Today, Wells-next-the-Sea is at peace and a magnet for holidaymakers, day-trippers, sailors and bird-watchers. But that was not always so, particularly during the Second World War, when a somewhat unfortunate incident occurred just off its shores in this part of the North Norfolk coast. But only a handful of people ever knew about it at the time.
During the Second World War the waters just off the East coast of Britain were some of the most dangerous anywhere in the world and often protected by mines. Sadly therefore, the legacy from that time is a seabed littered with wartime wrecks and some incredible tales of heroism. Allied shipping was being decimated by German torpedo boats (or E-boats) which would often race across from occupied Europe, quickly attack and hastily retreat. So, for protection, convoys would huddle together in a narrow channel of water often protected by mines.
In June 1941, HMS Umpire (N82) a newly built Royal Navy U-class submarine was sailing from Chatham Dockyard in Kent, to Scotland. She was on her way up the East coast for sea trials in Scotland and fearing attack, joined a convoy of ships also heading northward along what was known as E-boat alley. Her eventual destination was Dunoon where she would join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. From there she was to carry out a single working-up patrol in the North Sea before heading off to the Mediterranean. After leaving Chatham, she made an overnight stop at Sheerness on the Ise of Sheppey, to wait for assembly of a north-bound merchant convoy leaving the Thames and gathering off Southend. The following day, she duly joined the convoy and headed North.
As early as the first night with the convoy a German Heinkel attacked the convoy and Umpire took evasive action by crash diving to well below the surface. However, on surfacing, one of its diesels developed a fault and had to be shut down. The propellers had to be driven purely by electric motors on the surface and when submerged, the submarine had no mechanical linkage to the diesel-powered units. This, inevitably, reduced the Umpire’s speed and a radio message was sent to the Commodore of the convoy, reporting this. A Motor Launch was sent back as escort but lost Umpire in the gathering darkness.
The Northbound convoy, of which Umpire was now a part, passed the Southbound convoy FS44 around midnight on the 19th June 1941, about 12 nautical miles off Blakeney. Both passed starboard to starboard which was unusual, since ships and convoys normally passed port to port. No vessel was lit because of the risk of attack from German E-boats, nevertheless and despite having dropped back from its convoy, Umpire spotted the southbound convoy and altered course to port to avoid a collision. Then suddenly, as if nothing more could go wrong, her steering faltered and she veered sharply into the path of an armed escort trawler named the ‘Peter H. Hendriks’, which was part of the southbound Convoy. Unavoidably, the trawler struck the Umpire near its bow, flooding the forward torpedo-room and rapidly sinking her in about 18 metres of water. The 180ft, 540-ton HMS Umpire settled on the seabed with a 30-degree list to starboard.
According to a Kendall McDonald – “The two vessels clung together for less than a minute before the HMS Umpire heeled to port and went down. Four of Umpire’s crew members were on the bridge at the time of impact – the Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, the navigator, Tony Godden, and two lookouts. Only the CO survived the cold water and was rescued by the trawler; both lookouts sank before help reached them. ………… Four men in her control room had managed to seal the compartment. They knew from the depth gauge near the periscopes that they were at 24m, and though they had no Davis escape gear they decided to make a free ascent from the conning-tower hatch without delay. They made a good exit and all four reached the surface, but two had held their breath and, though picked up, died later from ruptured lungs………
Due to the list, the bulkhead door of the engine-room would not close properly and the compartment was slowly but steadily flooding. Twenty men had taken refuge here and prepared to escape using the Davis escape trunk. Only 17 had Davis escape gear, so three of those went first, with the three without escape lungs clinging to their legs. Two of the latter did not make it to the surface, as they were knocked unconscious after hitting gear outside the escape hatch – and let go.
A seaman called Killan then took charge of those who were left in the engine-room. First, he ducked under water into the trunking and went up it to make sure it was all clear before returning to the engine-room. Then he sent the others up one by one. He was the last to leave and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.”
Edward Preston Young was a junior officer on board the HMS Umpire at the time, and who was to go on to have a distinguished career as a submarine commander himself. His story about his experience on the HMS Umpire comes from his classic memoir of British submarine warfare, ‘One of Our Submarines’. in which he wrote:
“The sea continued to pour in on us, with a terrible and relentless noise, and the water in the compartment grew deeper every minute. As the level crept up the starboard side, live electrical contacts began spitting venomously, with little lightning flashes. Vaguely I wondered if we were all going to be electrocuted.In the half-darkness the men had become anonymous groping figures, desperately coming and going. There was no panic, but most of us, I think, were suffering from a sort of mental concussion. I discovered one man trying to force open the water-tight door that I had shut earlier. “My pal’s in there,” he was moaning, “my pal’s in there.” “It’s no good,” I told him; “she’s filled right up for’ard and there’s no one left alive on the other side of that door.” He turned away, sobbing a little.
For some reason we decided it would be useful if we could find more torches. I knew there must be one or two others somewhere in the wardroom, so I made yet another expedition down the slope, wading through the pool that was now waist-deep and already covering the lowest tiers of drawers under our bunks. I spent some time in the wardroom, shivering with fear and cold, ransacking every drawer and cupboard, pushing aside the forsaken paraphernalia of personal belongings — under-clothes, razors, pipes, photographs of wives and girl-friends. But I could find only one torch that was still dry and working. Holding it clear of the water, I returned to the control-room. It was deserted.
The door into the engine-room was shut. Had I spent longer in the wardroom than I thought? Perhaps they had all escaped from the engine-room escape hatch, without realising that I had been left behind. Even if they had not yet left the submarine, they might already have started flooding the compartment in preparation for an escape, and if the flooding had gone beyond a certain point it would be impossible to get that door open again. I listened, but could hear nothing beyond the monotonous, pitiless sound of pouring water. In this terrible moment I must have come very near to panic.”
Young was not on duty at the time and after the collision found himself in a flooding boat resting on the bottom of the North Sea in 60 feet of water. Having tried to surface the boat using compressed air and having searched for other survivors, Young ended up in the conning tower with the First Lieutenant, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) and an able seaman. They estimated that as a result of the angle of the boat and the height of the conning tower there was only about 45 feet above them and that they should attempt to swim to the surface. Closing the hatch below them, they forced open the upper hatch and escaped. The ERA was never seen again and the First Lieutenant drowned after reaching the surface.
Young and the seaman were picked up, along with several men who had escaped through the engine room hatch. The Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, had already been rescued, having been on the bridge when the collision occurred. All told, 2 officers and 20 ratings died with only 2 officers, Young and Wingfield, and 14 ratings surviving.
So, just nine days after being commissioned by the Royal Navy, their newest possession at 58 metres long and 730 tons displacement, had gone. The loss of HMS Umpire was not a direct result of any enemy action, but from an entirely and unfortunate accident. Today, the wreck is designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, although it is legally a war grave, it can be filmed, so long as nothing else is touched nor moved. The wreck lies on the seabed about 15 miles off the Norfolk coast between Blakeney and Wells in part of what is called today the ‘Sheringham Shoal’ – an eerie memorial to its brave crew and the horrors of war.
(For a tour of the wreckage site go to Archive Divernet (here)
There seems to be some debate about the wreck of HMS Umpire being classified as a War Grave; some have pointed out that the wreck was reported as having been sold for scrap after the war and most of the damage to be seen today by divers was caused by the heavy use of explosives by the salvors.
Norfolk has a long history of shipwrecks; most are victims of storms, some due to error and a few maybe subject to intent. Whilst most wrecks can be plotted along the whole length of the East Coast of England and particularly the eastern extremities of Norfolk, a few lay along the north coast of the County.
Two wrecks in particular lay quite close to each other; well, if you consider 7 miles apart being close. The SS Vina lays at Brancaster, whilst the S T Sheraton, the subject of this tale, rests on the beach at St Edmund’s Point near Old Hunstanton, just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins. Time, sea and weather has ensured the this once proud steam trawler now resembles little more than a large and rusty rib-cage; a carcass which retains a half digested meal of brick remains and concrete.
The S T Sheraton was built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull and began its working life by fishing out of Grimsby, her home port at the time. It was of a specific design and just one in an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of which was built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught. This ship represented an historic phase in deep water trawler construction as metal replaced timber. No design drawings remain nowadays, but the one surviving photograph of the Sheraton at sea, plus contemporary steam trawler plans indicate a vertical stem, counter–like stern and finely drawn underwater section. Its hull was constructed with ferrous metal plates over ferrous metal runners and ribs, held together with rivets, and with some internal wooden framing, possibly to support the decks and superstructure. All in all, these features were legacies of a great sailing era which contributed to the fine sea keeping quality of this type of vessel. The Sheraton was indeed a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.
The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the growing military power of Germany. Nothing made Great Britain’s sense of unease more stronger or acute than the thought that the Royal Navy itself – the mightiest in the world – might be challenged any time soon. In the same year that the Sheraton was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, “to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.”
When what became The First World War began in 1914, as many as 800 trawlers from both Hull and Grimsby were requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties. One of these was the Sheraton which became an auxiliary boom defence vessel involved in net laying and patrolling anti-submarine booms. This she did for some considerable time, only occasionally undertaking trawling work. After peace was declared, she returned to fishing from Grimsby.
Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War the Sheraton was requisitioned in January 1942 by the Royal Navy, this time to serve in the ‘Nore’ Command, a major Royal Naval unit established in Kent during the 17th century. The Nore’s operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea, in addition to looking after the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas. This Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War. At its height, the Nore Command was overseen by an admiral and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth which also had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels.
When requisitioned by the Navy, the Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night. The following entry appeared for the Port of Grimsby at the time.
Auxiliary Patrol Vessels – trawlers WARLAND (armed with 12 pdr gun), SHERATON (6pdr), EVERTON (3 pdr) repairing to comp 7 Jan, ORVICTO (3 pdr), French MONIQUE
CAMILLE (65mm), naval auxiliary boats GOLDEN ARROW III laid up in care and
maintenance, NORMARY, all vessels at Grimsby.
In addition any other convertions that may have taken place on instructions from the Navy, the Sheraton was also fitted with an Echo Sounding Device.
Soon after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow ‘daffodil’ colour. This was intentional, because the next phase of her life – which was obviously meant to be final – was to be a Royal Air Force target ship. This was no different a role to that of the SS Vina, laying just seven miles east of the Sheraton.
It would also appear that, following the end of hostilities, references to the Sheraton and details relating to the Grimsby fleet as a whole disappeared. The ’Loss List of Grimsby Trawlers 1800-1960’ does not mention the Sheraton, nor does ’Grand Old ladies: Grimsby’s Great Trawler Stories’, by Steve Richards. Maybe she changed ownership after the war and was re-registered in another port? Possibly, when the vessel came to the end of her working life and ended up as a hulk for target practice, such re-registration, or de-registration occurred. Maybe use as a target involved more than simply towing the vessel to a suitable position in the Wash? If a full de-commissioning took place then the engine could have been removed; this may explain for the concrete ballast in the present wreck.
It was in the Wash off Brest Sand, Lincolnshire where the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored; she was to remain there until the night of 23rd April 1947 when severe gales drove her to break away from her moorings and drift across the Wash, eventually settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton.
By the next day, anchors had been laid in preparation for an attempt to refloat this 130-ft RAF target vessel. That effort clearly failed and it was left to a firm of King’s Lynn scrap merchants who, reputedly, bought the beached ship and began stripping her down, almost to its ‘bare bones’. Thereafter, time and tide took over and what one sees today is what one gets – a large section of a partially ribbed hull.
The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having been wrecked itself on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry. The only option left was to call in the receivers. So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars, and helped to feed her in times of peace, still lingers on.
With every year that passes onlookers continue to come and go, some will probably contemplate the possible circumstances surrounding the wreck and take photographs to post on social media; others will be preoccupied elsewhere and, in their minds, on more interesting objects. Those who have seen it all before get older and the youngsters copy the beach habits of their elders and simply paddle in pools and dig sand castles. Whilst all this goes on, the remains of the once proud S T Sheraton continues to be weathered towards ultimate oblivion.
