The Gales of February 1889

Tantivy LT.587

One of the perils of being a fisherman in the age of sail during the nineteenth century was the unpredictability of the weather in the North Sea. There are many stories of fishing communities up and down the North Sea being devastated by disasters at sea.

The gale of February 1889 is widely remembered for the losses suffered by Grimsby’s fishing community and is immortalised in the folk song Tree Score and Ten. However, the devastating impact of the gale was felt all down the North Sea. The Lowestoft Weekly Press listed a number of the ports sailing smacks that had been damaged in the gale and named a young fishermen James Turner who had been reportedly washed overboard. Turner was a deckhand at the time of the accident on the Rover LT.420 and lived locally.

The article below is from the Lowestoft Weekly Press, which I have published in full. An un-named journalist interviewed the crew on their return to Lowestoft and has managed turn the basic facts into a thrilling story. Nevertheless, this is still a valuable piece of social history, and gives a graphic account of a sailing drifters crews battle for survival,  in middle of a North Sea gale.

Tantivy LT.587 was a 34 reg ton wooden sailing drifter, built by A. Sparman of Lowestoft in 1872. Her crew consisted of Skipper, William Shilling: Mate, John Edmunds: Third Hand, Edward Matthews: Deck Hand, Edward Riches: Cook, William Banham (the boy).

TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF A LOWESTOFT CREW

‘The crew of the Lowestoft smack Tantivy LT.587 had a terrible experience during the late gale, and their escape from a watery grave is little short of miraculous. It appears that on Thursday night last week they put down the gear about six o’ clock when they were sixty miles from port, Lowestoft bearing west by south. At that time the weather was threatening, and during the night it came on to blow heavily from the northwest. In the morning it was discovered that the rudder had been broken, and, as the wind was blowing a gale, they were obliged to let the gear remain down. They put the anchor overboard unstocked, with forty fathoms of chain, and the vessel drifted for about thirty-six hours. At three o’clock on Saturday afternoon the trawl rope broke, and the vessel, being relieved of the strain plunged forward and shipped a tremendous sea. She was thrown on to her beam ends, and the ballast, which consisted of shingle, was shifted. The position of the crew under these circumstances can be better imagined than described. The wind blew colder and louder, and a fearful sea was running. So high were the waves that a vessel which came quite close to them could not be seem when she was down in the hollow. The men were almost blinded with the snow squalls and could not see more than a few yards ahead. The hailstones that fell were about as big as marbles and cut like knives. The men were helpless in the grip of the storm and were driven towards the Dutch coast. The wind was pitiless as the hand of death, and the men were almost frozen with the cold. When the ballast shifted the mate and the third hand were below; and knowing that something serious had happened, they rushed up on deck. The mate was caught by the roaring gale and flung into the little boat. He was deluged with water, and he thought for the moment he had gone overboard. As soon as he could clear his eyes, he realised his position and scrambled out of the boat with some difficulty. In the meantime, he heard his mate calling from the hold, and he and other members of the crew promptly went to his help. It was found that the squall which had knocked the mate (John Edmunds) into the little boat had thrown the other man amongst the ballast, and that he was buried up to the next in shiggle. The men set to work to extradite him, but it was some time before they succeeded in digging him out. This having at length been done, they turned their attention to the safety of the ship, which was now on her beam end. From the weather side the crew could see the keel of the vessel, and the lee side for some distance was submerged in the sea. The foam created billows swept the deck, and the poor fellows had the greatest difficultly in holding on, so furious was the gale and so violent were the seas which broke over them. The boy was sent into the cabin for safety, as he was not strong enough to keep his footing on deck. At first it was thought their only chance would be to take to the small boat, but the master decided that the little craft could not possibly live in such an angry sea, and so they resolved to remain aboard, trusting that help might arrive before the vessel went down. With the view of lightening the smack the master, with one or two of the crew, crawled forward to cut away the mainmast. This task was attended with great danger, but it was successfully accomplished, and the vessel partly righted herself. One of the crew went below to try and shift the ballast, which had become mixed up with fish that had been caught, and after three hours hard toil the vessel was put in a better position. The rest of the crew went to the pumps, and for seven hours they remained at their post until they were thoroughly exhausted with fatigue and benumbed with cold. At midnight they went below, as the were quite incapable of working any longer. The outlook was depressing. The gale seemed to increase in fury, and the snow squalls came with great frequency. Through the dark hours of the night they drifted on, and when morning dawned they found that they were within six or seven miles of the Dutch coast. The water was shallow, and they could hear the thunderous roar of the surf as it broke on the distant sand. They knew it was certain destruction to get amongst those breakers, and their doom seem to be sealed. Just at this moment the skipper, to his great joy, sighted a Dutch vessel, which was bearing down on them in answer to their signals of distress. This revived their hopes, and they made up their minds to try and reach the foreigner in the little boat, which unfortunately, however, had been stove in by the sea on the quarter. The boat was got out with great difficultly, and all the crew got into her, the skipper considerately carrying him the cat belonging to the vessel, rather than leave the poor animal to perish. They could take nothing with them except the clothes in which they were standing. The waves broke over the boat, and the crew had to keep incessantly baling out the water. In less than half an hour they reached the Dutchman, and then the men were confronted with the difficultly of getting aboard. When the boat was on the crest of a wave three men sprang on to the vessel, leaving the skipper and boy in the boat. Some of the Dutchmen promptly seized hold of the boy when the next wave lifted the boat, and hauled him on board by the hair of his head. The master now felt the boat sinking under him, and at that moment one man seized his guernsey, another laid hold of his ear, and a third grasped the back part of his head. There he was dangling over the side of the vessel with the sea dashing against him: but, with a “strong pull and a pull together,” the skipper was hauled aboard. The Dutchmen were very kind to the men. They allowed them to retire to their own bunks while their clothes were being dried before the fire, and in other ways treated them very hospitably. The foreigners promised to take care of the cat which the skipper handed to their change, and which had saved itself by jumping aboard the vessel. The men were landed at Scheveningen, and the chief of police took them to a first-class hotel, where they were well cared for, and the skipper had the first sleep since Friday. On Monday morning an English gentleman called at the hotel and paid the fare of the crew to Rotterdam, where they were received by the British Consul. He provided a good dinner for them and gave them passes to Harwich by steamer Lady Tyler. On reaching port they were forwarded to Lowestoft by the Shipwreck Mariners Society, and right glad they were to reach home again’.

