No.38: Remember, Remember, the 5th of November

Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot

After visiting the House of Lords on the exceptionally appropriate date of 5th November, my thoughts naturally turned to our wrecks laden with gunpowder, of which we have 24 known records. There are likely to be others whose cargo is masked by description in contemporary sources as ‘warlike stores’ or some such other description; warships and privateers will have carried gunpowder anyway; while many cargo vessels, armed for self-defence, will have carried gunpowder as part of the ship’s stores, which therefore does not qualify for recording as cargo.

Many of these wrecks were lost in the ordinary way and the cargo they carried did not make any difference as to the outcome, which was fortunate in the case of the Charming Molly dockyard tender in 1779 which, ‘lying near Gosport, was carelessly set on fire and burnt to the water’s edge. The powder, except half a barrel which blew up, was got out; the guns and swivels were loaded with ball, which went off, but did no mischief.’ Whether they crew managed to unload the vessel before the cannon went off is not known but if they had to dodge random cannonballs popping all over the place then it was fortunate indeed that ‘no mischief’ was done!

More dramatically, in 1802, the Newham brig caught fire on her arrival at Falmouth on her maiden voyage. ‘Apprehensive of the fire quickly communicating itself to the gunpowder with which the vessel was partly laden, the crew left her immediately . . . The inhabitants of the town were greatly alarmed . . . at 7 o’clock she blew up at her moorings with a tremendous and awful explosion: her masts, yards, etc. and a great part of her cargo were scattered in different directions through the air, her sides were blown out and the shattered hull immersed in the water.’ Despite the worst fears of local residents, this explosion resulted only in a number of windows being shattered.

Oh, I’ve only given you gunpowder – I shall have to truffle out some treason and plot for a later edition!

No.34 Dover-Calais

“Nearly Swampt”

Inspired by Turner’s maritime paintings, the theme this week is the Dover-Calais crossing. To set the scene, please do have a look at the National Gallery’s Calais Pier (1803).

In the centre of the action is a French fishing vessel with a white sail putting out in a boisterous sea, looking as if it is about to collide with the English packet (regular ferry service for passengers and mails) coming in, crammed to the gills with passengers, the Union Jack wound round itself in the gale. It all looks quite perilous, with a bit of artistic licence allowed – it’s not so perilous that a stream of little fishing vessels can’t put out to sea! This painting is partially based on a number of Turner’s sketches which survive from 1802, his first journey abroad, one of which notes that he was “nearly swampt” on arrival at Calais.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant passage (the weather, as Turner shows, being somewhat rough that week in July 1802) and it was probably longer than the quick voyage of 3.5 hours recorded by Joseph Farington, Turner’s fellow artist, the following month. (Compare 90 minutes today.)

Occasionally it genuinely was dangerous: we have 4 recorded instances of a Dover-Calais vessel being lost at Dover between 1770 and 1820, and there would probably have been more, but for the interruption of the service during an international dispute with a certain M. Bonaparte in the latter part of that period! By coincidence, there was actually an incident in the year of Turner’s voyage, 1802, but in the reverse direction. The Flèche French packet, while attempting to enter Dover, ‘mistook the stern head for the entrance to the harbour and ran on shore.’ In 1820, the Flora ‘missed stays’ in a ‘heavy gale at S by W’ while leaving Dover. It sounds as if there was a bit of a scramble to get ashore, but everyone did so before the ship went to pieces.

I wonder if they were ‘nearly swampt’ too?

No.32: The Matchless Tragedy

Caught in a Squall

As the holiday season draws to a close, it seems apt to look at summer holidays in times past.

A recent PastScape correspondent, Mr Simon Williams, drew my attention to the Matchless, lost in Morecambe Bay in 1894, an example of a wreck largely overlooked by history because she was very small and the incident, in terms of both crew and passengers, involved the working class. On 3rd September a little fishing vessel of ‘Lancashire nobby’ type, working as a pleasure craft for the holiday season, took out a party of visitors who had left behind their lives in the textile mills across the Pennines for a week. Crossing the Bay on an excursion to Grange-over-Sands, their vessel capsized in a sudden squall, turning a day trip into a tragedy.

Sketch from the Lancashire County and Standard Advertiser, 7th September, 1894, as drawn by an eyewitness to the Matchless tragedy.
Sketch from the Lancashire County and Standard Advertiser, 7th September, 1894, as drawn by an eyewitness to the Matchless tragedy.


Mr Williams, a local historian, has not only offered further information to improve the record based on his researches, but has also turned the research into a very interesting book (available directly from him at, £5). He also told me about another excursion in the same area in 1850 which turned into tragedy, involving a party of middle class Mancunians and their boatmen who failed to meet their boat at the end of a day out at Grange-over-Sands.

These two stories reveal that opportunities for leisure filtered down the classes within the space of half a century. In between 1850 and 1894 we see mass tourism taking off. By the same token, a shipping accident could impact on huge numbers of people simultaneously: several hundred lost their lives when the Princess Alice went down in the Thames in 1878, drowned, pulled down by weeds, trapped in the wreckage, or poisoned by raw sewage.

