The day when the sea “was enough to swallow any vessel”

TWENTY-FIVE years before that horrendous 1936 North Sea storm recounted in last week’s column – “gale’s train of death and disaster,” according to the Yarmouth Mercury – there was another of equal severity which similarly caused fatalities among seafarers and inspired acts of supreme heroism that limited the loss of life in raging waters.

In 1936 one herring drifter was sunk with the loss of all hands, another was wrecked beyond repair, and two Gorleston lifeboatmen fought for their lives when they were swept overboard during long and arduous rescue missions.

In 1911, exactly a century ago, a hurricane wreaked havoc at sea and ashore, and caused the sinking of a Yarmouth drifter and the death of four of her crew on her maiden voyage of the autumn herring fishery.

At a time when there was no ship-to-shore communication, the Mercury reported: “On Sunday afternoon the rumour spread over the town that a local steam drifter had gone down with all hands.

“This, happily, was an exaggeration of the actual fact, which was quite sad enough, for while the vessel had been lost together with four of her crew, six were saved as the result of one of the finest and most heroic acts of seamanship ever performed.

“During the afternoon the steam drifter Piscatorial arrived in the harbour, bringing in six survivors of the steam drifter Montrose, of Yarmouth, and a sad tale was told of the vessel being overwhelmed by the gale and four of her hands drowned just when they were within a few moments of being saved.”

The Montrose was 70 miles from Yarmouth when she was pounded by no fewer than five huge rollers in quick succession, almost submerging her under the weight of tons of water but disabling her, ripping away her small lifeboat and swamping her below decks.

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Close by was the Piscatorial (YH297) whose skipper, Joe Symonds, spotted the Montrose’s predicament and immediately steamed at full speed to the rescue in appalling conditions.

Montrose skipper Henry Barnard, of Caister, ordered his crew not to leave her until he told them to, but as the potential rescuers drew close to her, three men jumped off her bow too soon; the Piscatorial crew, poised to grab them as they leaped on board, were horror-struck as “the poor wretches were swept away within moments and were never seen again.”

In raging seas, and despite the obvious danger to his own drifter, Skipper Symonds inched his Piscatorial alongside the stricken Montrose whose mate, Robert Dyball, attempted to spring across to her.

“This was the most sickening sight of all,” recalled Skipper Barnard. “Missing his mark, he was crushed between both vessels, and disappeared.”

Undaunted, the Piscatorial’s crew threw ropes across the Montrose. Five desperate men snatched them and plunged into the water, clinging on for dear life as they were hauled to safety.

Skipper Barnard seized a lifebuoy attached by rope to the Piscatorial and jumped overboard, Skipper Symonds promising to pick him up as soon as the two drifters had separated.

But when Skipper Barnard saw them closing together again, he let go and swam clear to avoid being crushed between them.

The Mercury added: “He threw himself off from the other side, intending that he would have what he considered to be a peaceful death, not dreaming that it was possible that he could be saved in the tremendous seas that were running.

“Skipper Symonds…was keenly concerned for his brother skipper and was convinced he could find

him and should search about for him till he did. In about a quarter of an hour that must have seemed like an age to the man fighting

for his life in the sea, he had the good fortune almost to run on top of him!

“As the Montrose went down in the trough of a wave, strong arms leaned over and caught hold of Skipper Barnard with a boat hook...and thus held him up till he could be dragged on board, a rescue that was really miraculous in the circumstances for Barnard had his long and heavy sea boots on and was wearing his thickest sea clothing.”

Those who perished were: boy fisherman Sidney Julier, of Caister; Silas George, younker, single, also of Caister; mate Robert Dyball, of California, a married man with several children; and Mr Knights, single, of Palgrave Road, Yarmouth.

The other survivors included whaleman George Easters, who told an official board of inquiry “there was sea enough to swallow any vessel”, Harry Crowe, John Littlewood, Dan Brown and Wesley Wacey.

Those six survivors wrote a letter to the Mercury editor thanking Joe Symonds and his crew: “None but those who were there can realise what this rescue meant.

“The least slip or loss of nerve meant death for 20 men - and Joe Symonds knew it – but this feeling was not uttermost, that of rescuing brother fishermen came first.

“No pen can ever fully describe the deed but we, the objects of their heroism, will never forget it.”

The letter concluded“We can never repay these men but they are assured that our thanks and gratitude are heartfelt, and that should such a demand be made upon us, they have taught us the lesson how to do it.”

And on their behalf of the Montrose owners, manager John Cox wrote to the editor about Skipper Symonds’ “splendid pluck” in running alongside a sinking vessel in such a gale.

“He took a risk that not one man in a thousand would have incurred,” he stressed.

Four years later the Piscatorial, which had been built in 1010 and owned by Gorleston’s Mr H F Eastick, was sunk in the Great War by a German U-boat off Northern Ireland.

There was a further tragedy when a Mr W Read, a Gorleston widower aged 48, was inexplicably lost overboard from the drifter Yarmouth . . . after she had weathered the storm and was returning to the safety of the port.

On land in 1911, the Empire Picture Playhouse on Marine Parade was opened in the summer, advertised as “the theatre de luxe of East Anglia”; today, a century later, is is unoccupied and forlorn, looking its age.

In Caister, George Allen founded a motor and bicycle engineering business on Yarmouth Road. Halfords opened in King Street, Yarmouth.

And over in Gorleston, the East Anglian School for the Blind and Deaf was built on Church Road at a cost of �8,940.