Wreck of the Indian Chief
Wreck of the Indian Chief
Painting by Tim Thompson
Noble survive of the "Bradford" Life-Boat.
This article first appeared in the RNLI Lifeboat Journal of February 1st 1881
and is reproduced by kind permission of the RNLI.
The accompanying graphic accounts of the wreck of the Indian Chief, and of the noble rescue of a portion of her crew by the Bradford self-righting Life-boat, stationed at Ramsgate, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on the 11th and 18th Jan., as related by the Mate of the Vessel and the Coxswain of the Life-boat. The Life-boats of the NATIONAL LIFE-BOAT INSTITUTION stationed at Aldborough (Suffolk), Clacton and Harwich (Essex), also proceeded to the scene of danger, but unfortunately were unable to reach the wreck. Happily the Bradford Life-boat persevered, amidst difficulties, hardships, and dangers hardly ever surpassed in the Life-boat service; but her reward was indeed great in saving eleven of our fellow-creatures, who must have succumbed, as their mates had a few hours previously, to their terrible exposure in bitterly cold weather for nearly thirty hours.
Indeed, Captain BRAINE, the zealous Ramsgate harbour-master, states in an official letter of the 8th January, in reference to this noble service, that-
"Of all the meritorious services performed by the Ramsgate Tug and Life-boat, I consider this one of the best. The decision the coxswain and crew arrived at to remain till daylight, which was in effect to continue for fourteen hours cruising about with the sea continually breaking over them in a heavy gale and tremendous sea, proves, I consider, their gallantry and determination to do their duty.
"The coxswain and crew of the Life-boat speak in the highest terms of her good qualities; they state that when sailing across the Long Sand,' after leaving the wreck, the seas were tremendous, and the boat behaved most admirably. Some of the shipwrecked crew have since stated that they were fearful, on seeing the frightful looking seas they were passing through, that they were in more danger in the Life-boat than when lashed to the mast of their sunken ship, as they thought it impossible for any boat to live through such a sea."
The following are the newspaper accounts of a Life-boat service that will always be memorable in the annals of the services of the Life-boats of the NATIONAL LIFE-BOAT INSTITUTION; and many such services reflect honour alike on the humanity of the age in which we live, and on the organisation and liberality which have prompted and called them into existence.
"On the afternoon of Thursday, the 6th Jan., I made one of a great crowd assembled on the Ramsgate east pier to witness the arrival of the survivors of the crew of a large ship which had gone ashore on the Long Sand early on the preceding Wednesday morning. A heavy gale had been blowing for two days from the north and east; it had moderated somewhat at noon, but still stormed fiercely over the surging waters, though a brilliant blue sky arched overhead and a sun shone that made the sea a dazzling surface of broken silver all away in the south and west. Plunging bows under as she came along, the steamer towed the Life-boat through a haze of spray; but amid this veil of foam, the flags of the two vessels denoting that shipwrecked men were in the boat streamed like well-understood words from the mastheads. The people crowded thickly about the landing-steps when the Life- boat entered the harbour. Whispers flew from mouth to mouth. Some said the rescued men were Frenchmen, others that they were Danes, but all were agreed that there was a dead body among them. One by one the survivors came along the pier, the most dismal procession it was ever my lot to behold-eleven live but scarcely living men, most of them clad in oilskins, and walking with bowed backs, drooping heads and nerveless arms, There was blood on the faces of some, circled with a white encrustation of salt, and this same salt filled the hollows of their eyes and streaked their hair with lines which looked like snow. The first man, who was the chief mate, walked heavily on the arm of the kindly-hearted harbourmaster, Captain Braine. The second man, whose collar-bone was broken, moved as one might suppose a galvanised corpse would. A third man's wan face wore a forced smile, which only seemed to light up the piteous, underlying expression of the features. They were all saturated with brine; they were soaked with sea water to the very marrow of the bones. Shivering, and with a stupefied rolling of the eyes, their teeth clenched, their chilled fingers pressed into the palms of their hands, they passed out of sight. As the last man came I held my breath; he was alive when taken from the wreck, but had died in the boat. Four men bore him on their shoulders, and a flag flung over the face mercifully concealed what was most shocking of the dreadful sight; but they had removed his boots and socks to chafe his feet before he died, and had slipped a pair of mittens over the toes, which left the ankles naked. 'This was the body of Howard Primrose Fraser, the second mate of the lost ship, and her drowned Captain's brother. I had often met men newly rescued from shipwreck, but never remember having beheld more mental anguish and physical suffering than was expressed in the countenances and movements of these eleven sailors. Their story as told to me is a striking and memorable illustration of endurance and hardship on the one hand, and of the finest heroical humanity on the other, in every sense worthy to be known to the British public. I got the whole narrative direct from the chief mate, Mr. William Meldrum Lloyd, and it shall be related here as nearly as possible in his own words.
