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Tales of the Sea

Mike Wilson, Local Author and Historian

I make no apologies for having two pages on the History site dedicated to The Great Gale of 1871, as it is an important factor in Bridlington's history.


Elsewhere you can find my telling of the events, but this page relates the story as it was told in "Tales of the Sea," published in 1876. 

The book was compiled by W. Sharrah, Sailors' Missionary, Hull; and J. W. Day, Assistant Secretary of the Port of Hull Society. It was published by Montgomery & Son, 33 and 36 Scale Lane, Hull.

A plain cover book cost sixpence, while one covered in cloth was a shilling (5p).

TALES OF THE SEA

Great Storm in Bridlington Bay

(February 10th, 1871)

WHEN THIRTY SHIPS WERE WRECKED, AND UPWARDS OF SEVENTY SAILORS PERISHED

THE north-east coast of England has often been the scene of fearful disasters of the most thrilling character to sea-men, causing extensive destruction to life and property. The gale which burst over that coast on Friday, 10th February, 1871, will long be remembered with melancholy interest by the inhabitants of Bridlington Quay. There were scenes gazed upon in the bay which thrilled the hearts of thousands, and many felt the solemnity of death as they had not done before.

The previous day was one of those mild and genial days which betoken an early and pleasant spring; the sun shone out brightly, the air was soft and balmy—the aspect of all things was beautiful; such weather led about 400 vessels, which had been wind-bound in the northern ports, to put to sea. The wind was favourable, about north-west. On the Thursday afternoon and evening, at the various places along the coast, many persons gathered to behold with delight the large fleet of laden vessels bound south.

All went well until about 3 o'clock on Friday morning, when the sky presented wild and unmistakable evidence of a change of wind and weather. About 3 o'clock the change became more visible; the wind rose and veered about. Suddenly a tempestuous storm came, rapidly increasing in intensity to a hurricane, accompanied with blinding sleet and show.

The ships which had up to this time been gliding majestically along the coast with the fine weather and the wind free were now on a lee-shore in the teeth of a gale from the south-east. At 6 o'clock the wind had got to east-south-east, still accompanied by sleet and snow. At day-break a number of ships were seen in the offing, and from their appearance it was well known that unless the weather shortly moderated many of those deeply laden labouring vessels could not remain long out at sea; and this fact having become known, impressed all with a belief that some sad spectacles would be witnessed before the day was over. Crowds gathered near the sheltered beach and harbour to gaze upon the wildness of the sea, though the blinding fall of snow made it impossible to peer far to seaward. Shortly after 7 o'clock the life-boat and rocket apparatus were got ready for any emergency.

It would be impossible for pen to do justice to the sad scenes of the day—many were heart-rending. Seamen perishing on all sides, within sight and hearing of pitying crowds who were powerless to save them. The fury of the storm seemed to burst principally over Bridlington Bay, and the sea in that bay, so very beautiful in its placid serenity on a calm summers' day, was lashed into fury and became terribly appalling.

The first vessel in distress was a south country barge—she failed to make the harbour, and drove near the sea wall which fronts the Esplanade, where were assembled crowds very different from those who promenade there in the summer season. The crew of the vessel took to the rigging as the sea broke heavily over them. The rocket apparatus, in the hands of five skilled coastguardsmen, made an ineffectual attempt to rescue the drowning men, and then one of the life-boats put out, and safely brought the crew to land. The scene was harrowing and heart-rending in the extreme.
About 10 o'clock, five vessels ran for the beach, on the north side of the harbour, all of which came on shore near the Spa wall. The excitement which now prevailed was intense and almost indescribable—vessel after vessel, powerless against the wind, was driven on shore, the crews in a perishing condition. A cry ran along the pier and sea wall—"the life-boats!" The life-boats, with their crews in them, were shortly on their way to the wrecked vessels, amid the cheers and encouragement of the bystanders on shore.

Surely the following lines, written by a sailor on the coast of Sussex in a gale of wind, were applicable to this heart-rending scene, and to these acts of bravery by the life-boat crews:

Hark, the beachy shore resounding,
Angry waves the cliffs o'flow;
See yon ship—her crew is drowning,
Perils in the tempest blow.
Life-boat! Life-boat! brave the billows,
Mothers cry, "Our children save:"
Bear a hand, my hearty fellows,
Save them from a watery grave.
See her spars and canvas riven,
Pumps are choked—all hope is past!
Noble tars look up to heaven,
God can hear and help at last.
See the life-boat onward urges,
Pull, my hearties, pull away!
Blessings on you—cut the surges—
Grasp the sailor in the spray.


