Charles Dickens account of a shipwreck at Filey

Charles Dickens wrote many factual books. This article was published in "Household words"in 1851

It was precisely on the 5th of November, 1821, that a terrible gale from the north-west set in. It rose very early in the morning, and blew hurricanes all day. There was a hasty and precipitate running and crowding of fishing-boats, colliers, and other vessels into the friendly ports of Scarborough and Filey, for these once past, excepting Burlington, which is far less sheltered, there is no place of refuge nearer than the Humber to flee to.

As the morning broke dark and scowling, the inhabitants looking from their windows saw whole fleets of vessels thronging into the port. Men were seen on the heights, where the wind scarcely allowed them either to stand or breathe, looking out to descry what vessels were in the offing, and whether any danger were threatening any of them.

Every one felt a sad certainty, that on that bleak coast, where this wind, when in its strength, drives many a luckless ship with uncontrollable force against the steep and inaccessible cliffs, such a day could not go over without fearful damage. Before noon the sea was running mountains high, and the waves were dashing in snowy foam aloft against the cliffs, and with the howling winds filling the air with an awful roar.

Many a vessel came labouring and straining towards the ports, yet by all the exertions of the crews, kept with difficulty from driving upon the inevitable destruction of the rocky coast.


Amongst the fishing-vessels which made the Bay of Filey in safety, was one belonging to a young man of the name of George Jolliffe, By his own active labours, added to a little property left him by his father, also a fisherman, George Jolliffe had made himself the master of a five-man-boat, and carried on a successful trade.

But the boat was his all, and he sometimes thought, with a deep melancholy, as he sate for hours through long nights looking into the sea, where his nets were cast, - what would become of him if any thing happened to the "Fair Susan"

The boat was christened after his wife ; and when George Jolliffe pictured to himself his handsome and good Susan, in their neat little home, in one of the narrow yet clean little lanes of Scarborough, with his two children, he was ready to go wild with an inward terror at the idea of a mishap to his vessel.

But these were but passing thoughts, and only made him the more active and vigilant.

He had been out some days at the Dogger-bank, fishing for cod, and had taken little, when the sky, as he read it, boded a coming storm. He immediately hauled his nets trimmed his sails, and made for home with all his ability. It was not long before he saw his own belief shared by the rest of the fishermen who were out in that quarter; and from whom all sail was bent landward.

Before he caught sight of land, the wind had risen to a violent gale; and as he drew nearer the coast, he became quite aware that he should not be able to make his own port, and must use all energy to get into Filey. In the afternoon of this 5th of November, he found himself, after stupendous labour, and no little anxiety, under shelter of the hind, and came to anchor in a crowd of other strange vessels.

Wearied, drenched with wet, and exhausted by their arduous endeavours to make this port, as he and his four comrades ascended the steps to Filey village, their attention was soon excited by the crowds of sailors and fishermen who were congregated at the foot of the signal-house, and with glasses and an eager murmur of talk were riveting their attention on something seaward.

They turned, and saw at once the object of it. A fine merchant vessel, under bare poles, and apparently no longer obeying the helm, was labouring in the ocean, and driving, as it appeared, hopelessly towards that sheer stretch of sea-wall called the Spectan Cliff-against which so many noble ships hail been pitched to destruction.

"Nothing can save her!" said several voices with an apparent calmness which would have struck a landsman as totally callous and cruel. Already there might, however, beseen a movement in the crowd, which George Jolliffe and his comrades knew from experience, meant that numbers were going off to assist, if possible, in saving the human life on board the vessel, which itself no power on earth could save.

Little hope, indeed, was there of salvation of life, for the cliff was miles in extent, and for the whole distance presented a perpendicular wall of two hundred feet in altitude, against which the sea was hurling its tremendous billows to a terrific height.

But wearied as George Jolliffe was. he instantly resolved to join in the endeavour to afford what help was possible, or at least to give to the terrified people on board the doomed ship the satisfaction of perceiving that their more fortunate fellow-creatures on land were not indifferent to their misery.


