BELGISCHE MARITIEME LIGA  vzw.
LIGUE MARITIME BELGE  asbl.

Koninklijke Vereniging - Société Royale

HISTORIEK  HISTORIQUE  HISTORIC

 

Stirling Castle

 

    

The seamen on Her Majesty's ship Stirling Castle viewed the sight of Deal wistfully. They could see the short church tower of St. Leonard's and the surrounding houses on the higher ground, but it was the newer constructions near the shoreline that they lusted for.
When the streets of Lower Deal were being built, a public house seemed to appear upon every corner. These establishments would supply a sailor with everything he needed, beer, tobacco, rum, contraband brandy and, of course, women. They would always be ready to give their time and comforts to any man in exchange for coin.

As the Stirling Castle came abreast of the town, preparations were being made to drop her anchor. The old ship was part of a squadron that had been on a campaign against the French in the Mediterranean throughout the summer. Under the command of Sir Cloudsley Shovell the fleet had not been overly successful on their mission, and the expedition was an ill-designed one. Some prizes had been taken and the blockading of Toulon was to keep the French fleet lying quietly at anchor. The Admiralty had under-victualled the ships causing a loss of life and manpower which forced the vessels to return before they could create too much effect against the enemy.
The three hundred and sixty-one suntanned officers and men shivered in the strong south west wind on that cold day of the l7th of November, 1703. Captain John Johnson pulled his coat about himself as he watched his first officer organise the men at the cathead and cable locker. The officers wore normal clothes which were barely adapted for sea use and only the marines wore any kind of uniform. After the heat of the Mediterranean summer the sea soldiers were now thankful of their government issue cloaks. As the third-rate seventy-gun ship jostled for a space amongst the other two hundred craft which were anchored or anchoring in the Downs, the captain felt apprehensive. The Goodwin Sands lay less than Five miles offshore, along with the Brake Sands and other shoal water. Although the Downs was recognised as a good holding area it was also known for its strong tides which swept around the sand banks.

With the close proximity of each ship in the crowded anchorage, timing and skill was needed to obtain a secure berth. Most of the naval vessels would be close together so they could converse with the aid of flags. Under reduced sail the two-decker edged her way into the tide and as the seamen slackened off her braces the yards swung, releasing the wind from her canvas. The best bower was let go from her starboard side and ten fathoms of thick hemp rope streamed through the hawsehole before it went slack as the anchor hit the seabed. Whilst another twenty fathoms was let out the rats, which out numbered the men, scuttled away to find another hiding place. The one thousand and eighty-seven ton ship was made fast and after the wind-hardened canvas was lashed tightly to her spars, a pipe shrilled as the men, apart from the anchor watch, were stood down from their duties. Again they looked longingly at Deal before going below for their meagre meal of salt beef, hard biscuits and sour beer.

Throughout that night a gale of wind blew. Some of the ships dragged at their moorings and a Dutch merchantman was lost on the Goodwins. The seamen's thoughts of the pleasures of the flesh were soon put aside by the thoughts of how frail was their mortality.

At dawn, the following day, the foreshore was crowded with longshoremen peering to the east at the many ships anchored in the Downs. This surge of humanity had emerged from the hovels that littered the shingle beach above the high water mark. Some of their makeshift abodes were upturned boats too rotten to float, or lean-tos made of salvaged timber from old shipwrecks.

These men were of a fierce appearance, unshaven and unwashed, forever looking seaward for a signal from an anchored ship that a service was required. The most successful boatmen were said to have the superior eyesight of a latrine rat. Occasionally a man stood out from the rabble, although he would still have a weather beaten face, there would be an air of authority about him. These men were the masters of the largest beach boats, the vessels that could brave the weather when the smaller craft were shore bound. They would stand off either side of the Goodwins in the strongest winds and wait for the cargoes to be washed out of shipwrecks as they were smashed to pieces on the sands. It was a dangerous life, but they were hard men who would only risk their lives and boats for one reason; financial gain. The masters and crew of these boats could earn more money in one storm than a landsman could earn in a year or even a decade. As they watched, boat crews were picking over the bones of the wrecked Dutch ship.

