Quick Update

Just to let you all know that after considerable faffing on my part – techie ignoramus that I am – I’ve changed the blog a bit. NOW you can read about the progress of my mag. op “Close to the Edge”if you click on the eponymous header at the top of the page. This, if my extensive calculations are correct (and the lovely people at WordPress are right) will take you to a separate page dedicated to my book about the Holderness Coast. It’s coming out as an e-book in May, larded with piccys taken by my long-suffering friend June Berridge as well as images from times of yore and will answer burning questions such as:

Why did Fat Willy give land to found a monastery?
What happened to the port of Ravenser Odd?
Who murdered the Rev. Enoch Sinclair?
Who were the naughty nuns of Nunkeeling?
Why is the Holderness Coast shrinking?

All will be revealed; stay tuned.

My general blog page will mainly have my meanderings about life in France. Oo La La!

It’s Never Plain Sailing

This morning I’m feeling a bit like one of the many wrecks to be found off the Holderness coast so I thought I’d share my pain with you and give you what might be the final tale from these shores. This is a cautionary tale of what can happen at sea even in favourable conditions.

It was just three weeks into the New Year of 1911 when the steam trawler SS Silverdale with nine hands aboard left the Port of Grimsby heading for the North Sea fishing grounds. A few days later, with a full catch in her hold, she began her homeward voyage arriving off Spurn Point early in the morning of 4th February. There she stopped for about an hour and waited for the tide. The weather was fine and clear; the sea was smooth.

Members of the Silverdale crew observed lights from other ships around this busy seaway where vessels made for the ports of Hull and Grimsby. Shortly after getting under way again to complete the last leg of their voyage back to Grimsby, they also heard blasts from a warning whistle and, almost immediately after, a loud crash. The Silverdale shuddered as the trawler Straton struck her amidships.

In the dark confusion that followed the Skipper George Grice shouts at the other trawler that the Silverdale was sinking and to come about for a rescue; Frank Foster, the chief engineer, knocked off his feet in the collision picks himself up and staggers onto deck calling out that the engine room was full of water; he and the mate, John Walling try to release the lifeboat but the stern of the Silverdale sinks quickly, in the space of just a couple of minutes and they find themselves in the freezing waters. The other crew members cling to wreckage, calling for help.

At the subsequent Court of Inquiry, the captain of the Straton, Daniel Jacob Joenson, stated he and his ship were returning from a voyage to the Faroes and heading homewards. When the ship arrived off Withernsea the Captain laid up there until around 4am when he gave the order to get the ship underway again, steaming at slow ahead. As the vessel approached Spurn he saw the lights of the Silverdale some half to a mile off and left the shelter of the wheelhouse to check his own side and masthead lights which he found to be burning brightly.

On returning to the wheelhouse he noticed that the Silverdale lights were showing much nearer and the vessel was on a course heading straight for the Straton. He sounded the warning whistle and, at the same time, rang down instructions to the engine room for full speed astern. However there was only just time to thrust the ship into reverse before the two vessels collided.

After the collision, the Straton re-bounded from the Silverdale and Joenson brought her about to look for survivors; other trawlers nearby steamed to the rescue alerted by the crew of the Spurn Lightship who sent up rockets and fired guns to attract their attention.

Of the Silverdale’s original nine-man crew only four survivors – Foster and Walling together with deck hand Robert Hicks who floated in the water clinging to a lifebuoy and James Wright the steward who clung to a deck fish pound board were picked up.

Of those lost, the Skipper was last seen heading for the wheelhouse and was presumed to have gone down with his ship and the four other crew members clung to wreckage for a short while but sadly succumbed to exhaustion and the dark, icy cold waters of the North Sea before they could be rescued.

The Inquiry concluded that both vessels, to different degrees had failed to comply with the Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea and that the Silverdale was not “navigated with proper and seamanlike care.” Despite some strictures laid upon the captain of the Straton the Court held the opinion that the loss of the Silverdale and some of its crew members was not caused by any “wrongful act or default of the Skipper of the Straton.”


Let Modesty and Decorum be your Watchwords

If you were a member of a well-heeled eighteenth-century family in Yorkshire you may well have followed the advice of Dr Richard Russell(who wrote about these things) and headed for the Holderness coast for a restorative spell of sea bathing. When the cold grey waters of the North Sea had frozen you senseless you might have followed up your dip with a nauseous gulp of sea-water or sampled the local chalybeate spring water – all guaranteed to cure the colic, the melancholy, the vapours or whatever else ailed you.

