Lost Property: Identifying the Seventeenth-century Swash Channel Wreck

2010_complete_tcA photomosaic of the Fame wrecksite. (C) Bournemouth University

The Swash Channel leads to the main entrance of Poole Harbour in Dorset, and this is where the Swash Channel Wreck lies. The original name of the ship has been lost for close on 400 years.

Until now.

The Swash Channel Wreck is a Protected Wreck Site, one of 62 in the UK. This means that it has been designated by the government under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or of its contents or former contents.

The wreck of this 17th century armed merchant ship was first discovered by accident in 1990 and then rediscovered in 2004 by Wessex Archaeology. Subsequent work, led by Bournemouth University, has uncovered the structure and raised many artefacts. It’s a vulnerable site as well as an important one, and its condition is monitored.

Bournemouth University commissioned me to undertake a research project to see if it was possible to identify the ship. The subsequent hunt led through more than 15,000 manuscript pages in Dorset and London. It’s a bit of a cliché (to say the least) to compare historical research with detective work, but this project certainly felt like it. Many of the paper trails didn’t go anywhere, a few led to ‘possibles’, and one took me to what I believe is the right answer.

The Swash Channel Wreck is at a depth of between 7 and 9 metres on the edge of the Hook Sands. The hull is carvel-built and about 40 m of the port side survives. This is remarkable, because it includes some of the upperworks, though the structure is split into two pieces. Tree-ring evidence suggests that the hull contains some wood felled between 1619 and 1639 in the Netherlands or Germany, with at least one timber from a tree cut down in the year 1628. The hull had an outer plank sheathing, designed to help protect the main planking from marine organisms. This indicated that the vessel might have been on a voyage to or from the tropics.

Judging by the number of surviving gunports, the ship carried 26 or more carriage-mounted guns, though most of the weapons themselves are no longer there. No cargo was found in the hull, but some Dutch domestic pottery was discovered which dated to the years 1625-1650 (1).

So, the ship was probably Dutch and operated between c 1620 and 1650, or a bit later. With this sort of timeframe, you might think that finding the right ‘candidate’ for the wreck should have been easy. No problem.

Ah, no.

For one thing, there was no systematic government recording of shipwrecks in Britain until the Victorian era. For another, the period 1620-50 predates the first English newspapers by a long way.

1625-42 wreck incident map

Map showing wreck incidents listed in my 1625-1642 wreck survey: Dutch wrecks are marked in red, and many positions are approximate only, e.g. ships identified as wrecked ‘on the Isle of Wight’. (C) Ian Friel 2013

This is not to say that there are no records of wrecks. The archives of the 17th-century state are full of letters, accounts, legal proceedings and other material concerning sunken vessels, some of it very detailed. As part of the search for the Swash Channel Wreck I pulled together as many wreck references as I could find in British sources (mainly for England and Wales) for the years 1625-1642. First and foremost I wanted to identify the Swash Channel Wreck, but also needed to get a sense of the nature and scope of the evidence and to set the Dorset wreck in context. The year 1642 was chosen as the end-date for the survey because the English Civil War started then, and a lot of central government record-keeping went to pieces until the 1650s.

The survey turned up 142 references to losses of specific ships. These were mainly merchant vessels that were important enough to generate paperwork. No doubt there were also many losses of fishing boats and small merchantmen which went unrecorded, but in this case ‘important’ generally meant ‘valuable’.

The single most common reason for reporting these wrecks (in 74 of 142 cases) was that they were lost property, not that they were disasters that endangered life and limb. The loss of a ship could be a huge financial blow for the owner and for anyone who had goods aboard. Small wonder that they made a fuss about it. The fuss was frequently caused by illegal salvage operations.

By law, a sunken ship could only be declared a ‘wreck’ if no-one escaped alive from it. If there were no survivors, the remains of the ship and cargo belonged to whoever owned the ‘right of wreck’ on the stretch of shore where the incident took place. In many cases, this was the local lord of the manor. However, if there were survivors, then the ship and its contents were deemed to be the property of its original owners.

This all sounds straightforward enough, but coast dwellers and others often disregarded the legal niceties and just grabbed anything they could. The vast majority of rural inhabitants were very poor, and a wreck could dump vast wealth virtually on their doorstep.

