Tag Archives: johnny doughty

Boxing Day at Rye Harbour

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Old beach boat at Rye Harbour. Click on the thumbnails for much
larger photographs

It’s almost a tradition in our house to take a trip down to Rye Harbour on Boxing Day, if the weather’s bright and clear – see this post from the same day last year. This time Julie’s cold and my injured right Achille’s heel prevented us walking very far, but I did manage to grab a few shots.

A nice bonus was that the pub has this photo including  singer, fisherman and ferryman Johnny Doughty on its wall. Johnny died in the mid-1980s,  but although the publican couldn’t say who was in the picture, I was pleased to find there were still people in the bar who remembered the old fella living in the hamlet and singing in the pub.

There are more photos of the old boy and the ferry, and a host of great images of local beach boats being used and built at the  Rye Harbour website – just enter the terms ‘Doughty’ and ‘boat’ in the search gizmo to find them.

Some time ago I put up a post some time ago explaining the story behind one of the songs most closely associated with Johnny, The Wreck of the Northfleet.

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Above left: the channel to the sea.  I suppose there’s not much call for pilotage
services when the tide’s low. Above right: the River Brede

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Motor launch at a boatyard near Rye. It’s interesting to compare this motor launch
with the one shown in this post

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Can anyone tell us something about this mysterious and interesting boat? Whoever designed it knew where a little extra standing room would cause the least harm to the boat’s sailing qualities

The story of the Northfleet begins to be explained


Several decades ago, I learned the song The Wreck of the Northfleet from the singing of an elderly south-coast fisherman called Johnny Doughty.

In addition to hearing him singing in public on a few occasions I was also lucky enough to meet Johnny socially a few times, as he was a family friend of one of my close musical friends at the time. Johnny, I can report, was a charming, jolly man who enjoyed an old-fashioned bottle of Guinness and revelled in company, particularly that of women.

But this post is about the story of the song, which tells of an unexplained collision in which large foreign vessel collides with the Northfleet, while she lay at anchor in the English Channel waiting for a fair wind to carry her westward on the first leg of the long voyage to Australia. The song as Johnny had it recounted that she had 500 souls on board; the crew of the foreign vessel fail to stand by and assist the sinking vessel, and some details of what happens as the ship sinks, including a fatal shooting as the captain enforced the rule that women and children must be allowed to escape first. It ends with the captain’s wife insisting on going down with her ‘dear husband’ and his ship.

I should add that the whole dramatic performance is enhanced by the song’s stately, hymn-like tune and a chorus that calls on the Almighty to protect the women and children affected by the tragedy.

One of the delights of Elliott O’Donnell’s book Strange Sea Mysteries published in 1926 is that it includes the first written account I’ve seen of the Northfleet tragedy. Although the captain’s wife did survive, much of old Johnny’s details were correct, despite the ‘Chinese whispers effect’ inherent in the oral tradition.

But what it also reveals that this was a peculiarly nasty and needless disaster, which was no doubt the reason this particular wreck should have lodged in people’s minds and imaginations when hundreds of others have been forgotten. From O’Donnell’s account it seems the crew of the ‘big and foreign vessel’ were seen covering the ship’s name and figurehead before beating their hasty retreat, and also that the Northfleet was anchored among many other ships at the time – and that neither they nor the coastguard on duty at nearby Dungeness reported being aware of the unfolding tragedy, despite the Northfleet’s distress rockets and flares. The flares, it seems, were taken to be signals requesting a pilot.

Even in a time when life was cheap and death was commonplace, the tragedy of the Northfleet fired the public imagination; subscriptions were raised to aid those most affected, and Queen Victoria was moved to write a letter of condolence to the captain’s wife, Mrs Knowles.

Here’s my version of the song as it comes down from old Johnny. I don’t pretend it’s my most polished performance, but there’s more than enough here to learn the song yourself, if you should wish to do so.