From the book "Filey - a Yorkshire fishing town" by Irene E Allen and Andrew A Todd
The coble is for its size, one of the safest boats afloat. But if hit unexpectedly by very heavy sea, it is as vulnerable any small craft. There are definite reasons why the Filey coble was so often involved in disaster. It was used for 'winter fishing', which normally ran from the end of the herring season in October/November to February/March. When many boats were laid up for the winter, the cobles were out long-line fishing - at the very time when gales were most likely.
Although they rarely strayed out more than a few miles from the coast, they were often alone, away from help and (before the early 1900's) totally reliant on sail and oar power. Also, many fishermen could not swim, although in a rough sea, this cannot have made much difference to a man's chance of survival. The leather boots often that they wore would be likely to weigh them down in the water. Very often, a crew might be faced with the agonising prospect of leaving several miles of lines, and running for shore, as bad weather threatened. So often, they must have decided to risk taking in their lines rather than leaving them to the mercy of the high seas.
These fishermen accepted the risks of their occupation. Shaw noted that if they were asked what happened to one of their fellows who had died at sea, the phlegmatic reply would be 'the sea gat him'.
Countless cobles, and often all their crews, have been lost over the centuries from Filey and nearby fishing villages. In one case in June 1858, a man survived such a disaster to tell the story of what happened to that great recorder of Filey tragedies, the Reverend Shaw.
The survivor, the 19 year old William Ross was quoted in "Our Filey fishermen"(1867). The lost men were John Williamson and William Jenkinson (1836-58). It was a fine evening, and about a mile offshore, a squall of wind capsized their boat. It overturned, and lay two or three feet under water, virtually on its side. The three managed to get onto her. William Ross described the later events:
"The wind now rose, and the water dashed against her very heavy. Williamson was washed off the boat; but I took an oar from Jenkinson, and pushed it towards him, he took hold of it, and I pulled him to us, and got him on the boat again. Then Williamson said,
"Let's all shout as hard as we can, likely there maybe someone riding under the cliffs' - which were about a mile off - for the Flamborough boats were 'trunking' - ie catching crabs - about there.
We shouted until we were hoarse, but noone heard us, and we gave over, thinking it was no use. The wind increased and blew still more furiously. We commenced to sing:
"Jesus, lover of my soul
Let me to thy bosum fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
"The boat gradually sank deeper and deeper, and the waves again washed Williamson off. I took an oar a second time to try to reach him, but with reaching too far, fell off into the water, and was washed ever so far from her. I swam to her, but found when I got back, that she was so much under water, that when my feet touched her, I was up to my waist. At last I got hold of the end of the mast, and hung there. I could see Williamson not very far off; but he was so exhausted that he could not reach us. He found he was sinking, and I could hear him singing
"Cover thy defenceless head,
With the shadow of thy wing"
I could see just then the top of his sou'-wester out of the water, and a minute or two after he sank, and we saw him no more. When we were left by ourselves, Jenkinson said, "Ross, can we pray?" - he was converted you see, sir, and I was not. I said, "No, I don't know how". He said, "Then you say the words after me as I say them," and he began to pray, and I said what he said; then he sang and I sang, and at last I believed that Jesus died for sinners like me, and he could save all sorts of sinners, could save me on a boat's bottom, out at sea on a dark night. After this, I felt all my fear go away, and had a feeling that I should not die. I thought I would try to swim to land, but soon failed, and got back to her with difficulty. Jenkinson was still engaged in prayer, indeed, he ceased to pray. I rested as well as I could for about five minutes, and then ventured a second time to swim to shore. When Jenkinson saw me leaving him, he said, "O Lord, help me, I am left by myself." I could not bear to hear him say that, and returned, determined not to leave him any more. We both continued to sing and pray, as well as we had strength.
It was getting very dark now, and the boat was sinking deeper in the water, At length there was so much wind, and she was so deep, that we floated off her. I could see nothing, but felt for Jenkinson and found him, and discovered that his head was under the water. (The bowl to which he had been tied had shifted and kept him under). I could feel his hair in my hands. I stretched myself in the water. It was very dark, I could feel but could not see him.