The men spoke in praise of their rescuers, and how they were treated at Scheveningen and Rotterdam.

The drifter Tantivy was subsequently salvaged and towed into the Dutch port of Masslins. This news reached the families and friends before the safety of the crew was known and caused considerable alarm and distress in Lowestoft.

Reference: Lowestoft Weekly Press, Terrible Experience of a Lowestoft Crew, No.163, Saturday 16th February 1889.

1914 – 1918 Lowestoft Fisherman: killed by enemy action

For the fishermen of Lowestoft the Great War started on November 3rd 1914, when the steam drifter Fraternal struck a mine and sank with the loss of three of her crew and ended with the sinking of the smack Francis Roberts on July 28th 1918. Lowestoft’s fishing community paid a heavy price with over a hundred and twenty-six men and boys killed. The youngest was thirteen-year-old Redan Sydney Jefferies, a cook on the Vanguard.  These men and boys were civilians and sailed under the red ensign, however, they found themselves in the frontline of an economic war prosecuted by Germany.

There is no memorial to these men and boys in Lowestoft, however, their names and that of the fishing vessels can be found on the Tower Hill Memorial, which commemorates the men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in both World Wars and have “no grave but the sea”.

Skippers of vessels sunk by enemy action were required under oath to give a statement to the Board of Trade. I have used extracts from these statements (ref: ADM 137 series) to retell their story, where they have survived, others come from witness statements.

1914

Tuesday, 3rd November 1914

Fraternal LT.1199 – on: 132968 (1912)
Steam Drifter, 79 gross tons, 83.8 x 18.3 x 90
Skipper, unknown
Fraternal struck a mine and sank whilst fishing sixteen miles north east, by north, from Lowestoft. Three crew-members lost their lives, the survivors (unnamed) were picked up by steam drifters Launch Out and Hasting Castle and were landed at Lowestoft and Yarmouth. There was no formal investigation by the Board of Trade as the Admiralty ‘pointed out the activities of the Fraternal had been foolhardy’ as the vessel was in a known re-stricted area.
The three crewmembers who perished were: Mate, James Cooper, (age 42) – Net-stower, (age 24) Henry Flat – Fisherman, William Studd, (age37).

Will & Maggie LT.719 – on: 129992 (1910)
Steam Drifter, 192 gross tons, 86.0 x 19.3 x 9.5
Skipper, George Alfred Gower
Will & Maggie was sunk on 3rd November, when a mine was brought up in her nets seventeen miles east, by east, from Lowestoft. Six crew members perished, the survivor’s were J.E. Smith, Alf Leveret, Albert Wright, and Ernest C. Coe were landed at Lowestoft by Qui Saint LT303.
The six crewmembers who perished were: Skipper George Alfred Gower – Fredrick Steel – William Henry Mower – Harry Flowers – Frank Edward Newrick – Cook, Wilfred Gower (17 skipper’s son).

