The day of the 4 April 1817 began just like any other April day – but that wasn’t how the morning would turn out to be. The day was. in fact, Good Friday and Wright’s ‘Norwich & Yarmouth Steam Packet’ was preparing to take on twenty-two passengers, for an Easter trip to Great Yarmouth, some 24 river miles down-stream on the coast of Norfolk. The date of April 4, 1817 was also the sixth anniversary of the opening of Foundry Bridge from where the steam packet had regularly sailed ever since 10 August 1813. It was also the place where, during the construction of the Bridge, a ten-year-old boy drowned. That Good Friday morning was another tragic incident when, this time, the steam packet was lost.
At the appointed moment on the clock and with all passengers on board, the crew of John Wright’s boat undertook to ‘cast off’, but had hardly moved twenty yards from Foundry Bridge and its regular mooring there, when a huge explosion of its engine’s boiler took place. That moment claimed the lives of nine men, women and children and caused many other injuries of varying severity on board. Of the twenty-two passengers on board, five men, three women and one child were killed instantly. A number of other people, from Acle, Norwich, North Creake and Yarmouth had fractured arms and legs and were taken to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital for treatment of those injuries, which included some loss of limbs and where one person died. The remaining seven escaped with minor injuries. It was said at the time that when the tragedy happened ‘the River Wensum turned red and many citizens cried’.
Those city citizens who heard that explosion rushed to the scene out of initial curiosity, but for some, curiosity quickly turned to a desire to help – from the very moment they witnessed the terrible scene of destruction and carnage that greeted them. The Norwich Mercury of the day reported:
“One of those unfortunate accidents which attend even the best arranged establishments that carry with them a certain though remote danger, occurred yesterday morning, and we state the extensive calamity with much acute pain. The horrible spectacle of eight mangled carcases, is yet before our eyes. These are the miserable victims of the bursting of the steam boiler in the packet which sails from Foundry bridge. Just after the boat has started, it had not gone twenty yards, when the tremendous explosion took place. The vessel was rent to atoms, so that little remains entire, from the stern to the engine room, except the keel and flooring,”
“Twenty-two passengers appear to have been on board. The bodies of eight are found – five men and three women, one child is missing, and six have been sent to hospital in a wounded state: six escaped unhurt. One person later died in hospital of their injuries.”
“Of these, one man was standing over the boiler when the explosion happened. It is said Major Mason was another, whose clothes were torn by the shock, but was otherwise uninjured. The third was an infant, two months old, and the little innocent was discovered at the bottom of the vessel in a profound sleep, after the removal of the dreadful wreck”.
“The boiler is a cylindrical vessel, playing fore and aft the vessel, about eight ft long and four ft in diameter, made of wrought iron, excepting one end, which laid towards the stem of the vessel, and is of cast iron. In consequence of the stress of stream being greater than the boiler was capable of sustaining, the cast iron part of the boiler gave way, and flew in a direction towards the stem of the vessel.”
Those who died were later named at a Court of Mayoralty which examined the cause of the accident. Such was the impact that the tragedy had on the city that its citizens raised a princely sum of £350 through a public subscription for the injured and the families of those who lost their lives. They were: John Bleasey (aged 4), Mary Bleasey (40) his mother, William Battledur, William Richardson, John Marron, Richard Squire, Thomas Luise, Elizabeth Stevens, Diana Smith.
Soon after the Foundry Bridge tragedy, a replacement packet was introduced on the river. It was worked by four horses, as in a thrashing machine with the animals walking on a path 18 feet in diameter. The vessel itself was propelled from six to seven miles an hour, as wind and tide dictated. However, this particular packet did sail for long; improved steam packets were soon introduced which went from Norwich to Yarmouth daily.
Being the way of all newspapers for having a ‘nose for a good story’, the Norwich Mercury picked up on the fact that the steam packet owner, John Wright, had bought a French boat and fitted it with a steam boiler. They reported that Wright had been challenged to a race but ‘someone’, maybe with a wager place on the outcome of the race – who knows, had strapped down the steam escape value to make the boat go faster. This was to determine that the incident that day had not been an accident and, as a result, John Wright had to pay compensation to the injured which made him destitute. The incident was later raised in Parliament where, under the heading of ‘STEAM BOATS’, Hansard recorded in ‘HC Deb 08 May 1817 vol 36 cc271-2’:
Mr. Harvey said, the House must all have heard of the unfortunate accident which happened some time ago at Norwich, when so many persons lost their lives in consequence of the explosion of the boiler of a Steam Packet. The cause of that explosion was owing, he understood, to the boiler not being of a right construction. It was from its being made of cast iron, and not of cast iron only, but cast iron mixed with other metals, which greatly increased the danger. As there were at present a great number of steam vessels in the different rivers of the country, and several other steam vessels were building, it became a matter of great importance to inquire into the means by which these vessels could be so constructed as to be attended with the least danger to the lives of the passengers. The hon. gentleman concluded with moving, “That a committee be appointed to consider of the means of preventing the mischief of explosion from happening on board steam boats, to the danger or destruction of his majesty’s subjects on board such boats.”
Mr. Curwen said, the accident at Norwich could not have happened, had it not been for gross neglect with respect to the management of the safety valve. It was not from any deficiency in the materials of which the boiler was composed.
Mr. W. Smith said, the accident was owing to the safety valve being overloaded. The object of the committee should be, by examining engineers, to learn how the safety of the passengers might be best secured. It might be impossible to prevent the bursting of the boiler, but the boiler might burst without causing those inconveniences with which the bursting of cast-iron boilers was attended.
Mr. Thompson expressed his hope that the inquiry in a committee might remove the alarm of the country.
The motion was then agreed to.
Steam packets were suspended by parliamentary decree for extra safety measures to be carried out nationally; existing packets were replaced by ones’ worked by horses, as on a threshing machine where the animals trundled on a circular on-board path, which was about 18ft in diameter. By this means, the vessels were propelled 6 – 7 mph, as wind and tide dictated. However, this type of packet did not run for long before improved steam packets were introduced.
On 31 October 2016, the following article by Helen Rogers, appeared on her ‘Conviction Blog site. Its title: “The Smuggler Returns”. In it she cites the County of Norfolk, England and Great Yarmouth in particular. For that reason, readers of who may have missed the article the first time round, might like to read it for themselves here. Apologies to the Author for a few minor tweaks to the article, and for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from a very interesting read:
The date is 5 February 1840. Charles Lewis Redwood stands at the helm, steering the St Leonard into the Yare. He remembers the tightening of his stomach the last time he watched Yarmouth coming into view, shackled as he was then with his men aboard the Admiralty cutter as his sloop, the Nancy, was towed into port. Deftly, he slips the St Leonard up against the quay and oversees his men unloading her cargo. Honest fare, now, he carries between Harwich and London. Not like the bales of tea and barrels of brandy, stashed in the hulk, discovered when the excise officers intercepted the Nancy crossing the Yarmouth Roads, disguised as a fishing smack.
It’s four years since he was on this quay. The Harwich men were waiting outside the Gaol to greet the five smugglers from the Nancy after six-months imprisonment. Singing and slapping each other’s shoulders, they marched down to the dock and into the nearest tavern. He was impatient to return home but first he must treat the band of smugglers for supporting his men during their confinement with regular supplies of food and tobacco. It felt ungrateful to watch his friends supping their ale and not join them in a glass. After all this time, he was glad to get the commission to come back to Yarmouth. At last he can call on the prison teacher he promised to visit. He seeks directions to Row 57. Will Miss Martin remember him?
She recognizes the sailor instantly, welcoming him into her little room. He’s taken aback by its bare simplicity. Brewing the tea strong, she manages to get two cups out of the teapot, made only for one. It was a hard time, he tells her, when he left the Gaol. Fourteen months he spent, searching for honest work. With his wife and children to feed, it was a sore temptation not to go back to the contraband. But he stood by what his teacher taught him. Now, he says proudly, he is master of a respectable merchant’s ship.
The mariner’s eyes light up when she asks after his family. Sarah, his wife, has another baby on the way. William, his first-born, has become a sailor. He’s a strapping lad. Good and steady. The teacher rummages through a box of envelopes, and takes out the letters of thanks from Edmund Cole and his wife, to read their cheery news. Like Redwood, the first mate had struggled when he returned home. But Cole had visited last summer and told Miss Martin how all the Nancy’s crew had finally left off smuggling. They are doing well, Charles Redwood nods. Fine men. He sees them often. The teacher is happy to hear him confirm Edmund Cole’s reports. Shyly, before he leaves, the former prisoner takes from his sack two presents for the teacher. He bought them in France, a token of his gratitude for all she has done for him. He hopes she will like them. But sat on the table between them, the pretty vase and jewellery box look out of place, he thinks.
Once the master mariner bids her farewell, Sarah Martin opens the Liberated Prisoners book and writes of his visit and gifts—a vase covered in shells, and a curious glass box—his gratitude for what he thought his obligation to me. At the end of their confinement, she remembers smiling, the smugglers asked to speak with the prisoners, and begged them to listen to her advice, and treat her with respect. She picks up the vase and box, and hesitates, weighing the strange trinkets in her hands. I am not sure if she stands them on the mantelpiece or hides them away in a cupboard.