Hurrying, therefore, into the Ship public-house close at hand, he drank a pint of beer as he stood, took a couple of stout pieces of bread and cheese in his hand, and in the next moment was hauled up into a cart which was going off with a quantity of fishermen on the same errand.

One only of his crew accompanied him, and that was his younger brother; the three hired men declared themselves half-dead with fatigue, and staid behind.

The cart drove along at an almost furious rate, and there were numbers of others going the same road, with the same velocity ; while they could see streams of young men on foot,' running along the tops of the cliffs, taking the nearest course towards the scene of the expected catastrophe.

Long before George Jolliffe and those with whom he went reached the point where they left their cart, and started forward bearing coils of rope, and even warm garments with them, they heard the firing of guns of distress from the jeopardised vessel.

It would seem that up to a certain moment the people on board trusted to be able to bring the ship under shelter of the land, and then get an anchorage: but the dreadful reality of their situation had now evidently burst upon them ; and the crowds hastening towards the cliff, hurried forward more anxiously as the successive boomings of these melancholy guns reached their ears.

When Jolliffe and his companions reached the crest of the cliff, and looked out on the sea, it was already drawing toward evening. The wind still blew furiously. The ocean was one chaos of tossing and rolling billows, and the thunder of their discharge on the face of the cliff, was awful.

The first sight of the unhappy vessel made the spectator ejaculate "Oh Lord !"That was all that was uttered, and it spoke volumes. The throng stood staring intently down on the ship, amid the deafening thunder of the ocean, and the suffocating violence of the winds. On came the devoted vessel like a lamed thing, one of its masts already gone by the board, and but few people to be seen on the deck.

These, however, raised their hands in most imploring attitude towards the people on the cliff, as if relying on them for that aid which they despaired to afford. As the helpless vessel came nearer the cliff, it encountered the refluent force of the waves that were sent with a stunning recoil from their terrible shock against the precipice. It staggered, stooped, and was turned about without power of self-guidance.

One mountainous sea after another washed over her, and the few human beings disappeared with shrieks that pierced even through the turbulent dissonance of the tempest. The crowd on the cliff shuddered with horror, and felt that all need of their presence was at an end. But they stood and stared as with a fascinated intensity on the vessel that now came nearer and nearer to its final catastrophe; when all at once there was discerned an old man, with bare head and white streaming hair, lashed to the main-mast

He stood with lifted hands and face gazing up to them as if clinging firmly to the hope of their saving him. A simultaneous agitation ran through the crowd. The ship was lifted high on the back of the billows, and then pitched down again within a short distance of the cliff. A few more seconds- another such a heave, and she must be dashed to pieces. At once flew out several coils of ropes, but the fury of the wind, and the depth to which they had to go defeated them. They were hurled against the crags, and came nowhere near the vessel.

Again were thrown out others, and amongst these one was seized by the old man. There was a loud shout at the sight; but the moment was too terrible to allow of much rational hope. The vessel was close upon the cliff-one mote pitch, and she would perish. All eyes were strained to see when the old man had secured the rope round him.

He was evidently labouring to do this before he loosed himself from the mast, lest he should be washed away by the next sea. But he appeared feeble and benumbed, and several voices exclaimed, "He will never do it!" A sea washed over him.

As it went by they saw the old man still stand by the mast He passed his arm over his face as if to clear his eyes from the water-and looked up. He still held convulsively by the rope which they had thrown ; but it was evident he was too much exhausted to secure it round him. At that moment the huge vessel struck with a terrific shock against the solid wall, and staggering backward, became half buried in the boiling waters.

Again it was plunged forward with a frightful impetus, and the next instant the mast fell with a crash-and the whole great hull seemed to dissolve in the liquid chaos. In another moment the black stern of the ship was seen to heave from the waves, and then disappear, and tuna spars and casks were seen churning in the snowy surf, and tossed as playthings by the riotous sea again and again to the annihilating wall.

The next morning the wind had greatly abated; and, with the first peep of day, numbers of fishing-boats put out to see whether anything of value which had floated from the wreck could be picked up. George Jolliffe was amongst the earliest of the wreckers; but in his mind the face and form of that old man were vividly present.