Tuesday, 10th November 1914

Speculator LT.1050 – on: 124431 (1907)
Sailing Trawler/Drifter, 46 reg tons, 70.9 x 19.3 x 9.2
Skipper, William John Tuttle
Speculator is believed to have struck a mine and sunk near Smith’s Knoll with the loss of her crew of five. In evidence to the official enquiry into the loss of the vessel held in Lowestoft, Edward J. Walker, skipper of the Achieve stated: – “I last saw the vessel between 4 and 5 o’clock that afternoon. She was then seven or eight miles west south west of Achieve. About 8 o’clock the same evening we heard an explosion and although it appeared to be near, heard no cry for assistance. They did not see any wreckage.” The following day wreckage from Speculator, including the stern of the small boat from the was found by an un-named smack.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, William John Tuttle – Mate William .M Easter – 3rd hand, Henry Foster Hunter – 4th hand, Charles Gorrod – Cook, Daniel Saunders, all were married men with families.

Friday, 20th November 1914

Lord Carnarvon LT.1197 – on: 132964 (1912)
Steam Drifter, 80 gross tons, 83.7 x 18.2 x 9.2
Skipper, Clifford Bird
Lord Carnarvon had left port on Thursday morning and was sunk by a mine off Gorleston the following day; there were no survivors from her crew of ten. Lowestoft Journal reported that evening an explosion was heard, however, when daylight came there was no sign of her. Wreckage was later washed ashore at Southwold and Gorleston. The Journal concluded that ‘…there is no doubt that she has gone down with all hands … another victim to mines…’ The drifter carried a crew of ten, including three skippers who served to make up the complement.
The ten crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Clifford Bird – Mate, Albert Uitting, (age 32) – Engineer, Doctor Spall, (age31) – the rest of the are listed as Fishermen, John Fisk, (age 36) – John William Temple, (age 39) – William Finch, (age 43) – Alexander Grey, (age 19) – Amos Catchpole, (age 43) Fred Alfred , (age35) – Robert Bond, (age50).

Sunday, 20th December 1914

Queen of Devon LT.83 – on: 135750 (1913)
Sailing Trawler, 46 reg tons, 70.2 x 19.1 x 9.1
Skipper: Arthur Collins
Queen of Devon sailed from Lowestoft on the morning of Tuesday the 15th and is believed to have hit a mine on Sunday, sinking with the loss of all hands, an explosion was heard about fifty-five miles east, by north, of Lowestoft.
The four crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Arthur Collins – Mate, George Herbert Critten, (age44) – 3rd hand, George Church, (age 40) – 4th hand, Arthur Collins, (skippers’ son age 16)

Ivy LT.760 – on: 109574 (1897)
Sailing Trawler, 58 reg tons, 68.0 x 19.2 x 8.6
Skipper: William Henry Hills
Harry Howe skipper of the sailing drifter Sis reported on Sunday that Ivy was fifty-two miles east by north of Lowestoft. At 1.30 p.m. Howe was on deck and could see the Lowestoft smack three quarter of a mile off with her gear down. “Suddenly we heard an explosion and the smack was enveloped in smoke, when it had cleared away all traces of the smack had vanished.” They sailed to the spot where the smack Ivy had been but found no wreckage or any signs of her crew of five.
The five crewmen who perished were: Skipper, William Henry Hills – Mate, Arthur Edward Melhuish (age 46) – 3rd Hand, Edward G. Gamble (age 23) – Deckhand, Ernest John Clark (age 30) – Cook, William Wilken (age 16).

1915

Saturday 23rd January 1915

Labrador LT.1165 – on: 102946 (1894)
Steam Trawler, 133 gross tons, 99.0 x 20.5 x 11.0
Skipper: Stephen Peek
Labrador left Lowestoft for the fishing grounds on Saturday January 23rd and was expected back on Sunday 31st in order for her catch to be ready for the Monday market. However, it is presumed that she has struck a mine and been lost with all hands.
The eight crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Stephen Peek – Mate, Henry George Adams (age 34) – 1st Engineer, Albert John Newstead – 2nd Engineer, Harry G. Sparks – Trimmer, Emanuel Stephen Peek – Third-Hand, Felix Franking – Deckhand, Fredrick W. Rushmore – Cook, Samuel Martin.