The smugglers on the Nancy had been in prison before, as they told Sarah Martin. Why did her teaching touch them when previous correction had failed to deter their illegal activities?
In 1832 Charles Redwood was found in charge of the Union of Ipswich, sailing as a collier hauler with contraband concealed under the coal. His men were pressed into the Navy for five years—a gain for the Admiralty that won the services of experienced sailors, and for the Home Office that saved on the cost of imprisoning them. Of the six crew members, only the cabin boy was acquitted, as at the Yarmouth trial. But the captain must be made an example. Unable to afford the £100 fine, Redwood was sent to Springfield Gaol, a convict prison near Chelmsford.
The County Gaol, at Springfield, stands in an airy and pleasant situation on about 9 acres of land, half of which is enclosed by the boundary wall. The erection of the old buildings was commenced in 1822, and took six years to be built at a cost of about £57,000. Springfield opened in 1828 as a modern penitentiary, designed in the radial style to ensure close observation of inmates, with a tread wheel for hard labour. Under a ‘silent system’, inmates were prohibited from speaking with each other, on pain of punishment.
Mateship had bound the Nancy men together on the open seas. It sustained them in prison, with gifts from the smugglers’ band—one of the illicit friendly societies formed by contraband men. The vision of Christian fellowship, offered by the prison teacher, shared much in common with the values of fraternity and mutual obligation expressed by friendly societies across the trades, often symbolized in Christian terms, especially in the figures of the Good Samaritan and St Christopher. They were embedded, too, in the sea-faring life where the maritime spirit of hardy independence was built on the interdependence of crewmen. Those same values girded the men in the difficult months after release, when the older ones kept a careful eye on their younger mates.
Determination to leave the smuggling trade was surely strengthened by the strain their imprisonment had placed on the men’s families and the fear of transportation if they were caught again. When Charles Redwood was arrested in 1836, his son Lewis was just two-years-old.
The census returns for the Redwood household suggest the precarious nature of sailoring life but also the principles of kinship and reciprocity that kept the master mariner on the straight-and-narrow and his family together. At each census the sailor and his wife lived at a different address but always in the streets by the harbour. In 1841, five of their eight sons and daughters, were with them in Castle Street. When the children left home, they remained close by.
All Redwood’s sons became mariners and his daughters married sailors or men employed in trades connected with the sea. In 1851 his widowed daughter Jane had returned to live with her parents, while she worked as a charwoman to support her young daughter and newborn son. By 1861, now remarried to another sailor, she was living next door to her mother Sarah, who was caring for two of her grandchildren.
The former smuggler passed away in 1859, aged sixty-five. Proudly, his family or his friends placed notices in the Essex Standard and Chelmsford Chronicle, to note the death at Harwich of Mr Charles Redwood, mariner of that town.
At the click of the latch, young Lewis Redwood runs squealing to the door and tugs at his father’s breeches. Sarah is all smiles. He feels the baby, firm in her belly, as he presses her in his arms. This one will not know his Daddy once went to gaol.
Sitting in his chair by the hearth, he keeps an eye on the potatoes bubbling on the stove while his daughters set the table. Suddenly he is hungry as the herrings, bought today in Yarmouth, sizzle smoky-sweet on the griddle. Up on the mantelpiece, Sarah has added the vase to the collection of shell decorations, beloved by sailors, which her husband has brought back from his travels. The new jewellery box has pride of place, already containing her blue bead necklace and money for next week’s housekeeping. Its glinting glass casts flickering rays of lamplight onto a picture, cut out from a magazine; it is his favourite print – ‘A Sailor’s Family’ by Thomas Rowlandson:
Though often portrayed as rowdy, drunken womanisers, sailors are rarely shown in that domestic role that many of them played – that of father. Aboard a ship, a jack cradles his infant child in one hand, while embracing his wife with the other. Even a dog joins the happy family, looking up to the sailor for approval or acknowledgement. Though drawn in a year of relative peace for the Crown, the pistol, musket, sword, and powder keg above the family all hint at the ever present threat of war that intrudes on their private moment.
The sailor wears a round hat with a low crown and very short brim. His hair is long and unruly. Though it is difficult to make out, the neckcloth appears to be plaid or striped. Our tar’s jacket has unbuttoned slash cuffs. The trousers are very narrowly striped, his stockings are white, and his pointed toe shoes have oval buckles.
He turns away from the merry picture and looks at his own happy band, gathered around the table, his wife beckoning him. For a moment he thinks of Miss Martin, sat at the table in her spartan room, writing out verses for the prisoners to copy. Charles Redwood shakes his head and then joins the homecoming supper, beaming. And because everyone loves a sailor, here are more returning sailors (and some smugglers)………
More typical of Rowlandson is his bawdy style of many Sailor’s Returns
The Sailor’s Farewell and The Sailor’s Return were familiar motifs on pottery:
And then there was The Smuggler’s Return…
Fortunately, perhaps, there are no links here to extremely lewd and graphic set of Sailors Returns which I’m sure Charles Redwood did not display on his walls!
Sources: https://convictionblog.com/2016/10/31/the-smugglers-return  Based on the following sources: Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol Committal and Discharge Book, Sept 1831-Dec 1838, Y/L 2/6, 18 May 1835; 1840  Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II, Northern and Eastern District, Fifth Report, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online (Proquest, 2005), 126–27 and 1839 , Inspectors of Prisons, Fourth Report, ibid, p. 172. Charles Edward Lewis was born April-June 1840: FreeBMD. England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006. Born in 1819, William was a sailor by 1841, living with his wife Mary on Church Street in Harwich, married to Mary: Class: HO107; Piece: 344; Book: 19; Civil Parish: St Nicholas; County: Essex; Enumeration District: 2; Folio: 29; Page: 17; Line: 19; GSU roll: 241380. Details of Edward Cole from the Liberated Prisoners Book are from 1839  Inspectors of Prisons, 173–74. For further analysis of Redwood and other apparently reclaimed prisoners, see Helen Rogers, ‘Kindness and Reciprocity: Liberated Prisoners and Christian Charity in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History 47.3 (Spring 2014): 721-45, doi: 10.1093/jsh/sht106. Essex Standard, 29 September 1832, p. 3.  See extract from White’s Directory of Essex, 1848 at ww.historyhouse.co.uk/articles/prison.html, which also includes excerpts on the gaol from the Inspector’s Reports. Accessed 25 October 2016. Daniel Weinbren, ‘The Good Samaritan, Friendly Societies and the Gift Economy’, Social History, 31:3 (2006), pp. 319-336, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03071020600764464  1841 Census; Class: HO107; Piece: 344; Book: 20; Civil Parish: St Nicholas; County: Essex; Enumeration District: 4; Folio: 14; Page: 20; Line: 6; GSU roll: 241380; 1851 Census, HO 107/1760; 1861 Census, RG 9/1094; England & Wales, Free BMD Death Index: 1837–1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006. Essex Standard and Chelmsford Chronicle, 11 March 1859, both p. 3  Thomas Rowlandson, ‘A Sailor’s Home’, etching from series Imitations of Modern Drawing (London, 1787), Metropolitan Museum of Art, credit Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933 http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/407353 . This illustration is a variant of the Sailor’s Return genre, itself part of a wider genre on the Labourer’s Return. Usually the homecoming sailor or worker is pictured at the threshold of the home, rather than in it, as here, reflecting longstanding ambivalence about the relationship between masculinity and domesticity. See Brian Maidment, ‘Domestic Ideology and its Industrial Enemies – The Title Pages of The Family Economist 1848-1850’ Christopher Parker, Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Literature (Abingdon: Scholar Press, 1995), pp.25-56; Trev L. Broughton and Helen Rogers, ‘The Empire of the Father’, in Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007); and Joanne Begatio (Bailey), Parenting in England 1760-1830: Emotion, Identity, and Generation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
For about 30 months during WW1, the names of Robert Leckie and South Denes at Yarmouth were intrinsically linked. He, a Scottish born Canadian pilot and South Denes being the site of the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) from where Leckie and some 30 aircraft and air crew played an exceptional roll in keeping the enemy at bay. Whilst at South Denes, Robert Leckie set course to become a highly decorated officer and later, when the war had ended, was to carve out a distinguished career in military flying. As for Great Yarmouth’s RNAS station, she was destined to be all but forgotten and long wiped off the map. Here’s their story:
Long before his defiant speeches helped rally a country at risk from the Nazi menace in World War II, Winston Churchill played a key role in establishing an earlier barrier to German invaders – one in which Great Yarmouth had a vital role to play. Churchill was responsible for the setting up of Great Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at South Denes as part of a national network of stations founded in 1912 to run alongside the new Royal Flying Corps. These stations were charged to counter the perceived growing German menace and their main “naval” role (ignoring the service’s direct field “support” of the Royal Flying Corp) was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines and attacking enemy coastal territory. It would, during its time, systematically search thousands of square miles of the North Sea for enemy aircraft of any kind and U-boats.
At Yarmouth the site chosen for a regional RNAS station was on the South Denes, an area outside the town’s walls which had had a variety of uses over the centuries, from cattle grazing to public hangings, horse racing to a place for fishermen to dry their nets. It took a little while but the Admiralty eventually earmarked this area after having searched for over a year for suitable land where hydro-aeroplanes could be handled and launched. Gradually, the site witnessed the arrival of concrete hard-standings, service buildings, hangars and slipways.
