard prospered, and was still doing so in 1825 when Allison Davie from Norfolk, England, by then a 300-pound “giant” of a man and with an excellent reputation as a sea captain, landed at Quebec. He immediately fell in love with young Elizabeth Taylor – how and when exactly we do not know but events with this relationship flowered at pace. Her father, George, very soon agreed to his daughter’s marriage with Davie – but on two conditions: (1) that he abandon sailing and settle down as heir to the Taylor business and, (2) that he would give his future children the Taylor name. Davie agreed, and the marriage was performed by the Reverend James Harkness on 16 April 1825; this is according to the records of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at Quebec – which made the formalisation of the couple’s marriage swift indeed!
Two years later, on 14 May 1827, the Taylor enterprise, in which Davie was now an established partner, launched the King Fisher, a 221-ton, 16-gun, brigantine which was built for the Colonial Government. This launching turned out to be a major event with the Governor, Lord Dalhousie Ramsay and many other notable guests in attendance. It was Dalhousie himself who presented George Taylor with a silver cup, engraved with the Governor’s Coat of Arms surmounted by a unicorn, the ship’s figurehead which had been produced by the silversmith Laurent Amiot, a man conscious of his standing as a creative artist. As for the boatyard, it may appear strange that shortly after this even, it was shut down.
On 2 December 1829 Davie bought a waterfront property at the foot of the cliff at Pointe-Lévy on the south shore of the St Lawrence with a view to setting up his enterprise there. He purchased another site on 28 December the following year. On these lots he put up the facilities needed for repairing ships. But, as the Quebec Gazette reported on 5 March 1832, during the violent spring break-up “the large wharf” of his shipyard, “after being thrown over by the ice, was carried down the river.” At the same time, the shipbuilding market was weak but, undaunted by both the disaster and the market situation, Davie re- started from scratch, with such energy that by the autumn he had moved the family across the St Lawrence River to Pointe-Lévy where he had also bought a beach property and had set up his own ship repair yard, equipped with a “Patent Slip” or marine railway. Since there was only one other dry-docking facility in the port of Quebec at the time, the Canada Floating Dock at Cape Cove, Davie’s business prospered further.
Of all the qualities that contemporaries recognised in Davie, ingenuity was the one most stressed. For example, according to the Quebec Gazette of 29 Oct. 1832, he was the first person in the Canadas to employ a system invented in England that allowed ships to be repaired without being put into dry dock. For this purpose, he had an inclined marine railway built. The vessels, taken at high water, were hauled out of the river on a cradle which moved on iron rollers and drawn up by an iron chain. “We believe this is the first establishment of the kind formed in British America,” the newspaper added.
The ingenious Captain Davie was not destined, however, to live long after this achievement. Joseph-Edmond Roy, editor, notary, politician and historian, recounts:
“One evening in the month of June 1836, as he was moving in a rowboat past a ship anchored in mid-stream, the captain of the ship threw him a package, which fell into the sea instead of into the rowboat. In leaning overboard to catch the package, Davie fell in himself. He went under and did not come up.”
On 20 June the Le Canadien reported that Davie’s body, with:
“his gold watch, some money, and the keys he had on him, had been found at Saint-Pierre, Île d’Orléans, the preceding afternoon…. a few days after the accident in the roads.”
Twelve days after the accident, Allison Davie was buried at Quebec.
Elizabeth Davie, widowed at age 33 with seven children and pregnant with an eighth, took charge of the business in order to safeguard the family’s inheritance. The first woman to head a shipbuilding firm in Canada, she ran the yard and soon made a reputation for herself as a talented builder with a keen eye for which trees to cut down. On occasion she sought help from her father, who had retired but lived until 1861.
Around 1850 Elizabeth handed over the running of the company to her eldest son, George Taylor Davie, who had been apprenticed in John Munn’s shipyards in the faubourg Saint-Roch at Quebec. It was clear that training under Munn was a privilege, and several of his apprentices made their mark, George Taylor Davie was amongst them; his inherited business becoming the sole 19th century shipbuilder to survive to the present day.
Allison Davie’s son, George Taylor Davie, gradually bought up his sibling’s shares, with the result that on 28 May 1885 all of his father’s heirs declared him sole owner of the family business. His mother, Elizabeth Davie had died in 1860, at the age of 57 years. Thanks to George’s business sense and professional skill, the operation prospered and grew through the purchase of a site at Saint-Joseph (Lévis), where he founded the Davie Shipbuilding and Repairing Company Limited. Despite his short and modest career Allison Davie, a ship’s captain from Norfolk, England, had laid the foundation of an enterprise which, through his successors and name changes, won an enviable place in the shipbuilding and ship repairfield. It finally closed in 1989.
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ROBERT McCORMICK was a British Royal Navy ship’s surgeon, explorer and naturalist. He was born on 22 July 1800 at Runham, a village near to Great Yarmouth in the County of Norfolk, England. John Marius Wilson’s 19th century ‘Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales’ described Runham as such:
“RUNHAM, a village and a parish in the Flegg district of Norfolk. The village stands near the river Bure, at the Runham-Swim Ferry, 4½ miles W N W of Yarmouth and was once a market-town. The parish includes a detached portion, called New Runham or Vauxhall, immediately adjoining Yarmouth, and on which fish-offices, manure-works, and the terminus of the Norwich and Yarmouth railway [would be] situated; and it was [to be] re-turned in the Census of 1851 as including also the extra-parochial tract of Nowhere……”
Robert McCormick was the only son of Robert McCormick, Royal Navy, a ship’s surgeon from Ballyreagh, County Tyrone. Young Robert spent his childhood around Great Yarmouth; he was educated by his mother and sisters. His father had encouraged his son to become a naval executive officer, but the father’s death in the wreck of the HMS ‘Defence’ off the coast of Jutland on 24 December 1811 left Robert junior without the necessary influence and means by which to achieve his father’s desires.
It should be said at the outset that Robert McCormick junior was to turn out to be an eccentric and sometimes difficult character. His naval career would disappoint him, and promotion would be slow. Distinction also would elude him for his ambitions were greater than his application to his work. He would regularly invalid himself out of active service and only occasionally seemed to find work that he was keen to undertake. Almost certainly, his ambitions were destined to be thwarted by his own personality, and he was neither to make a great name for himself in the navy nor as a naturalist.
Nevertheless, in 1821 young Robert McCormick decided to enter the Royal Navy ‘as the only chance now left me of entering upon a naval life’. He asked to be trained as a surgeon and was accepted as an apprentice by the famous Sir Astley Paston Cooper, also originally from Norfolk. Following his studies in London, namely at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons on 6 December 1822. The following year, he was assigned to the flagship Queen Charlotte as assistant surgeon.
When Robert McCormick entered the navy, the status of a naval surgeon had risen from that of the turn of the 18th century. He always maintained, however, that his father’s death had left him without enough money or influence to join the ‘executive line’ of the navy; also, his medical training in London would have cost perhaps £200 a year, ‘much the same as a young gentleman at Oxford or Cambridge’. However, it was a fact that a surgeon who had good connections in the Admiralty would have been in a far better position to achieve a successful career – for McCormick it was not to be!
Lack of family influences or fortune aside, McCormick seemed to be incapable to make friends in high places, and it has been argued that his lack of promotion came from antagonising the powerful William Burnett (1779-1861). Burnett sat on the Victualling Board from 1822, and became Director-General of the Medical Department upon its creation in 1832. It was said that Burnett ‘despised the spectacular, the second rate, or the ’dilettante’; but Burnett was not a scientist or a literary man, and seldom promoted those whose interests obviously lay more in the field of geology or botany than medicine. Indeed, McCormick did have more enthusiasm for exploration than for medicine, or natural history – maybe, therefore, he was considered by Burnett as both a ’dilettante’ and second rate!