When studying a map of Norfolk & Suffolk, the number of coastal locations including those with ports or harbours, soon becomes apparent. Some have past connections with very famous people or famous events, an obvious example perhaps being Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, now inland but once, also a port and the birthplace of Horatio Nelson. Or Burnham Overy perhaps, where Nelson first learned to sail a boat, but a few miles further down is Wells-next-the Sea, now a noted fishing port but once regularly visited by colliers, coasters and grain-carrying vessels as well. But how many people know of John Fryer, born in Wells on 15th August 1753 and why he became a famous name in Norfolk’s history?
Educated locally, John Fryer then acquired a keen interest in the sea, joining the Royal Navy at an early age and becoming a Master of the Third Rate, in 1781. He was then serving aboard HMS Camel, a 44-gunner vessel (previously named HMS Mediator). After a few more years at sea, Fryer moved to the HMAV Bounty, subsequently made famous by the mutiny aboard her, on 28 April 1789 which has since been commemorated by books, films, and popular songs.
The Bounty began life as the collier Bethia, built in 1784 at Blaydes shipyard in Hull and costing £1,950. But on 26th May 1787, she was purchased by the Royal Navy for £ 2,600, for a single mission during which she would travel from Britain to Tahiti and collect some breadfruit plants. These would be transported to the West Indies, where hopefully, they would grow well enough and also become a cheap source of food, for the slaves there. So during 1787, the Bethia was refitted at Deptford and renamed Bounty, as a relatively small three-masted and fully-rigged sailing ship of 215 tons. After conversion, she mounted only four4-pounders (2 kg cannon) and ten swivel guns. Her ‘great cabin’ was converted to house the potted breadfruit plants, and gratings were added to the upper deck, for ventilation and her complement would be 46 officers and men.
Meanwhile on 20th August 1787, John Fryer was appointed Sailing Master of the Bounty by the Admiralty, with Fletcher Christianas Master’s Mate and William Bligh as Captain. Little happened until 23rd December 1787, when the ship sailed from Britain for Tahiti. Then on 10th January 1788, Captain William Bligh put his crew on three watches, giving one of them to Christian and on 2nd March, ordered that Christian be promoted to Acting Lieutenant. Some speculated this fuelled the ill-will which later developed between Fryer and Bligh. When the voyage began, Bligh highly approved of John Fryer, his Sailing Master: “The Master is a very good man, and gives me every satisfaction.” he said. But his feelings soon changed, most likely because the Master was not a ‘yes-man’. He had strong opinions of his own and although he was not as sensitive to insults as Christian, Fryer was conscious of his dignity and competence and made Bligh aware in no uncertain terms, that he would not take things “lying down.” Despite this, John Fryer remained loyal, accompanying Bligh to Timor, but during the outward voyage, Bligh demoted the ship’s sailing master, John Fryer, replacing him with Fletcher Christian. This seriously damaged their relationship and Fryer would later claim Bligh’s act was entirely personal.
When the Bounty and 46 crew sailed from Timor, the unusual consignment greatly reduced the officers’ cabin space and almost added ‘an arboretum’ to the quarter deck undermining Bligh’s power to command as the space he controlled as captain had also been affected. Modification of the ship even meant there were too many men in too little space for too long a period of time. Tension increased en route and finally boiled over when the prospect of life in a Tahitian paradise seemed possible/ After this, came the famous “Mutiny on the Bounty” of 28th April 1789, led by Fletcher Christian against the commanding officer William Bligh. But John Fryer was the only officer who forcefully attempted talking Christian out of his hasty decision. When that failed, he made an earnest, but equally unsuccessful attempt to mediate between Christian and Bligh.
Finally, he was among those who forcefully demanded the loyalists be given the Bounty’s launch instead of one of two other boats which were unseaworthy. At one point Christian pressed his bayonet against Fryer’s chest, saying he would run him through if he advanced one inch further. John Fryer had the interesting position of being a strong critic of both William Bligh and mutiny leader, Fletcher Christian, even at one time accusing Bligh of favouring Christian. Despite his anger at Bligh, Fryer did not support the mutiny. Bligh’s account of this vilified Fryer (vilified means to slander or speak ill of someone), who merely gave fair evidence at Bligh’s court-martial. Edward Christian, Fletcher’s brother, was assisted by Fryer in publishing a counterweight to Bligh’s version.
Bounty had finally reached Tahiti on 26 October 1788, after ten months at sea and following the famous mutiny, eighteen mutineers finally set Captain Bligh and 18 of the 22 crew loyal to him afloat in a small boat. The mutineers then variously settled on Pitcairn Island or in Tahiti and eventually, Fletcher Christian took the vessel to an isolated South Pacific island, which they reached in Jan 1790. There, they burned her to avoid detection and to prevent desertion. Interestingly, as a direct result of this, a colony was established and inhabitants of the 1¾ square mile Pitcairn Islands inhabitants are therefore direct descendants of the mutineers and their former Tahitian wives. Even the present-day islanders now speak a dialect, said to be a hybrid of Tahitian and 18th century English. But no reason explaining why the Mutiny ever happened at all, was ever offered. Historically, Bligh and his remaining crew of 18 made an epic and eventful journey in the small boat to Timor in the Dutch East Indies where they spent five months. Subsequently, Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny.
On retiring from the Royal Navy on 6th April 1812, John Fryer returned to his home town of Wells-Next-the-Sea where he died on 26th May, 1817 – ironically, also the same year as the death of Captain Bligh. He was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Wells but in 2000, his gravestone was moved into the main church building, on the south side. Meanwhile in the churchyard and replacing his original grave site, is now a plaque to John Fryer, Master of the Bounty.
Images related to John Fryer to be found at Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk. (c) Jamie Beckford.
That Fryer received no promotions after the Mutiny is incorrect. He rose to the rank of Post Captain and served as Commander of at least 3 ships: HMS Serapis, 1801, HMS William, 1804, and HMS Abundance, 1806. Although a Master, the title was only considered a courtesy. In more recent times, Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed him in the 1984 film ’The Bounty’. A biography of Fryer was edited by Owen Rutter in 1939: John Fryer of the Bounty (Golden Cockerel Press)
Some people are not really ‘with it’ when it comes to walking and/or bird watching – even exploring local history, myths etc. etc. However, the County of Norfolk is famous for all these activities and one small example is along the coast to the west of Sheringham. So we thought we might encourage you to join us to sample some of these delights, after a little research on our part. If it worked out, you would have the chance to mentally discover a few little facts and secrets from this little corner of Norfolk……..Well, as it happened things did work out, with the result that we can offer the following narrative which comes in the form of a ‘circular’ journey away from and return to our choice of Weybourne.
Our stroll covers some 5.5 miles (8.75kms). If you were to actually do the walk yourself, without showing any interest in the views or items of interest and information, it would take approximately two hours. But, we do not expect you to do that – not unless you have an insatiable urge to put your walking boots on. For now, we will just take you on this relaxing mental ramble and point out the interesting bits and show you a few photographs – starting with Weyborne itself.
Weybourne is a small fishing resort of delightful old brick and flint cottages situated in what is known as ‘the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. The village straddles the A149 coast road and is three miles west of Sheringham and close to the historic market town of Holt. The village population is less than 600 and consists largely of a mixture of local Norfolk residents, retirees and visitors. It is mentioned in the Domesday book and in that survey, it is called ‘Wabrunna’. Today, there remains ruins of an old priory which was founded as a house of Augustinian canons towards the end of the 12th or at the beginning of the 13th century by Sir Ralph Mainwaring. The monument also includes the remains of the priory church dating from the early 13th to the 15th century but incorporating parts of an earlier Saxon church which dates from the 11th century. Within this monastic site, there are also remains of more conventual buildings to the north of the church, together with associated buildings and water management features. Even more interesting is the fact that the 13th century Priory swallowed an earlier Saxon cruciform church, and the remains of the tower of this church can still be recognised to the north of the modern chancel.
Probably the best starting point for taking us away from this delightful village would be from its ruined Priory and along Beach Lane which would take us down to Weybourne shingled beach and a watery shoreline that is named on the map as ‘Weybourne Hope’. From here one has a choice of two sensible options, turning left or right. Our choice is to turn left and travel in a westerly direction along the beach part of the North Norfolk Coastal Path, close to the perimeter fence of the Muckleburgh Military Museum. The area covered by the present-day museum was, during World War 2, an anti-aircraft Artillery training range and, along with a complementary camp at Stiffkey a few miles further along the coast, represented the main live firing training ranges for ACK-ACK Command during that war. Weybourne was also considered to be an ideal enemy invasion target due to the deep-water access. However do not think that the area’s history has little else to offer for it is worth noting that Weybourne also has a history of smugglers and ghosts and a vanished hotel. We’ll pause for a while while you take a look at these Links – we promise to wait.
Just about the point where we pass by Kelling Hard – definitely smugglers here – some wooden rails rise forth along with lifesaving equipment, plus the remains of a small boat. Here we turn left on to a track which moves away from the shingle sea defence and, at first, passes a large lump of unmissable rough concrete before turning right and taking us towards and around a bird-watchers haven – the Kelling Quags. Yes, at first we were foxed too! So, the obvious step was to reach for the dictionary for a definition of ‘Quag’ – well its not there really, but Quagmire is – ‘a soft wet area of land that gives way under feet’ A little more research did confirmed that ‘Quag’ is indeed an abbreviation for a Quagmire, which doesn’t sound very encouraging does it. But stay with us – it gets better! Kelling Quags is marked ‘The Quag’ on OS maps and is immediately to the north of the Water Meadows; all of which is owned by the Norfolk Ornithologist Association.
A walk past the Quags is on reasonably level ground and surprisingly dry during summer months; and very picturesque. The Quags themselves consist of one rather large fresh-water lake, inside the sea defence and rather lower than sea level one would think. It is beautiful spot to visit and should you actually come here then come prepared with binoculars etc. for it is possible to see wrens, mute swans, redshanks, oystercatchers, numerous gulls, male and female mallard plus numerous finches and tits among the hawthorn. Of course, if ‘twitching’ is not for you then climb on to the huge shingle sea barrier and sit in the watery sunshine and watch the waves lap at the shoreline; a warning of undercurrents tells you not to venture into the sea. Rather, have in my mind a walk, just like ours, to Kelling perhaps which is above the lake and on the A149 coastal Road.
Kelling nestles in an extraordinarily pretty part of the country. The local flintstone is the dominant building material and tiny roads, bordered by immaculate hedgerows, meander through undulating land dotted with copses, many of which were planted with shooting in mind – and the Kelling Hall Estate is all about shooting! It is that sort of area where, every now and again, small villages pop up round the inevitable bend and it is very easy to forget about the modern world as the peaceful pace of life here takes over.
The hamlet of Kelling is not only a delight but also so small that it is possible to be completely disregarded on the basis that you are through and out the other side of the village in a minute! The 20mph signs are difficult to stick to but, for those who are patient, the signs do bring the village into focus. It has a rather splendid old bookshop that doubles as a café on the radar; it is positioned just right to prepare oneself for further forays in any direction you may wish to take.
At the coastal road we use the permissive path along the field edge and past a boarded-up house and onwards towards a large gap in the hedge before turning right to cross the road on to the gravel track opposite; this becomes a green lane and then a footpath, which passes the very pleasant Pheasant Hotel on our left as it ascends gently up to the top of Kelling Heath. At the top we have chosen to go straight over a crossing path then, at a fork wo go right and at the next fork we continue straight ahead. Keep going, for at the road Holgate Hill road we cross over on to a track that takes us to the railway crossing over the North Norfolk Railway Line. Now, this is the thing, we were fortunate enough to have arrived just as a steam train passed by on its way back to Sheringham – see above!
With the ‘coast clear’ we cross over the railway crossing and turn immediately left to walk along the footpath, following closely to the railway track and passing the very useful Kelling Heath Information Board. We continue alongside the railway line before dropping a little steeply downhill to a footpath and again towards the railway which is now above us on the left – on an embankment. At this point, the footpath rises to the Kelling Heath Park platform. All is quiet.
The platform was built to enable the visitors to the Kelling Heath caravan site to use the North Norfolk Railway to get to Sheringham or to Weybourne or Holt. There are two seats on the platform for those among us who would perhaps like to have a brief rest and admire the view over toward Weybourne. Once rested, we can walk along the platform and back onto the footpath which takes us alongside a fishing pond, which also has a few seats – but we’re confident no one will want to make use of these.
