The Great March Gale 1863

From the book North Sea fishers and Fighters - by Walter Wood 1911

I do not know - I doubt if anyone can tell - how many lives the North Sea gales have claimed amongst the fishermen, nor how often it has been necessary to put on record the brief statement , "with all hands"; but time after time the storms have swept the waters and the sailing craft and steamboats have paid tribute. By a gale on the 3rd December 1863 nearly a hundred children in Yarmouth alone were made orphans, and the loss of life from Hull and Grimsby was as heavy. Twenty four smacks were lost on the North Sea, with all hands - 144 men and boys, leaving 84 widows and 192 children. From one family alone two brothers, two brother in law, and two cousins perished. Catastrophes like these are scattered through the century. Every gale that lashes the North Sea into fury takes its toll of human life; but not so merciful as in the days of sail. Canvas has been driven out by steam, and the stout oak has given place to steel and iron. The men, however, are just the same, and the trawler of today is as swift to respond to the call for help as ever his predecessors were - and they never failed to risk life and limb. Every British battle brings out the stuff of which V.C. and D.S.O. men are made; every struggle on the North Sea, too, makes heroes from the selfsame flesh and blood - only for the smacksmen there is seldom any more reward than the knowledge that they have done their duty. "It is nothing," says the trawler, when the dangerous work is ended; and patiently pursues his toilsome way.

One of the most appalling gales that ever swept across the Dogger raged on 6th March 1883, and caused the loss of more than 360 men and boys from the East coast ports. That awful visitation destroyed families bodily; fathers and sons went down together, and widowed mothers were left penniless in ruined homes. Smacks were overwhelmed bodily and lost with all hands, and the little ships that did escape only reached port after a long, fierce fight and the exercise of wondrous skill and courage by their crews and skippers.

All the survivors of that memorable breeze are smacksmen of the old school of sail. Some of them, who were skippers, have come to their last moorings ashore, and seldom come far away from that vast grey stretch of sea of which their very lives and bodies seem to be part and parcel. Sometimes, if you know them well, they will take their memories back to the gale and tell of grim things that happened on the edge of the Dogger when many a son of the North Sea was gathered to his fathers. One of the Dogger warriers is old Ben -; it is mostly "old" Tom, or Jack or Peter, as the case may be, when talking of North sea men, irrespective of advanced years; but in this case Ben is really getting on in life. For one brief and famous spell he left the coast and came to London - a five days' visit spent in some remote Eastern suburb, and including an immortal bus ride, in which the driver said many things and Ben said many more. the locality explored was, I believe, Hoxton, on the memory of which Ben dwells fondly, calling it London. Ben said that of course I heard of Mr. Somebody, of Hoxton, and I assured him that I had, through I was honest enough to admit that I had no personal aquaintance with the driver. It was a hot summer day when I talked with Ben, on board an old smack in the harbour. Beyond us was the vast blue placid stretch of the North Sea, with the ever lasting procession of steamships tramping north and south; inland were the purple moors, withering in the blazing sun. Old Ben smoked and did a bit of rough joinery; and when his mind could be taken from the lurid thoughts Hoxton and the wild, odd things that the bus driver had said, he would glance towards the Dogger and jerk out fragments of the story of the great March gale. I had many talks with him; and put together and told, not in his own way, which would not be understandable in print, but in the ordinary tongue, his tale was this-

"During my life as a North sea smacksmen I saw as much wind and weather on the Dogger as most men; but I never saw anything so savage as the great March gale. I have known other breezes as bad in some ways, but never one which brought up such a deadly sea as that, and in such a short time did so much mischief and caused such heavy loss of life. "

"I remember the great winter gale of 1861, when the Whitby lifeboat was lost with all hands in trying to save some sailors, and the coast hereabouts was strewn with battered wrecks and dotted with drowned men. There was a famous disaster within a few hundred yards of us, and out at sea smacks went down bodily, and those that escaped came home to report loss of life or show how badly they'd been hammered by the cruel seas. But even that dreadful game was not so destructive as the great March gale of 1883."