The body of the skipper Stephen Peak was later brought up in the trawl nets of Kestrel.

Friday 4th June 1915

Excel LT.460 – on: 97929 (1891)
Sailing Trawler, 56 reg tons, 69.8 x 18.7 x 9.1
Owner / Skipper: Peter Moxey
The last reported sighting of Excel was on Friday 4th June, fifty miles south east by east from Lowestoft. The Admiralty concluded that as Boy Horace and Economy had been sunk fifty miles south east from Lowestoft on June 4th and as Excel was fishing near this position on that date; it was possible her crew had been either taken prisoner or she could have been in collision with an unknown vessel. However, it is most likely she had struck a mine with the loss of her crew of four.
The four crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Peter Moxey – Mate, Frank C. Moxey (age31) – 3rd Hand, Edward Richard Moxey (age23) – Deckhand, Archie E. Goodwin (age 17).

Monday 6th September 1915

Loch Fyne LT.1105 on: 127581
Sailing Trawler, 43.81 reg tons, 70.2 x 19.2 x 8.9
Skipper: James Fredrick Adams
Loch Fyne left Lowestoft on September 6th, to fish the Leman & Owen Shoals. Her owner, Water W. Warman stated, ‘nothing has been heard of this vessel and there was no news of her crew.’ The vessel had been due back on the 15th September. ‘It seems probable that the vessel was blown up by a mine and lost with all hands’ The Admiralty were of the opinion that ‘it is quite possible that this vessel was sunk by a submarine, as six other Lowestoft smacks had been sunk at Leman & Owen between September 7th and 10th’.
The four crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, James Frederick Adams – Mate, George Douglas Brown – 3rd Hand, James Frank Nunn – 4th Hand, George Bunn.

Tuesday 30th November 1915

True Vine LT.52 on: 127595
Sailing Trawler, 40 reg tons 71.3 x 19.3 x 9.0
Skipper: Samuel Charles Reeves
True Vine is presumed to have struck a German mine with the loss of all hands on or around the November 30th.
James William Bawler skipper of the Comrades stated ‘that at 4.00 p.m. on the 30th November, as she was sailing east, by north, from Lowestoft. The smack ahead of them was True Vine she was twenty-seven miles north by east from Lowestoft.’ That was the last time True Vine or her crew were heard of.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Samuel James Reeves (age 35) – Mate Harry Carsey (age26) – 3rd Hand, Tom Hoy Thomson (age 55) – 4th Hand, Harry Lewell (age 17) – Cook, Edward William Chaston (age 16).

1916

Wednesday 23rd February 1916

Guide LT.121 – on: 106585 (1897)
Sailing trawler, 48 reg tons,
Skipper: F. Blowers
According to S.R. White her owner, Guide was going to be fishing thirty miles south east, of Lowestoft. Other smacks had reported seeing her on 16th and 17th of February and she had  been expected to return to Lowestoft by Tuesday 22nd. John Wright mate of the Little Boys was fishing twenty-five miles off Southwold, reported that he saw a piece of wood on the lee bow. ‘Wright leaned over to see what it was and found it was the name board off a smack bow and bore the name Guide in yellow on a black background. The board went astern fast and Wright was unable to pick it up’. Guide was lost with all hands, possibly after hitting a mine.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, F. Blowers – Mate, George E. Shipley (age 50) – 3rd Hand George Aldred (age 54) – 4th hand William Lowell Thompson – Cook, George Shiplee (16).

Friday 17th May 1916

Boy Sam LT.1014 – on: 124408 (1906)
Sailing Trawler, 47 reg tons, 70.8 x 19.4 x 9.1
Skipper: Harry Rose
Boy Sam sailed from Lowestoft on Friday May 12th, her owner W.H. Podd was under the impression she was going to fish in the neighbourhood of the Haisborough Sands, the vessel was due back on Friday 19th May. Since leaving Lowestoft nothing has been heard of the vessel and her crew, no other vessel has reported seeing Boy Sam and no wreckage has been found or traces of her crew.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Harry Rose – Mate, William Meadows (age36) – 3rd Hand, John Wink (age45) – 4th Hand, Percy Welch (age 16) – Cook, Samuel James Rose (age 30).

