SS Hjørdis – “The Forgotten Ship”
A Report for Blakeney Harbour Association by Sue Gresham, Historical Research Volunteer
The wreck of the steamship SS Hjørdis has lain off Blakeney Point since she went aground and was wrecked in 1916.
Almost a “ghost ship”, little was known locally about the Hjørdis and, in 2016, one hundred years after the ship was lost, there has been a revival of interest in her.
This report has been prepared to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the disaster. It presents the history of the ship, her construction, history of ownership, her voyages and the sequence of events which caused her to run aground. It describes the attempts that were made to save the vessel and her crew members, outlines how widely the disaster was reported and speculates on whether the considerable loss of life could have been averted.
While this report was being prepared by author & researcher Sue Gresham, John Wright of the Blakeney Area Historical Society was writing an article about Hjørdis for publication in the Society’s’ magazine. With different “terms of reference” to reflect each other’s particular objectives, the two organisations have co-operated and shared information in their respective researches and John’s help in completing this report is gratefully acknowledged and appreciated.
DISSEMINATION OF INFORMATION
This research may be used free of charge for academic or other not-for-profit purposes but the material must be acknowledged as the work of the author and of the Blakeney Harbour Association.
Prior permission for commercial or any other use or purpose(s) should be sought from the Secretary of the Association on firstname.lastname@example.org
On the morning of Wednesday 16th February 1916, the SS Hjørdis set off from the Alexandra Dock in Hull bound for Calais, carrying a cargo of 495 tons of coal.
About twelve hours later, shortly after seven o’clock in the evening, the ship went aground in a strong gale at the west end of Blakeney Bar and was wrecked, with the loss of ten lives. Only one crew member survived.
The Hjørdis has lain off Blakeney Point since 1916 and, as the local sand moved in, the wreck became almost completely covered.
SS Hjørdis 2008
SS Hjørdis 2016
In the past year, the channel has moved half a mile to the east and the flow of water over the wreck has scoured her out. Now large sections of the vessel’s hull and deck have been uncovered.
Exposed by recent tides and shifting sands, the hull of the ship has been clearly visible just below the waterline.
It seems apposite but it is poignant that, in 2016, one hundred years since the ship went down, the SS Hjørdis has shown herself once again.
SS Hjørdis – THE SHIP
The Hjørdis – the name is of Ancient Scandinavian/Icelandic origin and means “sword goddess” – began her life as SS Strassburg, before her name was changed to SS Gimle and later to SS Hjørdis.
The SS Strassburg was a German iron-hulled, screw-driven cargo ship, built in March 1873 by the German shipbuilder A.G. Hansa, Rostock, Germany for the shipping company A. G. Freihandel (William Minlos), Lübeck, Germany. Information from The Corporation of Trinity House in 1995 suggests that “she was ice-strengthened for the Baltic winter trade”.
It was in Rostock that the first propeller-driven steamers in Germany were constructed and the Strassburg was one such, with a collar hide/fire tube boiler built by A.G. Lübecker Maschinbau, Lübeck. A.G. is an abbreviation for the German Aktiengesellschaft, meaning a corporation limited by share ownership and which may be traded on a stock market.
Strassburg had a 2-cylinder compound engine (A.G. Hansa), size NHK 60 IHK 198, with a power of 60 nhp (nominal horse power), 198 ihp (indicated horse power). A screw steamer, she was a hybrid of sail (a three masted schooner) and steam as her single engine was only 60 net horsepower. Ship lists show that in 1873 this engine was typical for a vessel the size of the Hjørdis.
The ship’s Gross Tonnage was 431, being a figure for the total amount of space – 43,100 cu. ft. – within the ship. Net Tonnage was 226, which is the space – 22,600 cu. ft. – available for cargo. Her dimensions were 160.6’ length x 23.0’ beam x 12.3’ draft (assumed imperial) or 61.0m x 9.1m x 3.7m (metric).
Details of Strassburg’s dimensions differ, particularly, it seems, because the ship was built just as Germany was moving from the imperial to the metric system of measurement. Like Britain and the United States of America in the 1860s, German states were making moves towards adopting the metric system and – in 1868 – they passed legislation which meant that, on the unification of these states to form Germany, use of the metric system was to be compulsory. This happened with effect from 1st January 1872.
A further “complication” in determining the size of the ship is that, before the introduction of the metric system in Germany, almost every town had its own definitions of the units, with many variations between towns and states.
In addition, some obsolete German units have names similar to units that were traditionally used in other countries, such as imperial units in use in the United Kingdom. An example for Rostock shows a Fuß (Foot) as equivalent to the local measurement of 1⁄2 Elle, 1⁄16 Ruthe, for which the metric/imperial equivalent was 286 mm (11.26 in).
