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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History

THE SALTFLEET TRAGEDY


by STEWART HACKNEY

Captain John Adams

Captain John Adams

February 2007 marks the 125th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies of the time for a Knottingley family. Like many other families in Knottingley at that time, the Adams family had close connections with the waterways of England. Through marriage they had close connections with other seafaring families of the area. The families of Coward, Rhodes and Atkinson were all connected with Knottingley’s maritime trade.

Tragedies were of course not uncommon, with deaths at sea from all sides of the family. However, on the weekend of Saturday 18th February 1882, a nightmare that was to shake the roots of two communities and tear the heart out of a family was starting to unfold.

John Adams through trading from Knottingley on his father’s boats had met and married Harriet Harvey, the daughter of a Louth mariner. By 1882 the family had settled at Saltfleet in Lincolnshire and had five children ranging in age from one year to seven years.

On Saturday 18th February 1882, the 39ft sloop Try, owned by Edward Adams of Low Green, Knottingley, was entering Saltfleet Haven with a cargo of coal from Rotherham. On board were Captain John (Jack) Adams, his wife Harriet, and their three youngest children; Louise aged one year, Hermia aged three years and Robert aged four years. Also on board was Ships Mate, Robert Adams, the 17-year-old brother of "Captain Jack". The Adams’ two elder children, John and Jane, both aged seven years were staying with Harriet’s parents in Louth .

With the weather starting to deteriorate they took on board a pilot and five other crew to assist the passage up the Haven, but by the end of that night’s tide they had only managed to sail part way so they decided to anchor overnight until the morning "flood tide".

At 2:15am on Sunday 19th February 1882, as the incoming tide reached the Try it was noticed that the boat had been holed and was taking on water rapidly. Arrangements were put in place to abandon the boat, but by working the pumps and bailing out the water they were able to maintain stability and buoyancy. Despite the worsening weather the decision was made to continue up the Haven.

As they started to weigh anchor at 4:00am the chain broke and with the wind strengthening, in order to stabilise the boat the second anchor was let off.

At 4:45am, the Try was seen by the coastguard and a rescue mission was ordered, but while trying to reach the Try, the weather conditions were so severe that the rudder of their boat broke and for some considerable time they were unable to make any headway.

By 5:00am the sea was so severe that the second chain parted. The Try began drifting south out of the Haven and was becoming more unmanageable. As another wave crashed over the beam the lifeboats broke loose and were washed away.

It was noted that Harriet, who had spent most of her life at sea and was an excellent sailor, worked as hard as the men, gallantly working the pumps.

Between the hours of 6:00-7:00am the weather deteriorated further and waves started to break over the boat’s beam and bows to "half a mast high". The young children were brought from their bunks for safety and held in the arms of the men to stop them from being washed overboard. The crew were repeatedly washed off their feet and the vessel was unable to turn stern to the gale. The sea’s repeated barrage over the broadside resulted in the hatches being damaged, and the Try soon became waterlogged.

Due to the severity of the storm the crew were unable to send out any distress signals and by now the situation was critical. One by one the young children died from exposure to the cold and wet.

By the time the coastguard eventually reached the Try between 7am-8am, they found a crew member holding one of the lifeless girls. John Adams held the body of his other daughter. His son’s body was pinned to the deck where the boom had broken and fallen across his body and face. Johns brother, Robert Adams, was found dead aft of the boat while Harriet lay floating in the hold. At first apparently lifeless, she was seen to have moved by the coastguard and Harriet was lifted from the water wrapped in a large coat and carried off the Try. Captain John Adams, although completely exhausted, was able to leave the vessel with some assistance and board the coastguard’s boat.

The crew and injured members were taken ashore between 9am-10am where despite medical assistance Harriet sadly died. Although some said she died of a broken heart, the reality was of complete exhaustion and hypothermia.

Following an inquest into the tragedy, the coroner concluded that there could be no blame attached to anyone. The weather had been unforeseen and severe, while the boat was considered seaworthy and well maintained. The coastguards and additional crew were praised for their efforts in trying to save the lives of those on board.

On Thursday 23rd February 1882, Harriet Adams aged 27, daughter’s Louise, aged one year eight months, Hermia aged three years, son Robert aged four years and John’s brother Robert Adams aged 17 years, were buried in Louth in the presence of about one thousand people, such was the popularity of this family.

This was the worst disaster off the Lincolnshire coast for over 60 years and the incident was reported not only in local Lincolnshire papers and the Try’s home port of Goole, but also in The Times in London.

A poem entitled The Saltfleet Shipwreck, was put to music and sold for one penny per copy to raise money for the family.

John Adams, the only member of the family to survive the disaster, remained in Saltfleet with his remaining son and daughter, eventually remarrying and raising a further nine children. His descendants still live in the area to this day. John Adams died in 1927.

The Try was salvaged and put back to work but was eventually wrecked in 1900, almost in the same location at Saltfleet where at low tide she can still be seen to this day.

John’s father, Edward, remained with his family in Knottingley where he continued to trade as both a mariner and coal merchant until his death in 1897. Many of his descendant’s remain in the Knottingley area.

Stewart Hackney


Poem - SALTFLEET SHIPWRECK


 

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