The White Swan - Gorleston’s reminder of the power of the sea

PUBLISHED: 08:00 30 September 2018

A rough sea battering Gorleston Pier attracts sightseers in the era when the White Swan was wrecked.

A rough sea battering Gorleston Pier attracts sightseers in the era when the White Swan was wrecked.


The sun beamed warmly down from an azure cloudless sky as Mrs Peggotty and I strolled along the clifftop at Gorleston recently, enjoying the views of a gentle sea, busy beach and happy visitors and locals.

The scene a century later, with a buoy warning of dangerous submerged wreckage.The scene a century later, with a buoy warning of dangerous submerged wreckage.

It was idyllic, and we agreed that it could not be bettered by a package holiday abroad or cruise involving the hassle of airports, the security and the expense.

But as we ambled, I spotted in the distance something which caused me concern, perhaps sparked by decades as a newspaper reporter too often covering incidents involving swimmers – even strong and proficient ones - getting into difficulties in deceptively calm sea conditions.

Enjoying a swim in the municipal bathing pool back home or possessing a half-mile proficiency certificate are no guarantee of safety in the sea.

At the south end of our sands, midway between the water’s edge and the warning buoy marking the remains of the wrecked collier White Swan from 1916, two heads appeared to be bobbing in the gentle sea, apparently without anybody on the shore nearby keeping an eye on them.

High and dry: the collier White Swan aground on Gorleston beach in 1916.High and dry: the collier White Swan aground on Gorleston beach in 1916.

As we drew closer, my concern increased because the number of swimmers now had risen to four, then six. Safety in numbers is reassuring, but I made sure my mobile phone was switched on, just in case...

Happily, my apprehension was groundless. There were no swimmers! The “black heads” on which I had kept a watchful were, in fact, the tops of some skeletal remains of the White Swan, the numbers increasing because the ebbing tide was revealing them.

I was relieved, I admit, but better safe than sorry...

So, the White Swan’s wreckage has been part of our beach scene for over a century, withstanding storm, tempest, flood surges and the passage of time. It was severe weather that caused her plight.

According to a contemporary Yarmouth Mercury report, there was “a great gale which raged with a violence, the equal of which could scarcely be recalled by some of the oldest helpers in the work of rescue from wrecked at sea to along the coast.”

The laden collier, whose port of registration was Newcastle, was on passage from Hartlepool to Greenwich in the Thames when an unprecedented storm blew up. Her master, like many before and since, decided to ride out the foul weather by sheltering off Scroby Sands.

But the ferocity of wind and waves caused her to drag anchor and, despite frantic efforts to secure her again, she was relentlessly driven on to Gorleston beach where her back was broken and she swiftly began to break up.

A combination of extreme weather and her position so close inshore meant Gorleston lifeboat was frustrated because it could give assistance to neither ship nor crew.

But the local rocket lifesaving brigade, with their breeches buoy, strove to save the 20 seamen but conditions continually frustrated their attempts to deliver a rope across the stricken vessel. One report claimed it took 13 hours before they succeeded in firing four ropes to the White Swan whose crew secured them so they could be saved.

Then all the seamen were hauled hand over hand to the safety of the beach by volunteers. There were no casualties.

So yes, the White Swan is still in the sand on to which she was haplessly driven, and at one time was reckoned to be a prolific spot for those anglers who could manage a long cast and did not get their lines snagged in her skeletal remains.

And yes, parts are still visible at low tide.

In 2016 local coastguards were alerted about an unknown object in the water. A seven-man team sent to check reports found it was part of the White Swan, logged as “a false alarm with good intent.”

A spokesman said false alarms were quite common but “calls which turn out to relate to a 100-year-old shipwreck are rare occurrences.”

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