The Adventure Begins…well almost

So, the big day dawns this week and I’ve packed and re-packed. My dreams are filled with cardboard cartons and the squeal of  brown sticky tape as it comes off the dispenser. This is my last post for a short while as I discover the delights of a left-hand drive vehicle and wend my way to SW France.

I wonder what I’ll really find when I get there. How close will vision and reality meet? but, more to the point, I wonder what my new neighbours will make of me? Hopefully they’ll not find me quite as amazing and outlandish as Colonel Harrison’s Pygmy Troop when they turned up in England in the early years of the twentieth century.

Whilst moving to France is nothing unusual these days, (may even be de rigeur), the  story of the Pygmy Troop is totally out of tune with today’s attitudes and culture. However back then curiosity, ignorance, imperialism and a general sense of superiority over the rest of the world all played a part in bringing this type of entertainment to England. Oh dear that does remind me of some expats I’ve met!

Moving swiftly on, here’s the story.

In 1904 Colonel James Harrison of Brandesburton Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire was travelling through the Congo river basin. This was not as odd as you might surmise since he was not only a soldier but also an explorer and big game hunter. Travelling in darkest Africa is what explorers are supposed to do.

There in the remoteness of the Congo he made the acquaintance of the Pygmy tribe of the Ituri forest. No doubt after a deal of huffing and puffing he persuaded six of his new “little pygmie friends” to return to England with him. So it was that Bokane, Quarke, Mogonga, Matuka, Amurape and Masutiminga arrived in 1905, to take London by storm. Appearances at the London Hippodrome, Olympia and even the staid old House of Commons were followed by a tour of the whole country when all and sundry could pay up and gawk at them.

In their “down” time the group stayed at Brandesburton Hall and went hunting in the parkland there. They made appearances at various venues in East Yorkshire including the coastal resorts of Hornsea and Withernsea where they met with much interest…to put it mildly. During their stay they made a record of their stay, speaking in their native language – I intend to do something similar in writing. Watch this space.

All six survived their English tour and returned to their homeland in 1907/8. Whether I shall eventually follow their example is in the lap of the gods.

 

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.”

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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.

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An Ordinary Man of Principle

This is a tale of an ordinary fisherman whose convictions and integrity withstood all that the power of the British Royal Navy could throw at him and touched the lives of some of the tough men around him.

The 17th century saw the rise of non-conformism across England and one of the earliest sects was the Society of Friends – the Quakers. A visit by George Fox to Holderness in 1651 kindled interest in the beliefs and principles of the Friends. Up and down the coast a small tireless group took The Word to villages and hamlets and one man, a fisherman from Kilnsea by the name of Richard Sellars heard The Word.

At the time Britain was at war with the Dutch and the British Navy was always on the lookout for new recruits.  One way of obtaining these recruits was through the pressgang – an ugly form of conscription that allowed gangs to take law-abiding citizens in ports and coastal villages and whisk them away to serve, willy-nilly in the Royal Navy ships.

The Press Gang

The Press Gang

In 1665, the pressgang caught Richard. He refused to go on board the ketch that was collecting up these new crews and was badly beaten before being hoisted onto the ship with a tackle. The ketch worked on behalf of the Ship of the Line the Royal Prince and it took Richard and the other pressganged men to the Nore – a sandbank at the mouth of the River Thames and an assembly point for the navy. There Richard was again hauled aboard the Royal Prince and the following day was ordered to work at the capstan. This he refused to do. Quakers were, and are, pacifists.

His stance was a brave one given the harsh conditions men of the King’s Navy worked under. Richard received a flogging from the boatswain and then the Captain sent for him, demanding to know why he would not fight for the King. Richard’s reply was a gentle one:

“I told him I was afraid to offend God, therefore I could not fight with carnal weapons.”

The Captain replied to this piety with yet another flogging before one of the crew begged for mercy on Richard’s behalf. To which plea the Captain replied:

“He is a Quaker and I will beat his brains out”.