Certainly, McCormick’s love of the spectacular would not have endeared him to Burnett. The sum total of McCormick was that he was a man with the wrong aptitudes in the wrong place at the wrong time in history. His efforts in natural history, intended to distinguish himself on the Navy’s congested personnel list, antagonised the Admiralty’s Medical Department, and alienated those with the power to advance him. Added to this, McCormick seemed neither good at, nor dedicated to, disciplined natural history collecting. To his further detriment, his dabbling came at the time when both natural history and medicine were growing complex networks. As a qualified but unexceptional naturalist, he had limited capacity for otherwise overcoming his lack of connection to London’s scientific elite. His case reveals the tensions inherent in the position of the ordinary naval surgeon in the mid-19th century – in which one individual performed the roles of doctor, scientist and naval officer, and these roles sometimes came into conflict. These tensions were to be amplified by the presence of the young Charles Darwin on HMS Beagle’s second voyage to South America in 1831.
But first, McCormick’s served in the Caribbean where, in 1825, he contracted yellow fever and was invalided home. He then spent two years as medical officer to shore stations. Then, in 1827, he gained his first experience in the Arctic with William Edward Parry aboard the HMS ‘Hecla’ to Spitsbergen. Although he was not a member of Parry’s unsuccessful polar sledge party, he did contribute significantly to the expedition by keeping the crew healthy and by studying the plants, animals, and geology of Spitsbergen. Following this expedition, he was promoted to the rank of surgeon and then spent a year on half pay, after which he was assigned to the HMS Hyacinth and Caribbean duty, only to be invalided home again in 1830. By May 1831 Francis Beaufort was looking for suitable personnel for a survey expedition to South America. McCormick appeared well qualified, and was recruited as ship’s surgeon for the second voyage of HMS Beagle under Captain Robert FitzRoy.
While the preparations of the Beagle progressed in late October, McCormick met Charles Darwin who had been given an unofficial place on board as a self-funded gentleman naturalist who would be a companion to Captain FitzRoy. Darwin wrote telling his university tutor John Stevens Henslow about McCormick:
“My friend the Doctor is an ass, but we jog on very amicably: at present he is in great tribulation, whether his cabin shall be painted French Grey or a dead white— I hear little except this subject from him”.
When the voyage got under way, their first landfall was at St. Jago in the Cape Verde Islands in January 1832. McCormick and Darwin walked into the countryside together, and Darwin, influenced by Charles Lyell’s ideas on geology, found the surgeon’s approach old-fashioned:
“He was a philosopher of rather an antient date; at St Jago by his own account, he made general remarks during the first fortnight and collected particular facts during the last.”
McCormick became increasingly frustrated when FitzRoy took Darwin onshore, leaving McCormick behind and thereby denying him an opportunity for collecting. The last straw came at Rio de Janeiro in April 1832, when FitzRoy arranged for McCormick ‘s collection to be packaged and sent back to England. McCormick was also invalided home; he recalled in his memoirs of 1884:
“Having found myself in a false position on board a small and very uncomfortable vessel, and very much disappointed in my expectations of carrying out my natural history pursuits, every obstacle having been placed in the way of my getting on shore and making collections, I got permission from the admiral in command of the station here to be superseded and allowed a passage home in H.M.S. Tyne.”
McCormick’s upcoming return to England on 29 April 1832 gave Darwin the chance to send post home. He began a letter to his sister, Caroline, where he referred to McCormick, his former colleague:
“I take the opportunity of Maccormick [sic] returning to England, being invalided, ie. being disagreeable to the Captain & Wickham. – He is no loss.”
When HMS Tyne sailed, McCormick was unaware that he was conveying home not only Darwin’s letter, but also his opinion of him. Probably comfortable in his ignorance of Darwin’s words, McCormick settled into yet another ‘sabbatical’ before being posted once more to the Caribbean; only to suffer a further attack of yellow fever, for which he was sent home in 1834. For the next four years he was unattached except for one month aboard the HMS Terror in relief of ice-bound whalers.
In 1839 McCormick successfully applied for duty with the expedition of James Clark Ross to the Antarctic as surgeon and zoologist aboard HMS Terror. The expedition lasted from September 1839 until September 1843; during this time, it managed to undertake much important work in all branches of science from the Antarctic, through to Australia and New Zealand. The large collections of zoological materials obtained were catalogued later – but not by McCormick! The task was undertaken by John Edward Gray and Sir John Richardson, on orders from the Admiralty following the discovery that the task had been left undone after the expedition.
Here was another example of McCormick’s apparent lack of drive and skills; also, the scientific ability, to cope with such a massive collection. Small wonder then when he did gain some recognition with his election, in 1844, as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons – a different field of course. Then, during the following year, McCormick received what he thought was a life-time appointment; that of surgeon to the yacht William and Mary. To his dismay, however, the commission was changed and he was assigned to the Woolwich Dockyard, east of London; but even in this post he was to be disappointed when, in 1849, he was superseded.
It seems not generally known that Robert McCormick was a proponent of the search for Sir John Franklin, and he was one of the first to lay detailed plans for such an expedition before the Admiralty and the House of Commons. He advocated the use of small boats and sledges to explore Wellington Channel, the Boothia Peninsula and King William Island. However, whilst his suggestions, were well based on Arctic and Antarctic experience, they were ‘unofficial’, coming as they did from a medical officer and not a line officer; inevitably, they were rejected! It was left to Francis Leopold McClintock to later demonstrate and prove that McCormick was correct!
In 1851 McCormick was appointed surgeon on the North Star in the search fleet of Sir Edward Belcher . At last, his life-long ambition was realised: for during this expedition, he became officer in command of a party. In August and September 1852, he explored the Wellington Channel, in a boat named Forlorn Hope, covering 240 statute miles. He did not find any trace of Franklin’s ships, Erebus and Terror, but did map the east side of the channel and establish the probability of a connection between Baring Bay and Jones Sound, virtually proving that Franklin had proceeded westward from Beechey Island.
McCormick was awarded the Arctic Medal in 1857 and then, in 1859, he was finally promoted to Deputy Inspector-General. This was his last rise in rank and he was placed on the retired list in 1865, and in 1876 received a Greenwich Hospital pension of £80 per annum through the good offices of his friend, the medical director-general, Sir Alexander Armstrong, himself an old Arctic hand. In 1884 McCormick published his ‘Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic seas, and Round the World’. Despite excellent illustrations, sound scholarship, and an interesting narrative, it came too late to arouse much interest – most of the information was already well known and the incidents were too remote for acclamation.
McCormick, in fact, spent the last 20 years of his life in relative obscurity. He had failed either to reach the top in the naval medical service or to become a distinguished biologist. He displayed stamina and competence in exploration but had little opportunity to engage in it except, perhaps, during the North Star expedition. His troubles in the Admiralty have been attributed to a lack of tact and a strong individualism which resulted in frequent disagreements with each of the medical directors-general of his time, especially Sir William Burnett. The yellow fever he contracted and his dislike of small ships led him to avoid assignments to the Caribbean, even to the point of insubordination. However, these characteristics do not explain his scientific failure. McCormick was on good terms with many influential scientists of the day, including Sir John Barrow, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Sir Charles Lyell, and had opportunities to make his mark, but he did not display the single-mindedness, patience, and learning.
McCormick’s only claim to fame was that his name was given to several natural features: in the Antarctic, to Cape McCormick by Ross; in the Arctic, to McCormick Bay by Beaufort and McCormick Inlet by McClintock; and in northwest Greenland, to a valley. McCormick was proud of having his portrait painted in 1853 by Stephen Pearce, one of a series planned on the commanders in the Franklin search. He thought it a harbinger of a distinguished future, but, in the event, the Forlorn Hope was his first, last, and only command.
In his last years, McCormick lived in a Wimbledon house he named Hecla Villa, after the ship on which he sailed with Parry, and the class of ships that included the HMS Erebus. His living companions included a duck named ‘the Duchess’, and a sparrow named Polly. McCormick died at Hecla Villa on 28 October 1890 – He never achieved the desired rank of Inspector-General.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
Introduction: The era of the ‘Pax Britannic’ was the period of relative peace between the Great Powers, during which the British Empire became the global hegemonic power and adopted the role of a “global policeman”. However, the period was anything but peaceful for many Royal Navy Officers, and few saw as much active service as Samuel Gurney Cresswell of Kings Lynn, Norfolk. It was he who contrived to fight in the Baltic campaign of the ‘Crimean War’ – the first-time whole battle fleets maneuvered and fought under steam power. He then achieved fame as an Arctic explorer (being credited with being the first to traverse the much sought-after North West Passage, as the result of a truly epic sledging trip form the trapped HMS Investigator in 1853).
