The first 3 weeks of February 1916 were very unsettled, and often windy and wet; but it was very mild for that time of the year so it was confidently predicted by the weather forecasters of the time that ‘there was no chance of snow’ – sounds familiar! By 16 and 17 February, the temperature did settle close to 12°C in many places and there was heavy rain. However, on the east coast of England conditions were to be far worse – with gale-force winds and snow!
It was on Thursday 17 February 1916 when newspapers gave accounts of the ‘violent weather conditions which beset Britain’ and the ‘extensive damage to property and the loss of life as a result’. The “windstorm”, as it was called also resulted in ships being lost at sea, as did the Lowestoft trawler, ‘Narcissus’, which went aground and sank. The “Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal” of Friday 18th February gave a local report of ‘a violent gale, a hurricane and snow across Norfolk and Suffolk and described the damage which was caused by the extreme weather conditions and the ensuing floods.
But it was on the morning of Wednesday 16 February 1916 when, amid those strong gale force winds and very rough weather, the “the large steamer SS Hjørdis” set off from the Alexandra Dock in Hull bound for Calais; it was fairly fully laden with a cargo of 495 tons of coal. In charge, as skipper, was Captain Jensen; his crew amounted to ten men, made up of nine Norwegians and one Dane. Of the Norwegians, Thor Halnessen was the Chief Mate, Peter Hammer the second engineer, Eugenen Andersen an ordinary seaman, and Nilsen the steward. Ralf Petersen, from Denmark, was the boatswain.
The SS Hjørdis seemed to have had very competent skippers throughout its forty-three years of battling the North Sea, skippers who had managed to survive the sort of extreme weather conditions of 1916, conditions that were forcing some ships to run into harbour to avoid being sunk or run aground. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to see the Hjørdis leaving port that Wednesday morning, and the best that could be said about Captain Jensen’s decision was that it reflected his feeling that his ship had an obligation to fulfil her charter as it headed due south along the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire shoreline. In due course, the ship passed the Wash and prepared to round the Norfolk coast towards the North Sea; she was, after all, sailing during wartime when movements may well have been restricted. It was a direct route which would have taken her north of Sheringham to arrive off Cromer, before continuing to follow the coast, to Great Yarmouth and then south to Calais.
Captain Jensen’s planned route for the Hjørdis would suggest that he intended to hug the shore, coming in to the lee of the land to take advantage of the shelter which the North Norfolk coast can offer from south-westerly gales; the plan and the worsening conditions left little room for error. The weather was expected to hinder the ship’s progress but, surprisingly perhaps – and based on the 75-nautical mile distance travelled between Hull and Blakeney and the twelve hours it took her to reach the North Norfolk coast – the Hjørdis had travelled at close to her normal cruising speed of 6 knots. However, the added loss of visibility seriously impeded the Captain’s knowledge of the ship’s true location.
About twelve hours later, shortly after seven o’clock in the evening, the ship did go aground at the west end of Blakeney Bar and was wrecked; only one of the eleven-man crew survived despite the Captain and crew managing to launch and take to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, the boat was swamped within minutes by a large wave; it was a matter of speculation whether the ten men were drowned in the lifeboat or when they might have taken to the water in an attempt to swim ashore. Ralf Petersen, the boatswain from Denmark, had the presence of mind to take off his boots and most of his clothes before striking for the shore.
Against immeasurable odds it would seem, he reached the beach and struggled along it for nearly two miles – apparently by following the telegraph poles which were positioned along the beach – before reaching the Blakeney Watch House. From there, a Mr Strangroom, a 45-year-old Auctioneer and Draper of Cley who was acting on behalf of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society, arranged for Petersen to have new clothing and be taken to the “King’s Head” public house in Cley’s High Street. There, he was cared for by Frederick Baines, the 40-year-old Licensed Victualler. The “King’s Head” was the place to which bodies of those lost at sea were traditionally taken to be coffined before burial.