Records in the Shipping Museum in Rostock show the SS Strassburg:
Names of the ship, the captain and the owners. Port which the ship belongs/is registered to:
Strassburg – J. H. C. Hintz – A. G. Freihandel (Wm, Minlos) – Lübeck
Class – dated from … Port and date of the last visit
80 – Lübeck – 12.89 (December 1889)
Navigation and Destination
Flag. Rigging and type
Germany – – 3m. Sch.
Tonnage, power of machine, Anchor and chains
445 – 342 – 200
Year and port (harbour) where constructed – Builder – Construction material, tacking, dubbing, repairs etc.
1873 – Rostock – A. G. Hansa – etc
The same shipping record shows another, as yet unnamed vessel, whose details – including the year of construction – mirror those of the Strassburg. The Strassburg apparently had a sister ship and the surmise is that this second vessel, built in the same shipyard to the same specification, could be it.
Names of the ship, the captain and the owners. Port which the ship belongs/is registered to
? – J. Nachtwey – Dampf-Ges (which is probably Dampf Gesellschaft, i.e. steamship factory) – Freihandel – Lübeck
Flag. Rigging and type.
Germany – – 3m. Sch.
Tonnage, power of machine, Anchor and chains
445 – 342 – 60
Year and port (harbour) where constructed – Builder – Construction material, tacking, dubbing, repairs etc.
1873 – Rostock – A.G. Hansa
This unnamed ship is 161.6 long x 23.4 m wide x 11.5m deep. Loaded draft = 12, Deck = 1.
HISTORY & OWNERSHIP
The ship was built as SS Strassburg in 1873 by A.G. Hansa, Rostock, Germany for the shipping company A.G. Freihandel (William Minlos), Lübeck, Germany
A short time after she was built, the Strassburg suffered damage, as reported in the ‘Morning Post’ of Tuesday 6th October 1874: “The following notices of shipping casualties have been received this day by telegraph”.
Twenty-three years after her build, Strassburg was sold in 1896 to the shipping company Alf Monsen of Tønsberg, Moss, Norway, and renamed SS Gimle.
As SS Gimle, the ship was sold again in 1898 to J. Bull, of Isafjord, Iceland and transferred to Brødrene Bull (Bull Brothers), Isafjord, Iceland in 1903. In 1904 and still in the Bull Brothers’ ownership, her registered port was changed to Hesteyri, Iceland.
The ship was then sold to five successive Norwegian shipping companies.
On 14th January 1906, she was sold to O.A.A. Hirsch, of Moss (a coastal town in Østfold county, Norway) and renamed Hjørdis.
The Hjørdis suffered further damage on Saturday 8th June 1907, when she was involved in a collision with the Hull trawler Doris, which caused both ships to be detained in port at Stornoway. The two ships were apparently each carrying cargoes of herrings and were bound for the same destination, St Petersburg.
Although the headline states that Hjørdis had sunk, the report suggests that her hull was cut open above and down as far as the waterline; this would mean that, provided the cut was above the waterline, she would actually have remained afloat
Hull Daily Mail – Monday 10th June 1907
The Scotsman – Monday 10th June 1907
On 6th April 1909, SS Hjørdis was transferred to D/S A/S Hjørdis (O. A. Hirsch) of Moss, Norway.
After Hjørdis’s collision in 1907, the ship experienced another incident two years later. The Aberdeen Journal of 17th July 1909 reports: “The steamer Hjordis, from Wick, has been delayed through a breakdown in her engine …”
Four days later, the same newspaper reports: “The s.s. Hjordis, which sailed from Wick on the 6th inst., had a breakdown in her machinery, and had to be towed into Christiansund. The damage, however, is not serious, and, from the latest advices to hand, she is expected to resume her voyage tomorrow.”
The Hjørdis was sold on 2nd April 1912 to Jacob Ringen, of Haugesund, Norway; ownership was transferred on 9th May 1912 and, on 30th June 1915, the registration was transferred to Bergen, Norway.
SS Hjørdis was then sold three times in quick succession during 1915, firstly to D/S Dysart (Frimann & Pedersen) of Bergen, Norway on 2nd September and, just over a month later, on 5th October, to Oscar Langerud, of Drammen, Norway.
She was sold to her last owner, D/S A/S Nordnæs (Johan Rudolf Trøye) of Bergen, Norway on 2nd December 1915. The ship was reported to have been renamed Nordnæs but this was apparently not done before she was lost in February the following year.
Shipping reports in newspapers of the early 1900s – from 1907 to 1915 – reflect the journeys that the Hjørdis was making – plying, in particular, between ports on the North-East coast of Britain, Scandinavia and Russia with cargoes of coal, herring and salt.
Detailed timeline entries which appear at the back of this paper (page 23 onwards) are drawn from newspaper archives which may not be comprehensive; there are apparent gaps in the sequential arrival and sailing dates. Details about the ship’s cargo are not always stated.