Commissioned on April 13 1913, the Yarmouth Station grew rapidly, taking on civilians later that year who would be responsible for the care, maintenance and repair of machinery; they would also act as chauffeurs, storekeepers or telephone operators. Then in 1914 came seven officers, two warrant officers, 29 ratings and three pensioners to play their part on one of only eight airfields in Britain, ready-built to combat aerial threats. Interestedly, naval terms would apply; personnel not living on-site were called ‘The Ship’s Company’ and would be treated well, with free transport between their lodgings and the base. As for the public, they were forbidden to approach the site when aircraft movements were likely, but could visit the planes on Sunday afternoons if no ‘emergency’ was declared.
When fully operational, the Yarmouth Station’s 30 planes would go on to fill its potential for combating raids by airborne Zeppelins, spotting German surface raiders and playing a major part in submarine detection. Unlike some RNAS stations, Yarmouth was now equipped to act as both a land and a flying boat base with seaplanes initially launched by trolleys. Later, two slipways of heavy sleepers pinned to beach-driven piles were built, one at each end and intentionally placed opposite aircraft sheds, to aid arriving and departing aircraft. The base was also supported by additional landing ground facilities at satellite bases in Norfolk at Bacton, Burgh Castle, Holt (Bayfield) and Sedgeford, plus Aldeburgh and Covehithe in Suffolk. At the time, the Admiralty had also planned to take over Hickling Broad and use it as a reserve flying boat base and contractors duly built a concrete slipway, but this was never completed. In the event, Hickling was only used during the war for two emergency landings, but a separate arrangement allowed seaplanes destined for Yarmouth to land on the calmer waters of the broad if the sea were too rough. That arrangement is still in force!
A stark reminder of what Yarmouth was up against was when the town became the victim of the first-ever aerial attack on the UK by a Zeppelin airship; this was during the early evening of January 19 1915 when two townsfolk were killed. The South Denes planes, just a mile or two away, were unable to intercept because they could not match the airship’s cruising height. The Station would have to wait until November 27 1916 for its first success when a Zeppelin was shot down over the sea near Lowestoft, the date of which coming close to the moment when Robert Leckie arrived at the station and yet to make his mark and be known as one of “the Zeppelin killers from Canada”.
Robert Leckie was born in Glasgow on 16 April 1890 into a family of weavers who emigrated to Canada. When old enough, Leckie was initially commissioned into the 1st Central Ontario Regiment, and in late 1915 paid 600 Canadian Dollars to begin flying training at the Curtiss Flying School on Toronto Island. However, he had completed only three hours of training in the Curtiss Model F. flying boat at Hanlan’s Point, when the school was forced to close. At the urging of Sir Charles Kingsmill, the Chief of the Canadian Naval staff, the Royal Navy agreed to accept half of the class and Leckie was sent to England. On 6 December 1915, he was commissioned as a probationary temporary flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service, and posted to Royal Navy Air Station Chingford, for training. On 10 May 1916, having accumulated 33 hours and 3 minutes flying time, he was granted a Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate and was then sent to RNAS Felixstowe for further training in flying boats. He was confirmed in his rank of flight sub-lieutenant in June, and in August was posted to RNAS Great Yarmouth situated at South Denes.
14 May 1917: Leckie’s First Success:
On 26 April 1917 the Admiralty put a new tracking system in place to detect Zeppelins. As Zeppelins patrolled, their courses were methodically plotted by the British wireless interception stations and, if they approached within 150 miles of the English Coast, their position, course, and speed were communicated direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases. Local commanders then had discretion to send out aircraft – keeping them up to date with the Zeppelin’s position by wireless.
Soon after dawn on the 14 May 1917, in misty weather, news was received of a Zeppelin near the Terschelling Light Vessel. A Curtiss H12 ‘Large America’, manned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher John Galpin, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Robert Leckie, Chief Petty Officer Vernon Frank Whatling, and Air Mechanic J Laycock, was sent out from Yarmouth. As pilot, Galpin took off from South Denes at 03.30 a.m. in poor weather with heavy rain and low cloud. After eighty miles, the flying-boat shut down the wireless to lessen the chances of discovery. At 04.45am, the weather cleared as the aircraft approached the Dutch island of Texel, then further on, crew spotted the Terschelling Light Vessel and at 04.48 the Zeppelin L 22 came into view at a distance of about 10–15 miles. Immediately, the Curtiss increased speed and gained height, and Leckie took over the controls as Galpin manned the twin Lewis guns mounted in the bow.
Leckie managed to approach to within half a mile before his Curtiss was spotted and the Zeppelin attempted to take evasive action but as events turned out, it was too late. Leckie made a skilful approach and dived on the Zeppelin until he was twenty feet below and fifty feet to starboard of her gondolas. Galpin then opened fire from the two Lewis guns in the forward cock-pit, but after a burst of fire both guns jammed, one after the other. Leckie turned the aircraft away and an attempt was made to clear the guns, however, no second attack was necessary. As the flying-boat turned, the L22 Zeppelin began to glow and within seconds she was falling in flames. Her skeleton plunged upright into the sea, leaving no trace in the dawning light save a mound of black ash on the surface of the water. The Curtiss returned to South Denes base by 7:50 a.m and they found only two bullet holes, in the left upper wing and the hull amidships, where the Germans had returned fire. In his Report to the Commander of Yarmouth RNAS, Galpin stated “……..I would submit to your notice that the success of the attack was due to the good judgment and skill of Flt Sub Lt Leckie…….” On 22 June, Leckie was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in downing the L 22; on 30 June, Leckie was promoted to flight lieutenant.
Leckie’s Subsequent Successes:
The next success for Leckie was at 10.35 a.m. on 5 September 1917, again flying a Curtiss H-12 from South Denes, under Squadron Commander Vincent Nicholl. They were accompanied by a de Havillan DH.4 biplane, and were again heading for Terschelling. However, they were only part-way to their destination when they unexpectedly encountered the Zeppelins L 44 and L 46 accompanied by support ships. The British aircrafts were hit by enemy fire, but pressed their attack on the L 44. Nicholl noted several hits on the Zeppelin from his guns, but it did not catch fire. Leckie then turned the aircraft to attack the L 46, but it had turned rapidly away and was out of range, as was the L 44 by the time he turned back. Both British aircraft had been hit, and the DH.4’s engine soon failed. The Curtiss had also been hit in one engine and one wing was badly damaged.
The DH.4 was forced to ditch into the sea, and Nicholl ordered Leckie to put the aircraft down to rescue the two crew. However, now with six men aboard, damaged, and in heavy seas Leckie was unable to take off again. Some 75 miles from the English coast, the aircraft began to taxi towards home. Their radio was waterlogged, but they did have four homing pigeons. Nicholl attached messages to the birds giving their position and course and sent them off at intervals. After four hours the aircraft ran out of fuel, and began to drift, so they improvised a sea anchor from empty fuel cans to steady it. That night the damaged wing tip broke off, and each man then had to spend two hours at a time outside balanced on the opposite wing to keep the broken wing from filling with water and dragging the aircraft under.
After three days at sea, the six men were suffering badly with no food and only two gallons of drinking water, gained from draining the radiators of their water-cooled engines. Finally, at dawn on 8 September, as search operations were about to be called off, one of the pigeons was found dead, from exhaustion, by the coastguard station at Walcot, barely 20 miles north of the RNAS base at South Denes. Shortly after midday Leckie and crew were rescued by the torpedo gunboat HMS Halcyon. As for the pigeon, it would not be forgotten. The bird was preserved and kept in the officers’ mess at RNAS Yarmouth until the base closed after the war; later it would find a home at the RAF Museum Hendon where it is now on display. A brass plate on the display case bears the inscription “A very gallant gentleman”.On 31 December 1917 Leckie was appointed to flight commander.
While on patrol on 20 February 1918, Leckie, now a flight commander, spotted an enemy submarine on the surface and attacked it with bombs, seeing one strike the vessel as it dived, leaving a large oil slick. Leckie was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 17 May 1918, only to learn much later that he had not actually sunk it.
On 1 April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force, and Leckie transferred to the new service with the rank of lieutenant (temporary captain) whilst remaining at South Denes. By the 8th of April he was promoted to the temporary rank of major.