The Rescue Attempt:
The newspaper reports which followed gave no information as to how emergency assistance was summoned, or the sequence of events which cause it to be instigated. The men in the Watch House may have seen the Hjørdis from their upstairs “look-out” room or it may not have been until Ralf Petersen reached the Watch House that the men there raised the alarm. What is known is that the Cley ‘Rocket Brigade’ was hastily assembled and hurried to the beach with five horses; under the supervision of Henry Parker, a 58-year-old Journeyman Butcher from Cley, and the rocket apparatus which was carried on a cart lent by John Everett of Hall Farm nearby. Battling against the gale, the Brigade’s progress along the shingle would have been slow, but they did manage to get to within 300 yards or so of the SS Hjørdis, but there was no response to signals sent up and the Brigade returned to their base.
Explanation of the Cley ‘rocket apparatus’: The system was simple but effective for the rescuing of shipwrecked mariners from the safety of the shore – lifeboats themselves would ground in shallows or be beaten back by crashing breakers. The system was invented by Captain George Manby, barrack master, of Bauleah House on St Nicholas Road in Great Yarmouth. In 1807 he witnessed scores of ships and crews being lost in appalling weather. One in particular was the gun-boat ‘Snipe’ which ran aground at Gorleston. Manby galloped there on horseback, seeing “entreating men clinging to her rigging and women thronging the forecastle with the most piercing shrieks, imploring our succour and assistance.” As he watched, helpless and frustrated, exhausted men were falling from the rigging into the cauldron of a sea which was sweeping women overboard to their deaths. That night 147 souls perished… all within 50 yards of safety!
Manby set to work. After much frustrating trial and error, he devised a system under which those being rescued were hauled ashore in a breeches buoy which hung beneath a pulley on an aerial line fired across the stricken vessel by mortar or rocket. He demonstrated it with himself as “the endangered mariner”, and also created a star shot for work in darkness. It was put into use for real in 1808 when the brig ‘Elizabeth’ grounded 150 yards offshore in a blizzard. The line was successfully fired across the brig and secured, and seven relieved seamen were hauled to safety by pulley-on-line through snow, sleet and rollers.
It would seem that, during the interval between the SS Hjørdis faltering on to the beach and the Rocket Brigade being summoned, the ship’s crew – possibly thinking that rescue from the shore was hopeless or would be slow to execute – took to their own lifeboat. They may well have been clear of the ship for a short time before the huge fateful wave overwhelmed them; some may have tried to swim to shore, others may have chosen to remain in the lifeboat – who knows?
While the Rocket Brigade was returning from the beach, which would have been about 11.30pm, a body was found by Corporal Bertie Hale of the 67th Provisional Battalion, approximately 150 yards east of the Watch House. An hour later, a second body was found about 2½ miles east of the wreck by a James White, Naval pensioner of Church Loke, Cley. Both bodies were recovered from the water and taken by the Rocket Brigade’s cart to Cley. They were examined the following morning by Police Constable Hewett, a retired (possibly because it was wartime) 56-year-old police officer from Norwich; he had them removed to Blakeney. Two more bodies were discovered soon afterwards at Salthouse.
News of the Disaster:
Early, brief reports of the SS Hjørdis appeared in regional newspapers in the days following the ship going ashore. The extent of the loss of lives was feared but not confirmed:
“Lloyd’s Blakeney (Norfolk) message to-day says the Norwegian steamer SS Hjørdis, from Hull for Calais, went ashore on Blakeney Point last night. The crew left in a boat, which was swamped. It is feared that ten lives have been lost. One man swam ashore.”
Ralf Petersen’s own account of his courageous attempts to save his fellow crew members and of his own survival was recorded in the “Eastern Daily Press” of 18th February, two days after the disaster. According to the newspaper, Captain Jensen had said “Hard a starboard” (this was incorrectly recorded in the press report; it should have read “Hard a port”) in order to get into deeper water but the ship struck twice more and then a fourth time, so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. Ralf Petersen’s account suggested that Captain Jensen had been overwhelmed by events and that it was Thor Halnessen, the Chief Mate, who took control.