"When a smacksman talks about a gale he means that's something phenomenal took place. In the ordinary way bad weather means to him a breeze; if it's a real smashing snorter then he'll let himself go a bit and call it a smart breeze or a hard blow, with a big lump of sea; but the weather has to be something of a hurricane before he'll call it a gale . Before you can understand what that real smart breeze meant you must get into your mind some clear idea about what the Dogger is. People understand so much about it and understand so little. The bank is an immense stretch of sand, rising up from the middle of the North Sea, and forming a sort of tableland. In some places there is a depth of only a few fathoms, and at the most it is very shallow. You can go from thirty fathoms to nine in three minutes. The northerly or north-westerly edge is very dangerous, for, when a gale is blowing from that quarter, the full force of the waves is driven up against the edge of the Dogger and makes a deadly smother. The Dogger is itself a fatal place just because of this uncommon shallowness. The waves have no depth to swing and roll in, and, having struck the bank, they break into an immense cauldron which is more like a whirlpool than anything else. Give any real sailor or smacksman plenty of room and depth, with a true sea running, and he'll be comfortable in his mind; but he gets uneasy when he's caught in broken water. In a true, swinging sea he knows what to expect, but he can never tell when he's going to be knocked down when the water comes form all points at once.

"To the North Sea smacksmen every part of Dogger has a particular name, but the most gruesome of all is "The Cemetery", and that's what we call the 'edge' of the Bank, because so many ships and men have been lost there. Even today, when scarcely anything fishes on the Dogger except powerful, well appointed steamboats, no skipper is happy if he gets caught on The Cemetery. Like most other men, he wants to spend as little time as possible in such a melancholy place. If he has his gear down and a breeze springs up, he's only content when he hauls in his trawl and cuts and runs for it. With steam, that's an easy enough thing to do, but in the old days things were vastly different, because the sailing vessels either had to ride out a gale or founder. The smacks were out for six, seven, eight , or ten weeks at a time, and only ran home to refit and reprovision and then got back to the fishing grounds. That meant that year in and year out the smacksmen had to spend his life on the stormy waters of the Dogger and face all its dangers. He might be two or three hundred miles away from port, so that there was no chance of seeking shelter. I shouldn't have cared to show my nose in port and have to say that I had run home because I was scared of a breeze. I shouldn't have gone back to sea again in that particular smack nor in any other. The man who gets upset because of wind and weather isn't a man to make a living on the Dogger. He carries his life in his hands, and always expects them to be emptied suddenly.

"Well I sailed from Scarborough as skipper of a fine little ketch of fifty one tons which was called the "Uncle Tom". We were single boating and I wanted to get as far out on the Dogger as I could, because it was on the bank that the best fish were to be caught. We got away finely and nothing happened to bother us till we were as far as The Cemetery and had shot our gear and were towing it at two or three knots an hour. Then I got uneasy, for there was something queer and uncanny in the weather, something that I could not account for and didn't understand at all. North sea smacksmen work mostly by instinct and the lead. There are barometers and chronometers and such fantastic gear for the big liners, but the old school of fishermen were brought up to use their wits, and to understand the weather became part of their nature. As a rule, the smacksman didn't own a chart. Give him the lead and a lump of tallow and let him heave it overboard, and he could tell you exactly, from the stuff he brought up, which part of the Dogger he was on, just as you know which street you're in by looking at the name of it on a lamp post or a wall. In winter time you expect bad weather on the Dogger, and you get it; for that matter, you sometimes get it all the year round, and I've known a snowstorm out there even in summer time.

"It was the beginning of March, and there was a strange dulness both in the sky and on the water while we were trawling. There was something mysterious about it all, and I grew more uneasy when I noticed what a wonderful lot of sea was rolling up to the edge of the Bank, and how little wind there was with it. That absence of wind and the immense height and fierceness of the sea will always remain in my memory as the chief features of the great March gale.

"The breeze had been prophesied by the weather experts, but it came sooner than any of us expected. I was hoping to get out to the Dogger and back home before the weather grew too bad for fishing. There had been three of four days of calm, when I got to the north west edge of the Bank, on the Cemetery side, it was still pretty calm, with only just a nice fishing breeze.

"The gear had been shot at about eleven o'clock at night. Then the wind freshened, but didn't grow into anything like a smart breeze. At the same time the sea got up in the most amazing way. There were a good many smacks about, and in the blackness of that awful night they were fair napped.