According to Richard’s account, three days later Sir Edward Spragge, the Admiral came aboard the Royal Prince and learned that a Quaker had been pressed. He learned too that the boatswain’s mate had refused to flog Richard further and so demoted him and took his cane – a mark of his position on board –from him. The man appears to have been thankful to have been relieved of his office.

The Admiral, perhaps fearing the subtle influence Richard’s principled stand was having on some of the crew, took a hard line. He called the whole ship’s company together and, in front of them clapped Richard in irons. He then addressed the crew, saying:

“…take notice there is a man called a Quaker, who is to be laid in irons during the king’s pleasure and mine, for refusing to fight and to eat of the king’s victuals; therefore I charge you all and every man, that none of you sell or give him any victuals, meat, drink, or water, for if you do, you shall have the same punishment.”

Despite this warning some members of the crew treated Richard kindly particularly the carpenter’s mate who surreptitiously tried to share his rations with him. However there were others who continued to abuse him to such an extent that one of the younger officers, risking his whole career, went to the Admiral to ask him to put an end to the ill use. The Admiral called a council of the captains of his fleet. As a compromise, they offered him a place on a small ship that acted as a tender. Richard declined this way out and said he would not fight and he would stay on board the Royal Prince and see out his punishment. With no other alternative, the Admiral then sentenced Richard to death.

When this was generally known some of the crew begged for Richard’s life. Again this was a brave act on their part – to plead for a convicted criminal’s life to their Admiral risked their lives as well.

The following day, with the noose hanging from the yard arm at eight o’clock, Richard stepped forward to meet his fate and, ultimately, his Maker. But as he stepped onto the gunwale, Admiral Spragge called for silence. In an extraordinary twist of events, he proclaimed Richard a free man – “as free as any on board the ship”. Why he did this is not clear. Did his conscience stir him? Was he concerned about the effect on his crew that the hanging of a pious man who had done nothing more than hold to his beliefs would have? Whatever his reason, he had cause later to be thankful that he gave Richard his life back.

A few days whilst the ship engaged the Dutch, Richard, now a non-combatant averted certain disaster at least twice by warning of shoals and fire ships and during the battle he carried the wounded away off the decks and down to the surgeon. His actions drew the attention of the Admiral who remarked afterwards:

“It would have been a great pity had his life been taken before the engagement.”

When the ship eventually sailed back to England, the Admiral gave Richard his freedom and instructed the Captain of the Royal Prince to write out a certificate to that effect. From there, the quiet fisherman disappears into the mists of time.

Storms, Surges and Floods

The storm surges of yesterday created wide-spread flooding all along the east coast of England. Last night the villagers of Kilnsea, a village on the edge of the Holderness coast near Spurn Head, were advised to evacuate their homes.

Kilnsea, low-lying, exposed to the elements and manna to a hungry North Sea was, according to the Domesday Book, originally  established on a hill and an inland village some distance from the sea. Later descriptions tell us of a scattering of cottages with gardens clustered around the Medieval church. On the village green stood a large stone cross originally taken from the ancient and lost town of Ravenser. It had been erected there to commemorate the landing of Henry VI in 1399 but was removed to Kilnsea when the sea took that town.

Eventually though, the sea worked its mischief in Kilnsea and by the early 19th century the village was under attack. In 1822 the village comprised the church and around 30 houses; thirty years later only a handful of houses and the foundations of the church remained and by 1912 all these had gone.