Deal had gained its Charter of Incorporation on the thirteenth day of October, 1699. It had been argued the year before, by the future mayor Joshua Coppin and his cronies, that as the town was expanding it had no use for the dependence of Sandwich. With almost three thousand inhabitants they were paying greater taxes, supplying His Majesty's fleet with men and looking after more sick and wounded in time of war than any other of the Cinque Ports. Also the King's custom would be better collected and the public peace preserved. The argument outweighed Sandwich's protests and Deal became a newborn borough, complete with its own charter. Part of the Charter read "That the town in all future times may be and remain a town of peace and quiet, to the dread and terror of the bad and the reward and support of the good." This was to prove difficult throughout the following years.

Thomas Powell was Deal's third mayor since its incorporation. He was a pious man and of strong character. The town he presided over was in two halves, Upper Deal with its church and, a mile away, the new Lower Deal with its inns and commerce. He did his best to uphold the town's charter along with Queen Anne's proclamation to suppress vice and immorality. Although he was himself a tradesman and only had held his office as mayor for three months, he would walk the streets armed with a large staff, ordering public houses and shops to close for trade on the Sabbath.

He was a brave man. The three old castles of Deal, Walmer and Sandown did not supply him with any military to back his beliefs, in fact the soldiers along with the sailors were the main cause for most of the profane language and trouble in and around the seafront taverns.

Thomas once took a sailor by the collar (in the middle of the market place and surrounded by his fellow crewmen) and placed him in the stocks for swearing in public. As the other seamen angrily gathered around the mayor, he told them that he would do the same to them if they were also to breach the peace. His courage and his stout rod quelled the mob and they dispersed.

An hour later a drunken prostitute accosted him and vented her feelings on his sanctimoneousness. He seized her and brought her to the whipping post, which was alongside the stocks in the middle of the market, to receive twelve lashes. Hundreds of people were present and after every third lash he spoke in a loud voice that she should tell all the whores of London, Gravesend, Chatham, Canterbury or anywhere that she may go, not to come to Deal as they would meet the same fate as her. As the screaming woman was released from the post he gave her a groat and had the constable remove her from the town. The following morning another twenty-five harlots left, taking the road to Canterbury and Chatham uttering the most fearful oaths against Thomas Powell for disrupting their employment. They also vowed they would not set foot in Deal again until the mayor was dead. It was a promise they soon broke.

Mayor Powell's over zealousness to keep Sunday strictly the Sabbath soon became a burden to his fellow councillors and friends, who complained about his attitude. This did not stop him, he chastised the Reverend Gerrard at St. Leonard's church for not wearing his surplice whilst taking the service. He also wrote to the school to inform them that any of their pupils who were found skylarking or scrumping on the Lord' s Day would also be punished.

Every Sunday, after church and a tankard of ale, he and the town sergeant would walk about Lower Deal not only imposing a fine on the publicans who were trading but also on their customers. Eventually the doors he walked past on the Sabbath would be shut, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle. The respectable inhabitants still bolted their doors and closed their shutters at dusk, whilst the sailors roamed from inn to inn getting drunk and sampling the pleasures of the flesh. The atmosphere in the new part of the town was intimidating, everybody wanting to relieve the captain and crew of money, and there was always the threat of the press gang.

It had been blowing hard for fourteen days, but as dawn broke on Wednesday the twenty-fourth of November the wind moderated and the weak winter's sun shone. Nearly ail the beach boats were afloat and working. Some of the bum-boats were attending the furthest away anchored ships that the rough seas had denied them before. Others were taking officers back to their vessels, somewhat worse for wear after a night in Deal, and then fetching the pursers to do some trade for victuals and clothing in the town.

Thomas Powell, who had now donned his slop-seller's hat, realised this was a day to make money, as the ships' agents were ready to do business.

The boatmen knew the nationality of each anchored vessel by the way she carried her mast and yards and the shape of her hull. They also knew how much they could charge the foreigner with impunity. Sometimes they would row them half way back to their ship and demand more money, and sometimes the passengers, confronted by the burly oarsmen, would pay the extra price.