Boy Percy LT.90 – on: 110809 (1899)
Sailing Trawler, 46 reg tons, 68.0 x 19.2 x 8.6
Skipper: W. Bacon
Boy Percy sailed from Lowestoft on Saturday 13th May for the fishing grounds, according to her owner George Robert Warman she was due back in port on 21st or 22nd May. However, nothing more has been heard since Boy Percy’s sighting.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, W. Bacon – Mate, Edward Clark (age35) – 3rd Hand, E. Sturman (age37) – 4th Hand, L. Freeman (age 31)– Cook, Robert H. R. Sturman (age 17).

Wanderer LT.611 – on: 125895 (1907)
Sailing Trawler, 47 reg tons, 71.0 x 19.2 x 9.1
Skipper: George Barnard
Wanderer had set sail from Lowestoft for the fishing grounds at the back of Haisborough Sands May 11th. The owner J. Shepherd stated that the vessel was due back in port from the fishing grounds on Sunday 21st May. Skipper George Smith of Research had seen Wanderer on the Monday at about 7.00 p.m. Research was then homeward bound and fifteen to sixteen miles north east, by north, from Smiths Knoll Gas Buoy when Wanderer was seen passing, after which nothing more has been heard of Wanderer or her crew.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, George Barnard (age 44) – Mate, George W. Wright – 3rd Hand, Arthur Robert Holt – Deckhand, Reginald Castleton – Cook, James Saunders.

Wednesday 17th May 1916

Research LT.1028 – on: 124422 (1906)
Sailing Trawler, 44 reg tons, 71.4 x 18.8 x 8.8
Skipper: George Smith
There was very little wind and at noon on the Wednesday skipper Smith spotted a U-boat two miles away, west, south west. When UB-18 was about a mile away she fired on the smack, the first shot fell short. Smith at once started to get the small boat out, but before it could be launched the submarine fired several more shots of which only one stuck the vessel. The boat was then ready for launching. The last shot struck the rigging cutting it and bringing down the mainsail. Pieces of this shell struck three of the crew: killing James Wilson, (age 62) the cook and wounding Smith in the head and the deck hand George Stone. They managed to get the boat out and got the cooks body into her and pulled clear of the smack. UB-18 then went alongside and threw something down the hatch and then steered off and went off to north, north east.
The crewmember who perished was: Cook, James William Wilson (age 62)

Tuesday 4th July 1916

Queen Bee LT.114 – on: 91743 (1888)
Sailing Trawler, 34 reg tons, 60.0 x 17.0 x 7.8
Skipper: Charles Pitcher
‘The Body of Captain Pitcher of the Lowestoft trawler Queen Bee was landed at Hartlepool on Wednesday night, by the Hartlepool trawler Smiling Moon which also brought in the eight other members of the crew of the trawler, two of them wounded. Queen Bee had been sunk in the North Sea (twenty-eight miles north, east, from Scarborough by UB-23. The survivors stated that they left Scarborough on Tuesday afternoon, and at 6.00 p.m. were suddenly attacked by UB-23. Five shots were fired at the vessel, Pitcher was killed, and Alfred Breston and William Ronaldson of the crew were wounded, Breston in the eye and Ronaldson in the legs. The uninjured men took the body of their captain and the wounded men in their (little) boat. UB-23 came alongside the trawler and sank her with a bomb, after which she towed the survivor’s boat towards the English coast, and before leaving the men handed them some black bread and water. They were picked up by the Smiling Moon and taken to Hartlepool, where the injured men were taken to the hospital.
The crewmember who perished was: Skipper: Charles Pitcher

1917

Tuesday 30th January 1917

Trevone LT.453 – on: 128648 (1909)
Sailing Trawler, 46 reg tons, 70.2 x 18.8 x 9.0
Skipper: James William Rodwell
The skipper was on deck at 3.30 p.m. when U-55 appeared suddenly on the surface and fired two shots, the second hitting the peak halyards. The master and crew immediately took to the boat and were ordered to proceed to the submarine. On boarding the submarine, the skipper James William Rodwell and the cook Herbert Herring were washed overboard and were allowed to drown although they could have been saved by the crew of U-55. Rodwell was last seen hanging onto the submarines side aft for over ten minutes and finally disappeared. The remaining three hands were then ordered below, were searched and relieved of their knives and money, and were made to sign on a plain piece of paper, giving their names, age and date of birth, they were later released unharmed.
The two crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, James Rodwell – Cook, Herbert herring (age 38)

Tuesday 13th February 1917

Fleurette LT.312 on.128629 (1909)
Sailing Trawler, 45 reg tons, 71.3 x 19.1 x 9.1
Skipper: Charles Mullender
Fleurette was captured by UC-47, although the seas were very rough at the time they were ordered to take to the small boat. However, due to the heavy seas UC-47 was unable to sink the smack by gunfire. Fleurette was eventually wrecked upon the shore (unmanned) one-mile northeast from Godrevy Lighthouse. Her crew of five, were all presumed to have drowned.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Charles Mullender – Mate, C. Baker – 3rd hand, F. Mullender – 4th hand, B. Raven – Cook, W. Turrell.

