A ship with three identities: the Mexico disaster, 1886

We are delighted to welcome as our guest blogger this week Roger Burns, who has researched and written this post. Roger describes himself as a ‘retired civil engineer, who, seeking a hobby, volunteered in 2016 with the Maritime Archaeology Trust, for whom he researches wrecks and drafts articles and blogs, and as a result has become a regular contributor of wreck data to Historic England. Prior to volunteering, Roger had minimal maritime knowledge, but is now fully immersed in such an interesting and rewarding pursuit.’

On the anniversary of the final loss on 27th February 1900, Roger tells the story of a ‘wrecked’ vessel which resulted in a horrific tragedy off the Lancashire coast – one ship, three identities, and two distinct fates, with no apparent connection between the two events until his recent research.

Contemporary oil painting of the hull of a wreck under a dark cloudy sky at low tide, allowing salvors to attend the wreck (on the left).

Figure 1: The wreck of the Mexico, Emil Axel Krause, 1886. As a Lancashire painter born in Germany, the wreck of the Mexico must have held double appeal as a subject.
Source: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-wreck-of-the-mexico-66088
Atkinson Art Gallery Collection CC BY-NC-SA

Early career: as the John Bull

We begin with the launch of a barque on 21 February 1860 as the John Bull by Thomas R. Oswald & Co., Pallion, Sunderland for Temperley & Co., White Lion Court, Cornhill, London, a modestly-sized 3-masted sailing vessel of 484 tons gross. (1) Completed in March 1860, it was registered at London as ON28377 of 484 tons gross. With a single bulkhead, the vessel was constructed (2) throughout of iron protected by red lead paint, except for the deck which was yellow pine, provided with one longboat and two other small boats, certified and classed 12A1 by Lloyd’s.

We are able to trace the story of the John Bull in the British Newspaper Archive and elsewhere. The ship was intended for the London to Quebec and Montreal trade, first arriving on 17 May 1860 and these return voyages endured until November 1872, encountering seasonal ice. Exceptions were a return passage in 1866 to Woosung and Shanghai, another when in December 1872, the John Bull departed London for New Zealand, returning to London the following November, then departed again for New Zealand returning via Australia destined for Leith. The 1872 voyage to New Zealand provides exceptional detail in both British and New Zealand newspapers: over May and June 1873 there were several newspaper Notices of Auctions for three bales of curled horse hair, 79 kegs of crushed loaf sugar, 10 packages of Eleme raisins, one bale of bleached cotton waste, two bales of grey blankets, and an assortment of tin boxes of tin plates, all of which had been landed by the John Bullmore or less damaged by sea-water”. An out-of-character destination in November 1876 when en route London to Montreal was Guadeloupe, either as a diversion, or due to storms. The last Canadian trip appears to be mid-1878 and then, on 28 December 1878, when en route from Baltimore to North Shields with a cargo of Indian corn (maize), the ship’s boy, who hailed from London, fell overboard in heavy weather and drowned.

There were several changes of ownership, with the John Bull being regularly advertised for sale between November 1879 and March 1881. During this time, it had been dry-docked, chipped and painted internally and externally and provided with new main mast, main and foretopsail yard, jibboom and windlass. Contained in a Lloyd’s dated 19 May 1881, was another change of ownership to Gebrüder Oetling of Hamburg, including the construction of a ‘house’, 6.55m long, 4.15m wide and 1.96m high, on the deck between foremast and main hatch – unfortunately, records do not show details of previous accommodation. (3)

A change of name: Mexico

At this point it was also renamed the Mexico, re-registered at Hamburg, and a Captain Burmeister assumed command, signalling a change in routes through until summer 1886. Reported ports of call included, in chronological order, Santos, Valparaiso, Iquique, Hamburg, Arica, Corinto, Liverpool, Marseilles, Hamburg, Pauillac, unidentified ports in Central America, Hamburg, La Union, La Libertad, Tebuantepac and Liverpool. Between September and November 1886, regular advertisements appeared for repeat sailings between Liverpool and Guayaquil, Ecuador.  

Between 1860 and 1881, there were 18 Lloyd’s reports, of which eight were regular Annual Surveys, the remainder including repairs, mostly of checking and repainting the hull, always retaining its original classification, thus supporting its ‘For Sale’ advertisements which drew attention to its pedigree.

The first wreck as Mexico, 1886

Media reports of the wrecking of the sailing barque Mexico appeared in the newspapers of 10 December 1886, notably the local Lancashire Evening Post, intimating that the vessel had gone aground just off Southport, was dismasted, and its 12 crew were saved, but also that disaster had struck two RNLI lifeboats, from Southport and St. Annes, with 27 of 29 of their crews drowned. (4)

Map of the Ribble Estuary, showing the location of the wreck west of Southport, with St. Annes and Lytham to the north; inset map at top left showing the location on the north English coast.

Figure 2: Location of the first wrecking of the SV Mexico, and the three involved communities
(Maritime Archaeology Trust)

The Mexico had departed Liverpool the previous night with a general but valuable cargo for Guayaquil, Ecuador but managed only some 15 miles, encountering atrocious weather. The Southport lifeboat, the Eliza Fernley (5) was launched first, but capsized and was swept ashore, with only two of the 16 crew surviving. The St. Annes lifeboat, the Laura Janet (6) was also launched but it too capsized with all 13 crew being lost. The Lytham lifeboat, Charles Biggs, was launched for its maiden rescue, and succeeded in bringing all 12 crew of the grounded Mexico safely ashore. The loss of 27 RNLI volunteer crew remains to this day as its worst crew death toll in its long and distinguished history.