Charles Fish and his Crew
Photo East Kent Maritime Trust
No. 1. - The Mates Account
"Our ship was the Indian Chief of 1,238 tons register; our skipper's name was Fraser, and we were bound, with a general cargo, to Yokohama. There were twenty-nine souls on board, counting the North-country pilot. We were four days out from Middlesborough, but it had been thick weather ever since the afternoon of the Sunday on which we sailed. All had gone well with us, however, so far, and on Wednesday morning, at half-past two, we made the Knock Light. You must know, sir, that hereabouts the water is just a network of shoals; for to the southward lies the Knock, and close over against it stretches the Long Sand, and beyond, down to the westward, is the Sunk Sand. Shortly after the Knock Light had hove in sight, the wind shifted to the eastward and brought a squall of rain. We were under all plain sail at the time, with the exception of the royals, which were furled, and the mainsail that hung in the buntlines. The Long Sand was to leeward, and finding that we were drifting that way the order was given to put the ship about. It was very dark, the wind breezing up sharper and sharper, and cold as death. The helm was put down, but the main braces fouled, and before they could be cleared the vessel had missed stays and was in irons. We then went to work to wear the ship, but there was much confusion, the vessel heeling over, and all of us knew that the Sands were close aboard. The ship paid off, but at a critical moment the spanker-boom sheet fouled the wheel; still, we managed to get the vessel round, but scarcely were the braces belayed and the ship on the starboard tack, when she struck the ground broadside on. She was a soft-wood built ship, and she trembled, sir, as though she would go to pieces at once like a pack of cards. Sheets and halliards were let go, but no man durst venture aloft. Every moment threatened to bring the spars crushing about us, and the thundering and beating of the canvas made the masts buckle and jump like fishing-rods. We then kindled a great flare and sent up rockets, and our signals were answered by the Sunk Lightship and the Knock. We could see one another's faces in the light of the big blaze, and sung out cheerily to keep our hearts up; and, indeed, sir, although we all knew that our ship was hard and fast and likely to leave her bones on that sand, we none of us reckoned upon dying. The sky had cleared, the easterly wind made the stars sharp and bright, and it was comforting to watch the lightships' rockets rushing up and bursting into smoke and the sparks over our heads, for they made us see that our position was known, and they were as good as an assurance that help would come along soon and; that we need not lose heart. But all this while the wind was gradually sweeping up into a gale- and oh, the cold, good Lord! the bitter cold of that wind!
"It seemed as long as a month before the morning broke, and just before the grey grew broad in the sky, one of the men yelled out something, and then came sprawling and splashing aft to tell us that he had caught sight of the sail of a Life-boat * dodging among the heavy seas. We rushed to the side to look, half-blinded by the flying spray and the wind, and clutching at whatever offered to our hands, and when at last we caught sight of the Life-boat we cheered, and the leaping of my heart made me feel sick and deathlike. As the dawn brightened we could see more plainly, and it was frightful to notice how the men looked at her, meeting the stinging spray borne upon the wind without a wink of the eye, that they might not lose sight of the boat, for an instant; the salt whitening their faces all the while like a layer of flour as they watched. She was a good distance away, and she stood on and off, on and off, never coming closer, and evidently shirking the huge seas which were now boiling around us. At last she hauled her sheet aft, put her helm over, and went away. One of our crew groaned, but no other man uttered a sound, and we returned to the shelter of the deckhouses.
"Though the gale was not at its height when the sun rose, it was not far from it. We plucked up spirits again when the sun shot out of the raging sea, but as we lay broadside on to waves, the sheets of flying water soon made the sloping decks a dangerous place for a man to stand on, and the crew and officers kept the shelter of the deck-cabins, though the captain and his brother and I were constantly going out to see if any help was coming. But now the flood was making, and this was a fresh and fearful danger, as we all knew, for at sunrise the water had been too low to knock the ship out of her sandy bed, but as the tide rose it lifted the vessel, bumping and straining her frightfully. The pilot advised the skipper to let go the starboard anchor, hoping that the set of the tide would slue the ship's stern round, and make her lie head on to the seas; so the anchor was dropped, but it did not alter the position of the ship. To know, sir, what the cracking and straining of that vessel was like, as bit by bit she slowly went to pieces, you must have been aboard of her. When she broke her back a sort of panic seized many of us, and the captain roared out to the men to get the boats over, and see if any use could be made of them. Three boats were launched, but the second boat, with two hands in her, went adrift, and was instantly engulphed, and the poor fellows in her vanished just as you might blow out a light. The other boats filled as soon as they touched the water. There was no help for us in that way, and again we withdrew to the cabins. A little before five o'clock in the afternoon a huge sea swept over the vessel, clearing the decks fore and aft, and leaving little but the uprights of the deck-houses standing. It was a dreadful sea, but we knew worse was behind it, and that we must climb the rigging if we wanted to prolong our lives. The hold was already full of water, and portions of the deck had been blown out, so that everywhere great yawning gulfs met the eye, with the black water washing almost flush. Some of the men made for the fore-rigging, but the captain shouted to all hands to take to the mizenmast, as that one, in his opinion, was the securest. A number of the men who were scrambling forward returned on hearing the captain sing out, but the rest held on and gained the foretop. Seventeen of us got over the mizentop, and with our knives fell to hacking away at such running gear as we could come at to serve as lashings. None of us touched the mainmast, for we all knew, now the ship had broken her back, that that spar was doomed, and the reason why the captain had called to the men to come aft was because he was afraid that when the mainmast went it would drag the foremast, that rocked in its step with every move, with it. I was next the captain in the mizentop, and near him was his brother, a stout-built, handsome young fellow, twenty-two years old, as fine a specimen of the English sailor as ever I was shipmate with. He was calling about him cheerfully, bidding us not be down-hearted, and telling us to look sharply around for the Life-boats. He helped several of the benumbed men to lash themselves, saying encouraging things to them as he made them fast. As the sun sank the wind grew more freezing, and I saw the strength of some of the men lashed over me leaving them fast. The captain shook hands with me and, on the chance of my being saved, gave me some messages to take home, too sacred to be written down, sir. He likewise handed me his watch and chain, and I put them in my pocket. The canvas streamed in ribbons from the yards, and the noise was like a continuous roll of thunder overhead. It was dreadful to look down and watch the decks ripping up, and notice how every sea that rolled over the wreck left less of her than it found.