Generally the Deal longshoremen were not trusted, but they were admired for their skill and seamanship in those small boats. They could launch and beach in surf that even the most practiced crew of an admirals barge would have baulked at. Occasionally a captain would refuse to pay the fare and attempt the passage ashore in a longboat crewed by his own men. Many times the inexperienced sailors would broach their craft in the shoreline waves, with their vessel getting knocked on and sometimes capsizing. The captain would emerge from the water in disarray, commanding the locals to help, but they would laugh and sneer, then turn their backs on the soaking party. Next time the enlightened captain would pay what was asked, as he knew it would cost more to his pride and property than it was worth.

Admirai Sir Cloudsley Shovell had decided that this fine day was the time to sail his large first and second-rate ships to the safety of the River Medway and so to winter at Chatham. With the strong winds it had been a fraught time for the high bluff sided warships. At every low tide the Goodwin Sands could be seen awash with mountainous surf, and they knew that if an anchor cable should part they would become a total wreck upon them. As the seven three-deckers and one two-decked vessel up-anchored and hoisted their sails, they were joined by a small entourage of victualling and hospital ships.

Those men on the Stirling Castle watched the craft sail through the Gull Stream and surveyed the anchorage with interest. The Channel fleet had joined the remaining squadron and was under the command of Vice Admirai Sir Basil Beaumont in his flagship, the Mary, a fourth-rate of sixty-four guns. Sir Basil was one of England's potential great seamen; bore in 1669, the fifth son of Sir Henry Beaumont of Stoughton, he had gained his position before he was thirty-two years of age.

His orders were that, after a shift of wind from the strong south-westerlies, ail the rest of the naval ships should set sail and head down channel to the confines of Portsmouth harbour.

The temporary lull in the weather was soon forgotten, as that night and the following day it blew a gale of wind from the south west. Naval vessels and merchantmen strained at their anchors as the rain lashed down onto their decks. All eyes were on the largest ship the Prince George. She was the only second-rate three-decker of 90 guns left in the Downs, but as she had been rebuilt two years previous, ail her anchors and cable were nearly new and she held fast.

The wind did not lessen and the next day some of the ships started to take down their lower yards and top masts, trying to make the vessel less wind resistant and ride at anchor more easily. There was a reluctance to close the ship down completely as they knew they would need their sails to get them out of danger in an emergency.

With a new moon on the night of the 26th of November it was pitch black, also the tidal current was at its strongest on the midnight high tide.

Around high water the largest beach boats of Deal slipped into the waves. Their masters and crews knew that this storm would bring them profit. With a mere hint of canvas from their mizzen sail showing and the use of oars they crashed through the surf Anchoring a few hundred yards off the beach in the comparative calmness from the lee of the shore, and there to await daybreak.

By one a.m. the south west wind had reached storm force and, with the strong tide flowing in the same direction, most of the ships in the Downs started to drag their anchors. Those who had not already dropped their second one were now doing so.

To the men on the Stirling Castle the screaming wind sounded like a bevy of banshees; they had never heard the like of it before. Rigging and spars bowed before its force, and with a loud crack a mast split sending down an array of blocks and cordage about the deck and amongst the sailors. Volumes of seawater and spume cascaded over the bows, leaving the men disorientated and shivering. Every pump on the ship was clanking trying to deal with the ingress of water which was slowly filling the bilge of the warship.

The forward watch could see by the jerking of the cables that the anchors were dragging through the ground. They let out the whole length of rope and packed it where it was chaffing against the wood. With violent seas hitting the rampant lion figurehead and stem, water would shoot through the hawsehole. It was like a blast from a cannon dislodging the hawse bag and knocking men off their feet and onto their backs into the awash but empty cable tier.

Throughout the next two hours the bow lookouts of those ships which still held, were fearfully trying to peer through the maelstrom at the vessels that were dragging their anchors towards them.