While struggling in the water I felt a line in my hand, which was fast to the boat, and hauled myself to her. I tried to find Jenkinson, but I could not see anything. The moon was rising and just headed the top of the white cliffs. I had my eyes on that moon and looked towards Filey, wondering if I would ever see them again in this world, and wondering if any rescue would come , but none came. It was now about ten o'clock, or perhaps a little later. About this time a billy buoy for the north came to leeward of me, I shouted as loud as I could, but it was no use, no one heard me, and she passed on. She seemed so near that I could have thrown a stone into her, if I had had firm standing. About a quarter on an hour later, a schooner came to windward. Again I shouted, but could not get him to hear, and he passed on.
I was then drifting out to sea vary fast. Now the wind was very strong and I could scarcely keep myself on the boat, as she was likely to sink, and could not bear my weight. To keep her from sinking I had to keep creeping, on my hands and knees, from stern to stem, and from stem to stern, sideways on her, for she still lay partly upon her side. After doing so for some time, I tried to take off her rudder, thinking that if she went down suddenly, it would keep me up, but this hope also failed. I could not get it off. I then tried to lower her sail but failed again. I believe this was providential, as it is very likely her sail kept her up, for sometimes, when she was getting very low, the wind would get under a part of her sail, which was lying on the water, and would,lift her nearer the surface. I could do no more now but pray and look to the Lord for help. After knocking about her till - I should think nearly two o'clock - I thought I saw a sail in the distance, and concluded it was a boat from Filey come to seek us. My heart leaped for joy. Alas! Alas! I was doomed to be disappointed again. I soon found it was only the flag flying at the top of the bowl to which I had fastened William Jenkinson.
I however, still held on to the boat, and though the wind got still higher and blew very strong, and the waves washed over me, I never lost hope. I believed the prayers that had been offered for me by my parents and brothers, would not be in vain. But oh, how I longed for morning. At last day began to break, and the first thing I saw was a ship, which seemed to be steering straight for me. Now I thought that I am going to be saved! There were three other ships coming close round Flamborough Head, and I thought again, "Well, if this one does not come to me, one of the others will be sure to reach me, for I am right in their track." The ship came right in, and got nearer and nearer. At last I saw them lower the boat, and I lifted my heart up. Then I saw two men in her, pulling for me. Then they came up to me, stripped in their shirts and drawers, and without only words I could say were, "Pull for yon bowl." They did so, and found Jenkinson's body still tied to it, took it in and pulled for the ship. As soon as we got alongside, they handed me two or three pots of hot coffee over her side, to refresh me. After drinking these, I was taken on board and shifted(ie his clothes were changed). This was about half past four in the morning.
Shaw continues the story in his own words: "At the funeral of Jenkinson deep sympathy was manifested by the large crowd of spectators. "In addition to the reading of the usual burial service, the officiating clergyman delivered an impressive and pathetic address to the assembled throng." Williamson's body was found near Flamborough, about ten days afterwards, and interred at Filey the next day. Poor Williamson left a widow and four children, the eldest of whom, was to have been married to William Jenkinson in a few weeks. It may be interesting to you to know that William Ross has continued steadfast to this day, and is now the husband of of one of Williamson's daughters. I preached a funeral sermon for the two men who perished, and felt it to be a most impressive and solemn time. Several of the companions of William Ross gave their hearts to god.
The William Ross who so narrowly escaped was the son of Wesleyan parents, and the only unconverted member of a large family. Each of his brothers are officers in our Filey Society, and one of them, the Rev Castle Ross is a very promising travelling preacher. Mr John Ross, a devoted local preacher and class leader gave me the following account. "We were, as you may all suppose, very anxious about William, and when noon the next day arrived, had little hope of his safety. Still I could not think that the many prayers that had been offered on his behalf would be in vain. I remember being in my mother's (The house is on top of the cliff, and commands an excellent view of the bay), when a vessel came into the bay with a flag flying at half mast high. I knew in a moment what that meant, and , while mother was in another room, removed my brother's stockings, Guernsey, &c, &c, which were hanging upon the line, and put them out of sight lest my mother should see them, for though I was only a boy when my father drowned, I very well remembered how the sight of his clothes used to affect my dear mother."
