Most of the visitors who flock to Yorkshire’s coast every summer, do so without realising that it has a history of marine tragedy reaching back over the centuries and it is hard to realise that an average of two shipwrecks a week have taken place along the North East coast since records began in the 1500s. Brian Spencer investigates the sinking of just a few of these ships, ranging from a First World War hospital ship, to the wholesale sinking of a fleet of colliers, whose wrecking led to a major safety device designed by a Derby M.P.
Nature has decreed that Yorkshire’s coast will provide few, if any natural harbours, lining it instead with jagged rocks waiting for unwary craft. Bridlington, Scarborough and Whitby are the only places where it has been possible to build safe anchorage. In other places, only small inshore craft can be used and they must be drawn up on to local beaches, well above the high tide mark. Robin Hood’s Bay is unique, because here fishing boats, the traditionally designed cobbles, rest at the bottom of the village street.
The best known wreck was fictional and featured the way novelist Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula came ashore at Whitby, in the shape of a huge black dog. As the story goes, Dracula reached England from Eastern Europe on the ship Demeter that foundered on rocks outside Whitby harbour, which only Dracula survived.
Due to stormy weather or engine failure, many ships have failed to gain the safety of Whitby’s harbour. One of them was the Rohila, a WW1 hospital ship that was on its way south to collect wounded. Due to engine failure it missed the entrance to the harbour and drifted on to the rocks at Saltwick Nab below the abbey. Even though it was a matter of yards from the harbour, violent seas prevented the Whitby lifeboat rescuing more than a handful of survivors. Due to the strength of the gale, many of the rockets fired from the tantalisingly close beach, failed to reach their mark, but eventually rescue from the land did take place once the tide had dropped sufficiently.
More recently, in 1976 a trawler, the Admiral von Tromp ran aground in a thick fog and heavy seas not all that far from where the Rohila foundered. Here again the Whitby lifeboat tried to rescue its crew and in fact came within touching distance of the vessel, but the rescue proved too difficult and two men drowned. At low tide the jagged remains of the once proud ship are exposed like some futuristic artwork.
St Mary’s church stands against the elements high above Whitby harbour and within its walls there is a memorial to a lifeboat tragedy in 1861. During a severe storm, and after saving many lives in full view of a crowd watching from the pier, the Whitby lifeboat was flipped over and 12 men were drowned. Henry Freeman, the only crew member to survive did so because he was the only one wearing the then experimental cork life jacket.
Moving northwards away from Whitby, the coast is littered with the poignant remains of shipping that never reached safe harbour. A little way off the shore at Kettleness, between Whitby and Runswick Bay, the boiler of the Wolfhound a Humber trawler that ran aground in 1896 can still be seen, kelp covered and colonised by limpets and mussels. Another wreck is of the 1932 sinking of the Belgian trawler Jeanne, and it is commemorated in the clifftop churchyard at Lythe, where three of its crew are buried.
Southwards from Whitby along Yorkshire’s all too frequently tragic coast, Robin Hood’s Bay and its street-end beached cobles, high ended like Viking ships to cope with rough waves, marks the start of a line of high cliffs with limited sea access. It was around here that in early geological times, rocky strata was twisted throughout ninety degrees, leaving long jagged fang like dykes that run far out into the bay. The parent rocks of these dykes are rich in alum, a chemical used to ‘fix’ red dyes once popular in Tudor times. Small coasters laden with barrels of human urine would carefully thread their way between the dykes, using them as a ready-made natural harbour, to unload on what passes as a beach. The urine was used as a chemical in the process of separating the alum from its parent rock which would be carried back to London dyeworks. As navigation was a rather hit-and-miss affair, it is quite likely that many of the chemical-carrying coasters foundered amongst the maze of sharp rocks running out to sea from the foot of places like Ravenscar where alum processing was a major industry.
The remains of a modern vessel which came to grief on these fangs still lie out to sea about half way along the rocky shoreline between Robin Hood’s Bay and Ravenscar. This was the Sarb-J, a Grimsby trawler that ran aground in 1994 after its propeller got tangled with a rope. The successful rescue of all its crew became a major operation involving a helicopter. The hulk now sits forlornly upright on its keel hard beneath the cliffs.
Scarborough has an all-weather harbour. It stands at the foot of the castle and probably owes much of its origins to the time when the castle and the expanding town was the major port on this part of the coast. While the harbour has offered safe refuge to both inshore and small coastal traffic, the town, along with Hartlepool and Whitby was severely damaged by bombardment from the sea during the Great War. On 16th December 1914 a battle-cruiser squadron under the command of Rear Admiral von Hipper systematically shelled the totally unprepared North East coastal towns, causing great loss of civilian life and extensive damage to property. For many years after the end of that war, a German cruiser, held as part of post war reparations, became a tourist attraction while moored in Scarborough harbour.
Walkers and bird watchers strolling along the cliff tops of Flamborough Head on their way to Bempton maybe stop to admire the apparently calm sea gently washing up against the cliffs far below. Gentle though it may seem, the prevailing current is deceptively strong and many ships have ended their days dashed against the cliffs. A clue as to sea conditions can be gained from the number of cobles winched well above the tide-line at North Landing, one of the few access points along this section of coast. During the American War of Independence, in 1779 an American man-of-war watched by a large cliff top crowd as it battled with the British ship, Serapis. The American was forced on to the rocks by the tide, but bizarrely its crew managed to board the Serapis and, following a short hand-to-hand skirmish managed to capture the British ship.
The remains of a more recent disaster, this time by a Royal Navy ship, the SS Rosa that went aground on the far side of North Landing in 1930, can be traced by the still recognisable riveted steel plates of its boiler.
Bridlington is still popular as a family ‘bucket-and-spade’ holiday resort and it has a handy little harbour where inshore fishing boats can gain shelter in all weathers. In February 1878, a fleet of colliers on its way to London from Tyneside was overtaken by a severe storm. Several foundered before they could reach the safety of Bridlington harbour, but most managed to reach its shelter. They stayed there until they thought the storm had abated, but no sooner did they reach the open sea than they were attacked by an even more violent storm. At that time unscrupulous ship owners were in the habit of grossly overloading their vessels, safe in the knowledge that their insurance value more than covered their costs. With most of the fleet of colliers in trouble, the Bridlington lifeboat, assisted by shore-based volunteers tried to rescue survivors. Scores of sailors died, along with six lifeboat men – the parish records for that disaster cover two pages, with most victims recorded as ‘unknown, drowned’.
The direct result of the Bridlington collier ship disaster came about when the reforming radical Derby MP, Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898), fought against vested interests to bring about an act ensuring the correct loading of ships. The Plimsoll line as it became known shows safe loading on all deep-sea ships and is his lasting memorial.