Wednesday 4th July 1917

Chrysolite LT.635 on: 122773 (1905)
Sailing Trawler, 57 reg tons, 72.0 x 19.0 x 8.8
Skipper: Thomas John Smith
Skipper Dennis Samuel King, Success LT.1007 stated that both vessels had been fishing at 7.00 p.m. on 3rd July they were eight miles north, north east, of North Haisborough Light Vessel. They kept company during the night and about 5.00 a.m. King observed  Chrysolite was hauling her gear. Suddenly Chrysolite blew up and when the smoke from the explosion cleared away deponent could see nothing of her but a little floating wreck-age. Success was hauling her gear when the explosion took place and as soon as the gear was secured, she sailed to the spot, and was there in a quarter of an hour. The small boat was put out and rowed around for five minutes, afterwards the body of the skipper T.J. Smith was retrieved. No sign of any other members of the crew could be seen and at 6.30 a.m. deponent cleared out of the wreckage and sailed for Lowestoft. During 1968 part of her transit rail was trawled up by a Boston trawler Wayfarer with the letters CHRYSO.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Thomas John Smith – Mate, Olley Rudd (age 59) – 3rd hand, James Ashley (age 31) – Deckhand, George F. Lumsdaine (age 18) – Cook, William Collins (age 16).

Tuesday 31st July 1917

Young Bert LT.454 on: 119379 (1904)
Sailing Trawler, 47 reg tons, 67.0 x 19.2 x 9.0
Skipper: Edward Bowler
Young Bert was reportedly sunk by UC-63, somewhere in the North Sea with the loss of her crew of five.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Edward Bowler – Mate, John Cook – 3rd hand, Robert Bennett – Deckhand, Arnot Smith – Cook, Thomas Eglinton.

Tuesday 2nd October 1917

Willing Boys LT.67 on: 106436 (1895)
Sailing Trawler, 51 reg tons, 69.5 x 19.0 x 8.5
Skipper: Robert Edward Wright
Skipper William Smith, of Gold Seal stated he was fishing with the Smith’s Knoll Spar Buoy, bearing south, east, about ten miles. At 4.10 a.m. Smith was hauling his nets, and saw a smack about half a mile away which he recognised as Willing Boys because of a patch in the fore topsail and his mizzen topsail which is a peculiar shape.
The smack kept near my vessel as we were mending nets. At 6.30 a.m. Gold Seal was in about the same position with several other smacks all round when there was suddenly a heavy explosion. The boy drew Wrights attention to a vessel about a mile away, he saw her stern blown off, and she was sinking by the stern – the vessel disappeared almost at once with the loss of her crew of five. Wright recognised it was Willing Boys as she lay in the position where the latter had been. They were unable to get her because of the lack of wind.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Robert Edward Wright (age 42) – Mate, Arthur Henry Balls – 3rd Third-hand, Robert Hart – Fourth-hand, Robert Edgley (age 17) – Cook, Robert Charles Partridge (age 17).

Saturday 6th October 1917

Reliance LT.694 on: 115010 (1902)
Steam Drifter, 60 gross tons, 75.6 x 17.9 x 8.0
Skipper: John Albert Sarbutt
The steam drifter Reliance sailed from Lowestoft on the Saturday, her owner Frederick Ernest Beane, expected Reliance to fish somewhere between Winterton Ridge and Smiths Knoll. The vessel was due back in Lowestoft on the Monday. Several boats had seen Reliance riding to her nets outside Winterton Ridge on the evening of October 6th, by daylight she was gone! William Westmate of the drifter Lord Roberts said, ‘they had just hauled their nets and had been below for five minutes when a heavy explosion was heard.
The ten crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, John Albert Sarbutt (age 35) – Mate, George Richard Alexander (age 36) – Alfred Charles Crowford (age 34), William Boggis (age47), Frederick George Cable, (age 37), Henry Charles Day (age 15), Henry Owen Dickerson (age 41), William Gibbens (age 44), James William Gower (age 27) – Cook, Robert Willis Lumsdaine (age 17)

Wednesday 24th October 1917

Vanguard LT.722 on: 120059 (1904)
Sailing Trawler, 37 reg tons (This was a Brixham owned smack, registered in Lowestoft with a Lowestoft crew)
Skipper: H. Alger
Vanguard sailed from Lowestoft on Wednesday morning with the smack Active, both vessels parted below the Cockle Lightship. Vanguard proceeded as if going to the Haisborough grounds. From that time no other vessel has seen her, nor has any wreckage has been picked up.
The five crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, H. Alger – Mate, Sidney Norman Kerrison (age 33) – Third-hand, Edward August Blommaert (age 36) – Deckhand, A. Shimmon – Cook, Redan Sydney Jefferies (age13).

