On January 1st 1861, Cullercoats Lifeboat was asked to save life on a brig called “Lovely Nelly”. The description below was written a few years after the event by Richard Lewis. The illustration is a painting called “The Women”, painted in 1904 by John Charlton, and rather dramatically shows the women of Cullercoats pulling the lifeboat through a blizzard to launch it near the wreck.
On a New Year’s morning some years since, a severe tempest was experienced on our north-east coast, and soon after daybreak, the coastguard-men on the look-out at the Spanish Battery, Tynemouth, saw the brig “Lovely Nelly” of Seaham, deeply laden, with a flag of distress flying. She was struggling to get to the northward, but struggling in vain, and driving rapidly in upon the coast.
The coastguard-men followed her along the shore with the rocket-apparatus, and, as they went on, the people of the villages turned out to join them : so that, ere long, each headland had its anxious crowd of lookers-on. It was a very sad sight to see. Some of the vessel’s sails had been blown away, and she grew more unmanageable amid the heavy seas that broke around and over her.
At length, abandoning the desperate effort to get to the northward, her crew, as the last chance of life, ran her for Whitley Sands, five miles north of Shields. She was so deeply laden, that she struck on a ridge of sunken rocks and was still three-quarters of a mile from the shore. It was impossible to reach her with rockets. Only one hope remained – the Lifeboat!
As fast as they could run through the snow, driving wind and rain, Life-boat men and fishermen made off to Cullercoats for the Lifeboat belonging to the National Life-boat Institution. Six horses were fastened to her carriage and down they came at a gallop to the sands. She was speedily manned – by a gallant crew of Cullercoats men, who pulled out as for their own lives; not a moment too soon did they reach the ship, which was now broadside on to the sea, her crew in the rigging, and the waves breaking over her half mast-high.
Cleverly and deftly was the Life-boat laid alongside; the vessel was grappled, and the boat held to her by a strong rope. Instantly, the crew made towards their deliverers; but even as they left the rigging, one man was much cut in the face and the head, the mate had his shoulder dislocated, and three of them were swept into the sea. The Life-boat was handled with great skill; two of the crew were at once picked up, and as the third man went down to his death, a strong hand seized him, with a grasp of iron, by his hair, and dragged him up to life.
Did any remain on the ship? Yes: how overlooked, how so left to die, we know not – but the little cabin-boy remained. The boy’s cry for help grew very pitiful: for some time he dared not venture out of the weather rigging; at last he did so, and was seen in the lee shrouds: “he had got wounded in the head, and his face was covered with blood”.
One of the Lifeboat’s crew has since said to the Author that every face around him grew pale, and tears came from eyes little used to shed them – “They clenched their teeth, and with their own lives in their hands”, dashed in their boat to save him. The sea beat her back. They dashed in again, to be swept back once more.
Again and again they tried; the poor boy, meanwhile, crying terribly in great loneliness and despair. He was so young, and the coast was so near! But the vessel began to part, and the unstepped mast must fall, and would crush the Life-boat if she stayed one minute longer in her then position. Then, sacrificing one life to save many, a brave man gave the order, in a hoarse and broken voice, to “cut the rope”. In an instant she was swept away under the vessel’s stern – not a second too soon, for at once the mainmast fell, on the very spot she had just left, and the vessel immediately broke up. The boy – “his face covered with blood” – fell into the sea. Clenched in agony or clasped in prayer, his little hands were seen once – twice – lifted above the waves! The Life-boat again rushed towards him, but the tempest swept away his boyish cry before the roar and tumult of the winds: he did not rise again. The LifeBoat was pulled back to the land.
The crew of the lifeboat that day were Coxswain John Redford, Second Coxswain John Taylor, Bowman John Chisholm, William Dodds, William Harrison, Thomas Mills, Joseph Robinson, John Smith, George Smith, Robert Storey, Francis Storey, William Storey, William Stocks, Barty Taylor and Robert Taylor. In addition, some believe, the Chief Boatman of the local Coastguard was also aboard. He was called Lawrence Byrne.
The cabin-boy’s name was Thomas Thompson.
The Mystery behind the Wreck of the “Lovely Nelly”
The brig “Lovely Nelly” was in her 57th year when she was wrecked. A collier brig was said to have a lifespan of about 60 years. Owned by a Seaham Harbour company since 1856, she had seen previous service with Wright & Co of Kings Lynn in Norfolk, during which time she was insured through Lloyds of London. This insurance policy did not continue under the new ownership, who presumably sought cover elsewhere.
