No.42 The Bumper Christmas Edition

The Annunciation: The Angel Gabriel from Heaven came . . .

The Engel Gabriel was a Dutch ship scuttled by the English at the Battle of Portland in 1653, during the First Anglo-Dutch War, and a name very much in tune with the times in the 17th century. Quite a few wrecks of the Anglo-Dutch wars bore names inspired by characters from the Bible, though such names were beginning to fall out of favour in the Protestant nations. We have an Angel Gabriel of unknown nationality which struck at Jury’s Gap in 1637 with a cargo of wine from Spain. You may also like to have a look at another Angel Gabriel, which was lost in a hurricane off the Maine coast in 1635.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds: The First Nowell that the Angel did say . . .

We have four wrecks in English waters called Noel, one of which was a French steamer which staggered from collision to collision off the Royal Sovereign Light Vessel in the English Channel, during a gale in 1897 which saw widespread casualties all over England. She ran first into a barque, which was at first feared to have gone down, but was later seen under tow with her bows ‘stove’. However, the Esparto steamer was not so lucky, and sank after being cut nearly in two. It took some time for the full story to emerge: the Noel‘s crew could not be rescued for a few days because they were ashore in a rather inaccessible location in the teeth of a howling gale, and could only communicate by signals from the master. In the meantime, the rest of the crew took shelter in the stern, the bows being ‘completely torn away, exposing the whole of the forepart of the ship, which is entirely submerged, having apparently settled over the bank’.

 . . . was to certain poor shepherds in the fields as they lay . . .

There is also a small flock (sorry!) of lost vessels named Shepherd, some probably for the surname. However, I particularly like the Shepherd and Shepherdess of 1766, which struck the Farne Islands: perhaps the name cashed in on the popularity of contemporary Arcadian subjects, for example, this Meissen couple from 1750.

O little town of Bethlehem . . .

The name Star of Bethlehem seems to have been current in fishing communities in the 1890s. Our first loss was a Grimsby trawler off Staithes in 1890, with three weeks’ worth of fish. I wonder if a local fisherman saw the name and was taken with it, since the next wreck, in 1892, was of the newly-built ship of the same name, operating out of Staithes, and also lost in that region. Finally, the last wreck to bear this name in English waters was a Scottish herring lugger from Banffshire in 1895, working the Great Yarmouth fishing grounds as so many Scottish fishermen did, up to the mid 20th century. Perhaps this last gives a clue as to why the name was popular: the crews followed the migratory herring as the shepherds and the wise men followed the star. Could anyone from a fishing community shed any light on this?

The Annunciation to the Magi: Star of the East, the horizon adorning . . . .

In the same way, a fishing vessel named Star of the East was run down by a steamer off the Eddystone in 1904, while returning from Newlyn to her home port of Lowestoft.

And finally . . . no Christmas would be complete without a nativity scene:

When the General Gascoyne struck the Burbo Bank off Liverpool, in 1837, inbound from Quebec and Montreal with deals, potash and passengers, she rapidly found herself in a perilous situation. Potash prices rose on the Liverpool markets with the loss of the ship and her cargo. This prosaic detail was rather overshadowed by what happened to the crew and human cargo who ‘were clinging to the poop and mizen rigging with a heavy sea breaking over them’ when the local tug Eleanor steamed to the rescue. Those on board either jumped off into the ship’s longboat or were taken off one by one by the Eleanor‘s crew, who boarded the ship at the risk of their own lives.

The accounts of what happened next are slightly conflicting: according to the Lancaster Gazette, a lady ‘far advanced in pregnancy’ promptly gave birth on board the Eleanor, suggesting the shock of shipwreck had brought on labour; according to the Times, she had been ‘only confined the previous day’, and was ‘rescued along with her infant’. Either way, this nativity was surely a miraculous rescue.

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.