1918

Monday 11th March 1918

W. A. Massy LT.1090 o.n:125880 (1907)
Steam drifter, 84 gross tons, 82.2 x 18.2 x 8.3
Skipper: Sidney Cook
W. A. Massy was four miles west, by north, from Handa Island, Minch when she struck a mine and sunk with the loss of her crew of nine.
The eight crewmembers who perished were: Skipper, Sidney Cook – Mate, William Rayner Peek (age 34) – Engineer, Frank E. Beamish (age 29) – Stoker, Walter Percy Robert (age 21) – Albert Edward John James (age 35) – Herbert Ernest Jacob (age 16) – Emanuel Edward Fisher (age33) – Cook, George Harry Church (age 17)

Boy Jack LT.945 o.n:117443 (1902)
Sailing Trawler 57.3 reg tons
Skipper: Harry Howe
Boy Jack was about four to five miles east of the Cross Sands Lightship returning to Lowestoft. Howe states, he was on deck when he heard machinegun fire, looking to see where it was coming from, he spotted UB-40 about a mile away heading for the smack. Realizing there was no chance of getting away they launched the boat. The submarine went around the smack after the crew had left and one of her crew jumped aboard. The submarine then came to the smacks small boat and ordered all the fishermen except one to come aboard. The boat was pulled with two Germans and one bomb to the smack. The vessel was then ransacked, everything moveable being taken, i.e. flags, ropes, compass, ships bell, cooking utensils, buckets, men’s clothes, tins, oilskins, boots, all provisions, knives and forks. All draws were taken complete with their contents. When the skipper was questioned and revealed the fact, he was returning from the fishing ground, instructions were apparently passed about getting some fish, and two baskets of sole, four or five turbots and a large conger eel were taken. The Germans stayed aboard the smack about half an hour, removing the gear of various kinds. The submarine meanwhile steaming round and round. When the small boat returned to the submarine, the gear provisions etc were handed aboard, and the submarine went astern until it got the small boat about twenty or thirty yards ahead, she was rammed and sunk at full speed. The submarine then started after a homeward bound Lowestoft smack (unnamed) some four or five miles away. The crew of Boy Jack being kept in the meantime the foreside of the conning tower, and had to hang on to the gun, as the submarine was pushing head into the wind, the skipper quite expected one of his hands to be washed overboard. Finding the smack was too close to the sands, the submarine steered in the direction of a Belgian smack. A German officer told Howe that he and his crew would-be put-on board the “next sailer” they came to. The Belgian smack was caught and her crew of three ordered aboard the submarine and Howe and two Germans and a bomb went a board the Belgian smack; which was ransacked of everything that was moveable. The German officer also assured the Belgian skipper he would be put aboard another vessel. When Cross Sands Light was out of sight two patrol boats (M.L.127 and M.L.24) were seen approaching from the north. The two crews were made to move to the conning tower, so the patrol boats could not see them. As the patrol boats approached within a mile an officer without warning closed the conning tower hatch and dived leaving there Belgians and five Englishmen in the water. There was a choppy sea and it was difficult to keep afloat. Three members of Boy Jack’s crew lost their lives before they could be picked up.
The three English fishermen who perished were: Mate, Thomas Frederick Crouchen (age 38) – Deckhand, Frederick Albert Simons (age 16) – Cook, Thomas J. T. Claxton. Two survivors from a Belgian smack were picked up by the same patrol boat; the Belgian skipper’s 22-year-old son (unnamed) lost his life. “It was deliberate murder” said Harry Howe “if they had left us our little boat, we could all have been saved.”

