Dick Durham considers the history of coal colliers working the UK coast and the ships lost to storms of the past


The ebb tide poured out of the River Tyne as a small potting boat struggled against it, crawling in past a broken plateau of rock and up towards a few yachts strung out on fore and aft moorings. As I trudged towards the giant Collingwood memorial towering over the harbour mouth, I read a tourist board which stated that the reef beneath me, the Black Middens, had claimed many a ship. One local told me, ‘Yachts still hit it today if they’re not careful.’

In 1536 Henry VIII ordered the first set of lights to mark the reef, but still ships foundered there down the years. In 1864, after three days of easterly storms, five ships were wrecked there with the loss of 34 seamen’s lives, ensuring the Volunteer Life Brigade was formed, the first of its kind.

I wondered why so many vessels had piled up within the safety of a harbour entrance rather than outside it and soon discovered that it was simply the law of averages: the sheer number of sailing ships that had arrived and departed the Tyne over the centuries is astonishing.

They were all coming in for King Coal.

We contemporary sailors are forever patting ourselves on the back for being ‘green’, but consider the hefty legacy of the carbon keelprint we need to make up for. Coast watcher, Jeremy Roach, noted that in Southwold Bay, Suffolk in August 1666, ‘only 400 sail of colliers passed by us bound for London.’

In 1710 the fleet owners of collier brigs went on strike over increased coal prices and Sir Gilbert Heathcote, who became Lord Mayor of London, visited Harwich and discovered ‘lying at anchor 600-700 sail of colliers.’

Major E. R. Cooper recalled in October 1838: ‘there were nearly 2,000 vessels lying windbound in (Great) Yarmouth Roads. They got under way on November 1st and were followed by another 1,000 from the southward; in all 3,000 sail went through the Roads in five hours, so that the sea could hardly be seen for ships.’

In 1844 it is recorded that three-quarters of all coasting fleets were employed on coal, with 10,000 sailors bringing 2.5 million tons of coal from the northern ports
of Newcastle, North Shields, Blyth and Sunderland to London alone. All under sail.

As the late yachtsman, author and historian, Hervey Benham, put it in his book Once Upon A Tide (George Harrap 1955): ‘Out of Newcastle’s Tyne-mouth issued most of the colliers which must always be kept in mind as a sort of perpetual background to every other sort of coastal activity… harbours might silt and shift, headlands wash away, holiday resorts grow up where cornfields had for centuries run down to the sea, but all the time, throughout every change, the procession of coal ships continued like a slow-moving frieze or a constant animated backcloth – hundreds of heavily laden colliers fighting to gain a few miles to the southward with each flood tide, fleets of light colliers running north, high-sided, steering wildly if the old man had been mean with the ballast…’

And when the winter gales set in, such fleets were decimated, like during the storm of February 18, 1807: ‘One ship was seen flying through the Roads bottom upwards, and a great quantity of masts and rigging went through the Roads. One vessel sunk at anchor, another was riding with her mast cut away, several others were running under bare poles, many vessels were reported missing and 144 bodies were washed up along the Norfolk coast alone.’

Collier brigs were not the most handy of ships and even having reached the sanctuary of the Tyne, in any wind west or south-west, they would have fought to tack clear of the Black Middens.

Explorer James Cook’s Endeavour was a collier and the fictional ‘cat’ (also a type of collier) which helped make Dick Whittington his fortune was in fact a coal ship.

The East Coast of England has few sanctuaries, and the broken masts and spars in the few photographs which survive of wrecked colliers up and down the North Sea beaches are ghostly fingers pointing to us sailors today: sail on, sail on and make up the loss…

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