On 4 June 1918 Leckie led an offensive patrol of four Felixstowe F.2 A flying boats and a Curtiss H.12 towards the Haaks Light Vessel off the Dutch coast. They saw no enemy aircraft until one of the F.2A’s was forced down with a broken fuel feed-pipe. At that moment, five enemy seaplanes appeared, but seemed more interested in attacking the crippled F2 as it taxied towards to the Dutch coast where the crew eventually burned their aircraft before being interned. Then more German seaplanes then appeared and Leckie promptly led his small force into a head on attack; a dogfight ensued which lasted for 40 minutes. Despite further mechanical difficulties with two other F2A’s, necessitating further makeshift repairs while in the middle of the action, two German aircraft were shot down. In addition, four were badly damaged causing the Germans to break off the action, for the loss of one F.2A and the Curtiss – its crew to survive but interned by the Dutch; one man was killed. Leckie’s force returned to South Denes where, in his report, Leckie was to bitterly remark “…..these operations were robbed of complete success entirely through faulty petrol pipes…… It is obvious that our greatest foes are not the enemy……”
Two months later Leckie was involved in arguably his most famous sortie. It took place on the afternoon of 5 August 1918 after a squadron of five Zeppelins had taken off from Friedrichshafen for the east coast of England and a night raid against Norwich, Boston and the Humber Estuary. The leading airship, L 70, commanded by Johann von Lossnitzer, had on board Peter Strasser, chief commander of the German Imperial Navy Zeppelins, the main force operating bombing campaigns from 1915 to 1917. He, together with everyone else on board, were unaware of what was in store for them and their aircraft; they were probably also unaware that the airship squadron had been spotted while out at sea by the Lenman Tail lightship which signalled its course and position to the Admiralty who then passed the details on to South Denes for action.
The first to respond to this notification was Major Egbert “Bertie” Cadbury, (member of the Cadbury family) who raced to the only aircraft available, a DH.4, and jumped into the pilot’s seat while Leckie, who was close behind, occupied the observer/gunner’s position. After about an hour they spotted the L 70 and attacked, with Leckie firing eighty rounds of incendiary bullets into her. Fire rapidly consumed the airship as it plummeted into the sea just north of Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast. None of the 23 men aboard survived. Cadbury and Leckie and another pilot, Lieutenant Ralph Edmund Keys, then attacked and damaged another Zeppelin, which promptly turned tail and headed for home. This was to be the last airship raid over Great Britain. As for the three combatants, they each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions.
A few days later, on 11 August 1918 Leckie took part in another operation over the North Sea. Zeppelins often shadowed British naval ships, while carefully operating at higher altitudes than anti-aircraft guns or flying boats could achieve, and out of range of land based aircraft, so the Harwich Light Cruiser Force set out with a Sopwith Camel lashed to a decked lighter towed by the destroyer HMS Redoubt. When Leckie’s reconnaissance flight reported an approaching Zeppelin, the Redoubt steamed at full speed into the wind, allowing the Camel’s pilot Lieutenant Culley to take off with only a five-yard run. Culley climbed to 18,800 feet, approached the L 53 out of the sun, and attacked with his twin Lewis guns, setting the airship on fire.
As the war entered its final months, the RNAS was absorbed into the newly formed RAF and on 20 August 1918 Leckie was appointed commander of the newly formed No. 228 Squadron, flying the Curtis H-12 and Felixstowe F.2A out of Great Yarmouth. Within three months the Armistice brought the fighting to an end and on 31 March 1919 Robert Leckie said his farewells to South Denes when he retired from the RAF to pursue a career in a variety of military flying roles. He died in 1975.
As for the Yarmouth Station, it lasted until late in 1920 whilst most RNAS sites – including Burgh Castle, Sedgeford, Holt, Aldeburgh and Covehithe closed by September 1919. South Denes was then used for commercial flights until the 1930s when the area became the South Denes Camping and Caravan site. New buildings were constructed and one former station building was to remain even beyond closure of the camp site in 1990. Then a new era began and any trace of what had gone before was finally buried by thousands of tons of sand, stone and concrete to form Yarmouth’s new Outer Harbour complex.
In June 2009, Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station was recognised with the unveiling of a plaque in honour of the men who protected the nation from the Kaiser’s air force and navy. This is outside 25 Regent Street, the RNAS regional headquarters from 1913 to 1920.
Both the source of this story and its author are unknown to me; it came into my hands via an old ‘Gestetner’ printed copy which was also undated and unsigned – I suspect though that the contents were written in the 1970/80’s.
Having read it several times and arrived at my own conclusions, I thought I should broadcast it to a wider audience in the hope that such a tale will interest others. In doing so, I should say that the detail is unabridged and with persons’ names retained – as they appeared in the original. What litle editing has been done was aimed at ‘tweaking’ the grammer and syntax. Other than that I can only point out that I am merely the messenger here – so don’t shoot me!
“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 the region, 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 known throughout East Anglia.
Almost everything about ‘Old Shuck’, as he is most commonly known, is a mystery. Even the derivation of his name comes, according to some, from the old Anglo-Saxon word “Scucca”, meaning Satan or Devil; from the less imaginative, the name comes from the local worf “Shucky” meaning ‘shaggy’ – no doubt referring to the creature’s long, un-kept coat. Likewise, his origins are now veiled in the cloak of time. Here again, opinions differ, some say that he is Odin’s ‘dog of war’, brought over by the Vikings; while others, more practical minded people, say that the dog’s origins go back to the days of smuggling. It is, apparantly, true that tales of Old Shuck were put about to keep people indoors after dark, to keep them out of the way while the smugglers went about their clandestine activities. Even the descriptions of Old Shuck’s appearance do not remain consistent. Here he is a large black nebulous creature silently padding along the hedgerows, while over there he is a huge, one-eyed creature with a mournful howl and rattling chains. Yet, despite all these ambiguities, not every aspect of him is quite so diverse. On one point, most of the numerous legends agree; he bodes death or misfortune to those who are unfortunate enough to see him. On another, no matter what his forgotton origins were, belief in him still is deeply rooted in the minds of East Anglians.
In this, so called, enlightened and technological age it is easy to sit back and scoff at such stories as superstitious nonsense, or the imaginings of backward and ignorant minds. But, what happens when, in the midst of our marvellous technology, someone who is neither superstitious or ignorant but an educated and trained observer claims to have seen “Old Shuck”. Add to this, that he had never previously heard stories of Old Shuck, having only recently moved to these parts and we come up with a mystery as curious and enigmatic as Old Shuck himself!
This is what happened in 1972 when a Mr Graham Grant, then aged 34 and an Officer with HM Coastguard, was keeping a lone virgil one rough windy night at the lookout station on the South Pier at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk. Mr Grant describes what happened”:
“…….while on duty at the Coastguard Headquarters on the Gorleston South Pier on April 19th 1972; dawn had just broken so I started to scan the coastline to the south of my station, then to the north. Both coaslines were clear but I did observe a black dog a quarter of a mile to the north of me on Yarmouth beach and at the time thought nothing of it. A scan out to sea confirmed that my area was clear for the time being, so I turned my eyes once again to the dog. It was running up and down the beach as if looking for someone; it was about 50 yards from the sea. The nearest description of the dog I can give is as follows: It was a large black hound-like animal, standing about 3 feet from head to feet. I did not notice its eyes at the time but I feel sure that it had two. Old Shuck has been reported with one eye, like a cyclops; I feel sure that if the animal had had only one eye it would have stuck in my mind without a doubt. Its mouth was open like any dog that has been running and I noticed nothing outstanding about its teeth. I observed the animal for some two minutes or more, never taking my eyes off it.
Then it just faded away as if a veil of silk had been drawn over it. At first I thought that it had dropped into a hole, but on looking more broadly at the beach with my big 30 x 80 glasses, this was out of the question. Bulldozers had been on the beach the day before to move the sand away from the sea wall and the beach was as flat as a pancake, plus the fact that the wind had levelled the sand so that the beach looked like a tennis court – no question of a hole. Also, the Coastguard Lookout is 26 feet above sea-level so at all times I was looking down on to the beach. The time of 04.48 was my last sighting of the animal, but I remained observing the area until 05.55 hours with negative results. My feelings at the time were a little mixed for I was a trained observer and have excellent vision and I told myself that things like this just do not happen. I was also very curious……..”
“That was how Mr Grant described what happened on that stormy April morning. Remember, he was unaware of the ‘Shuck’ legends at the time as he had been transferred to Gorleston from the Isle of Sheppey that previous summer. However, this is by no way the end of this story, for Mr Grant happened to mention this experience to another member of the Coastguard staff, a Mr Harold Cox, who came from Cromer and who knew of the Old Shuck legends. What happened next was also described by Mr Grant”:
“……. after telling Mr Cox the story, he asked me if I was worried about the foreboding story that goes with the sighting of Old Shuck and explained that if anyone sees Old Shuck, some bad luck or misfortune will come to his family or friends the following year. I told him that this did not worry me too much (I wanted to know the story) and so he told me all about Old Shuck……”
“At that time, Mr Grant was completely unconcerned with tales of ill-luck and misfortune, but soon afterwards something happened to make him change his mind; once again, Mr Grant takes up the story”:
“…….. Old Shuck was sighted by myself on the 19th April 1972. Mr Cox, who told me the story of Old Shuck, died of heart failure during the last week of June that same year. He collapsed in the same chair from which he told me the story; he was in his 50’s. In February 1973, my father died at home in Yorkshire, four weeks after I had told him the story – Heart Failure!……..”
“There is one further point worthy of note which ties in with this story. Southdown Road, which runs parallel to the river and almost opposite to where Mr Grant had his experience, has long been associated with the ‘Shuck’ legend; the Road was originally an ancient trackway linking Gorleston and Great Yarmouth. According to the legend, ‘Old Scarfe’ – for that is what the animal is refered to in the town –haunts this road, but is described as being a rather more spectacular creature than that seen by Mr Grant on the beach. One account describes it as a hugh black, shaggy animal with large yellow eyes that glow like hot coals; around its neck hings a chain. The account goes on to describe how, if straw is laid across its path, the animal rattles its chains and howls in a loud and terrifying manner! It is also said that ‘Old Scarfe’ resides in the cellars of the Dukes Head Hotel in Yarmouth.