The newspapers were awash with reports for days afterwards. It is salutary to read the experience of John Jackson, one of the two survivors from the Eliza Fernley, who had been a volunteer lifeboatman for 15 years, transcribed from the 10 December 1886 issue of the Lancashire Evening Post:

‘At ten minutes to ten (pm) the horses set off with the boat, and, after experiencing considerable difficulty, launched the boat at eleven o’clock. A large crowd saw us off and the excitement was tremendous. The boat was launched successfully and went nicely for a time. A very heavy sea was running at the time, and our troubles soon commenced. Captain Hodge and Peters, the second coxswain, were at the helm, and as sea after sea washed over us, every man stuck grimly to his seat. We were beaten back several times and shipped an immense quantity of water. It was pitch dark at the time, and the only indication of the distressed barque was the faint glimpse of a lamp, which, as we got closer, we saw hung from the mizzen top. I was able to discern that the vessel had lost her foremast and mainmast. We were at length within 30 yards off the vessel, and could hear no shouting, indeed the storm rose to such a pitch that it was with difficulty that we could hear our own voices. I was just about letting go the anchor to get the boat alongside the vessel—we were then I should say, twenty yards from the barque—when a tremendous sea caught the boat right amidships, and she went over. We expected her to right herself, but she remained bottom upwards. Some of us managed, at length, to crawl out. I and Richard Robinson held firmly to the rowlocks, and was buffeted about considerably. With some difficulty I got underneath the boat again, and spoke, I think, to Hy. Robinson, Thos. Jackson, Timothy Rigby, and Peter Jackson. I called out, “I think she will never right; we have all to be drowned.” I heard a voice–I think it was Henry Robinson’s–say, “I think so, too.” I got out again and found Richard Robinson “fairly done.” He leaned heavily on my arm, and I think he must have been suffocated. Another heavy sea came, and when it receded, he had disappeared, and I never saw him again. While underneath, I called out to my brother “Clasper!” — that is a sort of nickname we gave him—but could get no answer. The boat eventually drifted bottom upwards to the shore, and those who were rescued, like myself, clung to her. I don’t know what became of the rest, I was exhausted. I remember seeing two or three struggling to reach the boat, but I do not know who they were. I drifted with the boat, bottom upwards, to the beach—and staggered home, about three o’clock in the morning.’

The RNLI have authored several reports, including this one on the centenary of the event in 1986.

The ensuing 2½ years

There was an outpouring of condolences from all walks of life, including Queen Victoria. The public relief fund, over an extended period, raised £35,000 (approx. £3.5m in 2022) to which the Emperor of Germany contributed £1,300. Just a few days after the disaster, the National Lifeboat Association announced that they would pay the cost of the funerals, held on 14 December 1886 and witnessed by huge crowds, and would also provide monetary assistance to the families until the public fundraising was complete: later, annuities from the relief fund were distributed to the families, sadly comprising 16 widows and 50 fatherless children. (7)

The St. Annes and Southport lifeboats were replaced in late 1886 with improved with improved water-ballast versions, but still powered by oar, and, weather permitting, sails. (8)

At a ceremony on 1 February 1887, the crew of the Charles Biggs were each thanked in person by Mr Babr, the German Consul, with a modest reward in appreciation of saving the Mexico’s German crew. (9)

On 11 March 1887, after three months partly under water, tugs towed the Mexico to Lytham where it was beached – Messrs Allsopp and Sons of Preston had secured the wreck for £70 in the expectation of reaping the rewards of its cargo, although a significant amount had been salvaged soon after the disaster and sold in local shops. During 1888, three obelisks and a memorial were erected in memory of the 27 lifeboat crew who were drowned.

Montage of four colour photographs of monuments in different styles; top left, obelisk; top right, chest tomb with broken mast feature; lower right, statue of lifeboatman on plinth; lower left, Gothic spire on plinth.

Figure 3: The four memorials, all listed structures, clockwise from top left: lifeboat monument, Southport; monument to the Southport lifeboat Eliza Fernley; lifeboat monument near St. Annes Pier; monument to the St. Annes lifeboat Laura Janet

It was right that the 1886 tragedy brought the RNLI into focus, precipitating the first public street collection in Britain in 1891, nearly seventy years after the RNLI’s inception in 1824.

The Mexico resurrected

A ‘For Sale’ advertisement in Lloyd’s List of 11 February 1889 offered the hull of the Mexico where it was lying on Lytham beach, with anchors, chains, steel hawser, some timber, ropes and a derrick, and with mizzenmast standing. Three months later, the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette of 14 May 1889, reported that the Mexico had arrived at the Old West Dock in Greenock for an expected two months of repairs by a Mr Thomson, boilermaker, in preparation for the West India trade. It must have been considered a worthwhile investment despite its wide-ranging voyages as John Bull, grounding off Southport as Mexico, enduring over two years of storms at Lytham, and then towed some 200 miles to Greenock, thus being a credit to the structural design and skill of the builders who specialised in iron ships from 1860 – regular survey by Lloyd’s and essential maintenance by the owners also contributed.