As his career advanced, Cresswell rose to sea-going command, and played his part in the imperial coercion of China, which included amphibious operations and the suppression of piracy in the South China Sea. Throughout his action-packed service, he always found time to keep journals and to correspond with his family. He was an acute observer of the closed world of the Victorian navy, as well as the exotic climes he was privileged to visit. His lively first-hand accounts form the raw material for subsequent books. Like other contemporary sailors, he could also express his observations in competent drawings and watercolours, but with a skill of a higher order. Indeed, he was to be summoned to the Palace to present his Arctic sketches to Queen Victoria, and they were eventually issued as lithographs. However, most were never published at the time.
In the Beginning: Overlooking King’s Staithe Square and the Great Ouse River at King’s Lynn is Bank House, a glorious Georgian townhouse built by a wealthy wine merchant who shipped imported wine downriver to the Cambridge colleges and the Bishops of Ely. It was here in the 1780s that Joseph Gurney, later a founder of the present-day Barclays Bank, set up his first bank. Bank House was also where Captain Samuel Gurney Cresswell, the Arctic Explorer, was born on 25 Sept 1827 (1827-1867). The house was built on the former site of the 16the Century Port Tollbooth.
Samuel Gurney Cresswell was born on 25 September 1827, the third son of Francis Cresswell Esq. (Banker, born 1789) and Rachel Elizabeth Fry (born 1803, London, Middlesex), daughter of Elizabeth Fry, née Gurney, the distinguished philanthropist and prison reformer. Samuel Cresswell had two older brothers (Frank Joseph and Addison John), three who were younger (William Edward, Gerard Oswin, and Oswald) and one sister, (Harriet France Elizabeth). The Cresswell’s’ circle in Norfolk included the Gurneys as well as Sir Edward Parry.
Cresswell’s Life and Career Thereafter: From his childhood, Samuel Gurney Cresswell expressed a keen desire to go to sea rather than pursue a formal education at Harrow as his older brothers had done. His parents, having sought the advice of Sir William Edward Parry, an intimate family friend “in whose judgement…… [they] had perfect confidence,” decided that Samuel, aged 14, would enter the Royal Navy. This he did, first to serve as a midshipman on board ‘HMS Agincourt’ under Sir Thomas John Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief of the East India and China station. During this period, which was between 1845 and 1847 Cresswell distinguished himself in several actions against pirates in Borneo and Brunei; a further promotion followed in September 1847.
While Cresswell was serving in the far-east, Sir John Franklin was leading an expedition in search of the North-West Passage, a navigable route between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Franklin had sailed from Greenhithe on 19 May 1845 with 129 officers and men aboard the ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ – both fitted out with state-of-the-art equipment. Franklin’s ships passed from the Atlantic through the Davis Strait into Baffin Bay and were last seen on 26 July at the entrance to Lancaster sound, moored to an iceberg.
Back at Portsmouth, England and serving on ‘HMS Excellent’, Cresswell was next promoted to 6th Mate on April 1848; one month later, in May 1848 he was transferred to ‘HMS Investigator’ to take part in Sir James Clark Ross’s Arctic expedition in search of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin’s expedition ships which remained missing. During the search, on 10 Sept. 1849 to be exact, Cresswell was promoted to 2nd lieutenant; then, within three weeks of his return to England in November 1849, he voluntarily re-joined ‘HMS Investigator’ as a member of Robert John Le Mesurier McClure’s Arctic expedition, both in the continuing search for the Northwest Passage and also as part of the second Franklin search expedition. The search would be attempted from the Pacific coast of America and travelling eastwards via the Bering Strait. Little did McClure know when he set out that nearly four years would elapse of fruitless searching.
McClure’s expedition actually set sail in January 1850 and encountered the first ice west of Barrow Point in the August of that same year. Having entered the North-West Passage from the Bering Strait it attempted to sail further eastwards but the ship became trapped in pack ice in the autumn of 1851. Come the 26 October and a travelling party from McClure’s ship was held fast off Banks Land but manage to establish that the Prince of Wales Strait did connect to Viscount Melville Sound. Melville Island itself, first discovered 34 years earlier by Parry who had approached from the opposite direction, was clearly seen by the members of McClure’s party from their elevated position; it lay across the entrance to Prince of Wales Strait. It was this that gave indisputable proof of the existence of the Northwest Passage:
“The highway to England from ocean to ocean lay before us”!
As thing were at the time, the excessive heavy ice conditions during the summers of 1851 and 1852 prevented McClure’s expedition from making any further progress eastward, and it was forced to winter throughout 1851–1853 at the Bay of Mercy. It was at this point, when McClure’s ship was finally abandoned, and although the events of that period were fully documented, the location of the HMS Investigator wreck was not known for over 150 years; it would be in July 2010 when it was found, at a depth of 8 metres, just off Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea.
Back in 1853, the expedition was faced with the prospect of starvation but was located on 6 April that year by a sledge party sent by Captain Henry Kellett, commander of ‘HMS Resolute’, which was also on the Franklin search expedition under Captain Sir Edward Belcher. Cresswell, along with 24 invalids, followed McClure on the 170-mile trek to Kellett’s winter camp at Dealy Island, located off Melville Island. Arriving in good health, Cresswell volunteered to continue overland for about 300 miles to Beechey Island in the hope of meeting a ship.
By an incredible stroke of luck, he encountered the ‘HMS Phoenix’ under the command of Captain Inglefield, who had arrived on 2 August 1853. It was on this ship that Lieut. Cresswell set sail for home, via Scotland, on the 23 August. Understandably, he triumphantly had in his possession McClure’s dispatches to the Admiralty which established him, Cresswell and his party, as the living proof of not only the discovery of the long-sought for Northwest Passage by Sir Franklin, but also his own success of being the first to traverse this passage. In 1854 Captain McClure was awarded a knighthood for his leadership throughout.
On 26 October 1853, a public dinner was held in his honour at the Kings Lynn Assembly Rooms, organised by his native townsmen; tickets were 1 guinea each. It was after a lavish banquet when the Town Clerk read out a ‘Congratulatory Address’ and the Mayor, Lionel Self, presented Lieut. Cresswell with a copy on an illuminated scroll of vellum to which the Corporate seal was attached by a golden cord. Lieut. As tradition dictated, Cresswell returned the compliment by thanking his audience and regaling them with some of the hardships which he had suffered whilst leading his sledging party across the ice:
‘We used to travel all night, about 10 hours, and then encamp, light our spirits of wine, put our small kettle on it to thaw the snow water, and after we had our supper – just a piece of pemmican and a glass of water – we were very glad to get in, after smoking our pipes (“Bravo,” and laughter). The first thing we did after pitching the tent was to lay a sort of Macintosh cloth over the snow. On this would be a piece of buffalo robe stretched. Each man and officer had a blanket sewed up in the form of a bag, and this we used to jump into, much the same as you may see a boy in a sack (laughter). We lay down, head and feet, the next person having his feet to my head, and his head to my feet, just the same as herrings in a barrel (laughter). After this we covered ourselves with skins over the whole of us, and the closer we got the better, as there was more warmth (laughter).’
Coincidentally, it was noted that the public dinner actually took place on the third anniversary of the discovery of the North-West Passage. It was also fitting at this celebratory dinner that a tribute was paid by Rear-Admiral Parry to Cresswell; Parry being the person who had been influential in Cresswell’s career and felt a personal responsibility for his safety.
