The Sirius

For the ‘dog days’ of summer, associated with Sirius, the ‘dog star’, we welcome our guest blogger Tanja Watson, one of Historic England’s Marine Information Officers. Tanja is currently undertaking a project to update our records for Swedish wrecks around the coast of England. Here she highlights the story of a ship named Sirius, wrecked in 1901:

Medal awarded for heroic rescue of Swedish crew

Following on from Ken Hamilton’s recent account of the Swedish vessel Vicuna, lost during the Great Storm of 1883 when over 50 vessels and over 200 crew went down around the North Sea, the Swedish ship Sirius was lost off County Durham, during the Great Storm of 11 to 14 November 1901, which saw around 48 ships lost in England alone. (1) With wind speeds reaching up to force 11 (one point short of a hurricane), it has been described as ‘one of the greatest human disasters before the Great War’. (2)

B&W photo of coastline with large waves crashing on cliffs to the left of the image.
View of storm conditions on the nearby Terrace Beach, Seaham, County Durham, during the ‘North Sea Flood’ storm of 31 January 1953. © and by kind permission of David Angus

The 1901 storm led to a tremendous rescue effort, particularly on the north-east coast of England, which saw some make the ultimate sacrifice to save others, while other rescuers were helpless to save the shipwrecked sailors. (3)

Central to this story is the Silver Medal and official recognition awarded by the Swedish government in gratitude for the bravery and determination shown by the four coastguards who not only managed to rescue the crew of the Sirius, a Swedish barquentine (also described as a schooner) but also that of the Miss Thomas, an English schooner. Both stranded on the same day, Tuesday 12 November 1901, near Hawthorn Hive, between Seaham and Easington in County Durham.

The Sirius, a 223-ton sailing vessel, was built in 1875 in the tiny harbour village of Sikeå, northern Sweden. (4) Although originally named Sikeå, she was re-registered as Sirius to Nyhamn (now Nyhamnsläge) (5) in southern Sweden. On the day she struck, she was bound from Shoreham-by-Sea to Sunderland in ballast to load coal destined for Helsingborg. (6)

The rocks along this stretch of coastline are broken, rugged and pierced by caverns. Hawthorn, a small agricultural village once surrounded by collieries, with a population of 513 in 1901 (7) had a coastguard station (now a ruin) at Hawthorn Hive and rocket posts at Hawthorn Dene. (8) The station was manned by the Seaham Harbour Life Brigade, (9) one of the Volunteer Life Brigades which once assisted the coastguard services nationally and whose heritage lives on in the three surviving Life Brigades of the nearby coast at Tynemouth, South Shields and Sunderland.

Historic sepia photo of man crossing a small footbridge over a river in light snow and ice conditions. ne gorge lightly dusted with snow.
Hawthorn Dene with the silhouette of the Coastguard Station top left. (HAW 036) © and by kind permission of David Angus

The Sirius struck rocks and stranded half a mile south of the beach. Local newspapers each focus on different aspects of the story. A Swedish newspaper describes it from the point of view of the crew: Captain (Christer or Christian) Pettersson and his crew of 8 were literally between a rock and a hard place. Their lives were at risk either way whether they stayed with the vessel or swam to shore: ‘One of the sailors flung himself into the water with a rope around his waist and attempted to reach land, but it broke off in the strong breakers. Realising what had happened, the rest of the crew quickly donned their life belts, jumped into the sea and started to swim ashore.’ Not long after, the schooner was completely smashed and sank out of sight. Upon reaching the shoreline, the men then discovered the sharp rocks and almost vertical cliffs impossible to scale. (10)

The local news in Tyneside focused on the rescuers’ side of the story:

‘After the crew got ashore, all of them being in an exhausted condition from exposure, they had to be assisted by the coastguards over the rocks and shingle, a distance over a mile, and frequently had to wade breast deep in the surf. They also ran the danger of being hemmed in by the rising tide. The lacerated hands of the coastguards, caused by falling on the jagged rocks, are striking evidence of the heroism and fortitude displayed in the work of rescue.’  (11)

There are a number of clues in the story which tell us where the wreck actually came to grief. The details of ‘half a mile south of the beach’ at Hawthorn Hive, the inhospitable cliffs which confronted the shipwrecked sailors, and the ‘jagged rocks’ which ‘lacerated’ the rescuers’ hands, place the location of the wreck in the vicinity of Shippersea Bay or a little further south at Shippersea Point. The rocks lie in the inter-tidal zone, so also fit well with the incoming tide and the slippery journey over the rocks ‘breast deep’ in water. The distance the coastguards helped the men, ‘over a mile’, would also be well accounted for by the place where they ended up, as we shall see.