Final fate as the Valhalla

The new (managing) owner was Lewis T. Merrow, 65 West Regent St., Glasgow and the Mexico was re-registered with 477 tonnage at Glasgow until 1898. Ownership was then briefly held by J.P. Clausen, Nordby, Fanø, Denmark, who renamed the vessel Valhalla. The final owner was A/S Valhalla, managed by Hans Blom & Frithjof Ohlsen, Fredriksvaern, Norway. By now, it was registered in Fredriksvaern, with new number 1028377, and her tonnage recorded as 494 gross/476 net. The voyage history after repairs at Glasgow is sparse and lacking detail in the cargoes carried, but ports visited from the Clyde included the Demerara region of Guyana, Pensacola, and Belfast.

With nine crew and the master (whose name is either omitted from both British and Norwegian newspapers, or variously spelt as Servig, Sorvig, Sowig etc.) the Valhalla departed Gravesend for Grangemouth in ballast, and while off the North Berwick coast on 27 February 1900, encountered a rain storm, haze, and heavy sea, and ran aground opposite Tantallon Castle. (10)

Location map showing the wreck of the Valhalla off Tantallon Castle; inset map at top left showing the relative location near Edinburgh

Figure 4: Location of the final wreck SV Valhalla (Maritime Archaeology Trust)

The North Berwick lifeboat was called out, and like at Southport, four lifeboatmen were washed overboard but fortunately regained their lifeboat. The Valhalla’s crew were pulled ashore in their own boat, aided by a rocket line from shore, and, except for one injury, were safe and well. (11) The Valhalla was dashed to pieces, and the crew were repatriated.

Text in Norwegian (translated in caption) in Black Letter Gothic typeface from contemporary newspaper

Figure 5: Contemporary report in Norges Sjøfartstidende, 5 March 1900, p2 (excerpt).
Translated, this reads: ‘Valhalla. Dundee, 28th February. Norwegian barque Valhalla has now completely broken up.’
Source: Nasjonalbiblioteket, Oslo, Norway. CC-BY-NC-ND

We would like to express our appreciation to Roger for telling the fascinating story of the Mexico/Valhalla, a ship that was wrecked twice over in two different places, and also to Julie Satchell of the Maritime Archaeology Trust for her kind assistance.

The connection between the two events has until now been obscure, with the two years between the first wreck event involving the Mexico and its eventual recovery for sale highly unusual, to sail again as the Valhalla, and the different names under which the barque went ashore on those two occasions.

The double ‘loss’ of the same ship under different circumstances several years apart is also unusual: it is not unknown, but is a relatively rare event (one of the better-known examples being HMS Thetis, sunk in Liverpool Bay in 1939, which was salvaged and re-entered service as HMS Thunderbolt, only to be lost with all hands in the Mediterranean in 1943).

There are also more interesting features about this ship since it illustrates over the course of the two wreck events that, on the one hand, a shipwreck such as Mexico may entail loss of life (in this case of the lifeboatmen who went so gallantly to the rescue) but the ship itself is recovered; on the other, as Valhalla, the crew may be saved, but the vessel itself lost.


(1) http://www.sunderlandships.com/view.php?year_built=&builder=&ref=105355&vessel=JOHN+BULL/

(2) Iron Ships Report for John Bull, 23rd February 1860 – https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/documents/lrf-pun-iron434-0176-r

(3) Report of Survey for Repairs, &c for Mexico, 19th May 1881  https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/documents/lrf-pun-lon665-0613-r

(4) Mexico; https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=3ca4c738-ba17-4906-87cc-d5ec4943fe42&resourceID=19191

(5) ibid (Mexico); Eliza Fernley: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=2e1647cd-fc97-44ae-843b-692e41686884&resourceID=19191

(6) ibid; Laura Janet: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=fd3d560b-8ff7-4e25-99ba-c5240fb2e12f&resourceID=19191

(7) https://rnli.org/about-us/our-history/timeline/1886-southport-and-st-annes-lifeboats-disaster

(8) Leeds Mercury, 15 December 1886; https://lifeboatmagazinearchive.rnli.org/volume/13/143/the-life-boat-disasters-at-southport-and-st-annes?searchterm=fernley&YearFrom=1886&YearTo=1888&page=1

(9) Lancashire Evening Post – 1 February 1887

(10) https://canmore.org.uk/site/120022/valhalla-tantallon-castle-gin-head-firth-of-forth

(11) North British Daily Mail, 28 February 1900

Queen Victoria 200

Friday 24 May 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth. Her long reign (1837-1901) saw an expansion of worldwide trade, facilitated by innovations in ship construction. Brunel’s SS Great Western, for example, was launched only a few months into her reign in 1838, and paved the way for the transatlantic ocean liner that would dominate maritime traffic for over a century.

Queen Victoria herself and the great changes in shipping that took place during her lifetime are both well-documented. Perhaps less well known is Victoria’s intimate connection with ships, shipping and shipwrecks, despite the many Fleet Reviews of her reign that set a precedent for later monarchs.