People could go to extremes to get hold of such booty. One Dutch wreck on the Essex coast in winter 1633, for example, was picked over by three different groups of salvors. One party extracted goods worth at least £5 million in modern terms, but a man in one of the other groups died because he and his companions had to work deep inside the hull in freezing water up to their armpits (2).

Hoorn - port 1980The port of Hoorn. (C) Ian Friel 1980

Dutch wrecks were fairly common around the English coast in this time, a reflection of the rising power of the United Provinces of the Netherlands at sea. Their ships travelled the globe, and in January 1631 one particular vessel set sail from its home port of Hoorn, near Amsterdam, on a voyage to the West Indies. The ship was the Fame, an armed merchantman owned by two men, Hercules Garretson and Cornelius Veene. The vessel’s master was called John Jacobson Botemaker, and in all there were some 45 people on board.  The Fame must taken a course through the Dover Strait and along the south coast of England, because at some point in February it anchored off Poole.

It is not known why the Fame stopped off Poole, but the English Channel can be an inhospitable place in winter and perhaps the crew were seeking to shelter in Studland Bay. If this was the case, it didn’t work, because there was a storm, and the ship seems to have dragged its anchor (that is, the anchor would not hold). The Fame was ‘overset and overwhelmed’, driven on to a sandbank and ‘broken in pieces and torn up’. ‘Overset’ meant that the ship was knocked on its side, or capsized.   Fortunately, the master and crew all escaped alive and got to land – so no way was the ship legally a ‘wreck’ – but people from the Poole area still came out and filched tackle, gear, victuals and other items from the stricken vessel.

Hoorn 1980 - merchants' houses - EDITEDFormer merchants’ houses in Hoorn, decorated with 17th-century ship carvings. (C) Ian Friel 1980

On 2 March 1631, soon after the incident, Garretson and Veene made a complaint about the looting of the Fame to the English High Court of Admiralty (HCA: the HCA was the central court for maritime cases). They wanted the HCA to put together a commission to recover the stolen goods and arrest the people who had taken them. As there were survivors, the owners had a claim in English law to everything that had been stolen, and all that was left in the ship. This was also backed-up by an international agreement. In 1625 the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Southampton specified that the remains of any Dutch ships and goods wrecked on the British coast had to be restored to their original owners. The Dutchmen had a cast-iron case, but despite this, it seems that the HCA did nothing.

Fortunately, there is a local source that adds to the story. Poole had its own Admiralty Court from the Middle Ages, and records of its proceedings survive from 1550. The Court was meant to meet about once a year, with the Mayor serving as ‘Admiral’ and ’24 honest seafaring men’ acting as the jury. The boundaries of Poole haven extended from the border with the port of Wareham, to North Haven Point, and then as far out to sea ‘as a man could discern a Humber barrel to float upon the ocean’. This distance has been estimated at about three miles, and would have taken in all of Studland Bay and the site of the Swash Channel Wreck (3).

The Poole Admiralty Court had jurisdiction over a wide range of issues within its small maritime empire. These included matters such as theft, piracy, derelicts, flotsam, valuables found on dead bodies, accidental death, impressment for royal service, as well as the regulation of fishing and the fish market (4).

In practice, most Court meetings were taken up with workaday discussions of harbour management and the enforcement of rules. Wrecks were seldom mentioned in the 17th-century proceedings, but in the Court record for 24 June 1631 there is an entry regarding a ‘Mr Newland’ who had undertaken for a ‘Fleming to clear the harbour of the wreck of the Fame of Hoorn’ (spelling modernised; ‘Fleming’ was a catch-all English term for anyone from the Netherlands or Flanders). Newland had also agreed to place two marker buoys on the site by 1 August, on pain of a colossal fine of £200 – millions, in modern terms (5).

It didn’t happen.

Nearly a year later, on 21 May 1632, the Admiralty Court noted that ‘Mr Robert Newland the Younger of the Isle of Wight’ had still not cleared the channel of the ‘Flemish wreck’. He was ordered to do this, and to put two buoys on it by 25 July, or face the fine (6).

These two entries place the wreck of the Fame ‘before Studland’ and in a ‘channel’. The highest single fine that the Court normally levied was £2, so the figure of £200 shows just how serious a problem the wreck was thought to be.