Colour photograph taken from the top of grass-covered cliffs on the left, looking down to an empty beach with bare, vertical cliffs rising from it at centre; to the right rocks and sea, all seen under a cloudy sky.
View of the coastline at Shippersea Bay, south of Hawthorn Hive, 2009. CC-BY-SA/2.0 – © Colin Park –

Other than the master’s name, we know little about the Swedish crew, but we know a little more about their rescuers, led by two coastguards named Stroud and Baldwin, assisted by Healy and Sanderson, the head- and under-gardeners at nearby Hawthorn Tower. (12) The rescued men were first taken to the coastguard station, then, perhaps at the gardeners’ suggestion, on to Hawthorn Tower, which was the home of John Stapylton Grey Pemberton, MP for Sunderland, and his wife Nira, who personally attended to them.

Hawthorn Tower, near the mouth of Hawthorn Dene, was a large Gothic Revival house built by John Dobson in 1821 and purchased by the Pemberton family in the late 1850s, who remained in residence until circa 1910. Following requisitioning and sale in the aftermath of the Second World War, the house became a ruin and was demolished in 1969. No trace of it now remains, but its private railway platform can still be seen in Hawthorn Dene. (13)

Historic B&W aerial photo of building complex with main courtyard house in centre, set in an open landscape with clumps of trees.
Photograph of Hawthorn Towers, a Gothic-style mansion with 30 rooms. (HAW 027) © and by kind permission of David Angus

Having often lost all their belongings, charities (such as the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society) were set up to help shipwrecked sailors get home as soon as possible from anywhere in Britain. Foreign sailors were sent to their nearest consulate, which would pay for their onward travel, so the crew of the Sirius would have gone to the Swedish-Norwegian consulate in Sunderland, which was only 11 miles away. (At the time Sweden was still in a union with Norway, with both kingdoms sharing the same monarch and a common foreign policy between 1814 and 1905.)

The courage displayed in this one incident, among so many in the disastrous storm of 1901, did not go unremarked. The story was taken up again 14 months later, in 1903, when Mr Pemberton would give a speech at the award ceremony held in honour of the coastguards, where, according to a newspaper from the crew’s home region, ‘he emphasized the bravery of the coastguards’ deeds which he could personally appreciate as he once, seventeen years previously, had managed to save a life on the same coast and under much more benign conditions’. Mr Pemberton ended with ‘thanking the Swedish government for its good memory and highlighting the friendly relationship that has always existed between the British nation and Sweden.’ (14)

The Sunderland press gave further details of the ceremony which enlarged on the nature of the ceremony – not the usual presentation of RNLI or other home awards for gallantry, but one which was a fully-fledged diplomatic affair.

‘To-day a large gathering of villagers and others was held in the schoolroom, Hawthorn, to witness presentations for bravery in rescuing the crew of the Swedish vessel Sirius, which went ashore at Hawthorn Hythe during the gale in November. The circumstances having been reported to the Swedish Government, an intimation was sent to Mr E.U. Wancke, Consular representative at Sunderland, that it had been decided to give medals. —

‘The awards were as follows: -Stroud, a silver medal from the King of Sweden, in case suspended from a ribbon denoting the Swedish national colours. His Majesty also sent to the other Coastguard and gardeners £1 10s each. There were present Mr Wancke and Commander Stokes, R.N., of the Coastguard at Sunderland. The presentations were made by Mr Pemberton, who spoke in a most eulogistic manner of the gallantry of the four men. Mr Wancke also spoke, and thanked Mr Pemberton, on behalf of the Swedish Government, for having kindly undertaken to hand over the awards.’ (15)

Colour photo of two sides of silver medal on black background, suspended from crown and blue and yellow ribbon. To left, profile of bearded man surrounded by Latin inscription; to right Right side: recipient’s name GEORGE JOSEPH STROUD underneath a wreath, also surrounded by a Latin inscription.
Photo of George Stroud’s silver medal, The Medal for Laudable Actions, which surfaced at auction in 2005. The obverse shows Oscar II (1829–1907) in profile with Latin inscription: Oscar II Rex Sveciae et Norvegiae Goth. et Vandal. The reverse names the recipient underneath a wreath, surrounded by the Latin inscription Sui Memores Alios Fecere Merendo (They have through their deeds made others remember them). Image courtesy of Dix Noonan Webb Ltd.

The ceremony apparently closed with three hearty cheers for the Swedish-Norwegian consul, (16) who was probably the prime mover behind the award, being in a position to make a recommendation to the Swedish authorities.

