Three Score and Ten

By the time this pops up, we’ll likely have been singing this at one of our local pubs, not least as a kind of hymn for those at sea tonight. There will be some who are out there either because it’s their duty, of course, and others because they have somehow got caught in the wrong place. . Great good luck to them all.

By the way, the Yorkshire Garland group have an informative entry for this song on their website – including a reminder that it was Fiddlers Green songwriter John Conolly who found the old broadside ballad in a library, and the astonishing suggestion that the tune is a re-working of Jingle Bells, which was first popular around the time the balled was written.

I gather this report appeared in the Hull Times on the 2nd of March, 1889.

‘As day after day passes and no tidings arrive of the missing Grimsby smacks, it is beginning to be realized that the gale of the 9th will prove one of the most disastrous to the Grimsby fishing trade on record. All together nearly a dozen fishing vessels carrying between 60 and 70 hands are missing.

Most of these vessels were only provisioned for 8 or 9 days and many of them have been out now for over a month. Of the safety of  7 of them all hope has now been abandoned.

Portions of the wreck from the Kitten have now been picked up at sea and brought into port, and the British Workman was seen to be reduced to a mere wreck by a heavy sea on the morning of the gale. Many of the men who have been lost leave wives and families and an immense amount of distress will be caused among the fishing population.

‘The total number of vessels lost will, it is feared, be near 15 and between 70 and 80 lives of men and boys.’

Hervey Benham tells stories from the great storms of 1883 and 1884

The chilling engraving The Storm by William Miller after Van de Velde,
published in 1858. From the Wikimedia

The great gales of ’83 and ’84 were legendary. The song Three Score and Ten describing their effects on the East Coast fishing fleet was widely sung from Yorkshire down to Cornwall, and when talking to Ewan MacColl in the 1950s, old Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner said that as a boy in those years he remembered seeing the body of one of the sailors washed up on the shore through the window of a mortuary.

It seems that the 1884 storm was a double hit, for in the months before the 1884 storm fish had suddenly become so plentiful that the prices paid at the fish markets were very low – so a period of relative poverty for the fishing community was followed by the tragedy of many deaths.

Larner said that after these events there was a local saying: ‘Oh dear, oh lor, the dreadful fishing of 1884.’

A few years before MacColl interviewed Larner, Hervey Benham recorded the dramatic recollection below and published it in his excellent book The Last Stronghold of Sail – the story of the Essex sailing smacks, coasters and barges. You might find a copy at ABE Books.

I should explain that the ‘skilling’ was the practice of dredging for oysters off Terschilling on the Dutch coast, and bringing them back in wet holds. It was a big business in those days.

‘The terrible losses in the great gales of 1883 and 1884 had as much as anything to do with the end of the ‘skilling’. Five smacks, Mascotte, Conquest, Recruit, Pride and William and Mary, and 27 men from Brightlingsea were lost in two gales in those years, days of disaster which the tablets round the church walls recall.

‘From Charlie Death, a grand old veteran of the place, I heard how the cutter Express came as near being lost as was possible in the 1884 gale. About seven in the morning they were in a gale of wind with a seven-cloth jib set abaft the mast, when a sea broke aboard and took everything out of her except the mast and bowsprit. One hand, Walter Crampton, was washed overboard and lost. Sails, boat, spars and bulwarks were gone, and, believe it or not, even the cross trees from the mast. The ballast, dredges, and eight thousand oysters in her hold had shifted so that she lay with her upper dead-eyes in the water.

‘They let go a couple of dredges over her bow to try to bring her up to the sea, but it was to no avail, and as fast as they tried to get the ballast back it shot up into her side again. At two o’clock in the afternoon another sea swept them, taking the hatches and ripping up the decks. Now they were a floating wreck, and the men felt inclined to give up, but Death got them to set a five-cloth jib abaft the mast, and, having done this, they left him with some rum at four o’clock in the afternoon lashed to the tiller. Once he was swept away bya a sea, but at dawn the battered Express crept into Yarmouth Roads and anchored. Next day they sailed her home – and drew four shillings a head!’