The Terrors of the 18th-century German Ocean

Old Photograph Herring Fishing Fleet Anstruther East Neuk Of Fife Scotland

The Herring Fleet setting out from Scotland

Our correspondent at Corton has favoured us with the following melancholy account of the damage the shipping sustained by the high winds, on Tuesday and Wednesday last, near that place: ­­ The Millbank, of Lynn, John RITETRIE, master, to the westward, with wheat, said to be totally lost; crew all saved. ­­ The Anstruther, of Dunbar, Robert TAYLOR, master, in ballast, from London to Lynn; crew saved, and it is thought the ship will [be]. ­­ The Francis, of Yarmouth, a Hull trader; all saved, and the ship likely to be so. ­­ The John and Betsey, of Burnham, Robert HOOKE, master, from London, in ballast; crew saved, and it is supposed the ship will. ­­ A large light brig, from Sunderland, name unknown; ship quite spoiled, but the crew saved. ­­ The Unity, of Burlington, John ESARD, master, to London, with cord; ship, master, and three men lost, one man and one boy saved. ­­ A large Swedish ship lost on the Newtop; the crew, consisting of 22, saved by a boat from Yarmouth, at the most imminent hazard. ­­ The Sophia Magdalen, Jacob AKERMAN, master, bound to Newcastle, for coals for Lisbon, went on shore on Thursday morning last. The five first mentioned ships are all on shore between Yarmouth Piers and Corton. ­­ The Unity went ashore on Thursday morning on Lowestoft Beach.

The Norfolk Chronicle, March 1782

Shipwrecks represent a national nightmare we have forgotten. A constant toll of lives and wrecked families upon which Britain’s eighteenth-century prosperity depended. In the North Sea alone, then called the German Ocean, hundreds of sailing ships were lost every year and thousands of men, and sometimes women and children, drowned.

The eighteenth-century North Sea was thronged with small, wooden-hulled sailing ships. Few carried more than eighty to one hundred tons of freight; many were simple fishing smacks and coastal barges. All were at the mercy of tide, wind and waves, in a shallow sea filled with hidden reefs and sandbanks.

Norfolk’s Shores could be a Killing Ground

The bulk of this maritime traffic sailed north and south, trying to stay close enough to land to navigate with ease and run for shelter if things turned nasty. The east coast of England and Scotland are ‘lee shores’ — coastlines to which the prevailing wind and the tides are likely to drag you. With only sails to provide motive power, the only way to try to keep your ship away from being driven ashore in an easterly gale was to throw out anchors and try to hold yourself in one place out to sea. If the anchor cables broke, or the anchors dragged in the sandy bottom, even these frail safety features could not save you.

Nor are there any safe havens to run to between Harwich and the Humber. Norfolk rivers are generally too small to provide wide, deep estuaries. Nearly all of them face east, directly into the most feared wind direction. Many are hemmed in by sandbanks and reefs. The bulk of the shoreline consists of shingle, backed by marshes, here and there relieved by low cliffs. If a storm produced a major tidal surge — and many did in such turbulent and shallow waters — your ship would be driven onto the sandbanks or smashed again the shore.

Those Most at Risk

Colliers and fishing vessels, especially the annual herring fleet, faced the greatest dangers. Coal was too heavy and bulky to transport far over the terrible roads of the time. The North Sea is — or was — rich in fish, especially herring, which migrate there annually to spawn.

The huge estuary called The Wash was the most dangerous part of the coast. It’s another lee shore, only this time a yawning dead-end. Getting in was easy. Getting out again next to impossible. It’s also shallow, riddled with sandbanks and prone to violent tides. Yet every ship bringing coal to London from the mines of Yorkshire and the north-east had to pass its gaping maw. The much feared easterly gale, blowing directly into the mouth of The Wash, might leave scores of colliers wrecked in a single night. For a time, sailings were suspended during the dangerous winter months. But such was London’s insatiable demand for coal that, towards the latter part of the century, the ships sailed throughout the year, regardless of the danger.

The herring fleet, consisting of hundreds of smacks and other small fishing vessels, set out each year from the north of Scotland and followed the herrings south. Along the way, they put in at various ports, where the fisherman’s wives would set themselves up on the shore to gut and salt the herrings as they were brought in. Great Yarmouth was the final port on their journey. They would arrive there in autumn, right at the end of the season. Once they had finished with that final catch, the entire flotilla sailed home again, only to set out the next year. All kinds of fishing vessels were at risk from the North Sea’s unpredictable weather, but the addition of the huge herring fleet would add to the slaughter if storms arose without warning.

Counting the Cost

Nowadays, a single shipwreck makes global headlines. On one night in the 1760s, more than 140 ships were reported lost off the coast of Norfolk alone. Small they might be, but such a toll added up to hundreds of sailors drowned or crippled. At a time when the population was much smaller than today, and there was nothing to provide an income to their widows and children, it is hard to imagine what this constant culling of working men did to the small local communities. Most sailors never learned to swim, since the ability would only prolong the agony before you drowned. The waters of the North sea are cold at all times and frigid in winter. Once in the water, even clinging to some wreckage, you would not last long before exposure loosened your grip and you went down to your death. Best to get it over with quickly. Even ships wrecked close to shore often lost all or most of their sailors, despite the efforts on those on shore to make a rescue. With only muscle-power, ropes and flimsy open boats, potential rescuers were all too often reduced to standing on the shore and watching those who had been wrecked giving in to the sea.


About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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