The bottom of the English Channel off Sussex is the last resting place of innumerable sunken ships that came to grief over several millennia.
Not to mention the terrible toll of warships and submarines of the World Wars plus the lost lifeboats and myriad sunken pleasure craft. Then there were the hundreds of warships and submarines of the First and Second World Wars. This terrible toll is without counting the lost lifeboats and myriad sunken pleasure boats.
Most incidents will have involved a solitary ship in an individual tragedy. But not always. In a matter of minutes on 7th December 1809 no less than seven vessels caught in a storm crashed ashore in Seaford Bay one after the other like players in a deadly game of “follow my leader”.
It could have been worse. The seven were part of a convoy of 23 vessels that had set out from Plymouth on 5th December 1809 bound for the Thames estuary. That so many escaped being dashed to pieces on the beach was providential indeed. Even so, over 30 crew members drowned.
Why was a convoy necessary? Four years earlier, in October 1805, Lord Nelson had crippled the French and Spanish fleets with his emphatic victory at Trafalgar. Since then the French stomach for a major naval confrontation with the Royal Navy had all but receded but there remained a risk from well-armed privateers, always happy to snatch an unwary British merchantman.
For protection, ships took to sailing in convoy accompanied by an escorting warship. The sloop “Harlequin” was the escort for that particular December sailing.
The 186-ton “Harlequin” had enjoyed a busy few years since being hired by the Royal Navy in July 1804. Commanded by Lieutenant Phillip C. Anstruther, she racked up a series of successes against shipping from countries considered hostile to Britain. An early example came in February 1906 when she intercepted the “Vigilantia” en route from Bordeaux to Hamburg and brought her into Portsmouth.
Then in April Anstruther apprehended four Prussian ships also out of Bordeaux and bound for Konigsberg. All four were directed into Falmouth. Several days later, “Harlequin” captured the “Vrow Maria” and dispatched her into Penzance.
On 30th October 1807, the Lieutenant took great satisfaction in recapturing the “Galatea” from French privateers and shepherding the British ship into Dover.
Demonstrably competent Anstruther was still in command of “Harlequin” when he was instructed to escort the December 1809 convoy. But it seems the captains of some of the 22 ships under his protection were not so able.
At the end of the first day Anstruther noted in his log: “I caused signal guns to be fired regularly, as some ships were tending to forge ahead of their allotted station in convoy.” He concluded: “Great difficulty with ships unable to keep station after dark. Some ships are not showing proper lights as instructed.”
The weather worsened but this was not necessarily a bad thing for it might deter any armed French luggers lurking in “Privateer Passage”, a stretch of water near the Isle of Wight.
For several ships in the convoy the French threat was very real. The brigantine “Traveller” had been captured on two occasions after leaving Malaga and both times was rescued by the Royal Navy.
The barque “Weymouth” had recently been taken by the French off Portugal but she too was lucky to be recaptured. The masters of both vessels were understandably keen to stick close to “Harlequin”. As it was to transpire, a tad too close.
The convoy slowly moved along the Sussex coast, with the ships pitching and heaving in the face of a rising winter storm. Anstruther kept the “Harlequin” on the seaward side of the merchantmen lest the French should appear. Perhaps he worried too much about the enemy for in reality his most dangerous foe on this fateful night was the weather.
Fog and sleet now set in. Unable to sight land, Anstruther calculated that they were much farther east than they actually were.
At approaching 3am on the morning of 7th December Anstruther made the erroneous assumption that the murky outline of the cliffs west of Newhaven must be the Seven Sisters. Believing Beachy Head to therefore be to his north he thought the convoy now only had to steer north-east to stay a safe distance from shore.
Unfortunately he was actually over three or four miles short of Beachy Head and his change of direction sent the “Harlequin” directly towards the shingle beach lining Seaford Bay. Following close behind were a clutch of ships trusting that their leader was on the right course.
With an eerie calmness, Anstruther’s final log entry records: “Five minutes to morning watch. Wind sou’west abating. Fog. Sleet.” Then he adds: “Harlequin” aground. Signal guns and flares fired to warn convoy. We have serious hull damage below mid-ships.”
The firing of the signal guns gave warning to the bulk of the convoy that there was trouble ahead and they were able to steer clear. But for six ships including the “Weymouth” and “Traveller” it was too late.
They crashed onto the shore as they blindly followed in the wake of “Harlequin”. I will recount in next week’s Yarns, what happened in the ensuing hours.