Black and white photograph of a billiard table in a room decorated in late Victorian style, with three lampshades low over the table.
Billiard table at Windsor Castle, fashioned from timbers recovered in the early years of Victoria’s reign from the 1782 wreck of the Royal George, Spithead. Bedford Lemere and Company, 1893. Source: Historic England Archive

Victoria kept a lifelong journal recording her interest in ships from an early age, beginning with her teenage visits to resorts on the Kent and Sussex coasts. She took a lively interest in all the ships and sailors she saw and took great pains to learn their names and nationalities. Then as now, press interest in royalty, was intense, including a stay at St. Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, in late 1834, which coincided with a spell of bad weather: ‘The weather has been very unfavourable, since the arrival of the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria for out-door exercise . . . ‘ (1)

On 20 November, a coal brig homeward-bound to nearby Rye sprang a leak off St. Leonards. A rescue party in a boat was swamped and all on board drowned, a loss that was made all the more poignant because the crew of the original wreck had in fact saved themselves by abandoning ship. The royal visitors ‘most liberally subscribed . . . towards the relief of the several families who have been thrown into great distress . . .’ (2) Victoria’s entry for 5 January 1835 describes an encounter with one of the widows: ‘As we walked along by the towers we met Mrs. Weeks, one of the widows, with her little girl . . . She looks as pale as death . . .‘ (3)

One of the most famous wrecks of the entire Victorian era occurred very early in the Queen’s reign, primarily because its heroine was a young woman not much older than the Queen herself. Grace Darling (1815-1842) won international fame by accompanying her father in the perilous rescue of the survivors of the paddle steamer Forfarshire, wrecked in 1838 among the Farne Islands, Northumberland. In her journal for 28 September 1838 Victoria records hearing of the ‘gallant behaviour of a girl called Grace Darling’ from Lord Melbourne. On a rather boisterous voyage to Scotland in 1842 aboard the Royal Yacht, Victoria was nevertheless eager to discern ‘ . . . Farne Island, with Grace Darling’s Light House on it, & curious rocky islands . . . ‘ (5)

The 19th century saw enormous gains in the matter of ship safety. From 1850 the Admiralty was responsible for compiling records of shipping losses, a duty which devolved to the Board of Trade through the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. For the first time, registers and summary abstracts (Board of Trade Casualty Returns) provided a centralised record from which to distil a statistical overview of shipwrecks and identification of common trends in shipping casualties. Hazards which caused regular or frequent losses could be identified and mitigating measures adopted (such as building new lighthouses where needed). The Returns were very successful and were copied elsewhere, for example in Denmark, and have become one of our key sources for wrecks of the Victorian era.

Similarly, a further Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 enforced the compulsory marking of a load line on British ships to do away with the overloaded ‘coffin ships’ that all too often foundered with all hands or were sent to sea unseaworthy. The load line, which is still used in a much refined form today on modern shipping, is popularly known as the ‘Plimsoll line’ after the MP Samuel Plimsoll, who had campaigned for many years to achieve its adoption.

Not all the legislation in the world could avoid ‘stress of weather’, natural hazards, or tragic accidents. The sheer volume of naval, commercial and leisure traffic in the Victorian period ensured that collisions were a frequent occurrence in crowded waterways, in the Thames, Humber, and English Channel in particular.

On 18 August 1875 the Queen herself was involved in a wreck event when the Royal Yacht Alberta was involved in a collision in the Solent with the sailing yacht Mistletoe. Victoria’s journal gives a vivid impression of the event: ‘When we [n]eared Stokes Bay, Beatrice said, very calmly “Mama, there is a yacht coming against us,” & I saw the tall masts & large sails of a schooner looming over us. In an instant came an awful, most terrifying crash . . . ‘ (6) Victoria was then ‘horrified to find not a single vestige of the yacht, merely a few spars & deck chairs floating about . . . ‘ Some of those on board the Mistletoe had saved themselves, as was common in such incidents, by jumping aboard the colliding vessel. Three lives were lost, including Thomas Stokes, master of the Mistletoe, who was picked up alive and brought onto the Queen’s yacht, but soon afterwards died of his injuries.

The subsequent inquiries were, of course, much reported in the press, and generated much adverse comment on the conduct of the respective crews. Had the Mistletoe approached too close in order for her passengers to catch a glimpse of the royal party? Why had the Alberta not been able to avoid the Mistletoe?

Less than three years later another shipwreck occurred off the Isle of Wight, which again generated huge publicity. This time it was the wreck of the sail training ship Eurydice, homeward-bound from the West Indies, which capsized in a snowy squall off Dunnose Point on 24 March 1878 with the loss of some 300 lives, mostly young men. The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) would paint a vivid word-picture in his poem The Loss of the Eurydice of the ordeal of one of the two survivors, Sydney Fletcher of Bristol:

Now her afterdraught gullies him too down,

Now he wrings for breath with the deathgush brown,

Till a lifebelt and God’s will

Lend him a lift from the sea-swill.

The Queen heard of the wreck at Windsor Castle: ‘Too awful! . . . Too fearful! Could think of little else.’ (7) Over the course of that year the Queen and other members of the royal family, in common with much of the country, would discuss the sad fate of the Eurydice on many occasions. She was presented with a copy of The Last Four Days of the Eurydice by Captain E H Verney (1878). (8)

Spending much of their time at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, or at that year’s Fleet Review at Gosport, the royal family regularly encountered the grim sight of the wreck: ‘As we steamed across, we saw the poor Eurydice, lying close off what is called “No man’s land”, just as we had seen her the day of the Review, in fearful contrast to the beautiful Fleet.’ (9) 

This blog can only scratch the surface of the Queen’s intimate connection with the sea, one she shared with her people, including direct involvement in a form of shipping tragedy which, statistically, became more common over her reign as more people acquired the leisure for pleasure cruising. She became Queen at a time when many individuals and organisations worked tirelessly to improve both navigational safety and the lot of the ordinary sailor, and it was during her reign that the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, founded in 1824, took the name by which we know it today, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Wrecks were interwoven into her life just as much as they were into the lives of Victorians, many of whom would have gone to sea in the navy, merchant marine, or in the fishing industry, or taken advantage of the new opportunities for passenger travel aboard the steam-powered liner. Others still were moved by what they saw for themselves, or read in the newspapers: the Queen shared all these experiences in common with everyone else.

