The Ketch ‘North Sea’

Written by S. Ablott
First Published


The North Sea was a ketch rigged fishing smack, built at Burton Stather in 1875 for Jabez Rutter of 23, Paradise Place, Hull. She was 72 tons and 72.6 feet in length, registered in Hull as H926.

No Third Chance

The North Sea was fishing with the fleet on Dogger Bank in the December of 1880; she had a crew of five hands at the time. On Sunday the 19th the second, third and fourth hands were boarding fish to the cutter with the smacks' boat while the skipper and apprentice stayed on board. The cutter Speedwell (H1283) had one of her boats out too.

Loading fish to the cutter
Loading fish to the cutter

While alongside the cutter, the three crew in the Speedwells' boat were advised to bail her out. The weather and sea being quite calm at the time, the men had a rather relaxed concern for safety. They ignored the advice and took the boat leaving the water inside. The boat capsized throwing the three men into the sea and sinking. They did however get a second chance, the North Seas' boat was close by and went to their rescue, taking them on board. But in spite of the warning, the lesson was not learnt. The small boat, now laden with six men, should have been handled with some caution. Instead it was said the men started larking about, the result being that this boat too capsized, putting all six men the sea. There were no other vessels less than a few hundred yards off to give immediate assistance. After a few minutes of struggling in the water, all six men drowned. The skipper would sail home with just the boy apprentice for crew.

The lost crewmen of the North Sea were: Henry Melvin, 20; Walter Leaming, 19 and David Gomersall, 17.

The three from the Speedwell were: Thomas Nolland, 23; Richard Watts, 23 and Joseph Birchall 17.

The Great Storm of 1883

The North Sea set sail from Hull for another fleeting voyage on the Dogger Bank on the 30th of January 1883. Again she carried a crew of five men: Skipper William Bartlett, second hand (mate) William Pitts, third hand Frederick Charlton, deckhand Thomas Glenton and apprentice (cook) Thomas Bruce. They joined the fleet near the Silver Pitts, on the 2nd of February and enjoyed fine weather throughout the month.

On the 5th of March they boarded fish to the cutter, after which they went a distance from the fleet. Seeing the admiral of the fleet make the signal, they laid to for the night, as the winds increased.

By 1am on the morning of the 6th it was blowing heavy and they took in two reefs in the mainsail and set the storm jib. Throughout the early hours the wind and waves grew, they battened down the hatches.

At nine o'clock in the morning the smack was hit by a heavy sea which swamped the vessel. Both masts were carried away, the chain plates having given way. As the masts went they tore openings in the deck into which water flooded. The skipper and cook were down below at the time, the skipper just had time to put on a cork life jacket, the second hand got one too. The North Sea sank within about 10 minutes of being damaged. The skipper, second hand and cook were left floating together in the sea, the other two hands apparently lost.

The smack Dayspring (H983) was nearby and witnessed the fatal wave which destroyed the vessel, they saw skipper William Bartlett floating in his lifejacket and pulled him out. As he was brought on board he fell unconscious. When he came around he realised that the second hand and cook were not on board the Dayspring with him; he was the sole survivor from the smack North Sea.

Huge Losses

The North Sea was not the only casualty in the gales of the 6th of March, there were heavy losses to many ports on the east coast, in what was considered one of the worst disasters ever to have hit the North Sea fishing fleet. The Humber ports of Hull and Grimsby suffered the heaviest losses. Hull lost 32 smacks and 231 fishermen, leaving 65 widows and over 200 orphans and aged parents. Grimsby lost 12 smacks and 96 fishermen, leaving 34 widows and 67 orphans under 14 years old. The national total was said to be 982 men lost, 146 widows and 400 orphans. Not to mention losses to the European fleets such as Denmark.

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 there were plenty of 'em after that big breeze in March.

Walter Wood
From the book North Sea Fishers and Fighters

The North Sea was one of five smacks built on the Stather to be lost that day. The others were the Bernice (H1052), Burton Stather (H583), Harrier (H703) and Grimsby smack Emu (GY239).

Extreme Weather

The first days of March in 1883 saw normal temperatures. On the 5th there was a broad airstream from WNW coming into the North Sea from the North Atlantic. To the west of Ireland was an anticyclone (1043mb). Pressure was falling quickly through the day with the depression moving SE. In Hamburg pressure fell 34mb in 24 hours. On the morning of the 6th the low was about 984mb in the SE Baltic; pressure on the west of Ireland was 1038; this created a great northerly gale in the North Sea. A force 9 was recorded on the west of Norway, force 10 at Wick, and 9 at Aberdeen. Wind speeds between Hull and Dogger Bank would be from 80 to 90 knots. There was a severe frost with hail and snow showers, the temperature in Scotland did not exceed zero all day.

Weather chart for 6th of March 1883
Weather charts for 6th of March 1883

One witness to the conditions on the Dogger Bank that day was Alfred Vine, former admiral of the Red Cross Fleet. He said that the wind was strong, though he had seen worse gales on the North Sea, it was not exceptionally strong. But the sea was extremely heavy, he had never seen a sea like it before, he had never seen it curl so high and break in the same way. He believed this was caused by the tidal wave being accelerated by the northerly wind, hitting the rising shallow ground of the northern edge of the Dogger Bank with great force. Many of the smacks were lost in the shallow broken waters of the Dogger Bank; the waves being high enough to fall upon the vessels, smashing in hatches and tearing away masts and the decks with them.

This cold stormy weather set the precedent for the rest of March that year, with frequent hard frosts and wintery showers. There were strong winds prevailing from the north and east through the rest of the month with a mean temperature of just 1.9°C. This was recorded as one of the coldest Marches for 300 years in England, with only 1785, 1674 and 1667 being colder. After several days of strong gales, ranging from NE to NW unusually high tides were recorded on the 10th and 11th, 1.3 meters above normal spring level in boston.

Vessel Details for North Sea

Official Number:68749
Fishing Number:H926
Vessel Name:North Sea
  • Jabez Rutter of Hull
  • William Bartlett 1883
  • Hull
Notes:Insured for 390 pounds.
Construction:Built of oak.
Trade:North Sea Fishing.
Incidents:19th Dec 1880, 3 crew lost when the ships boat capsized while boarding fish to a cutter. Henry Melvin 20 deckhand, Walter Leaming 19 deckhand and David Gomersall 17 apprentice.
Fate:Lost in the Great Gale 6th March 1883 near Dogger Bank 9am. The mast was carried away by heavy seas, leaving a hole where the chain plates attached which let in water and sank the vessel in just 8 minutes. 4 crew were lost William Pitts 38 2nd hand, Frederick Charlton 35 3rd hand, Thomas Glenton 21 deckhand and Thomas Bruce 16 apprentice. The sole survivor was skipper William Bartlett, wearing a cork lifevest, he was rescued by the Hull smack Dayspring H983.

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© Background Photograph by Steve Smith.