1914 German Minefields

The Admiralty chart below dated 7th January 1915, clearly shows German minefields marked in red off Southwold, the Humber Estuary, Scarborough, Dogger Bank and Newcastle. However, how they achieved this in the first months of the war was unclear at the time. One theory was that they had been actively laying mines in the North Sea on the eve of war! The case of SS Konigen Luise, a converted ferry, supports this theory.
During 1914 there were a number of stories circulating in the press about British and neutral fishing vessels which had been captured by the Germans and were being used to lay mines. The Admiralty put out a press release on Monday the 2nd November, which gave credence to some of these rumours.

‘During the past weeks the Germans have scattered mines indiscriminately in the open sea … Minelaying under a neutral flag and reconnaissance conducted by trawlers, hospital ships and neutral vessels, are the ordinary features of German Naval warfare.’

The Admiralty also announced that the North Sea was now classified as a military area. All merchant and fishing vessels were warned of the dangers, and could only proceed in accordance with Admiralty instruction. In response to German tactics, the Admiralty laid a minefield effectively blocking off the English Channel. This is marked in blue on the map. However, it is also worth pointing out that the German navy developed and built minelaying submarines. The UC.I followed by UC.II and UC.III type were the first of ninety five German minelaying submarines built during the war.

German & British Minefields 1915
German & British Minefields 07/01/1914:- TNA: ADM – 137-1004

Diary of Events

For Lowestoft fishermen, German mines proved to be a deadly foe which resulted in the deaths of ninety-four fishermen before the Armistice in 1918.

November 1914

For Lowestoft’s fishing community November 1914 was the deadliest month of the war. Over a period of twenty-three days, twenty-four men and boys had perished.

  • The first fishing vessels to strike mines and sink were Fraternal LT.1199 and Will & Maggie LT.719 on Tuesday the 3rd November 1914. Nine fishermen lost their lives in this incident.
  • The next day Golden Sunset LT.1194 caught a mine in her nets which exploded damaging the drifter. Although badly damaged she made it back to port. There were no reports of injuries amongst the crew of ten.
  • On Tuesday the 10th the smack Speculator LT.1050 struck a mine near Smiths Knoll with the loss of her crew of five. Another drifter Prolific LT.418 had a mine tangled in her nets and exploded. Again although damaged, she made it back to port.
  • Friday the 26th the steam drifter Lord Carnarvon LT.1197 struck a mine and was lost with her crew of ten.

December 1914

  • Sunday the 20th December Queen of Devon LT.83 and Ivy LT.760 both struck mines and sank with the loss of their crews of nine.
  • By the close of 1914, thirty-two Lowestoft fishermen, men and boys had perished at the hand of German mines.

The data used in this article was sourced from: TNA: ADM 137-1004 North Sea Minefields November – December 1914

Lowestoft Fishermen’s War 1914 -1918

Lowestoft Fishermen’s War 1914 -1918 is the title of my recently published book by Poppyland Publishing.

During 2010, while I was at the National Archive in London researching my family’s Great War military records, I came across statements made by skippers of Lowestoft fishing vessels sunk by enemy action. These statements were made under oath to a Board of Trade Official and were linked to the British Fishing Vessels War Risk Assessment, a compensation scheme for trawler owners. Naval Intelligence also took statements from crews for the purpose of national security. It is this primary source material from the National Archive ADM 137 series that provides the rich forms the major part of the evidence presented in this book. Not all the statements given by fishermen have survived, leaving unfortunate gaps in the history of some vessels and their crews, but those that do provide a rich source of ‘lived’ experience for future generations. I also drew on a number of primary and secondary sources in Lowestoft Records Office, most notably the Port of Lowestoft Research Society’s collection.

For the fishermen of Lowestoft the Great War started on 3 November 1914 when the steam drifter Fraternal LT.1119 struck a mine and sank with the loss of nine of her crew. It was to end with the sinking of the smack Francis Roberts LT.1024 on 28 July 1918. During the war, Lowestoft’s fishing community paid a heavy price, with over a hundred and seventeen men and boys killed, the youngest being thirteen-year-old Redan Sydney Jefferies, cook on the Vanguard LT.722. The port also lost over a hundred and seventy-seven fishing vessels flying the Red Ensign. While the authorities and press at the time showed great diligence in recording details of the attacks and the owner’s of the crafts, less attention was paid to recording the names of the crews.

Although the main focus of this book is on the wartime experiences of the fishermen, it is also important to remember the plight of their families. When the breadwinner was either killed or badly injured, there was very little help and it was down to the women to provide for their families.

While other fishermen around the British Isles will have similar stories to tell about their wartime experiences, this is the story of the Lowestoft men and boys who found themselves in the frontline in an economic war with Germany. One you could argue has been overlooked when the Great War is discussed.