No.50 The Helverson

Wreck-on-Wreck Collision

There’s a reason why wrecks have always been marked on Admiralty Charts as a navigational hazard – for their potential to cause more wrecks. Superstructure sticking up out of the water might be a clue, but, as with icebergs, the most dangerous part is under water.

Wreck-on-wreck collisions are relatively common and are, perhaps, the seaborne equivalent of a motorway pile-up, although any subsequent wrecks may happen much later than the original wreck.

A concatenation of events led to the collision of the English Third Rate Helverson with the wreck of the Norway Merchant in the Medway on 22 July 1667. That summer was one of panic in and around the Thames, following the Raid on the Medway on 9-14 June 1667, the raid being known in Dutch as the Tocht naar Chattam (Fight at Chatham). In response, a number of ships, both merchantmen and warships, were deliberately sunk in and around the Medway as blockships to prevent any further Dutch incursions.

The Norway Merchant was one of these, and it was upon her broken stump that the Helverson, being brought to act as an accommodation hulk for the men employed in raising as many of the ships sunk as possible, became impaled. According to the Masters in Attendance at Chatham Dock, ‘she sank upright.’ It was blamed on the pilot, ‘one Basford of Stroud’ because the previous pilot had left her, suggesting he perhaps didn’t give the Norway Merchant enough clearance or was unaware of her extent. By January 1668 they had ‘got her out of the wreck on which she was sunk’, but she thereafter disappears from history. (Quotes from the Calendar of State Papers Domestic.)

Ironically, this ship created more work for the already overworked men who were busily trying to raise as many ships as they could (many of which were beyond repair anyway). And the next day there was a further flashpoint at the Hope near Tilbury between the English and Dutch fleets, with another action fought off Sheppey on 26 July, which caused yet more wrecks. Peace was concluded at the Treaty of Breda on 31 July.

Perhaps you might think Helverson is an unusual name. In a further irony, she was ex-Dutch Hilversum, captured as a prize at the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665. She started the Second Anglo-Dutch War as a Dutch ship, and ended the war as an English one. Who better to draw her portrait than Willem van de Velde the Elder, who recorded the First and Second Anglo-Dutch Wars for the Dutch, but the Third War on the English side as a pensioner of Charles II?

Portrait of the Hilversum, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, 1655,
Portrait of the Hilversum, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, 1655,
(For heritage buffs: according to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, her stern decoration preserves an image of the manor house at Hilversum, later consumed by fire.)

23. Dunking the Witches

I promised you more on ‘unbooked passengers’ last week, and if you were anticipating stowaways, that’s a story for another day. Today’s wreck in 1667  is included more for the completeness of the record (because it appears in shipwreck lists elsewhere) rather than bearing any very close relationship to reality. It is certainly a very good candidate for the strangest wreck record I have ever come across: the letter in which it appears, although one of the State Papers (1) appears to be relaying little more than local gossip and is somewhat garbled.

The sequence of events appears to be as follows: the correspondent wrote from Harwich, ‘They tell a strange story at Ipswich of one of their ships that was lost in the late storms’. Two Ipswich ships met one another at sea, suggesting that they were crossing one another,  perhaps northbound and southbound respectively in the North Sea (possibly colliers). Instead of exchanging news, ‘speaking’ as it was called at the time, the crew of the first ship gave their love to all their friends and relations at home, as they had given themselves up for lost.

On being asked why this was so, ‘the first ship replied that they had long laboured to free their maintop, where sat a couple of witches, but by all that they could do, could not remove nor get them down, and so they were lost people.’

At least one passenger had taken ship on this vessel, having previously been on board a ship lost at Scarborough Roads (so he might have been a nervous passenger anyway) but interpreting the place of loss as between Scarborough and Ipswich begs more questions than it answers.

The request to ‘send their love’ suggests the doomed vessel was outbound from Ipswich: for this to be a plausible request the second vessel taking the message home must have been inbound to Ipswich. Yet the passenger had lost his ship in Scarborough Roads, so it seems strange that he was apparently outward-bound from Ipswich.

Possibly, instead, the two ships had crossed north of Scarborough, and the second vessel was homeward-bound from somewhere like Newcastle: the place of loss would then have been further north, between Scarborough and Newcastle. This conjecture, however, is simply based on the prevalence of the collier trade on the east coast in the 1600s, and recorded, for example, by Defoe.

This isn’t the strangest thing about the supposed wreck, though. This is a unique – in English waters anyway – example of a ship being said to be lost to witchcraft. Some of those on board survived, since the supposed witches were then clapped into jail. Possibly they were arrested simply because they survived their dunking in the sea – after all, witches were supposed to be guilty if they floated, and innocent if they sank! This was rather hard on all the innocent people who suffered under the notorious 17th century Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who, of course, was active in northern Essex in the 1640s. One wonders whether this ‘wreck’ is a legacy of Hopkins’ reign of terror.

Update 14.02.2014: While running a query today I came across another wreck with a tinge of the supernatural which I just had to add to the blog. The events a hundred years later seem to be real enough, and there is nothing unusual in a ship being cast ashore ‘in the late storm’ in 1766 on an area of the coastline that was fairly well-known for wrecks. Something was clearly preying on the master’s mind, and he (or, as the original source implies, if you read it carefully, his ship, which gives the story an even greater supernatural tinge!) decided to lay the blame for the wreck at the feet of a supernatural ‘woman’ who ‘belonged to the merchants of Hull’, to which port he was bound.

‘Newcastle, Sept. 27 . . . We are informed that the sloop William and Ann, of Port Seaton, James Scott, master, from Hull for Leith, with bale goods, which has been drove ashore at Blyth, in the late storm, went [sic] on the 11th inst. to one of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the county of Northumberland, and made the following deposition, that on Monday the 8th, being about 10 leagues from the land, he went into the cabbin, where he found a woman standing; and on enquiry how she came there, she said she came out of the hold, and belonged to the merchants of Hull: on which he offered to lay hold of her, when she vanished. He then came on deck, where he saw a man come out of a block, and another on the mast, with feet as big as hogsheads, blowing the sails, and legions of the devils floating about the ship, who carried her over an exceeding high rock, where she was wrecked, and the crew with difficulty saved. Quere, if the ship was insured?’ (2)

Rather than a supernatural apparition, it seems likely to be a psychological manifestation of some concerns about his reception on arrival at Hull.  The newspapers may have had something of this nature on their minds: by ostensibly asking if the ship was insured against supernatural peril, might they have been poking a bit of fun at the owners and gently hinting at insurance fraud and a guilty conscience?

(1) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, 1667-8, 2 November 1667, No.27

(2) Newcastle Courant, 27th September 1766, No.4,697, p2