THOMAS M. M. HEMY (1852-1937) - PAGE 18
WRECKED OFF ST. BEE'S HEAD
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The 1890 newspaper article on page 02 mentions that the artist was shipwrecked on the northwest coast of England. In his book, 'Deep Sea Days', the author devotes Chapter IV to the incident at pages 120 through 136. And for your interest I provide it here. The above two prints were illustrations to that chapter of the book.
CHAPTER IV OF 'DEEP SEA DAYS'
WRECKED OFF ST. BEE'S HEAD
In due course our orders came for us to proceed from Waterford to Whitehaven, there to discharge our cargo of grain. We left the Irish coast in very dirty January weather, with a high wind, rain, hail and fog.
We fought our way across the Irish Sea, and arrived off the coast of Cumberland with a hard nor'-easterly breeze blowing. In the afternoon we sighted a large fishing craft, and our skipper signalled her that he wanted a pilot at once; she lay to and when we came within speaking distance, they said they would put a man on board of us to pilot the ship into Whitehaven for ₤7. Our captain thought it too much, and offered ₤3, but eventually advanced it to ₤5. The skipper of the smack, losing patience, let fly his foresheet and got under weigh, leaving us to our own devices. It proved an expensive bit of bargaining for us, and could our skipper have foreseen the sequel he would cheerfully have paid an extra ₤2 rather than have lost assistance by haggling over that paltry amount.
It was beginning to get dark, dusking in fact, owing to the rain and fog, and we could see very little ahead; no lights were visible on the coast, and as we had been expecting to pick up for some time St. Bee's Head light, the mate went up on the fore-yard to look out for the beacon, whilst the skipper went below to have another look at his charts. The feeling that all was not well spread heavily amongst us, for it was apparent that our skipper was at sea in every sense of that term. These forebodings of coming trouble were soon realised, for presently we heard the mate shout, "light on the port bow!" and we knew that it was St. Bee's Head, and that the light should have been on our starboard beam! The skipper rushed on deck as the news was passed down to him, and he had scarcely reached the poop when there came a shock and a stagger, and someone cried, "she's struck!" - quite unnecessary tidings to those who had been sent flying and had measured their lengths on the deck, or been thrown against the bulwarks.
The wind just then was blowing off the land, and the first thing we did was to haul round her yards, and throw the sails aback, but it was of no use; she had stuck too fast. The long boat was then got out, and a kedge (small anchor) dropped off the port quarter. After a lot of heaving, this, with the assistance of the sails, proved effective, and we found ourselves afloat again. But alas! it was not for long, as the order to haul round the yards again was unfortunately given too soon, and she struck once more farther north. This time she could not be budged, and the wind was veering round to the nor'west.
We had a confabulation for'ard as to what to do next; a tall and sinewy Irishman taking the lead. We had lost all confidence in the after-guard - and had come to the conclusion that the only seaman there was the mate, but that he was too old for his job. We therefore decided that it was up to us to take matters in hand and carry on.
The lifeboat was alongside, and the men discussed whether they should take this boat and make an effort to get to Whitehaven, with a view to getting a tug boat to come and try to get the ship off. Some of them thought they ought to do so, but others thought they would come to grief if they tried. I left them at it, for I was tired out and very sleepy, and decided to seek the shelter of the galley where there was a fire, and try to get a little sleep, but, with a forethought remarkable in one so young, I hauled a pair of very natty Wellington boots from under my berth and put them on. I augured that if I was to be drowned I would at least do my best to make a respectable-looking corpse, and if I was to be saved, then I would have a fine new pair of boots - purchased at Waterford and made to order.
I duly reached the galley without being noticed by anyone, and went in, pulling the sliding door to. After poking up the fire I lay down on the cook's bench, and in a couple of shakes was in the land of dreams.
There came a rude awakening; how much later I knew not, but I was sent flying, and struck the galley floor hard, then I heard and felt the grinding and rasping of the bottom of the vessel on the rocks as she rolled furiously. It was pitch dark and evidently some of the aloft gear had fallen and knocked off the galley funnel, blocking up the aperture, for the place was chockfull of smoke. I groped about in the suffocating smother until I found a door, and, frantically pushing it open, I staggered out, gasping for breath. I gazed around in amazement; they were burning flares and blue lights on the poop, and I could see men clustered around the starboard rigging engaged in hacking away the shrouds or their lanyards, in preparation for getting shot of our masts. As the ship rolled I could see the water pouring over the bulwarks; I afterwards learned that the wind had increased to a gale and veered round to the westward; the tide had risen fast, bringing with it a heavy sea. A signal gun had been fired repeatedly in the hope of getting assistance.