Although the above account is far removed from Mr Grant’s, it is still interesting to speculate on whether, or not, there might possibly be some connection between these two creatures. It is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. Is there something in these legends after all? – or something we can all put down to imagination, coincidence or believing only that which we want to believe? Finally, perhaps the last word on Old Shuck should come from Mr Grant himself and whose experience left a deep impression on him:”
“………Now, when the wind blows from the north and is blowing a gale, I do not look on to the sands of Yarmouth beach for very long…………..”
Mr Marten, who chose not to reveal his forename in his Diary of 1825, came to Norwich for the very first time in early September of that year. His, was not so much a visit to the City, but a tour of a sizable part of Norfolk; he came with his wife, daughter and a servant. They were what could be better described today as tourists, and because Mr Marten was something as a diarist, we benefit from a unique and fresh impression of their destinations as they were at the time.
The diary describes how he began his tour from London Docks on the Thames built steam packet ‘Hero’, bound for Norfolk. They reached the port of Great Yarmouth a little over a day later, their mini-cruise probably more comfortable and enjoyable than any stage-coach journey. We are told that they stayed in Yarmouth and visited the more fashionable Gorleston. On Saturday, 10 September, Mr Marten’s party boarded yet another, but smaller, steam vessel to make their way along the river Yare, some 27 miles and a journey time of approximately 5 hours, to Norwich.
The boat arrived in the city near the Ranelagh Gardens entertainment centre, formerly the Quantrell’s Gardens; the area had been renamed after the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, London by Samuel Neech when the Norwich site had come into his hands sometime near the end of the 18th century. This area was just one part of Norwich’s Pleasure Gardens. It was a spot on the river which was also associated with a circus and, later, its future association with Pablo Fanque.
External view of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens
Internal view of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens. (c) British Library
(Views of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens; the inspiration for Norwich’s ‘pleasure’ garden of the same name)
Immediately following disembarcation it was probably likely that Marten and his party would have been picked up by a hotel employed vehicle and conveyed, in this instance, to the Norfolk Hotel at 25 St Giles in the city centre near the Market, and where they had been booked in for a several-day stay. The thought that the party would have been picked up made good business sense to the hotels of Norwich; certainly fourteen years later, when trains operated to and from Norwich at Thorpe (incidentally, at the very site of the once Ranelagh Gardens), the Norfolk and Bell hotels had an arrangement whereby visiting customers were conveyed to and from terminous points.
Mr Marten and his party were to take the opportunity of their stay to explore the City and all its facets, but high on their list was to attend various places of worship. The first opportunity to do this was during their first full day in Norwich, which was a Sunday. They attended morning service at the old St Mary’s Baptist Chapel near Duke Street. It seems that they were a very devout family for during the evening they attended yet another service at the Princes Street Chapel.
Clearly, two visits to a religous establishment in a week was not enough for Mr Marten, for he and his party headed for Norwich Cathedral on the Monday morning to attend the 9.45am Matins. Marten described the service as “the same as in other Cathedrals” – this comment may well suggest that he was an Anglian, but one who enjoyed visiting different places of worship. He went on to say in his diary:
“There were scarcely a dozen persons besides the ecclesiastics who officiated. The building is in fair preservation considering that it has been [in use] since the year 1096. The interior is very clean and from the magnitude and architecture presents to the eye a solemn grandeur. The Courts & inclosure and ancient houses around it are also kept in that order & have that still and quiet aspect & that appearance of retirement & comfort which is usually found around Country Cathedrals.”
Mr Marten also took a a particular interest in Meeting House buildings and attended a sermon by Mr Joseph Kinghorn, although:
“His preaching was not to us so satisfactory…….He appeared to be more the preacher than the minister or pastor. His pronounciation is very broad…….Mr Kinghorn is a thin tall old gentleman, very plain in his attire, simple in appearance, of acknowledged talents and has entered the lists in controversy with Robert Hall of Leicester on the subject of open communion which is advocated by the latter and opposed by the former.”
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1981
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1933
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1933
(The Old Meeting House, Colgate, Norwich. Photos: (c) George Plunkett.)
On Thuesday, 13 September 1825, Marten and his family continued their tour of Norwich but found the stones with which the Norwich streets were paved very annoying; this would seem to be a strange re-action to a material that had long been widely used for laying road and pavements in many other towns and cities. Nevertheless, they prevailed and on the same day, obtained permission to:
“mount the top of the elevated castle in order to have a panoramic view of the City and the hills which surround it, but we were dissuaded on account of the wind blowing so strong that it would be difficult to stand against it”.
However, they did manage to walk round the castle to where it was “loft enough to afford a view over the houses to the distant hills.” From there they counted 23 steeples of the 36 churches which the Map of Norwich stated to be in it. The view “prolonged our stay because of the pleasure we enjoyed”.
“We then walked about the large city & came by St Giles Church into Heigham, and called on Mr Grout who permitted us to go through his important Silk Manufactory. The works are in several floors and the winding twisting bobbinings are by machinery moved by a beautiful 20-horsepower engine. These operations are watched and conducted by more than seventy females, some so young as 7 to 8 years of age. These are on foot from seven in the morning till eight in the evening watching the threads, repairing the broken & seeing that all go on well – occasionally supplying oil where wanted to prevent evil from friction. Only that they have half an hour to breakfast & an hour for dinner. And these little girls earn some 5 shillings, some 5 shillings/6d a week.”
“We were then shewn the winding into warp – the subsequent Beaming – & the reeds for the weaving & were informed that a yard wide crape has in that breadth 2560 single twisted threads of silk. We then saw one of the female superintendents at her crape loom, and afterwards the turners shop where nine men were employed in preparing Bobbins etc. for the factory here & the much larger [factory] which Mr Grout is now erecting at Yarmouth. The silk used here is principally from Bengal but part was the white silk fron China.”
“Seeing a loom going in a private house as we passed we asked the woman who was weaving Norwich crape & learned that she could, by close application, weave eleven yards each day – but we omitted to ask her earnings by that work.”
Where Mr Marten and family ate and refreshed themselves between forays is not known but they kept going thoughout each day. They walked towards the north of the City until they reach its outskirts and fields beyond and “found the population lively”. They were also amazed by the number of churches:
“so abounding that the eye could scarcely fail to see two or three which ever way it turned. Many of these were flint faced and some of them with squared flints very carefully cut & nicely laid” – They even counted eleven steeples from their hotel windows.
Their stay was also to include walks through both the eastern and southern parts of the city where they saw “many very large & elegant houses.” Marten even picked up on the fact that Norwich was in the process of building a new prison at the top end of St Giles, in an area now occupied by the Roman Catholic Cathedral. One wing of the new prison was expected to open for business later that year and Marten was sufficiently interested in the site to request a visit. He went on to write:
“We were admitted to go over the whole building. The Governor’s House is in the centre and from several windows he can at all times inspect every part of the prision. The Chapel is in the Governor’s House. His pew is opposite & very close to the Pulpit which is entered from the winding stair case. The Felons are in Pews even with this Governor whose eye may be constantly on them – and the Turnkeys guard the two entrances during the whole of divine services – the Debtors are on the floor of the Chapel and thus everyone can see & hear the Preacher. We were shewn the cells for the Felons who are confined at night separately – but they have a Day Room & they have the priviledge of the open air in a yard allotted to them. Condemned Felons left for execution have other & still stronger lonesome cells which they are not permitted to leave until the hour when they are taken to the platform over the entrance gate to surrender their forfeited lives to the violated justice of their Country.”
Marten’s general impression of the City was favourable, apart of course for those streets which were paved with small pebbles and flints, making walking “uneasy to the foot and on which one unused cannot walk either steadily of comfortably.” Other than that:
“We were not accosted in any of our walks even by a single medicant [a beggar] – Everyone seemed busy and we were told by a Gentleman, a resident, that no complaints were heard and that the manufacturers and general business of the place were in thriving condition. Houses of the third and fourth rate & some even beneath these were buildings to a great extension of Norwich, a circumstance which marks many other cities beside this.”
Marten’s final comments, as he prepared his party for their departure from Norwich, was to say that their stay had been pleasant and:
“the Norfolk Hotel intitled to praise for the goodness of its provisions – the neatness of its accommodation….and attention of its conductors & servants. We were also perfectly satisfied with the reasonableness of its charges. We left the Hotel at 20 minutes before 4 o’clock in the stage for Cromer……….”
Great Yarmouth boasts one of the most distinctive and unusual of any coats-of-arms to be found and its origin goes back to a decisive but long-forgotten naval battle, plus a King’s gratitude to a town that gave so generously of its ships and men for what turned out to be the 1340 Battle of Sluys and the start of the Hundred Year’s War.