In summary, the Hjørdis’s sailings were:
1907 To and from Aberdeen, Lerwick, Peterhead, Runcorn, Shetland, Stettin and Wick with cargoes of cured herrings, fishery stock and salt
1908 To and from Aberdeen, Frederikshold, Lerwick, Libau, Methil, Peterhead, Stettin and Wick with cured herrings and pulp
1909 To and from Aberdeen, Libau, Manchester, Shetland, Stettin and Wick with cured herrings
1910 To and from Boroughstounness, Esbjerg, Grimsby, Hartlepool, Hudiksvall, Lerwick, Libau, Methil, Peterhead and Wick with battens, bunkers and cured herrings
1911 To and from Arbroath, Berwick, Buckie, Kristiansund, Dresden, Frederickstad, Grimsby, Härnösand, Königsberg, Lerwick, Liverpool, Lower Baltic, Macduff, Shoreham, Stettin, Sunderland and Swansea with coal, cured herrings and potatoes
1912 To and from Blyth, Grangemouth, Middlesbrough, Stromsey and Wick with iron
1913 To and from Berwick, Burntisland, Danzig, Dysart, Fraserburgh, Haugesund, Hviding, Inverness, Peterhead, St Peterersburg, Stavanger, Sunderland, Svendsbo, Wemyss and Wick with cured herrings and coal
1914 To and from Bergen, Blyth, Burntisland, Dysart, Haugesund, Stavanger, Tyne and Wemyss with coal
1915 To and from Kristiansund, Gothenberg, Hull and Middlesbrough
Germany Dresden – Königsberg
Norway Bergen – Kristiansund – Frederikshold – Fredrickstad – Haugessund Stavanger – Svendsbo
Russia Libau – St Petersburg
Sweden Gothenberg – Härnösand – Hudiksvall – Lund (Malmö)
STORMS & GALES – PRELUDE TO THE DISASTER
The ‘Los Angeles Herald’ of Thursday 17th February 1916 gives an account of violent weather conditions which beset Britain the previous day and the extensive damage to property and the loss of life as a result.
It was on the day of the “windstorm” that the Hjørdis was lost, succumbing – as the newspaper reports – to the gale, as did a Lowestoft trawler, the Narcissus, which also went aground and sank on the same day.
“Ten persons were drowned when a lifeboat from the Norwegian steamer Hjordis, which had gone on the beach near Norfolk, was swamped.”
Los Angeles Herald
‘The Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal’ of Friday 18th February gives a local report of a violent gale, a hurricane and snow across Norfolk and Suffolk and describes the damage which was caused by the extreme weather conditions and the ensuing floods.
“During the gale on Wednesday the S.S. Hjordis from Hull to Calais with coal, was wrecked off Blakeney, and ten of the crew were drowned. Only one man was saved.”
Diss Express and Norfolk & Suffolk Journal
The American newspaper report describes how “warships were forced by thegale to run into harbours” and mines were broken from their moorings, some being cast up on the shore.
Dumfries & Galloway Standard – 19th February
Other newspaper and weather reports reflect that gale force winds, storms and snow had battered large parts of Britain from 14th to 17th February and caused “numerous casualties at sea”.
The Hjørdis was apparently one of four vessels to be sunk during the gales and one of two to go down off the east coast.
THE LAST JOURNEY
The SS Hjørdis set off on what was to be her last journey in the early morning of Wednesday 16th February.
Amid strong, gale force winds and very rough weather, she left the Alexandra Dock in Hull at 7.30 a.m., bound for Calais. Carrying 459 tons of coal, she was fairly fully laden, the amount of her cargo requiring between 19,300 and 21,800 cubic feet of her 22,600 cubic feet cargo space.
A Captain Jensen was her skipper for the voyage; his crew of ten men was made up of nine Norwegians and one Dane, some of whose names are known. Of the Norwegians, Thor Halmersen was the Chief Mate, Peter Hammer the second engineer, Eugenen Andersen an ordinary seaman, and (forename not known) Nelsen the steward. Ralf Petersen, from Denmark, was the boatswain.
Referred to in several shipping reports as “the large steamer Hjordis”, the ship must have had very competent skippers to survive forty-three years of battling the North Sea but – in the extreme weather conditions and with other ships forced to run into harbour, missing or gone aground – it is surprising, perhaps, that Hjørdis left port that morning, but she probably did so with the obligation of fulfilling her charter.
Hjørdis passed the Wash and prepared to round the Norfolk coast into the North Sea; although she was sailing during wartime when movements might have been restricted, a direct route would have taken her north of Sheringham to arrive off Cromer, and from there, following the coast, to Great Yarmouth and then south to Calais.
Captain Jensen’s route for the Hjørdis suggested that he planned to hug the shore, coming in to the lee of the land to take advantage of the shelter which the North Norfolk coast can offer from south-westerly gales.