The indefatigable walker and writer, Walter White, gives us an account of his visit to the village in 1861* when he stopped off for a pint or two at the Crown and Anchor pub and learned something of the village’s history:

The place itself has a special interest, telling, so to speak, its own history—a history of desolation. The wife, pointing to the road passing between the house and the beach, told me she remembered Kilnsea church standing at the seaward end of the village, with as broad a road between it and the edge of the cliff. But year by year, as from time immemorial the sea advanced, the road, fields, pastures, and cottages were undermined and melted away. Still the church stood, and though it trembled as the roaring waves smote the cliff beneath, and the wind howled around its unsheltered walls, service was held within it up to 1823. In that year it began to yield, the walls cracked, the floor sank, the windows broke; sea-birds flew in and out, shrieking in the storm, until, in 1826, one-half of the edifice tumbled into the sea, and the other half followed in 1831. The chief portion of the village stands on and near the cliff, but as the waste appears to be greater there than elsewhere, houses are abandoned year by year.

Kilnsea exists, therefore, only as a diminished and diminishing parish, and in the few scattered cottages near the bank of the Humber. The old font was carried away from the church to Skeffling, where it is preserved in the garden of the parsonage.

Another writer (Geoffrey de Sawtry) notes rather waspishly that in this now churchless village:

“they have set apart a room for divine service, in which it is performed every third Sunday, weather permitting; otherwise, it is reported, the worthy pastor, feeling for his flock, grants them an indulgence to remain indoors and takes the same himself’.”

When the weather did permit, the faithful were called to their improvised place of worship by the church bell which was suspended from a beam in a stack yard and struck by throwing stones at it.

Even though Kilnsea has resettled itself to the west it is still being chased further inland by flooding and by the sea. I hope that despite last night’s depredations everyone at risk anywhere along the coast kept safe.

(*A Month in Yorkshire by Walter White)

Worthy of his Hire

As one who has spent her professional life preaching good recruitment practice to managers the Martinmas Hirings of the East Riding piqued my interest. I know I’m a bit late for Martinmas but at least I’m just in the right month.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, one annual recruitment event was the week of  the Hirings where those looking for work on farms gathered to be looked over by those seeking workers.

Farm work provided employment for many youngsters; both boys and girls could start their working lives from as young as twelve or thirteen. Farm servants’ contracts ran for one year from Martinmas Day. Wages were not paid until the end of the year and as they were handed out anyone well-regarded by the farmer would be asked to stay on for another year. Mostly the lads moved on to gain experience.

Those lads that did leave their “spot” took themselves off to the nearest market town where the annual Hiring fair was held. All spruced up and dressed in their best, they stood in the market place, preening, parading and grinning self-consciously whilst the farmers  walked up and down assessing and questioning them.

After a bout of bargaining settled the wage the lads “fastened” themselves for the coming year by accepting a coin, usually a shilling. If the coin was not returned by the end of the day, then a legal contract had been established which could not be broken.

The Hirings were the only time the farm servants had a holiday and once the main business was done, they were ready to rumble. The Hiring towns were crowded with folk, especially young people, all ready for some action. With a year’s wages rattling in pockets, there was shopping to be done, friends to catch up with, debts to be paid and old scores to be settled in the back alleys. After a year, isolated on the farm, seeing the same faces day in, day out, the opportunity to let off a bit of steam was too good to miss. The town’s shopkeepers did a roaring trade as did the pubs and a funfair usually came to town as well to add to the week’s excitement. Providing things didn’t get too far out of hand the local law had the sense to keep away but the week was a sore trial to the local clergy.

The Hirings system continued into the early years of the twentieth century until changes in farming practices brought the system to an end and ended a way of life which, on the whole, had served communities, families and individuals well.

 

A Head for Heights

How do you like your eggs cooked? Ever tried anything more adventurous than hens’ eggs? Well here’s an extract from a tale of eggy derring-do in my book “Close to the Edge”

At the northernmost tip of the Holderness coast in East Yorkshire lies the village of Flamborough and a great buttress of chalk cliffs known as Flamborough Head. In Victorian times the business of the village was fishing and farming but to supplement their income the fishermen and farmers of Flamborough went “climming” or egg–gathering – all provided they had very good heads for heights and partners in whom they could place implicit trust.

