3. Coals to Newcastle

I realised today that I’m now one of the dwindling number of *ahem* slightly older people for whom the expression coals to Newcastle, to describe a pointless endeavour, is current!

Today’s wreck is the wonderfully-named Light of the Harem which was driven on the infamous Black Middens at the mouth of the Tyne during a snowstorm in 1870, along with a number of other vessels.

Thereby hangs a tale. Secondary accounts of the story say that coal was pillaged from the Light of the Harem as she broke up, an example of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

There was pillage from the other wrecks, but not from the Light of the Harem, because further research shows that she was inbound for the Tyne from her home port of Lowestoft, and can’t therefore have been carrying coals to Newcastle! Typically colliers entered the Tyne in ballast – the trade in ‘black diamonds’ was so profitable that an exchange or return cargo was usually unnecessary.

The crew were rescued by the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who operate to this day outside the auspices of the RNLI, together with their counterparts at South Shields. The TVLB has an interesting little museum where you can see artefacts from shipwrecks, including the Light of the Harem.

You’re probably wondering why she had such an exotic name for the Victorian period, when the other vessels involved had the much more prosaic, and unexceptionable, names of the Anne, Helena, and Susannah. It derives from a section in Thomas Moore’s “Oriental” romantic poem Lalla-Rookh, published in 1817, which became a sensation and a popular 19th century classic, inspiring music and art. Here is Frederick Lord Leighton’s painting of the subject. We also have three other 19th century wrecks called Lalla Rookh, showing how much the theme took hold in the Victorian imagination.

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