Continuing along the footpath, still with the railway track close by on the left, we head towards Weybourne station, skirting around Springs Farm just before we get there. Now, given Weybourne’s current geography, it might seem hard to believe that in 1900, plans were in place for a proposed large building, variously known for a time as either the ‘Weybourne Springs Hotel’ or the ‘Weybourne Court’ Hotel. It was to be located next to Weybourne railway station, for reasons that are explained if you follow the Link; however, it was on the opposite side of the road. This building project was, at the time, financed by a Mr Crundle, owner of the nearby gravel pits. His dream was that guests staying in the five-storey upmarket establishment would come from the upper classes – and at that time there were plenty of them around!
Putting that piece of information asided for a moment, we must cross over the road and through a gateway, turning left alongside the horse paddocks towards Weybourne station and on to the platform. At this point we will find that all the facilities we now desperately need are on the other side – some say that this is so typical of Norfolk! We are given no choice but to use the footbridge to cross the railway tracks to the other platform where there are indeed refreshments and toilet facilities. This makes for a nice spot to have a well earned rest and have a look around the station.
Weybourne Station: This is another local attraction on our tour, along with the North Norfolk Railway, otherwise known as the Poppy Line. This well-preserved steam railway cuts through the countryside to the east of Weybourne and passes through this carefully preserved country station on its way from Sheringham through to Holt. For the enthusiasts, this station also houses a locomotive shed with a carriage maintenance and restoration centre.
Weybourne railway station is about 1,000 yards from the village centre, signposted from the coast road opposite the church which, by the way, will be our arrival point at the end of this circular tour. The main station building, which was built in 1900 and opened in 1901, is largely in its original form. Whilst the majority of the station buildings on the M&GN were built in a number of standard styles, Weybourne station was unique. This may be because of the large ‘Weybourne Springs Hotel’ which was built next door and in the same timescale. The hotel was a baroque building and was, as already mentioned, intended to cater for the ‘upper class’. Other structures of that era, such as the signal box, waiting room and footbridge, have been imported from other locations. On the closure of the line, British Rail lifted the track and razed the station, apart from the main station building. It was used as the location for the filming of a Dad’s Army episode, ‘The Royal Train’, and is still frequently used by film-makers and artists.
Having been refreshed and entertained, we can now leave and walk towards the road bridge, turning right and through the car park to the road where we walk the last 1000 yards (or there abouts) back towards the village of Weybourne and its church…….Did you enjoy that?
For centuries, folk have told tales of a large black dog with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green – take your pick – and they are described as being ‘like saucers’. Not only that but according to some, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a calf or even a horse. Sometimes Black Shuck, or Old Shuck is recorded as having appeared headless, and at other times as floating on a carpet of mist!
According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, but particularly in and around Norfolk. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia described the creature thus:
He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So, you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Shuck you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.
That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is indeed well known. Norfolk in particular, can justifiably claim to have the strongest connections with such an animal. Whilst the towns of Bungay and Blythburgh are very closely linked with stories of Black Shuck, or Old Shuck – or even Shuck, there are other places such as Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast, that have also staked their claim. Today, it is this latter place which will have pride of place with the following Tale:
Back in the 1970’s a certain Walter H Barrett wrote that some sixty years previously (shall we say around 1910) he was passing through the village of Salthouse, which lies on the North Norfolk coast road, between Cromer to the east and Cley-Next-The -Sea to the west. There he came across the Dun Cow public house which happened to be conveniently placed to afford him some liquid refreshment at a moment when he really needed it. As he entered, he noticed an aged man sunning himself near the door and feeling rather hospitable bought him a drink and joined him on his seat “Nice and warm in the sun” he enquired. “Tis today, but you want to be here in the winter when a Nor’ Easter is blowing in from the sea – that’s the time when this place is known as the Icehouse, he replied. Walter Barrett gathered that this chap’s name was Sam Rudd and that he had lived in the village all his life; also, he still got a fair living digging lug worms for bait.
Sam Rudd sat quiet for a short spell, and then asked Walter “Ever heard of Old Shuck, the ghost dog? “Yes I have,” said Walter “but several places around this county claim they have an Old Shuck. “Huh! They may do” was Sam’s reply “ but there is only one ghost dog – and he is only seen between here and Cley……. Now, sit you down quiet and I will tell you: I have not only seen him, but I have had to run like hell when he chased me home one night when I was very much younger” ….. Sam eventually continued, having composed himself for the task in front of him: –
“That night, I had been bait-digging as usual, but just as dark was falling I had to give up because the tide was rising fast. I started on my four miles’ walk back home along the beach, keeping a sharp eye on the high-water mark to see what had been washed up. That was in the days of sailing ships, and often drowned sailors from wrecks would be left high and dry when the tide turned. Sometimes I would find one. Sailors in those days wore gold rings on one finger. This I would remove; turn out his pockets. Anything there was mine. If he had come ashore in the parish of Salthouse, I would, after relieving him of anything worthwhile, drag him back into the water where the ebbing tide would carry him out to sea; there, the current would carry him along the coast, until he came ashore near Cromer. Now – the reason for me doing this was because all washed-up dead sailors were buried by the parish in whose boundary they were found. That was all right for the parson, undertaker and grave-digger, who each took their cut, but it was hard luck on us folks who had to find the poor rate levied by the churchwardens to pay for the burial, – and beside this, Salthouse had only one churchyard. Cromer, on the other hand, had a large cemetery with plenty of room to plant those men. As it was, I did not find anything that evening and having reached the beach road which led to the village, I clambered over the shingle bank and was no sooner on the road when a heavy sea mist came swirling down – then a pitch-black darkness set in.”
“I then heard a dog howling some distance behind me. It was so loud it drowned the roar of the sea pounding the shingle bank. I was wearing a pair of heavy thigh boots and after kicking them off I ran like a greyhound in my stockings. The faster I went, the nearer came the howling. When, at last, I reached my home, I opened the door; entered and bolted it as quickly as I could. When my father asked me where my thigh boots were, I told him not to worry about those but to listen to that big dog howling outside.”
“Father heard and got up out of his chair right quick like; took his fowling gun off its hooks on the wall; put in the barrel a double charge of gunpowder; rammed it down with a wad of paper. He then put about half a pound of heavy lead shot on top, and having put a firing cap on the gun nipple, went upstairs; opened the window; saw the dog squatting on its haunches; took aim and fired – but that did not stop the dog howling. When father came downstairs, he said that he had pumped swan shot into that dog but it did not fall over nor stop its howling. That was Old Shuck right enough! In the morning we went outside. There was no sign of the dog but the ‘privy’ door, some distance away, was riddled with shot holes, which proved to my father that the heavy shot had gone right through this ghost dog of ours – just as water would run through a sieve.” With these words, Sam Rudd suddenly stood up, thanked Walter Barrett for the drink and left.
Shortly afterwards, this Walter Barrett also took leave of the Dun Cow and retraced his steps back to Cley-Next-The-Sea to call on the Rector there, the Reverend Everett James Bishop, who informed him that the story he had heard at Salhouse was nonsense; the telling of such tales is the usual ruse that Cley and Salthouse fishermen use to ensure that the locals kept indoors whilst they, the fishermen, were making a smuggling run. This comment further increased Barrett’s interest and he thought he would get a second opinion from a local old fisherman, who was also a wild-fowler; his name was Pinchen. Pinchen scoffed and told Barrett, in no uncertain terms, to pay no regard to what the Rector had said – because he had not been in the parish very long; one had to have his roots in Cley for many years to really understand folk, their traditions and folk tales. Pinchen then remarked, “I can tell you the ‘true’ story of our Old Shuck – from its very beginning. Listen carefully because I have to take you back some 200 years!”:
“The night of 28th January 1709 was one of those which seafarers dreaded when they tried to sail their boats through the unpredictable waters which still keep these shores in check – particularly between nearby Blakeney and as far as Mundesley just south east of Cromer. The waves that night were twenty-feet high, rising foaming white and threatening as the result of a howling gale that tore at the sea surface and land like a screaming spoilt child. Almost in unison, these foaming waves flayed everything in their path before crashing on to these raised shingled beaches; beaches that are here to protect the marshes and villages hereabout. The inevitable rush of water breached the shingle on that occasion and rush headlong over the marshes to cause havoc among the trees and undergrowth and close to houses and churches which nestled on a slight rise in the land at the edge of the marshes. I can tell you – local folk prayed for God’s deliverance whilst some more hard-headed individuals anticipated the pickings from an unfortunate wreck……”
“And there was such a shipwreck at Salthouse that night and it was a Brigantine – some did say afterwards that it was the ‘Ever Hopeful’ but I tend to think that its name, if indeed it did survive, did not register with those who were there for the salvage only; the ship’s name that crept into the original tale may well have reflected someone’s sense of humour. Be that as it may, that Brig., registered in Whitby, had been caught by that storm whilst returning to Yorkshire from London and carrying a cargo of fruit, spices and other foodstuffs. Apparently, the Captain and crew tried hopelessly to control their small craft but were carried towards the shallow shoals just off the coast; a coast which was in almost total darkness, save for a couple of flickering beacons at Cromer and Blakeney. Inevitably, the ship was driven on to the shingle bank at Salthouse, followed by wave after wave which shattered her timbers and breaking up, spars, doors and rails, throwing everything aloft and into the waters.”
“The screams of the doomed crew added to what must have been a nightmare and they, together with the Captain had abandoned ship, collectively making a desperate bid for life. Seizing his large wolf-hound pet by the collar, the Captain followed the crew and, like them, was swallowed up by the sea and drowned – every last one of them. Their bodies were washed ashore and in the calm of the morning the villagers came amongst them and the scattered remains of the once proud ship, its cargo and crew. Whilst salvaging the valuable wood and flotsam they saw the dead, but particularly the Captain who still had a firm hold on the dog’s collar – and the dog’s jaws still clamped tightly to the Captain’s reefer jacket in their desperate attempt for survival. Those of Salthouse’s folk who were present debated the fate of the wreckage and the crew in a hushed tone as if they did not want the dead to hear. One thing that was certain, they decided to bury master and pet separately. A hole was dug in a rare patch of sand that lay amongst the shingle and the wolf hound was thrown in – such was the treatment of animals, as for the Captain, he was taken to Salthouse Church, on the hill overlooking the village, and buried in an unmarked grave. One wonders what say the rector had in the matter! However, and more importantly in this tale, no one thought of any possible consequences of disregarding the latent thoughts and feelings of an animal who must have loved his master to the point of never wanting to leave him.”
“Within a very short time, people hereabouts had claimed to have seen a very large black dog sniffing about and howling as if calling for his master. As the years passed, they say its appearance became more grotesque as if in increased frustration, grief and anger! He now has large red eyes; his coat as black as ebony; shaggy and the size of a calf. Many have sensed a hound padding silently behind them as if in two minds as to whether or not to vent its perceived anger. But I can tell you that over the years there has never been a story of anyone who has escaped the jaws of Old Black Shuck when that apparition had chosen its victim. Apparently, our Shuck is most active on those nights around the 28th January and whenever the sea is stormy. Then, his terrible howl rises above the wind and crashing waves. It is at that particular time when those who disbelieve should look over their shoulder!
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there there is no witness around, does Shuck still walk regardless?
Reference Sources: East Anglian Folklore and other tales, by W H Barrett and R P Garrod, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Folktales & Legends of Norfolk, by G M Dixon,Minimax Books Ltd, 1980.
Photo: (Feature Heading): Royal Museum Greenwich
Background: The late 18th century was a problem period for the British Government insofar as industrialisation was fanning the growth of city-slums and there was much unemployment of soldiers and sailors following the American War of Independence. The crime rate was high, the prisons were overcrowded and there was no attempt to segregate the prisoners by their offence, age or sex.
In response the government began to issue harsh punishments such as public hangings or exile. It was a time when many prisoners were transported to Australia to carry out their sentence, a relatively small percentage of whom were women; certainly between 1788 and 1852, male convicts outnumbered the female convicts by six to one. But also included in Government policy was a wish to see that women convicts being sent to Australia were of “marriageable” age; a policy aimed at promoting family development for emancipated convicts, free settlers and to develop the penal outpost of New South Wales into a viable colony.
