Christmas fire drama off our coast
PUBLISHED: 13:37 30 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:27 30 September 2016
The old sea shanty about a “fire up aloft, fire down below” urged the crew to “fetch a bucket of water, boys.” Earlier verses reported fires breaking out in various parts of the ship. My seafaring father told me that a mariner’s greatest fear was a fire on board.
Recently I wrote here about major conflagrations that had gutted buildings or amenities in the Great Yarmouth area in the past century or so – for example, our Britannia Pier was a regular casualty – so today we are looking at a blaze at sea, imperilling not only the ship and her crew but also those who went to her aid.
The drama spanned several days over the Christmas period in 1927 when the Yarmouth Independent reported: “A great glare at sea told only too vividly of disaster and danger. It transpired that the Swedish steamer Oscar, bound for Yarmouth with a large cargo of deals, boards and battens for timber merchant Jewson’s, was burning fiercely.
“Flames from the steamer and signals from the St Nicholas lightship very quickly brought out the Gorleston motor lifeboat John and Mary Meiklam, the volunteer lifeboat Elizabeth Simpson and the steam salvage tug George Jewson.
“Driven from the Oscar by fire which spread from stem to stern, her crew took to their boats and were picked up in heavy seas by the lifeboat. Their own abandoned boats drifted ashore.”
Fifteen seamen were taken to the Yarmouth Shipwrecked Sailors’ Home on Marine Parade but the Oscar’s master, Captain Magnus Bengtsson, and his officers remained by their ship to monitor events.
The Press coverage continued: “Using her powerful salvage plant, the George Jewson made effective play upon the steamer’s burning deck load. Unfortunately, after working for some long time, the tug’s pumps became temporarily choked.
“The Lowestoft tug Despatch came on the scene and took up the task. Restored to perfect order, the George Jewson returned to service.
“The salvors were reinforced by Constables Neale and Dye, of the Yarmouth Fire Brigade, who put to sea in one of the lifeboats and rendered a good deal of assistance in what must have been to them, with all their experience, strange circumstances.
“Fought until late in the afternoon, the fire was slowly but surely got under control and at last, completely extinguished. It had done immense damage to both ship and cargo.”
Although the officers and crew of the stricken Oscar were badly shaken but otherwise unscathed, two lifeboatmen were injured. Cox’n William Fleming was the victim of an accident on the trip out when the John and Mark Meiklam struck the North Pier, throwing him on to the wheel; his throat was struck by one of the spokes. The motor mechanic, Darby, was also flung forward and struck his ribs against the engine.
The newspaper continued: “Despite these untoward happenings the lifeboat proceeded on her mission, picked up the Oscar’s crew and brought them to Gorleston.”
But that was not the end of the drama because a few days later the fire, thought to have been completely extinguished, “suddenly made a fresh outbreak in the wood cargo and obtained the mastery. Flames and intense heat made it impossible for the salvage tugs to get near and it is feared that ship and cargo could be a total loss.
“The Trinity House steamer Argos is standing by.”
The rekindled blaze in the hulk of the Oscar persisted for five days and nights, according to local photographer Clifford Temple whose camera captured the stricken steamer with a tug, possibly from Lowestoft, looking dangerously close to the inferno.
From all reports, it seems unlikely that the Oscar could be salvaged and was a danger to shipping, and one of his captions reports that the blazing Oscar was finally sunk “by a controlled explosion carried out by Trinity House.”
However, that conflicts with a maritime website account claiming: “As the fire spread to her cargo, the crew scuttled their ship with explosives.” It said the original fire had started in her bunker (fuel container).
The 267ft Oscar, built at Stockton-on-Tees in 1899, was launched as a sail assisted steamer but later abandoned her canvas.
Every cloud has a silver lining, it is claimed, and in this case the benefits of the Oscar saga were enjoyed by Yarmouth and Gorleston residents who became beachcombers with the intention of providing their homes with enough firewood to last them through that winter.
For along our shoreline was a bonanza, a heaped tangle of planks, thoroughly soaked by their immersion in the sea but ready to be piled on to carts, barrows and prams and taken home for sawing up into kindling. Some might havebeen dried out and put to other uses.