Disaster at sea witnessed by a village

Rocky coast at Cresswell. Picture by Roger Hawkins.
Rocky coast at Cresswell. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

The Times, of January 26, 1876, repeats a letter from the Stockholm Dagens Nyheter.

“On the 5th of January last, at five in the morning, the steamer Gustave, Captain AO Anderson, went ashore, in consequence of the fog and the set of the current, at the little fishing village of Cresswell, on the coast of Northumberland.

“The sea was breaking heavily and the vessel struck violently at every wave. The discharge pipe burst very shortly, and the vessel drifted helplessly among the breakers, which now broke over her. Two of the boats were stove at the outset, and the third, in which three men were lowered, was injured and cast ashore in the midst of the breakers.

“Every one in this little village, men, women, and children, hastened, on witnessing the misfortune, down to the lifeboat station, and at three o’clock the lifeboat was got afloat, and manned by 13 of the 15 male inhabitants of the village. Only two old fishermen were now left on shore, and the women, who had to wade well into the water to get the lifeboat afloat.

“After an hour’s fruitless endeavour to get on board, the lifeboat had come on shore again, and a message was sent to the nearest lifeboat station, Newbiggin, to fetch a rocket apparatus. The tide was rising, and at half-past four the lifeboat was launched once more, and succeeded in getting alongside the steamer and saving the crew.

“The shipwrecked men were received in the most friendly manner. The crew were sheltered in the fishermen’s huts, and the owner of a neighbouring estate, Cresswell Hall, invited all the crew to dinner.

“A touching incident deserves special mention. The writer of this heard of it on the following day, and was attracted to the spot by cries for help and of pain. On hurrying to the place, he was received by a venerable couple, the steersman of the lifeboat and his wife.

“‘It is poor Bella. She was not satisfied with being in the water like the others. At night she was wet through for six hours, and has now got one of her attacks of cramp on returning from Newbiggin,’ said he.

“It was this little pale fisher-girl who, wet through on a cold night in January, had rushed along the beach, wading through several bays by the way, and at length had reached the next lifeboat station.

“I opened the family Bible, the sole ornament of that unassuming room, and there read the name ‘Isabella Brown, born 1853’. On the wall hangs a silver medal awarded to the father, for saving life.

“Fortunate the country which possesses men and women like those who on that icy January night flew to the rescue of the Swedish steamer Gustave and its crew.”

On February 4 , the Times reported a meeting of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution:

“The minutes having been read, rewards amounting to £248 were granted to the crews of different lifeboats.The Cresswell lifeboat had saved from the stranded steamer Gustaf, of Gothenburg, 11 of her crew and three women. The boat was manned by 13 out of the 16 fishermen living at Cresswell and a coastguardsman, the boat being launched with the help of the remaining three men and 17 women and children, assisted by four horses.

“At first the lifeboat was driven back by the heavy seas, but the crew made a renewed and successful attempt to reach the wreck and save those on board. When the boat apparently failed to accomplish the rescue, two women, named Margaret Brown and Isabella Armstrong, and a young girl named Mary Brown, hurried to Newbiggin, a distance of four miles, for the assistance of the rocket apparatus.

“Double rewards, amounting to £38, were granted by the institution to all who were engaged in this praiseworthy service.”

Few reports on any subject are either complete or completely free from errors.

The coastguardsman and four horses appear only in the RNLI report. Its statement about three women being rescued, however, must be a mistake.

The details in Dagens Nyheter suggest that the writer was Captain Anderson himself.

Whoever it was, if women had been on board, they would surely have said so.

It was the “touching incident”, though, that captured the public’s imagination in a way that the sober language of the RNLI could not.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite correct.

The Morpeth Herald of February 5 repeats this from the Times, from the Rev EN Mangin, vicar of Woodhorn:

“Having received £5 from a kind but unknown donor, EVA, for Isabella Brown, and more subscriptions being generously promised, I think it right to state that there is a little mistake in the touching, and, in the main truthful letter copied from the Swedish paper.

“Isabella Brown, although, together with the other women of Cresswell, she exerted herself in helping to launch the lifeboat...did not go to Newbiggin.The message was conveyed by three young women, named respectively Margaret Brown, Mary Brown, and Isabella Dawson Armstrong.

The morning was very dark and stormy, and all credit is due to these fisher-girls, but whatever reward may be given, it is right that it should be awarded to those who merited it.”

Mr Mangin made clear who actually went to Newbiggin. But who was “poor Bella”? Was she Isabella Armstrong or Isabella Brown? If the latter, she was 19 and hardly likely to be the “little pale fisher-girl”. That was probably Mary Brown. On April 22, the Herald reported that 500 officers and men of the Hull coastguard district had presented Margaret Brown with “a very handsome solid silver tea-pot”, while Isabella and Mary “each received an extremely handsome and massive silver brooch, richly studded with rubies, large topazes etc.”

On April 29, it further reported that: “The services of the brave fishermen have been most warmly acknowledged in many unexpected quarters.”

Speaking of the three girls, it mentions “all the previous presents, from persons living far away”, and says that Mary was “the youngest and first to volunteer”.

Also that 250 officers and men of the coastguard from Cromer to St Abbs had given Margaret “a beautiful silver teapot in a handsome wooden case” and “handsome silver brooches, set with pebbles” to Mary and Isabella.

As it turns out, these are merely differing accounts of the same thing.

There was only one silver teapot.

What is clear, however, is that the people of Cresswell were selfless in their efforts to help the wrecked sailors, and that the British public responded generously.

For details of this, and many other rescues at Cresswell, see Leonard Leach’s History of Cresswell.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Fr Alan Simpson, Vicar of Cresswell, and members of his congregation for much kindness and help, and to Martin of the website Coastguards of Yesteryear, for confirming that Hull coastguard district went from Cromer to St Abbs.