A myth that prevailed at the time was that convict women were all prostitutes; no they were not! The fact was that the majority of women sent to Australia were convicted for what would now be considered minor offences – such as petty theft and most did not receive sentences of more than seven years. Of course, many women were driven to prostitution following their arrival in Australia as means of survival because they were required to house themselves or buy clothing and bedding of their own. These women indeed faced extreme difficulty in achieving freedom, solvency and respectability. They would go on to be employed in ‘factories’ (equivalent of the English workhouse) but often had to find their own accommodation, and would be under great pressure to pay for it with sexual services. This was why women convicts tended to be regarded as prostitutes. But it is a popular misconception that they had originally been convicted of prostitution, for this was not a transportable offence.
Amongst the women convicts who would be subjected to many of the problems associated with transportation into exile was a Mary Ann Adams, aged 23, a dairymaid from Norfolk who in later Australian records described as being 5ft 1in in height, of pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes and with a scar over her left eyebrow. Mary had been committed to the 1834 Spring Norwich Assizes to face a charge of stealing a purse containing four sovereigns. She was found guilty of that charge on the 22 March of that year and, at first, was sentenced to death; but this was later commuted to life in the colonies – an alternative particularly favoured by the Norwich courts at that time. Was this also a reflection of the Government wish to increase the number of ‘marriageable’ women needed for the Australian colony? – Mary, for one, would never have known.
Following her sentence, Mary Adams spent approximately 3 months in Nowich Gaol, which, at that time, was located at the end of St Giles’ Street by the Earlham Road & Unthank Road junctions on a site now accupied by St John the Baptist Cathedral and built 1882-1910. While in Norwich Goal, Mary made a keepsake token from a worn-down two-pence coin. On it she inscribed:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
This keepsake still remains on display at the Norwich Castle Museum to serve as a reminder as intended. Mary was transported to Woolwich, along with a Sarah Sharrods, servant, who had received a similar life sentence and a Ann Burke who had been sentenced to 14 years of exile at the previous December Assizes in Norwich. How and in what conditions these three travelled is unknown but, generally, prisoners destined to be transported for exile would have been secured in heavy chains and riding in open coaches, irrespective of weather conditions. It is unknown whether, on the way, the coach that carried them also picked up a further five prisoners in Suffolk – all of whom had been sentenced to 7 years each to exile. It may have been of some comfort that they travelled during the summer, at the same time when 136 other female convicts were travelling from cities and counties throughout England, Scotland and Wales to board the 1804 built George Hibbert at Woolwich.– all were chained for that journey. The ship, controlled by the Master, Captain George N. Livesay and ship’s Surgeon Superintendent, John Tarn, was scheduled to sail on 27 July 1834.
This would be John Tarn’s second voyage as surgeon superintendent on a convict ship. As was his normal practice, he would keep a Medical Journal – this time between 7 June and 18 December 1834. It was for the 3rd to 17th of July 1834, that he would place on record the following general remarks, throwing light on the general health situation on board the George Hibbert, both prior to sailing and for the voyage:
“……. There were 144 female convicts, 11 free women and 64 children who were received on board at Woolwich, having been forwarded in parties from the different counties of Great Britain’. Most of the women were below middle age and in sufficient good health to make the journey without much risk of disease. The vessel was very crowded but the usual precautions to reduce risk of disease made for a healthy voyage. The convicts and children were on deck whenever possible and stoves were used to reduce dampness. Most complaints were affections of the bowels, catarrhal and dyspeptic attacks and diseases of the uterine system and were generally not severe. Bowel complaints appeared during the close, sultry weather and were mostly connected with hepatic secretions. Calomel and purgatives removed the symptoms. The voyage was longer than usual, taking 130 days, and there were numerous slight symptoms of scurvy for some weeks before arriving in Sydney. Lemon juice had been regularly issued and when it ran out it was replaced with [concrete] citric acid and a solution of nitre in vinegar. These remedies produced good effects particularly in the dysenteric cases. Among the children, only 11 were subjects for vaccination, 10 successfully and the other unsuccessful although the virus was taken from the arm of a healthy subject. –
Signed, John Tarn
It was during both the period when the ship was preparing to sail and also during the voyage that Mary Ann Adams was placed on a sick list on two occasions; the first being on the 14 July 1834 when her condition was recorded as “Convict; disease or hurt, amenorrhoea. Discharged, 25 July 1834. Had suffered suppression of the menses for several months and had dyspeptic symptoms, debility and languor.” As things turned out, many women were treated for illnesses whilst the George Hibbert was in port, and no less than 60 were treated for illnesses during the voyage; again, Mary Ann Adams was amongst these.
The George Hibbert was the first convict ship to have a Matron on board and credit here must be given to Norfolk’s Elizabeth Fry. Amongst many other things associated with Mrs Fry, she was the one who actively campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journeys. She also was to arrange for each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell when they reached their destination. Being religious, she gave bibles and useful items, such as string, knives and forks. During her time when she pushed for reforms, Elizabeth Fry visited over 106 transport ships and saw some 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation which was to come about in 1837; however, Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships up to 1843. Throughout, she saw the need to communicate with Lord Melbourne on matters connected with the Ladies’ British Society; these chiefly covered that of transportation, female convicts on board ship and their treatment when they arrive in the colony. It also covered the need for matrons for convict ships……
The first Matron who undertook the office, sanctioned by both the Government and the Ladies’ British Society, was Mrs. Saunders, the wife of a missionary named John Saunders. Both were on board the George Hibbert; their passages paid for by the Government on condition that Mr Saunders administered his religious responsibilities amongst the ship’s convicts and passengers. In this he was almost alone since his wife was to suffer so much sickness which impeded her support for her husband during the voyage. Nevertheless, the authorities seemed well pleased with their efforts. Of the position of Mrs Saunders as Matron, Elizabeth Fry said “This is the only one we have sent out as a Matron. The British Society aided in the Expense and so did the Government; they allowed them the food of the ship”.
Another consequence of Elizabeth Fry’s and The British Society’s deliberations was the creation of a ‘Convict Ship Committee’, which was to visit the George Hibbert on no less than four occasions, prior to its sailing, to investigate conditions. Its conclusion was that:
”The ship was found to be much crowded, and serious inconveniences were felt, and were to be apprehended, during the voyage, from this circumstance. It is however to be noticed, with thankfulness, that both the captain and surgeon superintendent appeared to be peculiarly well qualified for the offices to which they were appointed.”
The Reverend John Saunders was to compile his own notes about both the voyage to New South Wales and his religious efforts during that voyage – understandably since that was a condition of a free passage for both him and his wife and he, no doubt, felt obliged to present a positive picture of his efforts. His Notes were dated 10 December 1834 :
“Divine Providence opened the way for service that evening; and I went down into the prisons, and had a pleasant season to my soul; and so of the succeeding days, till Sunday, when I envied the tranquillity of the Isle of Thanet: however, we had services between decks, and I trust they were not without their influence upon my own and the prisoners’ souls.
On Sunday or Monday night we had a smart breeze, and I felt myself a coward. It was then I discovered how the busy time of the last few months had eaten away faith and fortitude; it led me to prayer— which I trust was progressively answered during the voyage……We skirted the Bay of Biscay very pleasantly; and when we had got within the latitude of Africa, I felt myself away from Europe and my old world;—yet neither the expanse of ocean, nor the fact of absence, at all proved desolate. I was happy in my duties, and had a sufficiency of business in attending to a sick wife……
“Disappointed in not being able to touch at Madeira, we made for the Canaries, a beautiful group of islands. They are of volcanic origin; and seemed to be so many sweet spots to remind man of the presence of God in the midst of the deep; and as if placed there to refresh his eye, wearied with the unvarying sight of the blue wave. Here we were favoured with a glimpse of the highest cone of Tenerife: the next day we anchored off Palma, so named, I believe, from its palms……..
Soon after leaving Faeroe, we got into the North East Trade winds, and nothing could be more beautiful than our sailing a good regular breeze, with clear weather. We maintained regular services both daily and weekly—the Sabbath services being conducted on the poop. Soon afterwards, we were on the verge of the Line: and here we lost a man named Davis, overboard: he had committed a flagrant breach of propriety, and seemed determined to drown his soul in perdition; accordingly, he got tipsy, vented most horrid blasphemies, and, unseen by others, fell overboard: when missed, most diligent search was made, but the boat returned without any trace of him…….
Our passage between the Trades was most merciful: instead of being scorched by the heat and lying rolling under calms, we had a pleasant wind, although contrary, which kept us cool, and was the messenger of health to our relaxed frames. After we entered the South East Trade winds, we ran on with great celerity; and sometimes, as I preached on the poop, I was obliged to hold on, while the water ever and anon rushed over the lee-gunwale, and the spray came splashing over the weather-bow………
When off Tristan D’Cunha we had a gale which much alarmed me. I was not well: we had again commenced services between decks, which amounted in the whole to six……… but shuddered at the prospective calamities which might arise to the passengers and crew……… before Monday night we had moderate weather; and Tuesday the 7th, my birthday, was most splendid, the air serene, cool, and clear. This was a happy commencement of my new year. I thought Heaven smiled upon me………We now ran pleasantly on, with very variable weather, until 24th November, when we had the happiness of seeing land, after having lost it for ninety-nine days. I felt it now my duty to redouble my exertions; and in addition to the services I have previously mentioned, I gave a lecture every evening, on some point of morality, such as Truth, Charity etc. Our hearts were all exultation: we were, however, kept both humble and patient; so that when we had baffling or fight winds, we took it gratefully, as part of all things.
Sunday 30th November, the last Sabbath at sea…….and I trust the service had a beneficial effect. Monday, we arrived (at Port Jackson), to deplore the sin and vileness everywhere manifest around. I preached on board, to the women who were not yet landed”.
The George Hibbert arrived in Port Jackson on 1 December 1834 with the 144 female prisoners being mustered on board on 5th December for the purpose of compiling indents which would include the name, age, religion, education, marital status, family, native place, trade, offence, when and where tried, sentence, prior convictions and physical description. No information was included in the indents as to where the women were to be assigned. According to the Rev. Saunders, the women disembarked on 15th December 1834. Those with children were probably taken by water directly to the Female Factory at Parramatta. Some may have been assigned to family members. Those with relatives already in the colony or about to arrive included Sarah Sharrod from Norfolk whose brother, Edward Sharwood, had arrived 18 months previously.
On the 16th December 1834, Captain G.N. Livesay of the George Hibbert wrote to the owners of the George Hibbert in London.
“I have been very highly favoured in having an excellent Surgeon, and likewise a most excellent and worthy Man who has come over as a Baptist Missionary, Mr. John Saunders; he has proved a very great Acquisition; his kind attentions to the unfortunate Criminals has been unceasing, and many of them I hope will retain the grateful Remembrance of his Kindness to them; some of them who when they came into the ship could neither read nor write have left her well capable of doing both. His wife, a most amiable young woman was also very attentive and kind to them. The whole of them will have to acknowledge to the End of their Days that the George Hibbert has been a comfortable home to them; there were some few very bad spirits among them, but I am happy to say they made a small part of the whole……”
It was John Saunders who wrote to the Colonist in January 1835:
“His Majesty’s Government was pleased to grant myself and wife a free passage in order that I might exercise the ministration of the gospel on board: but such free passage consisted in an allowance to enter on the vessel – the necessary pecuniary arrangements having to be made with the captain. In common with yourself, I deplore the unfortunate circumstances attendant upon the female emigration vessels, and perceived the salutary influence which the regular performance of Divine worship had upon the prisoners on board the George Hibbert. I cannot but hope that government in future will grant free passages (in the full sense of the phrase) to sincere men of every denomination. It is a wise economy in any nation to expend her wealth on the religious advancement of her children. And here, I desire to acknowledge the zealous and efficient co-operation of the surgeon, superintendent and commander, gentlemen to whom not only I, but the members of the Ladies Prison Association in Britain and all friends to the diminution of crime, the reformation of the profane and the amelioration of human misery stand deeply indebted.”
Those who found themselves residing in the Hunter Valley region thereafter were Mary Ann Adams, and Sarah Sharrod……. As early as January 1835 some of the prisoners from the George Hibbert were already in trouble. The Sydney Herald reported:
” The female prisoners who lately arrived on the George Hibbert, seem fully equal to the task of rivalling in bad conduct those renowned damsels who arrived in the Colony a few years ago by the ‘Roslin Castle’ and ‘Lucy Davidson’, and who were so noted at the time for their bad behaviour. Scarce a day passes without a batch from George Hibbert being placed at the bar of the Sydney Police.”