On the mystery of Sir Franklin’s disappearance, the Government of the day gave up the search for him and his ships in 1855 when it was discovered that a few survivors had attempted to reach the Hudson’s Bay Company’s settlement. However, Lady Franklin was not satisfied and organised another search, which proved to also be unsuccessful. The fate of the Franklin’s expedition (but not the location of the two ships) was finally revealed in the Spring of 1859. As it was, the Captains and crews had all but completed the navigation of the North-West passage and, for this reason, Sir Franklin was given the honour of its discovery.
As for the ship’s crew, they were last seen on King William Island but would never return to England. Their apparent disappearance at the time, prompted a massive search that continued unsuccessfully for nearly 170 years. In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada did, finally, discover the wreck of ‘HMS Erebus, and two years later, the wreck of ’HMS Terror’ was located. Historical research, local knowledge and the support of others made these discoveries possible. Now Parks Canada are working manage this fascinating National Historic Site. Public access to the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site is not yet allowed.
Subsequently, and until his promotion to Commander on 21 October 1854, Cresswell served on HMS Archer in the Baltic during the Russian War. It was while he was stationed in the China Seas in 1857-58 as commander of ‘HMS Surprise’, that he was promoted to Captain; that was on 17 September 1858. It was during this posting that Cresswell met with ill health from which he never fully recovered. It seems his years in the Arctic wastes had ruined his health and he retired in February 1867, dying, unmarried on 14 August 1867 at Bank House, his mother’s home in Kings Lynn, aged only 39 years.
Cresswell’s Artistic Talents: Cresswell, while on the Ross and McClure expeditions, executed numerous water-colours which today provide a valuable pictorial record of the crews’ activities and Arctic terrain. Some of his sketches, suitably ironed flat from their rolled-up state and placed in an album, were presented personally to Queen Victoria with a request for permission to dedicate a volume of lithographic views after the drawings to her Majesty. The resulting folio volume, published in 1854 in London, was entitled A series of eight sketches in colour ……… of the voyage of ‘H.M.S. Investigator’. His drawings were also used to illustrate the discovery of the North-West Passage by H.M.S. Investigator, edited by Sherard Osborn and published in London in 1856.
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Thomas Clowes, solicitor and reputed Lord of the Manor, was a popular Caister resident in the mid-19th-Century. He not only had charitable leanings towards the inmates of Yarmouth gaol, but also built, in 1834, the first purpose-built school in Caister, known as the ‘Fear God School’, along with two small alms houses in Beach Road, known as the ‘Widows Homes – that was in 1856.
Thomas Clowes also seemed to have had a close relationship with the local beachmen. For instance; in 1846, the beachmen asked for permission to build a new Watch House, Store and Lookout on the sand hills north of The Gap. This was the name given to a low point in the sand hills where the track from the village to the beach, now Beach Road, passed through the hills to reach the beach. This area traditionally belonged to the Manor – and therefore Thomas Clowes. He gave his immediate approval, but with the proviso that he should receive a ‘fortieth’ share of the salvage income from the beach company. Now, salvage income traditionally doled out to beach companies was as ‘fortieth’ shares, in what was something of a complicated and secretive system. Members of the company received one or more shares depending on the part they had played in a particular salvage incident. In the mid-nineteenth century the annual income from a company share was often a considerable sum of money.
As soon as the Lookout and Store had been erected the beachmen bought a 60-foot ship’s mast and erected it next to the new Watch House; the former mast had a small box on the top from where the ‘lookout man’ could keep a watch for shipping in distress during bad weather. In 1864 a writer described the Watch House as:
“the beachmen’s parliament house where the affairs of the nation……… are discussed, accounts settled and business transacted”.
Its ground floor was used as a carpenter’s shop, and it was where a George Vincent made oars, masts and a variety of other items including wooden “goodwives washing tubs”. At the rear of the building, they hung an old ships bell which was used as a call-out signal when the lifeboat was to be launched.
It was said that after Thomas Clowes died his widow, Maria, moved to Yarmouth where, in 1918, she sold the title of Lord of the Manor by auction. The title was bought by a Yarmouth man, Anthony Francis Traynier who, having lived in London for a while returned to live in Gorleston; however, he did not have the same level of interest in Caister as that previously shown by the late Thomas Clowes. By 1924, a beach company’s ‘fortieth’ share of any salvage was almost worthless – nothing more than about £10 per annum. Then there was the fact that in 1924, Caister was fast becoming an established holiday resort, with most of the land at the end of Beach Road, near the Gap, developed.
The old Watch House now stood in the way of any further development and Trainier, in September 1934, gave the beachmen six months’ notice to give up possession of Watch House and Lookout, which they had occupied for some 87 years. The beachmen disputed this Notice, but a subsequent court case decision in April 1935 ruled against them and the beachmen had to move; the building was soon demolished. For his part, Traynier agreed to surrender his claim to any share in future salvage.
The former Manor House (above) is believed to have once been owned by Thomas Clowes of this story. It was built around 1793 and was converted into a hotel in 1894 – extended to have 36 bedrooms in the 1920’s. However, around 1941 the building was abandoned because of coastal erosion; it was completely destroyed soon afterwards. Today, only its bricks may be found on the beach.
(Source: The above is based on an article by Colin Tooke; and the banner heading image above is ‘Caister, Norfolk’ by Reuben Bussey, 1879.)
Walkers on Sheringham’s west end clifftop footpath, which leads up to the Coastguard Hut, may not know that this is an area of the cliffs which, during the Second World War was honeycombed with tunnels and heavily defended. What they may also not know is that this elevated position also overlooks the place where, in the early hours of 6 December, 1939, three enemy airmen lost their lives.
This War-time drama occurred during a night of hail and rain and brisk winds. Residents close to the seafront were awakened by the sound of an aircraft, flying very low and with engines spluttering, which went on to crash in the sea on the east side of the Lifeboat Shed. Despite an initial fear that ‘Jerries might be running around in the dark,’ people poured out of their houses in the pitch dark, and the lifeboat crew was ‘knocked up’ to launch the lifeboat into a heavy swell to search for survivors.
Ashore, flickering lights and torches picked out a parachute which was draped over the promenade, near the Whelk Copper. About 50 yards from high-water mark was the equally ominous sight of a swastika-adorned plane rolling in the sea. Despite the wind, hail, rain, topped with the stink of aviation fuel, some men bystanders waded into the sea with ropes and managed to secure the wreckage to the breakwater, to prevent from being driven away.
It was left for daylight to not only bring further detail, but also a flood of military guards, officials and aviation experts. They identified the aircraft as a Twin-Engine Heinkel HE 115 Float Plane, which may have been laying magnetic mines – who knows? Apparently, the story went round that the aircraft had been ‘downed’ by one of our ‘secret weapons’; subsequent opinion suggested that it had possibly clipped one of the Chain Home Radar Towers at West Beckham. The Press at the time sensationalised (what’s new!) the news with headlines such as “Nazi Plane Crashes into the Sea”. It was said that the Heinkel also boasted self-sealing fuel tanks, a system which would have been of interest to the on-the-spot officials who were poking around the wreck; but also of great interest to British boffins back at base who were working on their own version. Eventually, of course, the wreckage was cleared away, though one of the engines is said to be still there – lying in about 20 feet of water.
But what of the German crew of three? The body of the pilot was discovered immediately and subsequently buried, with military honours, at Bircham. The other two bodies were washed ashore several days later. They too were given military funerals, this time at Sheringham’s Weybourne Road cemetery. After the War, they were said to have been exhumed and re-buried in the German cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffs.
It is an odd fact that if the Heinkel had come down at low water, it might well have been recorded as the first German plane of World War Two to have crashed on British soil.
Footnote: RAF West Beckham, which had close links with the local fighter station RAF Matlask, was opened in 1938 and comprised a transmitter and receiver site, a generator site and underground reserves. It reported to the filter room at RAF Watnall which was the HQ to No. 12 Group RAF, and the station was originally parented to RAF Bircham Newton, followed later by RAF Wittering and finally RAF Coltishall.
The radar site was located at Bodham Hill and was known as A Site. During World War II the station was commanded by the famous dance band leader Marius B. Winter and because of his background the soldiers based at the camp were said to have been ‘very well entertained’. The Site closed in 1956.