Her new 1856 owner, James W Watson, was born in Gateshead in about 1829. He was married to Mary, a year younger than himself, who was born in Burnopfield a small village a few miles southwest of Gateshead. In the census of April 1861, they are not shown as having any children. At the time of buying “Lovely Nelly”, Mr Watson and his wife were moving into a newly built house in Marlborough Street in Seaham. This was a middle class part of town and the residents were all well-to-do. In other words, it was a posh place to live.
The Prelude to the Fateful Voyage
“Lovely Nelly” was normally captained by Sunderland-born Wilkinson Bond, who was aged 36 at the time of her loss. His mate was Henry Stanbridge (aged 38). These men had charge of “Lovely Nelly” on her voyages immediately prior to her loss. She shuttled back and forth between Seaham and London from July until December of 1860 when she bypassed Seaham and berthed in Sunderland on the 4th of that month. She idled her time in Sunderland for several weeks and on the 14th of December, her captain and mate were discharged from the ship, while the remainder of the crew were retained on the ship’s books. Later in the same day, the mate (Stanbridge) was re-instated and promoted to Captain.
Why should there be such a commotion over appointments which seem to have worked perfectly well in the past? Were the captain and mate concerned over some aspect of the ship’s condition? Did the mate later recognise an opportunity for advancement which he could not afford to ignore? Stanbridge did not formally gain a mate’s certificate until 1864 (three years after the loss of “Lovely Nelly”), when one was issued to him at Seaham Harbour.
Fully laden with coal, the brig sailed from Sunderland on December 28th 1860, bound for London with Henry Stanbridge in control.
The Final Voyage
“Lovely Nelly” set out for London and was reported to have reached Flamborough Head when she had to turn back, apparently because of a heavy leak. This incident took place on the morning of Sunday, December 30th 1860.
(Was this issue of seaworthiness the background to the dispute between the owner and the captain earlier in the month?)
The weather worsened but Stanbridge, who must have had many years’ experience of the sea to be entrusted with the command of a ship, attempted the run to Sunderland – some 62 miles – rather than put into any of number of nearer ports. As time passed, the storm grew stronger and “Lovely Nelly” was swept past Sunderland, whither it seems that Stanbridge had sought to shelter while, perhaps, having repairs carried out.
This strategy failed and he and his ship were driven further north, missing the entrance to the Tyne. Watched from the shore on New Year’s Day, “Lovely Nelly” continued past Tynemouth and Cullercoats with alarmed observers calling for the emergency services of the day (the coastguardmen) to “do something”. These fellows followed the ship with their rocket equipment, ready to bring it into play should the opportunity arise. Eventually, the crew of the brig realised that they losing the battle against wind and sea and turned their craft towards Whitley Sands. While threequarters of a mile offshore and still heavily laden, the boat struck a reef – beyond the range of the rocket apparatus!
Nothing would do now but to send for the Cullercoats Lifeboat and its crew. This was speedily fetched and the gallant crew put out into the storm to attempt a rescue.
The rescued crew were:
while the only fatality was:- Thomas Brown Thompson (apprentice) aged 12.
The survivors were treated well by the shore party, dried out and warmed and, upon recovery, made their way home. Thomas Thompson’s body was soon recovered from the sea and returned to his family for burial in his home town of Seaham.
The owner of “Lovely Nelly”, Mr Watson, you may remember, lived in a well-to-do part of town. On March 25th 1861, he re-located to The National School, Church Street in Seaham. This school had been set up in 1848 but by the early 1860s it was so neglected that it very rarely qualified for its annual Government grants. The headmaster, John Hetherington, was also a shipowner and was well noted for keeping both eyes on his profits from the sea. It would seem that Mr Watson had suddenly fallen on very hard times indeed, to have moved from his respectable and comfortable home to take up some form of lodgings. Had he been bankrupted by the loss of his ship? Presumably, she had not been insured and he had been forced to meet the demands of his creditors from his own pocket.
Final Resting Place
Tommy Thompson was buried on January 13th 1861 at St John’s Church in Seaham Harbour. A re-organisation of the churchyard in the 1950s led to the removal of the old headstones without a plan being made of their previous whereabouts. Thus, the final resting place of the real victim in this story will now never be known.
“Lovely Nelly” still lies off Whitley Sands, opposite the Brier Dene, three quarters of a mile from the shore. There are several more wrecks to keep her company now. Maybe sports divers will one day identify her position more accurately and recover some relic or memento.
This information has been made available to me by Mr Alan M Gregg of Chester-le-Street. He researched the ship, the crew and the owner, including paying for the use of a professional researcher in the London maritime archives.
Pictures and text from Brian Slee