Within a few days of the SS Hjørdis being wrecked, the scale of the disaster quickly became clear, and the newspapers reported accordingly. However, no mention was made of a lifeboat being launched from the shore which prompted a Mrs Susie Long to write to the “Eastern Daily Press” two days after the Hjørdis was wrecked to state that a boat did in fact go out to offer assistance:
“Sir – In your report in the “Eastern Daily Press” I see no mention is made of the lifeboat crew of this parish, who went out at 8pm and arrived home at 4am in the old lifeboat “Hettie”, belonging to Mr Holliday. They went up to the steamer, where all the lights were still burning both inside and out, and could and would have saved all the crew if they had not previously left. The steamer is ashore on East Point, (later corrected to say ‘West Point’). I may say that the men went on their own initiative, having had no orders. I think it is only fair to mention this. – Yours faithfully”,
Mrs Long’s husband, Charles Long, and her father-in-law, George Long, were both crew members of the RNLI Blakeney lifeboat ‘Caroline’. The “Mr Holliday” referred to was Richard Holliday, a Fisherman, aged 50, of High Street, Blakeney, also a crew member of the ‘Caroline’. At the time, the ‘Caroline’ had a crew of mainly fishermen who were too old for active war service; of eighteen crew members, the majority were over the age of fifty.
Plaques in Blakeney Church commemorate the Blakeney lifeboats and their rescues, up to 1924, but none refer to either the ‘Hettie’. or the ‘Caroline’ going to the aid of the Hjørdis, and it remains a matter of speculation as to how the fishermen of the ‘Hettie’ were alerted to the disaster; perhaps it was by communication from the Watch House or from the Rocket Brigade – and why did the “old lifeboat”, rather than the RNLI lifeboat ‘Caroline’, go out to the SS Hjørdis rather than the ‘Caroline’; was it because the latter was probably in the Lifeboat House and would have taken longer to launch?
The Lost Crew – Inquest and Burials:
Of the ten men who drowned, the bodies of only four crew members were recovered and taken to the Guildhall in the High Street, Blakeney and where the sole survivor, Ralf Petersen would identify them. The bodies of the remaining six sailors would, probably, never found. On the Saturday following the disaster,19 February 1916, the inquest into the deaths of the sailors was held at the ‘Ship Inn’ in the High Street, Blakeney. It was conducted by the Coroner of East Dereham, Mr Walter Barton.
The ‘Thetford & Watton Times” of 26th February reported on the inquest:
“……. Ralf Petersen, boatswain on the Hjørdis, and the sole survivor of the crew of eleven, said …… When she first struck the captain said, “Hard a starboard”, to get her into deep water. The order was obeyed, but she struck twice more, and then she struck so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. The chief mate came up from below and said, “The only thing to do is to get the lifeboat out before it is smashed.” But the captain did not give the order as he was on the bridge crying like a little boy. They got the lifeboat out, and all got into her, but as soon as they had got clear of the bow of the steamer the sea half-filled the boat. Then another went right over her, almost filling her, and most of them were washed into the sea………He identified the bodies washed up at Blakeney as Thor Halnessen, aged 34, chief mate, and Eugenen Andersen, aged 20, ordinary seaman. Witness had also seen two bodies that came ashore at Salthouse; they were Peter Hammer, second engineer, and Nilsen, the steward.”
Following further evidence, the jury returned a verdict of “Death by drowning through misadventure at sea” and on their behalf the Rev. Gordon Rowe – Rector of Blakeney and Glandford who expressed great regret at the sad occurrence, and deep sympathy with the bereaved parents. The affair, he said, was “all the more deplorable in that if the men had kept on their ship for an hour or so after she struck all their lives might have been saved.”
At the time of the SS Hjørdis disaster, legislation – in the form of the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 (also known as Grylls’ Act) and the subsequent Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 – ensured that the bodies of those lost at sea were decently, appropriately buried. The 1808 Act provided for “suitable interment in Churchyards or Parochial Burying Grounds in England for such dead Human Bodies as may be cast on Shore from the Sea, in cases or Wreck or otherwise”. It required that unclaimed bodies of dead persons washed ashore from the sea should be removed by the churchwardens and overseers of the parish and decently interred in unconsecrated ground. This act was amended by the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 to extend its applicability to bodies found in, or cast on shore from, all tidal or navigable waters.
