Many of the Island’s most dramatic wrecks were carefully recorded and described by twentieth century Isle of Wight resident Fred Mew.
The Isle of Wight has 60 miles of coastline, many of them treacherous. Over the centuries thousands of ships have been wrecked and many lives claimed. Towering cliffs, off-shore ledges of rocks and boulders lurking invisible beneath the sea, deep chasms which cause the sea to boil and bubble, sunken boulders and howling storms all combine to make the waters round the Isle of Wight some of the most hazardous in the world. The Admiralty’s charts record 4,000 wrecks but because many of the wooden hulled ships were swallowed and sunk without trace the real number could be much greater.
Many of the most famous wrecks were well documented by Fred Mew in his book Fifty Years Back of the Wight, (The Isle of Wight County Press 1933, www.backofthewight.co.uk). In one of the early chapters of the book he notes how, in the 1880s, he and his father would profit from wrecks through an activity they called ‘ tonging’.
The following are among the many wrecks he describes:
|A suitable day must be chosen, no wind, easy tides, and clear water. The tongs are at the end of a long pole from 12 to 20 feet long, one jaw being fastened to the pole, the other to a rope, while another necessary adjunct is a peep bucket, a wooden bucket with a glass bottom. Arriving on the spot in a boat, the bottom is searched through the peep bucket for the pieces of brass, etc., and when a piece is found the tongs are guided over it by the pole and the open jaws placed over it; then by pulling the rope taut the jaws close and if you are lucky the spoil is soon in the boat.|
The Clarendon set sail from St Kitts on August 27 1836 with a cargo of sugar, molasses and rum, 11 passengers and 17 crew. Six weeks later, on a morning bedevilled by howling gales and huge seas, she hit the beach at Blackgang, rolled onto her side and broke up in less than 10 minutes.
With great heroism, a local fisherman, John Wheeler, tied a rope round his waist, gave the end to a mate, and plunged into the surf, exhorting those still on the vessel to jump into the boiling seas. Three crewmen did so and he managed to pull them ashore. Everyone else – including a family with four daughters aged between nine months and eighteen, was drowned or killed by timbers in the pounding surf. Eighteen of the dead are buried in Chale churchyard.
So great was this disaster that the following year construction of St Catherine’s lighthouse began.
In 1888 Mew witnessed two wrecks, one of which, 50 years later, was still being spoken of ‘with bated breath in the village of Brightstone, home of a long line of lifeboat heroes’. The Sirenia was a three masted, full-rigged, 1588 ton vessel sailing from San Francisco to Dunkirk with 26 crewmen and five passengers abroad. On the morning of March 9, in dense fog, it sailed on to the rocks at Atherfield Edge. Unaware of the severity of his situation, the Captain declined the first offer of help, saying he expected to be off with the tide.
That afternoon, as the storm worsened, the Brightstone life boat was launched. Having struggled to reach the Sirenia, it tied alongside, but the savage sea snapped the rope and drove the boat back to shore. Undaunted, the men rowed out again and managed to rescue four of the passengers, two women and two children.
By this time the Brook lifeboat crew had joined the fray. When first launched it was tossed by the sea like so much flotsam; its oars were broken and two crewmen injured. On second launching it sailed through six miles of ‘a veritable hell of waters’ to reach the Sirenia, whereon it was battered by a wave so big that three crewmen were washed out of the boat and one lost. The boat sustained such damage that it had no choice but to return to Brook.
Meanwhile in the Brightstone boat’s second rescue bid, 13 men were taken off the ship, but as it headed once more for shore ‘a mountain of water with a white fringe on top’, swamped the boat: four men were lost and the remaining 22 survived with ,at the very least, a broken rib. Undaunted, the lifeboat was launched a third time, with a new crew one of whom, Edmund Attrill, had walked 15 miles across the Island to get there. The crew battled out to the ledge, where the Sirenia’s iron hull had broken in half and was beginning to flood rapidly, and rescued the remaining 13 men on board.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution subsequently awarded four Silver Medals for bravery. In Brightstone churchyard, the headstones of two of the lost lifeboat men, Moses Munt and Thomas Cotton, and one American crewman, Leonard Proctor Dozier, can still be seen.
In January 1890, The Irex, a new full-rigged ship sailing from Glasgow to Rio De Janiero and having been battered for a full 20 days at sea, decided to run for shelter. Nearing the Needles in dirty weather, she went to her doom in Scratchells Bay’. ‘The captain, mate and four sailors were swept away or disappeared during the night, a disappearance about which there were ugly rumours which could never be proved.’
The Irex lay where she had foundered until the following morning, when she was spotted. The Totland lifeboat attempted a rescue, but could not get near her. A rocket (its apparatus designed by a Carisbrooke man) was subsequently fired from the cliffs 400 feet above the stricken ship, and it carried a line direct to the ‘benumbed and drenched crew’. With great difficulty, a hawser was then rigged up and coastguards, soldiers and civilians dragged the men – many of whom had broken limbs – to safety in a breeches buoy. A few days later Queen Victoria received the survivors and NCOs of the Royal Artillery who assisted at Osborne House and congratulated them.
The Mary Rose
This, the most famous wreck in the area, occurred long before Fred Mew’s lifetime.
The Mary Rose, launched in 1511, was named after Henry V111’s sister and described by the Lord High Admiral Sir Edward Howard as ‘the flower of all the ships that ever sailed.’ She proved a worthy fighting vessel, and in 1536 was refitted to carry 15 bronze cannons, 57 iron cannons and 70 anti-personnel guns. In 1545, when Francis 1 of France determined to liberate the British from the ‘protestant tyranny’ imposed by Henry V111, the Mary Rose was lined up in Portsmouth alongside the rest of the fleet to fight the Battle of Spithead. In a fatal oversight, the gun ports nearest her waterline were kept open and, as she went about, an unexpected gust of wind tilted the ship too far. She rapidly filled up with water and sank, taking with her all but 40 of the 700 sailors aboard. “Oh my gentleman! My gallant men! Drowned like rattens.” Henry V111 supposedly said. Despite this disaster King Francis 1’s Admiral failed to lure the fleet out of Portsmouth and although he landed at Bonchurch, Seaview and Sandown, the invasion ultimately failed. The Mary Rose was raised in 1982 and is now on display in Portsmouth Dockyard.