"We had been trawling for two or three hours, and I should think we had a fair, lot of fish in the net. When I saw how bad the weather was likely to be I gave the order to haul the trawl, but I had scarcely spoken the words when the Uncle Tom gave a heavy lurch and the thick trawl warp was snapped just like a piece of thread. This meant that the whole of the gear, worth about thirty pounds was gone; and that's a heavy loss for poor smacksmen. When you lose your gear in the north Sea you don't get it back unless, as sometimes happens, another trawler hauls it up; but even then its scarcely worth bothering about. It's best to say goodbye to your property.

"There was only one thing to do. The gale had broken on us, and even then in the darkness I could see the waves tearing towards us like mad things. I took the tiller and headed for home, and did all I could to make a run for it. In the Uncle Tom the companion was well forrard, and not aft, as you see it in the old yawls that are lying near us, and this, I dare say, meant the salvation of both smack and ourselves.

"Time after time, we ran before the wind and sea in the darkness, we were swept by a big wave, and I expected every moment that we should be carried overboard, or that some immense mass of water would fall on us and crush us like matchwood. But an old North Sea smack was the stiffest and handiest vessel in the world, and I managed to keep the Uncle Tom up to it as she ran away from the Cemetery."

I could only carry a bit of storm canvas, but the smack hardly needed any sail at all to keep her going in such a breeze as that. She plunged and rolled and pitched in the most awful manner, but I stuck to the tiller and never let it go except once or twice when the mate relieved me for a few minutes. Even a North Sea smacksman isn't made of iron and has to snatch a bit of rest when he gets the chance. We were all sodden to the skin, in spite of our oilskins and thick clothing - but then I've never known us been out for eight and ten weeks at a time, and never dry for a minute, day or night.

When the morning came it showed a scaring sight, for the shallow waters of the Dogger were just one roaring, foaming plain. I never saw a snarlier sea, and it was the more uncanny, because the wind was out of all proportion to the size and fury of the waves. It was more like some wonderful phenomenon than an ordinary North sea gale, even in winter. I looked around and saw that the smacks, which had been working peacefully, with their gear down, were either running for it or had disappeared entirely.

At such a time as that, with the freezing wind driving cruelly against your face, it's hard to do more than try and see just ahead of you, but from time to time I looked about me, and occasionally saw just a little dark speck of a smack trying to fight her way off the Dogger and get into deeper and safer water.

Not very far away from me was a Hullman, which had been working on the Bank. She was making a grand fight for it, but it was awful to see the way that the seas were hammering her.

"I looked again and the Hullman seemed to be falling into the trough of an enormous wave. You know what it is, I dare say, to be out on the Dogger and to look at another smack not far away which has rushed down the crest of a wave and gone right into the hollow. Often enough she sinks so deep and the seas rise up so enormously between you, that you lose sight of her altogether.

I lost sight of the Hullman. I looked again towards the spot where I had last seen her, but not a sign of her was left. She'd been smashed bodily by a huge wave, and must have been one of the first smacks that foundered. It was no use being scared by such a sight as that. I stuck to the tiller, and all that day we tore towards Hull. We just got a bite or sup now and again to keep us going, but there was no chance of anything like a hot meal - and food and drink at such times may mean all the difference between winning and losing your fight. We were swept and smothered by seas, and everything below was awash or adrift. Immense bodies of water smashed on board; but we managed to dodge them. We had to hang on for life, but, when there was a chance of doing it, the men jumped below till the seas passed. The man at the tiller had to stick there and take his chance, because, if he'd let go, the smack would have been lost.

Time after time the breaking seas filled the deck to the rail, but still the Uncle Tom staggered on and kept afloat. It is the custom, of North Sea smacksmen, when a big sea is sweeping on, to shout, "water's coming," and drop below. On board many a smack that day the seas crushed and killed or maimed the poor fellows who had no chance of escape. Decks were swept as clean as if they had been cut by an enormous knife. Dandy winks were wrenched from the decks, although they were secured by iron bolts, just as you might pluck some little ornament away which has been glued on to a toy. Masts and rigging were carried away, and in lots of cases the smacks were even smashed to pieces before they sank. It seemed as if no ship built by human hands could stand up against the awful force of those Dogger breakers, and how the Uncle Tom ever got though is a marvel even now.

The man who makes his living on the Dogger sees some strange , odd things. I've known a man to be swept overboard and brought up afterwards, dead, in a trawl belonging to another smack. In this great gale a man was swept away from the deck of his smack and carried by an enourmous sea straight on to the deck of another smack not far off, were he was saved by the crew, who clutched him before he could be hurled back.

