No.54 The Dudgeon

In their Quincentenary week we take another look at the work of Trinity House, this time examining lightvessels as warning lights, wreck markers, and wrecks in themselves.

This week in 1736 the Dudgeon lightvessel first went on station, the second lightship after the Nore in the Thames Estuary in 1732. Demand from the east coast coal trade between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London led to the marking of the Dudgeon, a dangerous shoal off the Norfolk coast.

Such early lightvessels proved their worth both as hazard markers and as reference points for locating wrecks. In 1785 the Mayflower of Scarborough ‘foundered nigh the Dodgen light’ and in 1824 the captain of a passing ship reported that he: ‘in passing the Dudgeon Float . . . bearing about NNW 8 miles, saw a sunken brig, with her royal masts shewing, painted white, and two vanes flying.’ He ‘supposed her to be from the northward, but not a collier.’

Lightvessels in their turn could become wrecks. Moored at their stations, they were prone to becoming casualties of the very same hazards against which they warned other shipping. There were other patterns of loss: the Dudgeon station was among the most unfortunate, with three incidents within 50 years. None were to the shoal itself, despite early concerns about the Dudgeon lightvessel parting her cables three times in two years (1), but to two other major causes of lightvessel loss.

As moored vessels, lightships were equally unable to take steps to avert collision, so the Dudgeon was ‘run down’ in 1898 and again in 1902: 38% of lightvessel wrecks recorded in English waters were lost to collision. Their inability to take evasive action also meant that, when war came, aerial bombardment was also a significant cause of loss, accounting in just two years for 26% of our recorded lightvessel wrecks. The East Dudgeon lightvessel was sunk by air attack in 1940, along with six others in 1940-1. The crew escaped, but were overwhelmed by the elements, with only one survivor.

Strangely enough, given how early lightvessels were wooden ships exhibiting lanterns, we have no recorded lightships wrecked by fire, or are there others of which we are not yet aware?

(1) Light upon the Waters: A History of Trinity House 1514-2014 p87-8

No.53: The Quincentenary of Trinity House

Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, will celebrate its 500th anniversary on Tuesday 20th May, commemorating the granting of a Royal Charter by Henry VIII on 20th May 1514.

We look today at the first mention of Trinity House in the wreck records of Historic England. Since its earliest days, Trinity House has been concerned with the safety of mariners in all respects, including responsibility for licensing ship pilots as guides into harbour.

In the 16th century pilots with intimate knowledge of the Thames Estuary were required to assist ships to pick their way between the parallel diagonal sandbanks that bar the way to the Thames: the Maplin, the Barrow, the Sunk, the Long Sand, and the Kentish Knock. (Between them they have accounted for nearly 600 recorded wrecks.) Over the centuries many a ship has gone aground in navigating a previously safe channel between these banks.

The details of an incident in 1527 – when a pilot clearly failed in his mission – are preserved in a letter from Charles V of Spain to Henry VIII, concerning a ship inbound for London from Cadiz, whose master, one Arnaton de Gamon, accused her pilots of deliberately running her ashore ‘vpon a banke of Thamyse’. (1)

Reading between the lines, Arnaton was also accusing local boatmen of discrimination, treating him less favourably than their countrymen aboard his ship whose cargo was salvaged and restored to them. The same boats broke up his ship in situ. Arnaton was furious, valuing his loss at 1,100 ducats and asking for a further 900 in compensation, and urging Charles to send out a ‘letter of mark and reprisal against the English’.

Though an international incident was averted when Charles mildly refused this course of action, but instead ‘entreated Henry to see that justice may be done to the said Arnaton’, the story nevertheless represents a turning point. Arnaton’s complaint was a throwback to the Middle Ages, for which the majority of wreck records survive in the form of such grievances brought to a royal authority. The 16th century marks a shift towards wreck records via other reporting mechanisms, such as the records of Trinity House: shipwreck sources become much more diverse.

To help celebrate the Quincentenary, another article on Historic England’s Heritage Calling blog looks at lighthouse heritage . . . and for a link to Trinity House’s own history blog, please click here.

(1) Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, 1627-30, reproduced in more detail in The Trinity House of Deptford 1514-1660, G G Harris, London, 1969

No.52: The Fortschritt

Pouring oil on troubled waters

As the Fortschritt, of and from Szczecin for Dublin, with a general cargo, struck on the Goodwin Sands in 1848, her crew signalled for assistance, but none was forthcoming. As the tide ebbed, the ship, if not exactly “high and dry”, was not in immediate danger, and the crew remained on her overnight, suggesting that she was not being pounded to pieces on the sands.

By the morning’s flood tide, it was a different story, and too dangerous to abandon ship with breakers on the sands which would have overwhelmed the ship’s boat immediately. The crew, however, were resourceful – they had, after all, had all night to think about it. They used what was to hand, and broke into the barrel cargo, but not, as you might think, to use as floats.

Instead they staved them in.

It was not wanton destruction of a cargo not belonging to them. They were after the oil inside, for a purpose: they poured it overboard, which, it was noted, permitted them to cross the Goodwin Sands in safety. They had literally poured oil on troubled waters.

Stories of this kind are rare, but are certainly not unknown, with at least two other wrecks in English waters being recorded as saved by oil cargoes in this fashion, in 1637 and 1922. That this does not occur more frequently is intriguing, given 188 shipwrecks on the database recorded as carrying cargoes of oil, and as far back as Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) the effects of oil on troubled waters were known.

There could be many reasons for this. Some may have been ignorant or incredulous of the effects (although according to Benjamin Franklin, who investigated the matter, herring fishermen and whalers noted the same effect with oily water discharged from on-board processing) (1); it may be that in many cases time was not on their side; in others the risk of fire might have been too great; or seamen knew it only worked in certain circumstances.

Franklin noted the varied success of his experiments in pouring oil on water at a pond on Clapham Common and at sea off Portsmouth, suggesting that the calming effect was most likely on the windward side. So what happened next? The wind was reported easterly at London and ESE at Lowestoft on that day (2) suggesting that the vessel was blown onto the Goodwins from the east. Did the crew then pour the oil on the windward side, where deep water rather than breakers across the sands lay beneath? What did they know that so many other seamen either failed to know or feared to use?

(1) Benjamin Franklin, “Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil, Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, LLD, FRS, William Brownrigg, MD, FRS, and the Reverend Mr Farish”, Philosphical Transactions, 1774, 64

(2) Times, 23 December 1848; Standard, 23 December 1848