Oil painting of wrecked ship laid up against white cliffs, with boats surrounding her on a slightly swelling sea, a cloudy sky above.
Henry Robins, The Wreck of the Eurydice, signed and dated 1878. RCIN 406265. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

(1) Hampshire Adviser and Salisbury Guardian, 29 November 1834, No.593

(2) ibid.

(3) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 6, (5 November 1834 – 24 May 1835)

(4) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 7 (11 August – 6 October 1838)

(5) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 14 (1 July – 31 December 1842)

(6) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 64 (1 January 1875 – 29 February 1876)

(7) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 68 (1 January – 24 June 1878)

(8) “The Last Four Days of the Eurydice, National Maritime Museum blog, 09 May 2017

(9) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 69 (25 June – 31 December 1878)




A Tale of Two Billyboys

The Swan and the York Merchant

It is my pleasure once more to welcome Jordan Havell for a third blog on his local heritage.

Here he focuses on two Humber billyboys which were lost on routine voyages which ended disastrously on the Lincolnshire coast. Jordan has been honing his research skills in going back to original newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive and trying to trace the history of the ships involved through the Guildhall Library, two of the most important sources of information for any shipwreck historian.

He has helped identify one vessel – the York Merchant – and discovered another – the Swan – and seems to have caught the research bug!  So I would like to thank Jordan very much for passing this information on to us. Potentially one or the other of these two vessels, or perhaps another one that we haven’t yet discovered more about, might tell us where fragments of wreckage recently washed up near Jordan could have come from.

Over to Jordan:

My blog this time relates to the Swan billyboy that was lost at Huttoft on 17th Oct 1869.

I had asked about another vessel – a billyboy that had been listed in Historic England records as a wreck 05.11.1858 carrying shingle. I have now, with the help of The Guildhall, London, been able to name that wreck as the York Merchant of Yarmouth. She was lost along with 3 crew and 3 passengers. The story is told in varying newspapers: the Stamford Mercury, 12 Nov 1858; Leeds Times, 13 Nov 1858; Morning Advertiser 16 Nov 1858, as well as the Dundee Courier Weds 17 Nov 1858 and The Bucks Herald Sat 20 Nov 1858.

There were similarities between the two vessels (the York Merchant and the Swan). Both the vessels had been classified as billyboys. Both had set sail for Gainsborough, Lincolnshire – one carrying wheat, and the other carrying shingle. Both had been hit by severe weather and had both been carrying the family of the masters aboard – sadly in the case of the York Merchant it is known there were fatalities.

I was finding pieces of stranded wood on my local beach over recent weeks. I got in touch with Serena Cant at Historic England as we had been in contact before. She, along with Andy Sherman of Museum of London Archaeology, looked at my photos etc. Andy said the some of the pieces may have come from a billyboy ship.

This, in turn, relit my interest in shipwreck history. We started visiting the library locally and the RNLI records to see if any of these vessels had been wrecked in this area. We found the Swan – a record from a book called Mablethorpe and North Lincolnshire Lifeboats. The vessel had been en route from Boston to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, when she was caught in a violent gale. She was made of wood and was carrying a cargo of wheat believed to be about 200 quarters, of which only 14 was saved. We found reports in various newspapers in The British Newspaper Archive including the Lincolnshire Chronicle and Manchester Courier, as well as the Hull and Eastern Counties Herald that confirmed the story.

The Master is named as Mr John Would. The owners are named as Nicholson and Burkitt of Retford. The crew is listed as 2, and 3 passengers were aboard at the time. They were saved by the National Lifeboat called the Birmingham. A quote taken from the Mablethorpe and North East Lincolnshire Lifeboats reads: “The only other effective service by the Birmingham Number 1 came on Oct 17th 1869, when she rescued the master, his wife and 2 children plus a man and a boy from the billyboy Swan of Hull.”

The saved master and crew were taken to the Jolly Bacchus – which we now know as the Bacchus Hotel – owned at the time by Mr Simons, from one of the newspaper stories of the time. One of the newspaper quotes read ‘the boat (referring to the lifeboat) was happily the means of saving the shipwrecked persons’. An interesting point was that the cost of this lifeboat when built was £190, the funds having been raised in Birmingham, hence its name.

The Lloyd’s Agent was named as Mr Bradshaw.

I have been in contact with the Guildhall Library in London. They have tried to help me find a record for the Swan. The nearest they could find was Swan of Hull, official number 26882, 37 tons, owned by Henry Robinson, 21 Waverley Street, Hull. There were 3 other vessels called Swan, but all appear to be from Goole, so am I assuming that this one above may be the one.


Jordan’s post brings out some interesting history. As his last paragraph shows, it can be very difficult to trace small ships in the registers: we can eliminate some, but we can’t always be sure that what is left is the ship we are after. Even experienced researchers like me – and I have been doing this for over 20 years – can come up against a brick wall, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.

We can also see that similar ships shared a similar fate on the same stretch of coastline just a few years apart, so this is the type of wreck that could be said to be fairly characteristic of the east coast – you won’t find Humber billyboys on the west coast or Mersey flats on the east coast, because they were generally short-range coasting vessels (though some ships do turn up wrecked in odd places, having been sold out of their local area). The fact that one of the billyboys is called the York Merchant demonstrates that it was intended to serve Yorkshire and to be capable of travelling upriver as well as sailing coastwise.