To preserve modesty and decorum horse drawn bathing machines were provided for hire – mobile changing rooms that were hauled into the sea whilst within, ladies could shed the encumbrances of petticoats and pantaloons for a shift. The advent of the Miss Wet T-shirt competition was still some couple of hundred years off so these shifts were often made of a heavy material such as flannel or canvas, which ballooned out when wet to conceal a fair lady’s form and figure. Once suitably enveloped, the intrepid bather would emerge straight into the sea for the prescribed dose of three total immersions. She could then retire to the shelter of the bathing machine, modesty intact, to dry off and dress.

In this part of the world, the male of the species was permitted more licence and allowed to disport himself in his birthday suit provided he hired a boat, went off shore a little and dropped discreetly over the side.  However, those of a more modest disposition could cover the dangly bits with a pair of drawers.

Eventually, Victorian sensibilities took over, demanding more male modesty. Naked bathing was banned around 1861-2; men and women bathers were to be kept sixty feet apart (presumably so as not to shock or over-stimulate the weaker sex) and proprietors of bathing huts were required to provide suitable bathing attire for their clientele. Those who persisted in the pernicious practice of skinny-dipping were punished – like George Large who was discovered, all rosy pink and starkers, bathing in the sea at Hornsea. He was arrested and fined three shillings plus costs.

Bathing machines arrived in Hornsea around the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Marine Hotel opened its doors to welcome genteel visitors – none of your riff-raff wanted here y’know. Not to be outdone Aldbrough further down the coast followed suit and catered for its visitors’ needs at the Talbot Hotel and the Spa Inn. However in Bridlington, the citizens were a bit more forward-thinking and provided both warm and cold sea water baths, under cover, which gave the faint of heart all the benefits of sea bathing without actually having to brave the ocean itself.

By the end of the eighteenth century sea bathing had taken off and even received the royal seal of approval from George III who being somewhat nesh, gave it a go in the soft southern waters off Weymouth.

Of course the arrival of the railway to the Holderness coast spoilt it all for the wealthy sea-bathers bringing as it did crowded carriages of escapees from daily drudgery all seeking A Good Time. What had been an exclusive practice became common-place fun and games, requiring the rich to seek playgrounds elsewhere wherein to seek cures for their numerous, real or imaginary ills.


The Hurricane, The Church Roof and The Parish Clerk

The eighteenth century is regarded as the golden age of private, duty-free enterprise, otherwise known as smuggling. Any coastal area appears to have involved itself in the trade when a man could earn more from a packhorse load of merchandise than he could from a week’s wage.

The Holderness coast is just a hop and a skip away from Holland across the cold and grey North Sea facilitating this brisk export and import business and the remote flat beaches of are made for discreet landings on a still, dark night.

Large boats called coopers,bristling with guns, hove-to off shore like floating cash-and-carry warehouses whereupon local folk from the Holderness villages would venture out in smaller boats to acquire merchandise for further distribution to friends, family and valued customers.

It was the job of Revenue men assisted by the Navy to intercept and capture the smugglers at sea and they had a hard time of it. In 1777 Captain Mitchell of the Revenue cutter Swallow met a notorious smuggler called Stoney in his schooner Kent, just off Spurn Point. Captain Mitchell sent in this report of the encounter:

“as their (the Kent) guns were in readiness, and at the same time waving us to go to the Northward, we were, by reason of their superior force, obliged to sheer off, but did our best endeavours to spoil his Market.”

This was not the first time that Captain Mitchell decided it was better to render himself able to “fight another day”; he was either very prudent or very timorous and perhaps not without cause. The smugglers, despite the romantic view presented in fiction, were dangerous, ruthless and violent men.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for those on land who stored the cargoes either. Take the incident of the hurricane, the church roof and the Parish Clerk. It occurred in the little town of Hornsea at a time when there was no resident vicar for the church only a curate who visited now and again to save the souls of the town dwellers. The Parish Clerk, clearly a man of enterprise, conceived the idea of storing contraband in the crypt of the church. On Christmas Eve 1732, perhaps in anticipation of the festivities, he opened the door to the crypt just at the moment when the town was struck by a hurricane. The force of the hurricane ripped the roof off the church and as it went flying away, the Clerk, huffing and puffing over his brandy kegs, keeled over with a stroke. For weeks after, he lay in his bed, paralysed and completely mute until one night he finally cocked up his toes and breathed his last.