The clear implication is that the sunken vessel was situated on the main approach to Poole Harbour and represented a real danger to shipping. The evidence fits very well with the position of the Swash Channel Wreck, lying right on the channel leading to the modern harbour entrance. Also, the Wreck lies on its side on the edge of Hook Sand, and this corresponds to the statement that the Fame capsized on a sandbank.DSCF1361 (1)The head of a classical warrior, carved on the rudderhead of the Fame of Horn, as displayed in Poole Museum. (C) Bournemouth University 2017

The Fame, of course, slots right into the 1620-1650 timeframe for the Wreck derived from the archaeological evidence. There are other things about the archaeology that also tie in with the documentary sources. The wooden hull sheathing would certainly be consistent with a vessel en route to the West Indies, as the Fame was. No cargo was found in the Wreck, and none is mentioned in the HCA complaint about looting, suggesting that the Fame was sailing out in ballast – i.e. empty of cargo on the first leg of the voyage.

It’s also very significant that a lot of the Wreck’s guns are missing.  Cannon are heavy, expensive items that tend to stay put when they hit the sea bottom. It may be that they were removed by local looters, but the problem with this idea is that the missing guns included most of those on the port side, which was nestled into the seabed and would have been very difficult for opportunist salvors to access. There is another possible explanation, though. Modern archaeologists might not be the first people to dive on the site.

Robert Newland ‘the Younger’ of the Isle of Wight must have been one of the sons of Robert Newland Senior, a wealthy merchant and shipowner (died 1637) who had wharves and warehouses on the island at Newport and East Cowes (7). Four years prior to the loss of the Fame, Newland Snr was involved with a celebrated Dutch salvor called ‘Jacob the Diver’ in the salvage of cargo, gear and weapons lost in the Dutch Eastindiamen Kampen and Vergulde Draeck on the Needles in 1627 (8).

Jacob the Diver’s real name was either John Jacob Janson or Jacob Johnson. He worked in this country, France and Ireland between 1620 and 1633, and was perhaps still operating here in 1636. Jacob had some kind of diving apparatus, which he used to descend on wrecks, and seems to have been very successful at recovering sunken goods and equipment (9).

The ‘Fleming’ who was working with Robert Newland Junior could well have been Jacob the Diver. If this was the case, it means that the Swash Channel Wreck was worked on by one of the most accomplished divers and salvors in Europe. This would account for the disappearance of so many guns, particularly those on the port side, which would have been very difficult to reach.

Presumably, too, Newland and ‘the Fleming’ eventually also cleared the Fame out of harm’s way, breaking it up – the starboard side of the Wreck is long gone. The Court proceedings do not refer to it again after May 1632, and the shipwreck was eventually forgotten.

The links between the historical and archaeological evidence lead me to believe that the Swash Channel Wreck is the Fame of Hoorn.

Unfortunately, research by historians in the Netherlands has not so far turned up any references in the Dutch archives to the Fame or those associated with it. However, given its declared destination, it is possible that the Fame belonged to the Dutch West India Company (WIC), a body set up in 1621 to control Dutch trade with the Americas, the Caribbean and West Africa. Run in true 17th-century Dutch fashion by a body of merchant oligarchs, the Heeren XIX, it had power to make both war and peace, as well as to trade. Like the contemporary Dutch and English East India Companies, the WIC had a terrifying reach (10).

Many of the records of the WIC were destroyed in the 19th century, so identifying the Fame as a ‘Westindiaman’ in this sense may be very difficult. There is an alternative possibility, though. The Fame may have been an ‘interloper’, a vessel on a private trading voyage under the noses of the WIC.

What gives this credence is the lack of any real follow-up to the complaint made by Garretson and Veene to the HCA.   Dutch shipowners with real political and economic clout – like anyone backed by the WIC – often used diplomatic channels to pursue matters of wreck looting in British waters. The case of the Salmon of Amsterdam, wrecked and plundered on the Dorset coast in 1632, even reached the English Privy Council, King Charles I’s own advisory body. Years later, during the short-lived English Republic, goods were taken from yet another Dutch ship sunk off Poole, the St Adrian of Middelburg. The owners of the cargo were important people, and included a Dutch ambassador. The Dutch raised so much hell about the matter that the dispute eventually landed on the desk of the dying Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (11).

