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.