He had dreamed of them all night; and while the rest of his crew were all alert on the look-out for corks or other floating booty, he could not avoid casting a glance far and wide, to see if he could descry anything of a floating mast. Though the wind was intensely still, the sea still rose high, and it was dangerous to approach the cliff.

The vessels around them were busily engaged in securing a number of articles that were floating; but George still kept a steady look-out for the mast; and he was now sure that he saw it at a considerable distance. They made all sail for it; and, sore enough, it was there. They ran their vessel close alongside of it, and soon saw, not only a sling rope encircling its lower end, but a human arm clutching fast by it.

Jolliffe had the cobble soon adrift, and, with a couple of rowers, approached the floating timber. With much difficulty, from the uneasy state of the sea, he managed to secure a cord round the drowned man's wrist, and with an axe severed the rope which tied him to the mast. Presently they actually had the old man in the boat, whom they last evening saw imploring their aid from the wreck.

Speedily they had him hoisted into the yawl; and when they got on board, and saw him lying at his length on deck, they were astonished at his size and the, dignity of his look.

He was not, as he seemed from the altitude of the cliff, a little man: he was upwards of six feet in height, of a large and powerful build ; and though of at least seventy years of age, there was a nobility of feature, and a mild intelligence of expression in him, which greatly struck them.

"That,"said George Jolliffe, "is a gentleman every inch. There will be trouble about him somewhere."

While saying this, he observed that he had several jewelled rings on his fingers, which he carefully drew off; and said to his men : "You see how many there are;" and put them into his waistcoat-pocket. He then observed that he had a bag of stout leather, bound by a strong belt to his waist.

This he untied, and found in it a large packet wrapped in oil-cloth, and sealed up. There was also a piece of paper closely and tightly folded together, which being with difficulty, from its soaked state, opened and spread out, was found to contain the address of a great mercantile house in Hull.

"These," said George Jolliffe, "I shall myself deliver to the merchants."

"But we claim our shares,"said the men.

"They are neither mine nor yours,"said George; "but whatever benefit comes of doing a right thing, you shall partake of. Beyond that, I will defend this property with my whole life and strength, if necessary. And now let us see what else there is to be got."

The men, who looked sullen and dogged at first, on hearing this resumed their cheerfulness, and were soon in full pursuit of other floating articles. They lashed the mast to the stem of their vessel, and in the course of a few hours were in possession of considerable booty.

Jolliffe told them that, to prevent any interference of the police or the harbourmaster with the effects of the old gentleman, he would be put out near Filey, and they must steer the yawl home. He secured the bag under his tarpaulin coat, and was soon set ashore at a part of the bay where he could make his way, without much observation, to the Hull road. He met the coach most luckily, and that night was in Hull.

The next morning he went to the counting-house of the merchants indicated by the paper in the drowned gentleman's bag, and informed the principals what had happened. When he described the person of the deceased, and produced the bag, with the blotted and curdled piece of paper, the partners seemed struck with a speechless terror. One looked at the other, and at length one said, "Gracious God! too sure it is Mr. Anckersvoerd ! "

They unfolded the packet, conferred apart for some time with each other, and then, coming to Mr. Jolliffe, said, "You have behaved in a most honourable manner: we can assure you that you will not fail of your reward. These papers are of the utmost importance.

We tell you candidly they involve the safety of a very large amount of property. But this is a very sorrowful business. One of us must accompany you, to see respect paid to the remains of our old and valued friend and partner. In the meantime here are ten pounds for yourself, and the same sum to distribute amongst your men."

George Jolliffe begged the merchants to favour him with a written acknowledgment of the receipt of the packet and of the rings which he now delivered to them. This he obtained ; and we may shorten our recital by here simply saying, that the remains of the drowned merchant were buried, with all respectful observance, in the old churchyard at Scarborough ; a great number of gentlemen from Hull attending the funeral.

That winter was a peculiarly severe and stormy one. Ere it was over, George Jolliffe himself had been wrecked-his "Fair Susan" was caught in a thick fog on the Filey rocks, his brother drowned, and only himself and another man picked up and saved.

