The Wreck of the "Skegness"

 the wreck

The wreck of the Skegness

And now begins the story of the last shipwreck Under Speeton Cliffs in this stretch of coast's long and tragic history since the beginning of man's maritime activities and no record about local maritime affairs would be complete without the inclusion of this awful event.

The story of the loss of the Skegness has become firmly ingrained in local folklore and is still a by-word for grief and tragedy that reaches down from a time when life was much harder than today and although much has been written in the past about the loss of this vessel, it still strikes a chord with maritime folk as the epitome of man's heroic struggle against the sea, his attempts to save his fellow from its clutches and the true price of fish.

The Skegness registered H.14 was a 275 foot long steam trawler built in 1917 on the South Tees, formerly named the Aragonite she was owned and operated by the Trident Steam Fishing Company in Hull, the port from which she sailed and skippered by Richard Wright aged 28. The Skegness was homebound from the Faeroes when, on the evening of the 24th September 1935 in fine weather, she ran aground at the foot of the notorious Speeton Cliffs.

The Stranding

To the south of Filey, the low grassed clay and shale cliffs rise within a short distance to the 400 foot vertical white chalk Speeton cliffs which then extend to the Flamborough Head. These cliffs are unscaleable except in a few places that are known only to a few local people and anglers and present a trap for the unwary with no way out except back to sea for the unfortunate mariner.

And so it was that on a nice summer's evening the vessel became stranded, with only the standard navigation equipment of the day and before the days of radar, the Skegness had befallen the same misfortune that occurred to many other vessels previously, but by good grace had grounded on the rocks in fine weather. Local opinion at the time was that the boat had run ashore due to the inaccuracies of the navigation systems, however, Commander Hawkridge, Manager of the Hull Steam Trawlers Mutual Insurance & Protection Co. Ltd., was later reported to say that:

"Apparently the Skegness reported engine trouble last night. She did not require assistance at the time, but when the wind drove her towards the cliffs she sent out an S O S."

Despite having limited navigation equipment, the trawler was however fitted with the latest invention of the time - the "wireless" and this equipment was becoming the standard feature in shipping of the day. In the local fishing communities, it was common practice to listen in at home to the "trawler band", this monitoring of the wireless by fishing folk served to keep them informed of the activities of loved ones at sea, if there were good catches to be had and also as a bush telegraph to warn of impending disaster. Fishing communities like mining communities were well versed in disaster and rose together to save whoever it was that fell by the wayside and Filey was no exception. In Filey the warning that the vessel was in distress was received in the homes of fishermen, one of the messages said "Skegness calling all stations, have grounded but am not in immediate danger" The urgency of these messages was to change as the night wore on and the crew's situation became a personal matter to those on shore as this was not a disembodied voice calling from miles away out of sight of land, these were fishermen and the lights of their stricken vessel could be seen from Filey.

At this time, the weather was still fine and although it was believed that the crew had originally taken to the lifeboat and returned aboard, skipper W Normandale of the Scarborough trawler Nordale was heard to advise the crew of the Skegness that it was in their best interests to abandon. However, skipper Wright had every intention of refloating his vessel, the weather was not bad and although he had grounded on rocks, the Skegness had come ashore at about 8 pm, was presumably seaworthy and as high tide was about three o clock in the next morning he had plenty of time to float her off by laying out an anchor in deeper water and winching himself off the shore as the tide rose. This course of action known as "kedging" was a tried and tested method and had saved many a ship in the past, he also had the option of being pulled off the rocks by another vessel as the tide rose. Also, in practical terms, to leave a seaworthy vessel with a full hold of fish to be salvaged by others would not go down well and presumably would incur heavy penalties from its owners and Insurers. In short, he was the Master and it was his prerogative to take the best course of action with regards to the safety of his crew and his vessel.