At an earlier date fewer numbers were involved, since opportunities for leisure were confined largely to the gentry. Our earliest account of a wreck involving an excursion party was in 1733 when ’13 or 14 gentlemen and ladies, having been at Mr Weld’s seat’ and their boat capsized off Weymouth in an accident very similar to the Matchless. From a fairly early date owners of fishing vessels exploited the possibility of supplementing their income by taking on these well-heeled passengers: at Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1739, ‘two masters of fishing smacks, to wit, Hanks and Stebbing, with a young gentleman from London, and three servants, going to take their pleasure in a boat at sea near Berwick, the boat was cast away, and every soul lost.’

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, we see a number of accidents on the Yorkshire coast as Scarborough and other Yorkshire resorts became fashionable. The dangers of such excursions extended beyond squalls to human error, as one such incident at Whitby in 1802 demonstrates.

The account is injected with a vein of grim humour:

‘On the 6th inst. a sailing boat, with 7 persons in her, belonging [to] Whitby, was . . . nearly cut in two, by a vessel under full sail coming out of the harbour. Some saved their lives by swimming; others were picked up alive by boats: amongst the latter was a ci-devant serjeant of the Durham militia, who had nearly left his “blooming bride” of fourscore to lament his premature death.’

It is notable that most of these incidents took place in September rather than earlier in the summer, but then, of course, in the 19th century, the extent of the holiday season was influenced by the “Wakes weeks” in which factories closed down at different times in different places. It was also not defined by compulsory education in the way it is now.

20. Genuinely Wreck of this Week!

I answer PastScape enquiries if they have a maritime flavour, and earlier this week, a member of the public with an interest in maritime history got in touch via the PastScape comments log to tell us that our record for the Ann in 1802 had the incorrect master’s name and that she had more information.

Incidentally, this one was one researched and put on the system in the first instance, as she does not appear in the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles.

Quite why we have the wrong master’s name turned out to be quite clear in one way, but a bit of a mystery in another way. It’s not uncommon, if a ship is wrecked on her first voyage with a new master, for the earlier master’s name to be quoted in contemporary newspaper reports, particularly if it is a vessel with a quick turnaround on a regular route, as was the case with the Ann.

This lovely correspondent kindly typed up some further background information from copies of original documents she had obtained from the National Maritime Museum for me: it turned out that on this voyage the master was Bittleston, not Grant, she was 243 tons, and owned by a man who specialised in the east coast coal trade, so the Ann was most likely a dedicated collier. She is utterly typical of ships in that trade, a brig, and about the usual tonnage for a smaller brig of c.250 tons. Not unusually for a collier brig, she was lost off Great Yarmouth by getting on the Scroby Sand.

What was interesting was the level of detail after the ship struck the Scroby. The master’s attempts to get the vessel off continued until the planks started, when it became clear she wasn’t going to come off; the salvors were circling like vultures to start stripping the hull, and a bill was presented to W D Palmer, shipwreck agents at Great Yarmouth, for efforts to attend the ship. According to my correspondent, apparently some of the sails which were supposed to have been salved were stolen.

In these cases, the vessel was normally stripped of all her materials, which were advertised for sale by auction in situ, or taken back within 2-6 weeks, to be sold by auction at her home port, depending on how quickly the materials and stores could be salved and the availability of a suitable vessel to take the materials back. The wrecks of Shields colliers were often sold back at Shields in this way. For example a ship appeared in the arrivals list at Shields with “wrecked materials” from Saltfleet, following the loss of a vessel at Saltfleet in 1810.

The tide times in the contemporary sources don’t stack up. I had a look on Admiralty Easytide and high water on 14 September 1802 at Great Yarmouth itself was at 9.29 so two hours after high tide would have been circa 11.30. As the Scroby is not that far offshore, the discrepancy is surely too great to be owing to the location? There are other things which are slightly odd. Mrs Thompson told me that the mate had been arrested on the previous voyage by the Customs on arrival at Shields, but was bailed, and two days after the wreck he wrote to the former captain: My Dr. Friend That you were not Master of the Ann when this Misfortune came upon us I heartily rejoice.

Curiouser and curiouser. It was suggested that there was some “pong” about the whole thing. Was there a reason the master was replaced, so that the original master had an alibi?

The thought of insurance fraud did cross my mind, but against that is the whole issue of a spike in 1802 of ships lost on the Scroby with 4 ships lost that year, one only a couple of weeks previously. Interestingly, the weather conditions are not mentioned at all in any of those four cases, suggesting that they were unremarkable, so the weather was probably not particularly a factor in the case of the Ann, i.e. not driving her onto the sand. As with most sandbanks, there are fairly discernible patterns where the numbers of wrecks rise in a particular year which must be owing to sand movement. The vessel struck at 9pm on the 13th in company with another vessel, near enough to high tide at 9.30pm, according to Admiralty Easytide, This suggests that the two ships were expecting a clear navigable channel around the Scroby. The other ship was more fortunate in getting off, perhaps because she might have been nearer the edge of the sand and able to float off more quickly as the tide reached its height. The number of Scroby losses in that year without ascribing any responsibility to the weather suggests that perhaps the sand was encroaching unexpectedly on the navigable channel, which was therefore narrower than usual.

Does anyone else have anything to add or any other suggestions? In the meantime, however, this is a really good example of a record which is hugely improved following collaboration with a PastScape visitor.