There were also two other separate camps: B Site, near Baconsthorpe, provided accommodation for the WAAFs and airmen from 1939 to 1946. It was also known as “The Marlpit Camp”, due to its close proximity to a disused marl pit – which is now a fishing lake. The camp was closed down in 1958.
C Site was home to the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1940 and in 1941 was used by the Military Police, followed by an RAF regiment from 1942 until 1945. After the war the site went into care and maintenance. Today the station is privately owned and many of the buildings are still in existence.
First, an Explanation: According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
“Pirate is the most general of the four terms. Originating with the Greek peiratēs, meaning brigand, it can be applied to a wide range of nautical misbehaviour, including coastal raiding and intercepting ships on high seas. Robbery, kidnapping, and murder all qualify as piratical activities, provided there’s some water and a boat involved. If there’s no water and no boat, you’re just a regular bandit. If there’s a boat but no water, you need to go back to pirate school.”
A privateer was a pirate with papers. As the name suggests, privateers were private individuals commissioned by governments to carry out quasi-military activities. They would sail in privately owned armed ships, robbing merchant vessels and pillaging settlements belonging to a rival country. The most famous of all privateers is probably English admiral Francis Drake, who made a fortune plundering Spanish settlements in the Americas after being granted a privateering commission by Elizabeth I in 1572. The use of privateers allowed states to project maritime power beyond the capabilities of their regular navies, but there were trade-offs. Because privateering was generally a more lucrative occupation than military service, it tended to divert manpower and resources away from regular navies.
Privateering could be shady business, and this accounts for some of the lexical overlap with the word pirate. Privateers sometimes went beyond their commissions, attacking vessels that didn’t belong to the targeted country. This extracurricular raiding and pillaging were indistinguishable from piracy as defined above. At other times, outlaw pirates would operate with the tacit encouragement of a government but without the written legal authorization given to privateers. In historical settings where these practices were common, the line between privateer and pirate was blurred.
Our Story: As youngsters we were brought up on romantic swashbuckling tales of pirates sailing in various exotic parts of the world; then there were movies such as “Treasure Island” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”. No one ever told us that being a pirate in the cold waters of the North Sea could be just as profitable, and just as violent, – as happened, for instance, on the morning of Wednesday, 31 January 1781 when a large brigantine, the “Alexander & Margaret” was heading for London laden with coals. David Bartleman was its captain with Daniel MacAulay as his mate.
At about six o’clock on that January morning a Cutter, carrying eighteen 4-pounders plus a crew of upwards of 100 men commanded by the notorious English pirate Daniel (John?) Fall, emerged out of the mist and attacked the brigantine just off Cromer on the edge of the North Norfolk coast. Bartleman and his crew courageously defended their ship and did manage to beat off what was a first assault by Fall; it was an effort which no doubt raised the moral of the men – at least temporarily.
This success did indeed turn out to be short lived for barely two hours later Fall’s Cutter attacked again. This second skirmish continued for a further two hours until the brigantine became totally disabled with Daniel MacAulay, the mate, dying from the loss of blood and Bartleman also seriously wounded, some of the remaining crew less so; two small boys, apparently, escaped injury. It was clear that there was no option other than for Bartleman to strike a ransom with Daniel Fall; a ransom reputed to have been around 400 guineas. This agreement allowed Bartleman to bring his proud but shattered vessel into Great Yarmouth, which lay approximately thirty miles south-east of the skirmish area. Two weeks later, on the 14th February 1781 and at an age of barely 25 years, David Bartleman died as a consequence of his wounds and was buried in the parish churchyard of St Nicholas Church, in Great Yarmouth. To commemorate the gallantry of his son’s death, plus the bravery of his faithful mate, and at the same time mark the infamy of Fall the pirate, his father Alexander Bartleman ordered a stone to be erected over his son’s grave. At the foot of this stone is the following epitaph:
“Twas great. His foe though strong was infamous – the foe of human kind
A manly indignation fired his breast
Thank God my son has done his duty”.
On Saturday, 3 February 1781 the Ipswich Journal recorded this and other similar incidents by Fall:
“Yesterday the noted pirate Fall made his appearance to the North of this coast, and has taken a number of colliers and coasters; amongst which are the following:
The ‘John Pearson’ of Shields, ransomed for 700 guineas.
‘Smelt Coxon’ of Shields, ransomed for 400 guineas.
‘Fanny Porter’ of Yarmouth ransomed for 300 guineas. ‘Alexander & Margaret’ from Shields, ransomed for 400 guineas.”
Almost simultaneously, another account emerged from Cromer, picking up on what could have been part of Daniel Fall’s raiding programme in the vacinity of the Norfolk coast during that period, reporting thus:
“On Monday last, 11 fellows, armed with pistols etc landed out of a large boat at Runton, near Cromer, and greatly terrified the inhabitants; but assistance being called from Cromer, [ensured] they were all secured. The account they give of themselves is, that they belonged to a large smuggling vessel, which they were obliged to quit in order to save their lives; but it is supposed they belonged to the noted Daniel FALL, two of them being lately wounded, one of whom is shot through the knee, and the boat they landed from being thirty feet long. It is thought they either came to plunder, or surprise some unarmed vessel. William Windham, Esq. of Felbrigg, sent for Captain Bracey, of the impress service in this city, who accompanied by his gang, safely conducted them to town, [where] they were examined before Roger Kerrison, Esq., who committed them to Norwich Castle. They all prove to be Englishmen. (February 1781).”
The Norfolk Chronicle also picked up on the theme of Fall in the following two reports; on one hand you have Fall, the pirate, and on the other hand, you have Captain Steward, the ‘good guy’ :
“Yarmouth, Feb 1, 1781. On Thursday, about twelve o’clock, the ‘Dreadnought’, with Privateer, Captain Timothy Steward, Commander of 14 carriage guns, and 50 men, went to sea………he saw a large brigantine from Shields (known now to be the ‘Alexander & Margaret……..which was taken this morning about six o’clock)………Within half an hour, another large vessel, laden with coals, passed our roads and which was also taken this morning……and ransomed for five hundred guineas. The Captains of the above vessels say, they were taken by that notorious villain FALL, who had on board his ship at that time thirteen Ransomers; they supposed that FALL has taken near thirty sail of ships from the North. It is surprising that this villain had not one Frenchman on board.”
“Captain STEWARD, his Officers……. sailed down to a Scotch privateer in the Roads, and would have had its Captain [join him in pursuit of] this audacious pirate, but the Captain refused; then Capt. Steward directly sailed down to the ‘Ranger’ privateer, but the crew refused, as their Captain was not on board and the ship [was] not in proper order for action. Captain STEWARD, had 20 Gentlemen friends on board,……….who volunteered to go in pursuit of FALL, [provided] the ships in view would join the chase; but all refused. The sloop of war, ‘Fly’, was in the Roads, but had fifteen ships under her convoy for Portsmouth. (February 1781)”
Our Ships are Privateers, YOURS are Pirates!: It depended very much from which side you were looking. Generally speaking, the British ships which preyed on enemy vessels were described as privateers. The enemy’s ships, or those who attacked British vessels, regardless of their own origin, were described as pirates. It made little difference to the treatment given to their victims. Strickly speaking, a privateer had a government commission to carry out commerce raiding against the enemy — a kind of privatised naval warfare — whereas a pirate was simply in it for the money and would attack anyone. However, sometimes even Captain Fall was given the relative dignity of being called a privateer – and in this the profits likely to come to him from the value of his ‘catch’ were huge:
“The ‘Sans Pear’, a French privateer, Capt. FALL, is arrived at Helvoetfluys, with 100 English prisoners, and 14 ransomers, valued at 5,400 guineas. The same privateer has also taken the ‘Ranger’ privateer (formerly the Lady Washington and captained by Magnus Brightwell of Wells), of 12 guns and 45 men; and on the third inst. she fell in with the ‘Eagle’ privateer of 16 guns and 160 men, which she sunk, after an obstinate engagement, that lasted with great fury on both sides for three hours and an half. (February 1781).”
