19. Pêcheur d’Islande (An Icelandic Fisherman)

To commemorate the centenary of the wreck of the Tadorne and the loss of the Bastiaise in 1940, both in north-eastern waters, the French frigate Primauguet recently called at Newcastle.

The Tadorne (which means “shelduck”) was a French trawler en route to the Icelandic fishing grounds which became embroiled in a storm off the Northumberland coast on March 29th, 1913 and eventually struck Howick Rocks to become a total loss. The local lifeboat succeeded in rescuing 25 out of the 30 crew.

The scene was one of steaming mugs of tea doled out amid scenes of mutual incomprehension between French fishermen and Northumbrian farmers. Eventually a French servant at nearby Howick Hall was sent for to act as an interpreter, through whom the master was able to convey his profuse thanks.

The five drowned men are commemorated at St. Michael’s, Longhoughton, a corner of an English field that is forever France:

According to the memorial, the Tadorne was lost below the Boat House at Howick, which can be identified on historic Ordnance Survey mapping, but is no longer extant. One of the names on the memorial is Pierre Archenoux of Cancale: though he is long dead, his story lives on through his trunk. It was washed up, and sent back with a personal note of condolence to his widow by Lady Grey at Howick Hall, thereafter passing down his family. It inspired a French children’s novel with beautiful silhouette illustrations telling the story of the wreck and pictures of life aboard a typical French trawler of that period.

There are bits and pieces of wreckage attributed to the Tadorne around Howick Haven, absolutely in the correct position below the Boat House, where a gap in the rocks forms something of a natural beaching area; presumably the reason for the siting of the Boat House itself, whence boats could be easily launched. I have just recorded this wreckage in a separate site record linked to the casualty record: though in all likelihood, this machinery and framing do indeed belong to the Tadorne, there’s a century’s worth of time elapsed between the event and the wreckage, so if anyone knows this wreck and can fill in the gaps, confirm the identification, and enable us to merge the two records, please let me know.

As an aside, Breton trawlers like the Tadorne, of Nantes, dominated the Icelandic cod fishery in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. A contemporary edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911, vol.XXIV, p293) refers to the existence of a French-Icelandic pidgin; the even more specialised Breton-Icelandic pidgin has also been recorded, a minority language if ever there was one. The story of French trawling off Iceland is also told in the novel Pêcheur d’Islande by Pierre Loti, 1891 (one of my set books in those far-off days when you were expected to be able to write critical essays in French at A-level . . . )

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