The cannons of the warships were being fired at half-minute intervals. They were warning the other craft of their predicament and wanting them to try and sheer the vessels out of their way. The Stirling Castle almost dragged onto a large merchant ship, which, with the aid of two anchors, was just holding. When the two ships were nearly together and the captain of the merchantman was about to order his mate to cut their anchor cables, a large wave hit the Stirling Castle. The force of water veered the man-of-war off the other ship just before the collision occurred.

At four a.m. the wind had increased to hurricane force, but the tide had slackened. The carpenters on the warship were cutting away the masts that were still standing. The old ship was getting low in the water and the tremendous seas were still crashing over her decks, upon which was a mass of broken timber and cordage.

The men in the cable locker realised that the jerking motion of the anchor rope had lessened and the ships anchors were starting to hold.

Seamen below decks, who were relieved from the incessant and back-breaking pumping, lay breathless listening to the loud thumps on the hull as yet another wave hit the vessel. They were grateful for the darkness to hide the look of fear on their faces, as they knew that any minute the ship might founder on the Goodwins.

As another hour went by the wind increased even more until, at times, it blew over one hundred knots.

The ebb tide reluctantly started flowing the opposite way to the fury of south west wind, and with that combination, the sea became rougher than ever.

With the Stirling Castle occasionally holding at anchor, she struggled to turn into the tide but rolled heavily in the troughs as the mountainous waves hit her beam on. It was impossible to stand unaided and men had already been lost overboard. The force of the wind on their faces took their breath away and felt like an unseen fist hitting them. They were exhausted, hypothermic and knew they could not survive much longer. Some of them prayed, others crawled to the officers' wine stock, so they could spend their last hours in oblivion amongst the onion shaped bottles.

Many of the ships had hit the sands and were smashed to pieces, other smaller and shallower drafted craft were swept over them and into the deeper water beyond. Those unfortunate vessels which had entangled with each other were pounded together before the anchor cables could be cut.

Suddenly those aboard the Stirling Castle felt the ship start to judder as she touched the sands at low tide. The hundred and thirty-three feet eleven inches of keel that Jonas Shish fif Deptford had laid twenty-four years previously was now digging a furrow into an outcrop of the Goodwins known as the Bunt Head. In this shoal water the tide was Black and the sea was not as rough, but it was to be her final berth.

As daylight started to filter through one of the worst nights England had ever experienced, the Deal boats up-anchored.
They had never known the wind to be so fierce, but being close inshore had provided a lee from the rough seas and their anchors held in the thick blue clay, which was on the seabed just to the north of the town. The wind had backed to the west south west and was abating. With a small part of mizzen sail hoisted they raced out towards the Goodwins.

The sea was carpeted with timber, masts and rope; also the bodies of drowned seamen bobbed up and down on the subsiding waves. As they approached the waterlogged hulks, which were aground in the shallow water surrounding the sands, they could see survivors waving at them from the derelicts.

Averting their eyes and ignoring the pleas for help they picked away at the wreckage; extra people in a boat would take up valuable space for plunder. For these men it was difficult to decidé, what to salvage first, but with the vast amount to choose from they became selective.

Around the same time as the Deal boats had up-anchored the population of the town was starting to emerge from their homes. The tempest had caused chaos throughout that night and nobody had slept as chimneys and roof tiles came crashing down. There was not a house in the town that had not suffered, but as if by a miracle the newly rebuilt church tower at St. Leonard's had not toppled; unlike most of the others which lay in the path of the storm.

After surveying their own damage the townspeople went up to the beach to view what was left of the two hundred vessels which were in the Downs the night before. Only seventy ships, all of them in disarray, were still afloat. One of those was the massive warship Prince George. On the skyline they saw twelve half submerged shipwrecks, and with the aid of a spyglass they could see the survivors on their decks. At that distance many thought the men had been cast away on the Goodwin Sands.

Thomas Powell had also spied the marooned sailors and became moved with compassion. After questioning the boatmen who were still ashore why they could not go afloat and rescue lives, he was told that their boats were too small to brave the surf. They also enlightened him that the only vessels large enough were the customs craft, which were neatly houe up well above the tidemark.