With no dedicated fleet of warships King Edward III had to assemble hundreds of merchant vessels, called Cogs, for his assault on northern France; the majority of these were supplied by Great Yarmouth. This assault was the precursor to what became known as The Hundred Years War. It is said that Great Yarmouth provided King Edward III with a total of 1,075 mariners and 43 ships, whereas London only provided 25 ships. The fierce sea battle that ensued at Sluys, then the best harbour in Europe, saw the English overwhelm a combined force and destroying French naval capability for some years. This victory allowed the King to land with little opposition and head off an invasion of England. Afterwards, Edward was gracious enough to not only hail the contribution of men and ships from Yarmouth, but also to allow the town to half its own coat-of-arms of three silver herrings and add his own three lions; thus elevating Great Yarmouth’s standing and creating an arresting heraldic emblem.
The Cause of the Hundred Year War:
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, English monarchs had held titles and lands within France, the possession of which made them vassals to the kings of France. The status of the English king’s French fiefs was a major source of conflict between the two monarchies throughout the Middle Ages. French monarchs systematically sought to check the growth of English power, stripping away lands as the opportunity arose. Over the centuries, English holdings in France had varied in size, but by 1337 only Gascony in south western France and Ponthieu in northern France were left. The Gascons had their own language and customs and a large proportion of the red wine that they produced was shipped to England in a profitable trade. This trade provided the English king with much of his revenue. The Gascons preferred their relationship to be with the distant English king who left them alone, rather than with a French king who would interfere in their affairs. Following a series of disagreements between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England, on 24 May 1337 Philip’s Great Council in Paris agreed that the Duchy of Aquitaine, effectively Gascony, should be taken back into Philip’s hands on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as a vassal. This marked the start of the Hundred Years’ War, which was to run one hundred and sixteen years.
The Opposing Forces: Initially the French had the superior fleet, their galleys were ideal for swift passage across the Channel under sail or oars, could penetrate shallow harbours and were highly manoeuvrable and ideal for raiding or ship-to-ship combat. The huge French fleet was supplemented by galleys from Genoa and they were able to disrupt English commercial shipping, particularly that of the Gascon wine and the Flemish wool trades, as well as raiding the south and eastern coasts of England at will.
There was no English Royal Navy in the 14th Century and the English did not have a purpose-built navy. The principle type of English merchant vessel was the Cog, which was clinker-built, fitted with a single mast and a square-rigged single sail, and had a deep draught and round hull. They ranged from about 15 to 25 meters (49 to 82 feet) in length, had a beam of 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet) and the largest could carry up to about 200 tons. Edward requisitioned a number of these ships from the merchant fleet and converted them into warships by adding wooden “castles” at the bow and stern, and a crow’s nest platform at the masthead, from which archers could use bows or drop stones on to enemy craft alongside. The high freeboard of the Cog made it superior in close combat to the French galley allowing the English to look down on their French adversaries.
Edward III assembled his fleet in the River Orwell and River Stour near Harwich. He made the Cog ‘Thomas’ his flagship and set sail on 22 June 1340 and was approaching Sluys by the afternoon of the following day. The English fleet anchored off Blankenberge and that evening King Edward sent Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Chandos, and Sir Stephen Lambkin to reconnoitre the French fleet. They found the French fleet anchored at the entrance of the Zwin estuary and ranged in three tightly packed lines that included the great cog Christopher, a captured English prize.
The French fleet is believed to have been around 200 ships; Edward in a letter to his son counts 180 sails and contemporary French documents record the fleet size as 204 vessels. Part of the fleet consisted of Genoese galleys serving as mercenaries under the command of Admiral Pietro Barbavera and the French fleet was under the command of the Breton knight Hugues Quiéret, admiral for the king of France, and Nicolas Béhuchet, the Constable of France.
The size of the English fleet is not accurately known as no contemporary records exist. It is believed that the English fleet that set sail from the Orwell consisted of 160 ships and that these were joined by the northern squadron led by Sir Robert Morley. In addition, King Edward’s Flemish allies are also reported to have joined the battle and it is thought therefore that the English fleet was somewhere between 120 and 320 ships in total.
The Battle: Forget ships that fired cannons from a distance, this was close-up combat of the most savage kind with boats lining up against each other so that men-at-arms could hack at their adversaries, throwing the survivors overboard. In fact, the task force of merchant ships, called Cogs, were not designed for warfare or manned by naval personnel. This made being a seafarer in the middle ages a risky and violent business, at a time when the King required maritime towns, such as Great Yarmouth, to maintain ships on standby for battle.
King Edward sent these ships against the French in groups of three; two ships were crammed with archers and the third full of men-at-arms. The English ships with the archers would close on a French vessel and the archers would rain arrows down on the enemy’s decks. The English archers, with their long bows, could accurately shoot 20 arrows per minute at a range of up to 270 metres (300 yards), whereas the Genoese crossbowmen could only manage two bolts per minute and had a lot shorter range. While the enemy vessel was so engaged, the ship carrying the men-at-arms would come alongside and the men-at-arms would board and seize it. Because of how tightly the French vessels were packed together, the battle became essentially a land battle at sea.
The English managed to board and seize many French vessels after fiercely contested hand-to-hand fighting. The Genoese crossbowmen managed to successfully board and capture two English ships. French sources asserted that Nicolas Béhuchet wounded King Edward III during the fighting, but there was no evidence, other than a legendary one, that a personal encounter between King Edward and the French commander. It is, however, a fact that the King was indeed wounded during the battle by either an arrow or a crossbow bolt.
Nicolas Béhuchet’s tactics proved disastrous for the French, as it allowed the English to attack their left flank while leaving the rest of the fleet paralyzed. In a letter to his son, King Edward said that the enemy made a noble defence “all that day and the night after”. By the end of the battle, the French fleet had been broken at the cost of only two English ships captured, and the water was reported to be thick with blood and corpses. The number of English losses is unknown, the French are thought to have lost between 16,000 and 18,000 and virtually all of their vessels were captured.
The Aftermath of the Battle: After the battle King Edward went on to lay siege to Tournai, a Flemish city that had been loyal to Philip VI of France. Edward and his forces reached Tournai on 23 July 1340 and laid siege trapping, apart from the inhabitants, a sizable French garrison inside. The siege dragged on and Philip VI with a relieving army drew closer, while Edward was running out of funds to keep his army in the field. At the same time, Tournai was running out of food. It was King Edward’s mother-in-law, Jeanne of Valois (who was also Philip’s sister), who visited King Edward in his tent on 22 September and begged for peace. She had already made the same plea in front of Philip VI and consequently a truce, known as the Truce of Espléchin, was made on 25 September 1340 – thus bringing the siege to an end without anyone losing face.
The story of 19th century bodysnatchers, who stole corpses from graveyards to help surgeons further their understanding of anatomy, have been well documented in history books. Otherwise known as resurrectionists, those who chose to undertake such work were hired by surgeons, across the country, to steal bodies from graveyards. Fresh corpses and bodies of children fetched the highest prices.
Bodysnatchers in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk was a case in point. Like everywhere else, these ‘gentlemen’ would have had to work quickly to avoid being caught. Their methods would have been to hastily dig away the soil from the head of a grave, force open the coffin with a crowbar and drag out the corpse by the shoulders. The body then stripped and the clothes and shroud bundled back into the coffin before the earth was filled back in. Most of the time, the relatives would not even realise the body of their loved one had been taken.
The risks were enormous for if body snatchers were caught in the act they probably would have faced mob justice. Desecrating the dead was seen by many as a crime worse than murder and it is known that some of the unluckier bodysnatchers were beaten to death. But, for many, the risks were worth it for trade in dead bodies was brisk and many of the poorest in society were worth more dead than alive. Ironically, the industry that dealt in the dead was driven by the men most concerned with keeping people alive. The 19th century was the golden age of anatomy, where surgeons would uncover the wonders of the human body and perform operations never before considered possible.
There was, of course, one problem; there were seldom enough cadavers around as a direct result of how the law was framed. You see, it was only the bodies of hanged criminals that were allowed to be used by surgeons and anatomists for dissection and research; and it all hinged on the Judge directing such a procedure when a sentence was passed.
To be dissected in public after execution was considered a fate worse than death. Most people believed their body would be resurrected on the day of judgment; a difficult prospect if it has been cut up into little pieces, each pickled in jars and often spread around the country. As a result, even the most brutal judges were reluctant to hand all but the very worst criminals to the surgeon for, after the dissection of any body, the unwanted remains would not be permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. This meant that such sentences were relatively rare and so, there was this scarcity. As a result, desperate surgeons and ‘enterprising’ individuals inevitably came together to fill the gap.
Graveyards were raided across the country, but particularly in and around London and Edinburgh which were prominent centres of medical learning. Fresh graves were re-opened at night and the corpses stolen, with surgeons making little secret of the fact that they would pay good money for prime cadavers. The robbers were aided by the fact that to steal a corpse was not a felony – but rather a misdemeanour. Provided the robbers were careful not to also steal items of goods from the grave the worst that could happen was for them, if caught, to be given a fine or a short prison sentence.
Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, was quite open about his use of corpses obtained from body snatchers, because the practice helped him to develop the first procedure for tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysm. He boasted,
“There is no person, whatever his position in life might be, whose body after death could not be obtained. The Law enhances the price and does not prevent exhumation”.
