The Rickmers Line

Wrecks of the Rickmers Line

Bow and masts of a tall ship painted green, with a white band and red keel, in harbour, against a blue sky.
The Rickmer Rickmers (1896), now a museum ship in Hamburg. She recalls two ships of the Rickmers line lost in English waters: in her colours, the Etha Rickmers, while as a steel ship she gives us a good idea how her close contemporary Erik Rickmers once appeared © Andrew Wyngard

As part of our occasional summer season (and before the summer comes to a final end) with a leitmotif of German wrecks, I’d like to turn now to the Rickmers Line, which had its origins in the shipbuilding firm founded by Rickmer C Rickmers in 1836. Rickmer Rickmers was born and bred to the sea in Heligoland in 1807, the son of a fisherman and pilot, and learned the trade of ship’s carpenter, which led naturally to the establishment of his shipbuilding interests. In turn this developed by mid-century to a shipowning empire, which specialised in the grain trade – rice from the Far East and wheat from the United States.

Inevitably his ships had to pass through the English Channel as they went to and fro on their oceangoing voyages, with consequent losses. We have records for four Rickmers ships lost within English waters. The earliest was Etha Rickmers, named after the owner’s wife, lost in September 1870 with all hands on the Goodwin Sands en route from New York, last from Queenstown, with coffee, tobacco, and staves for Rotterdam.

She overtook a ship in the Channel on the 9th, whose master then recognised a ship in distress off the Goodwins on the 10th as the same vessel, as he himself arrived in the Downs. On the 11th she struck and part of the wreckage was described as “an American-built ship of between 700 and 800 tons, painted black and copper fastened, and apparently from two to three years old. The upper portion of the copper was painted green, the lower mast and bowsprit white, the double topsail yards scraped bright and the rigging was of wire.” (1) As descriptions go, this wasn’t a bad one, for the Etha Rickmers was only four years old.

The next loss did not concern the company, as it involved one of their former ships which had, however, retained the name of Ellen Rickmers when sold on in 1875. This ship sank off Plymouth while inbound with a cargo from Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1882.

Two years later, the crew of the Deike Rickmers (named for the owner’s mother) spent what must have been a cheerless and exhausting Christmas Day when their barque stranded and broke her back in snow squalls on the Long Sand off Harwich. They were fortunate because the new lifeboat house at nearby Walton-on-the-Naze had just been commissioned, on the 18th of November 1884. (2)

Thus one of the earliest services of the Walton lifeboat was to attend the Deike Rickmers in the dark of Boxing Day morning, picking the men up at 8am. It took them nearly 12 hours to battle back to shore with all 25 hands from the Deike Rickmers saved. History does not record whether both rescuers and rescued were treated to a slap-up Christmas dinner, but they all surely deserved one!

The final ship of the Rickmers Line lost within English waters was the steel full-rigged ship Erik Rickmers, homeward-bound to Bremerhaven with rice from Bangkok. She struck Scilly Rock in the same dense fog that also led to the loss of the French barque Parame, in October 1899. She remains SE of Scilly Rock, where she struck more than a century ago. It may have been this loss, among other reasons, that prompted the sale of the line’s Far Eastern ships to Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1899. (3) 

The history of a German mercantile family can be traced in wrecks around the coast of England.

(1) Liverpool Daily Post, 19 September 1870, No.4,732, p7

(2) The lifeboat house is now Grade II listed.

(3) The Ships List, Rickmers Line



No.58 Caen Stone

The Building Blocks of Wreck Knowledge 

Inspired by my recent trip to Caen, I decided this week to have a look at wrecks laden with Caen stone.

Four of our wrecks are known to have been carrying stone specifically described as sourced from Caen. This form of limestone became a popular building material in England for post-Conquest abbeys, cathedrals, and castles: a demonstration of Norman might in Norman stone.

To see maquettes from the Bayeux Tapestry Museum depicting Norman ships unloading stone at the Tower of London, click here (two images on the right-hand side).

Despite all this medieval building activity, we currently know only of post-medieval Caen stone wrecks in English waters. As we would expect, all came ashore on the Channel coast, within a 50-mile stretch of coastline bounded by Dungeness to the east and Hastings to the west. The first, an unknown vessel (we don’t even know if she was English or French), was driven ashore in 1616 somewhere between Lydd and Rye, from which an anchor and cable were taken in assertion of right to wreck.

In early October 1852 the Honoria was driven ashore near the Black Rocks, Brighton, while bound to London. Her sails were torn to shreds in mid-Channel by an ‘equinoctial’ force 11 gale, so that her master was forced to let her drive before the wind. The ‘sufferers’, who were much exhausted by their efforts, were saved and lodged in ‘comfortable quarters’, a somewhat unexpected description for accommodation in the local workhouse!

In much the same fashion John and Mary, also bound to London, was driven ashore near Rye by another ‘equinoctial’ gale in late September 1856. This, however, ended less happily, as the master, who did make it ashore, was left to mourn his wife and four children, who perished.

In 1870 the Thomas Hubbuck, again London-bound with Caen stone, struck near Dungeness like her 1616 counterpart. On this occasion all were happily saved. The lifeboat went out to the scene, but was not required: it was then beached at Dungeness, rather than battling back in the prevailing weather conditions. The men and horses sent to fetch the boat back overland were nearly ‘smothered’ in an unexpected quicksand from which they were extricated only with difficulty.