As for our two Norfolk women, it is worth noting their early records for a taste of what they went through:
Mary Ann Adams: A dairymaid from Norfolk age 24. Tried 22 March 1834 and sentenced to transportation for life for man robbery. She was 5ft 1in pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes. Scar over left eyebrow.
1837, Parramatta Application from Thomas Richardson per Florentia, ticket of leave holder, to marry Mary Ann Adams per George Hibbert
1 June 1842: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. No offence. Returned to government service. Thomas Richardson admitted to the gaol on the same day on suspicion of theft.
7 February 1843: Richardson (Adams), Mary, late of George Hibbert 1834, Admitted to Newcastle gaol. Sentenced to 1 month hard labour for disorderly conduct
25 January 1845: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann, Wollombi. Obtained Ticket of Leave.
Sarah Sharrod: Maid of All work (Servant). Aged 26 from Norfolk
15 July1835: Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Patrick Plains. Returned to government service. Re-assigned to Rev. Wilton at Newcastle 12 August.
29 December 1835: Newcastle. Assigned to Rev. Wilton. Accused Harrison, Earl, Johnson, Armstrong and Andrews of robbing her while in Church
October 1836. Newcastle. Register Book of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle. p. 66. Marriage of Sarah Sharrod aged 31 and Dennis Whythe (White) aged 38. Witnesses Anne and Benjamin Cox of Maitland.
1837.Newcastle. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Age 28. Assigned to the gaol at Newcastle.
27 June 1840 Newcastle Gaol Entrance Book. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sentenced to 3rd class female factory. Returned to her husband 24 August 1840.
25 March 1846. Newcastle Gaol Entrance Books. Sharrod (White) Sarah, Laundress from Norfolk. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sent to Hyde Park Barracks.
27 May 1846. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Ticket of leave cancelled for being a prostitute.
6 November 1850. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Granted conditional pardon.
Thereafter, we lose touch with both the former Mary Ann Adams and Sarah Sharrods, both of whom married and maybe thereafter settled down, having experienced a ‘colourful existence’ during their early years in the colony. One, nowadays, would like to think that both had been victims of the circumstances of the time. A clue to Mary’s true nature may well still lay hidden behind the words she inscribed on that coin which resides in Norwich Castle Museum:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
 Sydney Herald 4 December 1834
 Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry: By Thomas Timpson.
 The Pilot, or Sailors’ magazine – Notes of the Labours of Rev. John Saunders on his Voyage to New South Wales
 The Colonist 15 January 1835
 Sydney Gazette 15 January 1835
 Perth Gazette 21 March 1835
 Sydney Herald 29 February 1836
 Journal of John Tarn. Ancestry.com. UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857 Original data: The National Archives. Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
 Bateson, Charles & Library of Australian History (1983). The Convict Ships, 1787-1868 (Australian ed). Library of Australian History, Sydney : pp.352-53.
 Convict Indents. Ancestry.com. State Archives NSW; Series: NRS 12188; Item: [4/4019]; Microfiche: 693.
The Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth was the home-port of HMS Lutine, a 32-gun frigate that had been captured from the French in 1793 and incorporated into the British Fleet. For the rest of 1790’s, she served with the North Sea Fleet and was responsible for keeping an eye on the Dutch coast and the French, ever since they invaded the Netherland in 1795. It was in the springtime 1799 the Britons and Russians began to make preparations for their own invasion of the Netherlands; this was to finally take place in the August. During the planning and implementation stages of this invasion, HMS Lutine was active in the North Sea and at the Waddenzee; her duties at first was to watch the Dutch coast, look out for French ships, and guide friendly ships through the dangerous waters of the Waddenzee and the Zuiderzee. During the invasion and afterwards, her duties also included the ferrying of supplies, troops, messages and instructions to other British ships in the area. The Lutine must have known the area like the back of its hand – you might think!
In late September of 1799, HMS Lutine was again back in Great Yarmouth and lay at anchor waiting, along with her Captain Lancelot Skynner, to receive further orders; normal practice of course. The Captain knew it would be a short respite but, in all honesty, expected the next voyage to be one of helping to relieve the backlog of passengers, mail and supplies that had stacked high as a direct result of the bad weather that had persisted during the summer, placing the British trade with the continent at a standstill. The regular packet boats had failed to arrive in Yarmouth for such a long time. This situation was compounded by the Government’s own blocking policy against some continental ports, leaving Cuxhaven, the only harbour reachable for the British. All this had enormous economic consequences for both the British and the Hanoverian traders who were deprived of profits and caused the Hanover and London Exchanges to close down on several occasions whilst hostilities were in progress. Many Hamburg trade houses were, in fact, threatened with bankruptcy and the Bank of England felt obliged to support the Hamburg trade whilst ensuring that the British troops who were now on Dutch soil were payed. The Bank of Englan decided to send loads of money as a matter of urgency! This decision had a direct influence on the orders that were communicated to HMS Lutine. She would not be transporting troops and provisions, but gold bullion and coinage of considerable value! This also meant that the Lutine would not be pursuing any form of hostile action.
The destination for this valuable cargo was Hamburg, via the port of Cuxhaven, where the Lutine would drop anchor, unload and routinely return to Great Yarmouth to await yet further orders. Compared with the hectic battle-actions during the proceeding months, this voyage was expected to be more like a holiday cruise now that 30 passengers had also been booked on board, despite the Lutine being a ship of war and, supposedly, still required to be on active readiness. Clearly, normal procedure was being dispensed with, and bear in mind that these passengers were not common steerage class; most were, in fact of high standing including, as has been rumoured since, an element of European nobility in the mix. It was this concoction which guaranteed that, once everyone had settled comfortably aboard, spirits would rise and a pleasant party would ensue, safe in the knowledge that they would be cruising in comfort and not likely to be hostages of war.
On the other side of the social class system that existed at the time were those who were expected to work and know their place in the scheme of things. Amongst these were the Yarmouth fishermen who happened to be in close proximity to HMS Lutine and later expressed their surprise of what they had seen aboard and around the ship that night of the 8th of October – a ship of war no less which was fully lit and with an animated party going on in the Captain’s cabin; their view was that it was absolutely unacceptable in times of war. They were also around to witness the final touches being made to loading the Lutine with ‘unidentifiable’ cargo which, unseen to their eyes, would be secured below as best it could, bearing in mind that the gold was apparently stored in flimsy casks bound with weak iron hoops and the silver in casks with wooden hoops.
If common sense prevailed during the planning and loading of this valuable cargo then, surely, it would not have been stowed amidships in the shot lockers, adjacent to the main-cable room, with cannon balls being placed on top for an element of security. Yes, the midship section with its cable-room and shot lockers did occupy a large space, but this was freely open to the crew by reason of the exigencies of service. It would have been difficult to justify the placing of such riches in such an exposed place. On the other hand, the after Magazine of a frigate was a carefully guarded room; so one must assume nowadays that either than compartment, or one of the divisions lying in the same after section of the ship would have been the likeliest place to hold valuables that called for continual surveillance.
In the early hours of the 9th of October 1799 HMS Lutine set sail from Great Yarmouth, taking a north-easterly course to the Northern islands of The Netherlands with the intention of changing course from there in a more easterly direction towards the Elbemouth. During the day the weather began to change for the worst and, in the evening, as the ship approached the Dutch islands, the wind turned into a strong gale that blew from a north-westerly direction. At about 11 PM, in complete darkness, the Lutine sailed under considerable speed on a half-wind course on to the outer banks west of Terschelling. The damage to the ship was considerable and the crew understood immediately that it was lost. The heavy breakers that develop on these banks in stormy weather, particular with Northerly winds, were known to be notorious. In just a few hours the HMS Lutine was totally wrecked, but within this time the crew managed to fire a few cannons and launch emergency rockets. These signals were noticed on the islands but such things were not really a surprise to the population – this was just another shipwreck in a long line of tragedies in the area between Terschelling and Vlieland. As it was, the difficult position of the ship, about 4 miles from the beach, together with the gale made immediate rescue impossible. The inevitable outcome was that all the crewmembers and passengers, totalling 270 souls, were drowned – except for one crewmember. He was found alive the next morning when the wind had eased off and rescue-ships had been able to approach the area of the wreck.
Captain Portlock, commander of the English squadron at Vlieland wrote the Admiralty in London:
”Sir, It is with extreme pain that I have to state to you the melancholy fate of his majesty’s Ship Lutine, which ship ran onto the outer banks of the Fly Island Passage on the night of the 9th. Instant heavy gale of wind from the NNW and I am much afraid the crew except one man, which was saved from the wreck, have perished……This man when taken up was almost exhausted. He is of present tolerably recovered, and relates that the Lutine left Yarmouth Roads on the Morning of the 9th instant, bound to Texel, and she had on board Considerable quantity of Money…..”
Both the media of the day and the official conclusion of the British was that a heavy storm had caused the loss of the ship and, on that basis, Lloyd’s paid out a huge sum of insurance money. The case was closed, however, in the case of HMS Lutine, things were not as simple as they looked.
In 1997, during the planning stage for a 200 year commemoration event on Terschelling and Vlieland the organisers revisited the subject of what really caused the Lutine tragedy; they did this by analysing past records and publications. It soon became evident that the story was far from complete. In fact, the relevant details about the shipwreck itself and the official enquiry that followed were remarkably limited in what was revealed; so much so that suspicions were inevitably raised. These suspicions were followed by the conclusion that the storm alone could not have caused the HMS Lutine to sink. The facts were these: – The ship herself was in a perfect state of maintenance, following a complete overall twelve months previously when even the rigging was renewed. Also, the crew was highly experienced, both in handling of the ship and in the navigation in the coastal waters of the Dutch and German islands. In fact, the area of the North Sea just off the Dutch coast had been a primary patrol-area for HMS Lutine before she became involved in the British and Russian invasion of the Netherlands. A storm such as the one which hit this ship, when sailing half-wind, was certainly not a problem for a large frigate; handling it would have been a routine procedure. The conclusion was that the cause of the accident was human failure.
Interest then fell on what the only survivor had to tell; surely this crown-witness would have been interviewed? But, not even his name could be found in the files. The only item that was found was just a brief note in the Logbook of Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow, the ship where the man was subsequently placed. It stated that the man had recovered with the help of the ships-surgeon and gave some information about the Lutine and her destination. But then the information stops, not even his name was mentioned. The relevant files of the Admiralty archives did indicate that a period of intensive correspondence started directly after the accident, this was between the Admiralty in London, Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow and the commander of the invasion-fleet Vice-Admiral Mitchell who was aboard the HMS Isis. But all their correspondence had been subsequently removed from the archives and no records of any further investigation, such as a court-martial, even existed. It seemed self-evident that the absence of such documents, which may have proved exactly what had happened aboard the Lutine leading up to its sinking, pointed to another cause which the authorities chose to hide? Did the only survivor have had an unpleasant story to tell, and could his account have shown that human error had caused the accident?
However, all was not lost in the 1997 investigation into the possible real cause which led to the sinking of HMS Lutine. A small, but valuable, piece of evidence came to light in the form of a Muster List of the HMS Isis no less; this list had recorded the names of newly arrived crewmembers. It also showed that on the 18th of October, nine days after the wreck of the HMS Lutine, a certain Able Seaman John Rogers, came aboard the Isis where the ships-clerk wrote a small note near his name: “from the Arrow, the late Lutine”. When compared with the last existing Muster List of HMS Lutine, it confirmed that not only had John Rogers sailed on the ship, but that he was also, up to that point, the only survivor of the Lutine’s sinking. Although this man’s legs had been seriously wounded, he had been kept on HMS Isis for an exorbitant length of time. Then, when the invasion-campaign was over and the Isis had returned to British waters, in January 1800, this man was sent to the Hospital ship Spanker. However, after treatment he was still not allowed to go ashore but was placed on HMS Grana, moored near Sheerness. Thereafter he disappeared silently from the records and was never heard of again! Someone, or other, seemed to have kept him out of sight and far away from the media of the day. Was it possible that his story would have embarrass the Admiralty and proved negligence for which they would have been responsible. If that had been the case, Lloyd’s would have refused to pay out the insurance money. Then, there were the drowned passengers! Among them was the group of high-standing civilians and nobility from England, France and Luxembourg. One would think that, had the Admiralty been to blame, the relatives of those drowned would have demanded some degree of satisfaction for their losses.