Decorative Plaque from the Indian Chief
Photo East Kent Maritime Trust
"The moon went quickly away-it was a young moon with little power-but the white water and the starlight kept the night from being black, and the frame of the vessel stood out like a sketch done in ink every time the dark seas ran clear of her and left her visible upon the foam. There was no talking, no calling to one another, the men hung in the topmast rigging like corpses, and I noticed the second mate to windward of his brother in the top, sheltering him, as best he could, poor fellow, with his body from the wind that went through our skins like showers of arrows. On a sudden I took it into my head to fancy that the mizenmast wasn't so secure as the foremast. It came into my mind like a fright, and I called to the captain that I meant to make for the foretop. I don't know whether be heard me or whether he made any answer. Maybe it was a sort of craze of mine for the moment, but I was wild with eagerness to leave that mast as soon as ever I began to fear for it. I cast my lashings adrift and gave a look at the deck, and saw that I must not go that way if I did not want to be drowned. So I climbed into the crosstrees, and swung myself on to the stay, so reaching the maintop, and then I scrambled on to the main topmast crosstrees, and went hand over hand down the topmast stay into the foretop. Had I reflected before I left the mizentop, I should not have believed that I had the strength to work my way forwards like that; my hands felt as if they were skinned and my finger-joints appeared to have no use in them. There were nine or ten men in the foretop, all lashed and huddled together. The mast rocked sharply, and the throbbing of it to the blowing of the great tatters of canvas was a horrible sensation. From time to time they sent up rockets from the Sunk lightship-once every hour, I think-but we had long since ceased to notice those signals. There was not a man but thought his time was come, and, though death seemed terrible when I looked down upon the boiling waters below, yet the anguish of the cold almost killed the craving for life. It was now about three o'clock on Thursday morning; the air was full of the strange, dim light of the foam and the stars, and l could very plainly see the black swarm of men in the top and rigging of the mizenmast. I was looking that way, when a great sea fell upon the hull of the ship with a fearful crash; a moment after, the mainmast went. It fell quickly, and, as it fell, it bore down the mizenmast. There was a horrible noise of splintering wood and some piercing cries, and then another great sea swept over the after-deck, and we who were in the foretop looked and saw the stumps of the two masts sticking up from the bottom of the hold, the mizenmast slanting over the bulwarks into the water, and the men lashed to it drowning. There never was a more shocking sight, and the wonder is that some of us who saw it did not go raving mad. The foremast still stood, complete to the royal mast and all the yards across, but every instant I expected to find myself hurling through the air. By this time the ship was completely gutted, the upper part of her a mere frame of ribs, and the gale still blew furiously; indeed, I gave up hope when the mizenmast fell and I saw my shipmates drowning on it.