The weather conditions might have been expected to hinder the ship’s progress but – based on the 75-nautical mile distance between Hull and Blakeney and the twelve hours it took her to reach the North Norfolk coast – Hjørdis was apparently travelling at close to her normal cruising speed of 6 knots. However, the very rough weather and loss of visibility must have seriously impeded the Captain’s knowledge of the ship’s location.
Approximately twelve hours after her departure from Hull, shortly after seven o’clock in the evening that day, Hjørdis – fatefully – reached Blakeney. She went aground in a strong gale at the west end of Blakeney Bar and was wrecked, with the loss of ten lives.
Only one crew member survived. Ralf Petersen describes: “we struck and … the skipper … gave the order to put her about and we struck again. He called out “Hard a port” and we struck once more and stuck. The skipper cried out “God help me” and the chief mate came up from below and said “She is taking water, get the boats out”’.
Strongly built, ice-strengthened, and a very seaworthy vessel, Hjørdis was sail and engine driven. The reports of her going aground do not indicate whether she was under sail but, had she been, the sails were possibly blown out in the storm and/or her engine was too small to keep her offshore. Powered by a small horsepower engine of average performance and, with a heavy cargo, the aged iron steamer would have had little chance of survival in such severe weather conditions.
NEWS OF THE DISASTER
Early, brief reports of the disaster appeared in newspapers the following day, Thursday 17th February.
Only one of the eleven-man crew survived the wreck of the Hjørdis. Although the Captain and crew managed to launch and take to a lifeboat, it was swamped within minutes by a large wave.
Ralf Petersen witnessed the loss of his fellow sailors. Thrashed by a wild sea and probably overcome by the cold, ten men were drowned either in the lifeboat or when they took to the water in an attempt to swim ashore.
Petersen had the presence of mind to take off his boots and most of his clothes and began to strike for the shore. Against immeasurable odds, he reached the beach and struggled along it for nearly two miles before reaching the Blakeney Watch House and safety.
Petersen’s own account of his courageous attempts to save his fellow crew members and of his own survival is recorded in the ‘Eastern Daily Press’ dated two days after the disaster.
Questioned at the inquest held three days later, Ralf Petersen was able to give more information about how the Hjørdis had gone aground. A big gale and heavy sea had already smashed one of their boats (presumably lifeboats); they had found better water in the lee of the land but then, at about 7.10 p.m., they struck the ground.
According to the ‘Eastern Daily Press’, Captain Jensen had said “Hard a starboard” (apparently incorrectly recorded, the press report should have read “Hard a port”) to get into deeper water but the ship struck twice more and then a fourth time, so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. Petersen is quoted as saying that Captain Jensen “… was on the bridge crying like a baby” and that it was the Chief Mate not the Captain who had given the order to launch the (life)boat.
A further, similar report of Petersen’s account appears in ‘The Straits Times’ (Singapore) of 30th March 1916.
On the night of the disaster, Petersen was wrapped in blankets and spent his first night in the Watch House in front of a big fire. As newspapers had already reported, he had made a full recovery by the day after the disaster.
Mr Ernest Alfred Strangroom, a 45-year-old Auctioneer and Draper of Cley, acting on behalf of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society, had arranged for Petersen to have new clothing and to be taken to the ‘King’s Head’ public house in Cley High Street, where he was looked after by Frederick William Baines, the 40-year-old Licensed Victualler, and visited by many of the local people.
The ‘King’s Head’ was the place to which bodies of those lost at sea were traditionally taken to be coffined.
BLAKENEY WATCH HOUSE
The Watch House was built in 1835, probably in association with the coastguard cottages at Morston, and, as its name suggests, it was used by the coastguards in bad weather, when a detachment would be sent to watch for ships in distress.
There is a story to the effect that, for the first eleven years of its life, the Watch House was used by the Preventive men (forerunners to Customs and Excise) to try and hamper the activities of smugglers. This, apparently, was unsuccessful, as, contrary to its purpose, those employed were local men, smugglers themselves, and the building served as a convenient storehouse for contraband.
In the roof on the seaward side of the Watch House there is a room with a bay window which is accessed from below by a small vertical iron ladder. From the window, there is a clear view out to sea and along the beach in both directions.
On the south side of the Watch House there was a large flagpole on which the watchmen used to raise different flags as a warning of a ship or boat in trouble or as a request for a boat or provisions.
Directly south of the Watch House in Blakeney village is a cottage on top of the Green Hill – the last cottage in the row – which has an outside door on the first floor, between the bedroom windows. It appears incongruous today but, at the time, there was a platform with rails protruding from this doorway on which a trolley with the lifeboat maroon could be wheeled out.
If a vessel was seen to be in distress, a warning signal flag was hoisted from the Watch House. When this signal was spotted, a rescue procedure was set in motion.
The Blakeney watchman would wheel out from the cottage the trolley which held the rocket launching equipment and a rocket would then be launched to summon the Blakeney lifeboat men to embark on a rescue.