Immediately after the wreckage salvage actions were organised by the Captains of the nearby moored British warships, the Arrow, Swinger and Pelter. They were not the alone. Dutch fisherman also showed much interest, considering the note in the Logbook of the Swinger on the 11th of October: “Sent the Cutter manned and armed with Lieut. Braddel to the wreck to Prevent the Dutch from Robbing Her”. During the few weeks that the English ships stayed near the islands all kind of objects was salvaged from the wreck, like weapons and food. Remarkably however was that nothing is said about the gold or silver.
What happened next was an exercise in salvage and sophisticated reclamation of assets – or, if you like, wrecking – which still attracts scholars to this day. To think that all this started as soon as the vessel hit the seabed and the bed began to eat her up, piling sand up around her and for the coming decades that remained the pattern – the ship being revealed and reburied, revealed and reburied as the sands moved around her. Several companies and groups have made attempts to salvage the cargo. Some have been lucky and some have failed. They were all after a treasure which some have estimated as being as much as ₤10.000.000. If true, then there must still be a huge fortune at the bottom of the IJzergat.
But what then is the difficulty? In such a place, wind, tide and everlasting currents can play freely with everything. In no time at all following the sinking, the Lutine’s remains had been covered with sand and nothing in the Waddenzee ever keeps its position, so the ship was really lost – for a long long time. Modern archaeological research has showed that, within a few hours after the ship ran aground, the rear part of the hull broke off and drifted away, with wind and currents in south-easterly direction, crossed the Ijzergat channel and ran aground again on the banks on the south side. The attention of the first salvers was directed to the main-section of the ship and so the rear-end of the ship was left alone and forgotten. The fact that all the gold and silver bars and most of the coinage so far recovered have been found buried about the remains of the Lutine’s stern, bearing out the belief that the its treasure had, indeed, been originally housed in the Magazine – or nearby. Maybe, at this very moment, new excavations are under way? If so then those undertaking the most recent salvage will be armed with the knowledge that ‘special‘ cargoes were usually stored in the rear section of these old sailing ships. It should not come as a surprise when some shiny bars eventually surface in the not too distant future. Perhaps then, we will finally witness the end of this story.
FOOTNOTE: Anyone familiar with Lloyd’s of London, the insurance underwriting exchange, may also be familiar with this chap, or more specifically the thing he is ringing:
That is the Lutine Bell, in the Underwriting Room. Traditionally, it was rung to announce the fate of a ship which had been late at its destination port. If the ship had arrived safely, the bell was rung twice; if it was sunk, it was rung once, to immediately stop the sale of any further reinsurance on the downed vessel by unscrupulous insiders. These days, the two rings mean there is a distinguished visitor to Lloyd’s. One ring is used to note events or anniversaries, such as Remembrance Day.
Do fishermen sing nowadays? They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen’s societies.’ So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article about northern singers. Perhaps he should have paid a visit to the Norfolk fishing village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently. It used to be said that “They were all singers at Winterton”, but foremost among them was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers. His impact was immediate and electrifying … and some thought that it was a privilege to be in the presence of such genuine greatness, a dominant figure due to his personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Samuel James Larner, (1878–1965) and known as Sam, was a fisherman because fishing was an almost inevitable occupation for one of nine children of a fisherman father and growing up in a village where, out of a population of 800 people, 300 were fishermen. Larner was once quoted as saying
“Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol.”
Many Winterton families had been involved with the fishing industry for generations, most notably the Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and the Larners. All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.
Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen. He first went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing lugger at the age of 13 and in 1894 signed as a deckhand on The Snowflake, another sailing boat. It was a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you’d be “on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea.” Some of the older fishermen “didn’t care for nothing … cruel old men. You weren’t allowed to speak” and if you were sleepy they would “chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up.” From 1899 he worked on steam trawlers and in 1923 married Dorcas Eastick who had hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton. Sam met her when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton. Sam was to leave fishing due to ill health in 1933 and spent some time unemployed as well as doing whatever jobs he could find, including road mending and forestry.
Sam Larner started singing from an early age, learning the songs his grandfather and others sang in the pubs at Winterton, and earning pennies by singing them to the coach parties that visited the village. As a fisherman he learned the songs fellow crew members sang when pulling in the nets, as well as in singing sessions in pubs in fishing ports the length of Britain. He won a singing competition in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1907.
Although some trips were ‘home fishing,’ meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring. This of course meant stopping for periods in various ports when there was opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of adding new songs to his repertoire. Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O. As he recalled:
“There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick – all among the fishermen though. And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen had to judge the singin’. And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song. They won’t let me sit down; I had to sing them another song. That was in 1907. These people all know it about here; I aren’t tellin’ stories. And I got the first prize.”
Unfortunately no Winterton singers, other than Sam Larner, were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many of his songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives. One example was Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village; Sam said:
“That’s my old dad’s song. I heard him sing it when I was a little boy. Used to sing all them songs, my old father did. Yeah, old ‘Bredler’ they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him. Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone. Big man, he was. Oh, and he could do the step dance.”
Sam’s father was George Larner, born in 1847, and another fisherman. From this song obviously heard as a young child at home, there were others learned at sea, again from a close relative. Of The Robber or The Rambling Young Blade, Sam recalled that “My Uncle Jimmy used to sing that when I was cook along of him at sea. That’s about nigh seventy year ago, and he used to sing that on deck.” Uncle Jimmy was James Sutton, (born 1858), a renowned singer in the village who seems to have passed many songs onto Sam Larner. His nickname was ‘Old Larpin’ and his grandson Ronnie Haylett remembers that this was a shortened version of ‘Loping Lugs’ as he had rather prominent ears. As can be seen, nicknames were very common indeed in the community, perhaps rather vital as surnames were relatively few and many families favoured the same first name for many family members. Sam Larner’s nickname was ‘Funky’ on account of his sometimes unpredictable moods. As regards learning songs from community or family members, Sam remarked when talking of King William and the Keeper, “I can recollect them a-singin’ on it. Oh, we all picked them songs up.”
If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage – such as “The Dogger Bank”:
Now we are the boys to make a noise, when we come home from sea,
We get right drunk, we roll on the floor, and cause a jubilee;
We get right drunk and full of beer, and roll all over the floor,
And when our rent it is all spent, we’ll go to sea for more.
An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village’s two pubs, The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners, for lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing during which time, complete respect was given to the singers so as to avoid the possibility of violence. Certainly the old songs and the performances were taken very seriously. Ronnie Haylett also remembers:
“Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they’d open here until four or five o’clock. Policeman’d come in and have a look…….”Boys all right?” Well, they’re all fishermen, you know…… Yes mister, Boys all right. Do you want a pint, mister? No, I’ll leave you. He’d just go away and leave them.”
Sam Larner related more than once that “we used to have a rare old, good old time. We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment.”
Other singers at the time was Dick Green (b1909), another Winterton singer and fisherman; he was Sam Larner’s nephew but eventually turned his back on both the sea and singing to become a policeman, ending his days in Harleston. In later years, he declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so, but he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier. Dick’s older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname ‘The Devil’. He went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up to become a trawler skipper. He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War. He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of Australia, Cruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty’s Goat. The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled as having regularly sung The Wild Rover which, apparantly, was his party piece.
Then there was Jack ‘Starchy’ George (1888-1975), another Winterton singer, fisherman and trawler skipper. Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as “a great singer” who would sometimes “lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he’d sing while he’d be on watch.” All of the male Georges seem to have been known as ‘Starchy,’ apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars. As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, such as Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson which he also sang at weddings
In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner certainly stood out as an outstanding singer. With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style; it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or whilst away fishing. As a natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.
As well as the singing, another part of the evening’s entertainment in The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing. Sam was a good exponent of this, just like his father, George. As someone recalled, “The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that. They all had pints of two. Cause, comin’ out the old barrels, they’d all be wet, wouldn’t they? So they’d stand them there and somebody’d shift the pints and Sam’d come up and do a tap dance on the table. Beer’d all spilt!”
Often, there was no musician to play for the step dancing, so it was performed to singing and diddling. Sam Larner remarked, “I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance. I hadn’t got the wind to do it now.” Whilst singing the song, he would pause half way through to comment “then they all step” which suggests something of a communal performance. Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: ‘The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed. And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing. In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty. He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.’
Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956. Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information. He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958. Sam appeared in two of Donnellan’s radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957, for which he was paid £1.1.0. Then there was Down to the Sea which was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959 with a rehearsal at a house in Happisburgh known as ‘Thatchers’. It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959 and Sam was paid £8.8.0. These were live performances and the sound recordings made by Donnellan have been deposited in the BBC archives.
Donellan also brought Sam Larner to the attention of Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker who were engaged in producing the first of the innovatory “Radio Ballads”, which used songs, sound effects and music combined with the voices of people involved in an industry or common experience. Sam took part in the third program in the series “Singing the Fishing” which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim. The series was about the East Coast fishing industry. Ewan McColl’s song The Shoals of Herring, which describes a fisherman’s progress from cabin boy to deckhand, was largely based on Sam’s life and written for the program. Over a period of time, after editing Sam’s songs and anecdotes about his life, they were left, in MacColl’s words, with “almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes” from this ‘octogenarian’, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk. What a wonderful person he was! Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life. His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.’
McColl and Seeger were to record even more material from Sam who went on to perform in their Ballads and Blues Club in London where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam ‘sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca. He never forgot it.’ “They liked them old songs, they did.” Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing Island. They included thirteen of Sam’s songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You’re Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All. The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: ‘Sam: a book in which your songs are not ‘written wrong.’ Many thanks for your songs and your friendship. Peggy and Ewan. 1960.’ Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.
This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961. This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger. The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam’s rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer. A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.
In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song. As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover. It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.
By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six. He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course. He had met his wife Dorcas there and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman’s life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six. This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965. He left £857.
About a year after Sam Larner’s death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area. There he met retired fisherman Walter ‘Tuddy’ Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village. Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them. This happened on 17th December, 1966 when Tuddy Rudd and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang a variety of songs. These, unfortunately, are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but they do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition. Tuddy also told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You’re Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as ‘Lame Jimma.’ Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin’s father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester’s Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.
In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan’s recordings as LP A Garland for Sam. About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam’s Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner’s singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.
Peter Kennedy was to claim that the rights to the Philip Donnellan recordings were signed by Sam Larner over to him in 1958. There’s no evidence that Kennedy ever went to Winterton but he may well have met Sam in London. Generally speaking, various relatives and others in the village felt that Sam signed away rights to the songs he sang far too easily, to others who may have wished to make financial gain out of them.
By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in the Winterton area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so. The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared. Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: ‘Sam, he said to me one day – my father’s name is Jack – “Boy Jack”, he said, – (it was commonplace in the area for somebody to be referred to by their father’s name, together with the word ‘boy.’) “why don’t you go up and sing like your grandfather? Your grandfather Larpin. Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing.” I say, “I can’t sing, old chap.” “You can. You’ve just gotta stand up and get goin’. Why don’t you come up and sing, boy?” Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence. The Fisherman’s Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, “They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster.”
John Craske was a fisherman from a family who had been fishermen for as long as anyone could remember. The sea was in his blood, he felt at home there, both when it was calm and breathing like a great beast resting, and also when it was wild and holding his life by a thread. But Craske was never a well man, and so he had to learn how to go to sea in his mind so he could paint and stitch pictures of maritime elements that mattered to him and that he understood.
John Craske was born in the town of Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast on 6th July 1881 where he joined a North Norfolk family with a long tradition of being associated with sea. John was the Grandson of Nathaniel and Elizabeth ‘Granny’ Craske, a staunch salvationist who lived to be 100 years of age and during her time she produced 12 children. Her eleventh child, Edward married Hannah Sare Dennis from North Walsham, Norfolk, in 1875. It was these two who were to be John Craske’s parents.
But times were indeed hard for fishing in and around Norfolk towards the latter part of the 19th century and presumably prospects were better further north; that was the direction taken by Edward and Hannah in 1876 when they moved to Grimsby. Their first son, Edward was born there soon after their arrival, followed by Robert Nathaniel in 1879. A further two years then passed before the family decided to return to Norfolk to live at Lower Sheringham. It was here where John Craske made his entrance, followed by a sister in 1883. Later the family moved yet again to Grimsby. where two more sons were born, between 1889 and 1896.
