No.87 Layers of History

Inspired by my recent holiday in Croatia, I thought I’d turn this week to looking at wrecks in English waters from that part of the world. I’ve touched before on how changing national boundaries and ideas of nationhood affect the way we classify wrecks – the nationality recorded at the time of loss is often very different from the nationality now, and this is as true for Croatia as for the subjects of my previous articles on EstoniaFinland and Hungary.

'Sailing ship in a storm', Ivankovic, 1887, ex voto painting in the cloisters at Kuna Peljeska, Croatia. Note the small saint on a cloud towards top left, rendering divine assistance, typical of such scenes, while the ship wallows in the sea, having lost most of her sails. The  associated church contains many silver ex voto plaques, many with shipwreck scenes.
Sailing ship in a storm, Ivankovic, 1887, ex voto painting in the cloisters at Kuna Peljeska, Croatia. Note at top left the small saint on a cloud rendering divine assistance, typical of such scenes, while the ship wallows in a heavy sea, having lost most of her sails. The associated church also contains many silver ex voto plaques, several depicting shipwreck scenes. Image courtesy of Andrew Wyngard.

Croatia has a long and proud seafaring tradition with many rocky islands rising steeply out of the sea, affording little shelter to anyone unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked there. Indeed, Richard the Lionheart caused an ex voto church to be built at Lokrum in 1192. The islands are well marked with picturesque lighthouses and it is worth exploring this fantastic gallery here. Though there may be a number of earlier vessels in our records whose Croatian origins are masked by the lack of detail in contemporary sources, they first come to our attention in English waters during the 19th century, when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

One such vessel was Barone Vranyczany, lost in 1881 off Suffolk, named after a local noble family who had Magyarised their surname from the Croatian Vranjican. Her home port had the Italian name of  Fiume (now Rijeka): the name of her master, Pietro Cumicich, reflects a dual Italian-Croat linguistic heritage. With the help of the Austrian consul at Lowestoft, acting as interpreter, a fellow master from Fiume identified Cumicich’s body through his wedding ring inscribed with his wife’s initials and the date 10-12-77.

Croatia’s Italian heritage is very strong, reflecting its Venetian past and its proximity to the Italian coast. (The island of Korcula is traditionally said to have been the birthplace of Marco Polo, although this is disputed.) The Croatian littoral passed out of Venetian control to become the Republic of Ragusa, centred on Ragusa itself, now Dubrovnik: the two names, Latin and Croat, existed side by side until 1918 when Dubrovnik alone was officially adopted.

This link is clearly seen in the ship Deveti Dubrovački of Ragusa. She was one of a fleet belonging to the Dubrovnik Maritime Company, whose ships had a very simple house naming scheme. She was ‘The Ninth of Dubrovnik’: all the fleet were likewise named in order from ‘The First of Dubrovnik’ onwards. (1) She met her end in 1887 through a collision with a British steamer off Beachy Head, another wreck that illustrated the bond between husband and wife. The captain tied a rope around his wife, from which she was hauled in her nightdress aboard the steamer, despite her ‘imploring him not to mind her’: alas, she had the misfortune to see her husband go down with his ship. (The fact that the steamer did not also sink in this collision was attributed to the cushioning effect of the wool tightly packed in her hold.) (2)

Several ships have Italian names, such as the Fratelli Fabris, whose remains (1892) are said to lie close to Tater-Du on the coast of Cornwall, and which is known locally as the ‘Gin Bottle Wreck’. Indeed, a 1927 wreck was recorded in contemporary sources as of Italian nationality: the Isabo was built as Iris in Lussinpiccolo (now Mali Losinj, Croatia), then Austro-Hungary, a part of Croatia which became Italian in 1918.

At the same time the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created, to which the Slava, a war loss of 1940 off Porlock Bay, belonged. Only nine ships out of the country’s fleet survived the war. (3) After the Second World War Yugoslavia became a Socialist Federal Republic, of which Croatia was a constituent part. Our final wreck today is the Sabac, which belonged to that country’s nationalised fleet, and which was lost in 1961 in a collision off the South Goodwin light vessel.

