Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Deal boatman regrets ...

A Deal boatman regrets …

By David Chamberlain

At 11.30am on Wednesday the 11th November, 1914, the small motor boat Elsie left Deal beach on a sunny autumn day. Onboard were the owner, Harry Pearson and his crewmate Thomas Heard. Pearson’s boat was one of the few on the beach that was motorised and was in demand for ship attendance work throughout the busy anchorage of the Downs. With the First World War in its early stage the Downs was being used as a Contraband Control area, forcing all ships to anchor and undergo searches for war materials that could be used by the enemy … and also spies. To enforce any reluctant vessels captains’ to comply with this order was the gunboat H.M.S. Niger.

The Niger was a torpedo gunboat of 810 tons and carried a complement of 85 men. Although she was old, being built in 1892, she had enough fire power, with her two 4.7 inch guns and four three pounders – plus three 18 inch torpedo tubes, to make any contraband runner think twice. Her presence could be seen by all as she was anchored in the fairway opposite Deal Pier.   

Harry Pearson and Tom Heard were old friends and part of the lifeboat crew, with Harry as second coxswain of the North Deal lifeboat and Thomas the ex-skipper of the then defunct Walmer lifeboat.  They both worked the Elsie in all the occupations that the Deal boatmen did in those days. Netting for herring and sprats in the winter, mackerel in the summer and accompanying the new trend of channel swimmers. Harry Pearson was famous for piloting the second person to ever swim the Channel, Thomas Burgess on his record swim. This particular day they were doing ship attendance work and had aboard Captain Jorgensen, the master of the sailing vessel Majorka.

The Majorka had been in collision with another ship and Jorgensen had been ashore to telegraph the owners to make arrangements for his damaged vessel. As the Elsie motored back out towards the sailing ship, Jorgensen exclaimed he had sighted a mine. Harry Pearson viewed where the Norwegian captain was pointing and stated that it was probably the mast from the steamship Adjutant, that had been sunk a week earlier in another collision.

Little did Pearson realise that what he saw was the periscope of a German u-boat that was stalking H.M.S Niger. At 10 minutes past midday, in a freshening southerly breeze, the U12 released a single torpedo which struck the Niger a fatal blow on her starboard side. Within 30 minutes the old torpedo gunboat slid beneath the sea in eight fathoms (48 feet) of water.

Later that day, Harry Pearson related what he had seen. The four feet grey like spar, which had been the U 12’s periscope, was only yards from his boat. He had motored over the stern of the submerged u-boat; and if the periscope had been raised at that time, Pearson speculated, it would have gone through the planks of the Elsie. He reminisced, in hindsight, that he could, if he had known it was a u-boat, smashed the glass of the periscope with his boathook and saved the Admiralty a loss of one of their ships. This was possibly a regret he harboured for the rest of his life.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Goodwin Sands Silver

By David Chamberlain

Over the centuries there have been reports of treasure being discovered on the Goodwin Sands. However, it was not until 2005 that these rumours became fact. when the contents of the Dutch East Indiaman Rooswijk’s cargo of a thousand bars of silver and 36,000 pieces of eight were recovered.

The Rooswijk had set sail with a full cargo from the port of Texel on the 8th of January, 1740. Her destination was the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta). A few days later and at night in a snow storm, which was being whipped up by a severe north-east gale, she ran aground on the Goodwin Sands. The surf was so great, the vessel was instantly swamped and the crew’s actions were rendered powerless.

The ship was quickly pounded to pieces and all the crew, plus 250 of the companies solders, perished.  Such was the ferocity of the storm there was nobody about to witness the mariners plight. The following day, wreckage was found washed-up on the beach. A Deal longshoreman found a chest that contained letters written in a foreign language; being an honest fellow he retuned it to the customs officials.  It was from these letters that the tragedy was realised and the name of the shipwreck known, however, at that time, her remains were never found.

The shape of the Goodwin Sands is changing constantly, as one year there might be an area where the sand has scoured away … then only to be filled the following year. Therefore, if a shipwreck is exposed on the Goodwins, there could be a good chance that it will disappear just as quickly as it was found.

In 2002, a diver discovered the remains of the richly laden Dutch East Indiaman Rooswijk close to the Kellet Gut on the Goodwins. He then arranged that the dive support vessel Terschelling assist in his quest to recover her cargo. Although this was done in strict secrecy the Dutch Government, as owners of the wreck and cargo, was also involved in the venture.

In the summer of 2005, the Terschelling anchored over the wreck and recovered the boxes of silver bullion. Onboard were archaeologists to record and recover artefacts for the Dutch museums. The immense value of these finds, academically as well as financial, have not yet been totalled. Nevertheless, they would have lain unnoticed, possibly forever, on the Goodwin Sands if it had not been for the dedication of the lone diver that discovered the wreck.

The Rooswijk was made a protected wreck site on 18th January, 2007 by the government and English Heritage to enable no unauthorised diving to take place. It is now one of the five historic and protected shipwrecks on the Goodwins.