In many cases the huge quantities of water which had tumbled on board burst the companions and got below, filling the smacks and sinking them. That happened mostly when the companions were right away aft, just by the tiller head, and I think it would have been the fate of the Uncle Tom if it had not been that the companion was built more for'ard.Most of the smacks which were lost were knocked down on the edge of the Dogger, where they were caught in the broken water and had no chance of escape. In some cases they were smashed to pieces, and the crews were either killed or drowned.

I remember seeing a smack which had had one side of the bulwarks carried away by a heavy sea, and yet the other side was undamaged. The most extraordinary mischief was done, and although I have spent all my life at sea I could hardly believe some of the sights I saw. The seas came from everywhere at once.

I'll tell you of a thing I saw not long before this famous breeze, and what happened then happened time after time in that deadly March. There was a fine smack sailing out of Grimsby, which was built as strong as good wood and honest labour could make her. She had a flagged floor, which served as good ballast and also as a nice cool place for the trunks of fish. The smack had been out on the Dogger and had got a good catch, and was running home to market when a heavy gale knocked her down. She must have been turned almost completely over by one sea and then turned back by another, enough, at any rate, for her to keep afloat till she could stagger into harbour. When I saw the smack her ballast had burst up and all the flags and the fish had been thrown about in the most wonderful way. She was smashed and hammered terribly, and how she escaped was a mystery. That will give you some idea of the way the old smacks wer punished in a North Sea breeze.Well, we kept the Uncle Tom with her nose pointed towards the coast. It was perishingly cold and we were sodden to the skin. All the food we could lay hands on - it wasn't much - was soaked by salt water.

At last I saw ahead the cliffs down by Flamborough Head and knew that the most dangerous part of the business had to be got through. Ever since we started I'd kept my nerve and strength. I wasn't scared in any way - I dare say I was kept fit by remembering that if I lost my nerve we were done for. Besides, a North Sea smacksmen isn't supposed to be upset by any breeze that blows.

The only chance of safety was in getting the smack into the shelter of Bridlington Bay; but with such a tremendous run of sea the chances were equal that in rounding the Head she would be capsized. I got the Uncle Tom down off the Head; then I saw it would be almost suicide to try and run her round. There was only one thing to do, and that was to wait for the turn of the tide, when the water would be a bit smoother and there would be a chance of slipping into the Bay. But even when I got into the slack water I didn't feel the Bay, so there was nothing for it but to dodge about and wait for my chance to come.

I let that tide go past, and the second, the third, and the fourth; and for two perishing days and nights the Uncle Tom wallowed about just off the Head, until suddenly I saw my chance of getting into the Bay - and I took it like a starving dog snaps a bone. I ran out of the bad weather into the fairly smooth water of Bridlington Bay, sheltered by the Head, and saw all around a great fleet of ships, many of them crippled. At night they looked like a town lit up.

Many a fine smack was by that time lying on the bed of the Dogger, with her crew, mostly in The Cemetery. Even in the sheltered Bay a lot of vessels dragged their anchors and went ashore.

There have been many dreadful gales on the North Sea within living memory; but that March breeze is always spoken of as being the worst as far as smacksmen are concerned. The heaviest loss fell on Hull and Grimsby, and when on that sorry Sunday I got the Uncle Tom safely into Hull, I went to see the crippled smacks which had managed, like myself, to run back to safety, I found that they entirely filled four docks, and some of them were so badly beaten and damaged that it was wonderful that they escaped at all. It was pitiful to see the battered craft - but even that was easier to look on than to go into streets where nearly every house had orphans and a widow. You can patch up ships well enough, and make them as strong as ever they were - sometimes stronger; but you can't do much with broken hearts - and their were plenty of 'em after that big breeze in March.

As for the Uncle Tom, she got into port without so much as a scratch. Many men had lost their lives; a few had lost their nerve - and that is something, I can tell you for a North sea smacksman.

I remember one young fellow who, as soon as he got into port, said, 'Look here, skipper, let's have my money. I've had enough o' the Dogger to last me a lifetime.

He was paid off, and from that time he never went out again to the Bank.

I and my crew had come safely through it all with the Uncle Tom; but during the whole of the breeze it was touch and go with us - all the time it was 'just as near as mak's nae matter.'



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