Since 1991 Croatia has been an independent state, but one whose long maritime history endures, intertwined with that of many other nations, past and present. Its heritage is part of our own heritage too, from Lokrum to the wrecks around our coastline today.

(1) Anica Kisić, “Dubrovačko Pomorsko Društvo”, Atlant Bulletin, No.13, July 2004, pp22-4. URL:

(2) Edinburgh Evening News, 30 December 1887, No.4,530, p2


21. Meat and No Veg

This week I’d just like to have a quick look at the Albany, which came ashore between Sidmouth and Branscombe in 1887 with a cargo of hides and horns from:


Fray Bentos is not just a well-known British brand name (which may be better known to those of us d’un certain age – not that I have ever eaten one), but also a port in Uruguay, built on the meat processing industry which supplied just such steaks as comprised this early version of a convenience meal. The hides and horns laden onto the Albany must certainly have been a by-product of this industry. Tallow, rendered from animal fat, and used for candles, was often also included in such cargoes of meat by-products.

As you might expect, the numbers of wrecks laden with meat and associated products, reflect the heyday of the late 19th and early 20th century South American meat trade. These long-distance exports were only really made possible by the canning process – the can is as much part of the heritage as the branding of Fray Bentos pies and is very much a reminder that something we think of as quintessentially British often turns out not to be so!

Refrigeration facilitated the process, in which Nelson Line, already a specialist on South American routes, invested heavily. Among the Bedford Lemere ship photos in the Historic England collections are several of the Nelson Line Highland Mary, 1911, including this one of her refrigerated holds.

Another Nelson Line ship carrying meat, the Highland Corrie, was torpedoed in 1917 in the Channel.

13. The White Stuff

Given the weather of the past week and our new-found proficiency in the art of skating on pavements, I thought the ice trade would be an excellent subject this week!

Today’s wreck, the Christiane, is a fairly typical example of a Norwegian barque belonging to Kragero which stranded with her cargo of ice beside the groyne at South Shields during the ‘Great Storm’ of November 1901. The accompanying text from the South Shields Gazette is a wonderful example of contemporary provincial journalism: suspense, drama, and heightened emotion at their best. One of the seamen was evidently in shock, and we might perhaps detect that the relief that the rescuers felt at the end of the story was as much to do with quietening him down as with the rescue of his shipmates!

There are 41 wrecks of vessels laden with ice in the National Record for the Historic Environment database – all but four were Norwegian, but all were carrying Norwegian ice. The heyday of the ice trade between Norway and England was in the 1870s to the 1890s, and had its roots in the demand for refrigeration and the popularity of ice cream. Norway was a much closer source of ice than the United States, the earliest leader in ice export, and of course the shorter journey meant that the cargo was at less risk of losing its USP . . . ! The demand was such that, although a natural resource in Norway, it was also commercially farmed, with the Christiane’s home port of Kragero as one of its chief outlets.

These ships often had names reflecting their trade: Isbaaden (“ice bath”) is one. Ispolen (“ice pole”) is another, uncovered by a scouring tide at Sheringham last year. Here is a nice view of Ispolen by a local photographer:

Another wreck turns up as Ispilen or Ispelen. This may be an error for another Ispolen or a variant of Isbilen, which today means “ice cream van” in Norwegian… what a wondrous thought if it does allude to the popularity of Victorian ice cream!

Reverting back to the drama of rescue, we see two very similar stories from ice trade wrecks. When the Nora struck the Leman Bank in 1878 the captain was left behind when the ship broke up as he was just about to jump into the boat. He clung to some wreckage all night, then in the morning hoisted a white handkerchief to a stick and waved it about as a signal, being picked up after 19 hours in the water by a Yarmouth smack. The rest of the crew made it across to a lightship.

Less happily, the captain of the August Hermann Francke in 1886 was the sole survivor after the rest of his crew were washed overboard on the Goodwin Sands. He lashed a piece of canvas to a boathook, which signal was seen from Deal, and a successful rescue launched.