The old lady who perished on Gorleston beach

IT was in the depth of winter in an era when cars were few and far between, way beyond the means of the ordinary working man. Nonetheless, sightseers from far and wide managed to make their way to Gorleston beach to look at a steamer that had run ashore.

In fact, those who went to see her high and dry when the news of her grounding circulated need not have hurried or braved the elements, for the SS Penton resisted all efforts to refloat her...and became a focal point and seaside fixture through that spring, then the summer, and well into autumn!

Sadly, she never left our sandy shores, was eventually declared an official wreck, and broken up for scrap where she lay.

Three-quarters of a century ago this week, the small steamship had sailed for London from Great Yarmouth in ballast (without cargo but carrying something heavy, like gravel, to ensure stability) when a strong gale blew up as she was off Orford Ness in Suffolk. The fierceness of the wind, heavy seas and adverse tide prompted her master, Mr S Ward, to turn her about and head back for the shelter of Yarmouth Roads; another factor was that her crew totalled only three, insufficient to keep her engines running.

According to the Yarmouth Mercury report in January 1937, the master said they hoped to make the harbour, but found it closed owing to low water, so they endeavoured to get the vessel’s head round but, being light, she was carried towards the shore.

As they were being driven inexorably towards the beach in darkness, the trio burned flares for help before she finally grounded. Despite the driving, blinding rain sweeping along the coast, those flares were spotted a mile away by coastguards based on the pier-head at Gorleston. They summoned the reserve lifeboat, the J B Proudfoot, and alerted the rocket life-saving brigade.

Lifeboat coxswain Charlie Johnson was unable to get her close to the stricken steamer which had been driven across two sandbanks, but he kept her standing by as a precaution throughout the rescue of the Penton’s crew by the breeches buoy team who had hauled their ponderous equipment along the gale-lashed beach.

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Once in position and set up, they fired the first rocket seawards across the breakers – and succeeded in getting a line to the Penton whose crew made it secure so the breeches buoys could be hauled along it. One by one they were pulled ashore unhurt, relieved and grateful, and taken to the Mariners’ Refuge along with one of the rescuers who had waded waist-deep into the sea to help.

At the refuge near Gorleston Pavilion the Penton’s master, her mate – Mr W Gisby – and engineer James Macdonald were given a bath, dry clothing and a hot meal. All the Penton personnel lived at Sandwich, in Kent.

The Penton had beached head-on, but the force of the seas turned her broadside-on, her bow facing towards the pier and harbour. At low tide, it was often possible to walk around her without having to paddle.

But the Penton saga did not end there, and official weekly casualty reports announced in the months to follow that “repeated efforts were made to refloat the Penton, but without success.” In November 1937, ten months after the 78-ton Newcastle-registered steamer ploughed on to Gorleston beach, it was reported that the Tees Towing Company had refused to put in a tender to salvage her, considering her a total loss.

And the Salvage Association’s special officer suggested that it was advisable to sell the wreck.

The Penton had gone aground at roughly the same place where, only a few weeks earlier, the Scottish drifter Pitgavenney, registered in Banff, was driven ashore in a furious gale that wrecked ships and claimed lives – a storm recalled in this column last October. Gorleston lifeboatmen rescued the Pitgavenney’s her crew but she could not be salvaged and had to be scrapped

The Gorleston incident was the second time the Penton had hit the headlines. Nine years before her sailing days ended on our beach, she was tied up at the jetty in a port in the north-east of England awaiting to load a cargo of slag from the local ironworks. The captain and crew went to a pub, leaving only the cook on board, but a sudden storm blew up, breaking both hawsers. The ship was swept on to a nearby beach and, as this happened at peak spring tide, the Penton had to stay there until the next spring tides when she was towed off, undamaged.

The Penton was a victim of the weather off Yarmouth, not bad navigation, and a lightship would have been of no benefit to her. But lightships (now called lightvessels) are still of inestimable value to mariners although they are getting fewer: whereas Trinity House once had many around Britain’s coasts, today only 11 remain in service, none off Norfolk. Lightships were often in the Yare, berthed at the Trinity House depot that closed in 2005.

Regular correspondent Mike King, a Yarmouthian long resident in Lowestoft, sent me the photograph on this page of the Cross Sand lightship in our harbour probably just pre-war. All those in the small boat have long since died, including his father-in-law, Sidney Howes, who was sitting in the front cockpit with his wife and took the picture.

“The chap with the cigarette is his brother, Clarence Howes, who owned a small furniture shop on Lowestoft Road in Gorleston nearly opposite Albemarle Road. Sitting in the stern was his wife, Laura, who ran the Old Storm House Cafe at Gorleston Harbour for many years after the war. I noted recently it is not called that now. During my daily bus journey from Gorleston to the Edward Worlledge School after the war, I frequently saw the Cross Sand moored in exactly the same place. At school I painted a colour picture of it one day. Curses, I left an “S” out and there was no room to insert it afterwards. ‘Crossand’ did not look right!”