On a warm, calm evening in May, at a low Spring tide, Ronnie Porter led me along the shore at Allonby. As we walked, he showed me the various rocky scaurs and boulders, and he told me their names.
Near Dubmill Point, we made a small diversion towards the mid-shore, and he showed me something for which I’d searched unsuccessfully on several occasions: the wooden keel of an ancient vessel – on Ship’s-Keel Scaur.
Now, its timbers as hard as iron, the keel (if that is what it is – its profile has been much transformed, holed and distorted and overgrown) is home to a variety of marine species, a microcosm of the animals and algae on the shore. Sandy tubes of the honeycomb worm, Sabellaria; mats of barnacles; a few limpets; grazing winkles; predatory dog-whelks, which have laid mats of their orange vase-shaped eggs under overhanging timber; beadlet anemones, Actinia; green Ulva algae. Footprints show that wading birds have been sheltering in its shadow.
Although 6 or 7 metres long, the keel blends into its surroundings on the scaur, providing yet another stable surface against the shifting sands; its encrusted chain bleeds oxidised iron.
It is scarred by deep rectangular excisions, which I now realise have been caused by present-day hacksaws. Someone I know who has been responsible for one of these wounds told me that he and his friend had been extracting copper nails. He showed me the wedge-shaped nail, several inches long and tapering at one end. He says he will take it to Tullie House Museum in Carlisle to see if they can date it.
The nail, the keel, are old, that much is obvious – but how old? Which vessel did it support, and how did it come to be cast up in Allonby Bay?
Allonby’s most famous shipwreck was of the barque Hougoumont. Bound for Liverpool, she was driven North to Maryport in a storm in March 1903; she dragged her anchor and ran ashore at Allonby and her cargo, boxes of tins of pears, peaches and salmon, was much appreciated by local people. Her story is well told and illustrated in Peter Ostle’s blog about Allonby’s history. But she is not the source of the ancient keel, because her battered hull was eventually towed to Maryport to be repaired.
In the early 1900s Allonby was also, surprisingly, a site for ship-breaking, a business that was operated at the southern end of the bay by the Twentyman family. Ships were towed to the beach by tug then broken up over a period of many months, but their timbers and metals were salvaged and reclaimed. What happened to the reclaimed materal – was it taken to the various ship-building firms at Maryport for re-use?
Wanting to find out more about the ship’s-keel, I put a small notice in the Solway Buzz asking for information, and several weeks later John Whitwell, a volunteer at the Maryport Maritime Museum, phoned me, wondering if he might have found an answer.
John had been hunting through the archives for me, and he has given me copies of extraordinary photographs of ships being towed and in the process of being broken.
John wonders if one of these was the Prince Victor – a board with the ship’s name still hangs outside a house in Allonby.
As for the ship’s keel, John has given me copies of a notice and a chart that suggest the intriguing possibility that the keel might be from the 1180-ton barque William Leavitt, which was wrecked just off Dubmill Point on April 20th 1889.
This notice, from the Maryport Advertiser on Friday November 30th 1889, shows the barque’s varied history: she was built in St Johns, Newfoundland, in 1863 for Leavitt and Co. and was sold three years later to the well-known shipowner Thomas Williams of Liverpool.
On his website, R. Cadwallader gives the interesting information that “Thomas Williams was Master then Marine Superintendant with the Famous “Black Ball Line” of Liverpool. When James Baines got into financial troubles in the 1860s, Capt Williams bought some of the old wooden ships from him. This was the start of his shipping business.”
The rest of the notice reads that in April 1889 she was
“In bound with a cargo of Timber
From Quebec to Greenock was driven up the Solway Firth
Stranded at Barnhousie Bank, while under tow from Maryport and
Breaking adrift from the tug to Greenock total loss, 6 Crew
And 1 passenger, owners rep all saved.
Winds SW force 8 Gale, the owner at the time of loss was
H J Vasey of Newcastle. Her skipper was Captain Gude.
The ship ended up at Dub Mill and a great deal of the wreck was
Washed up on the Beach between Silloth and Allonby”
According to the Maryport Advertiser the barque was sold to a Norwegian company in 1887 (Cadwallader’s chart states 1888), and the implication is that she was then sold on to Vasey of Newcastle; the newspaper article, however, says that the crew didn’t understand English, and were Norwegian. But whoever was the owner, their short-lived ownership of the 36-year-old vessel didn’t bring them much prosperity.