The apparent lack of any HCA follow-up to Garretson and Veene’s complaint may well indicate that they were interlopers, and lacked the corporate pull needed to get what they wanted. It’s also significant that the Poole Admiralty Court made no reference to the looting of the wreck.  Perhaps some of the ‘honest seafaring men’ of Poole were not so honest, but even they would have been forced into action if an HCA commissioner had turned up from London.  Commissioners had real power. The Dorset landowner involved in pillaging the Salmon in 1632 was threatened with being dragged before the HCA in order to explain himself.  Only by pleading extreme old age was he able to avoid an unpleasant, and possibly terminal, trip to the capital.

Whatever the full facts of the Fame affair, the ship and its remaining contents joined all of the other lost property lying on the seabed around England.

Future research may uncover more about the stories of this ship, its owners and crew. For now, the Swash Channel Wreck at least has its name back.

The Fame of Hoorn.

 

Acknowledgments

Very special thanks are due to Bournemouth University and Dave Parham, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, for commissioning me to research this ship, and for allowing me to use the Swash Channel Wreck images in this piece. Thanks are also due to Tom Cousins of Bournemouth University for his help with the images.

The discovery, excavation and conservation of the Fame have involved the efforts of maritime archaeologists, scientists, conservators and others over years. Without their skill, commitment and scholarship the loss of the ship would only be known now as one incident among many others.   Their work has made it special, and made it accessible to an international public.

I would also like to thank the staff of The National Archives, Kew and the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, for their courtesy and assistance.   The DHC staff were especially helpful in locating the Poole Admiralty Book, not then listed in the main DHC catalogue, which was of enormous significance for this research.   The Admiralty Book is an important document, and deserves to be published in full. It is one more demonstration, if any was needed, that local record offices are treasure-houses of history.

The upper part of the rudder from the Fame, with its distinctive rudderhead carving, is now impressively displayed in Poole Museum along with other items from the ship, and is very well worth a visit.

Notes

DHC    Dorset History Centre, Dorchester

TNA     The National Archives, Kew

(1)  https://www1.bournemouth.ac.uk/news/2016-04-01/beach-find-may-be-historic-swash-channel-wreck; https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000082; D Parham et al. 2012 D Parham et al., Swash Channel Designated Wreck Site, Bournemouth University. This present piece is based on my report for Bournemouth University, ‘The Mercy of the Sea’ – Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck, 2013.

(2) HCA 24/89, nos 187, 193 and 202.

(3) HCA 24/87, No 171, ff 1-2v; H P Smith, ‘Poole’s ancient Admiralty Court’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society, Vol 49, 1928, pp 125-31; DHCDC/PL/CLA 24, Poole Admiralty Book 1550-1834.

(4) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, unnumbered folios at the beginning of the volume.

(5) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 60.

(7) DHC DC/PL/CLA 24, f 61.

(8) TNA PROB/11/174, will of Robert Newland.

(9) A Roddie, ‘Jacob, the Diver’, Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 62, 1976, pp 255-69, pp 259-60.

(10) C R Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800, London 1977, pp 24-26 and 48-50; a translation of the WIC’s charter can be found online at: avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/westind.asp

(11) The Mercy of the Sea, pp 38-47.

© Ian Friel 2017

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A son of England

Louis Raemakers - Burial of Private Walker 1915The Burial of Private Walker, by Louis Raemakers, 1916

In the wake of the terrible events in Paris on 13th November, and with all the other tragedies in the modern world, it may seem self-indulgent, to say to least, to write about another terrible event from a century ago.   In this case, however, I think there may be a wider point to be made about war, loss and memory.

At around 12.30 pm on Wednesday, 17th November, HM Hospital Ship Anglia was sunk by a mine off Folkestone in Kent. The ship was carrying 385 wounded servicemen, besides medical and nursing staff and the crew. At least one hundred and thirty-four people died, many of them wounded from the battlefields in France and Belgium, but also including one of the nurses.

The Anglia was one of 13 British hospital ships lost in the First World War. It was a former Holyhead ferry that had been taken into government service and converted to serve as a hospital ship.   The mine that the Anglia hit had been laid shortly before by a German submarine, UC-5.

In a War full of horrors, there is something especially awful at the thought of a shipload of wounded men being sunk.   The details of the sinking, the courage shown by the nurses who struggled to get the wounded men into lifebelts, the bravery of the rescuers – one of the rescue ships was itself sunk by a mine – have been retold by others elsewhere, and do not need to be repeated here (1). However, what really brought the tragedy of the Anglia home to me was the story of one of its victims, Joseph Walker.