William Ross, son of Isaac and Ann Ross, married Mary Elizabeth Williamson in 1865. He survived to a grand age of 82, his gravestone at St Oswald's recording that he "entered the higher service" on 21st September 1921. His wife died in 1931, aged 92. Local tradition, incidentally, suggests that it was one of his sons who moved to Grimsby and set up the business which eventually became the Ross Food Group.
People on land could offer some assistance to cobles in distress. If it was known that a coble was out in bad weather, and probably in difficulties, candles were placed in the windows of houses which faced the sea so the boat could be guided in. In the 1860's William Hunter and his son were out in a coble with Mathew Jenkinson (1836-1911) when they were overtaken by a violent storm. In this case, a fire was lit on the sands, intending to warn Hunter not to land, but to wait until the lifeboat had been launched. (This was known as "burning off" a boat). In fact, Hunter took this as a guiding light, and got the boat to shore in hazardous circumstances.
Anxious relatives, waiting on the shore, were sometimes able to witness the deaths of their menfolk. This happened on 16th January 1874 (reported in the Filey post on the 24th): a coble was caught in a gale, and forced to run for the shore. The danger spot was in crossing the tide-way at the end of the Brigg, and there a huge wave overturned the coble and threw the three men into the sea. Despite a search the bodies did not appear to ever have been found. The Captain of the coble was George Mainprize, who had married Sarah Jenkinson (1821-91) in 1845. He was the great great grandfather of Irene Allen, on whose family this book is based. The coble appears to have been the "John and William", as this boat was registered in the name of George Mainprize at Scarborough in 1869. His nephew, George Jenkinson (1847-74) and son-in-law, George Johnson, drowned with him (see St Oswald's gravestone)
The impact of such sea tragedies was heightened by the fact that, so often, all the men were the members of one family. It was a Filey tradition that a man would be accompanired by his son or sons on his boat; it was most natural that a young man should learn the complicated fishing skills from his father or uncle. But if a coble or yawl was lost, then the loss to one family could be total - father, husband and brother could go together. In other fishing towns, a system had arisen by which the risk of a complete tragedy was greatly lessened. The eldest son would help the father, and then buy his own boat; father and son would have half shares in each, and each would have his own crew. The second son would work with the father and then buy a third boat when he'd saved enough; the three would then have third shares in three boats. This meant that the loss of one boat did not wipe out the livelihood of the whole family: it also meant that the loss of one boat did not wipe out the whole family. The Filey men persisted with their tradition, with frequent family losses. Captain Sydney Smith, now in his seventies, can remember his father's despairing comment when seeing such an arrangemwnt: "Look at them... three in a coble, and all in the same family".
It was the need to make a living that forced the men out to sea, and often in bad weather. On the 14th December 1896, during the winter fishing, the coble "Mary" was lost with all three crew. Incredibly this incident is still within living memory. George Cappleman, at the end of 1983, could remember the loss of the "Mary", even though he was "about five years old" at the time. The Filey Post reported the incident:
FISHING VESSEL SUNK OFF FILEY. THREE LIVES LOST. During the heavy seas running off Filey on monday morning, five of the returning vessels were in great danger. One of them, the "Mary" was overturned by a heavy sea, and three men drowned. The names of those lost are:
- Robert Skelton, skipper
- Thomas Johnson
- George Jenkinson
On Monday morning at 10:30, five Filey cobles, manned by three men in each, left Filey and proceeded to the fishing grounds near Speeton Cliff. At the time the sea was not very rough, but there was every indication of a storm. The Mary, manned by Robert skelton(skipper), George Jenkinson and Thomas Johnson, returned about twelve, and was seen to be in danger inside the Brigg, a full tide running at the time. The lifeboat was put off, but the Mary was swamped and went down with all hands before being reached.