the cliffs

The forbidding cliffs of Speeton and Bempton

The Storm

But as time wore on, the options were running out for the crew of the Skegness, the wind changed to the east and strengthened and within an hour the weather had gone from fog to a full gale and a heavy sea was running. The situation was now desperate, the North Sea was living up to is reputation as the "sudden sea" and the trap was now firmly shut, Skipper Wright called for assistance and at about 11.10 pm the Filey sailing lifeboat was launched and proceeded to Speeton Cliffs, not a mean feat for a little open sailing boat in the prevailing conditions, but as the Skegness was on a lee shore it was unable to go in to her for fear of certain destruction. The motor Lifeboat of Scarborough launched at 11.40 pm on information that there was a vessel needing assistance on Filey Brigg (which is 9 miles to the North and the wrong location), this lifeboat returned at 1.20 am after seeing nothing but was re launched at 4.15 am to go to Speeton Cliffs. Flamborough Lifeboat was launched also but to no avail and the weather was so bad that at the end of her Service to the Skegness she could not return to her Station and had to go to Bridlington Harbour. By now the word was out and the fishing community mobilised to render assistance, Filey fishermen set off on foot along the shore but they were unable to get under the Speeton cliffs due to the rising tide. In Scarborough, the skipper of a local trawler Nordale Mr W Normandale monitored the messages and had spoken to the Skegness all the time, he raised steam and set off from Scarborough with other vessels to assist and now the men of Speeton became the last hope for the crew of the Skegness.

At Speeton, a village nestling behind the lee of the falling ground behind the chalk cliff tops, and close to the position of the Skegness, a life saving company, the Speeton Rocket Brigade was established. This Brigade had been established with good reason as this stretch of coast had laid claim to many lives due to shipwreck and the services of the Speeton men had been called upon many times before.

The Speeton men were tough, well trained and dedicated and provided their services on a volunteer basis, having other full time employment during the day. The number one position in the Brigade was Arthur Coleman of Church Farm, Speeton. At the time of the grounding he reported that "there was a real thick fog out there and the wind was blowing, we had gone to bed and suddenly the wind changed to the back (the east) and I commented to my wife, that's some wind and not long after, the maroon (the explosive rocket used to call out the crew) went and we had to turn out. It was after midnight, the cart that was used to transport the rocket equipment was pulled by four horses and as they had been turned out to grass and they had to be caught in the dark."

Meanwhile the sea grew up into white marching walls of death that, in concert with the rising gale and blinding rain, careened past the Skegness and hurled themselves at the base of the cliffs. The swells increased as the tide advanced and the fury of the sea started to ram the boat further up the rocks, in addition to this, the boat was caught in a vicious backwash from the seas as they hit the base of the cliffs and rebounded back upon themselves. The messages from the Skegness told their own story, one was reported as saying "we are bumping badly on the rocks" and another said "The storm is increasing in intensity and we are considering taking to the boats".

In atrocious weather the Speeton Rocket Brigade set off to find the wreck, which is what the Skegness had now become and were guided to the place by the voices of the seamen carried by the wind. The vessel was then upright on her keel but being swept from end to end by heavy seas borne of a bitter wind that blasted up the vertical face of the chalk cliffs and tore across the cliff edge. It was impossible to stand at the edge of the cliff and in the blinding rain the rescuers had to go to the edge on their hands and knees. The rocket equipment was assembled and it was proposed to fire a rocket carrying a line to the crew so that they could have a heavier line passed to them with a running block attached. This block would then be secured to the vessel and the breeches buoy equipment rigged so that the crew members could be hauled to safety one by one. But this was not to be, the Speeton men fired first one rocket but the wind was so strong that it blew it into the cliffs. The Rocket lines were rigged and re rigged for a total of seven times but their lifesaving equipment which was their only remaining resource and at the forefront of the technology of the day was defeated by the elements as their rockets were blown back towards them, sometimes over their heads. One witness said that in a desperate attempt to fire a line to the wreck and against all regulations, rockets were strapped together and fired together, but even their combined power could not defeat the storm.

The Loss

One can only imagine the feelings of the crew at the foot of the cliffs as the flare of each rocket was seen at the top of the cliff only to end in failure. The feeling of utter terror and despair of these men can only be matched by the sadness, disappointment and frustration of the Speeton men and all the others who had fought so hard to save the crew and this would stay with them to their dying day. Arthur Coleman in his late eighties certainly had vivid memories of this day. The Speeton Rocket Brigade were joined by Coastguard Inspector Waller, he said "we got a searchlight focussed on the wreck, and we saw the crew signal by flashlight or something from the wheelhouse after midnight but we saw nothing afterwards. As the tide rose, the boat was forced over on her side and submerged, they were 420 feet below us us and our only possible resource, the rocket line proved useless."  The rescuers now became mute spectators to the inevitable and George Burton of Filey recalled that the lights on the vessel went out at about 1:30 am. At some undetermined point in time, alone and with no hope, eleven men died in the maelstrom, so near and yet so far from salvation and overwhelmed by the elements. It was particularly devastating for the Filey fishing family of the Crimlisks' as one of the crew was a spare hand, Joseph Crimlisk aged 18 whose grandfather had retired from Hull and lived in Filey and one Hull family lost two members, the Chief Engineer Samuel R Dyson and the Trimmer Samuel William Dyson his son who was no doubt following his father's career.

