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.”


The Sounds of War

As I’ve spent the week on tenterhooks waiting to see if the offer on the French house is accepted it’s been a bit of a struggle to settle back to the editing work  so I shuffled off to one of my favourite places along the coast, Spurn Point. It was cold and cloudy and I forgot my camera so when I happened upon a weird object in the middle of a field I was a tad miffed with myself. Having almost decided that the denizens of the little village of Kilnsea (next door to Spurn) were not indulging in arcane rites and rituals involving whopping great lumps of concrete I needed to know more. A pleasant lunchtime chat with coffee in one hand and sandwich in t’other led to the disclosure of the area’s WWI history and this morning I’ll share some of it with you.


The outbreak of WWI saw the East Yorkshire coast bristling with defences partly aimed at frustrating any attempts to land on the open Holderness beaches and partly to ensure the defence of the busy port of Hull. Military camps sprouted up along the coast and a temporary airfield was developed near Withernsea

The quiet village of Kilnsea was invaded by the military who built Fort Godwin there and what is now the wild nature reserve of Spurn Point was armed with three gun batteries and a signal station. All ships approaching the coast and the Humber estuary used a combination of lights, pennants and sound to show they were friendly. A railway was built to link the installations on Spurn with those at Kilnsea.

Perhaps the most intriguing military installation was that of a sound mirror – a huge concrete dish designed to pick up the sound of incoming enemy aircraft flying over the North Sea. So the mystery of the concrete lump was solved and no, the good folk of Kilnsea do not participate in idolatrous practices (to the best of my knowledge).

The Mirror works by capturing and concentrating sound waves from approaching aircraft (Zeppelins in Kilnsea’s case) via a microphone. Eventually, it was superseded by its big brother radar. The photo shows the mirror with the remains of the pipe for holding the microphone.


The Kilnsea mirror is around 4.5m high and is said to have provided three or four minutes of extra warning before the attack.  That doesn’t sound much to me but what do I know? Perhaps it was sufficient for the searchlights and gun batteries to gear up for action – although all the military defences on the coast were unable to fend off a Zeppelin attack in 1915 when it offloaded its bombs on the ports of Hull and Grimsby further down the coast, with 60 casualties recorded.

Today much of the WWI installations like Fort Godwin (photos below) have tumbled down the cliffs onto the beaches however the Kilnsea Sound mirror is now a monument protected by English Heritage.


Thanks to and Paul Glazzard for the photos.