Service at sea marks tragedy

A POIGNANT service at sea marked a major tragedy 100 years ago, long-lost in the annals of maritime history.The catastrophe, in which six Great Yarmouth and Gorleston men died, also left 23 children fatherless and plunged the two towns into mourning.

A POIGNANT service at sea marked a major tragedy 100 years ago, long-lost in the annals of maritime history.

The catastrophe, in which six Great Yarmouth and Gorleston men died, also left 23 children fatherless and plunged the two towns into mourning.

Today, Trinity House (TH) - the national sea marks and pilotage organisation entrusted with aiding mariners to navigate safely through difficult waters - held a special memorial service over the position of the tragedy, as lightshipmen attempted to remove a serious hazard to shipping.

But it also marked a miraculous escape for two of three ships involved, the Cockle lightship and the TH steamer Argus.

The drama began on the night of January 30, 1909 when the steamer Dundee and a ketch collided in blinding snow blizzards near the lightship in the narrow channel through Yarmouth Roads, where shipping sheltered in bad weather, around one and a half miles off Caister.

The four crew of the ketch died and the Caister lifeboat, Covent Garden III, was towed to the scene by the tug King Edward only to find her mast jutting up.

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As the sunken ketch posed a hazard to shipping, Trinity House decided to blow up the wreckage as a matter of urgency and the Argus was given the task, reaching the wreck on February 1.

However, the conditions were too rough for the Argus to send down diver James Crane to plant the explosives, and instead it was determined to lower them on to the wreck and “fire them by electric current,” a dangerous operation, reports later said.

Argus Chief Mate Walter Bound, diver Crane and five crewmen launched the ship's small boat to reach the site above the ketch and carefully lowered 20lb of explosives.

The small boat retreated to a safe distance, and the charge was blown but it achieved little, so another 30lb was sent down and detonated - again little happened. So down went a further 30lb charge and the boat moved to a spot alongside the lightship, out of harm's way for the explosion.

In the Yarmouth newspaper of the day it was reported: “The moment the second charge was fired there was an awful thunderous roar, and a vast volume of water rose skywards as high as any ordinary house. The effect was stupendous.... this enormous rush of water was followed by what resembled a tidal wave which swept outwards and struck the Argus and the Cockle lightship with great force.”

Unbeknown to the Trinity House men, the ketch Good Hope's cargo was 12 tons of gelignite and three tons of geloxie, the inquest later heard. The Good Hope had left Dover for Faversham where she had been loaded by the Cordite Company and was on her way to Leith when she collided with the Dundee.

The force of the underwater blast shook the 189ft Argus and the crews of both it and the Cockle were horrified to see the small boat containing their colleagues lifted out of the water and capsizing, disappearing beneath the waves. As the water settled, all that could be seen was splinters of wood.

Two men were recovered from the water, one was William Forder, with the newspaper from 1901 reporting: “…but life was extinct and all efforts to restore animation was unsuccessful. The body of Forder it is believed, was kept afloat by the air in his oily frock.”

The other man was chief mate Walter Bound, from Southtown, Yarmouth who was alive, but suffering from severe shock.

Of the others there was no sign: William Forder of Blackfriars Road, Yarmouth; diver James Crane of Pier Place, Yarmouth; William Fleet of Dew's Passage, Albion Road, Yarmouth; William Key of Malakoff Road, Yarmouth; Norwegian Oscar Peterson of Coronation Road, Cobholm; and Alec Roberts of Albermarle Road, Gorleston.

When all hope of recovering any of the other bodies was abandoned, the Argus returned to Yarmouth harbour.

The news of the disaster had preceded her and when she came up river a large crowd had gathered.

When she was eventually brought up to her moorings it was reported: “Women fainted and tears glistened in the eyes of sturdy men who had lost relatives or comrades.”

At the time the ketch was blown up there was nothing to indicate her identity, but after the explosion those on board the Argus saw the name Good Hope on wreckage.

In the villages nearer to the catastrophe the shockwave was felt on shore, houses rattled and shook spreading fears of an earthquake.

The newspaper of 1909 records: “There were scenes bordering on panic and the inhabitants rushed panic stricken into the streets. This was more particularly at Caister, California, Hemsby and Ormesby St Margaret.

"At Caister, people rushed into the village streets and women wept."

At the subsequent inquest, coroner J Tolver Waters said it was very useful to be wise after the event, and it was unfortunate steps were not taken to ascertain what was in the vessel before the charge was put down.

He concluded: “It was unfortaunate that these men should have had to go blindfolded to lower explosives upon explosives” - with the result the townspeople and jurors all knew.

A simple white wreath was carefully thrown into the sea over the position where the six brave men had lost their lives.

The Trinity House vessel Alert was brought to a standstill and crew and guests, including the mayor and mayoress of Yarmouth, Cllr and Mrs Terry Easter, lined up on the bottom deck to pay their respects.

Commodore Jim Scorer, director of operations at Trinity House, thanked everyone for helping mark the centenary of the tragedy.

And in bright sunshine, and with the coastline of Caister clearly visible, Great Yarmouth Port Chaplain the Rev Peter Paine led everyone in prayers saying: “We now re-commit to you the six seamen who died during what they had been trained for.”

After a minute's silence, when the only sounds heard were waves and seagulls, Commodore Scorer threw the white wreath into the sea and the hymn of the mariners was sung, For Those In Peril on the Sea.

The Argus was decommissioned a year after the tragedy.