Still only half awake, I made for the poop, and scarcely knowing, in my dazed condition, what I was doing, ran up the mizen rigging, but when only half-way up to the cross-trees I heard someone yelling that the masts were going over the side, at which I sprang out of the standing rigging, and, clutching a loose rope, dropped down to the deck like a spider from its web when a wasp pays it a call. It was well for me that I did so, for I had hardly touched the deck before the mainmast went by the board, carrying with it the mizen mast. On this some of our hands made a dive below into the cabin, perhaps in search of liquor, or affected by a blind panic, but they were called up at once as the sea was now coming over the poop and the companion doors had to be closed.
Then followed a dreary interval; all the crew were now on the poop, for there was no friendly mizen rigging to climb into. The ship, I suppose, had been driven off the rocks deep into the sand, for she was now steady, with a slight list to starboard, and we were all clinging to the poop rail. Every minute, however, the tide was rising, and the waves were threatening to tear us from our hold. It was evidently only a question of time when they would succeed.
Then a brain wave came to someone; why not make for the for'ard part of the ship? So far as anybody knew, the foremast was still standing, and, anyhow, that part of the vessel was higher out of the water that the after end! But we knew the chance of getting there was very doubtful as we peered into the black night and watched the waves as they poured in amidships, making a plaything of the mass of tangled rigging and broken spars. We could only guess at what lay beyond, for nothing was visible save close at hand, when the waves amongst the wreckage broke into white foam on the deck below the poop. To drop down amongst the wreckage and risk being caught by a wave seemed suicidal! Then again, for all we could see there might be no foremast? or it might even be that the fore part of the ship had ceased to exist!
The man who took the bull by the horns and who, after watching a great wave recede, dropped down on to the main deck, was a hero! In a couple of seconds he had disappeared to view, but after the next wave had gone he was followed by a bunch of two or three. We did not know their fate - they were simply gone! The blackness of the night was greater than any I've ever experienced. As the next wave all but carried us overboard, it was evident we should have to make the journey ourselves, and it was time to get moving. It was indeed a weird experience. Frantically leaping and wading, we pushed our way to the for'ard end of the ship before another wave broke, and found the foremast still standing, and lashed to the standing rigging were the men who had proceeded us on the venturesome journey - save he who had been the first to make it. I found him later, after I had climbed out to the end of the bowsprit, where I lashed myself to the stay. He had fastened himself in "the head," the cross bars at the top of the cutwater. Why he had chosen this spot I know not, for, although he was sheltered from the wind, when the waves broke aboard they rushed over the forecastle and a veritable cascade descended on him. When his head emerged from the welter he would express himself in the most awful language.
As for me, perched up as I was on the bowsprit, I looked down on the man, like unto the cherub that sits up aloft and looketh down on poor Jack. I had managed somehow to secure one of the two or three lifebelts that were on board, and when my neighbour had a lucid interval he persistently advised me to make a jump for it. This advice I, as persistently ignored, and when morning broke it appeared as if I was fully justified in so doing, for the light revealed a rocky shore which undoubtedly I should only have reached in fragments. Up the rigging were the rest of the crew; the only voice came from the ship's youngest apprentice, who was praying; at least what was blown to me at intervals appeared to me prayers; and the only comfort that came their way was from the old mate, who was the possessor of the last plug of tobacco that we had left; this he passed at intervals to the others to take a chaw from. The hours seemed interminable, and it is always a marvel to me that we managed to retain our hold for so long. Nature is sometimes merciful; men can suffer so far and no farther; and when the limit is reached death is an easy matter. Speaking from my own experience, I know that if I had dropped into the sea I was quite incapable of lifting a hand to preserve my life, so numbed was I both in body and mind.