The crew would assemble and row small boats out to the lifeboat station on Blakeney Point. From there, they had to manhandle the lifeboat across the beach to the water and launch it.
Blakeney Point – Old Lifeboat Station
The Watch House was also used on occasions as shelter for shipwrecked sailors or fishermen until they could be brought to more permanent safety and this is consistent with Ralf Petersen’s account.
Newspaper reports of Friday 18th February, two days after the Hjørdis went aground, describe not only the effort that was made to save her and her Norwegian crew but also reflect the gale force weather conditions on that night.
The reports indicate that the gale took hold quickly and dramatically and that the crew of the Hjørdis, either had little or no time to send distress signals or decided to try to save themselves, getting clear of the ship before she broke up. As a result, and although the lights of the Hjørdis had been seen at various points along the coast, “her perilous position was not realised”. Ralf Petersen’s account suggests that the Captain was overwhelmed by events and that it was Thor Halmersen, the Chief Mate, who took control.
Newspaper reports give no information as to how emergency assistance was summoned or the sequence of events which led to it being instigated.
Men in the Watch House may have seen the Hjørdis from the upstairs “look-out” room or it may not have been until Ralf Petersen reached the Watch House – apparently by following the telegraph poles positioned along the beach – that the men there raised the alarm.
It would seem that, in the interval between the ship grounding and the Rocket Brigade being summoned, the crew of the stricken Hjørdis – seeing that rescue from the shore was hopeless or would be slow to execute – took to their own lifeboat. They were probably clear of the ship for a short time before a huge wave overtook them; some tried to swim to shore, others remained in the lifeboat.
While the Rocket Brigade was returning from the beach, at about 11.30 p.m. a body was found approximately 150 yards east of the Watch House by Corporal Bertie Hale, of the 67th Provisional Battalion. An hour later, a second body was found about 2½ miles east of the wreck by James White, a Naval pensioner of Church Loke, Cley.
Both bodies were recovered from the water and taken by the Rocket Brigade cart to Cley. The following morning, the bodies were examined by a Police Constable Hewett (possibly, given that it was wartime, William Hewett, a 56-year-old Police pensioner from Norwich), who had them removed to Blakeney. Two more bodies were discovered soon afterwards at Salthouse.
It was known fairly soon after the Hjørdis went aground that one man had managed to swim ashore and, although exhausted, had made “a good recovery” by the following morning.
Within a few days of the Hjørdis being wrecked, the extent of the disaster quickly became clear.
It is not known how the fishermen of the Hettie were alerted to the disaster off the Blakeney coast, perhaps by communication from the Watch House or from the Rocket Brigade. It is also for surmise why the “old lifeboat”, rather than the RNLI lifeboat Caroline, went out to the Hjørdis but the Caroline was probably in the Lifeboat House and would have taken longer to launch.
One aged ship trying to save another, the Hettie was built in 1873 – the same year as Hjørdis – and was in use until 1891, hence Mrs Long’s reference to “the old lifeboat”.
Mrs Long’s letter shows that the crew were – on their own initiative and with no orders to do so – on their way to the Hjørdis within an hour of the ship grounding, going out from Blakeney at 8.00 p.m. and returning at 4.00 a.m. the following day. Reaching the steamer, they found all the lights still burning but the crew had left the ship. Her account is consistent with a report in the ‘Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough’, “The Blakeney fishermen were out with their salvage boat, but nothing could be done in the terrible conditions then prevailing”.
Cley Rocket Brigade
The Volunteer Rocket Brigade originated in the early 19th Century when Captain George Manby (1765-1854) of Gorleston, Norfolk invented and pioneered his mortar and rocket-firing rope line apparatus, a device to winch to safety sailors who were marooned on ships close to shore; he also invented the first rocket for these Brigades. Manby was an Artilleryman and the Barrack Master at Yarmouth and a contemporary and childhood friend of Nelson.
The Rocket Brigades were formed by the Coastguard, under the Board of Trade, and each station had an officer of the Coastguard in charge.
On the Blakeney, Cley and Salthouse stretch of the North Norfolk coast, the Rocket Brigade’s apparatus was stored in the so-called “folly”, a house built by a Cley man, Onesiphorous Randall, who made his fortune in speculative building construction in London.
Nicknamed ‘Randall’s Folly’, the building stood on land known as the Great Eye (now almost lost in the shingle bank), adjoining Salthouse beach.
The building was sold – after Randall’s death – to the Board of Trade in 1867 and became a coastguard station where the rocket life-saving equipment was stored, hence it acquiring the alternative name of the ‘Rocket House’.
Randall enjoyed sailing and his intention was that his Salthouse property would be a place for visits back to his home county and also that it would serve as a refuge for shipwrecked mariners; it seems apposite, therefore, that the building was later used by the Rocket Brigade to store apparatus which would save sailors’ lives.
