Ramsgate Lifeboat
Marconi's apparatus at the South Foreland Lighthouse
Photo Marconi Corporation plc.

This passage first appeared in the book 'Marconi Centenaries in 1999' published by GEC
and is reproduced by kind permission of the Marconi Corporation plc.
(plus sevice reports from the RNLI)
Setting the Scene
By the last years of the 19th Century the Corporation of Trinity House had long needed some system of signalling with their off-shore establishments, Two methods had been tried and found lacking. The first was by cable connections but these were under a constant strain when the lightships were anchored in open sea and frequently came into contact with the hawsers of the vessels. The second was the Post Office inductive system and this also proved unsatisfactory. So seeing an opportunity Marconi's Company offered ship-to-shore demonstrations by wireless telegraphy. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House accepted this offer and selected to link, for a trial period, the twelve miles between the South Foreland Lighthouse and the East Goodwin Lightship.

The installations were completed in December 1898 and two-way communications established on Christmas Eve. George Kemp, Marconi's assistant, who was operating the East Goodwin Station, recalls in his diary some of the messages he sent for onward transmission by telegraph. For instance he sent compliments of the season to all the editors of the leading newspapers and to all friends and relations of the lightship's crew and the Wireless Telegraph staff.
The First Use of Wireless as an Aid to Ship in Distress
On Saturday the 11th March, 1899, the first practical use of this link between the East Goodwin Lightship and the South Foreland Lighthouse was made. The occasion was a ship going aground. The three masted sailing ship 'Elbe' was laden with slates from Nantes and returning to its home port of Hamburg. It went ashore on the Goodwin Sands at 2 in the morning, a thick fog prevailing at the time. The South Goodwin Lightship fired signals. It often happened that when the wind was blowing off-shore the signal guns of the lightships could not be heard on land. However, in this case the signals were heard by the East Goodwin Lightship. It communicated by wireless telegraphy to the South Foreland Lighthouse and from there telegraphic messages were sent to the authorities. The lifeboats at Ramsgate, Deal, and Kingsdown were not launched but they were all standing by. As it happened the 'Elbe' was able to re-float eight hours later with the assistance of boatmen and with the tug 'Shamrock' in attendance. But it was the first occasion in the history of the world in which lifeboats had been alerted by the means of wireless.
George Kemp's Letter
Photo Marconi Corporation plc.
RNLI Service Report

11/03/1899 - 6.15am SW calm, misty, guns were fired from the Gull. The lifeboat went out and cruised along the edge of the Goodwin Sands but could see nothing : she returned to Harbour at 11.15am.

By a strange coincidence the East Goodwin Lightship was itself involved in a collision at sea with a steamer, 'R.E. Matthews', 1964 tons, of London, sailing from the Tyne with coal for Genoa. It happened shortly after the 'Elbe' incident on the 28th April 1899 and use of wireless helped to avert a situation that might have involved the loss of life.

Although a lightship is moored it is still capable of some movement as its cables allow it some change of position if the rudder is used. On the day in question there was very dense fog in the Channel. The evidence is that the approach of the steamer was noticed, the helm was put down and the lightship was swung by the tide. Even so she was struck and sustained some damage. Using the wireless telegraphy from the lightship to the shore, Capt. Clayson, the master of the lightship, later described the incident to a reporter:

"We number seven hands all told. Fortunately none of us were hurt, but we all had a very severe shaking. There was a very dense fog when the collision occurred, and we had a very narrow escape from being cut in two, as the vessel nearly caught us broadside on. We had just time to put our helm down, and let the tide swing the ship a bit: otherwise the steamer must have run right through us. As it was, she gave us a violent glancing blow across the bows. Our stem is completely smashed down to the water line, and the covering boards and plank-ends on each side of the stem are started (damaged). The ship hung to us, and our vessel scraped along one side of the steamer, giving us a severe grinding, and carrying away our upper works and plating above water. The ship is very badly damaged, and but for the fact that the sea was calm and has remained calm since, we could not have kept afloat. The steamer remained alongside to see if we required assistance, and subsequently proceeded down the Channel, having sustained damage herself. Before the steamer left we told the captain we had telegraphed to the South Foreland, and they had promised to send aid if we required it. The cause of the vessel running into us was that she did not make sufficient allowance for the tide, which was running very strong at the time. The lightship is so badly damaged that she must be replaced, and we are waiting for the Trinity boat Warden, which is on her way up Channel from Beachy Head, with the superintendent on board. She is to bring with her another lightship to replace us, and tow us back."
East Goodwin Lightship
Photo Marconi Corporation plc.
The Marconi aerial can be seen suspended from the spar at the masthead.

Capt. Clayson was asked if he had had any difficulty in getting communication with the South Foreland Lighthouse after the accident happened. He replied:

"I had not the slightest trouble. The collision occurred at half past eight. I called the South Foreland up about two minutes after the steamer got clear of us, and while she was still standing by: and I got the reply immediately from Mr Bullocke, to whom I telegraphed briefly the particulars of the collision."

Mr Bullocke, Marconi's assistant, was on the premises at South Foreland Lighthouse when he heard the alarm bell ringing. He realised it was the lightship communicating and later reported that he had received the following message:

"We have just been run into by the steamer 'R.F. Matthews', of London. Steamship is standing by us. Our bows are very badly damaged."

The newspaper accounts reported that he immediately transmitted the message to the Trinity House authorities at Ramsgate and it was further arranged that if the lightship required immediate assistance the lighthouse people would telephone to Ramsgate, Deal, and Kingsdown for the lifeboats to be sent out.

It is strange that despite a verbatim account by the Captain, reported in many newspapers. Trinity House stated a few days later that the collision with the steamer had only caused slight damage. The truth of what actually happened can never be finally resolved as the definitive papers were destroyed in the blitz, Although the lifeboats were not needed, the wireless link with the shore had enabled the Trinity House rescue ship to set out much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.
Ramsgate Lifeboat "Bradford" 1893-1905
Photo East Kent Maritime Trust

The significance and immense importance of what happened did not escape the people involved at the time. Here was a system that enabled a vessel in distress to communicate with the shore. At that time messages could only cover a short distance but as a naval correspondent then wrote about the future of wireless in 'The Morning Post',

"its potentialities are infinite, but in regard to long distances it still remains to translate these potentialities into definite facts." They soon would be.
 
My thanks go to Marconi Corporation plc, for allowing me to use this material.
 
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