The remains of the steamship Hoche, 2012
I was nine years old, on holiday in Devon. We were staying in a cottage on the rocky north Devon coast, just south of Hartland Point, and went for a walk along the coast on the first evening, though ‘scramble’ might be a more appropriate term. The foreshore there is covered in millennia of tumbled boulders, interspersed with stone outcrops and rockpools.
In amongst the rocks lay the rusted remains of a sizeable metal ship – a pair of pistons lying side-by-side, an anchor, a rudder and part of the hull. This was the first actual shipwreck I had ever seen. It helped to kindle an interest in ships and has stayed in my memory. A belated return visit many years later, in 2012, showed that much of the wreck is still there.
Thanks to the fascinating shipwreck museum at Hartland Quay (1), I learned that the ship was the SS Hoche, a French steamship that went aground in 1882. Additional research via the internet filled in some details. The Hoche was owned by a Rouen company, and was en route from France to Cardiff in ballast (i.e. without cargo) when it ran into thick fog near Hartland Point on Saturday, 2 July 1882. The ship ran aground at about 3 pm, and then seems to have drifted further in on the flood tide.
One of the crew clambered up the cliff and went to nearby Blegberry Farm. He was looking for the closest telegraph office, with the aim of getting rescue tugs from Cardiff. According to a local man, R Pearse Chope, when the French sailor learned that the ship had gone aground near Hartland, he said that ‘he had been wrecked there before’ (2).
Unfortunately, the tide at Cardiff was too low for the tugs to set sail, and in any case they would probably have been too late. The Hoche settled on the shore as the tide fell and by 8 pm it had been holed by the rocks. The vessel became a total loss, although luckily all of the 23 crew escaped alive. The wreck was put up for auction at Hartland less than two weeks later, the sale notice revealing that the ship was actually British-built, launched at Hartlepool in 1871 as the Dursley (3).
You might think that all this information would detract from the romance of my childhood memories. Perhaps it does, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The shattered remnants of a shipwreck on the coast or the seabed can look very romantic, but often these were also the scenes of human tragedy. According to a contemporary article in the New York Daily Tribune, the Hoche was just one of 284 steamship losses across the world in 1882. No-one died in the Hoche, but over 2,000 people did perish in other steamer wrecks (4).
The strange allure of shipwrecks may derive in part from the fact that ships and the sea are outside most people’s everyday experience. To look at it another way, many have witnessed road accidents or their aftermath and no-one would speak about the ‘romance’ of car crashes.
Does this mean that there is something ghoulish about studying the history or archaeology of shipwrecks? I don’t believe so. The excavation of a vessel’s remains or the unravelling of its story from written sources are ways in which something can be learned from an event that otherwise brought little but disaster. You always have to be mindful of the human cost of ship losses, but research into them is one way of saving something from the wreckage.
PS It’s fascinating to visit the Hoche, but it’s best done in good weather, with footwear suitable for climbing over rocks; do also make sure that there is no danger of being caught by the tide. See: http://explorethecoast.org/pageresources/Hartland.pdf
(2) Western Mail, 4 July 1882; R Pearse Chope, ‘Farthest from the railways: an unknown corner of Devon’, in The Devonian Yearbook, London 1916, p 58
(3) Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 13 July 1882
(4) New York Daily Tribune, 8 January 1883
Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014