Steamship impaled on village church spire!

MAINDANGER AHEAD? There was no suggestion of impending disaster when passengers boarded the Victoria

MAINDANGER AHEAD? There was no suggestion of impending disaster when passengers boarded the Victoria from the Britannia Pier – pictured in 1906, 18 years later - for a trip to Cromer.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

BOTH involved transport, one at sea, the other on land. Both could have had dire consequences, including loss of life. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in either.

First, an offshore drama harking back to a recent topic – the paddle steamers that plied in and out of Great Yarmouth a century and more ago, boosting our holiday trade. The Victoria was not in their league but was a smaller, simple paddle tug, based here and conveying visitors on summer excursions to Lowestoft and Cromer.

In August 1888 she sailed from South Quay and tied up alongside the Britannia Pier so about a hundred passengers could embark on a 35-mile voyage up the Norfolk coast to Cromer. But whereas all her previous trips had been uneventful, this one came as close as possible to being a disaster of epic proportion when the Victoria did the impossible – by colliding with a church tower!

She did not impale herself on a spire like an oversized weather-vane similar to the gilded lugger on Yarmouth Town Hall, but struck the submerged tower of the former church at Shipden, a medieval village once to seaward of Cromer but abandoned to the ocean after centuries of erosion. Only the sturdy flint church survived, its tower only a few feet below the surface and well-known to local crab fishermen as a danger and marked on navigation charts for many years.

Miraculously, the Victoria did not sink, prevented from doing so because she was caught on the tower while a rescue flotilla of small craft rescued every passenger and crewman who returned to Yarmouth by steam train. Visitors’ postcards home presumably reported their frightening experience rather than the routine “Wish you were here” message.

Powerful winches were set up at Cromer to try to haul the Victoria free of the tower and salvage her, but the weight of the wet tow ropes was too much. Eventually – and not before time – Trinity House blew up the wreck and the top of the submerged tower to prevent a repeat calamity.

In the 1970s Yarmouth Sub-Aqua Club members dived on the Victoria’s remains, salvaging items such as a hinge from her phosphor bronze rudder. Club scientific officer and founder-member Percy Trett, who died earlier this year, once told me that the amateur divers were fascinated “by swimming along a street in Shipden 40ft below the sea where people had once walked.”

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The land-based tale comes from regular correspondent Mike King – a Gorlestonian long resident in Lowestoft – and centres around ex-railwayman Herbert Stanley, of Caister, who died last year. His first job was in 1942 at Yarmouth South Town Station where his father was goods office clerk but soon the teenager and several others were transferred to Beach Station. Herbert’s first job was as a cleaner before becoming a “passed cleaner”, then a fireman and finally an engine driver. Apart from cleaning engines, another duty was to look after engines kept steaming until needed; it was not uncommon to have a line of 10 or 12 engines in the locomotive shed and the sidings, all simmering away with just a few pounds pressure in the boiler.

Because of his age, this should not have been his responsibility but a wartime manpower shortage meant rules were bent.

One Saturday in December 1942, the first locomotive in the line was tender engine LNER3055 with a pull-out regulator. Herbert had just added a little coal to the firebox when he gave the very sensitive regulator a light tug.

“The engine moved a bit so he tried to push the regulator back in...but was horrified to discover that it would not go back in!” writes Mike. “As the engine gathered speed another driver, Joe Smith, jumped on board and tried to stop it, but there was no vacuum in the braking system and the brakes would not work. Joe jumped off, spraining his ankle, and Herbert jumped off too.

“The runaway crashed through the buffer stops, through a palisade fence and out into Sandown Road opposite a little shop, just missing a Royal Air Force contingent that had been marching there. The runaway came to a stop when it encountered the high pavement on the opposite side of the road. Metalwork from the buffer stops caught on the back of the tender and also helped to stop it.”

Fitters and others were summoned to assist with damage repair which took three days. Then four other locomotives were coupled together and used to drag the runaway back into the station yard. “Getting it back on the tracks proved a bit more difficult and took four hours and the use of heavy jacks,” says Mike. The weight of the engine left two deep furrows in Sandown Road and these remained visible for a long time afterwards.

The engine suffered no serious damage and was still operational at Yarmouth Beach six years later.

The driver in charge of the loco shed, Charlie Nicholson, and a senior official from Norwich investigated the incident and spoke to Herbert who gave his account in detail.

According to Mike: “There were often incidents in wartime and little was said about this one, probably because he should not have been working unsupervised anyway.

“As this was a reserved occupation, it was not possible to sack him. He was suspended without pay for one week. He took Christmas week and that was the end of the matter.

“What had gone wrong? Why could the regulator not simply be pushed back in?”

Mike King reports that veteran railwayman Jack Stowers thought it likely that “the boiler had been over-filled with water which got into the regulator pipes, where normally there was only steam, causing the mechanism to ‘go hydraulic’ and prevent normal functioning.”

Herbert’s other claim to fame involved his responsibility for visiting engine drivers’ homes – several in nearby Maygrove – in the small hours, knocking on doors or windows to rouse them for early shifts. Mike declares: “He decided the shortest route was through the old cemetery and into Kitchener Road. Thus, with an oil lamp swinging over his shoulder, he duly set off.

“Then he learned of rumours about ‘strange lights’ being seen in the cemetery in the early hours of the morning!”