Climming was generally a family occupation with different families having “their own” bit of coast to work on. A team of between two and four men worked together with one being lowered over the cliff and steadied by the others. It was dangerous work for the man over the cliff, wearing only a cloth cap stuffed with straw and wrapping dried grass or straw around his hands to stop the rope from cutting them. This was a description in 1834 written by naturalist Charles Waterton of a 2-man climming team:

“…he who is to descend now puts his legs through a pair of hempen braces which meet around his middle and there form a waistband. A man now holds the rope firmly in his hand and gradually lowers his comrade down the precipice. While he is descending…he passes from ledge to ledge and rock to rock. It requires considerable address on the part of the descending climber to save himself from being hit by fragments of the rock which are broken off by the rope… “

When the climmer disappeared from sight a system of signals was his only form of communication – 1tug for lower me further; 2 tugs for stop lowering and 3 tugs for get me out of here.

In Waterton’s day up to 130000 eggs could be collected in the season mainly from guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake nests. They were sold for different purposes. Some were turned into souvenirs; some were used for sugar refining and some sent to the West Riding where they used the egg white in the manufacture of patent leather. Guillemot eggs were particularly sought after and most were eaten by local people who fried, scrambled and concocted egg omelettes from them.

The practice of climming continued right up into the twentieth century when the Wild Birds Protection Act 1954 made the taking of wild birds’ eggs illegal.

PS. Click here if you want to see a clip of climming in action.

Climmers - photo from Yorkshire Film Archives

Climmers – photo from Yorkshire Film Archives

For Those in Peril on the Sea

The UK seems to be the target for a particularly nasty storm over the next 48 hours so I thought it appropriate to give you this story. I need only add that now, as in 1871, the Lifeboat Service (RNLI) is manned by volunteers.

On 10 February 1871 a violent gale tested to the limits the courage of all who went to assist ships and sailors in distress.

For several days earlier the weather had been atrocious and ships huddled for shelter where they could.  When a break in the weather occurred, a large convoy of ships made a break for it and headed south towards Bridlington. However, the westerly wind that helped them on their way dropped suddenly on the evening of 9th February and many ships were becalmed in Bridlington Bay. In the early hours of the morning of 10th February the wind got up, increasing in strength all the while, bringing sleet and snow with it until it turned into a vicious ice-storm. Crucially, the wind changed direction, blowing from the south-east straight into Bridlington Bay and in doing so bottled up many of the becalmed ships.

As soon as grey morning light broke it was obvious that many of the ships were in great danger. Some masters tried to run their ships ashore for safety, others, tried to ride out the storm but were driven mercilessly onto the shore by the huge waves and boiling surf. Bit by bit, with anchors dragging behind them, seventeen ships were thrown ashore to be pounded and smashed up by mountainous waves.

The two Bridlington lifeboats launched and the rocket crews assembled. The local coastguards swam or waded chest-high through turbulent surf to pull crews off the nearer wrecks and get them to safety. Townsfolk ran to the sea walls to help out wherever they could.

Both lifeboats, the Robert Whitworth and the Harbinger went out time after time to the wrecks snatching the sailors from certain death. On returning to harbour, exhausted crew members were lifted from the boats with hands raw and bleeding from the oars. By this time conditions were so dangerous the Robert Whitworth was withdrawn from service having saved twelve lives.

The Harbinger continued its work and as one crewman fell to exhaustion another stepped forward to take his place until after the seventh launch no replacement crew could be found. At this point it appeared that the Harbinger, like the Robert Whitworth would have to be withdrawn.

However when David Purdon, Harbinger’s builder and John Clappison, his assistant, stepped up and volunteered to take her out another seven volunteers came forward. They set off to rescue the crew of a brig Delta, aground and breaking up on Wilsthorpe Sands. On the way they came across another grounded vessel and took off the five man crew, landed them and then turned back to the brig. When they finally got there they found only one crew member, the Captain, clinging desperately to the rigging. All the others had taken to the brig’s lifeboat and drowned when it capsized. Just as the Harbinger got alongside the Delta a tremendous wave struck the brig sending her crashing into the lifeboat. The lifeboat, struck by the same wave, was thrown into the air and turned turtle. For a few minutes the Harbinger remained upside down until another wave righted her. Just one crewman, Richard Bedlington managed to stay in the boat – all the others being plunged into the sea. Bedlington dragged one crewman back in, using his scarf as a rope and a third Richard Hopper, managed to scramble back aboard. The six other lifeboat crew all perished including the first two volunteers David Purdon and John Clappison.