Sir Astley Cooper, born the son of the one-time Vicar of St Nicholas Minster in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, really did push the boundaries of medical science and became a household name – when he died in 1841, his funeral drew huge crowds. However, says Druin Burch, author of Cooper’s biography – ‘Digging Up The Dead’:
“Constrained by a limited number of corpses to study, surgeons had little choice but to get hold of them by other means. They paid the grave robbers to do their dirty work for them and asked few questions but some of the more adventurous students, including the young Cooper, probably did some of the body snatching themselves.”
Cooper would have found expeditions to the graveyards a mischievous thrill, for as a boy, he liked practical jokes; he once dressed himself as Satan and convinced the drunk wife of the sexton to sell her his soul. He later chose surgery as his career and, with the help of his uncle, William Cooper, secured an apprenticeship under Sir Henry Cline, a renowned surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital in London. At first, he was a lazy student but one day Cline, annoyed that Cooper was paying little attention to his work, smuggled a human arm home from the hospital and dumped it on the kitchen table in front of his apprentice, challenging him to dissect it:
“The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished the apprentice and the teacher,” again says Burch. “Astley was transformed. For the first time in his life, he found himself taking an interest in his work.”
Cooper was also taught by John Hunter and in the winter of 1787 he visited the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh. In 1789 he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy at St Thomas’ and in 1783 he gave lectures in anatomy for the Company of Surgeons. He didn’t look back and became obsessed with cutting up bodies, gaining a reputation as a brilliant surgeon. His teachers were some of the best in the world but they stressed the importance of hands-on experience and encouraged Cooper to investigate human anatomy first hand. It was a lesson he happily took to heart.
“Neither filth nor stench nor risk now deterred Astley,” says Burch. “He would dissect until the strain of hunching over a stinking corpse made him physically sick.”
Now it was the same Sir Astley Cooper who accepted the body snatching services of Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason from London who was renting a house in Row Six of the town’s renowned Rows. It is not known how, when and where the two men came into contact, if indeed they ever did? Maybe, because of the delicate nature of such an arrangement, there was an ‘intermediary’ instead; and indeed, was Vaughan despatched from London to undertake Sir Astley’s request? What is known is that, in 1827, Vaughan and probably two other suspected accomplices (said to be William and Robert Baker from Beccles) stole 10 bodies from Yarmouth’s Minster churchyard. Vaughan, it was said, had planned to steal these bodies over a period of 19 days; the complete consignment included two children, one young woman and a 67-year-old man.
Each body was put in a sack, then carried to houses in Row 6 where he lived and concealed behind locked doors. Row 6 became known as ‘Snatchbody Row’; the bodysnatchers themselves nicknamed ‘sack-em-up men’. Within a short time, these bodies were then packaged into crates which, it was claimed, were labelled “Glass: Handle with Care”, then stacked on carts and transported to London, via Norwich. Their destination was reported to be a room close to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from where surgeons would choose a corpse and pay Vaughan 10 to 12 guineas for each body. Other reports suggested that, in total, more than 20 bodies were stolen from the St Nicholas Minster in 1827, which would indicate that probably others, apart from Thomas Vaughan and his accomplices, were also operating in the area.
The Papers, then and since, made much from this ‘scoop’, relying on the details extracted from police briefings, plus interviews with those personally affected be the crimes. They reported, for instance, that the scene in St Nicholas’s churchyard after the robberies was grim, and that coffins were “splintered like kindling and rotting corpses strewn on the grass”. The Norfolk Chronicle newspaper of the time reported that the actions of the resurrectionists caused “great excitement” in the town, while the churchyard at St Nicholas was seen to resemble “a ploughed field.” Another report in the Norfolk Chronicle stated:
“……. wives were seen searching for the remains of their deceased husbands; husbands for those of their wives; and parents for their children. Bodies of the number of 20 or more were found to have been removed and the grief of those whose search was in vain can better be imagined than described.”
Later reports elaborated further on the facts – and probably speculated much! Like an more recent article that suggested that:
“George Beck was the first to realise that something was awry. He had lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth, on Halloween of 1827 and she had been laid to rest on 4th November, clothed in a shroud and a gown. Grief-stricken, George went to visit his wife’s grave a few days later, only to discover that the grave had been quite obviously disturbed. He called the police and he and local constable, Peter Coble, laboriously exhumed the coffin, only to find to their horror that it was empty – all that was left was Elizabeth’s shroud.
During the bitterly cold weeks of November and December, Constable Coble kept watch over the cemetery in the vain hope that the bodysnatchers……. would return once again with their gruesome shopping list. Townspeople became aware of the grim vigil and fear turned to fury. Enraged relatives flooded to the graveyard and the graves of the most recently deceased were disinterred – there was an outcry when more empty coffins were discovered and it became apparent that the bodysnatchers had struck again.”
Vaughan was caught quite quickly and sent for trial. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime, but no mention was made of his accomplices. His costs were said to have been paid by the surgeons, and his wife cared for while he was behind bars. Inevitably perhaps, Vaughan never learned his lesson for he returned to bodysnatching, was caught and eventually transported to Australia – his mistake being that on this occasion he stole the victim’s clothes as well as the corpse. As for Sir Astley Cooper well, he finally ended up having his statue erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In 2011, a blue plaque was commissioned by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to highlight the 19th century crimes in Great Yarmouth where men were paid to steal bodies for surgeons to further their understanding of anatomy. It was unveiled on the gates of St Nicholas Church, Church Plain, Yarmouth, from where more than 20 bodies were snatched in 1827.
At the unveiling of the Blue Plaque, the St Nicolas’ church curate Reverend James Stewart, said that it was important that despite the grisly crimes that were committed, the past activities in the churchyard should be marked for their historical importance.
“Necessary evil is a very dangerous thing to be talking about, but these things providentially took place because science moved on as a result……….But we also have to think of those that were disturbed from their immortal sleep, that had not expected they would be taken at cover of night and to be experimented on.”
The Reedham Ferry is a vehicular chain ferry which was hand operated until 1949. It continues to operate on the River Yare in Norfolk, crossing the river near the village of Reedham and forming the only crossing point between the city of Norwich and Great Yarmouth and saving users a journey of more than 30 miles. The ferry carries up to 3 cars at a time with a maximum total weight of 12 tonnes. This contrasts to the original ferry which was called the Norfolk Horse Ferries which, unsurprisingly, carried horse drawn wagons – the main users of the ferry boat at the time. The current ferry was built in 1984 and was designed and built at Oulton Broad by the late Fred Newson & the present owner David Archer.
The Reedham Ferry has been operating this service since the 17th century, supported by the nearby Reedham Ferry Inn whose licensees have been responsible for running the river Ferry to present day. Since the 1770’s the Inn’s licensees have been:
JOHN SHEPHERD pre 1773
JOHN HOGGETT 1773 – 1803
MARY HOGGETT 1803 – 1829
JOHN HOGGETT 1829 – 1831
JEREMIAH HOGGETT 1831 – 1843
MARSON MANTHORPE (marsh man) 1861 – 1865
JOHN BENNS 1865 – 1881
GEORGE FOWLER HALL 1881 – 1884
GEORGE FORDER 1884 – 1917
CHARLES EDWARD STONE 1917 – 1944
ARTHUR JOHN BENNS 1944 – 1949
NORMAN ARCHER 1949 – 1969
DAVID ARCHER 1969 – Present
Norman and Hal Archer took over the Reedham Ferry Inn, then a small ale house, in 1949. They came from London, along with David their son soon after the Second World War. Right from the beginning the family were to demonstrate a true commitment to the task of operating a ferry which required Norman to winch it across the river by hand. However, within 12 months, in 1950, he had the ferry fitted with a diesel engine. At that time, he had no way of knowing that this would be the start of the family pioneering the last working chain ferry in the East of England. Keith Patterson, a past ferryman at Reedham Ferry spoke to WISEArchive at Acle on 18th December 2017
“……Then in October 1958, I started at Reedham Ferry and was there permanently until 1963 as the ferryman. After that I did the job part-time right through until I retired last year in 2016……… I used to work from eight until five and David Archer, his father and I used to share the shift between us. Now there are several ferrymen, because most of them are quite happy to be part-time, so they all fit into the pattern of the week. “
There had been numerous other ferries over the river Yare in those days, principally at Whitlingham, Bramerton, Surlingham, Coldham Hall and Buckenham, but these disappeared.
David Archer took over the business in 1969 at a time when the pub was showing true sustainability and making waves in the hospitality world; it won the ‘Broads Pub of the Year’ in 1973. With the Reedham Ferry Inn flourishing and a small campsite for holiday makers planned, the ‘old ferry’ under the Archers, was now nearly 60 years old; it was getting tired with the amount of traffic on the roads and David knew that it was time for a new ferry. In 1983 boat builders from Lowestoft were given the task of creating a new vessel which started operating in May 1983. This was followed by touring park, and the transformation of the pub from a small 1940’s ale house into the large bar and restaurant it is today.
Normally, the Ferry operates from about 6.30 until 10 at night. It only closes every third or fourth year, when it gets towed down to Newson’s Yard, at Oulton Broad, where it was originally built, for a refit, or whatever needs doing. The Reedham Ferry Inn remains a destination for drivers and holiday makers alike with mooring also available, along with a carp lake for holiday makers to enjoy some fishing as well. As for David Archer, he also worked alongside the Broads Authority managing the surrounding marshes, waterways and farm land.