Thomas knew, with the tide rising, that he only had a couple of hours for an attempt to save the men. He pleaded with the customs officers to make their boats ready, but was informed that higher authority was needed to launch. With the roads out of Deal strewn with fallen trees it would be over half a day before that order could be obtained. The customs men also explained to the mayor that it was not their job to risk government property on a malter that did not concern them. He was infuriated by their uncaring nature but should have known that they had little respect for other seafarers apart from their own service elite.

It was then that he made the decision to commandeer the craft. The customs officers protested loudly and told him he would be liable for any damage or loss, and also they would have nothing more to do with the venture.

Mayor Powell looked around at the crowd that had gathered during the confrontation. There had, during the argument, been many boatmen smirking at the discomfort of the customs men, but none had volunteered to man the boats. As the rising water pushed further up the shingle beach and the wrecks on the horizon became smaller, he offered five shillings a head for every person saved. A serge of men stepped forward, it would be good money and at no cost to their own property. Time was fast running out, but the longshoremen with their professional skill and local knowledge made sure that the boats were launched quickly.

The survivors, who hung on to the remains of their ship, cursed the Deal boats who had ignored their cries for help. They could see other ships starting to break up with the rising tide, some so badly damaged that they could not identify. The storm had reduced their clothes to rags, and their bodies huddled together on the receding deck. Some of the castaways who lay shivering, suddenly stopped as they slipped away into unconsciousness and death. They watched as more boats came away from the shore. The craft approached the derelicts and the half dead sailors thought they were about to be robbed by Deal pirates.

With difficulty the customs vessels went along Bide the hulks and men were rescued. As the shipwrecked mariners were being helped aboard they were crying with relief, it was only when they realised that the boats would not accommodate all of them that the tears of joy turned to grief. From the Stirling Castle, in the slightly calmer shoal waters, sixty-two seamen were saved along with the third lieutenant, chaplain, cook, surgeon's mate and four marine officers.

A mile from the Bunt Head three other naval vessels were lost, two third-rates, Northumberland and Restoration also the flagship, Mary. There were no survivors from these ships apart from a seaman called Thomas Atkins, who had been washed off the Mary as she was going to pieces, and miraculously with the aid of another wave he had been deposited onto the Stirling Castle. His account of the last moments of his ship was graphie. Atkins saw Rear Admiral Beaumont clinging to a piece of quarterdeck as the ship broke up, but was soon washed off to his death. 1,190 naval sailors died in the Downs that morning and it was never known how many perished from the merchant ships.

Thomas Powell looked on thankfully as the boats returned to the beach with little mishap. The two hundred bedraggled survivors were helped out onto dry land. For some it was the first time they had been ashore in years and for others it would be their last resting place; they would succumb to the traumas and exposure from their ordeal and die within hours of being saved.

The mayor had yet another dilemma, all those mariners were now to be fed, clothed and billeted for the night. He approached the Queen's agent for sick and wounded seamen, but was told there was not enough money in the coffers to deal with such a disaster. Again it was down to gallant Thomas to dig deep into his pockets and sort out the situation. His compassion was turning to frustration.

The following day he organised the burials of those that had died and the embarkation to Gravesend for those that were fit to travel. He made another application for finance, but this time he was told that the agent had no orders and would not disburse a penny.
Mayor Thomas Powell was saddened by the Jack of charity and he had to go to London to get back what was owed. It took time and he received no thanks from the Government, only obstruction and delays. Eventually Thomas did get repayment of his money and, we are told, a small allowance for his time in soliciting for it.

The angle at which the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle laid enabled the tide to scour and settle her deeper into the sand. As the main batiks of the Goodwins shifted to the west, it engulfed the Bunt Head and with it the remains and memories of the 'Great Storm' wrecks.

 

 

 

  LMB-BML 2007 Webmaster & designer: Cmdt. André Jehaes - email andre.jehaes@lmb-bml.be
 Deze site werd geoptimaliseerd voor een resolutie van 1024 x 768 en IE - 7- 8- 9 -10-11
Ce site a été optimalisé pour une résolution d'écran de 1024 x 768 et IE - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10-11
Your browser must be enabled for Java and JavaScript