Disability History Month 2022

Shipwrecks: an investigation of disability in shipwrecks

Contemporary black & white print of tavern scene with disabled sailors in the foreground and other sailors in the background

Fig.1 Image caption: etching by Isaac Cruikshank, c.1791, depicting an old sailor with a wooden leg in the foreground, and, to left, an armless man being assisted to drink. (Wellcome Collection 26889i)

This blog post takes a look at shipwrecks in our waters through the stories of disabled sailors and passengers as part of Disability History Month 2022 (16th November – 16th December).

As a maritime historian, the language used in historical maritime records, particularly those of shipwrecks, is fascinating. One phrase that has always jumped out at me is the description of ships as ‘disabled’ by the loss of masts, rigging, anchors or other equipment as a precursor to ultimate loss in a storm: another phrase is ‘distressed’.

We might think of these as very ‘human’ terms, used in an anthropomorphic sense, but these phrases are used in a very technical sense to indicate that the ship is no longer capable of navigation or of avoiding natural hazard, as in this account from a watcher at the Spurn Head light during the Great Storm of 1703:

And then Peter Walls observed about six or seven and twenty sail of ships, all driving about the Spurn Head, some having cut, others broke, their cables, but all disabled, and render’d helpless.’ [1]

Seafaring has always been a dangerous profession – and even now the capacity of a ship’s equipment to cause death and life-changing injuries is added to the inherent dangers of the natural hazards of the sea: the potential for shipwreck is ever-present. Records tend to concentrate on the event itself and injuries which presented at the time, so it is difficult to follow up on their lasting impact, but occasionally there are hints of life-changing disabilities and this must have been more common than the documentary record, based primarily on the loss event itself, actually shows, as the lasting impact of injuries did not, generally, make it into the press record.

For example, in 1899 the French brigantine Gazelle went ashore near Boscastle in a storm, two men being rescued from the wreck by being carried with some difficulty up a rope ladder thrown down the cliffs. One man had a broken leg which was so in such a ‘precarious condition’ that amputation was considered likely. [2]

Text reads: Loss of a Boulogne Vessel. The brigantine Gazelle of Boulogne was totally wrecked at Boscastle, North Cornwall, in the gale of Friday last week. She was laden with coal, and carried a crew of four hands, two of whom were drowned.

Fig. 2 News of the wreck made it into the English-language Boulogne Times and Visitors’ List, April 13 1899, p2, which had begun publication in 1898 as a ‘tried and trusted friend’ for English residents and visitors alike.
Boulogne Times and Visitors’ List, April 13, 1899, p2 Source gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France

In a similar vein, in 1810 the Prussian ship Apries, laden with wheat from Dantzic (now Gdansk) stranded on the Whiting Bank off Suffolk during a gale: the sea was running high and ‘the current drew them’ (and other ships) onto the Whiting. The crew saved themselves while the captain was examining the chart and he found himself ‘abandoned, and the ship going to pieces’, whereupon he ‘got upon the mast, and remained in that perilous situation all night.’ He was rescued by a passing boat the next morning, but ‘one of his hands is so dreadfully bruised, that he will be obliged to have one finger amputated.’ [3]

There are other stories of that ilk among shipwreck accounts around the coastline – sometimes the effects may be amplified through recollection or through secondary sources and it can be difficult to tell what the real consequences were for the individuals concerned. For example, the main source for the wreck of the Norwegian barque Patria, which stranded on Chesil Beach, Dorset, in 1903 appears to be based on personal recollection, but has elements of the ‘seamen’s yarn’ about it, at any rate in the way that the story has been told. One of the crew was stated to have had his leg amputated as a result, but another was said to have ‘run mad’, in the language of the time, and then put in a straitjacket. Newspaper accounts of the wreck mention neither, though both amputation and mental trauma are quite plausible under the extreme stress of a shipwreck event, and this is another good example of how reliance on press reports can obscure the real physical and mental effects of shipwreck. [4]

So sources can be either frustratingly silent or difficult to interpret on the extent of injuries suffered and the permanent effects on survivors are difficult to establish. Given the precarious situations both crew and passengers found themselves in, particularly in winter conditions with prolonged exposure to the elements, there must have been many very serious and debilitating injuries with life-changing impact.

As well as in the usual run of accidents as the ship broke up, with falling debris and splinters, and injuries sustained in scrambling to safety, winter storms carried the additional and very real risk of hypothermia and frostbite, historically known as ‘exposure’ which probably caused the loss of many fingers and toes.