Operating the only working chain ferry in the East Anglia does, however, have some drawbacks. Being so unique means that everything surrounding the ferry maintenance is more challenging and costly. The ferry has to be lifted out of the water every 4-5 years to check the hull is sound and secure whilst also going through thorough testing. Whilst all this goes on, those who use the ferry have to drive the 30 miles or more detour. That apart, it would appear that David Archer has kept true to an old way of life, barely seen in any other parts of the country. When travellers board the Reedham Ferry they are transported back to a time when that was the only mode of transport for crossing the river Yare. It is a much quicker trip now than back in the days of winching by hand but there is always enough time to get out of the cars and look around and down the river to experience a feeling ‘of the past.
FOOTNOTE: When the rivers were the main arteries of communication within the country Reedham was once a much more important place. It was known to the Romans, when the estuary of the river Yare was much wider and Reedham was almost a sea port. Fragments of Roman brick still turn up in the village and appear in quantity in the church walls. Reedham is mentioned in a story by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) about St Edmund and although the legend may be pure invention the place was obviously well known to these medieval times. Even before the time of Edmund it is said that Reedham possessed a church that was founded by St Felix around the year 640. Felix was the first Bishop of East Anglia and gave his name to Felixstowe. This church at Redham survived until it was destroyed by the invading Danes on their way to murder Edmund in the year 869 – this information comes from the Liber Eliensis or the History of Ely Abbey, written in the 12th century.
In January 2017 a Land Rover ‘Defender’ was reported stolen and later found submerged under the chains of Reedham Ferry. The ferry was forced to close for safety reasons and the fact that it couldn’t moor on the Reedham side of the river. The car was removed from the river by a local resident’s JCB machine and the Reedham Ferry was back in business within one day – during which time travellers had to find an alternative or wait!
It is not clear when it finally faded away, but from 1971 to the early 1980’s, the Borderline Science Investigation Group (BSIG) claimed to be the premier organisation investigating unexplained phenomena in East Anglia. Its quarterly journal was called ‘Lantern’, in which about 40 issues were published between the Winters of 1971 and 1982.
One of the more interesting stories published by this group, and written by their Ivan Bunn, told of the experience of a Lowestoft man on the new (A12 now A47) Hopton Bypass, a mile or so north of Lowestoft, during late 1980. Apparently, so the story goes, at 5.15pm on the 23rd November of that year, PC Frank Colby, who had been 29 years in the British Transport police, was driving back to Lowestoft with his wife. As his car reached the southern section of the Bypass, he saw what he thought to be a man crossing the dual carriageway in front of him. Mr Colby described it at the time as being:
“……. About 5 foot 6” – or a little more, stocky in build and wearing a calf-length shapeless garment. Its head was hunched into its shoulders and it appeared to have What I thought was very spiky hair. There appears to be trousers or some sort of thing on its legs, but what caught my eye – I know it sounds daft – was its fantastically huge footwear. These boots were very big and he was lifting them up well as he plodded along.”
Mr Colby braked and remarked upon the figure to his wife, but she could not see it. The figure was just outside the range of his headlights, but as it crossed the central reservation barrier, Colby claimed that he saw it pass through it and disappear. He immediately stopped his car and examined the spot where the figure had vanished, but there was nothing there – as you might expect! He then returned to his car and made notes of what he claimed he had seen and drew a sketch of it. Mr Colby’s encounter was investigated by Ivan Bunn of the BSIG’s team and his report received press coverage both locally, in the Lowestoft Journal, and nationally on the eve of Christmas 1980. (See figure 2 on Map).
Approximately twelve months after Mr Colby saw the spectral figure in Hopton, on Monday, 2nd November 1981 to be exact, a Mr Andrew Cutajar was driving towards Great Yarmouth; it was very wet and very miserable. Somewhere near to Hopton he noticed what first appeared to be a grey mist in the middle of the carriageway ahead of him. As he drove closer, he could see the figure of a man:
“Tall and dressed in a long coat, or cap, coming well past his knees. He had on old-fashioned heavy laced up boots and his grey hair was long and straggly”.
The figure was unmoving as Mr Cutajar braked to avoid a collision but, in the wet conditions, the car began to skid, passing straight through the figure, ending up facing the other way on the grass verge. At that moment there was no trace of the ghostly figure! Apparently, a number of other single vehicle accidents had occurred at the same spot – and it was speculated at the time if any of these incidents had taken place in similar weather conditions!
These two instances of the 1980’s were not the first, or only, accounts of a spectral figure appearing along, or near, the village of Hopton. One of the earliest came from a Mr Roger Hammersley of Lowestoft who, at the beginning of 1957, was driving in convoy with a friend, Mr R Gardner from Yarmouth, to their home town. Just before midnight, on the old A12 (now the A47) just south of Hopton, both men separately saw what Mr Hammersley described as the figure of a man wearing very large boots, a large fawn overcoat and a hat, crossing the road in front of them. Mr Hammersley drove close to the tall figure before realising it was no longer there, although he did admit that he could not remember seeing the spectral actually disappear. During an interview with Ivan Bunn of the BSIG, Mr Hammersley admitted that many times prior to this encounter he had often felt distinctly “uneasy” driving along this particular stretch of road, and that after seeing the ‘ghost’ back in 1957 he avoided the Hopton stretch of the old A12 whenever he could. (See figure 3 on Map).
In the 1970’s there was yet another claimed sighting of what may have been ‘The Old Man of Hopton’; this story came to light following the Press coverage of PC Colby in 1980. It was said to have happened on 24 December, Christmas Eve, in 1977 when 24-year-old Mrs Rita Rose of Bradwell was driving along the old A12 through Hopton with her mother. It was about 5.30pm when they approached a road junction quite near to the Hopton Post Office – (marked ‘1’ on the map). Mrs Rose’s car was travelling north towards Great Yarmouth and just before they reached the junction, she saw the figure of a man in here headlights, standing on the edge of the nearside kerb. As she drew level with the figure, it stepped off the kerb and under the front wheels of the car. Mrs Rose instinctively did an emergency stop which resulted in her mother being flung against the windscreen; at the same time, Mrs Rose said she felt the impact as the car appeared to hit this man. Despite getting out and searching neither she, nor her mother, could find anyone one either in front or underneath the car.
Mrs Rose, who was a qualified nurse at the time, described both the incident and the ‘man’ to Ivan Bunn, the BSIG investigator. “………he was a bent-over old man wearing a trilby hat and a heavy overcoat……”. She was particularly struck by his “ashen face and cold look….. He was looking directly at the car as it approached him, but gave no indication that he was about to step off the kerb…..he had an odd expression, as if he knew what was about to happen”. Mrs Rose’s mother later confirmed to Ivan Bunn more or less what her daughter had said; saying that she herself never saw the ‘old man’ or felt the impact. In fact, she said that she was absolutely unaware that anything was amiss until she was, unceremoniously, thrown out of her seat when her daughter “stood on the brakes”. (See figure 1 on Map).
There have been other reported encounters with a ‘ghostly pedestrian’ and a few unsubstantiated ones. Another one which seems to have a ring of authenticity about it was one that occurred on a stretch of the old A12 road in March, 1974. At about 9.15pm one evening the driver of a car claimed to have seen a ‘sneering face’ illuminated by the headlights of his car. He braked hard to avoid what he thought was a person but, to his horror, “the car went though it!”. This witness also recalled that on other occasions before this incident, he felt “decidedly uneasy” on that stretch of the road “for no apparent reason”. (See figure 4 on Map).
It was also on the old A12, back in in December 1960 that a Mr Ernest Tuttle of Lowestoft was killed when the fish lorry which her was driving left the road for no apparent reason and hit a tree. Mr Tuttle, who had frequently driven along this road, had often told his daughter that it was “The worst road he had ever driven on….and there was something odd about it”. A month or so before his fatal crash, Mr Tuttle had told his daughter that he had seen “a grey shadow, a mist, going across the road.” At his inquest, an open verdict was returned; in his address, the Coroner said to the Jury:
“ The evidence, regarding the cause of the accident, did not amount to much, and most of it was negative……one naturally tries to find some explanation of something that would otherwise be a complete mystery”. (See figure 5 on Map)
As to the identity of this ghostly figure – well, no one knows. One theory suggested that it was a William Balls, Hopton’s postman who had worked himself to death in January of 1899, having spent 22 years serving the village. He was found in a field, close to where the hauntings occurred, at 10.30am on 2 January 1899, lying face down in a pool of blood after having succumbed to pneumonia which had developed from winter flu. It was said that he was buried at Hopton church, which must have been the present St Margaret’s since the St Margaret’s Church of old was burned down in 1865 – the remains of which still exist as a ruin.
Ivan Bunn was told about William Balls by Gwen Balls – the postman was her husband’s grandfather who died aged just 40 and who had been warned by his doctor just days beforehand that he would die without rest. “What am I to do? I must do my duty,” he replied. On the day of his death, as usual, he set out on his 16-mile round at 6am and worked until 9.30am at which point he started for home and a rest before restarting work at 4.20pm. He was found in his father’s field by a farm worker and left behind a pregnant wife, Angelina.
Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.