Historically, fishing and merchant seafaring were the most dangerous of all professions and each year many fishermen, mariners and ships’ passengers lost their lives at sea. Prior to the 1808 legislation, it was customary to unceremoniously bury drowned seamen, without shroud or coffin, and in unconsecrated ground. Uncertainty about the religious faith of those washed ashore, the considerable financial burden which burials placed on the parishes, and the pragmatic local response to these losses, resulted in the widespread practice of shoreline burials in all coastal communities.
The Parish Registers for Blakeney recorded that Eugenen Andersen and Thor Halmersen/Halnessen, whose bodies were recovered by the Rocket Brigade, were buried on 21st February; the Parish Registers for Salthouse recorded that Peter Hammer and (name) Nelsen/Nilsen, whose bodies were found on the beach at Salthouse, were buried in Salthouse churchyard on the same day. It is believed that the men were all buried “with a minimum of ceremony” in probably the equivalent of a pauper’s funeral – in a grave marked, if at all, with just a wooden cross.
The Cause of the Disaster?
With only the one first-hand, contemporary account of the disaster, conjecture still remains about what caused the ship to go aground in 1916. Other ships had been sunk during that particular gale so, the disaster could have been caused by weather conditions alone. However, in his statements at the time, Ralf Petersen made no mention of any panic or efforts to prevent the ship floundering on a lee shore; he also stated that the ship’s position was not known when she went aground and that, on leaving the ship, the crew did not know which direction to strike for. Does this confirm that it was a navigational error which was to blame?
According to Sue Gresham of the Blakeney Harbour Association:
“The two – East and West – towers of Blakeney Church were used to guide ships into the navigable channel between the inlet’s sandbanks, the light on the top of the East tower serving as a leading light to guide vessels into the harbour (the “leading light” practice later achieved by using pairs of lighthouses at different levels). When viewed from the sea, in daylight and in darkness, Blakeney Church is the only prominent point on a barren stretch of coastline and a visual aid for mariners to easily identify their position for many miles. If the Hjørdis was closer to the shore than Captain Jensen thought, it is possible that he mistook the light on the smaller, East tower of Blakeney Church for the Cromer lighthouse, further along the coast. This would explain why the Hjordis was so close inshore; the water is very deep close in to Cromer, but not close in at Blakeney.”
Petersen had also described the Hjørdis bumping over a sand bank, then of having only a few moments to alter course and attempt to get seaward into deeper water before the ship struck for the last time. The press reports, based on Petersen’s remarks, referred to “the tide carrying her in… … she struck the west side of the bar and came over it”.
The press reports of the time were somewhat misleading. Reported high water that day was at approximately 5.00pm so, at the time of the grounding, the tide would have been flowing from west to east along the coast and flowing out of Blakeney Harbour. It is more likely, therefore, that the Hjørdis struck one of the many sand bars in that area and then bounced over the first bar into deeper water and pushed on by the east setting tide. This would have made it more difficult for Captain Jensen to have altered course in order to save the situation before Hjørdis grounded on the next sand bar.
There also appeared to be an anomaly in Ralf Petersen’s account of Captain Jensen having given the order, “Hard a starboard” to get the ship into deep water; this would have put the ship further on to the shore! The words might, of course, have been either a reporting error by the newspaper – for the assumed order would be “Hard a port” – or an early indication of the Captain’s confusion or panic in the unfolding disaster. Then there was Peterson’s account of the lifeboat being carried out to sea after the crew had abandoned the Hjørdis; this would further support the fact that the wind direction was south-west and not west-north-west as local newspapers had reported. Therefore, the greater likelihood of the Hjørdis grounding as the result of navigational error was indeed borne out by the lifeboat being carried out to sea. This too would further support the belief that the gale was south-westerly, rather than west-north-westerly.
A Different Outcome Maybe:
Mrs Susie Long’s letter to the “Eastern Daily Press” suggested that the crew of the old lifeboat Hettie “could and would have saved all the crew” of the Hjørdis. When the ship struck, the tide was ebbing; therefore, could the crew have remained on the ship and awaited rescue, or simply waded ashore at low tide?
