Today’s tale, an extract from the new book I’m working on, is of the lost town of Ravenser Odd, now lying under the North Sea, off the Humber estuary.
By and large they were a bad lot in Ravenser Odd:
“The town of Ravenser Odd was an extremely famous borough, devoted to merchandise with many fisheries and the most abundantly provided with ships and burgesses of all the boroughs of that coast. But yet, by all its wicked deeds and especially wrong-doings on the sea, and by its evil actions and predations, it provoked the vengeance of God upon itself beyond measure.”
Such was the verdict of the Chronicler of Meaux Abbey in the mid-14th century when documenting the destruction of the town. The Abbey records reveal that the town began life as a sandbank, probably an island, thrown up by the tides and currents between the river Humber and the North Sea. Located off the tip of Spurn Point and about a mile off the Holderness coast, at some point it became accessible from the mainland.
The sandbank grew and was initially inhabited by a handful of enterprising souls selling provisions to passing ships. Around 1235 the Count and Countess of Aumale whose fiefdom embraced Holderness, recognised the strategic possibilities of the site and started to build the town. A few years later the monks of Meaux Abbey got in on the act and acquired buildings there for storing fish and other provisions.
The town prospered. Its position between the Humber and the North Sea was perfect for fishing, trading and servicing shipping. Perhaps being at the outer reaches of the Holderness coast and away from any regular attention of the law, the men of Ravenser Odd were able to develop their own approach to trade by intercepting merchant ships and “persuading” them to berth at their port rather than at Hull or Grimsby. This practice, called forestalling, became a bone of contention with the merchants of Hull and Grimsby who saw their own trade suffer. In 1290 the King instituted an Inquiry into the deeds of the Ravenser Odd men. Grimsby merchants asserted that the Ravenser Odd men would:
“go out with their boats where there are ships carrying merchandise and intending to come to Grimsby with their merchandise. Said men hinder those ships and lead them to Ravenser Odd harbour by force when they cannot persuade them amicably”.
The men of Ravenser Odd triumphed at the Inquiry with all charges not proven and even commended for their entrepreneurship.
The town flourished with more than 100 houses, warehouses, quays and other port buildings. It was granted borough status in 1298/9 for which the then huge sum of £300 was paid. It is in keeping with the spirit of the town that little of the money was actually handed over. Yet there is still some evidence that the Ravenser Odd men found it hard to shake off old ways and become model citizens. Around 1300 two Norwegian merchants petition the English king claiming that when their ship was driven ashore off Ravenser Odd “men came from there with force and arms and stole our ship and goods.” The petition ends with a plaintive request for remedy and compensation for their goods as they “have nothing from which to live”.
Under the King’s patronage, whatever piracy and misdemeanours were committed were ignored and the town grew in importance, wealth and prosperity. The town was represented by two MPs in the Model Parliaments of the time and supported the king in the wars against the Scots by providing ships, provisions, arms and men.
However by the middle of the century it became clear that the golden years of Ravenser Odd were drawing to a close. Merchants started to move away as the flooding by the sea became more regular and more serious. There were a number of petitions made for the lowering of taxes because buildings and land had been washed away. In 1355 flooding damaged the chapel in the town exposing bones and corpses. These were removed for reburial elsewhere. The chapel itself was ultimately washed away but not before some of the townsfolk looted many of its artefacts. The town was abandoned soon after and, unsurprisingly, it became something of a pirates’ lair until the coup de grace was applied in 1362. In January of that year a south-westerly gale raged across the UK. This storm known as the Great Drowning of Men combined with unusually high tides, produced a storm surge that swept the last stones of Ravenser Odd back to the sea. The town founded on a sandbank vanished without trace.