It seems many people have almost forgotten about the beachmen of East Anglia and the companies they formed, yet for more than a hundred years in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they were a common feature of most seafaring communities.
These groups of local sailors and fishermen did important and often dangerous work, through which they saved many hundreds of lives. All were volunteers, though it’s fair to add that the work could be fairly profitable. Money obtained from salvage rights or from ships’ masters paying to avoid a wreck — even from individual passengers wishing to make sure of being rescued — was shared out among the members of the company. That included those who stayed ashore, helping to launch and recover the boats or get survivors ashore to allow a boat to return to a ship in distress.
Today, any signs that remain of this important part of our maritime past are often attributed to other, better known groups or ignored altogether. If you go to Aldeburgh in Suffolk, for example you will see two, separate watch-towers built by rival companies, for it was an intensely competitive business and ships’ masters often tried to negotiate the best deal before agreeing to be rescued.
A Dangerous Coastline
We have to start with geography and trade. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, roads were primitive and the canals and railways only at their beginning. Transporting goods meant using either slow, ponderous wagons or lines of packhorses. As a result, the bulk of heavy items were carried by thousands of small, wooden sailing ships plying their trade all around our coasts.
These coastal vessels were specially constructed for the purpose. They were small, to allow entry to the greatest number of harbours, and many were flat-bottomed, so they could be beached for loading and unloading in places where no harbour existed. In Cromer, for example, coal ships were grounded on the beach as the tide ebbed, the desired amount of coal was unloaded, and the ship reflected on the next tide.
East Anglia’s coasts are edged by a complex pattern of sands and shoals, which make safe navigation a challenge even today. These are seas with strong currents and tides, prone to terrific winter gales, often easterlies blowing onshore, and consequent storm surges. For ships sailing north or south, it is one long lee shore, broken only by the vast estuary we know as The Wash. That too is a major shipping hazard. If a sailing ship was driven into The Wash on an easterly gale, there was no way out. It’s also a mass of shifting sand banks and shoals. The only hope was to drop anchor and hope the anchor cables would hold until the storm died down and the ship could be worked out to sea again. All too often, they did not.
The east coast was also especially busy with ships carrying coal from Newcastle, timber and iron from Scandinavia and the Baltic, and manufactured goods to and from almost everywhere — especially London. Such a combination of busy sea-lanes and treacherous conditions inevitably produced a steady procession of wrecks: some from mistakes made by captains and crews, some from poorly maintained vessels, and some from the sheer force of the wind and the waves. When gales blew at storm or hurricane force, visibility was zero and the seas a confused tumult of towering waves, it little wonder scores of vessels ran aground on the shoals, their sails shredded, their masts broken and the water pouring in faster than any pumps could clear it.
In November 1807, 144 bodies were washed ashore along the coast after a single gale. In 1836 it was reported that 23 vessels had been driven onto Yarmouth beach in one November storm. If your vessel was taking on water, or had lost its sails, dragged its anchors or developed a dangerous list from a shifted cargo, you had little option but to try to put the ship ashore wherever you could.
Into this mix of profit and danger came the beachmen. The North Sea fisheries were mostly seasonal. Herring was the main catch, taken from small drifters, but that was almost entirely in the hands of Scottish crews. Each autumn the fish migrated southwards to feed off the sandbanks and shoals that trapped so many ships. The Scottish boats followed the herring southwards as far a Great Yarmouth, where the season ended.
Local fisheries were generally small, with boats heading out into the North sea in search of cod, haddock and turbot, or staying close to shore and putting down pots for crabs and lobsters. None of this work was likely to produce a large profit, so local men needed additional work to supplement their income. They found it in serving the needs of passing commercial shipping. They took out stores or pilots, acted as pilots themselves, searched for the lost anchors lost in every gale and helped tired crews work their ships against the weather and tides.
Naturally, they also took advantage of the salvage opportunities produced by every storm. This was heavy work, unsuitable for individuals or very small groups, so the beach companies arose to allow larger groups of locals to combine for the salvage of ships and cargoes. Tough, resourceful men saw an opportunity and took it. During their heyday, they provided an essential service to a vital transport network. They may have looked to make money through their actions, but they were also first and foremost seafarers. They were not going to stay safe ashore when their fellow seafarers were being wrecked and drowned — not if they could do something to try to save them.
Like today’s volunteer lifeboatmen, the beach companies went out in the most dreadful conditions and risked their lives to save others. Instances did occur when the lack of a chance of profit caused some beachmen to hang back, but they were rare. Besides, communication between ship and shore was so primitive then beach companies usually had to send a boat out first to a ship in trouble to know whether anything could be salvaged, or whether they could only seek to take off those still alive … which more than once included the ship’s cat!
The End of the Beach Companies
From the middle part of the nineteenth century onwards, a slow collapse of both the herring fishery and the local fisheries through over-fishing left insufficient skilled seamen with knowledge of local conditions to supply the beach companies (or even the lifeboats) with crews. As cargo ships grew larger, salvage opportunities for the beachmen in their wooden yawls fell away. Companies amalgamated to make the best of limited manpower, but nothing could help them compete with harbour and railway companies with deep pockets and steam tugs with time on their hands. Some beach companies even turned to giving pleasure trips to the growing numbers of holidaymakers, but the end was in sight. The last yawls were built at the very start of the twentieth century and the last beach company was wound up in the late 1920s.
The beachmen played an important part in the modest beginnings of today’s salvage business, helping to save many valuable ships and cargoes. Life-saving boats and crews didn’t begin with the establishment of volunteer-funded lifeboat organisations like the RNLI. For more than a century, the beach companies either supplied a lifeboat service in the many places where no voluntary one existed, or supplemented those that did. They surely deserve to be remembered for their bravery and achievements, as well as the important part they played in sustaining national trade.
The next time you put your hand in your pocket to support your local lifeboat, or spend a summer day on an east coast beach, remember those in Georgian and Victorian who risked all to save ships and souls in the worst of sea and weather conditions, relying on little beyond their own skill and muscles.
In the second article in this short series, I’ll explore Georgian and Regency beach company organisation in East Anglia in greater detail.