"It was half an hour after this that a man, who was jammed close against me, pointed out into the darkness and cried in a wild hoarse voice, 'Isn't that a steamer's light? I looked, but what with grief and suffering and cold, 1 was nearly blinded, and could see nothing. But presently another man called out that he could see a light, and this was echoed by yet another; so I told them to keep their eyes upon it and watch if it moved. They said by and by that it was stationary; and though we could not guess that it meant anything good for us, yet this light heaving in sight and our talking of it gave us some comfort. When the dawn broke we saw the smoke of a steamer, and agreed that it was her light we had seen; but I made nothing of that smoke, and was looking heart-brokenly at the mizenmast and the cluster of drowned men washing about it, when a loud cry made me turn my head, and then I saw a Life-boat under a reefed foresail heading direct for us. It was a sight, sir, to make one crazy with joy, and it put the strength of ten men into every one of us. A man named Gillmore-I think it was Gillmore-stood up and waved a long strip of canvas. But I believe they had seen there were living men aboard us before that signal was made. The boat had to cross the broken water to fetch us, and in my agony of mind I cried out, 'She'll never face it! She'll leave us when she sees that water!' for the sea was frightful all to windward of the sand and over it, a tremendous play of broken waters, raging one with another, and making the whole surface resemble a boiling cauldron. Yet they never swerved a hair's breadth. Oh, sir, she was a noble boat! We could see her crew-twelve of them-sitting on the thwarts all looking our way, motionless as carved figures, and there was not a stir among them as, in an instant, the boat leapt from the crest of a towering sea right into the monstrous broken tumble. The peril of these men, who were risking their lives for ours, made us forget our own situation. Over and over again the boat was buried, but as regularly did she emerge with her crew fixedly looking our way, and their oilskins and the light-coloured side of the boat sparkling in the sunshine, while the coxswain, leaning forward from the helm, watched our ship with a face of iron. By this time we knew that this boat was here to save us, and that she would save us, and, with wildly beating hearts, we unlashed ourselves, and dropped over the top into the rigging. We were all sailors, you see, sir, and knew what the Life-boat men wanted, and what was to be done. Swift as thought we had bent a number of ropes' ends together, and securing a piece of wood to this line, threw it overboard, and let it drift to the boat. It was seized, a hawser made fast, and we dragged the great rope on board. By means of this hawser the Life-boat men hauled their craft under our quarter, clear of the raffle. But there was no such rush made for her as might be thought. No ! I owe it to my shipmates to say this. Two of them shinned out upon the mizenmast to the body of the second mate, that was lashed eight or nine feet away over the side, and got him into the boat before they entered it themselves. I heard the coxswain of the boat----Charles Fish by name, the fittest man in the world for that berth and this work-cry out, 'Take that poor fellow in there!' and he pointed to the body of the captain, who was lashed in the top with his arms over the mast, and his head erect and his eyes wide open. But one of our crew called out, 'He's been dead four hours, sir,' and then the rest of us scrambled into the boat, looking away from the dreadful group of drowned men that lay in a cluster round the prostrate mast. The second mate was still alive, but a maniac; it was heartbreaking to hear his broken, feeble cries for his brother, but he lay quiet after a bit, and died in half an hour, though we chafed his feet and poured rum into his mouth, and did what men in our miserable plight could for a fellow-sufferer. Nor were we out of danger yet, for the broken water was enough to turn a man's hair grey to look at. It was a fearful sea for us men to find ourselves in the midst of, after having looked at it from a great height, and I felt at the beginning almost as though I should have been safer on the wreck than in that boat. Never could I have believed that so small a vessel could meet such a sea and live. Yet she rose like a duck to the great roaring waves which followed her, draining every drop of water from her bottom as she was hove up, and falling with terrible suddenness into a hollow, only to bound like a living thing to the summit of the next gigantic crest. "When I looked at the Life-boat's crew and thought of our situation a short while since, and our safety now, and how to rescue us these great-hearted men had imperilled their own lives, I was unmanned; I could not thank them, I could not trust myself to speak. They told us they had left Ramsgate harbour early on the preceding afternoon, and had fetched the Knock at dusk, and not seeing our wreck had lain to in that raging sea, suffering almost as severely as ourselves, all through the piercing tempestuous night. What do you think of such a service, sir? How can such devoted heroism be written of, so that every man who can read shall know how great and beautiful it is? Our own sufferings came to us as a part of our calling as seamen. But theirs was bravely courted and endured for the sake of their fellow-creatures. Believe me, sir, it was a splendid piece of service; nothing grander in its way was ever done before, even by Englishmen. I am a plain seaman, and can say no more about it all than this. But when I think of what must have come to us eleven men before another hour had passed, if the Life-boat crew had not run down to us, I feel like a little child, sir, and my heart grows too full for my eyes.
"Two days had elapsed (continues the Writer in the Daily Telegraph) since the rescue of the survivors of the crew of the Indian Chief, and I was gazing with much interest at the victorious Life-boat as she lay motionless upon the water of the harbour. It was a very calm day, the sea stretching from the pier-sides as smooth as a piece of green silk, and growing vague in the wintry haze of the horizon, while the white cliffs were brilliant with the sunshine. It filled the mind with strange and moving thoughts to look at that sleeping Life-boat, with her image as sharp as a coloured photograph shining in the clear water under her, and then reflect upon the furious conflict she had been concerned in only two nights before, the freight of half-drowned men that had loaded her, the dead body on her thwart, the bitter cold of the howling gale, the deadly peril that had attended every heave of the huge black seas. Within a few hundred yards of her lay the tug, the sturdy steamer that had towed her to the Long Sand, that had held her astern all night, and brought her back safe on the following afternoon. The tug had suffered much from the frightful tossing she had received, and her injuries had not yet been dealt with; she had lost her sponsons, her starboard side-house was gone, the port side of her bridge had been started and the iron railing warped, her decks still seemed dank from the remorseless washing, her funnel was brown with rust, and the tough craft looked a hundred years old. Remembering what these vessels had gone through, how they had but two days since topped a long series of merciful and dangerous errands by as brilliant an act of heroism and humanity as any on record, it was difficult to behold them without a quickened pulse. I recalled the coming ashore of their crews, the Life-boatmen with their great cork-jackets around them, the steamer's men in streaming oilskins, the faces of many of them livid with the cold, their eyes dim with the bitter vigil they had kept and the furious blowing of the spray; and I remembered the bright smile that here and there lighted up the weary faces, as first one and then another caught sight of a wife or a sister in the crowd waiting to greet and accompany the brave hearts to the warmth of their humble homes. I felt that while these crews' sufferings and the courage and resolution they had shown remained unwritten, only half of a very stirring and manful story had been recorded. The narrative, as related to me by the coxswain of the Life-boat, is a necessary pendant to the tale told last week by the mate of the wrecked ship; and as he and his colleagues, both of the Life-boat and the steam-tug, want no better introduction than their own deeds to the sympathy and attention of the public, let Charles Edward Fish begin his yarn without further preface.