At the beginning of June 1781, the Harwich packet, ‘Prince of Wales’ was captured by two cutters – The ‘Fearnought’, commanded by Fall, and the ‘Liberty’, which he had recently cut out from a Scottish port. The packet was taken into Flushing, where the ‘Liberty’ was wrecked as she approached the harbour and her company, including the British prisoners were rescued by Fall. It is interesting to note that although England was at war with Holland, the capture angered the Dutch, as they considered the packet-boats to be no more than neutral ships and the prisoners were soon repatriated.
Often FALL would sail under American colours. In February 1781 for instance, a Harwich packet sighted Fall who carried letters of marque from Holland, France and America and on this occasion hoisted the 13 stripes as the packet passed him. A short while later it was reported that Fall was off Orfordness with a squadron of privateers from Dunkirk. This demonstates that Fall, and many English sailors were happy to act as French (and American) privateers! – it would appear that a pirate was a pirate, regardless of the flag under which they happened to be sailing. However, although Captain Fall was active for quite a long time in the North Sea, it was reported in April 1782 that Fall had moved into the Irish Sea – and, apparently, Norfolk and the East Coast heard no more of him!
Today, tucked away in the old graveyard of the Great Yarmouth parish church of St Nicholas, is the headstone which was erected to the memory of David Bartleman, master of the brigantine “Alexander & Margaret” of North Shields.
In the early part of 2011, stonemason Colin Smith, spent many weeks restoring Bartleman’s faded relic of a headstone and transforming it into a legible icon for the St Nicholas Church Preservation Trust. This work was followed in the July of that same year by a special service, attended by more than 25 people; it was held in the St Nicholas churchyard, specifically for the purpose of the rededication and re-positioning of the restored stone at the West End of the Church. The stone was blessed by the Rev Chris Terry. Interestly, the funding for the restoration was said to have come from a family whose distant ancestors were themselves pirates!
Footnote: Like most ship’s of the time, Bartleman’s ’Alexander’ and Margaret’ brigatine sported a figurehead, or ‘wooden dolly’ on its bow. Some three decades later, this same figurehead settled in Shields when, in 1814, the ship was in dock for repairs and the late Captain Bartleman’s father, Alexander, presented the figurehead to the quayside tradesmen. They, in turn, placed it at the entrance to Custom House Quay on Liddell Street, North Shields, and it stood there until 1850.
The curved female figure which today stands outside ‘The Prince of Wales Tavern’ in North Shields is the latest in a series of ‘wooden dollies’ which have stood at the entrance to Customs House Quay since 1814. This and all other ‘Dollies’ since then became famous the world over amongst sailors, who would cut pieces off to keep for good luck whilst voyaging at sea. Most Dollies became so defaced that they were regularly replaced.
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
Apart from an ‘Introduction’, The story contained herein is a Myth! – maybe based on a traditional story where ghosts emerge out of the sort of variable weather that one can find at Skiffkey! It is a story that may once have been widely believed – but possibly false or, at best, a misrepresentation of what may have happened sometime in the distant past. You decide!……..
Introduction; The village of Stiffkey lies on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes. There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.
The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature sometimes contributes to the occasional ‘incident’ caused by vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!
Our Story: In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work as the tides race in, cruel and fast over these marshes. But the Cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles.
Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’……
We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well, but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter.
It’s hard work cockling. You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you, or one of your children, might have to go hungry. We have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village; you can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.
But she wouldn’t listen……
We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack, your life and a night with an empty stomach is better than no life at all. So, we left the girl. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back; came back home to our families and to safety.
There was nothing we could have done, she wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad – and that quickly. Of course, when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. I don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.
Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her see! Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing; raging against the roke and the tide – even against God himself! Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So, they turned back – had to – too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.
She’s still out there of course! No, not her body; No!, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack, a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well, her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No, it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.
No, it’s not ‘cause of the tide; the tide has already turned and it’s on its way back out…… But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea……It’s her, she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisier – probably ‘cause it was foggy when she drowned……No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her; with all that seaweed still in her hair. So, you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank!
The first 3 weeks of February 1916 were very unsettled, and often windy and wet; but it was very mild for that time of the year so it was confidently predicted by the weather forecasters of the time that ‘there was no chance of snow’ – sounds familiar! By 16 and 17 February, the temperature did settle close to 12°C in many places and there was heavy rain. However, on the east coast of England conditions were to be far worse – with gale-force winds and snow!
It was on Thursday 17 February 1916 when newspapers gave accounts of the ‘violent weather conditions which beset Britain’ and the ‘extensive damage to property and the loss of life as a result’. The “windstorm”, as it was called also resulted in ships being lost at sea, as did the Lowestoft trawler, ‘Narcissus’, which went aground and sank. The “Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal” of Friday 18th February gave a local report of ‘a violent gale, a hurricane and snow across Norfolk and Suffolk and described the damage which was caused by the extreme weather conditions and the ensuing floods.
But it was on the morning of Wednesday 16 February 1916 when, amid those strong gale force winds and very rough weather, the “the large steamer SS Hjørdis” set off from the Alexandra Dock in Hull bound for Calais; it was fairly fully laden with a cargo of 495 tons of coal. In charge, as skipper, was Captain Jensen; his crew amounted to ten men, made up of nine Norwegians and one Dane. Of the Norwegians, Thor Halnessen was the Chief Mate, Peter Hammer the second engineer, Eugenen Andersen an ordinary seaman, and Nilsen the steward. Ralf Petersen, from Denmark, was the boatswain.
The SS Hjørdis seemed to have had very competent skippers throughout its forty-three years of battling the North Sea, skippers who had managed to survive the sort of extreme weather conditions of 1916, conditions that were forcing some ships to run into harbour to avoid being sunk or run aground. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to see the Hjørdis leaving port that Wednesday morning, and the best that could be said about Captain Jensen’s decision was that it reflected his feeling that his ship had an obligation to fulfil her charter as it headed due south along the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire shoreline. In due course, the ship passed the Wash and prepared to round the Norfolk coast towards the North Sea; she was, after all, sailing during wartime when movements may well have been restricted. It was a direct route which would have taken her north of Sheringham to arrive off Cromer, before continuing to follow the coast, to Great Yarmouth and then south to Calais.
Captain Jensen’s planned route for the Hjørdis would suggest that he intended to hug the shore, coming in to the lee of the land to take advantage of the shelter which the North Norfolk coast can offer from south-westerly gales; the plan and the worsening conditions left little room for error. The weather was expected to hinder the ship’s progress but, surprisingly perhaps – and based on the 75-nautical mile distance travelled between Hull and Blakeney and the twelve hours it took her to reach the North Norfolk coast – the Hjørdis had travelled at close to her normal cruising speed of 6 knots. However, the added loss of visibility seriously impeded the Captain’s knowledge of the ship’s true location.
About twelve hours later, shortly after seven o’clock in the evening, the ship did go aground at the west end of Blakeney Bar and was wrecked; only one of the eleven-man crew survived despite the Captain and crew managing to launch and take to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, the boat was swamped within minutes by a large wave; it was a matter of speculation whether the ten men were drowned in the lifeboat or when they might have taken to the water in an attempt to swim ashore. Ralf Petersen, the boatswain from Denmark, had the presence of mind to take off his boots and most of his clothes before striking for the shore.
Against immeasurable odds it would seem, he reached the beach and struggled along it for nearly two miles – apparently by following the telegraph poles which were positioned along the beach – before reaching the Blakeney Watch House. From there, a Mr Strangroom, a 45-year-old Auctioneer and Draper of Cley who was acting on behalf of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society, arranged for Petersen to have new clothing and be taken to the “King’s Head” public house in Cley’s High Street. There, he was cared for by Frederick Baines, the 40-year-old Licensed Victualler. The “King’s Head” was the place to which bodies of those lost at sea were traditionally taken to be coffined before burial.
