THE SALTFLEET TRAGEDY
by STEWART HACKNEY
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
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
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
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
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.