Joe Walker was a few weeks short of his 25th birthday when he died. He was the youngest of four brothers, and was born at Pirton in North Hertfordshire in 1890. Joe enlisted in the army in early September 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of war. He joined the 8th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, but did not go overseas for almost a year (2).

In the autumn of 1915 his unit was pitched into a great battle at Loos in Belgium, but Joe caught trench foot. Trench foot is a hideous condition caused by the prolonged exposure of the feet to damp or wet conditions. Left untreated, it can lead to gangrene. This obviously happened to Joe, as both his legs had to be amputated at a military hospital in France.   This is why he was aboard the Anglia, on his way home to England.

One of the nurses must have got a lifebelt on Joe as the ship sank. Sadly, it did not save his life, but it ensured that his body stayed afloat for nearly two months. On 11 January 1916 his remains were washed up on the shore at West Kapelle in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was neutral during the War, and the discovery of his body attracted some attention in the press. He was interred in the churchyard at West Kapelle shortly afterwards, and the Amsterdam newspaper De Telegraaf gave the following account of the burial (English translation):

THE BURIAL OF PRIVATE WALKER

 ON September 9, 1914, Joseph Walker enlisted for the duration of the war; on January 11, 1916, the sea bore his dead body to the dyke at West Kapelle. This afternoon, at 1 p. m., while the northwest wind whistled over Walcheren, the English soldier was buried in the churchyard of West Kapelle.

First the vice-consul, in the name of England, spread the British flag over him who for England had sacrificed his young life. Four men of West Kapelle carried the coffin outside and placed it at the foot of the tower, that old gray giant, which has witnessed so much world’s woe, here opposite the sea. It was a simple, but touching ceremony.

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. . . . He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down.” Thus spoke the voice of the minister and the wind carried his words, and the wind played with the flag of England, the flag that flies over all seas, in Flanders, in France, in the Balkans, in Egypt, as the symbol of threatened freedom the flag whose folds here covered a fallen warrior.

And in the roaring storm we went our way. There was he carried, the soldier come to rest, and the flag fluttered in the wind and wrapped itself round that son of England. Then the coffin sank into the ground and the hearts of us, the departing witnesses, were sore. Earth fell on it, and the preacher said: “Earth to earth, dust to dust.”

As the newspaper piece suggests, there was sympathy for the Allied cause in Holland.   One of those present at West Kapelle church was the internationally-famous Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemakers.   Appalled by effects of the German invasion of Belgium, Raemakers became fervently anti-German, producing hundred of cartoons that scathingly satirised German militarism and the nature of the war itself. He drew a sketch of the scene as Joe Walker was buried (above).

Joseph Walker was my great-uncle. He died decades before I was born, but what makes his death so poignant to me is that his three brothers, including my grandfather, all lived into the 1960s. I knew them as a child. My grandfather had also been a soldier on the Western Front.  He would never talk about the Great War, and this was probably one reason why Joe was seldom mentioned at home.

I learned the basic details of Joe’s death and the loss of the Anglia many years ago, but it was not until 2008 that I read some detailed research on the events surrounding the wreck and the sufferings of those on board.  The fact that I could connect Joe with people I had known, made his terrible death much more personal. It left me shaken to think that a close relative had endured such agonies. The long lives of my grandfather and his other brothers are also measures of just how much this young man lost on 17th November 1915.

The loss of lives in war, particularly young lives, can cast a long shadow.  What shadows will stretch into the future from Syria, Paris and all the other atrocities of modern times?

Je suis Paris

(1)      S McGreal, The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Barnsley 2008.

(2)      I owe the details of Joe’s service and the recovery of his body to the researches and kindness of Mr Steve Fuller and his colleagues, who have built up the remarkable website www.bedfordregiment.org.uk, devoted to the story of the regiment’s soldiers during the First World War.

(3)      Raemakers’ Cartoons, Vol. 2, London 1916, pp. 212-13.

Notes: Joe was later reburied in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Vlissingen, in the Netherlands.