As the day wore on the destruction and loss of life continued as it became almost impossible to launch rescues although not for want of trying. Those on shore could only watch helplessly as men struggled for their lives. A contemporary report describes how:

“the piercing cries of the drowning crews were frequently heard amidst the howling of the storm.”

All through the night distress signals were seen far out at sea but by daybreak on the 11th February the wind dropped and the devastation of the storm revealed. Debris littered the beaches amongst the wreckage of the vessels. Estimates put the number of ships lost to be around 30; the exact number of lives lost is not known but generally estimated at around 70. Corpses were still washing ashore two weeks after the storm.

On February 14th the first funeral took place of three captains, nineteen sailors and James Watson a crewman from the Harbinger. People turned out in their hundreds to pay their respects and a public fund was set up to assist the widows and orphans of those lost. A monument erected over the mass grave at the Priory Churchyard in Bridlington serves to remind us of the price paid that terrible day. On one side of the monument the inscription gives the names of those lifeboat men lost “whilst nobly endeavouring to save those whose bodies rest below”.

The other three sides  list the names and number of ships lost before finishing with the grim tally:

“Forty-three bodies of those who on that day lost their lives, lie in this churchyard.”

 

Heavy Editing

Finally I have the house on the market and looking all neat and tidy for the photos. What will come of it I don’t know but it has made me put my skates on and complete the editing of “Close to the Edge” my book about the life and times of Holderness coastal communities. The idea of to-ing and fro-ing from France to complete it ain’t too appealing.

After the first round of editing I found I had committed every cardinal writing sin and probably invented some as well. One that keeps creeping in is that of slipping into the passive tense which dulls the writing and robs it of a sense of movement. On my old version of Word there used to be a gizmo that not only counted words, paras and sentences but also told how many times I used the passive tense and, even more helpfully, gave the reading age score (Flesch readability) which I found a useful guide. Now on the new version – the one with the scrolling toolbar – I can’t find it anymore which is a pity.

So now the second editing round is over what have I discovered?  Above all that it takes plain foolhardiness to savage one’s opus. It is scary to see your words flutter to the cutting room floor, as it were. After round 1 of editing, I forced myself to scrap about one third of the book entirely because it was repetitive, stuffy and made the book structurally incoherent. After that I introduced completely new material and then shuffled around great wodges of text like they were chess pieces. Shall I put it there…or maybe…no…there..no? I hate to say it but often it went right back where it started from…but it needed to be done.  Overall, I have improved the structure of the book and by grasping the thistle and abandoning a strict timeline approach (which was even  harder to do than scrapping parts of it) I think I have achieved something nearer my original idea.

The book is an eclectic mix – people, places, events and stories relating to this changing coast – chosen for no other reason than they tickled my imagination.  I have struggled with the tone from time to time – whilst aiming for quirky and occasionally irreverent, I wonder if I am a bit too flippant. Time will tell when the feedback comes in. Above all though, I hope it transmits some of the affection I have developed for a part of England where no major event of national importance ever occurred; where the one constant is a hungry sea gnawing at the cliffs; where, over the centuries people learned to adapt, build their settlements anew or go under and where a big sky suddenly shifts from grey, melancholy and brooding to  glorious sunlight casting sparklers on the sea.

DSC00191

The book is on its way to some strict beta-testers and depending on their feedback I think it will need an editing Round 3 –in the hands of a professional editor. In the meantime, I’ll tidy my desk, sharpen my pencils, and start to play around with an idea that’s been buzzing around like an angry hornet for a few weeks now.