In 1881, the Norwegian brig Hasselø stranded on the Maplin Sand on the approaches to the Thames. They had, ‘at great risk, cut away the masts and rigging, which proved to be a very wise step’ in a ‘blinding snowstorm’, where they were ‘more than knee deep in water’: it took 20 hours for the lifeboat to make the round trip and return after their successful rescue of all the crew, 7 men and a boy. Even the lifeboatmen were suffering from exposure, ‘some of their hands being much swollen’, but the shipwreck victims were in much worse case. [5]

Elsewhere, hospital ships carrying the sick and wounded from naval combat, and conveying soldiers away from sites of terrestrial conflict, have a long history. The earliest known wreck of such a hospital ship in English waters is the San Pedro el Mayor, which came to rest with her passengers of sick and wounded men at Hope Cove, Devon, in 1588, having battled together with the other surviving ships of the Spanish Armada the complete circumnavigation of the British Isles. The English authorities dealing with the wreck called her a ‘Samaritan’, derived from the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, who tended the injuries of a man left for dead – although initially the authorities were rather less well disposed towards their prisoners of war, and were at first considering their execution! [6]

During the First World War hospital ships brought back badly injured men from the Western Front and other theatres of war – the prominent Red Cross painted on these ships should have protected them from attack at sea, in accordance with the Hague Convention (1899), but in practice this was not necessarily the case, and a number of hospital ships and ambulance transports were sunk by enemy action in English waters, leaving disabled men and ‘cot cases’ who were unable to get up independently very vulnerable in the event of attack (for the case study of the Rewa, please see an earlier entry in Wreck of the Week January 1918).

The physical and psychological damage of the First World War was immense, not only in limb loss, sensory trauma (blindness, deafness) and shell shock, but in syndromes such as ‘disordered action of the heart’, which was so common that it was simply named ‘DAH’. DAH was also known as ‘effort syndrome’ or ‘soldier’s heart’, in which stress and fatigue had physiological effects. An English Channel infested with mines and with the ever-present danger of torpedo attack from unseen submarines must have presented an immense psychological barrier for already traumatised, injured and sick soldiers until they set foot ‘back in Blighty’ on the other side of the Channel.

Such injuries must have had a significant impact on a sailor’s ability to earn a living – this was as true of men in the mercantile service as of those who crewed warships.

Like the need for hospital ships, the need to make provision for sailors disabled in the course of their duties was also recognised early on. On the English side of the combatants in the 1588 Armada, the Chatham Chest was an early form of pension fund set up to assist English naval men wounded or disabled in the wars with Spain, paid for by official deductions from their wages.  Greenwich Hospital was founded by Royal Charter in 1694 to support naval men ‘who by reason of age, wounds or other disabilities’ were ‘incapable of further service’ and eventually absorbed the Chatham Chest fund in 1803.

Black and white photograph of colonnaded building with a cupola seen through the columns of a building opposite, and a lamp at top right corner.

Fig.3 Exterior view of the Royal Naval Hospital looking towards the Queen Mary block from the colonnade of the King William block. Eric de Maré AA98/06416 © Historic England Archive

The various wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw many troop movements across the seas and numbers of troopship losses, including those of homeward-bound troop transports carrying the sick and wounded. In February of 1776, the year that would see the US Declaration of Independence, the Lion transport ‘made the Island of Scilly in about 21 days from Boston’ homeward bound with ‘invalids and wounded men’. She made landfall there to revictual and repair and was about to resume her onward voyage when ‘a perfect hurricane’ blew up, and she lost her anchors, ‘standing in for a dreadful rock, about 15 yards in height, but suddenly struck upon a hidden one . . . which turned her half round. Thus did Providence, by this unseen rock, save our lives, as the general opinion was we had not half a minute to live.’ [7]

Despite the vulnerabilities of many of those on board, there was no loss of life, but it was still a difficult situation for Captain Pawlett of the 59th Regiment, ‘who lost one of his legs at Boston-Lines by an eighteen-pounder, when commanding a working party of 100 men.’ [8]

Four men load a cannon.

Fig. 4 Re-enactors dressed in American uniforms of the Revolutionary War load an 18-pdr siege cannon at Yorktown National Park. Yorktown (1781), which resulted in the surrender of the British troops under Lord Cornwallis, was the decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War (United States National Park Service: Wikimedia Commons)

As we have seen from other accounts of shipwrecks, the newspapers are silent on his ordeal in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, although he was presented to King George III and later in 1776 he was made the captain of an Independent Company of Invalids at Jersey, a post in the gift of the King. [9] Such companies were made up of wounded and disabled military men who were thus enabled to continue home service. 

Only Pawlett’s obituary (a mere five years later in 1781) gives us a hint that the safe evacuation of the man with the missing leg might have been less than straightforward: ‘On his return to England he was ship-wrecked on the Isle of Scilly, and preserved with great difficulty.’ [10]

It is the only example we have so far found of the experiences of someone already disabled managing to survive shipwreck in English waters, but there must surely have been others. Zoom in to the terrifying experience of escaping from a similar wreck in The Wreck of a Transport Ship by J M W Turner, c.1810, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon on Google Arts and Culture.