The Crew of the Vulcan
Photo East Kent Maritime Trust
Seated left to right
Charles Knight, Alfred Page (Master) and William Wharrier
Other members of the crew (not identified) are:
Richard Yare (leading fireman) George Woodward (fireman), William Austen and Edward Revell (seamen).
No. 2. - The Coxswain's Account
"News had been brought to Ramsgate, as you know, sir, that a large ship was ashore on the Long Sand, and Captain Braine, the harbourmaster, immediately ordered the tug and Life-boat to proceed to her assistance. It was blowing a heavy gale of wind, though it came much harder some hours afterwards; and the moment we were clear of the piers we felt the sea. Our boat is considered a very fine one. I know there is no better on the coasts, and there are only two in Great Britain bigger. She was presented to the LIFE-BOAT INSTITUTION by Bradford, and is called after that town. But it is ridiculous to talk of bigness when it means only forty-two feet long, and when a sea is raging round you heavy enough to swamp a line-of-battle ship. I had my eye on the tug-named the Vulcan, sir-when she met the first of the seas, and she was thrown up like a ball, and you could see her starboard paddle revolving in the air high enough out for a coach to pass under; and when she struck the hollow she dished a sea over her bows that left only the stern of her showing. We were towing head to wind, and the water was flying over the boat in clouds. Every man of us was soaked to the skin, in spite of our overalls, by the time we had brought the Ramsgate Sands abeam; but there were a good many miles to be gone over before we should fetch the Knock Lightship, and so you see, sir, it was much too early for us to take notice that things were not over and above comfortable. We got out the sail-cover-a piece of tarpaulin-to make a shelter of, and rigged it up against the mast, seizing it to the burtons; but it hadn't been up two minutes when a heavy sea hit and washed it right aft in rags; so there was nothing to do but to hold on to the thwarts and shake ourselves when the water came over. I never remember a colder wind, I don't say this because I happened to be out in it. Old Tom Cooper, one of the best boatmen in all England, sir, who made one of our crew, agreed with me that it was more like a flaying machine than a natural gale of wind. The feel of it in the face was like being gnawed by a dog. I only wonder it didn't freeze the tears it fetched out of our eyes. We were heading N.E., and the wind was blowing from N.E. The North Foreland had been a bit of shelter, like; but when we had gone clear of that, and the ocean lay ahead of us, the seas were furious-they seemed miles long, sir, like an Atlantic sea, and it was enough to make a man hold his breath to watch how the tug wallowed and tumbled into them. I sung out to Dick Goldsmith, 'Dick,' I says, 'she's slowed, do you see, she'll never be able to meet it, for she had slackened her engines down into a mere crawl, and I really did think they meant to give up. I could see Alf Page-the master of her, sir-on the bridge, coming and going like the moon when the clouds sweep over it, as the seas smothered him up one moment, and left him shining in the sun the next. But there was to be no giving up with the tug's crew nor more than with the Life-boat's; she held on, and we followed.
"Somewhere abreast of the Elbow Buoy a smack that was running ported her helm to speak us. Her skipper had just time to yell out, 'A vessel on the Long Sand!' and we to wave our hands, when she was astern and out of sight in a haze of spray. Presently a collier named the Fanny, with her foretopgallant yard gone, passed us. She was cracking on to bring the news of the wreck to Ramsgate, and was making a heavy sputter under her topsails and foresail. They raised a cheer, for they knew our errand, and then, like the smack, in a minute she was astern and gone. By this time the cold and the wet and the fearful plunging were beginning to tell, and one of the men called for a nip of rum. The quantity we generally take is half a gallon, and it is always my rule to be sparing with that drink for the sake of the shipwrecked men we may have to bring home, and who are pretty sure to be in greater need of the stuff than us. I never drink myself, sir, and that's one reason, I think, why I manage to meet the cold and wet middling well, and rather better than some men who look stronger than me. However, I told Charlie Vernon to measure the rum out and serve it round, and it would have made you laugh, I do believe, sir, to have seen the care the men took of the big bottle-Charlie cocking his finger into the cork-hole, and Davy Berry clapping his hand over the pewter measure whenever a sea came to prevent the salt water from spoiling the liquor. Bad as our plight was, the tug's crew were no better off; their wheel is forward, and so you may suppose the fellow that steered had his share of the seas; the others stood by to relieve him; and, for the matter of water, she was just like a rock, the waves striking her bows and flying pretty nigh as high as the top of her funnel, and blowing the whole length of her aft with a fall like the tumble of half-a-dozen cartloads of bricks. I like to speak of what they went through, for the way they were knocked about was something fearful, to be sure.