The UK Ministry of Defence is currently being lobbied to list the wreck of the Anglia as a war grave under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The remains of the ship were revealed by a sidescan sonar survey in 2014: details can be seen at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-29690020

There is also a piece about the Anglia on Historic England’s Wreck of the Week site:

https://thewreckoftheweek.wordpress.com/2015/11/17/no-94-hmhs-anglia/

Text (C) Ian Friel 2015

For those in peril…

St Winnow bench-end ship - Version 2

 The St Winnow ship carving, late 15th/early 16th centuries

The storm is violent, and eternal. Clouds like thick folds of cloth gather over the ship. A demon’s face looks out from one corner of the sky, its bulging eyes fixed on the vessel and the terrified sailors.  The ship surges up on the waves, which are so high that the rudder lifts clear of the water.

The perpetual tempest and the ship are carved on a wooden bench-end in the church of St Winnow, near Lostwithiel in Cornwall, which has some of the finest carved bench-ends in the county (1).

The St Winnow ship carving is well-known to those who study medieval ships. Like several of the other bench-ends in the church, it seems to date from the late 1400s/early 1500s.   The ship is a square-rigger with three masts, sailing towards the left of the bench-end.   The three-masted square rig was developed in the 15th century, by combining the four-sided square sails of North Europe with the triangular lateen of the Mediterreanean. It produced a much more maneouvrable type of vessel, which took Columbus and others across the Atlantic – something that happened at around the time this carving was made (2).

A ship of this kind normally carried a large square mainsail hung from a sailyard on the mainmast (centre), similar in shape to the foresail (on the left of the photo). The mizzen sail is on the mast near the stern (right), a triangle stiff with wind. If the carver had shown the mainsail in place, it would have obscured most of the praying crewmen, who are a crucial part of the design.

The church of St Winnow stands right by the river Fowey, a few miles upstream from the port of Fowey, which in the Middle Ages was a busy harbour. Seafarers must have worshipped at St Winnow in the 15th and 16th centuries, and to anyone who knew about ships at the time, the omission of the mainsail would have looked decidedly odd.

It is possible that the missing mainsail was not the result of an artistic decision. This carving could be a representation of a real event in which a ship lost its largest sail during a storm, leaving the crew with just the fore and mizzen sails to make some headway against the wind and waves. We can never know for certain. The artistic explanation might still be the right one, as rigging fore and mizzen in a real situation of this kind could be suicidal, leading a ship to capsize.

Even though as a ship image the carving is somewhat crude, it has a 3D quality – the artist tried to show both sides of the ship – and a lot of detail is shown. It has superstructures, a forecastle at the bow and an aftercastle at the stern, and the rudder is depicted realistically.   The basket-like structure near the top of the mainmast is the topcastle, which served as both a lookout post and a fighting platform. Its military function is underlined by the presence of the bundle of long ‘sticks’ leaning on the right-hand side of the topcastle. These are gads, spears that could be thrown down on an enemy’s deck in battle, reputedly able to skewer a man from head to foot.  The presence of these fearsome weapons is a reminder that there were also manmade dangers be found at sea in the Middle Ages – piracy and war.

But why does this ship appear on the bench-end at St Winnow? The most likely explanation is that it was a votive offering, commissioned by a sailor in thanks to God and the saints for surviving a storm.   The man was perhaps a shipmaster, and may be represented by the sailor’s head on the aftercastle (right).  As the historian Eamon Duffy writes, votive objects were powerful, ‘immediately intelligible claims that here was a power to heal and rescue’. Votive artefacts could take all kinds of forms, such as paintings or carvings, but could also include models of various kinds or even graffiti scratched on church walls (3).

Whatever the technical aspects of the carving, the spirit it conveys is the same as that expressed in the refrain of William Whiting’s Victorian hymn, ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’, also known as ‘The Navy Hymn’:

Oh hear us when we cry to thee,

For those in peril on the sea.

Daily facing the most violent elements known to humankind, medieval seafarers would have understood this sentiment.

Blog © Ian Friel 2014; photo © Ian Friel 1993

 (1) St Winnow or Winnoc was a 7th/8th century saint, venerated in Cornwall and Brittany: D H Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford 1987, p 409.

(2) I Friel, The Good Ship. Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200-1520, London 1995, chs 5 and 9.

(3) E Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Newhaven and London: Yale University Press 1992), p 197.

 

 

Saving something from the wreckage

Hoche Shipwreck

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

(1)    http://www.hartlandquayhotel.co.uk/shipwreck-museum

(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