Thursday, 17 September 2015

Grace Darling and her Heroism with a Rowing Boat in 1838

The 7th September 1838 is an unremarkable day in many ways and history records would not mention it except for the heroic efforts of Grace Darling.

A major catastrophe is in the making when the SS Forfarshire’s boilers stop working and it drifts, hitting some jagged rocks and tosses its occupants overboard as the ship is carrying 63 people. The vessel breaks in two almost immediately as it smashes into the Big Harcar rocks driven by strong gales. The weather is atrocious.

Fortunately nine of these Forfarshire passengers and crew do manage to float off a lifeboat from the stern section before it sinks. Later that night they also happen to be picked up in the night by a passing Montrose sloop and brought into Shields.

Another group of survivors is not so lucky. They have been in the bow section of the vessel. The rocks holds them up long enough to escape before that section sinks but they still have to decide on what to do next.  All they can decide upon is to scramble over to the Big Harcar, a rocky island nearly one mile away from the lighthouse. Here surrounded on all sides by the devastating seas they wonder how on earth will they survive.

First light on the 8th, Grace spots the wreck of the Forfarshire from her bedroom window and immediately tells her family. As the morning light increases the family are able to see the survivors all huddled on the rocks.

The next problem though is how to rescue them. The father, William Darling wants to attempt a rescue with his sons but alas they are not at home so he decides he will reluctantly makes use of his 23 year old daughter, Grace Darling. Knowing the weather is too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland), he instead takes a rowing boat (a 21 ft, 4-man Northumberland Coble) across to the survivors. To be on the safe side they take a long route that keeps to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. When they finally arrive Grace keeps the Coble steady in the water while her father helps four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat.

It is a difficult moment for Mrs Dawson as she faces the loss of her two children and having to leave them behind. Meantime Grace has to face the fear that at any moment her wooden craft might be smashed to pieces by the big tides. To keep it in one place, she takes both oars and rows backwards and forwards, trying to keep it from being smashed on the reef.

Once aboard, Grace and her father with the three rescued men row back to the lighthouse, while Grace and the fourth man comfort Mrs. Dawson. Here Grace remains while William Darling and three of the rescued crew members row back and recover the remaining survivors. Meanwhile, the lifeboat sets out from Seahouses, but arrives at Big Harcar rock after Grace and her father. All they find are the dead bodies of Mrs Dawson's children and the body of a dead vicar. It was too dangerous to return to North Sunderland so they row to the lighthouse to take shelter. Their adventures do not end quickly either as the weather deteriorates so much that everyone is forced to stay at the lighthouse for three days before returning to shore.

When the newspapers hear this story they all publicise it and focus on the role of Grace. Her fame spreads so widely that men propose marriage to her, Queen Victoria gives her £50 and many people make requests for locks of her hair. Today however her fame rests with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution who promote her achievements.

If you enjoy reading about brave women then check out

Mary Seacole - The Creole with a Teacup and the Crimean War, 1854-1856

Thursday, 3 September 2015

1878 SS Princess Alice Disaster along the River Thames

What happened to the Princess Alice passenger liner in 1878 is a tragic event very few people know about these days in spite of it being the biggest ever maritime disaster in British waters.

Back in 1878 the River Thames is a foul smelling, disgustingly unsanitary river that is deeply unhygienic. During the 1850’s efforts are made under the directions of the brilliant engineer, Bazelgette to sort out the sewage problem that is making a large amount of sludge at the mouth of the Thames. Even this though is only because the MP’s in Parliament were suffering from the noxious smell known as the Great Stink so much they had to put lime on their curtains. Progress is being made but the river remains something you would not want to swim in at any cost.
Never the less this does not stop passenger liners from ferrying people across the river and merchant ships from carrying valuable cargo. It is this combination of a busy Thames with an unregulated set of rules regarding ships passing one another that conspire on one balmy evening in 3rd September 1878 to create a cataclysmic event.

The exact circumstances of the event are unclear but somehow a fully laden passenger liner manages to crash straight into a merchant collier called ‘Bywell Castle’. Within minutes both ships capsize and all the crew and passengers on both ships fall straight into the river.

Quite apart from the horrifyingly scary moments of seeing their ship go over most of the working class people on board can not swim. A moving account of this disaster has been written by a newspaper man called Mr Vincent below.

‘Tuesday, the 3rd day of September, 1878, had been sultry, and the evening was warm and  "muggy." Weary with a troublesome days work I was preparing for an early rest when a message came that there had been a collision on the river, and that a big steamer had gone down with an untold freight of precious lives. Casting off fatigue with my slippers, I made all haste to reach Roff's Pier, enquiring of such acquaintances as I chanced to meet, a few of whom had heard "something" of a wreck on the river, others who had heard nothing, and laughed at the "old woman's tale." Too soon the matchless horror was revealed.

On the wharf and pier a small crowd had collected, not more than fifty as yet, and among them were several well—known townsmen who, from that moment to the end of the long and heavy strain, devoted themselves day and night without pause, without thanks, and without reward, to do all that was in the power of humanity, if not to lessen the evil, at least to fulfil its sacred obligations, to bear a share of it burdens, and to bring lasting honour and renown for its humanity and public spirit upon the town of Woolwich.

‘Soon policemen and watermen were seen by the feeble light bearing ghastly objects into the offices of the Steampacket Company, for a boat had just arrived with the first consignment of the dead, mostly little children whose light bodies and ample drapery had kept them afloat even while they were smothered in the festering Thames. I followed into the steamboat office, marvelling at the fate which had brought the earliest harvest of victims to the headquarters of the doomed ship, and, entering the board-room, the first of the martyrs was pointed out to me as one of the company's own servants, a man employed on the 'Princess Alice', and brought here thus soon to attest by his silent presence the ship's identity. The lifeless frames of men and women lay about, and out on the balcony, from which the directors had so often looked upon their fleet through the fragrant smoke of the evening cigar, there was a sight to wring out tears of blood from the eyes of any beholder. A row of little innocents, plump and pretty, well-dressed children, all dead and cold, some with life's ruddy tinge still in their cheeks and lips, the lips from which the merry prattle had gone for ever.

Callous as one may grow from frequent contact with terrors and afflictions, one could never be inured to this. It was a spectacle to move the most hardened official and dwell forever in his dreams. Then to think what was beyond out there in the river. It was madness!’

On horror's head horrors accumulate’.

Due to the appalling levels of sewage in this stretch of the river (by the Beckton North Outfall Sewer) many of the desperate survivors who gulp in water consequently end up poisoned and die. Dead floating bodies are everywhere and because of the chemicals in the water an odd slime oozes out from their pores long after their death.

This disaster is the Titanic of its day. Over 640 people die making it the largest maritime disaster in British history. By contrast the Titanic suffers around 1523 deaths but these are outside British waters.