Edgar March’s book Inshore Craft of Britain: In the Days of Sail and Oar, volume 2 explains a little more about the famous collision off Dungeness that wrecked the Northfleet, and the rescue that followed it. (See an earlier post on this topic here.)
I had no reason to imagine that the story of the sinking would be included in a book about boats rather than ships, but what he has to say is an interesting surprise – he paints a vivid picture of the horror and chaos of that night.
‘On the 22nd January 1873, the emigrant ship Northfleet, while riding at anchor in Dungeness Roads, was run down by a large steamer which proceeded on her way. Panic broke out on board, the night was pitch black and only two boats got away in the fight to get aboard. Mary [a fishing lugger] was anchored off Dungeness and her master, George Pout, saw the distress rockets, hove up and bore away, narrowly missing one of the lifeboats, deep laden with 34 people and sinking, no one had thought of putting in the plug. After taking all on board the lugger went on, but found nothing. Northfleet had sunk with the loss of 327 lives. Later the Spanish [ship] Murillo was identified as the guilty steamship.’
The story of the wrecking of the Northfleet has interested me ever since I first heard local fisherman old Johnny Doughty singing it – and even more so after I first learned his version for myself a couple of decades ago. (Why not click on the link to learn my version and contribute to the process of oral transmission, aka the folk process? All I ask is that you change it and make it your own!)
I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who has a version of this song, as I gather it’s still known, not least among the communities of the Dungeness area. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.