The two life-boats lost no time in putting out, and after great and praiseworthy efforts on the part of the life-boatmen, the five crews were brought ashore; the small life-boat was instrumental in saving three crews comprising about twenty men, and the other boat two crews. A smack belonging to Colchester afterwards stranded at Sewerby, but went well up the beach, and her crew walked ashore when the tide ebbed. Near to her a collier brig (laden) struck and smashed her bottom; her cargo slipped out, and the shattered hull drove up the beach; the crew took to their own boat to endeavour to get to the shore, the coastguards went up to their armpits in water and grasped the drowning men in the boat, and brought them safely to the land amidst the cheers of the spectators who thronged the beach

There were two life-boats at Bridlington Quay—the "National Society's" boat, and a small private boat presented by Count Batthyany. It was gratifying and yet affecting to see the poor fellows landed from the wrecks, in some instances bringing with them bags of clothes drenched through and through with salt water. As the men stepped out of the life-boats on the beach, they were met by men, women and children, who warmly greeted them on their narrow escape from death—some of the noble women assisted the men to carry their bags from the beach of a place of shelter, where they received the hospitality and kindness of the inhabitants.

About noon the crews of the boats were greatly exhausted, and much work remained to be done, for numerous vessels were in difficulties, while others threatened every moment to be placed in imminent peril. One poor fellow in Count Batthyany's boat was so much exhausted that it was feared he would die, and he had to be conveyed home; his place was soon supplied, however, by D[avid] Purdon, the builder of the boat.

The small boat proceeded to a brig which was stranded on the south beach, and the crew managed to land their shivering brethren amidst the applause of the hundreds of spectators. It was then observed that a brig—the Delta of Whitby—was on shore to the south of the harbour; four of her crew launched a boat, and attempted to reach the shore, but unhappily it was swamped by a terrific billow, and all the poor fellows met with a watery grave.

Upon examination, however, it was discovered that one single individual, the Captain, was yet clinging to the doomed vessel, and the crew of the life-boat determined, if within the scope of human power, to save the solitary mariner. Alas! that we should have to say this noble crew attempted too much. The little boat, propelled by its daring band, sped on past the pier to the southward, alternatively rising on the crest of a mighty swelling wave, and then sinking deep down into the abyss of the greedy ocean; at length they reached the stern of the vessel in safety, where the poor fellow was hanging to the chains. Each heart in the bosoms of the on-lookers beat fast, and many a fervent prayer was offered up for the safe execution of the difficult but noble task. Having got the boat up close under the stern of the vessel, Robinson, the coxswain, told the man to watch, and, directly after the next had passed, to drop into the boat. That next wave was the last for many of them. Rising with terrific force it pitched the boat high up, and then plunged it down end foremost into the boiling waters. And thus all these brave fellows who had risked so much to save the life of their fellow-men, were in a moment struggling for their own: the boat speedily righted, and three of her crew clung to the ropes at her sides.

Happily the succeeding wave to the one which had wreaked such destruction washed the three into the boat again, but the remaining six of the nine who had so recently left the shore full of life and hope, were consigned to the depths of the raging sea with sight of their relatives and friends—nay, within view of their home; the three who had got into the boat again managed to bring her ashore and were saved.

The names of those lost were: Purdon, and a young man named [John] Clappison, in his employ, William Cobb, R[ichard] Atkin, J[ames] Watson, and R[obert] Pickering. The three saved were: J[ohn] Robinson, R[obert] Hopper, and R[ichard] Bedlington. Of course the poor fellow on the brig was also lost. The six who perished were well known and highly respected in Bridlington Quay, and their melancholy death under such painful circumstances, naturally cast a deep gloom over the quiet town, and carried sorrow and distress to many a happy home.

The men who were at work on the pier and sea wall endeavouring to save life were in a great measure dispirited by what had now happened. It was, however, absolutely necessary to do everything that was possible to save other men from sharing the same fate, as several other vessels were on shore, and the crews perishing. In the afternoon, the Vivid, Captain Vary, which left Scarbro' on Thursday afternoon, in attempting to enter the harbour, drifted to the south, and was run ashore—the crew being saved by the life-boat. Captain Vary, who, singular to relate, had sailed without mishap for upwards of thirty years, met with a disaster during this fearful gale, which, he says, exceeded in violence any during his experience.

In the afternoon, a brig, afterwards ascertained to be the Produce, of Folkestone, struck close to the north side of the pier—indeed within about thirty yards of it. Her boat was lowered, and two of her crew at once got in, but it was swamped before leaving the vessel's side, and its occupants pitching into the sea—one of them immediately sank to rise no more, but the other one swam manfully round the outer end of the pier, witnessed by crowds, who, although almost within arm's reach, could render him no assistance. After bravely breasting the waves for some time, he succumbed to the insuperable power of the elements, while those on shore were almost frantic at their helpless position. The other four men comprising the crew made for the rigging, where their piteous appeals for that help that never came were heart-rending to hear.