John Craske eventually put his schooling behind him when left his Board School in Grimsby to follow family tradition; he went to sea to become a deep sea fisherman. So commenced a period in his life which was to make a lasting impression on him; it was, in fact, to become almost a passion which was to dominate his artistic talent and output of paintings and embroideries in later years. But for the moment he fished alonside his two older brothers until their parents decided, in 1900, to return, with most of their children, to Sheringham. But times were still tough; tough enough to eventually convince John’s family to distance themselves from the sea altogether and move inland to East Dereham where, in 1905, his father opened a fishmonger’s shop. Father Edward ran the shop with his two sons, John and Edward, buying a daily supply of fresh fish from Lowestoft.
The Craske family tolled with its fishmongering business whilst the local fishing industry continued in its decline. Inperceptably, tourists began to take over, gradually moving in to enjoy the air, the newly built promenades and the more frequent train connections within Norfolk and to and from London. Tourists, by definition, did not have to work, instead they delighted in taking photographs of the fishermen who, to most outsiders, looked like becalmed wild tribesmen as they lolled against their boats, dressed with their high Cossack hats, tight Guernsey sweaters, heavy thigh boots with metal cleats and each with a distant gaze in their eyes that hoped for a better catch next time. None, it would seem, had enough money in their pockets to live on.
Then there was the Craske family’s strict Christian upbringing which saw them attending services at Dereham’s Salvation Army Citadel where in summer months John, in particular, took part in outdoor services held in the Market Place. On one particular occasion, a certain Miss Laura Augusta Eke came along and her attention was drawn to a tall young man standing on a soap box in the centre of the ring of Bandsmen and worshipers. He was dressed in a fisherman’s blue jersey, his black hair ruffled by a stiff summer breeze. Laura watched and listened as a noticeably nervous John Craske began to sing ‘Since Christ my soul from sin set free…………….’
John and Laura married on 22 July 1908, at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Dereham, after which they went to live at Swanton Morley where John started a fish hawking round, serving the surrounding villages. He obtained two ponies which carried pannier baskets full of fish which were slung over their backs. It was a precarious existence which forced John to lead a very vigorius life, often working sixteen or seventeen hours a day. It was extremely rare for him to even take a half day off. On top of this, Swanton Morley lacked a railway station so, in order to make things easier for him to obtain daily supplies of fish from Lowestoft, he and Laura moved to North Elmham in 1909. From there, John continued to collect fish for his father’s shop and carried out all their fish curing and smoking. Then, in 1914, John and Laura moved back to Dereham and continued to carry out fish hawking business. Shortly afterwards, the First World War broke out.
John Craske was never strong and it is not certain whether, in 1916, he volunteered or was called up when conscription began. There was certainly doubts about his health for on two occasions when he attended medicals, he was classified as being C2 during his first visit then C3 subsequently. John gained exemption, however, some local people was said to have appealed to the authorities against exemptions and John received his call-up papers. It was also said at the time that the authorities were so desperate for men that they were taking on practically anyone. John formally joined the Army on 9 March 1917. That was fine as far as it went but the training process was to become John’s nemesis, from the point when reference was made to his “relapse”.
On the 7 April, Laura received news from Davidson Road War Hospital in Croydon that John has relapsed whilst recoving from influenza; three days later she received the news that he had an ‘abscess on the brain’ which left him prone to attacks of nervous collapse from which he would not recover. He no longer knew his own name or who he was, just that he missed his family, his brothers and he just wanted to go home. He could not even remember his age. Initially, John was diagnosed as being an imbecile and admitted to seven different hospitals before finally being transferred, in August, to Thorpe Mental Asylum near Norwich. Laura visited him on alternate days; then on 31 October 1918 he was discharged into her care; his health verdict being that he was ‘subject to harmless mental stupours’. Laura: a shy, strong-bodied woman with a devout belief that God would provide small miracles when needed. It was Laura, who came to collect him, having signed a declaration form saying that she would care for him – and care for him is what she did ever after.
It was Laura who first suggested that her restless and unhappy husband try to soothe himself by making a picture. It was said that she took the calico her mother was saving for the Christmas pudding, tacked it onto a frame and he sketched a boat. “We found some wools,” she wrote, “and I showed John the way to fill it in.” He fell into stupors for months, or even years at a time, awaking to ask: “Have I been away again?” Then he “got back to stitches”. Craske would regularly slip in and out of “a stuporous state” but still managed to eat and drink. Theories were inevitably expounded as to what was wrong with him, from diabetes to pituitary trouble; however, the most popular opinion was that he had depression with a “psychic neurotic basis”.
Then in 1920, John’s father died. This affected John so badly that he relapsed through shock and became confined to a wheelchair for a while; certainly until his GP, Dr Duigan, suggested a spell of recuperation by the sea, because “only the sea can save him”. Apparently, this was endorsed by an endocrinologist who, on hearing about this recommendation, said “Wise man, – the movement of the sea acts as a very good calmative for mental instability.” John and Laura rented a cottage, ‘The Pightle’ near the Blakeney estuary and were lent a boat, for which Craske, duely motivated, soon cut the sails for Laura to stitch them. Whenever the weather was kind the two would set off on the tide’s ebb and return with its flow. It would be three hours each way, drifting within the safe confines of an estuary rich with terns diving for sand eels, abundant dab being caught on hooks and where mud banks surrounded marsh wort, sea poppy and sea campion. Everything and everyone enjoying big skies and quiet days.
Craske gradually improved and more aware of his surroundings; he had become aware that the cottage was unsuitable as the living room floor was below street level and all he could see were the legs of people walking by. They returned to Dereham after 5 months but it was the moment when John said to Laura that he would like to paint a picture on the lid of an old bait box. It turned out to be a red-sailed lugger leaning precipitously to one side in a storm where the wind appeared to be scudding through the crests of the waves and creating an imaginary roar. From the bait box he went on to paint on anything he could find: cardboard, brown wrapping paper, mantelpieces and doors, jugs and teacups. Even when he and Laura had another spell by the sea, this time in the village of Hemsby further down the east coast, he still went on painting.
It was whilst the two were in Hemsby that Craske began to also make toy boats to sell to passersby, and that was how the poet Valentine Ackland first came across him and persuaded him to sell her one of his works which she showed to her lover, Dorothy Warren, who had a new gallery in Maddox Street in London. Valentine was keen to add Craske to her list of artists; so much so that she returned to Norfolk to find him. By then, Craske had left Hemsby and returned to Dereham. She eventually tracked him down there and found him in bed in a coma and close to death. Laura thought this tall lady in trousers had come to ask for her money back, but when she was told that more of the same was wanted, Laura brought out all of her husband’s paintings and, in return for £20 in £5 notes, gave them to Ackland who took a good few away with her. A few months later she and Warren returned to Dereham to find Craske much improved. He had produced his first embroideries and was more business-like than his wife, selling pieces according to the time he had spent on them.
He had taken up embroidery because he could stitch while lying down. He used deck chair frames as stretchers for the cloth and old gramophone needles to hammer it in place. Craske was very meticulous about getting the precise tilt of a boat according to the pull of a current or the direction of the wind. It was said that when a photocopy of an embroidery, called Rescue from Breeches Buoy, was shown to a Cromer fisherman, he looked at it and said: “See, she’s foundered and she’s going to get smashed. That main line there is to get the people off …….. they’ll be alright soon enough.”
The first exhibition of John Craske’s work opened at the Warren Gallery in August 1929 where it was a success: “the ship pictures by Mr. John Craske are definitely – if crudely – works of art,” said the Times. The Daily Mail declared: “the work, though childishly naive, has extraordinary charm and decorative effectiveness”, adding, “The hero of the hour himself, a humble and God-fearing man, was not present as he is seriously ill.”
A second exhibition followed but this did not go so well. The principal reason was that Ackland had fallen out with Warren having started a love affair with the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. In a strange and curious way, Craske became part of their romance when Townsend Warner was taken to meet him. She was immediately impressed by his speechlessness, his simple poverty and by what she saw as the integrity of his vision. Both Ackland and Warner became his patrons and bought his work whenever they could, persuading their friends to do the same; with the Norfolk preservationist Billa Harrod acquiring a number of pieces. For the two women, together with Ackland’s wealthy American lover Elizabeth Wade White who appeared on the scene a few years later, Craske encapsulated not only the beauty of the north Norfolk coast and the North Sea, but also of happier times. The three had numerous examples of Craske’s work on the walls of their houses, although the embroideries yellowed by cigarette smoke and bleached by the sun. But it is mostly thanks to Ackland and Warner that Craske’s work has survived, especially when in the early 1970s, Townsend Warner presented her collection, along with whatever biographical material she had, to Peter Pears and the Snape Maltings, believing that:
“Craske is an artist whose work should be on view in east Anglia ……. enhanced in the sharpened light of a seaboard sky”.
Craske continued being mostly silent and often ill, making pictures whenever he could. He must have produced hundreds of images, but most have been casually mislaid, and although his work did receive a certain amount of praise when it was shown in the US in the early 1940s, his reputation was never established beyond a small circle of admirers. When the Norwich Castle Museum was approached in 1947, with a request to borrow a large embroidery which they had in storage, the curator agreed on condition that her name was not mentioned, “because, quite frankly, I do not think work of this type comes under the heading of art”.
Craske explained that some of his ideas came from memory and some from imagination, which was often inspired when friends told him of shipwrecks or lucky escapes at sea. He spent an increasing amount of time listening to the wireless and in 1940, he heard how the English soldiers had been pushed back to the Normandy coast. The unfolding account of the evacuation of Dunkirk inspired his most ambitious embroidery: a sort of modern-day Bayeux tapestry, 13 feet long, which told the story of men in boats being saved by the sea. He worked on it until his death, leaving a raggedy patch of unstitched sky that still needed to be filled in.
In his lifetime Craske, a self-taught artist, was briefly welcomed by the arts world, championed by writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner and her friends who bought and sold his works, and exhibited in London and in the US. Craske died on 26 August 1943 but within a few years of his death he was almost completely forgotten. Many of his works were destroyed, thrown away, burned, faded in sunlight on parlour walls, or left decaying in damp museum stores. Craske’s widow, Laura, gave the Dunkirk embroidery, which she regarded as his masterpiece, despite the poignant patch of bare unfinished canvas in the sky, to the Norwich Castle Museum. Craske would have been proud to know his work was in the museum, she once said – but it has never been exhibited there!
Arguably, the largest exhibition ever of John Craske’s works, rescued from museum stores or borrowed from private collectors, was as recent as 2015 in Norwich; it was displayed at the Norwich University of the Arts Gallery, where he is regarded not as a forgotten eccentric but as a neglected genius. It was Prof Neil Powell, curator of the exhibition along with Craske’s biographer Julia Blackburn (see below), who quoted at the time:
“I don’t believe Craske should be viewed either as an outsider artist, or as naïve. In any other country he would be properly viewed as a serious artist. He had a highly sophisticated sense of colour and form, and a truly extraordinary ability to convey the three-dimensional world in the medium of needlework.” Julia Blackburn added: “He was poor, he was sick, and he was a man who did embroidery – of course he was forgotten.”
It was purely by chance when Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn learned that they had been separately on the trail of Craske; Powell had been hunting for surviving works, including some given by Townsend Warner to the Aldeburgh Music centre, whilst Julia Blackburn had been gathering scraps of biographical information including a hand-coloured studio photograph of him as a young fisherman, self-consciously holding what she thought was a photographer’s prop, a length of fake paper rope. “You get more old photographs of fishermen than any other workers – they had them done to leave some record in case they drowned,” she once said.
It was the hope that the NUA Gallery exhibition would revive Craske’s reputation and uncover more of his work. Previously unknown postcard-sized paintings still cherished by his doctor’s family turned up weeks before that exhibition. Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn also found that many of the owners expressed surprised when the experts thought them worth exhibiting.
Julia Blackburn also recalled that during the preparation for her biography on Craske, she visited Sheringham and looked up old people who might have remembered John Craske. In her own words:
“Eliza, who had had 12 children and at the age of 92 could still dance, thought John was her uncle “Ninny” Craske, but she wasn’t sure. She told me of “Little Dick” Craske, her grandfather, who learned to tap dance on a wooden chest when he was sent to Icelandic waters at the age of nine, and who would dance for the ladies and their clients in the ‘Two Lifeboats’ whorehouse. “Where’s my little Dick?” asked his mother when she came looking for him, and that was how he got his name. The only Craske that Old Bennet knew was Jack, drowned in 1931; they saved his friend Sparrow by grabbing hold of his hair. Old Bennet had lobster pots instead of flowers in his front garden and he giggled like a schoolboy when I asked him how to catch whelks: “They’ll eat anything, whelks … they travel about the sea looking for dead meat …… a boat turned over and three men drowned, they was full o’ whelks.”