What contemporary projects in England required the import of Caen stone for new buildings, repairs, or sculptures? Occasionally we can tie the loss of stone cargoes to specific works, for example Portland stone for the New Bridge at Blackfriars, or Dundee stone for the Import Dock at Wapping.

Any suggestions, therefore, for the use of Caen stone in 1616 or in Victorian London in 1852, 1856 and 1870?


Traduction en français: 

Après avoir passé un bon séjour à Caen, cette semaine j’écris un peu concernant les épaves chargées de pierre de Caen.

Quatre naufrages chargés de pierres extraites des carrières caennaises sont coulés autour des côtes anglaises. La pierre de Caen, d’origine calcaire, est devenue la pierre de choix pour les constructions anglo-normands après l’arrivée de Guillaume le Conquérant dès 1066: abbatiales, cathédrales, et châteaux sont tous également construits en pierre de Caen, exprimant la conquête normande de l’Angleterre en pierre aussi normande.

Veuillez cliquer ici pour voir des maquettes du Musée de la Tapisserie, Bayeux, où se trouvent des navires normandes qui débarquent pierre de Caen aux bords de la Tamise où la Tour de Londres est en train de construction (à droite).

Malgré tous ces bâtiments outre-manche du Moyen Age, nous n’en connaissons pas de naufrages médiévales chargés de la pierre de Caen: les quatre naufrages dont nous avons la connaissance se sont coulés à partir du XVIIe siècle, tous aux côtes de la Manche, entre Hastings et Dungeness. La première est échouée en 1616 entre Lydd et Rye, dont nous savons peu de détails: nous ne savons même pas si c’était un bateau anglais ou un bateau français. Les autorités anglaises en ont pris une ancre et une chaîne comme “right of wreck” (“droit d’épave”), ancien droit qui accordait aux grandes domaines de propriétaires terrines ou ecclésiastiques le droit de prendre quelque partie du navire échoué et de son cargaison, si c’était sauvée, lui aussi.

En octobre 1852 le navire Honoria est échoué près des Black Rocks (Rochers Noires), Brighton, en route pour Londres. Ses gréements sont rompus par un vent qui hurlait de force 11, mais les marins naufragés bien épuisés en sont tous sauvés. Quatre ans plus tard, le navire John and Mary est de même façon échoué près de Rye: quoique le capitaine se soit échappé avec toute l’équipe du navire, sa femme et ses quatre enfants se sont malheureusement noyés.

En 1870 le Thomas Hubbuck, en voyageant aussi vers Londres chargé de pierre caennaise, est, tout comme le bateau de 1616, aussi échoué près de Dungeness. Heureusement, toute l’équipe est sauvée dans leur propre bateau; le canot de sauvetage est parti en mer, mais on n’en avait pas besoin, parce que les marins se sont sauvés. Le canot est donc placé sur terre à Dungeness, les sauveteurs épuisés ne voulant pas le retour en mer en pleine tempête. Les hommes et les chevaux commandés de le récupérer par voie de terre sont presque péris aux sables mouvants inattendus, desquels ils ne sont pas extraits qu’avec des plus grands périls.

On peut quelquefois lier les épaves chargées de pierres particulières avec leurs ouvrages destinataires, pierre de Portland (Dorset) pour le Pont Nouveau de Blackfriars (Londres) par exemple, ou pierre de Dundee (Ecosse) pour le Quai des Imports, Wapping (Londres).

Quels sont donc les projets contemporains en Angleterre en 1616 et au troisième quart du XIXe siècle auxquels la pierre de Caen était destinée – nouveaux constructions, réparations des bâtiments anciens, ou œuvres sculptés?

3. Coals to Newcastle

I realised today that I’m now one of the dwindling number of *ahem* slightly older people for whom the expression coals to Newcastle, to describe a pointless endeavour, is current!

Today’s wreck is the wonderfully-named Light of the Harem which was driven on the infamous Black Middens at the mouth of the Tyne during a snowstorm in 1870, along with a number of other vessels.

Thereby hangs a tale. Secondary accounts of the story say that coal was pillaged from the Light of the Harem as she broke up, an example of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

There was pillage from the other wrecks, but not from the Light of the Harem, because further research shows that she was inbound for the Tyne from her home port of Lowestoft, and can’t therefore have been carrying coals to Newcastle! Typically colliers entered the Tyne in ballast – the trade in ‘black diamonds’ was so profitable that an exchange or return cargo was usually unnecessary.

The crew were rescued by the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who operate to this day outside the auspices of the RNLI, together with their counterparts at South Shields. The TVLB has an interesting little museum where you can see artefacts from shipwrecks, including the Light of the Harem.

You’re probably wondering why she had such an exotic name for the Victorian period, when the other vessels involved had the much more prosaic, and unexceptionable, names of the Anne, Helena, and Susannah. It derives from a section in Thomas Moore’s “Oriental” romantic poem Lalla-Rookh, published in 1817, which became a sensation and a popular 19th century classic, inspiring music and art. Here is Frederick Lord Leighton’s painting of the subject. We also have three other 19th century wrecks called Lalla Rookh, showing how much the theme took hold in the Victorian imagination.