By Eric Streeton
287 Lost in Shipping Disaster at Dungeness Approximately 15 years ago I was given an old Guide Book for Rye and Winchelsea which was printed at the start of the last century. Although a bit tatty it was more than readable, and read it I did, from cover to cover.
In the section on Winchelsea I found a description for a view of the Church which read thus, a small Obelisk near Wesley’s Tree covers the grave of four passengers of the ill-fated Northfleet which was run down while anchored off Dungeness, on the night of January 22nd, 1873. Already it was too late the seeds were sown, I had made my mind up there and then I wanted to know more. I made a visit to Winchelsea Church Yard. Here I found Inscribed on the Obelisk these words, “In the memory of Henry Coventry aged 18 years A Man Woman and Child unknown. And of the 287 passengers and crew of the Northfleet who were drowned off Dungeness on January 22nd 1873.” After questioning many people I knew who were interested in Local History about the Northfleet I drew a complete blank.
Then some eighteen months later a chance conversation with one of the lads at work set the wheels in motion again, you need to talk to my Uncle Ted he will put you right, and what a font of knowledge Uncle Ted turned out to be. He had written an account of this wreck in one of his local history books. He was good enough to lend me a photocopy of the book “The Loss of the Northfleet” which was a complete account of the disaster written in the same year.
The Northfleet was a three masted sailing ship, which was initially a Troop Ship and Tea Clipper, but now she was carrying a very different cargo. She was carrying almost four hundred passengers and crew on that fateful day of the 22nd of January 1873. All the passengers were emigrant workers and their families on route to Tasmania to build a railway. Couples had paid £30 and singles paid £ 14 15s for their passage and food. Her cargo was made up of 101 tons of tin plate and nails, 85 tons of salt, 341 tons of railway lines. She was heading down channel from Gravesend in Kent.
Then as the weather worsened the decision was made to take shelter of the Dungeness Roads about three miles offshore, here she lay in the company of many other ships. Between ten and ten thirty that night the ship shuddered as a steamer ran into her and holed her amidships, and disappeared into the night.
The order was given to fire the small six pound gun as a distress signal but it was damaged and they were unable to set off a signal. Flares were fired but were mistaken for a call for a pilot. By now the ship was sinking fast, and she was abandoned. Within forty five minutes of being struck she had sunk.
Contemporary accounts of the day take up the story. “We saw people with children clinging to them, crying for us to help them. Some were floating, some were in the rigging, and some were in boats. John Stanley had saved 21 people as other ships stayed put on the squally sea unaware of what was happening. Account two- Some of those that could not swim were floating on the water on barrels and pails, of which they were obliged to leave go from sheer exhaustion.” It is very sad to note that there were seven baby’s under one year old who lost their lives, the youngest being just three months old. A man was killed on the day of her launching and some more superstitious folk thought that this had been a bad omen. The enquiry into the disaster identified a Spanish Ship the Murillo as the culprit of the disaster but she did not have visible identification on her, as a result it became international law that all ships were to be made clearly identifiable. It was also because of the mixture of distress signals used at that time, which led to them being standardised. In the following months a disaster fund was launched to which Queen Victoria contributed to.
It is now fifteen years on since my interest was aroused about this wreck, and snippets of information are still coming to light. I did not realise that there was a song written about the Wreck of the Northfleet. I heard this song just a couple of months ago on an L P entitled “Round Rye Bay for More” recorded by John Doughty, in 1977.
When reading of accounts like the Northfleet, it does make you appreciate the professionalism and quality of today’s rescue services that are available for all of today’s Seafarers. I refer of course to the Coast Guard and the R.N.L.I. To whom so many people owe their lives.
The Song of the Northfleet
From the John Doughty record ‘Round Rye Bay For More’
1 Come listen all ye feeling people While this sad story I relate It’s about a vessel called the ‘Northfleet’ Which met with such an awful fate Five hundred souls she had aboard her Lay anchored there, off Dungeness Bound for Australia was the vessel They bid farewell with fond caress.
2 It was a big and foreign vessel Came drifting the channel tide Bore down upon the helpless ‘Northfleet’ And crashed into her timbered side Nor did she stop to give assistance Or repair the damage she had made While everyone aboard the ‘Northfleet’ Went down upon their knees and prayed.
3 God bless those widows and those orphans Comfort them where e’er they be May God in Heaven above protect them From all the perils of the sea.
4 The Captain said, Now to the lifeboats; Stand back you men, the women first. I’ll shoot the first that disobeys me’. They did not heed but madly rushed. The Captain fired, his shot was fatal And one poor fellow’s life was slain While everyone aboard the ‘Northfleet’ Went down upon their knees and prayed
5 The Captain sent down for his first mate And bade him try and save his life And gave into his trustful keeping His young but newly-wedded wife ‘No, let me stay with you, dear husband ‘No, no, my wife that cannot be She stayed aboard the sinking vessel With him went to eternity
6 God bless those widows and orphans Comfort them where e,’er they be’. May God in Heaven above protect them From all the perils of the sea.
June 2005 Issue of “Rye’s Own”
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