The Rescue Attempt: The newspaper reports which followed gave no information as to how emergency assistance was summoned, or the sequence of events which cause it to be instigated. The men in the Watch House may have seen the Hjørdis from their upstairs “look-out” room or it may not have been until Ralf Petersen reached the Watch House that the men there raised the alarm. What is known is that the Cley ‘Rocket Brigade’ was hastily assembled and hurried to the beach with five horses; under the supervision of Henry Parker, a 58-year-old Journeyman Butcher from Cley, and the rocket apparatus which was carried on a cart lent by John Everett of Hall Farm nearby. Battling against the gale, the Brigade’s progress along the shingle would have been slow, but they did manage to get to within 300 yards or so of the SS Hjørdis, but there was no response to signals sent up and the Brigade returned to their base.
Explanation of the Cley ‘rocket apparatus’: The system was simple but effective for the rescuing of shipwrecked mariners from the safety of the shore – lifeboats themselves would ground in shallows or be beaten back by crashing breakers. The system was invented by Captain George Manby, barrack master, of Bauleah House on St Nicholas Road in Great Yarmouth. In 1807 he witnessed scores of ships and crews being lost in appalling weather. One in particular was the gun-boat ‘Snipe’ which ran aground at Gorleston. Manby galloped there on horseback, seeing “entreating men clinging to her rigging and women thronging the forecastle with the most piercing shrieks, imploring our succour and assistance.” As he watched, helpless and frustrated, exhausted men were falling from the rigging into the cauldron of a sea which was sweeping women overboard to their deaths. That night 147 souls perished… all within 50 yards of safety!
Manby set to work. After much frustrating trial and error, he devised a system under which those being rescued were hauled ashore in a breeches buoy which hung beneath a pulley on an aerial line fired across the stricken vessel by mortar or rocket. He demonstrated it with himself as “the endangered mariner”, and also created a star shot for work in darkness. It was put into use for real in 1808 when the brig ‘Elizabeth’ grounded 150 yards offshore in a blizzard. The line was successfully fired across the brig and secured, and seven relieved seamen were hauled to safety by pulley-on-line through snow, sleet and rollers.
It would seem that, during the interval between the SS Hjørdis faltering on to the beach and the Rocket Brigade being summoned, the ship’s crew – possibly thinking that rescue from the shore was hopeless or would be slow to execute – took to their own lifeboat. They may well have been clear of the ship for a short time before the huge fateful wave overwhelmed them; some may have tried to swim to shore, others may have chosen to remain in the lifeboat – who knows?
While the Rocket Brigade was returning from the beach, which would have been about 11.30pm, a body was found by Corporal Bertie Hale of the 67th Provisional Battalion, approximately 150 yards east of the Watch House. An hour later, a second body was found about 2½ miles east of the wreck by a James White, Naval pensioner of Church Loke, Cley. Both bodies were recovered from the water and taken by the Rocket Brigade’s cart to Cley. They were examined the following morning by Police Constable Hewett, a retired (possibly because it was wartime) 56-year-old police officer from Norwich; he had them removed to Blakeney. Two more bodies were discovered soon afterwards at Salthouse.
News of the Disaster: Early, brief reports of the SS Hjørdis appeared in regional newspapers in the days following the ship going ashore. The extent of the loss of lives was feared but not confirmed:
“Lloyd’s Blakeney (Norfolk) message to-day says the Norwegian steamer SS Hjørdis, from Hull for Calais, went ashore on Blakeney Point last night. The crew left in a boat, which was swamped. It is feared that ten lives have been lost. One man swam ashore.”
Ralf Petersen’s own account of his courageous attempts to save his fellow crew members and of his own survival was recorded in the “Eastern Daily Press” of 18th February, two days after the disaster. According to the newspaper, Captain Jensen had said “Hard a starboard” (this was incorrectly recorded in the press report; it should have read “Hard a port”) in order to get into deeper water but the ship struck twice more and then a fourth time, so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. Ralf Petersen’s account suggested that Captain Jensen had been overwhelmed by events and that it was Thor Halnessen, the Chief Mate, who took control.
Within a few days of the SS Hjørdis being wrecked, the scale of the disaster quickly became clear, and the newspapers reported accordingly. However, no mention was made of a lifeboat being launched from the shore which prompted a Mrs Susie Long to write to the “Eastern Daily Press” two days after the Hjørdis was wrecked to state that a boat did in fact go out to offer assistance:
“Sir – In your report in the “Eastern Daily Press” I see no mention is made of the lifeboat crew of this parish, who went out at 8pm and arrived home at 4am in the old lifeboat “Hettie”, belonging to Mr Holliday. They went up to the steamer, where all the lights were still burning both inside and out, and could and would have saved all the crew if they had not previously left. The steamer is ashore on East Point, (later corrected to say ‘West Point’). I may say that the men went on their own initiative, having had no orders. I think it is only fair to mention this. – Yours faithfully”,
Mrs Long’s husband, Charles Long, and her father-in-law, George Long, were both crew members of the RNLI Blakeney lifeboat ‘Caroline’. The “Mr Holliday” referred to was Richard Holliday, a Fisherman, aged 50, of High Street, Blakeney, also a crew member of the ‘Caroline’. At the time, the ‘Caroline’ had a crew of mainly fishermen who were too old for active war service; of eighteen crew members, the majority were over the age of fifty.
Plaques in Blakeney Church commemorate the Blakeney lifeboats and their rescues, up to 1924, but none refer to either the ‘Hettie’. or the ‘Caroline’ going to the aid of the Hjørdis, and it remains a matter of speculation as to how the fishermen of the ‘Hettie’ were alerted to the disaster; perhaps it was by communication from the Watch House or from the Rocket Brigade – and why did the “old lifeboat”, rather than the RNLI lifeboat ‘Caroline’, go out to the SS Hjørdis rather than the ‘Caroline’; was it because the latter was probably in the Lifeboat House and would have taken longer to launch?
The Lost Crew – Inquest and Burials: Of the ten men who drowned, the bodies of only four crew members were recovered and taken to the Guildhall in the High Street, Blakeney and where the sole survivor, Ralf Petersen would identify them. The bodies of the remaining six sailors would, probably, never found. On the Saturday following the disaster,19 February 1916, the inquest into the deaths of the sailors was held at the ‘Ship Inn’ in the High Street, Blakeney. It was conducted by the Coroner of East Dereham, Mr Walter Barton.
The ‘Thetford & Watton Times” of 26th February reported on the inquest:
“……. Ralf Petersen, boatswain on the Hjørdis, and the sole survivor of the crew of eleven, said …… When she first struck the captain said, “Hard a starboard”, to get her into deep water. The order was obeyed, but she struck twice more, and then she struck so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. The chief mate came up from below and said, “The only thing to do is to get the lifeboat out before it is smashed.” But the captain did not give the order as he was on the bridge crying like a little boy. They got the lifeboat out, and all got into her, but as soon as they had got clear of the bow of the steamer the sea half-filled the boat. Then another went right over her, almost filling her, and most of them were washed into the sea………He identified the bodies washed up at Blakeney as Thor Halnessen, aged 34, chief mate, and Eugenen Andersen, aged 20, ordinary seaman. Witness had also seen two bodies that came ashore at Salthouse; they were Peter Hammer, second engineer, and Nilsen, the steward.”
Following further evidence, the jury returned a verdict of “Death by drowning through misadventure at sea” and on their behalf the Rev. Gordon Rowe – Rector of Blakeney and Glandford who expressed great regret at the sad occurrence, and deep sympathy with the bereaved parents. The affair, he said, was “all the more deplorable in that if the men had kept on their ship for an hour or so after she struck all their lives might have been saved.”
Burials: At the time of the SS Hjørdis disaster, legislation – in the form of the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 (also known as Grylls’ Act) and the subsequent Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 – ensured that the bodies of those lost at sea were decently, appropriately buried. The 1808 Act provided for “suitable interment in Churchyards or Parochial Burying Grounds in England for such dead Human Bodies as may be cast on Shore from the Sea, in cases or Wreck or otherwise”. It required that unclaimed bodies of dead persons washed ashore from the sea should be removed by the churchwardens and overseers of the parish and decently interred in unconsecrated ground. This act was amended by the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 to extend its applicability to bodies found in, or cast on shore from, all tidal or navigable waters.