Grimston’s Yeomanry Rides Again

I’ve been hard at work this past week trying to get the house ready to put on the market but in between times I met the redoubtable Thomas Grimston who in the late 18th century created the Grimston Yeomanry to defend the Holderness (East Yorkshire) coast against those “demmed Frenchies”. Here’s a snippet from his story.

The threat of a French invasion of England loomed large during the years of the Napoleonic wars and so the bigwigs in the East Riding of Yorkshire set about raising companies of volunteers to swell the military numbers.

Step forward one, Thomas Grimston of …er…Grimston, patriot, aristo and horseman who, at his own expense, raised a volunteer cavalry force. He tirelessly travelled the whole of Holderness explaining his plans to the locals. When his rousing words of recruitment fell on deaf ears he asked the local clergy to call parish meetings so that the importance and purpose of the proposed cavalry could be clearly explained to the bashful locals. Once more he was disappointed. In a letter he received explaining this lack of enthusiasm he was told:

“what they object to is the smallness of the pay, from which circumstances one may, I think, infer two things. First they are aware of the necessity of the Measure and secondly, in return for their services, they expect a valuable consideration adequate at least to the profits arising from labour.”

In other words – when it comes to asking Yorkshiremen to volunteer, you really can’t have “summat fer nowt”.

Eventually though, in 1794 Thomas enrolled around forty men and Grimston’s Yeomanry were ready to ride.

Thomas kitted out his men:

  • leather helmet, with bearskin crest, plume of buff feathers and decorated with four small chains to deflect sabre cuts;
  • jacket – short, scarlet with buff facings and silver braid;
  • Whitened leather crossbelt with a plate engraved with ERYC and the motto pro aris et focis (for hearth and home) topped with a crown;
  • White breeches and black riding boots.

The whole ensemble was then accessorised with a sabre and pistol.

grimstons yeomanry

Running a cavalry force didn’t come cheap. The sabres and pistols alone, assuming no fancy additions would cost him around £115, about £11,000 in today’s money.

Having solved the recruitment and equipment issues only one problem remained for Thomas to solve. Every decent cavalry unit needed a shiny trumpet to sound the charge but sadly Thomas could not lay his hands on one. However, his brother-in-law Richard Ledgard came to his rescue in 1795 and from the accompanying letter, one can only assume that his neighbours would have been pleased to see the back of it:

“…have been blasting all my neighbours this hour past…the cord is crimson and buff, very neat…the price is 3 ½ guineas, ½ guinea the string, together 4 guineas. What a tremendous sound they produce. It puts me in mind of what we are to expect at our latter end.”

By the turn of the century the Holderness coast swarmed with volunteer corps who provided much needed support to the regular forces and the militia but the signing of the Peace Preliminaries in October 1801 reduced the need for such strength and vigilance and many of the volunteer units including Grimston’s Yeomanry were disbanded or stood down. This was premature however and in May the following year war was declared again.

Thomas Grimston’s disbanded Yeomanry rode again, now doubled up to two troops, and they charged up and down the Holderness coast looking out for the enemy. But they were a hospitable lot towards civilians although, as this brief diary entry from a Mr Dunn of Patrington shows, perhaps catering was not all it should have been or perhaps it was just too good!

“5th June – Took chaise for Bridlington to see Grimston Troop.

6th June – went to see the troops at exercise. Came on to rain. Dined with the officers in the Mess.

7th June – very ill until noon.”

The 1807 Local Militia Act saw the end of many of the volunteer forces as it incorporated a provision that any effective member of a volunteer or yeomanry corps had to serve at his own expense and pay a fee to continue to serve. Whilst many men would have continued to serve they could not afford to pay the fee.

Needless to say,  Thomas Grimston’s gallant Yeoman Cavalry survived  as a unit for a few more years before galloping into the sunset in 1814.

Grimston

Thomas Grimston