the wreck

The scene the next morning

When daylight came, the grim task of recovering the bodies started, one man was found with a line tied around him and had died as he had tried to swim ashore. George Burton now in his early nineties recalled that himself, "Sailor" Jenkinson and the Bempton policeman went aboard the Skegness on the second morning morning after the tragedy when the sea had calmed down. George had just come out of the Army and "Sailor", who was a professional footballer were both very fit. They got across to the wreck by the funnel and had to negotiate a deep hole, George stood on "Sailor's" shoulders and hooked a short boat hook into a rope with an eye in it and hauled himself aboard. When they were all aboard, the policeman would not allow anyone else to follow them and they searched amongst the tangle of nets and wreckage as best they could. "Sailor" went down below and George went forward to the crews sleeping quarters, but found it swept clean by the sea. The rope was paid out and made fast to the shore and as the tide was starting to rise, they had to make their escape quickly by this means (for which the policeman got wet). On the third day, either the Receiver of Wreck or the Insurance assessor inspected the wreck at high water from Dick Cammish's ("Dicky Hoy's") coble in calm summer weather and on the next day, the last two bodies wrapped in nets were recovered from the inside of the wreck. After the investigations, the Skegness was left to the ravages of the elements and man.

The disaster made national headlines on the day and a newspaper even hired an aircraft to over fly the scene for photographs to be taken, a series of postcards were produced and a poem "Skegness Calling" was written and sold in aid of the fund for the relatives. During the day a rumour spread in Hull that two of the crew had been saved and relatives besieged the offices of the company asking who the men were. This was due to the company adding the words "Nine members of the crew feared lost" under the list of the crew.

The official summation of the event is contained in the report of the Honorary Secretary of the Filey Lifeboat , Frank Wright.  Recorded in a small, neat hand and with ambiguous wording highlighted, the awful account reads;

 "This is a very tragic case in which three lifeboats went to the assistance of a vessel and could not locate her and intimately the vessel became a total wreck and the crew of eleven were lost. It is understood that a message was received at about 9pm that she was in difficulties but that lifeboat assistance was not required. The Coastguards located her and could not see her lights. From 9:30 until 10:15 wireless messages were sent out backed up by local receiving sets their messages demanding an urgent assistance. I was in touch with the Coastguard and suggested that Flamborough motor boat would get to the vessel in shorter time than we could I communicated with Flamborough and he promised to launch right away. Informed Coastguard of my action, twenty minutes after Flamborough launched a signal was seen by us from the vessel. When Coastguard and Coxswain to send Filey boat they did not locate the vessel and returned. The tractor driver was away and the assistant in bringing the boat ashore had trouble with the tackle of the tractor eventually the boat was hauled up to the boathouse by horses. The allowances should be made to Ben C Jenkinson for telephone calls and to taking rockets to Speeton Coastguard after supply was exhausted and returning to send message for Scarborough motor boat to be sent the second time"

The bottom of Speeton Cliffs is a very lonely, desolate place in winter and a wild beautiful place in summer, seldom visited by man and only frequented by the families of gulls and diving birds whose raucous calls reverberate around the gaunt, white chalk cliffs. The cold North Sea washes over the iron bones of the Skegness and its contemporaries that have come to rest there, the only physical memorial remaining to the tragic loss of life in such terrible circumstances all those years ago. But the true memorial is that which remains in the hearts of the families who suffered loss on that fateful day and in the few local people alive today who witnessed the event and those of later generations who recall the incident and pay tribute to the unswerving loyalty and bravery of the rescuers.

Story © A Green 2000

Photo © E Green 1935

  The shipwrecked Mariners' Society assisted 6 widows, 13 orphans and 6 parents of the men lost. 

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