Another similarity is that on board both vessels the master’s wife and family travelled with him, which shines a light on the role of women on board ships in Victorian Britain. We don’t often read much about this – it’s an under-represented area of history – so well done to Jordan for finding out more.

We also see the importance of community – the local community rallied round and put the shipwreck victims up at the nearby inn. Finally, it is interesting to see that people from the wider community, from inland Birmingham in fact, cared enough to raise money for a lifeboat at Sutton, following the terrible storms of a few years previously.

Here’s some interesting pictures of billyboys – one of 1875 from the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole, showing wheat being unloaded from a billyboy whose voyage was more successful than the Swan, also laden with wheat. Here is another from Goole Museum, painted before 1910, of the Masterman

Just like Jordan, I’ve been following all sorts of clues. If Jordan hadn’t written this article, I wouldn’t have been looking for billyboy images to illustrate it with. When I found the Masterman, I realised that she, too, was a wreck which we hadn’t yet recorded. Like the Swan, she was wrecked with her master’s wife and children, who died, like those on board the York Merchant. So thank you again Jordan – because of you I too have found a new wreck for the records!



Diary of the War: January 1917

Henry Blogg and the Fernebo

On the stormy winter morning of 9 January 1917, a distress signal brought out the lifeboatmen of Cromer in their lifeboat Louisa Heartwell, which launched into heavy seas to reach the Greek steamer Pyrin, drifting two miles out at sea. Since all men of fighting age were away at war, the lifeboat crew were all either middle-aged or elderly men, and were led by coxswain Henry Blogg, who had joined the crew in 1894, and a relative youngster at the age of 40. It took a party of 40 men, including soldiers, to launch the lifeboat, and over two hours for the crew to reach the wreck and successfully rescue and land 18 survivors.

Henry Blogg. RNLI

In the middle of this force 9 gale, another ship got into difficulties. The Swedish Fernebo, en route from Gavle for London with timber, was in distress, lurching in the sea with one crew member injured – and was even further out to sea, between 3 and 4 miles offshore.

The very wildness of the weather meant that none of the other local lifeboats could put out to the rescue the crew of the Fernebo in the stead of the Cromer lifeboat. The Louisa Heartwell was the nearest and the only suitable craft, being larger and heavier than other local lifeboats, but several attempts to launch her failed, even with all the willing helpers from the town.

A party of men aboard Fernebo saw their chances of rescue slipping away and took matters into their own hands, launching one of the ship’s boats. Almost at the shoreline the vessel capsized and it took a party of onlookers, led by Private Stewart Holmes, one of the soldiers stationed locally, to rescue them by forming a human chain at the risk of their own lives. By this means all six men were rescued from their little boat, which had somehow made it all the way to shore despite the storm.

In the meantime further disaster had literally struck the Fernebo, in the form of a mine laid by UC-19, which had been caught and depth-charged off the Isles of Scilly in the previous month, leaving behind a deadly legacy of sown mines. The explosion split the steamer in two, but her timber cargo kept both halves afloat: fortunately all the crew were in one half, rather than drifting apart on two different wrecks.

The storm drove the stricken Fernebo closer inshore, where, around 5pm, both parts struck Cromer beach, but in different locations. The aft section of the Fernebo came ashore near the groyne at the Doctor’s Steps, Cromer. Once more it was clear that only the Cromer lifeboat and her crew stood between the Swedish sailors and death: with the help of army searchlights trained on the beach and the wreck, further attempts were made to launch. Once launched, several oars were wrenched from the lifeboatmen’s hands and others broken by the violence of the sea, so the crew had to put back then, then return with fresh oars.

At last – success! The crew managed to reach the survivors, safely bringing off eleven men, eleven people who would have died had it not been for the ‘great intrepidity, splendid tenacity, and endurance’ quoted in the citation for the RNLI’s gallantry award to the Louisa Heartwell‘s crew. (1)  This was the occasion on which Henry Blogg, the ‘greatest lifeboatman of them all’, received his first RNLI gold medal, but the entire crew also received awards, with another being made to Pte. Holmes, leader of the shore party which rescued the six men from the boat.

Black and white photograph of two rows of en, seated in front, standing at the back, in front of the open doorway through which the bows of a lifeboat can be seen.
The crew of the Cromer lifeboat, wearing the medals awarded for this rescue. RNLI

But for the courage of the Cromer lifeboatmen, the Fernebo‘s crew would all have shared in the fate of their injured colleague, who was killed when they struck the mine. This was certainly a rescue against all the odds, when human endurance overcame the power of nature and the violence of war.

Colour photograph of ribs of wreck, partly covered in seaweed, in the foreground of the image, on a beach, which stretches to the background of the image. The top sixth of the image is taken up by a flat band of blue sky and sea.
The wreck of the Fernebo as she now lies at Cromer. RNLI

Over 5,000 lives were saved by the RNLI during the First World War: their work is showcased in an RNLI travelling exhibition Hope in the Great War, which is touring the country for the duration of the centenary. It features the Fernebo, and another rescue we have already featured in the War Diary, the Rohilla. Do go and see it – check for a venue near you.