When a ship was wrecked close to shore and conditions were too difficult or impractical to effect a lifeboat rescue, Brigades would be alerted to the need for their presence by a signal maroon, a type of rocket that makes a loud bang and bright flash. The rocket apparatus would be pushed, dragged or towed on a small wagon to the most appropriate point on the coast.
The tripod would be placed firmly on the sand or ground and a rocket (placed on top) would be aimed, allowing for factors such as wind and distance. A line would then be attached to the rocket, and any “flaking” pins in the rope storage box removed, to allow a free run for the rocket-pulled line. The fuse would be lit and the rocket was fired over the ship and secured. Several attempts were often required, especially in poor conditions.
Once the rocket’s rope line had fired over the deck of a stricken vessel, that ship’s crew would haul in a heavier, thicker hawser with a block, which would be fastened to the mast. A line would then go back and around to a secured point on the shoreline, allowing a breeches-buoy rescue apparatus to be set up.
The “breeches buoy” – a device originating from an ordinary lifebelt with a pair of large canvas breeches attached – would be hauled out to the boat and crew members could then sit in this sling and be hauled back to shore and safety.
If the stranded vessel was too far from shore for the mortar or rockets, the “Rocket” men would be rowed by boat nearer to the vessel.
Often, the crew of such a stricken vessel would be simply too exhausted to attach hawsers or sort blocks, so a member of the shore rescue party would be hauled out to assist them in this. Using another ingenious device, which resembled a pair of remotely-activated cutting shears, the hawser could be cut close to the mast of the evacuated ship, and the main portion pulled back to shore, leaving only a small piece of hawser and one block onboard.
These ingenious men of the Rocket Brigades made one further, final invention. To aid them in working at night, they would use a “wreck-light”, being a vertical column of small box tins filled with inflammable material and tied together. Upon lighting the bottom tin, it would burn away brightly, finally igniting the one above, with the old tin dropping to the ground, leaving a continuous and bright light to work by.
Many Rocket Brigades – which were not part of the RNLI but worked under their direction to save distressed ships – continued to operate until the late 1980s.
THE LOST CREW – THE INQUEST AND BURIALS
Of the ten men who drowned, the bodies of only four crew members were recovered. It is likely that the bodies of the remaining six sailors were never found and were lost to the sea.
During the First World War, the Guildhall in the High Street, Blakeney served as a temporary mortuary for shipwrecked sailors and it is likely that this is where the bodies of the four drowned men were taken and where the sole survivor, Ralf Petersen, identified them.
An Inquest into the deaths of the sailors was held on the Saturday following the disaster, on 19th February, at the ‘Ship Inn’ in the High Street, Blakeney. It was conducted by the Coroner of East Dereham, Mr Walter May Barton, a 69-year-old Solicitor of the Guildhall, St Withaburga’s Lane, East Dereham.
Ralf Petersen, the only survivor, gave evidence. A Dane who lived in Norway, he gave his age as 25, although the ‘Eastern Daily Press’ reported that “he looked twice this but is framed like a giant”.
The ‘Thetford & Watton Times’ of 26th February reports:
“Mr. W. M. Barton held an Inquiry at the Ship Hotel, Blakeney, on Saturday, on two bodies washed ashore after the wreck of the Norwegian steamer Hjordis on Blakeney East Point on the preceeding Wednesday night.
Ralf Petersen, boatswain on the Hjordis, and the sole survivor of the crew of eleven, said the Hjordis belonged to Bergen and left the Alexandra Dock at Hull on Wednesday morning, bound for Calais. When off the Norfolk coast on the evening of that day a big gale was blowing, and there was a heavy sea, so the captain gave orders for the ship to come in lee of the land. They did so, and got into better water, and keeping on their journey, south-east, they struck the ground about 7.10 p.m., knocking a hole in the bottom. When she first struck the captain said, “Hard a starboard”, to get her into deep water. The order was obeyed, but she struck twice more, and then she struck so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. The chief mate came up from below and said, “The only thing to do is to get the lifeboat out before it is smashed.” but the captain did not give the order as he was on the bridge crying like a little boy. They got the lifeboat out, and all got into her, but as soon as they had got clear of the bow of the steamer the sea half filled the boat. Then another went right over her, almost filling her,
and most of them were washed into the sea. Witness started swimming, and when he caught sight of the land he turned his head, and seeing seven or eight heads in the water, he cried out, “Come on, swim to the land.” He did not get an answer from them, and they must have been drowned. The Hjordis was a very seaworthy vessel, well found in every way. He identified the bodies washed up at Blakeney as Thor Halnessen, aged 34, chief mate, and Eugenen Andersen, aged 20, ordinary seaman. Witness had also seen two bodies that came ashore at Salthouse; they were Peter Hammer, second engineer, and Nilsen, the steward.
Evidence was given of the finding of the bodies, and the jury returned a verdict of “Death by drowning through misadventure at sea”, and on their behalf the Rev. Gordon Rowe * expressed great regret at the sad occurrence, and deep sympathy with the bereaved parents. The affair, he said, was all the more deplorable in that if the men had kept on their ship for an hour or so after she struck all their lives might have been saved.”