Historically, fishing and merchant seafaring were the most dangerous of all professions and each year many fishermen, mariners and ships’ passengers lost their lives at sea. Prior to the 1808 legislation, it was customary to unceremoniously bury drowned seamen, without shroud or coffin, and in unconsecrated ground. Uncertainty about the religious faith of those washed ashore, the considerable financial burden which burials placed on the parishes, and the pragmatic local response to these losses, resulted in the widespread practice of shoreline burials in all coastal communities.
The Parish Registers for Blakeney recorded that Eugenen Andersen and Thor Halmersen/Halnessen, whose bodies were recovered by the Rocket Brigade, were buried on 21st February; the Parish Registers for Salthouse recorded that Peter Hammer and (name) Nelsen/Nilsen, whose bodies were found on the beach at Salthouse, were buried in Salthouse churchyard on the same day. It is believed that the men were all buried “with a minimum of ceremony” in probably the equivalent of a pauper’s funeral – in a grave marked, if at all, with just a wooden cross.
The Cause of the Disaster? With only the one first-hand, contemporary account of the disaster, conjecture still remains about what caused the ship to go aground in 1916. Other ships had been sunk during that particular gale so, the disaster could have been caused by weather conditions alone. However, in his statements at the time, Ralf Petersen made no mention of any panic or efforts to prevent the ship floundering on a lee shore; he also stated that the ship’s position was not known when she went aground and that, on leaving the ship, the crew did not know which direction to strike for. Does this confirm that it was a navigational error which was to blame?
According to Sue Gresham of the Blakeney Harbour Association:
“The two – East and West – towers of Blakeney Church were used to guide ships into the navigable channel between the inlet’s sandbanks, the light on the top of the East tower serving as a leading light to guide vessels into the harbour (the “leading light” practice later achieved by using pairs of lighthouses at different levels). When viewed from the sea, in daylight and in darkness, Blakeney Church is the only prominent point on a barren stretch of coastline and a visual aid for mariners to easily identify their position for many miles. If the Hjørdis was closer to the shore than Captain Jensen thought, it is possible that he mistook the light on the smaller, East tower of Blakeney Church for the Cromer lighthouse, further along the coast. This would explain why the Hjordis was so close inshore; the water is very deep close in to Cromer, but not close in at Blakeney.”
Petersen had also described the Hjørdis bumping over a sand bank, then of having only a few moments to alter course and attempt to get seaward into deeper water before the ship struck for the last time. The press reports, based on Petersen’s remarks, referred to “the tide carrying her in… … she struck the west side of the bar and came over it”.
The press reports of the time were somewhat misleading. Reported high water that day was at approximately 5.00pm so, at the time of the grounding, the tide would have been flowing from west to east along the coast and flowing out of Blakeney Harbour. It is more likely, therefore, that the Hjørdis struck one of the many sand bars in that area and then bounced over the first bar into deeper water and pushed on by the east setting tide. This would have made it more difficult for Captain Jensen to have altered course in order to save the situation before Hjørdis grounded on the next sand bar.
There also appeared to be an anomaly in Ralf Petersen’s account of Captain Jensen having given the order, “Hard a starboard” to get the ship into deep water; this would have put the ship further on to the shore! The words might, of course, have been either a reporting error by the newspaper – for the assumed order would be “Hard a port” – or an early indication of the Captain’s confusion or panic in the unfolding disaster. Then there was Peterson’s account of the lifeboat being carried out to sea after the crew had abandoned the Hjørdis; this would further support the fact that the wind direction was south-west and not west-north-west as local newspapers had reported. Therefore, the greater likelihood of the Hjørdis grounding as the result of navigational error was indeed borne out by the lifeboat being carried out to sea. This too would further support the belief that the gale was south-westerly, rather than west-north-westerly.
A Different Outcome Maybe: Mrs Susie Long’s letter to the “Eastern Daily Press” suggested that the crew of the old lifeboat Hettie “could and would have saved all the crew” of the Hjørdis. When the ship struck, the tide was ebbing; therefore, could the crew have remained on the ship and awaited rescue, or simply waded ashore at low tide?
Ralf Petersen’s accounts conveyed the desperate situation which the crew encountered, where events were happening quickly, in uncertain circumstances: one of their lifeboats had been smashed before she grounded; there was no time to send up flares; the ship was taking in water; the crew did not know where they were; the skipper had lost control; and the ship was showing signs of breaking up. With the benefit of hindsight and with clearer heads at the time, there would have been little doubt that if the crew had remained on the Hjørdis, they would probably have survived – either by being rescued by the “Hettie” or by remaining on the Hjørdis until low tide.
The SS Hjørdis Now:
The wreck of the SS Hjørdis still lies off Blakeney Point. Gradually, over the years, it sank beneath the sand, with more local sand regularly moving in to almost completely covered it. Eventually, in September 1960, a survey from an unknown source produced a report which is held by the Blakeney Harbour Association; it gives the following information about the wreck:
“Iron Norse steamship 200 ft long 30 ft beam lying in a deep pool on dry bank heading 20 deg true with a list to port and one mast standing at the fore end. The hull, which is broken in two amidships, is about 9ft out of water………The boiler and engines are showing, also a cat davit is standing near the stern…… The wreck extends approximately 40 ft North West and 130 ft South East of pole carrying a light erected on wreck position…….(Trinity Superintendent Great Yarmouth 13.11.58).”
Apparently, the position of the wreck was checked again by Trinity House on 2 October 1969 when the SS Hjørdis’s position was found to lie 259 degrees 1.75 cables from position 525902N 005825E in position 525858N 005812E. Then in October 1993, Trinity House – in whose possession the wreck then was – carried out another survey which showed that the wreck was lying in a NNW/SSE direction in depths of between 2.0 to 2.5 metres at low water springs.
A further observation made by Trinity House in 1995 – referred to a suspicion that Hjørdis had been ice strengthened for the Baltic winter trade – suggesting that this would account for the fact that her low section had lasted for so long. In August 1995, a proposal was submitted to Trinity House by a local company, offering three options to remove the wreck between the “fair weather months” of April to October 1996. In the event, the Hjørdis was not removed and the wreck has remained in situ off Blakeney, always marked with a buoy, which was continually destroyed by the strong tides. It was removed but continues to serve a useful purpose – more than 420 miles away in a Cornish coastal village. It is now securely fastened on dry land and put to use as an honesty box at a car park in Porthallow on the Lizard peninsula. As for our Norfolk wreck, it is marked with a Trinity House beacon.
Aerial photographs commissioned by the Harbour Association in 2016 showed that much of the ship’s structure still remains, despite the fact that the Blakeney Harbour mouth regularly changes position. Currents push the mouth towards the east, producing a lengthening peninsula of sand between the entrance channel and the sea. Tidal currents then break through towards the west and the eastern mouth fills up again.
In recent years, the harbour entrance channel has been moving towards the east, bringing it nearer to the wreck. In April 2016, this movement reached the wreck, scouring through it, so that SS Hjørdis lay in the middle of the channel at the entrance to the harbour; by December of the same year, the channel was moving east of the wreck and beginning to bury Hjørdis in the sand once again. The movements in the sand peninsula and the changing position of the harbour mouth determine whether Hjørdis is either almost completely covered by sand and lost to view – or is still a visible reminder of the lost ship jutting from the sea.
The Hjørdis has lain off Blakeney Point since 1916 and, as the local sand moved in, the wreck became almost completely covered. Between 2015 and 2016, the channel moved half a mile to the east and the flow of water over the wreck scoured her out. Large sections of the vessel’s hull and deck were uncovered. It would appear poignant that, in 2016, one hundred years after the ship went down, the SS Hjørdis showed herself once again.
Source: This blog is based almost exclusively on Sue Gresham’s research and subsequent report written for the Blakeney Harbour Association in 2016/18. The full report can be viewed via the following link:
Banner Heading Photo: An Aerial photo of Blakeney Point, Norfolk – by Mike Page
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
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’.
Burnham Overy: 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.
Future Voyages: 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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