Matters had about reached their blackest when there came from landwards the shrill sound of a locomotive whistle, and turning eagerly in the direction whence it came, we could distinguish sparks flying from the engine funnel, then the lights of the carriage windows. It was indeed the dawn of hope, as well as of a new day! Surely we could not be allowed to drown with help so near, and daylight breaking! It was not so easy now to pass out on the long journey, and still less so when the cold grey light of dawn revealed a village lying in flat country, with a railway station and telegraph posts! Our revulsion of feeling can be imagined. Our despair when no response was made to our distress signals; our hours of misery in the darkness; our joyful hope when we saw the near evidence of civilised activity.
The tide was falling most certainly, and the question that agitated us was should we be taken off before it rose again? In the growing light, what a scene of desolation our vessel presented! Then our eyes turned to the beach, and we saw the second evidence of life - the figure of a man strolling down from a cottage, which stood apart from its fellows on a sandy waste opposite the ship. He looked at us, or appeared to do so, then he sat down and took out his pipe, which he slowly lighted. He was evidently thinking - and so were we. The tide had now fallen sufficiently to allow us to get down on the deck, and the man was probably thinking that our vessel had a cargo of lunatics on board, for we were dancing and jumping about, beating our hands and cutting all sorts of antics, striving to get some vitality into our frozen limbs, so as to restore some part of a circulation. This achieved, we did not sit down and weep; no, the Irishman decided that we were going to make a raft; our boats were smashed, fragments of them possibly strewed the adjoining beach - and on that raft there would be volunteers; they would establish communication with the shore, and having done so would proceed to the railway station and get the stationmaster to wire to Whitehaven, asking them to send a lifeboat.
With feverish haste we set about making this raft; we had plenty of material to work with. The Irishman took charge of this job and bossed everybody, including his officers. It was a smart piece of work when finished, then volunteers were called for, and everybody came forward. Selecting two, our new skipper saw them safely on the raft, which had just been launched, and we paid out a lot of log line to be landed, as the idea was for those on shore to haul a rope from the ship, the said rope to be attached to a rock, and on it we would scramble down to the shore in the event of a lifeboat not being forthcoming. But it did not work according to plan.
In the first place, before the raft had gone far the log line fouled some of the wreckage and had to be cut; then the sea took a hand in the game and the unfortunates on the raft were nearly torn off and drowned, and only the fact that they were well secured before starting saved them. The raft eventually got ashore some half-mile away, and its crew managed to reach the station. There they were informed by the stationmaster that there was no need to send for a lifeboat, as the ship, where she now lay, would be high and dry at low water.
We on board were anxiously waiting for news which came not, and as we were well aware that although the wind and tide had gone down, they might rise again - the latter certainly, so, we held a consultation as to what to do next. It was considered that someone should be able to swim ashore now with the log line, and establish communication, when it was discovered that the only person on board who could swim at all was the youngest apprentice, a youth of about fifteen or sixteen. He was, however, a plucky little chap and he volunteered, so we lowered him into the water and watched his progress with anxiety. He managed to struggle gamely through the breakers, and the man who had sat on the rock "thinking" all this time, got off his perch, waded in and pulled him ashore. Then they both took hold of the log line and pulled off a rope, which they made fast to a friendly rock. Down this one after the other of us clambered to land, most of us in a pretty bad case, some of us unable to walk. The Cambrian proved himself a man of resource and hospitality also, for he called his wife down, and together they half carried, half supported the worst cases up to their cottage. There we sat before a roaring fire and were filled up with hot tea and brandy. When our teeth ceased from chattering and our limbs and tongues moved freely once more we again went down to the beach to see how matters were faring there.
We found the ship high and dry as the stationmaster had predicted, and a crowd of people engaged in loading carts with the cabin furniture and stores; perched up on the top of one of these I noticed one of our men, drunk as a lord and singing a ballad.
We asked our Good Samaritan if he had not heard our signals of distress during the night, and he replied that he did hear a few bangs, but he thought he had left the inner door open and that it was their dog going about the house looking for its pups, which he had sold that day; also, he added, the wind was fit to "tear all up" and was a terrible row.
It was a chilly day, and we spent it as might be expected. The village was a typical small watering place - a seaside resort for Whitehaven, Carlisle and neighbourhood, a place where the inhabitants mostly hibernate during the winter; living frugally, and waiting patiently for the summer season, when they can fall on their prey from the inland towns and unload them of their superfluous cash. In the usual manner, the coming of a wreck, with the promise it held of grate fuel for the winter, was satisfactory, and there were possibilities of divers kind of loot also.
