27. The Scum of the Earth

It seems apt to quote Wellington’s words on the men who served under him as we contemplate the anniversary of his victory at Vitoria in Spain, 200 years ago today.

The ‘scum of the earth’ had to come from somewhere – and had to be despatched home afterwards. Wherever the British fought, troopship wrecks followed, and are part of the heritage of Britain’s military campaigns abroad. Though we have no known wrecks of transports sinking in English waters in the aftermath of Vitoria itself, we do in fact have wrecks of troop transport vessels from earlier in the Peninsular campaign.

The appropriately-named Dispatch from Corunna which struck on Black Head on 22nd January 1809 was too early to have come from the famous battle of that name, which took place on 16th January.

Instead she contained survivors of the 7th Light Dragoons, who had been decimated at the previous battles of Sahagun and Benavente, and were to be further decimated by this particular wreck. On the same day, at almost the same place, on the notorious Manacles, HMS Primrose was lost carrying dispatches in the opposite direction, outward-bound for Corunna.

Although the name ‘Manacles’ comes from the Cornish Maen Eglos, simply meaning ‘Church Rocks’, the name has been assimilated to an English word with a degree of appropriateness, conveying overtones of chaining or imprisoning ships upon the reef, a fairly common process for names of shipwreck features.

In the local church both wrecks are commemorated, as are others of different dates. For the Dispatch there is a wall monument to the 7th Light Dragoons, also known as Hussars, topped by a dramatic image of a ship coming to grief. Beneath is a trophy, as these sculptural embellishments are known, with the flags and arms pointing downwards to symbolise death.

19. PĂȘcheur 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 PĂȘcheur 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 . . . )