Historic B&W photo of seated man in dark moustache and beard, wearing a formal dress uniform with gold braid to his cuffs and trousers, holding a scroll in his right hand and a gold braided bicorn hat in his left.
Photograph of Mr Elof Ulrik Wancke (1855-1943). Disappointed by the lack of an official diplomatic uniform, he is seen here in one of his own design. © and by kind permission of John Green

The award of medals by foreign powers for gallant sea rescues was not that common, but seems to have peaked around 1880-1920. Examples of foreign medals awarded to British crews around this time included those from the Russian Matador, lost in 1902. For the rescue of the crew, the lifeboat coxswain was awarded the Russian Silver Medal and his crew Certificates of Merit. Of the lifeboat crew who rescued the men from the Norwegian Geir, lost in 1908, the coxswain was awarded the British RNLI Silver Medal, while another received a silver medal from the King of Norway.

The Miss Thomas also deserves a mention, of course. Built in 1864, and thus slightly older than the Sirius, she was also in ballast when she stranded near Hawthorn en route from Dover for the Tyne. Registered in either Plymouth or London (sources vary), her master, G Hitchens, and his crew of five were all rescued in wind conditions of SE force 7.

Local and international papers covered the storm as it unfolded, particularly include the full-rigged French schooner Quillota from Nantes with 19 aboard, wrecked at Sunderland; the Swedish three-masted barque Trio, lost in Hartlepool Bay with seven lives (drawing of the wreck, Kalmar County Museum); and the Norwegian barque Inga with all but one of her 16 crew. The latter, a large iron sailing ship, 1,100 tons and 200 feet long, sank within sight of Tyne Dock having sailed all the way from Adelaide, Australia. We can see therefore that sailing vessels were disproportionately affected by the storm, demonstrating the advantages of the steamship, by now the key vessel type.

At the turn of the century, coastguard stations usually consisted of six to eight men, while smaller or sub-stations would number around three. Recruited exclusively from the Navy and the Naval Reserve, any man connected with the force could be called up for duty. In 1901, the coastguard service numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 men, who were required for both day and night patrol. (17)

Seaham’s coastguard station was much larger than Hawthorn’s and was also involved in the storm. On 12 November their coastguards were battling to rescue the crew of Alkor. a Russian schooner transporting coal, which stranded and was lost in wind conditions E force 10, from which we can see that the violence of the storm was exacerbated by its variability compared to the other wrecks. Three men were saved, while three drowned. (18) It was from Seaham Harbour reports of the Hawthorn rescue were initially sent out to the press, and there would no doubt have been close ties between the two stations.

By interrogating the sources we are not only able to highlight a tale of courage, but also to set it in its historical, social and geographical context: in England, this was one wreck among many, with more detail in Swedish accounts; we can see that rescue was a complete community effort in a small village; and by combining details from the reports we can pinpoint the place of loss.

Historic B&W map of stretch of coastline, showing fields to the left, a contour of rocks and sand and blank white space to the right.

Map of Hawthorn Hive in 1898, with Shippersea Bay to the south. Hawthorn Tower and the Coastguard station are visible respectively north and south of Hawthorn Dene, which lies to the west of Hawthorn Hive.  Historic Ordnance Survey mapping: © and database right Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd (All rights reserved 2019) Licence numbers 000394 and TP0024


(1) Evening Chronicle, 8 Mar 2002, Storm turned the North coast into ships’ graveyard; Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database lists 48 known wrecks for this period

(2) Philip Eden, Change in the weather, A&C Black,  2006, p. 104

(3) South Tyneside County Council, 19 Feb 2007, Great Storm of 1901 Remembered

(4) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning 19 November 1901, No.137, p3 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(5) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning, 28 January 1902, No.12, p2 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(6) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning, 14 November 1901, No.35, p2 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(7) Durham Records Online, 1901 Census Hawthorn

(8) Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council, Keys to the Past (nd), Hawthorn (County Durham); Coastwalkblog, (nd) County Durham, Coastwalk #4, Seaham to Hartlepool

(9) The Shields Daily News, 15 November 1901, No.12,496, p3

(10) National Library of Sweden, Höganäs Tidning 19 November 1901, No.137, p3 (in Swedish: translated by the author)

(11) The Shields Daily News, 15 November 1901, No.12,496, p3

(12) Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 Jan 1903, No.9,046, p6

(13) Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council, Keys to the Past, (nd) Hawthorn Tower; Lost Heritage – England’s lost country houses, Hawthorn Tower

(14) National Library of Sweden, Sydsvenska Dagbladet 20 January 1903, No.18, p3

(15) Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 14 Jan 1903, p3

(16) National Library of Sweden, Sydsvenska Dagbladet 20 January 1903, No.18, p3

(17) Alfred T Story, “Hands Round the Coast“, The Strand Magazine, Sep 1901, vol. xxii, pp279- 286

(18) Delpher, Rotterdamsch nieuwsblad, 16 Nov 1901, No.24, p3, Scheepstijdningen – London 14 Nov 1901


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