Our captain had gone to the hotel and made arrangements with the landlady to cater for us and provide accommodation for the night, contemplating sending us to Whitehaven the next day to be paid off.
So we duly made our way to this hotel, where we held a reception, and partook of considerable liquid hospitality and enjoyed the comfort of the same; no one, by the way, offered us a change of garments, and it took a considerable amount of the said beverages to make us forget that we were externally considerably damp.
The clergyman looked in in the course of the evening, and that describes it! for he just put in his nose, held up his hands and fled. Then it came to a question of beds. Be it remembered that we had only the garments in which we stood, for all our chests had been washed overboard with the deckhouse, and after our rough experience our working clothes made us look like tramps. Perhaps there was some excuse for the landlady remarking that her beds were fit for princes to sleep on, and she was not going to have ------- I had better not repeat what she did say, it was not complimentary, and it was lucky for her that she was a woman! Our captain had guaranteed all our expenses, yet we were put to sleep in our half-dried garments in a barn. Thanks probably to the hotel's liquors, which were more generous that its landlady, we slept like tops and were none the worse when daylight broke.
We left those inhospitable quarters next afternoon and went by train to Whitehaven. Our skipper had given us the name of an hotel where he told us he had made arrangements for "our comfort." We were to stay there until he had communicated with his owners and received the money to pay us off.
It was dark when we left the station and we asked the way from a sergeant of police, and told him who we were. He was very interested, and directed us to the place, but imagine our disgust when the landlord frankly refused to take us in. I forget the exact reason that he gave, but he ended up by calling a policeman to show us the way to a place that he apparently thought would suit us; and off we went shepherded by this policeman. We were led into an evil-smelling passage, and the constable opened the door of a disreputable-looking building, and we were ushered into a large odoriferous room with bare walls that somewhere in a remote past had been whitewashed. We were greeted by a hump-backed, forbidding-looking object who was holding a birch broom in his hand, whether to keep his collection of gutter ornaments in order, or as a symbol of authority, I know not, but he was evidently "the boss." Sitting on benches around the room was a collection of wretched-looking tramps of the cadging, ballad-singing variety, area sneaks, etc., one or two of whom were cripples and one a bogus sailor. In front of the large fire a man was engaged in bandaging up an ugly sore on his leg, while another was toasting a herring.
After a few words with "Daddy" - as we found "the boss" was acclaimed by his clients - and without speaking to us the policeman retired and left us standing dumbstricken. We gazed around helplessly at the strange sight, whilst a blackguard with a shade over his eyes related some dirty scheme he had succeeded in, which met with laughter from all, particularly "Daddy." We were helpless, we had not a penny-piece in our pockets, but we felt that this was no place for us, and made to pass out into the dreary night again; "Daddy" rushed forward to bar our progress, when suddenly the door opened and in stepped the police sergeant to whom we had spoken outside the railway station, a Good Samaritan dressed in blue. "Hullo, boys," he cried in cheery tones, "what are you doing here?" We told him. "Well," he replied, "you can't and shan't stop here, or walk the streets. We're not all like that brute at the hotel, follow me lads," and with the curses of "Daddy" ringing in our ears we filed out.
Our conductor led us to a quiet, old-fashioned inn, with a landlady of a very different type from the one of the previous evening, to whom the sergeant explained matters, finishing up with: "Mrs. ---, you can hold me responsible for their board," and then turning to our crowd continued, "now, lads, I leave you to behave well and be a credit to the house and my recommendation."
Then he shook hands with us and left. That night was a heavenly one for all; nothing was too good for us. I afterwards heard that the landlady said she had never had better behaved people in her house. On the next morning I met our mate, and, borrowing a shilling from him, sent a wire home, and the following day a registered letter reached me, and I left.
My wire was something in the nature of a surprise to my people, for they had heard nothing from me for a couple of years or so.
The experiences round Cape Horn and the effects of the wreck had somewhat broken my nerves and I decided that I had had enough of the sea, so returned to work at the School of Art at Newcastle.
If I find more about the general subject, I'll add it in in due course!
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