* Rector of Blakeney and Glandford
The Inquest verdict was “Death by drowning through misadventure at sea”. The Coroner signed certificates for the burial of the two men found at Salthouse, who had been identified as Peter Hammer and (unknown forename) Nelsen.
The Civil Registration Death Index for the March Quarter 1916, England and Wales records the four named sailors’ deaths.
Eugenen Andersen born c1896 age 20 Death registered in Walsingham District
Thor Halmersen born c1882 age 34 Death registered in Walsingham District
Peter Hammer born c1876 age 40 Death registered in Erpingham District
(Male) Nelsen born c1896 age 20 Death registered in Erpingham District
At the time of the Hjørdis disaster, legislation – in the form of the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 (also known as Grylls’ Act) and the subsequent Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 – ensured that the bodies of those lost at sea were decently, appropriately buried.
The 1808 Act provided for “suitable interment in Churchyards or Parochial Burying Grounds in England for such dead Human Bodies as may be cast on Shore from the Sea, in cases or Wreck or otherwise”. It required that unclaimed bodies of dead persons washed ashore from the sea should be removed by the churchwardens and overseers of the parish and decently interred in unconsecrated ground.
This act was amended by the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 to extend its applicability to bodies found in, or cast on shore from, all tidal or navigable waters.
Historically, fishing and merchant seafaring were the most dangerous of all professions and each year many fishermen, mariners and ships’ passengers lost their lives at sea. Prior to the 1808 legislation, it was customary to unceremoniously bury drowned seamen, without shroud or coffin and in unconsecrated ground. Uncertainty about the religious faith of those washed ashore, the considerable financial burden which burials placed on the parishes, and the local pragmatic response to these losses, resulted in the widespread practice of shoreline burials in all coastal communities.
The Blakeney parish registers record that Eugenen Andersen and Thor Halmersen, whose bodies were recovered by the Rocket Brigade, were buried on the 22nd February. Peter Hammer and (unknown) Nelsen, whose bodies were taken to Salthouse, were apparently buried there but no records have been found.
It is likely that the men were buried simply, with a minimum of ceremony – in probably the equivalent of a “pauper’s funeral” – in a grave marked, if at all, with just a wooden cross.
THE CAUSE OF THE DISASTER?
With only the one first-hand, contemporary account of what befell the Hjørdis, there is conjecture and a number of possible interpretations as to what caused her to go aground.
The Hjørdis was sold three times during 1915; her (last) Norwegian owner acquired her on 2nd December, just over two months before she was wrecked. With a change in ownership came, perhaps, a new Captain and crew possibly less experienced and/or less familiar with the ship than their more longstanding predecessors. In weather conditions which had forced other ships to remain in or to put into harbour, did Captain Jensen – so early in his engagement – wish to impress his new employer by setting out from Hull in order to fulfil his charter?
Other ships had been sunk during this gale, therefore the disaster could have been caused by weather conditions alone. However, bearing in mind that – in his accounts of the disaster – Ralf Petersen made no mention of any panic or efforts to prevent the ship floundering on a lee shore, it seems most likely that a navigational error was to blame.
It is understandable that Captain Jensen would have intended to steer his ship close to the shore between The Wash and Cromer in order to benefit from a far less severe swell in the lee of the coast during a severe south-westerly gale, which all reports indicate was blowing at the time.
Captain Jensen’s plan was seemingly to arrive off Cromer. Petersen’s accounts state that the Hjørdis’s position was not known when she went aground and, on leaving the ship, the crew did not know which direction to strike for. This would appear to confirm that a navigational error was to blame.
If the Hjørdis had been closer to the shore than Jensen thought, it is possible that he mistook the smaller of the two towers – apparently used as a beacon/lighthouse – of Blakeney Church for the Cromer lighthouse, further along the coast.
The two – east and west – towers of Blakeney Church were said to have been used to guide ships into the navigable channel between the inlet’s sandbanks (the “leading light” practice later achieved by using pairs of lighthouses at different levels).
Petersen described the Hjørdis bumping over a sand bank, then having a few moments to alter course and attempt to get seaward in deeper water, before she struck the last time. The press reports refer to “the tide carrying her in … she struck the west side of the bar and came over it”.
These press reports are a little misleading. High water that day was approximately 5.00 p.m. so, at the time of the grounding, the tide would have been flowing from west to east along the coast and flowing out of Blakeney Harbour. It is more likely, therefore, that the Hjørdis struck one of the many sand bars in that area and then bounced over the first bar into deeper water, pushed on by the east setting tide. This would have made it more difficult for Captain Jensen to alter course to save the situation before Hjørdis grounded on the next sand bar.