The rocket apparatus was brought on to the pier, and several shots were fired without avail. The men could be distinctly seen on the deck and in the rigging, looking out wistfully for some means to save them from drowning, the sea frequently making a complete breach over the vessel and the poor fellows as they showed their signals of distress; and for three mortal, terrible, heart-searching hours did those four human beings frantically appeal and stretch out their benumbed hands to those standing in safety within a few trifling yards of them. God spare us such another sight.

About 4 o'clock, as the tide rose, the vessel began violently to reel to and fro, and with one terrible lurch towards the shore she turned over, and those eyes which had strained so yearningly towards that land which they were never to reach had become closed in death. (The figure head of this vessel is publicly placed near the dwelling of Captain Burkinshaw, at Hilderthorpe.)

But the work of destruction and the loss of human life were not yet finished. About 5 o'clock, a man was seen on the fore yard of a schooner near the pier, with a light as the last signal for help to those who could render him no assistance. The piercing cries of the drowning crews were frequently heard amidst the howling of the storm, and on the darkness which had now set in. Women and children shrieked; men strong and stalwart wept; others sighed, some were speechless, and many prayed as the rocket line from the sea wall was fired towards the ships; brave women grasped the line to assist to pull it in, to be again sent out, to save, if possible, the drowning men. One poor fellow was seen in the water, by the gas lights, on a piece of wreck, but no help could be rendered to him, and he, with the remainder of the crews, succumbed about 7.30pm—the waves were their winding sheet, and the sea-shore their temporary grave.

Deep anxiety was depicted on every countenance of that vast multitude as they stood upon the sea wall. There was an entire absence of distinction of rank, and political or religious differences; every one was anxious to rescue the men in danger. There was no question of sect or party in that vast crowd; but there was in feeling, in wish, in effort, the manifestation of the brotherhood of man. One touch of nature makes the world a-kin.

During the long dreary night the revolving beacon on Flambro' Head cast forth its flickering light. The following lines briefly describe its use to the mariner:

Brightly from the beacon streaming,
Comes a light across the sea;
Through the darkness ever gleaming,
Warning sailors constantly,
Lest they here might find their graves
Underneath the treacherous waves.
Light of mercy! still shine brightly,
Guiding vessels on their way;
May thy rays direct them rightly,
Safe into the welcome bay;
From all fear of danger free,
Riding in security.

Far out at sea, during the night, signals of distress were seen; and it is believed that two vessels, at least, went down near Flambro' Head. That night was one of the most dreadful which has ever been known on the north-east coast of England. It is impossible to state how many vessels were really lost, and lives sacrificed.

The large number of rescued seamen were well cared for, and were accommodated at the different hotels in the town.

The scene in the quiet streets of Bridlington Quay was almost as drear as that on the beach, filled as they were by groups of poor sailors who had lost their all, and who were making their way to the station, about to be forwarded to their homes by the Shipwrecked Mariners' Society, whose agent, Mr J. W. Postill, is deserving of commendation for his kindness and energy in despatching them.
Shortly after 9 o'clock the brig I.M.O.D., Captain Dobson, of Hartlepool, coal laden, from Hartlepool to London, came into the harbour with loss of cookhouse, boats, galley, chain plates, etc., and struck ground just between the piers; her decks had been swept by the sea, and the men were at the pumps.

During Friday night, many persons never left the pier or the beach. As the tide went down and the storm abated and as the grey streaks of light began to indicate the approaching day—the beach presented an harrowing spectacle, not soon to be forgotten. Parts of ships' hulls, entangled spars, beams, sails, wood, coals, anchors, chains, ropes, etc. What a stern reality it was, and how painfully it told of the dread work which had been done.

Close to the pier were the bottoms and ribs of two or three vessels, but of what build it is impossible to say. A little further on was the Vivid, of Scarbro', lying upon her side, not apparently much the worse; next were the remains of a schooner, with her afterpart gone, and having the name Margaret painted on her yards; it was afterwards ascertained to be the Margaret, of Ipswich, Captain and owner, William Howard—four of the crew of this vessel were taken off by the life-boat, but the Captain and a sailor, named William Mills, made for the ship's boat, and were drowned.
Further on, beyond the Margaret, were a brig and a schooner, and so we might continue the mournful list.

Along the beach were scattered boats stove in, heaps of spars, sails and tackle, while here and there was a sou'wester, a boot, a torn chart, a solitary oar—probably last wielded by one pulling for dear life itself—all of which were calculated to raise up deep and sad reflections in the breast of the gayest, as one thought of the short period—but a few hours—which had elapsed since their owners were in health and strength.

The wrecks on the north side of the pier were almost as numerous as on the opposite side. As most of the vessels were colliers, immense quantities of coal were washed ashore, and the poorer inhabitants were zealously at work gathering them up.

