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The Durham Lights 3#: The Margaret and Jane December 24, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


To finish off this series on the mystery of the Durham Lights we turn to the description, in late December 1866, of the Margaret and Jane’s misfortunes at Whitburn. The public inquiry offers one of the clearest accounts of what mariners actually saw when they talked of ‘false lights’. First, though the ship. We have a 417 ton wooden sailed vessel coming from Spain with esparto grass, with half a crew. The incident took place on 3 Nov in the afternoon. The first witness was John Frater, boatswain. His account is the most straightforward:

[JF] was aft from twelve to two o’clock, the ship being steered N.W. by N. to N.N.W. About four o’clock they saw what appeared to be land. Owing to it being foggy, it could not be seen distinctly. The vessel was then going about five knots an hour, under whole canvas and topsails. The wind was blowing moderately from the south. They took a cast of the lead and found themselves in 15 fathoms water. After sounding, the mainsail was hauled in. One of the crew on the mainyard called out ‘A light on the port bow.’ The captain, when the light was seen, altered the course of the ship to the north-east. When the course was altered, the light was a point and a half on the port side. Witness saw the light from the mainyard, and took it for Tynemouth. He could have sworn it was the light from Tynemouth, as it revolved similarly to the Castle light. The master went forward to look at the light when it was reported. Witness came on deck after the mainsail had been stowed. He could still see the light distinctly. The captain said when he came on deck it was the Castle light. Witness was busy preparing to enter the harbour. There was a ripple on the water ahead, to which the captain’s attention was called. He asked what that was, and had the ship put hard a port. The ripple turned out to be broken water, and before the vessel would answer her helm she struck. The light was then seen two points from the port bow. The weather was hazy at the time, and the land could not be seen. Immediately she struck they lost sight of the light, but it reappeared in about a quarter of an hour. It appeared more ‘abeam’ of the ship then. The light still revolved, and appeared to be a good height, quite clear, and above the ship’s mast. To look at the light, it appeared to be that of Tynemouth. When the vessel struck the breakers were rolling over her. Tried to get her off, but could not. The pumps were sounded, and it was found she was making water. In witness’s opinion the light appeared to be about two miles off. He saw it several times before leaving the ship. The crew were rescued by the Whitburn life-boat, and, on landing, lost sight of the light. A steamboat hung about the vessel, sometimes being as near as four or five ship’s lengths, but left her when she struck. Witness had been 11 years at sea. In answer to Captain Harris, witness said he heard the captain say he had mistaken the light for Tynemouth light. All hands were on deck when the ship struck.

There are several interesting points here. The crew turned the boat in believing that they were coming up to Tynemouth, but rather they turned the boat onto the rocks at Steel. The light was revolving like the lighthouse at Tynemouth. The light was perhaps two miles away and high up. It was apparently static but changed in relation to the boat. Another witness gave a similar account: ‘Between three and five o’clock, the day the vessel was wrecked, he saw the light from the mainyard on the port bow. It revolved three or four times. He also saw it from the deck. It was a bright light, and looked like Tynemouth light both in height and brilliancy.’ The cook ships cook was remembered to say: ‘There the bonny light it’s the bonniest light we have seen, and I’ll soon be under the lee of my bonny wife.’ In other words he believed he was seeing the light of the home port, Tynemouth.

Two other interesting things come out of the court case. First, there are the various attempts to explain the light. The Mayor who heads the bench disregards the possibility that locals are responsible. He believed they lacked sufficient intelligence or wickedness (his adjectives). One captain who was close in the water said that he ‘had frequently seen a light about the same locality’. Other sailors said the same thing. But there was the general opinion that it was not the light of Tynemouth to the north. Other candidates were offered up  including the Marsden Coastguard Station and Cleadon Water Works Tower (about a mile inland) and the local blast furnaces. None satisfied the court as a candidate.

The other fascinating point is that a steam tug the Helen, dogged the M&J because its captain believed that she would go onto the rocks: he expected a 150 pound salvage fee and enjoyed his power. He came along the boat once it had run aground and negotiated with the captain. It is a reminder that there were vultures at sea and if you want human motives for human actions they were there in this case, but at sea not on land where the lights were alleged to be.

Other thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com