A sea rescue which sparked family memories

HAVING declared recently in this column that although I was not enamoured by family trees I was relaxing that stance because information was being sought about a man who was a Mercury journalist a century ago, I am back on the genealogical trail again today, unable to resist the fact that it entails revisiting the stirring story of a Great Yarmouth herring drifter ploughing into rocks in huge seas at the entrance to a Scottish harbour before the war.

I have received a letter from Sue Allen, of Garnham Road, Gorleston, asking if I could tell her more about the calamity that befell the Jacob George (YH176) at Eyemouth. “There is a photograph in the Eyemouth museum of the crew being rescued,” says her letter. “One of the crew was my great-grandfather, William ‘Maltman’ Dougal.

“It would be nice to know a little bit more about this fishing boat, if possible. I didn’t know about the rescue and found out about it whilst doing family history research on-line.”

Miss Allen, who works for the Norfolk Museums Service, added: “I believe Mr Dougal has featured in your Through the Porthole about bringing a boat into Yarmouth harbour in bad weather, and another relative contacted you about this, but due to moving etc, we’ve lost touch with the Dougal family and also the cutting from the newspaper.”

Happy to oblige, I managed to find several of my features mentioning the Jacob George episode, all dating back to 1998-99, and took photocopies to Miss Allen. They showed that she was almost correct, except that the boat was not entering Yarmouth harbour... and it was not Mr Dougal at the wheel. Let me elaborate.

Those columns were prompted by my interview with 81-year-old Chester Bean, of Robin Close, Bradwell, who spent most of his working life as a fisherman and found that my frequent references to the herring industry sparked many memories for him. One indelible memory was of the Jacob George, for he was a deckhand on that ill-fated voyage.

Usually Billy Dougal, an experienced skipper who preferred to sail as first mate, took the wheel to steer her into Eyemouth harbour, for he was a local man and familiar with the difficult entrance. But on that particular day, skipper-owner Billy Balls decided to steer her in himself but failed to make a sharp turn in time and she ploughed on, driven by wind and tide, running on to rocks “with a bang and a wallop”, recalled Mr Bean.

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The local lifeboat and the Peterhead drifter, Spes Bona, came to try to rescue the crew and the stricken boat, but the fishing boat’s Skipper, William Patterson, had to abandon the attempt when swell lifted her almost out of the water, then water flooded the engine room and disabled the magneto, putting her in jeopardy too. He had managed to pass a rope to the Jacob George, but it was only a thin one which snapped before a stouter one could be tied to it.

From the clifftop, a rocket was fired and delivered a line with a breeches buoy across the Jacob George. The cook, Mr Calver, was first to be hauled to safety, and Mr Bean followed but received a ducking as rescuers began to pull him clear – “it was terrifying but we all got ashore safely and unhurt,” he told me in 1998. “We lost everything except what we stood up in.”

According to a long-time friend of this column, John Ball, of South Garden, Gorleston, his father Billy Balls, had fired two distress flares and refused to allow two younger crewmen to attempt to scramble over rocks to the beach, deeming the risk as too dangerous. It was presumed that the Jacob George had been wrecked beyond repair, but apparently years later she was salvaged, acquired by a local Scot, R Easingwood, and after extensive repairs, was based at Dunbar and put to work doing salvage and lifting.

In 2006 John Ball published his book Out of Yarmouth Harbour, chronicling his and his family’s association with the fishing fleets. A whole chapter is devoted to the Jacob George. I reviewed the book here when it came out. After I spoke to Mr Ball about Miss Ellis, he contacted her and was able to pass to her a link to the long-lost Dougal side of her family. But when I spoke to her last, she had been prevented from making any contact because that person was abroad.

During the 1998-99 Through the Porthole examination of the Jacob George saga, George Dougal wrote to me from Halesworth to report: “That could well be the same William Dougal who was my grandfather. He lived in Eyemouth but as the herring industry eventually closed, ended up living in Great Yarmouth at the fishermen’s almshouses next to St Nicholas’ Church.”

Mr Dougal and his wife had recently visited Eyemouth hoping to trace records of his grandfather and struck lucky when an elderly seaman at the Fishermen’s Association found a framed photograph of William Dougal as a young man. To his delight, the Scot gave the couple the picture.

Another correspondent more than a decade ago was William Dougal, of Gorleston, convinced that he and Halesworth resident George Dougal were cousins, for “my grandfather too was named William Dougal and lived in the fishermen’s almshouses... William Dougal had three sons – William (my father), Joe and George, and two daughters, Emma and Lily. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in the first world war.”

Sue Allen had told me she believed her great-grandfather received the DSM in the 1914-18 war.

The Jacob George, which had been working in Scotland for only a fortnight, had about four cran of herring on board at the time. Her other crew were C W Roberts, C E Gunton, A Bultitude, B W Calver, W S Mewse, J Gray and C Fenn.