SS White Swan: Gorleston’s Wreck!

From the southern end of the old Yarmouth harbour it is an unhindered route past Gorleston and down to Lowestoft, and indeed beyond. If, instead, you prefer to remain near rougher water then turn inshore and walk along the line of the concrete pier, towards the breakwater and the confusion of shallow water that performs there, known locally as the cauldron. Here, the waves rebound from both the pier structure and breakwaters and, dependant on wind and current direction, waves can come from at least three directions almost simultaneously, often forming a quite spectacular ‘clapotis’ (the lapping of water – French). Of course, if you choose to head further southwards from the cauldron, you are more than likely to see surfers, swimmers, kite surfers and wooden groynes. Then, a little further beyond, and a little offshore, a red buoy bobs above the surface movement of the water. It is there for a reason; it is there to mark the wreck of the once proud north country collier, the SS White Swan, which sank at that spot in 1916.

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The Cauldron, between the old Yarmouth harbour and  Gorleston beach. Photo: EDP.

It was on the 30 September 2018 when Peggotty, of the Eastern Daily Press, set his own imagination to work as he passed this spot at an approaching low tide:

“At the south end of our sands, midway between the water’s edge and the warning buoy marking the remains of the wrecked collier White Swan from 1916, two heads appeared to be bobbing in the gentle sea, apparently without anybody on the shore nearby keeping an eye on them. As we drew closer, my concern increased because the number of swimmers now had risen to four, then six. Safety in numbers is reassuring, but I made sure my mobile phone was switched on, just in case…… Happily, my apprehension was groundless. There were no swimmers! The “black heads” on which I had kept a watchful [eye] were, in fact, the tops of some skeletal remains of the White Swan, the numbers increasing because the ebbing tide was revealing them.”

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A remaining small section of the former SS White Swan. Photo: Unknown at present.

The SS White Swan was once a collier, owned by J. A. Dixon and T. N. Sample of Newcastle and built in April 1903 by the Blyth SB Company Ltd. She was a single screw ship, measuring 287.3 ft long with a 43.2 ft beam and weighing 2,173 gross tons. During the early part of November 1916, the White Swan, the only ship owned by the company at that time, was loaded with coal at West Hartlepool before leaving en-route to Greenwich, London. It was during this voyage, on the 17th November 1916 to be precise, that a violent storm erupted off the east coast of Norfolk and the ship’s Master, in his wisdom, decided to ride out the storm by sheltering off Scroby Sands. However, the ferocity of wind and waves had other ideas, causing the ship to drag her anchor and be driven relentlessly on to Gorleston beach – despite the frantic efforts of the crew to secure her.

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The SS White Swan beached on Gorleston sands.

The collier’s eventual grave was to be on the low water mark of the beach, side on to the waves where her back was broken. The combination of the furious weather and the position of the ship, so close inshore, meant that it was impossible for the Gorleston lifeboat to come to the rescue of either ship or crew and it was left to the local lifesaving ‘rocket brigade’, together with their Breeches Buoy, to attempt to save the 22 seamen. For some thirteen hours the atrocious conditions frustrated their attempts to deliver the vital ropes across to the White Swan. Eventually, after several attempts, a total of four ropes did find their target and the ship’s crew were able to secure them. From that point, the ‘hand over hand’ rescue of all the seamen on to the beach took place and, whilst there were no casualties at Gorleston, the loss of the SS White Swan, the only vessel operated by the Swan Line, caused the company into liquidation. According to a newspaper of the time, there was:

“a great gale which raged with a violence, the equal of which could scarcely be recalled by some of the oldest helpers in the work of rescue from wrecks at sea along the coast.”

What remains of the former SS White Swan is still part of the Gorleston beach scene, exactly as witnessed by Peggotty; and after over a century of withstanding many subsequent storms and flood surges. For the presence, this answers any question as to the fate of the SS White Swan following the storm of 17th November 1916. It is still in the sand on which it was driven, worst for wear and broken down into much smaller pieces, some timbers still showing above low water. At one time, fishermen would tell unsuspecting anglers that the wreck’s position was a rich spot to cast a long line without getting it snagged by the skeleton.

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Some timbers. Photo: Tony Ramsay)

From other unsuspecting visitors, alarmed to see someone in apparent distress offshore, would come the occasional alert. This would trigger the usual efficient response from the emergency services who would rush to the scene – whether they suspected a false alarm or not. In 2016 for instance, the wreck’s centenary year, the local coastguard was alerted to an unknown object in the water thereabouts. In response, a seven-man team was sent to check out the report and found it was just part of the wreck; on that occasion, they logged the incident as “a false alarm with good intent.” Later, a spokesman said that whilst false alarms were quite common, “calls which turned out to relate to a 100-year-old shipwreck are rare occurrences.”

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The buoy at high tide. Photo: EDP.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.edp24.co.uk/features/white-swan-sank-in-north-sea-at-gorleston-1-5709159
https://wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?70222
https://www.wrecksite.eu/ownerBuilderView.aspx?302
https://swscroby.wordpress.com/2016/11/16/the-white-swan/
Banner Heading Photo: By Campbell A. Mellon Wreck of the “White Swan”

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