"By half-past four o'clock in the afternoon it was drawing on dusk, and about that hour we sighted the revolving light of the Kentish Knock Lightship, and a little after five we were pretty close to her. She is a big red-hulled boat, with the words 'Kentish Knock' written in long white letters on her sides, and, dark as it was, we could see her flung up, and rushing down fit to roll her over and over; and the way she pitched and went out of sight, and then ran up on the black heights of water, gave me a better notion of the fearfulness of that sea than I had got by watching the tug or noticing our own lively dancing. The tug hailed her first, and two men looking over her side answered; but what they said didn't reach us in the Life-boat. Then the steamer towed us abreast, but the tide caught our warp and gave us a sheer that brought us much too close alongside of her. When the sea took her she seemed to hang right over us, and the sight of that great dark hull, looking as if, when it fell, it must come right atop of us, made us want to sheer off, I can tell you. I sung out, 'Have you seen the ship?' And one of the men bawled back, 'Yes.' 'How does she bear?' 'Nor-west by north.' 'Have you seen anything go to her?' The answer I caught was, 'A boat.' Some of our men said the answer was, 'A Life-boat,' but most of us only heard, 'A boat.' The tug was now towing ahead, and we went past the lightship, but ten minutes after Tom Friend sings out, 'They're burning a light aboard her!' and looking astern I saw they had fired a red signal light that was blazing over the bulwark in a long shower of sparks. The tug put her helm down to return, and we were brought broadside to the sea. Then we felt the power of those waves, sir. It looked a wonder that we were not rolled over and drowned, every man of us. We held on with our teeth clenched, and twice the boat was filled, and the water up to our throats. 'Look out for it, men!' was always the cry. But every upward send emptied the noble little craft, like pulling out a plug in a washbasin, and in a few minutes we were again alongside the light-vessel. This time there were six or seven men looking over the side. 'What do you want?' we shouted. 'Did you see the Sunk Lightship's rocket?' they all yelled out together. 'Yes. Did you say you saw a boat?' 'No.' they answered, showing we had mistaken their first reply. On which I shouted to the tug, 'Pull us round to the Long Sand Head Buoy!' and then we were under weigh again, meeting the tremendous seas. There was only a little bit of moon, westering fast, and what there was of it showed but now and again, as the heavy clouds opened and let the light of it down. Indeed, it was very dark, though there was some kind of glimmer in the foam which enabled us to mark the tug ahead. 'Bitter cold work, Charlie,' says old Tom Cooper to me: 'but,' says he, 'it's colder for the poor wretches aboard the wreck, if they're alive to feel it.' The thought of them made our own sufferings small, and we kept looking and looking into the darkness around, but there was nothing to be spied, only now and again, and long whiles apart the flash of a rocket in the sky from the Sunk Lightship. Meanwhile, from time to time, we burnt a hand-signal-a light, sir, that's fired something after the manner of a gun. You fit it into a wooden tube, and give a sort of hammer at the end a smart blow, and the flame rushes out, and a bright light it makes, sir. Ours were green lights, and whenever I set one flaring I couldn't help taking notice of the appearance of the men. It was a queer sight, I assure you, to see them all as green as leaves, with their cork jackets swelling out their bodies so as scarcely to seem like human beings, and the black water as high as our mast-head, or howling a long way below us, on either side. They burned hand-signals on the tug, too, but nothing came of them. There was no sign of the wreck, and staring over the edge of the boat, with the spray and the darkness, was like trying to see through the bottom of a well. So we began to talk the matter over, and Tom Cooper says, 'We had better stop here and wait for daylight.' 'I'm for stopping,' says Steve Goldsmith; and Bob Penny says, 'We're here to fetch the wreck, and fetch it we will, if we wait a week.' 'Right,' says I; and all hands being agreed-without any fuss, sir, though I dare say most of our hearts were at home, and our wishes alongside our hearths, and the warm fires in them-we all of us put our hands to our mouths and made one great cry of 'Vulcan ahoy!' The tug dropped astern. 'What do you want?' sings out the skipper, when he gets within speaking distance. 'There's nothing to be seen of the vessel, and so we had better lie-to for the night.' I answered. 'Very good' he says, and then the steamer, without another word from her crew, and the water tumbling over her bows like cliffs, resumed her station ahead, her paddles revolving just fast enough to keep her from dropping astern. As coxswain of the Life-boat, sir, I take no credit for resolving to lie-to all night. But I am bound to say a word for the two crews. who made up their minds without a murmur, without a seconds' hesitation, to face the bitter cold and fierce seas of that long winter darkness, that they might be on the spot to help their fellow-creatures when the dawn broke and showed them where they were. I know there are scores of sailors round our coasts who would have done likewise. Only read, sir, what was done in the north, Newcastle way, during the gales last October, But surely, sir, no matter who may be the men who do what they think their duty, whether they belong to the North or the South, they deserve the encouragement of praise. A man likes to feel, when he has done his best, that his fellow-men think well of his work. If I had not been one of that crew I should wish to say more; but no false pride shall make me say less, sir, and I thank God for the resolution He put into us, and for the strength He gave us to keep that resolution.