Warfare at sea is another cause of life-changing injuries. It was the most ‘egalitarian’ of all industrial disabilities in the sense that it was equally likely to affect all ranks – i.e. the officer ranks were not removed from the cause of injury (as, say a factory owner might have been from the industrial injuries on the shop floor of a mill). [11] Horatio Nelson is perhaps the most famous example: the sight in his right eye was impaired by action at Corsica (1794) and his right arm shattered by a musket ball at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797) and amputated as a result.

As the case of Captain Pawlett demonstrates, cannon had enormous power to cause death and disability. During the age of sail their terror lay not only in direct contact but also on their terrifying impact on a ship’s hull, sending massive splinters of timber flying to kill and maim human beings as collateral damage.

One stanza in a Victorian poem looks back to the First Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and describes both this leading cause of disability in naval engagements, and a famous, if probably apocryphal, incident of Nelson literally turning a blind eye to a signal to retreat, turning it to his advantage and that of the fleet. Disability ties together the ordinary sailor and the most famous of British admirals:

Splinters were flying above, below,
           When Nelson sailed the Sound:
 “Mark you, I wouldn’t be elsewhere now,”
           Said he, “for a thousand pound!”
 The Admiral’s signal bade him fly
         But he wickedly wagged his head:
 He clapped the glass to his sightless eye,
        And “I’m damned if I see it!” he said.

(Admirals All, Henry Newbolt, 1897)

Black and white photo close up view of statue of Nelson, atop the capital of the column with ornamental leaf design

Fig. 5. Horatio Nelson at the top of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, 1933. Arthur James Mason Collection, AA64/00493 © Historic England Archive.

If historical sources use the language of disability and distress to describe wrecks, disabled seamen could also liken their physical condition to wrecked vessels. A song, The Greenwich Pensioner, by Charles Dibdin (1791) makes this connection with a pun upon the tiers of ships (rows of ships at a mooring in a river, particularly the Thames and Tyne) and the location of the Hospital. (The song was accompanied in print by the Cruikshank caricature illustrating the beginning of the article.)

Yet still am I enabled
     To bring up in life’s rear
 Altho’ I’m quite disabled
    And lie in Greenwich tier

These tiers of ships could be subject to damaging incidents and mass wreckings. We read of wrecks to these tiers of ships, for example in 1752 ‘during a gale of wind, a tier of ships at Limehouse broke loose, and the Wiltshire . . . being the outside ship, ran aground on the opposite shore, and lighting on a ledge, she overset and is entirely lost’, with a similar mass stranding in 1773, also at Limehouse. [12]

Dibdin’s folk song is thus full of psychological insight, grounded in the everyday reality of the nautical idiom, suggesting that disabled seamen felt a certain vulnerability despite the shelter of Greenwich and the company of their peers. This everyday reality leaves frustratingly little trace in shipwreck accounts yet it must have been very common: what seems much clearer is that the language of shipwreck gave seamen a language with which to articulate their own disabilities.


[1] Defoe, D, 1704 The Storm; or, a Collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters which happen’d in the late dreadful tempest, both by sea and land (London: G Sawbridge)

[2] Royal Cornwall Gazette, 13 April 1899, No.4,994, p3

[3] Suffolk Chronicle, 20 October 1810, No.25, p4

[4] Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol.1: Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset Section 6, Dorset (AJ), based principally on Rasmussen, A H 1952 Sea Fever (London: Constable); a recording of Albert Henry Rasmussen singing sea shanties and mentioning the Patria in passing can be accessed via the British Library online

[5] Essex Standard, 22 January 1881, No.2,615, p8

[6] Dasent, J R (ed) 1897 Acts of the Privy Council of England Volume 16, 1588 (London: HMSO) p328-330 British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/acts-privy-council/vol16 [accessed 12 December 2022]; Knox Laughton, J 1894 State Papers relating to the defeat of the Spanish Armada Vol. II (London: Navy Records Society) p289-296

[7] Derby Mercury, Friday 23 February to Friday 1 March 1776, No.2,289

[8] Norfolk Chronicle, 2 March 1776, Vol.VII, No.361, p2

[9] Reception by the King: Northampton Mercury, 4 March 1776, Vol.LVI, No.51, p1; Hibernian Journal, 13 March 1776, Vol.3 No.33, p4; preferment: Kentish Gazette, Wednesday October 9 to Saturday October 12, 1776, No.880, p2

[10] Norfolk Chronicle, 8 December 1781, No.653

[11] I am grateful to my colleague Ken Hamilton for sharing his thoughts on this subject.

[12] 1752: Lloyd’s List, 14 November 1752, No.1,769; Norwich Mercury, 11 November to 18 November 1752; 1773: Lloyd’s List, 26 February 1773, No.410; Kentish Gazette, 27 February to 3 March 1773, No.501

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