Another account says:- considerable excitement was caused in Filey on Monday when it became known that one of the Filey cobles, the Mary, had been swamped, and that all hands were drowned. It seems that shortly after ten oclock five of the Filey cobles put out to sea, and proceeded to the fishing grounds. At the time there was a moderately heavy sea running, and a breeze was blowing E.N.E. The Mary was the first coble afloat, and she was quickly followed by four other boats, which were manned by James Wheeler, Edward Sayers, Peter Cappleman, and Mathew Jenkinson, the Mary being manned by Robert Skelton(skipper), Thomas Johnson and George Jenkinson. The cobles proceeded to the fishing grounds off Speeton Cliffs, and returned with their catch about noon. When the Mary, which was first sighted was on the south side of the Brig, off the buoy, she was seen to be in danger, and the lifeboat was launched. Before the lifeboat could get through the breakers near to the shore, those who were watching the Mary saw her struck by a big sea, and she sank immediately after. The lifeboat proceeded to the spot, but none of the occupants of the vessel were seen. The skipper of the Mary, Robert Skelton, leaves a wife and two children, who live at Ravine top, Queen street; Thomas Johnson leaves a wife and two children living in Queen Street; and Jenkinson, who was 18 years of age, was unmarried.
The sea has washed up a piece of the coble Mary. A Sou'-wester, some oars and other appliances have been cast ashore. Asked as to the risk incurred by the Mary and the other cobles putting off in the teeth of the easterly wind, an old Filey Fisherman exclaimed, "We have our living to get, and many the time that we have gone off when it was unsafe." The little community is quite overcast with gloom at the disaster.
As soon as the lifeboat Hollon II, was launched, all haste was made in direction of the "Mary". The crew were only just getting clear of the breakers, however, when they heard a loud shout go up from the spectators ashore, and when the lifeboat reached the spot both men and boat had disappeared. The Mary was the second of the distressed cobles. A very heavy sea also struck the Sovereign, and she narrowly escaped sharing the fate of the Mary. A witness of the catastrophe states that a great wave engulfed her. She did not overturn, but together with her occupants was knocked clean down out of sight. A close watch is being maintained along the sands between Filey and Flamborough for the bodies.
The three bodies do not appear to have been recovered. The blinds would have been drawn in most of the old town that December, as they had been just 19 months before when the yawl "Trio" had been lost with all the six crew. There had been three Johnsons on board, a father and two sons. A Hull boat actually witnessed three of the men being wahsed overboard by huge waves. (Filey Post 25th May 1894)
Petrol engines were generally fitted onto cobles around the time of the First World War. The danger of coble fishing decreased: the fishermen could run for shore quickly if bad weather loomed, as they did not have to row, or rely on windpower. Yet even in the days of the internal combutstion engine, and even in June, a coble could be at risk. On 29th June 1948, William Robinson Jenkinson ("Billy Wemp" 1893-1948) was drowned with three Cammishes( Francis, William Watkinson and Richard) when their salmon coble was overturned in a strong sea off the coast of Primrose Valley.
A busy sea lane runs along the east coast, and many Filey coble fishermen found themselves in collisions with large ocean going boats. The "Hermione", a coble perhaps 18 feet in length, was struck by the 1950 ton "Water Lily", a screw steamer, on 9th March 1900. The three crewmen, RC Jenkinson, TJ Jenkinson and MJ Jenkinson were long lining, and had not noticed the apearance of the ship. They would have been drowned if two cobles had not been nearby. One of their rescuers was a second RC Jenkinson. [Filey Post 10th March 1900. These four men cannot be positively identified. The first will be Richard cammish Jenkinson. They were father and son. The initials of the other two are probably wrongly reported in the Filey Post. They would all have been from the same family. The reader may share our surprise that Filey fishermen could identify a coble a mile or more away as it was coming to the shore and could yet miss a screw steamer of nearly 2000 tons when it was bearing down on them!
As the finishing touches were being put to this book, there came a grim reminder that the risks of coble fishing could be just as great in the days of radio, electronic navigation aids, sophisticated radio-watch coastguard systems and helicopter rescues. On the 7th May 1984 the Bridlington coble "Carol Sanbdra" sank off Flamborough Head whilst seeking crab pots. All four crew were lost. An £800,000 Bridlington charter fishing boat "North Wind" , equipped with the latest navigational equipment, was swamped in the old way whilst searching for ther missing coble. Three men were lost off her.