The picture below, which hangs in the Maritime Museum and was painted by well-known local artist William Mitchell in 1884, is of ‘the steam tug Florence leading the 598 ton Italian barque Gimello into Maryport, 18th October 1883’ and gives us an idea of the stormy conditions on the Firth during which the bigger barque, the William Leavitt, ran aground.
There is a much longer article about the William Leavitt’s plight in the Maryport Advertiser (see below) which brings out the drama of the situation (note that there are minor discrepancies between this account and the notice; and the newpaper cutting has been dated, by hand, November 30th, much later than April).
The article suggests that ‘the barque is likely to become a total wreck, [but] it is probable that most, if not all, of her cargo of 1180 tons of timber, will be got ashore.’ (The weight of the cargo is probably a mistake, since the vessel itself weighed 1180 tons)
But what of the ‘great deal of the wreck [that] was washed up on the beach between Silloth and Allonby’? Perhaps there are even now ‘family heirlooms’, of cutlery or brass, sitting on mantelpieces or tucked away in drawers, whose stories have been passed down from great-grandparents.
As for the keel on Ship’s-Keel Scaur, whatever its origin, it now supports new life of a different kind – and has given its name to a part of Allonby’s shore.
Article from the Maryport Advertiser
EXCITING SCENES ON SUNDAY
On Friday afternoon the Norwegian barque, William Leavitt, of Laurvig, 1181 tones register, Captain Gude, bound from Quebec to Greenock with a cargo of timber, was driven into the Solway Firth through stress of weather and anchored in the roads off Maryport and Workington. The captain afterwards went ashore at Workington for the purpose of telegraphing to Greenock for a steam tug, and as a very strong wind was blowing and a high sea running he was unable to return to his vessel. When night came on the gale, which had been blowing all day, increased in violence, and the barque began to drag her anchors. About 11 o’clock the steamer Plantaganet, from Liverpool for Maryport with a general cargo, came off St Helens, and seeing the “flare up” light, the captain altered his course and bore down upon the craft. On getting near he noticed that the vessel was drifitng ashore, while the crew were running about with lighted torches, being apparently panic-stricken. The steamer sailed round the barque and came quite near her on the lee side, but the captain could get no intelligent response to his frequent inquiries. This circumstance is now explained by the fact that the barque’s crew were all foreigners and unable to speak English. The Plantaganet, however, stood by until the ship drifted past Maryport and came off the Salt Pans, situate about 2½ miles higher up the Solway. Although it was fearful night and the steamer had enough to do to live in the surf, the captain is of an opinion that if he had got a rope from the barque before she passed Maryport, he could have held on until assistance arrived. The first indication that a vessel was in need of assistance appears to have been observed at Maryport at about twenty minutes past eleven, At that time the pilot boat Ally Sloper, owned by Mr. W. Walker, junr., and manned by John Robinson (master), James McAvoy, John Messenger, and John Byers, was on the lookout for a steamer expected by that tide, and seeing the light the men got into the boat and went out. After getting outside the harbour the frail craft was in danger of being engulphed at any moment by the angry waves, but the men held on until they came within speaking distance of the barque in distress. Just then the pilot boat’s foresail and mizzen were carried away and the crew placed in greater jeopardy than those they were attempting to rescue. When in this plight they fell in with the Plantaganet and all having after with great difficulty got safely on board with the boat secured behind, Robinson, the pilot, took charge of the steamer, and made for the harbour. When running up against the wind the steamer passed both the steam-tug Senhouse and the lifeboat going after the barque. About this time the Norwegians abandoned the vessel, and she ran ashore at Dub Mill, while they continued to drift about in an open boat until they were picked up by the tug …. The men, 16 in number, were landed at Maryport and taken to the Coffee Tavern at about three o’clock on Saturday morning. They were all much exhausted and two were suffering from slight injuries received while getting into the boat to leave the ship. The lifeboat did not arrive in time to render any assistance, but she remained close to the wreck for some time after the tug returned to make sure that none had been left either on board or near the barque. … The coxwain states that the lifeboat behaved remarkably well in the surf at Dub Mill. The barque is most likely to become a total wreck, but it is probable that most, if not all, of her cargo of 1,800 tons of timber, will be got ashore. On Saturday forenoon the master attended at the Custom House to make his deposition. The shipwrecked crew were taken charge of by Mr. J.B.Mason, Vice-Consul for Sweden and Norway.
On Monday evening the crew boarded the vessel and brought their clothes ashore, but as yet no attempt has been made to float the ship.
A good deal of the wreck was washed upon the beach between Silloth and Allonby.