Before the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, Nelson sent out the famous signal to his fleet ‘England expects that every man [ship] will do his duty’. A few hours later, while leading the attack on the combined French and Spanish fleet, Britain’s most famous naval hero was struck by a fatal musket ball – at the very moment of his greatest strategic triumph.
Later, as the Battle of Trafalgar raged overhead and just before their poignant farewell kiss in the cockpit of HMS Victory, the dying Nelson was said to have whispered to Captain Thomas Hardy: “Don’t throw me overboard.” To which came the reply “Oh no – Certainly Not!” Hardy knew that there could be no question of burying the hero of Trafalgar at sea, as was the practice for the rest of the British dead. The Country would wish to bury Nelson at home with full honours.
The outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar turned out to be a total victory for Nelson’s British Fleet, but with the death of its commanding officer. HMS Victory, the Flag Ship, had been badly damaged and would have to be put into Gibraltar for repairs before making the voyage home. This presented a problem for both Hardy and the ship’s surgeon, William Beatty. They were faced with preserving Nelson’s body for some considerable time, possibly two months, until they could dock at a English port. The two agreed to ‘pickle’ Nelson in a large barrel, but on the advice of Beatty, the preserving solution would be brandy, mixed camphor and myrrh – not rum as persistent naval tradition dictated. Time would tell whether Beatty was right or wrong but, before that moment, HMS Victory had to limp back, under tow by the 98 gun ship ‘Neptune’. Victory finally anchored at Gibraltar one week after the battle – a ship grieving, wounded and jury opinionated.
News of Nelson’s death took 16 days to reach London, arriving on the 6 November; the ship that brought it was – excuse the pun – HMS Pickle! The news of the victory at Trafalgar and the loss of Nelson was met with muted celebration and, of course, sadness. Britain’s Navy had then established undisputed mastery and control at sea which was to last for over a century. The victory had removed the threat of invasion by Napoleon – but at a cost. The Times newspaper captured the mood of the nation:
‘We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased. The great and gallant NELSON is no more’ (Hibbert, page 382).
For the next two months, England would be in a frenzy. The Times ran daily articles about Nelson’s death and the homeward progress of his flag-ship, the Victory; but each and everyone of them was pure speculation. Eyewitnesses to the event were, after all, still at sea and electronic and digital communication had not yet been invented. Members of the public were no better than the newspapers, many of their contributions were poems of lamentation and The Times had to ask them to stop sending them. Nobody in England yet knew what had transpired in Nelson’s final moments, nevertheless the Drury Lane Theatre still staged nightly re-enactments; there was no escaping Nelson mania.
In the meantime, Nelson’s body had been placed in a cask filled with brandy on 22 October 1805 and lashed to the deck and would be under guard for the journey to both Gibraltar and then to England. The barrel would also need to be topped up more than once due to the body’s natural absorption of the liquid. Stories of sailors drinking the alcoholic concoction out of respect for Nelson were merely fantastical hearsay, however they made for a good yarn – over a drink maybe!
HMS Victory arrived in Gibraltar on 28 October 1805 where the body was immediately moved to a lead-lined coffin and refreshed by replacing the brandy with spirits of wine to ensure continued preserving whilst essential repairs to the Victory were carried out. Then on 4 November, HMS Victory set sail for England but within two weeks into the journey, the gaseous pressures would burst the lid of the cask, startling one of the watchmen so much that he thought Nelson had returned to life and was trying to climb out. Despite this, the preserving process worked pretty well, the body remaining in near perfect condition throughout the long return voyage, which included a week long storm labelled “The Storm of the Century”.
Meanwhile, London was gearing up for the most lavish funeral celebration imaginable. Every coastal town in southern England was on alert to prepare multi-gun salutes, militia parades, and black crepe street hangings “to turn out at a moment’s warning” if and when the Victory landed nearby. There was popular support to erect a huge Nelson monument under the central dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (They settled for a fancy tomb and a smaller statue by the wall.)
HMS Victory reached England on 4 December 1805 and was inundated with a stream of visitors. If anyone on board had doubted the intensity of the public’s interest, then it could no longer be questioned. Beatty’s responsibility then was to prepare the body for lying in state in Greenwich; this meant removing Nelson’s somewhat deteriorated pickled remains from the cask, wrap them in clean linen, and transfer them to a lead coffin, again filled with brandy, as well as camphor and myrrh. This was carried out on 11 December 1805 when Beatty took the opportunity to conduct an autopsy, during which he recovered the musket bullet and a piece of gold epaulet—proof Nelson had been struck in the shoulder before the bullet lodged in his spine.
Beatty was to write up his findings for the Admiralty and Nelson’s brother, but his primary objective was not fact finding: he needed to empty out Nelson’s abdominal soft tissues, which were decomposing at a faster rate than everything else. Although Beatty would later claim the corpse was in perfect condition, both he and the chaplain wrote letters to their higher ups suggesting the face was by then a little too gruesome for public viewing.
On December 13, the Times ran an editorial imploring the public not to march a wax likeness of Nelson through town, “pageantry which borders upon childishness.” No rumour was too insignificant to print, and no monument too improbably large. The entire nation, regardless of class or occupation, was riveted. On the 21 December the lead coffin was again opened and the body placed in another coffin made from L’Orient’s mainmast – a French ship that had been destroyed in the Battle of the Nile and a present given to Nelson in 1799 from Benjamin Hallowell, then captain of HMS Swiftsure. The coffin was then placed in another made of lead and then one final body shift, to a wooden coffin—Beatty cautious to make sure Nelson’s skin didn’t fall off in front of everybody—it would be a closed-casket farewell tour. The official account of this appeared in the Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson, dated 1807′:
“The Remains were wrapped in cotton vestments, and rolled from head to foot with bandages of the same material, in the ancient mode of embalming. The Body was then put into a leaden coffin, filled with brandy holding in solution camphor and myrrh. This coffin was enclosed in a wooden one, and placed in the after-part of HIS LORDSHIP’S cabin; where it remained till the 21st of December, when an order was received from the Admiralty for the removal of the Body. The coffin that had been made from the mainmast of the French Commander’s ship L’Orient, and presented to HIS LORDSHIP by his friend Captain HOLLOWELL, after the battle of the Nile, being then received on board, the leaden coffin was opened, and the Body taken out; when it was found still in most excellent condition, and completely plastic. The features were somewhat tumid, from absorption of the spirit; but on using friction with a napkin, they resumed in a great degree their natural character. All the Officers of the ship, and several of HIS LORDSHIP’S friends, as well as some of Captain HARDY’S, who had come on board the Victory that day from the shore, were present at the time of the Body’s being removed from the leaden coffin; and witnessed its undecayed state after a lapse of two months since death, which excited the surprise of all who beheld it. This was the last time the mortal part of the lamented Hero was seen by human eyes; as the Body, after being dressed in a shirt, stockings, uniform small-clothes and waistcoat, neck cloth, and night-cap, was then placed in the shell made from L’Orient’s mast, and covered with the shrouding. This was enclosed in a leaden coffin; which was soldered up immediately, and put into another wooden shell: in which manner it was sent out of the Victory into Commissioner GREY’S yacht, which was hauled alongside for that purpose. In this vessel the revered Remains were conveyed to Greenwich Hospital; attended by the Reverend Doctor SCOTT, and Messrs. TYSON and WHITBY.”
On 23 December, the coffin was collected from HMS Victory, moored in the River Medway, by the Sheerness dockyard commissioner George Grey’s official yacht Chatham. From there, the coffin was taken up the Thames to Greenwich Hospital where, on 25 December, it was placed in a private room until 4 January 1806. Nelson’s corpse had spent 80 unrefrigerated days above ground; now it was all over – but not quite. The gossip continued.
Despite the fact that Beatty was now famous, partly by his own doing, people still wondered, sometimes to Beatty’s face, why he did not use rum instead of brandy. Countless printed accounts maintained that Beatty did use rum, because that’s what is always used – isn’t it? Popular slang also popped up; navy rum, mixed with brandy, was now “Nelson’s Blood.” Surreptitious tippling on the sly was “Tapping the Admiral”.
In 1807, Beatty fought back with a bestselling book, Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson, which let readers know in an authoritative third-person voice that all of his decisions had been exceptionally clever, and by the way brandy was the better choice.
Beatty said of his decision to use brandy,
“……a very general but erroneous opinion was found to prevail on the Victory’s arrival in England, that rum preserves the dead body from decay much longer and more perfectly than any other spirit, and ought therefore to have been used: but the fact is quite the reverse, for there are several kinds of spirit much better for that purpose than rum; and as their appropriateness in this respect arises from their degree of strength, on which alone their antiseptic quality depends, brandy is superior. Spirit of wine, however, is certainly by far the best, when it can be procured.”
This worked – but then, it did not!. The Authentic Narrative became the go-to source for historians interested in Nelson’s final moments, and Beatty died wealthy—a king’s physician, and a knight. However, the Nelson-rum connection remains tenacious, with several liquor companies selling bottles of spiced rum named after the Admiral pickled in brandy. There are still pubs all across England called The Lord Nelson.
As for the killer musket ball, Captain Hardy (of “Kiss me, Hardy” fame) let Beatty keep it as a good luck charm. He used it as a watch fob for the rest of his life. When he died in 1842, his family gave it to Queen Victoria. It’s in the grand vestibule of Windsor Castle.
A word about surgeons:
Today, the title evokes respect. These are the cool-under-pressure miracle workers who can clean out a heart and rewire nerve endings. In the 1800s, this was quite different. This was a time not altogether removed from the barber-surgeon days; in the absence of anaesthesia, most surgeons were essentially brawlers, burly guys who could hold you down or knock you out while they sawed and sewed. They often came from the lower classes – although this was less true in the navy than on land – and, unlike the ship’s physician, were not typically invited to dine with the commissioned officers. Although the profession was trying to set up a system of accreditation, most of the public still viewed surgeons as a cross between butchers and sideshow performers, and they weren’t far wrong.
Nelson’s surgeon, William Beatty was, however, exceptionally competent. At Trafalgar, 96 of 102 casualties treated by Beatty survived, including 9 of 11 amputees. To put this into some sort of context, battlefield statistics collected in 1816 found amputation’s mortality rate in the best case scenario was 33 percent, and in less optimal conditions more like 46 percent. Beatty was not working in a best case scenario, according to Nelson’s Surgeonby Laurence Brockliss, John Cardwell, and Michael Moss. Beatty had to work in a small, poorly-lit, cabin on a ship under attack – and then in a hurricane. To make matters worse, he was understaffed. Beatty’s staggering survival rate is all the more remarkable when you remember that Pasteur’s work on germ theory and Lister’s development of antiseptic surgery wouldn’t happen for another 50 years.
Beatty was also Irish at a time when Anglo-Irish relations were complicated. Although the two countries were firmly joined by the Acts of Union 1800 (creating the still-used Union Jack flag), that firmer union was a direct response to the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which was in turn a response to English brutality in Ireland. So although almost a quarter of the British seamen at Trafalgar were Irish, they were largely confined to the lower ranks.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of Irish fighting on the French side, a whole legion of them waiting to invade the British Isles. Ireland was about as unified as Afghanistan.
So, looking at Beatty, you have someone outside the chain of command; who had no significant patrons or connections to institutional power; who was Irish. This was the person who took charge of Nelson’s body; who was ‘allowed’ to take charge of Nelson’s body—essentially because he was bold enough to say “I think I know how to do this,” and his co-workers trusted his skill. Finally – and despite all the criticism about what spirit should be used to pickle Nelson, Beatty was knighted for his services to the Crown.
On Tuesday, Sep 23, 2008, a box, believed to be made of wood from a barrel that held Lord Nelson’s body preserved in brandy on its voyage back to Britain, was sold for £8,160. This tiny box measured 2.6 inches by 1.8 inches and less than an inch deep. It was a commemorative item with silver inlays.