During Friday night, six men had been washed ashore amongst the fragments of wreck. They were discovered and conveyed to an inn (or a coach-house provided for that special purpose), where their clothes were taken off, and they were carefully and delicately washed and laid side by side, preparatory to being put into their coffins. During Saturday, seven others were found, and by Sunday evening nineteen men and youths were laid side by side still in death.

The following is a list of the vessels which were lost or stranded, with particulars, as far as could be ascertained, from the various crews—Vessels wrecked, all hands saved—South country barge, with three hands; fishing yawl, belonging to Scarbro', six; Spinney, of Shields, six; Agility, of Shields, six; Echo, of Shields, six; Bedside*, of Shields, four; Windsor, of Shields, six; Yare, of Lynn, five; Worthy, of Lynn, seven; Peri, of Lynn, five; Friends' Increase, of London, five; Squirrel, of Whitby, four; Rebecca and Elizabeth, of Lowestoft, six; Urina, of Worcester, five; Vivid, of Scarbro', four.
Margaret, of Ipswich, master and one hand drowned, four saved; William Maitland, of Whitby, only Captain saved (by his life-belt); Caroline, of Yarmouth, Captain and Mate saved, the remainder lost; Arrow, of Sunderland, three hands drowned, two killed by the falling of the mast when the vessel struck, the Mate died on shore, three saved; Produce, of Lowestoft, all hands drowned; Delta, of Whitby, all hands drowned; Lavinia, of Seaham, all hands drowned; Endeavour, of Seaham, all hands drowned. Several other ships it is supposed went down at sea with all on board.

At Bridlington Quay, on the 1st of April, there were 28 letters of enquiry for missing men and youths, who no doubt had been

        Bewilder'd in the dead of night,
        Upon a dangerous shore;
        Not knowing where to steer aright,
        Hand sunk to rise no more.

News of the wrecks in Bridlington Bay was sent by telegram to various parts of the coast; and during Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, many strangers arrived in town, some being the relatives of the deceased. This led to identification of many of the men, but a large number were not identified.
The Coastguard men, under Tyrrell, the chief boatman, were indefatigable in their exertions from 8.30am until night on Friday. During the day two of them rushed into the surf to catch a boat, and just got hold of it as the last poor fellow in it was washed out—their names were Gandon and Bishop. Mr Tyrrell gallantly got on board a vessel, and went up to the foretop to rescue a poor fellow, but found him frozen to death, and in descending, the deck had been stove in, and he fell into the hold, and thus sustained severe personal injuries.

One of the bodies found was identified as James Watson, one of the life-boat crew. He had been three or four times in the little boat, and had missed only one voyage in the series she went through. He had gone home to put on some dry clothes, and had no sooner done this than he was back at his post. He has left a widow to mourn his loss. Atkinson and Pickering were also married men, and have left several children. Clappison and Cobb were unmarried. Cobb had just finished an apprenticeship at sea, and was on a visit to his parents at Bridlington.

Nothing has been found to give a clue to the names of the four unknown vessels, broken up or foundered. A wheel cover, bearing the words "Harmonia, of Hamburg," was washed ashore, but it is supposed to have been swept off the deck of some steamer. Amongst the articles picked up from the beach was a piece of wood, probably broken off the forecastle of one of the ill-fated vessels, and on which were boldly and beautifully carved the words "Swear not at all." Immense crowds of people were brought by rail from the various towns, and stayed over-night; numbers kept moving about on the sands, and in the evening the platform at the station was crowded with strangers as they waited for the late trains.

An inquest was held on Saturday night on the eleven bodies recovered during the day from the south side—all being strangers except Purdon. An adjourned inquest was held the Monday following before Mr J. M. Jennings, coroner, upon twelve bodies, viz.: ten strangers, and James Watson and R. Atkin, life-boatmen. G. Richardson, Esq., Chief Lord, was the foreman of the jury. The last body recovered had on it a medal, marked S.M.S., No. 13,884. Police Constable Wallington stated that he found two bodies at Auburn—both young men from 20 to 25. A Society's medal was on the eldest, No. 29,008; on the other, a paper, Frimebury, Kent, written on it. On one of the bodies found at Fraisthorpe was a solid gold ring, and a pocket-book containing four sovereigns: this property was taken charge of by Mr T. Rounding. One of the bodies was eventually identified as Anthony Hindson, of Seaham. William Court, of Folkestone, identified the body of Captain Flisher, 44 years, master of the Produce, of Folkestone. The witness had a brother who was mate on board the same vessel, but could not identify him as being one of the bodies found. After hearing the evidence, the jury returned a verdict on the ten strangers of "found drowned." In the case of Watson and Atkin, the following verdict was returned: "Deceased sacrificed their lives in attempting to save a shipwrecked crew."

* Also referred to as Bebside. See Richard Jones' book The Great Gale.