(1) Widely reported in a nationwide press release, for example in the Newcastle Journal,  13 February 1917, No.22,371, p3

Diary of the War: November 2016

The Goodwin Sands strike again

There are occasions when the Goodwin Sands just seem to claim more victims than usual and the night of 19-20 November 1916 was one of those nights, when two steamers, the Italian Val Salice, and the American Sibiria, bound to London with a cargo of Canadian wheat, stuck fast on the South Sand Head of the Goodwins, in a violent storm with extremely heavy seas which claimed wrecks elsewhere, particularly in Northumberland.

The Val Salice was the first to strike with the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave and Ramsgate lifeboat Charles and Susannah Stephens bringing off all 30 survivors. (The latter’s cox’n would shortly afterwards be awarded a medal by the RNLI for his 25 years’ service.) (1) Captain Bolognini of the Val Salice was widely quoted in the press as never having been shipwrecked before in all his career, but he clearly considered that he had shipped a ‘Jonah’ on board: ‘who during four months had been shipwrecked no fewer than three times’. (2)

It was a long and arduous night for the lifeboat crews who had to resort to the assistance of the searchlights from a patrol vessel to locate the Val Salice, before going out again to the Sibiria, which was being pounded to pieces on the Goodwins. The Sibiria‘s situation was reported while the rescue effort was still in progress as a ‘drama of the seas which may result in tragedy’. (3)

The seas were raging so high that both the Deal and Ramsgate lifeboats and their crews were in danger of being lost. They capsized but fortunately righted without losing any of their crew members overboard, although it was a close-run thing. The impact left several men on both boats so injured that, together with the damage to the lifeboats, they were forced to turn back – leaving behind 52 crew and passengers huddled in an exposed position in the sole portion of bridge still holding together,’in momentary peril of the vessel being engulfed in the treacherous quicksands.’ (4) How desolate those on board must have felt at seeing their rescuers turning back!

It was a race against time to save the crew and passengers of the Sibiria but finally the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargrave was manned with an uninjured crew comprising members from different lifeboat stations, and towed out by a patrol vessel, which trained its searchlights to find that all 52 persons were still alive awaiting rescue. They were taken off and once more the patrol vessel took the lifeboat in tow ‘weighed almost to the water’s edge with sixty-eight on board,’ i.e. all 52 survivors plus the 16 lifeboatmen. (5) (One of the local lifeboats in service at that period, the reserve lifeboat Francis Forbes Barton, is still extant and is on the National Register of Historic Vessels.)

The warships of the Dover Patrol thus enabled not one but two successful rescues under atrocious conditions. However, the real-life war was followed by a transatlantic newspaper war full of icy innuendo. Neither side overtly stated the issue at hand in so many words but each understood the other all too well.

The Times thundered: ‘The stranding of the United States steamer Sibiria on the Goodwins this week has opened British eyes to the fact that this vessel, which was a Hamburg-Amerika liner, has been transferred to owners in the United States during the war.’ (6)

Note the use of the word ‘transferred’, not ‘sold’. This was enough to elicit a clarification from the vessel’s agents through the New York Times: the Sibiria had been chartered at the time of the outbreak of hostilities to an American company, which bought her outright in May 1915, then sold it on to the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, while retaining her American crew. (7)

The question at issue was the Trading with the Enemy Act 1914, under which the Hamburg-Amerika Linie was defined as an ‘enemy’. (8) The British press continued to niggle at the question of whether ownership of former German vessels in neutral countries (for the United States was not yet in the war) was a ‘front’ or ‘flag of convenience’ with a view to the long-term preservation of the German fleet. (9)  Just a few months after the loss of the Sibiria, their premises in Cockspur Street, London, were offered for sale in 1917, under the Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act, 1916.

The sales particulars noted that the premises were partially in the occupation of the Ministry of Munitions for the purposes of ‘the present war’, with the Canadian Red Cross, and the Allan Line, which would soon be subsumed into the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, also tenants.

The particulars had a form of declaration at the back for the buyer to confirm on purchase that they were not purchasing on the behalf on any nation ‘at war with Great Britain’. The cover of the auction catalogue is annotated with the name of the corporate buyer, the unexceptionably British P&O.

Together a wreck and a building tell a tale of socio-economic disruption and atmosphere of suspicion wrought by war, which overshadowed the remarkable rescue of all on board the Sibiria under unimaginably difficult conditions. The former Hamburg-Amerika House at 14-16 Cockspur Street still stands today and is Grade II listed. Despite their relatively recent date, the remains of Val Salice and Sibiria have not been located, but the Francis Forbes Barton still survives as a witness to that dreadful night a century ago.

Front cover of auction catalogue for the sale of commercial premises, with b&w photograph of doorway to the premises in the centre.
Sales particulars for the Hamburg-Amerika Line premises, built 1906-8. The annotation at top right reveals the price realised at auction and the name of the buyer: P&O. SC00686. Source: Historic England Archive

(1) Thanet Advertiser, 23 December 1916, No.2,995, p5

(2) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2. A ‘Jonah’ is a person who brings ill-luck to a ship, from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1-2)

(3) New York Times, 22 November 1916

(4) Ibid.

(5) Dover Express, 24 November 1916, No.3,045, p2; see also comment left below, which establishes the identity of the lifeboat involved. The confusion of that night is reflected in the contemporary sources.