Photo East Kent Maritime Trust
"All that we had to do now was to make our-selves as comfortable as we could. Our tow-rope veered us out a long way, too far astern of the tug for her to help us as a breakwater, and the manner in which we were flung towards the sky with half our keel out of water and then dropped into a hollow-like falling from the top of a house, sir-while the heads of the seas blew into and tumbled over us all the time, made us all reckon that, so far from getting any rest, most of our time would be spent in preventing ourselves from being washed overboard. We turned to and got the foresail aft, and made a kind of roof of it. This was no easy job, for the wind was so furious that wrestling even with that bit of a sail was like fighting with a steam-engine. When it was up ten of us snugged ourselves away under it, and two men stood on the after-grating thwart keeping a look-out, with the life-lines around them. As you know, sir, we carry a binnacle, and the lamp in it was alight and gave out just enough haze for us to see each other in. We all lay in a lump together for warmth, and a fine show we made, I dare say; for a cork jacket, even when a man stands upright, isn't calculated to improve his figure, and as we all of us had cork jackets on and oil-skins, and many of us sea boots, you may guess what a raffle of legs and arms we showed, and what a rum heap of odds and ends we looked, as we sprawled in the bottom of the boat upon one another. Sometimes it would be Johnny Goldsmith-for we had three Goldsmiths-Steve and Dick and Johnny-growling underneath that somebody was lying on his leg; and then maybe Harry Meader would bawl out that there was a man sitting on his head; and once Tom Friend swore his arm was broke; but my opinion is, sir, that it was too cold to feel inconveniences of this kind, and I believe that some among us would not have known if their arms and legs really had been broke, until they tried to use 'em, for the cold seemed to take away all feeling out of the blood. As the seas flew over the boat the water filled the sail that was stretched overhead and bellied it down upon us, and that gave us less room. so that some had to lie flat on their faces; but when this bellying got too bad we'd all get up and make one heave with our backs under the sail, and chuck the water out of it in that way. 'Charlie Fish,' says Tom Cooper to me, in a grave voice, 'what would some of them young gen'lmen as comes to Ramsgate in the summer, and says they'd like to go out in the Life-boat, think of this?' This made me laugh. and then young Tom Cooper votes for another nipper of rum all round; and as it was drawing on for one o'clock in the morning, and some of the men were groaning with cold, and pressing themselves against the thwarts with the pain of it, I made no objection, and the liquor went round. I always take a cake of Fry's chocolate with me when I go out in the Life-boat, as I find it very supporting, and I had a mind to have a mouthful now; but when I opened the locker I found it full of water, my chocolate nothing but paste and the biscuit a mass of pulp. This was rather hard, as there was nothing else to eat, and there was no getting near the tug in that sea unless we wanted to be smashed into staves. However, we hadn't come out to enjoy ourselves; nothing was said, and so we lay in a heap, hugging one another for warmth, until the morning broke.
"The first man to look to leeward was old Tom's son-young Tom Cooper-and in a moment he bawled out, 'There she is!' pointing like a madman. The morning had only just broke, and the light was grey and dim, and down in the west it still seemed to be night; the air was full of spray, and scarcely were we a-top of a sea than we were rushing like an arrow into the hollow again, so that young Tom must have had eves like a hawk to have seen her. Yet the moment he sung out and pointed, all hands cried out, 'There she is!' But what was it, sir? Only a mast about three miles off-just one single mast sticking up out of the white water, as thin and faint as a spider's line. Yet that was the ship we had been waiting all night to see. There she was, and my heart thumped in my ears the moment my eye fell on that mast. But Lord, sir, the fearful sea that was raging between her and us! for where we were was deepish water, and the waves regular; but all about the wreck was the Sand, and the water on it was running in fury all sorts of ways, rushing up in tall columns of foam as high as a ship's mainyard, and thundering so loudly that, though we were to windward, we could hear it above the gale and the boiling of the seas around us. It might have shook even a man who wanted to die to look at it, if he didn't know what the 'Bradford' can go through. I ran my eye over the men's faces. 'Let slip the tow-rope,' bawled Dick Goldsmith. 'Up foresail,' I shouted, and two minutes after we had sighted that mast we were dead before the wind, our storm foresail taut as a drum-skin, our boat's stem heading full for the broken seas and the lonely stranded vessel in the midst of them. It was well that there was something in front of us to keep our eyes that way, and that none of us thought of looking astern, or the sight of the high and frightful seas which raged after us might have played old Harry with weak nerves. Some of them came with such force that they leapt right over the boat, and the air was dark with water flying a dozen yards high over us in broad solid sheets, which fell with a roar like the explosion of a gun ten and a dozen fathoms ahead. But we took no notice of these seas even when we were in the thick of the broken waters, and all the hands holding on to the thwarts for dear life. Every thought was upon the mast that was growing bigger and clearer, and sometimes when a sea hove us high we could just see the hull, with