Peterson’s account of the lifeboat being carried out to sea after the crew abandoned the Hjørdis does further support the fact that the wind direction was south-west and not west-north-west as local newspapers had reported.
The greater likelihood – of the Hjørdis grounding as the result of navigational error – is borne out by the lifeboat being carried out to sea. This too would further support the fact that the gale was south-westerly, rather than west-north-westerly.
A DIFFERENT OUTCOME?
Mrs Long’s letter to the ‘Eastern Daily Press’ suggests that the crew of the Hettie “could and would have saved all the crew” of the Hjørdis.
When the ship struck, the tide was ebbing – therefore, could the crew have remained on the ship and awaited rescue, or simply waded ashore at low tide?
Petersen’s accounts convey the desperate situation which the crew encountered, where events were happening quickly, in uncertain circumstances: one of their lifeboats had been smashed before she grounded, there was no time to send up flares, the ship was taking in water, the crew did not know where they were, the skipper had lost control, and the ship was showing signs of breaking up.
With the benefit of hindsight and with clearer heads at the time, there is little doubt that if the crew had remained on the Hjørdis, they would probably have survived – either by being rescued by the Hettie or by remaining on the Hjørdis until low tide.
This retrospective assessment of the events which befell the Hjørdis and her crew is, sadly, consistent with one of the contemporary accounts.
The ‘Thetford & Watton Times’ – in its account of the Inquest – reported that the Foreman of the Jury had alluded to the possibility of a different outcome … “The affair was all the more deplorable in that if the men had kept on their ship for an hour or so after she struck all their lives might have been saved.”
The wreck of the Hjørdis has lain off Blakeney Point since she went aground.
Sunk in twelve feet of sand, with more local sand moving in subsequently, the wreck became all but completely covered.
A survey (source unknown but held by the Blakeney Harbour Association) dated September 1960 gives the following information about the wreck:
“Iron Norse steamship 200ft long 30ft beam lying in a deep pool on dry bank heading 20 deg true with a list to port and one mast standing at the fore end.
The hull, which is broken in two amidship, is about 9ft out of water at LWST. The boiler and engines are showing, also a cat davit is standing near the stern.
Wreck extends approximately 40 ft North West and 130ft South East of pole carrying a light erected on wreck position 525902N 005825E (Trinity Superintendent Great Yarmouth 13.11.58).”
It appears that the position of the wreck was checked again by Trinity House on 2nd October 1969, when Hjørdis’s position was “found to lie 259 degrees 1.75 cables from position 525902N 005825E in position 525858N 005812E”.
In October 1993, The Corporation of Trinity House – in whose possession Hjørdis then was – carried out a survey of the former steamer which showed the wreck to be lying in a NNW/SSE direction in depths of between 2 to 2.5 metres at low water springs.
Two years later, in 1995, Trinity House invited tenders for the complete removal of the wreck which then lay sunk in off Blakeney Point, some 10 miles west of Cromer, at Latitude 52o 58’.97 North – Longitude 00o58’.20 East.
Trinity House described the vessel as “a 100 ton iron steamer” and recorded that “The vessel has since partially dispersed and the remaining wreckage is currently approximately 20 metres long and 5 metres wide”.
A further observation made by Trinity House in correspondence of 1995 – referring to a suspicion that Hjørdis had been ice-strengthened for the Baltic winter trade – suggested that this “would account for the fact that her low section has lasted so long”.
The reference to her “Baltic winter trade” is consistent with records of her trade routes.
In August 1995, a proposal was submitted to Trinity House by a local company, offering three options to remove the wreck between the “fair weather months” April to October 1996.
to completely remove the wreck and dispose of ashore as scrap material
to remove the wreck but to sink in deep water
to cut the wreck level with the sea bed, repeating as and when more of the wreck might be uncovered by the moving sand banks and – associated with this – to maintain a beacon placed over the wreck.
In the event, Hjørdis was not removed and the wreck has remained in situ off Blakeney, always marked with a buoy.
The buoy was continually being destroyed by the strong tides and was removed; the wreck is now marked with a Trinity House beacon.
Recent aerial photographs commissioned by the Harbour Association show that much of the ship’s structure still remains.
The Blakeney Harbour mouth regularly changes position. Currents push it towards the east, producing a lengthening peninsula of sand between the entrance channel and the sea. Tidal currents then break through towards the west and the eastern mouth fills up again.
In recent years, the harbour entrance channel has been moving towards the east, bringing it nearer to the wreck. In April 2016, this movement reached the wreck, scouring through it, so that Hjørdis was lying in the middle of the channel at the entrance to the harbour; by December, the channel was moving east of the wreck and beginning to bury Hjørdis in sand once again.
In perpetual cycle, the movements in the sand peninsula and the changing position of the harbour mouth determine whether Hjørdis is either almost completely covered by sand and lost to view or a still visible reminder of the lost ship jutting from the sea.
SS HJØRDIS – TRADE ROUTES