Since hurricanes are definitely not the norm in these parts some might consider that Him (or Her) Up There was not best pleased at the use to which His (or Her) House was put and we can only speculate whether the good folk of Hornsea enjoyed a pipe of baccy and a glass of brandy that Christmas – all duty free of course.

“Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!”

(From: A Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling)

A Weighty Matter

One of the most important issues in doing any sort of historical research is finding sources contemporary or nearly so, to the times you want to write about. In researching the history of the East Yorkshire (aka Holderness) coastline I’ve reason to be grateful to one Thomas, Abbot and Chronicler of Meaux Abbey – although he was a bit long in words and wind. I thought I would enrich your day by explaining how his Abbey came to be founded.

The story of the founding of Meaux Abbey has much to do with the age and girth of one William le Gros, (Known as Fat Willy to his friends), Count of Aumale and, at the time (around 1151), the Lord of Holderness. Fat Willy had a problem. In his younger and slimmer days he had taken a vow to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. However this was one of those things in life that just kept getting put off until in 1150, now elderly, with a waistline that you would need a week to walk around, William looked for a way to be released from his vow.

A chance meeting with Adam, a monk from Fountains Abbey provided the solution. He could be released from his promise to pilgrimage if he stumped up the funds to establish a religious community. Adam selected what he considered a suitable site, thumping his staff on the ground and proclaiming to the few interested sheep grazing close by:
“Here shall be ordained a people worshipping Christ.”.

Unfortunately, William had already earmarked the land for his own hunting playground and tried to convince Adam that other, more worthy sites were available. He cajoled and threatened but Adam was nothing if not determined. He and his staff stood firm and the abbey was built in 1151, populated by monks from Fountains Abbey and led by Adam who presided as abbot until 1160.

Perhaps, after all though, Fat Willy had the last quiet laugh. The site Adam chose was not the best. It was located, about 12 miles inland from the coast, in the flood plain of the River Hull. Although amply provided with water, woodland and pasture the land around was marshy and liable to flood causing the abbey severe problems at times. In fact, the community at Meaux was regularly beset with difficulties and struggled against pestilence, debt, lawsuits and conflict both within the abbey itself and with other religious communities.

When the uxorious Henry VIII came on the scene taking unto his bosom the wealth of the monasteries, Meaux Abbey was already in some disrepair and it didn’t take much to reduce it to rubble. Today a few lumps and bumps in the middle of the field are all that remain of Fat William’s gift and Adam’s abbey.

Photo: © Copyright Jonathan Fry and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

My Arm is Long and My Vengeance Total

The title of this post is one of my favourite quotations taken from the film Billion Dollar Brain, based on the book by Len Deighton. I use it frequently to keep friends and relatives in their proper places. However, in researching stories for my book on the lost villages of the Holderness coast I discovered a gory tale which illustrates the quote perfectly. Being the generous sort of gal I am, I thought I’d share it with you.

The little village of Kilnsea squats right down on the southern tip of the Holderness coast, open to all the elements and particularly the depredations of the sea. There’s not that much left of it now, just a small huddle of cottages. But the story goes that back in the seventeenth century a horrendous, gory crime was committed there by a woman called Peg Fyfe. A few claimed she was a witch but everyone knew she was the leader of a band of ruffians, practising theft and extortion with equal aplomb.

Deciding to rob a Kilnsea farmer of his horses, she threatens and terrifies the farmer’s servant lad into leaving the stable door open one night so she can perpetrate said theft. She promises that should he reveal the plot to anyone she will skin him alive. The lad, being of Yorkshire stock and therefore having more wits about him than most, is torn between fear of Peg and duty to his gaffer. Craftily he asks the farmer to come to the stable and in his presence the lad whispers to the horses telling them what’s going to happen – thus letting the farmer know what game was afoot whilst not spilling the beans directly.

Peg and her mob come to get the horses only to find themselves on the receiving end of a load of lead shot. Despite being injured she and the gang get clean away.

For weeks the lad is terrified of going anywhere for fear of Peg. But as weeks turn to months and nothing more is heard of the gang, the lad gets braver and goes further afield only to find himself one day snatched by the robber gang and taken to Peg. There she makes good her promise and flays the poor boy who despite the agony makes nary a squeak until it comes to the skin on his palms and the soles of his feet when he emits a terrible cry, heard far out at sea. He crawls home, a bloody mass before snuffing it on his doorstep. Peg, the charmer, was later captured and hanged for her many crimes.

Now isn’t that an uplifting story to start your day (or finish it)?