Ralf Petersen’s accounts conveyed the desperate situation which the crew encountered, where events were happening quickly, in uncertain circumstances: one of their lifeboats had been smashed before she grounded; there was no time to send up flares; the ship was taking in water; the crew did not know where they were; the skipper had lost control; and the ship was showing signs of breaking up. With the benefit of hindsight and with clearer heads at the time, there would have been little doubt that if the crew had remained on the Hjørdis, they would probably have survived – either by being rescued by the “Hettie” or by remaining on the Hjørdis until low tide.
The SS Hjørdis Now:
The wreck of the SS Hjørdis still lies off Blakeney Point. Gradually, over the years, it sank beneath the sand, with more local sand regularly moving in to almost completely covered it. Eventually, in September 1960, a survey from an unknown source produced a report which is held by the Blakeney Harbour Association; it gives the following information about the wreck:
“Iron Norse steamship 200 ft long 30 ft beam lying in a deep pool on dry bank heading 20 deg true with a list to port and one mast standing at the fore end. The hull, which is broken in two amidships, is about 9ft out of water………The boiler and engines are showing, also a cat davit is standing near the stern…… The wreck extends approximately 40 ft North West and 130 ft South East of pole carrying a light erected on wreck position…….(Trinity Superintendent Great Yarmouth 13.11.58).”
Apparently, the position of the wreck was checked again by Trinity House on 2 October 1969 when the SS Hjørdis’s position was found to lie 259 degrees 1.75 cables from position 525902N 005825E in position 525858N 005812E. Then in October 1993, Trinity House – in whose possession the wreck then was – carried out another survey which showed that the wreck was lying in a NNW/SSE direction in depths of between 2.0 to 2.5 metres at low water springs.
A further observation made by Trinity House in 1995 – referred to a suspicion that Hjørdis had been ice strengthened for the Baltic winter trade – suggesting that this would account for the fact that her low section had lasted for so long. In August 1995, a proposal was submitted to Trinity House by a local company, offering three options to remove the wreck between the “fair weather months” of April to October 1996. In the event, the Hjørdis was not removed and the wreck has remained in situ off Blakeney, always marked with a buoy, which was continually destroyed by the strong tides. It was removed but continues to serve a useful purpose – more than 420 miles away in a Cornish coastal village. It is now securely fastened on dry land and put to use as an honesty box at a car park in Porthallow on the Lizard peninsula. As for our Norfolk wreck, it is marked with a Trinity House beacon.
Aerial photographs commissioned by the Harbour Association in 2016 showed that much of the ship’s structure still remains, despite the fact that the Blakeney Harbour mouth regularly changes position. Currents push the mouth towards the east, producing a lengthening peninsula of sand between the entrance channel and the sea. Tidal currents then break through towards the west and the eastern mouth fills up again.
In recent years, the harbour entrance channel has been moving towards the east, bringing it nearer to the wreck. In April 2016, this movement reached the wreck, scouring through it, so that SS Hjørdis lay in the middle of the channel at the entrance to the harbour; by December of the same year, the channel was moving east of the wreck and beginning to bury Hjørdis in the sand once again. The movements in the sand peninsula and the changing position of the harbour mouth determine whether Hjørdis is either almost completely covered by sand and lost to view – or is still a visible reminder of the lost ship jutting from the sea.
The Hjørdis has lain off Blakeney Point since 1916 and, as the local sand moved in, the wreck became almost completely covered. Between 2015 and 2016, the channel moved half a mile to the east and the flow of water over the wreck scoured her out. Large sections of the vessel’s hull and deck were uncovered. It would appear poignant that, in 2016, one hundred years after the ship went down, the SS Hjørdis showed herself once again.
This blog is based almost exclusively on Sue Gresham’s research and subsequent report written for the Blakeney Harbour Association in 2016/18. The full report can be viewed via the following link:
Banner Heading Photo: An Aerial photo of Blakeney Point, Norfolk – by Mike Page
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