His wife, from the shock of her nerves, had suffered a premature confinement, and, probably owing to the grief and anxiety attending this great misfortune, had long failed to rally again. George Jolliffe was now a pennyless man serving on board another vessel, and enduring the rigours of the weather and the sea for a mere weekly pittance.

It was in the April of the coming year that one Sunday his wife had, for the first time, taken his arm for a stroll to the Castle Hill. They were returning to their little house, Susan pale and exhausted by her exertions, with the two children trudging quietly behind, when, as they drew near their door, they saw a strange gentleman, tall, young, and good-looking, speaking with Mrs. Bright, their next neighbour.

"Here he is," said Mrs. Bright; "that is Mr. Jolliffe."

The stranger lifted his hat very politely, made a very low bow to Mrs. Jolliffe, and then, looking a good deal moved, said to George, "My name Mr Anckersvoerd." "Oh,"said George ; all that rushing into his mind which the stranger immediately proceeded to inform him.

"I am," said he, "the son of the gentleman who, in the wreck of the 'Danemand,' experienced your kind care. I would have a little conversation with you."

George stood for a moment as if confused, but Mrs. Jolliffe hastened to open the door with the key, and bade Mr. Anckersvoerd walk in. "You are an Englishman?" said George, as the stranger seated himself. "No,1 he replied, "I am a Dane, but I was educated to business in Hull, and I look on England as my second country. Such men as you, Mr. Jolliffe, would make one proud of such a country, if we had no other interest in it."

George Jolliffe blushed, Mrs. Jolliffe's eyes sparkled with a pleasure and pride that she took no pains to conceal. A little conversation made the stranger aware that misfortune had fallen heavily on this little family since George had so nobly secured the property and remains of his father.

"Providence," said Mr. Anckersvoerd,

"evidently means to give full effect to our gratitude. I was fast bound by the winter at Archangel, when the sad news reached me, or I should have been here sooner. But here I am, and in the name of my mother, my sister, my wife, my brother, and our partners, I beg, Mr. Jolliffe, to present you with the best fishing-smack that can be found for sale in the port of Hull-and if no first-rate one can be found, one shall be built.

Also, I ask your acceptance of one hundred pounds, as a little fund against those disasters that so often beset your hazardous profession. Should such a day come-let not this testimony of our regard and gratitude make you think we have done all that we would. Send at once to us, and you shall not send in vain."

We need not describe the happiness which Mr. Anckersvoerd left in that little house that day, nor that which he carried away in his own heart. How rapidly Mrs. Jolliffe recovered her health and strength, and how proudly George Jolliffe saw a new "Fair Susan" spread her sails very soon for the deep-sea fishing.

We had the curiosity the other day to enquire whether a "Fair Susan" was still amongst the fishing vessels of the port of Scarborough. We could not discover her, but learnt that a Captain Jolliffe, a fine, hearty fellow of fifty is master of that noble merchantman, the "Holger-Danske," which makes its regular voyages between Copenhagen and Hull, and that his son, a promising young man, is an esteemed and confidential clerk in the house of Davidson, Anckersvoerand Co., to whom the "Holger-Danske" belongs.

That was enough ; we understood it all, and felt a genuine satisfaction in the thought the seed of a worthy action had fallen into worthy soil, to the benefit and contentment of all parties. May the "Holger-Danske" sail ever!

The record books show details of the Danemand. It truly did sink on the 5th November,1821. It was smashed aginst the cliffs at Speeton near Filey. "Shipwrecks of the Yorkshire coast" by Arthur Godfrey and J Lassey records this wreck. The Previous day the same book records many wrecks.

At Scarborough there were six wrecks recorded - The Beuccephalus(stranded near the Spa), the Collingwood(stranded at the Spa), The Eagle(South Bay), Caledonia(stranded near the Spa), the Providence (near the Spa) and The Hope(Scarborough Harbour). There were also three wrecks at or near Bridlington('The Joseph and Mary','The Nancy' and 'The William and Ann').

There were also wrecks at Whitby('The Friendship'), Ravenscar('The Jane')and near Redcar('The Mary'). Another book by Arthur Godfrey 'The Yorkshire fishing fleet' records the loss of a 'Fair Susan' in 1822.

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