Not even timber enough for a drowned sailor's coffin

A painting depicting a dramatic shipwreck incident in front of a Martello Tower in Kent. The scene must be similar to the one at Seaford on the early morning of 7th December 1809 when no less than seven ships came to grief in a storm.
A painting depicting a dramatic shipwreck incident in front of a Martello Tower in Kent. The scene must be similar to the one at Seaford on the early morning of 7th December 1809 when no less than seven ships came to grief in a storm.

Last week I began the story of the maritime calamity that beset seven ships of a 23-strong convoy making its way up the English Channel from Plymouth to the Thames in December 1809.

Off the coast of Sussex, terrible weather reduced visibility to almost zero and when the experienced captain of the “Harlequin”, Lieutenant Phillip Anstruther, made a navigational error that plotted him off Beachy Head but in reality close to Seaford Bay, the scene was set for tragedy.

Anstruther’s ship was the first to crash onto Seaford’s shingle beach. Aghast at his mistake, Anstruther had signal guns fired to warn the following vessels. This action undoubtedly saved most of the convoy but came too late for six ships too close behind to steer clear. They too fetched up on the shore amid raging surf.

The signal guns fired from “Harlequin” resounded inland and roused hundreds of Seaford inhabitants who hurried to the beach. The “Sussex Weekly Advertiser” reported: The spectators beheld “… a truly dreadful sight, the seven ships being nigh together and complete wrecks, with their remaining crews clinging to them and imploring assistance”.

The 18 guns the “Harlequin” carried were now tipped overboard to aid buoyancy - no mean feat for the crew to accomplish in the circumstances - but even so the ship’s back was broken and she was dangerously down by the stern. Soon all of the crew crowded together on the prow as the rest of the ship disintegrated. Some men fastened a line to a barrel that they cast into the water; it was hurled ashore by a wave and caught by rescuers on the beach. The resulting lifeline allowed the crew to hang on to it for dear life and make their way ashore.

One account has it that the wife and two children of Anstruther were the last people on the “Harlequin”. Another says that they were part of the family of a passenger. Whatever the truth, it seems that two Seaford fishermen, perceiving the plight of the stranded trio, somehow launched a small boat in the face of the crashing waves. They managed to row out to the wreck and rescue the woman and her children.

There were other acts of courage. One of the stricken ships was the German-owned “Midbedatch”; all of her crew was lost save for a single man. His salvation was a Lieutenant Derenzy who had arrived from the barracks at East Blatchington on the outskirts of Seaford. As the sole survivor struggled in the boiling water, the officer ran into the sea and managed to get a grip on the sailor and keep him afloat. Meanwhile a line of soldiers holding on to each other made a human “rope” that extended into the sea to reach the men.

Amid such acts of selfless gallantry there was some callous behaviour. Seaford in those days housed a disreputable element ever ready to exploit the distress of others. Knowing the sea would wash up potentially rich pickings, looters lay in wait. The “Sussex Weekly Advertiser” reported: “To keep the people from plundering, customs officials were under the necessity of requesting the assistance of the Officer Commanding the Dragoons at East Blatchington who very readily granted them a party for that purpose.”

Yet so determined to profit were the looters that even some of the soldiers had their belongings stolen, one officer complaining that a gold watch had been taken from his jacket after he laid it out on the beach and went to help with the rescue efforts. How sadly ironic if the officer in question was the brave Lieutenant Derenzy.

The newspaper concluded: “We find it hard to record the thieving and looting that went on that night, being ashamed to mention that such dastardly acts could have been committed at a time of such bravery, sorrow and heroism.”

When casks of spirits were cast up upon the beach some were opened on the spot and drunkenness quickly ensued. It was said that two local men reeking of alcohol were later found dead on the shingle having expired from exposure after passing out from strong drink.

Not less than 31 seamen from the wrecked vessels died that night. Lost or sketchy ships’ manifests listing the crews meant the toll may have been as high as 40. Early in 1810 a Court of Inquiry into the disaster convened. Lieutenant Anstruther was found blameless in bringing about the tragedy after taking into account the atrocious weather and the almost pitch darkness. Indeed, his diligence in firing warning cannon shots was commended for helping alert the other 16 ships in his convoy to the danger. Anstruther resumed his service with the Royal Navy.

Much cargo from the ships was washed up on the shore in the following days. Indeed, in the case of the “Unice”, the fortuitous way she beached meant that almost all of her load of potash, cotton and valuable pearls was saved along with all 10 of her crew.

The vessel was later broken apart by the waves and joined the other six ships in being totally destroyed. Writing in 1928, Sussex historian Arthur Becket remarked of the 1809 wrecking: “There remained hardly enough timber to make a coffin for a drowned sailor.”

As a postscript, you’ll recall that “Harlequin” was escorting the convoy to deter French privateers. Just a week later one of these chased a Greek merchantman right to the mouth of Newhaven harbour.