(6) The Times, 25 November 1916, No.41,334, p9

(7) New York Times, 26 November 1916

(8) London Gazette, 29 October 1915, No.29,343, p.10,697

(9) Yorkshire Post, 12 December 1916, No.21,678, p4

No.68 HMHS Rohilla

Diary of the War Part III

One hundred years ago yesterday HMHS Rohilla, a liner requisitioned as, and converted to, a hospital ship, struck the rocks at Whitby while southbound from Queensferry and Leith for Dunkirk to pick up patients from the Western Front. I have written about her before but this week I would like to look again at her significance, while this weekend the Whitby RNLI commemorates the loss of the Rohilla with services and events, including a ‘live’ Twitter feed of the rescue as told by a survivor, Fred Reddiough.

Like another wreck in 1912, she was the product of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, and was also linked through one of her survivors to that wreck – Mrs Mary Roberts, who found the experience of being dashed on the rocks at Whitby far worse than experiencing the cold waters of the Atlantic from the Titanic. As with our survivors last week, Mrs Roberts’ experience illustrates that those who went to sea could expect to be shipwrecked at least once in their careers, frequently more often: undergoing multiple shipwreck was very common.

That experience of being so close to shore, yet so far from help on the rocks in the mountainous waves and cold seas of a North Sea storm, was what made the wreck of the Rohilla so terrifying. The storm continued unabated for three days as the ship was pounded by waves and began to break up, with the stern coming away on the Friday afternoon.

The Rohilla struck with such force that the Captain was convinced that she had been struck by a mine and reiterated this view at the inquest, which was also reflected in the findings of the jury, who found that the ship ‘struck something before grounding’. (1) If true, then she would have been the first mine casualty off the North Yorkshire coast, but she was not recorded as a war loss in official sources. The 22 recorded losses to mines up to this point of the war, mostly off Tynemouth or the Humber, suggest that a mine as the initial cause of the incident is perhaps less likely, and the shock felt simply that of the force with which she struck. (2)

The circumstances of her original loss, followed by time and tide, have ensured that the Rohilla is a scattered wreck, whose remains are partly confused with those of another wreck, the Charles, which stranded nearby in the Second World War.

The Whitby and other local lifeboats attempted the rescue under horrendous conditions, one even being lowered down a cliff, but it was not until the motor lifeboat was sent for from Tynemouth, speeding through the night, that a large-scale lifeboat rescue could be attempted. Modern technology was on the march and astonishing footage also exists of locals forming a human chain to bring survivors to shore.

Her story is perhaps one of the most moving shipwreck events of the whole war, and not only because of her difficult position in difficult conditions, and the associated loss of life. The Captain altered course to avoid minefields and was unable to make use of the usual navigational clues, since lighthouses were extinguished as a result of the war: wartime exigencies were already contributing to casualties. Her journey was one to fetch home war casualties, so that those who were travelling to help became those in need of help.

For previous posts in the War Diary, please click here.

(1) Times, Nov. 5, 1914, No.40,688, p5

(2) National Record of the Historic Environment shipwreck database, accessed October 2014

No.63 The Magdapur

75 years since the outbreak of the Second World War

[updated: 10.09.2019 for the 80th anniversary of the Second World War]

This week commemorates the first ships sunk in English waters following the declaration of war on 3 September 1939. The period between the declaration of war and the events of 1940 is often known as the ‘Phoney War’, in which nothing much happened militarily. Yet war at sea was already being waged on both sides.

The Goodwood and the Magdapur each foundered after striking a mine in different locations off the east coast, both on 10 September 1939.

They were not the first wartime losses at sea: that distinction belonged to the Athenia, sunk in the Atlantic by U-boat on 3 September. The toll of merchantmen lost on the Allied side worldwide would account for 808 pages of typescript in Lloyd’s War Losses for the Second World War, Volume I: British, Allied and Neutral Merchant Vessels Sunk or Destroyed by War Causes, with an average of five or six ships per page.

The first ship to go down in English waters on that day was the collier Goodwood, early in the morning off Flamborough Head. The Magdapur sank the same afternoon off Suffolk, calling out the RNLI for the first of their many wartime services over the ensuing six years as the Aldeburgh lifeboat sped to the scene. She was the victim of a minefield laid on 4 September, the day after the declaration of war, by U13. That same minefield would shortly afterwards claim the French ship Phryné, on 24 September. U13 would herself be lost off the same coastline at the end of May 1940 when she was depth-charged by HMS Weston, delineating a landscape of war linking attacker and victims, by which time the ‘Phoney War’ was well and truly over.

As her name implies, the Magdapur had strong connections with India. Her owners, the Brocklebank Line, had a long tradition of specialising in the India trade. She was thus one of many British ships who relied on lascars, or Indian seamen, many of whom traditionally worked below in the engine room. The Magdapur had a significant complement of 60 lascars among her 80-strong crew. Six men were lost, of whom four were lascars, commemorated on the dual rolls of honour kept at Bombay and Chittagong. (You can search for any casualty of the two World Wars or later through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Advanced Search page by date of death and service, e.g. Merchant Navy.)

An interesting local history document shows photographs of the wreck event as the Magdapur sinks with her back broken, and some of the rescued lascars with locals: http://thebertonandeastbridge.onesuffolk.net/assets/History-Photos/S.S.-Magdapur-sunk-off-Sizewell.doc .

The number of lascars working aboard British ships means that their involvement in shipwreck events worldwide and in English waters is significant, particularly in the first half of the 20th century: both in peace (Mahratta I, 1909) and war (Sir Francis, June 1917; Medina, April 1917; Rewa, January 1918). Even in this early period of the ‘Phoney War’, the war was all too real and touched lives around the world.