the water as white as milk flying over it. The mast was what they call 'bright,' that is, scraped and varnished, and we knew that if there was anything living aboard that doomed ship we should find it on that mast; and we strained our eyes with all our might, but could see nothing that looked like a man, But on a sudden I caught sight of a length of canvas streaming out of the top, and all of us seeing it we raised a shout, and a few minutes after we saw the men. They were all dressed in yellow oilskins, and the mast being of that colour was the reason why we did not see them sooner. They looked a whole mob of people, and one of us roared out, 'All hands are there, men' and I answered, 'Aye, the whole ships company, and we'll have them all!' for though, as we afterwards knew, there were only eleven of them, yet, as I have said, they looked a great number huddled together in that top, and I made sure the whole ship's company were there. By this time we were pretty close to the ship, and a fearful wreck she looked, with her mainmast and mizenmast gone, and her bulwarks washed away, and great lumps of timber and planking ripping out of her and going over-board with every pour of the seas. We let go our anchor fifteen fathoms to windward of her, and as we did so we saw the poor fellows unlashing themselves and dropping one by one over the top into the lee rigging. As we veered out cable and drove down under her stern, I shouted to the men on the wreck to bend a piece of wood on to a line and throw it overboard for its to lay hold of. They did this, but they had to get aft first, and I feared for the poor half-perished creatures again and again as 1 saw them scrambling along the lee rail, stopping and holding on as the mountainous seas swept over the hull, and then creeping a bit further aft in the pause. There was a horrible muddle of spats and torn canvas and rigging under her lee, but we could not guess what a fearful sight was there until our hawser having been made fast to the wreck, we had hauled the Life-boat close under her quarter. There looked to be a whole score of dead bodies knocking about among the spars. It stunned me for a moment, for I had thought all hands were in the foretop, and never dreamt of so many lives having been lost. Seventeen were drowned, and there they were, most of them, and the body of the captain lashed to the head of the mizenmast, so as to look as if he were leaning over it, his head stiff upright and his eyes watching us, and the stir of the seas made him appear to be struggling to get to us. I thought he was alive, and cried to the men to hand him in, but someone said he was killed when the mizenmast fell, and had been dead four or five hours. This was a dreadful shock; I never remember the like of it. I can't hardly get those fixed eyes out of my sight, sir, and I lie awake for hours of a night, and so does Tom Cooper, and others of us, seeing those bodies torn by the spars and bleeding, floating in the water alongside the miserable ship.
"Well, sir, the rest of this lamentable story has been told by the mate of the vessel, and I don't know that I could add anything to it. We saved the eleven men, and I have since heard that all of them are doing well. If I may speak, as coxswain of the Life-boat, I would like to say that all hands concerned in this rescue, them in the tug as well as the crew of the boat, did what might be expected of English sailors-for such they are, whether you call some of them boatmen or not; and I know in my heart, and say it without fear, that from the hour of leaving Ramsgate Harbour to the moment when we sighted the wreck's mast, there was only one thought in all of us, and that was that the Almighty would give us the strength and direct us how to save the lives of the poor fellows to whose assistance we had been sent."
* [This clearly is an error, for no Life-boat could possibly have been near the wreck at this early hour. The ship struck at half-past two o'clock on the morning of the 5th January, and at daybreak the rescue mentioned was attempted, clearly, by a smack, for no Life-boat heard of the wreck until eleven o'clock or the same day. Probably it was that smack which afterwards conveyed the news of the wreck to Harwich at 11 A.M. Another fishing smack proceeded at once to Ramsgate, and arrived there at noon, having received the Information of the wreck from the Kentish Knock Light-ship.]
My thanks go to the RNLI, for allowing me to use this material.
1 Dick Goldsmith
2 John Goldsmith
3 Henry Meader
4 Stephen Goldsmith
5 Tom Cooper Snr.
6 Tom Friend
7 Charles Fish (Cox'n)
8 Charles Verrion
9 Tom Cooper Jnr.
10 Robert Penny
11 Dave Berry
12 Harry Belsey
Copyright 1999-2017 by Clive Lawford (e-mail). All Rights Reserved.
You are very welcome to link to this site, though any form of duplication requires written consent from me unless otherwise stated.
A charity registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SC037736).
Charity number CHY 2678 in the Republic of Ireland.
Ramsgate RNLI provides the www.ramsgatelifeboat.org.uk web site as a service to the public.
Ramsgate RNLI is not responsible for, and expressly disclaims all liability for, damages of any kind arising out of use, reference to, or reliance on any information contained within the site. While the information contained within the site is periodically updated, no guarantee is given that the information provided in this Web site is correct, complete, and up-to-date.
Although the Ramsgate RNLI web site may include links providing direct access to other Internet resources, including web sites, Ramsgate RNLI is not responsible for the accuracy or content of information contained in these sites.
Links from Ramsgate RNLI to third-party sites do not constitute an endorsement by Ramsgate RNLI of the parties or their products and services