All on Spurn Point a vessel lay,
All on Spurn Point, aye, all that day,
A vessel called the Industry
Was lost upon the raging sea.
At seven o’ clock on Sunday night
The ship ran aground all on Spurn Point.
The swelling waves ran mountains high;
In dismal state the ship did lie.
And when on shore we came to know
To her assistance we did go.
We manned the lifeboat stout and brave,
Expecting every man to save.
We hailed the captain who stood astern,
‘We’ve come to save you and your men.’
‘We want no ’elp!’ the captain cried.
‘We shall come off with the next tide.’
‘Heave us a line,’ we once more did say,
‘That alongside of your ship we’ll lay.’
‘We want no ’elp again he cried,
I’d thank yer to move immediately.’
In the space of half an hour or more
Our lifeboat it had reached the shore.
We watched her till eleven that night,
When in distress she showed a light.
Into the lifeboat once more we got,
And hastened to that fated spot.
We thought to save all that ship’s crew,
But the light disappeared then from our view.
And then we heard one poor man cry,
‘For God’s sake help me or I’ll die;
Me messmates drowned and so must I.’
And down he went immediately.
The captain was the cause of it,
Into the lifeboat he wouldn’t get,
Or else all hands we might have saved,
And kept ‘em from a watery grave.
(Accompanied on Anglo concertina.)
This is a traditional song about Yorkshire, collected in Yorkshire.
Two hundred years ago the mouth of the mighty Humber was one of the most dangerous places to shipping in Europe. This is hard to believe standing on Spurn Head on a calm summer’s day watching the ships slowly come and go. But this is part of the reason; there are no high cliffs or rocks like those found further up the coast to warn unsuspecting mariners, its dangers being largely hidden on the shifting sandbanks only uncovered at low tide. Two hundred years ago venturing out into the North Sea in winter was a precarious occupation and loss of life and vessels was frequent, which often resulted in seamen with relatively little experience gaining rapid promotion to skipper. Many a green skipper passing by the mouth of the Humber did not realise the particular dangers to be avoided. Run aground on a sandbank anywhere else on the coast, or even on the Humber itself, and you merely waited for the rising tide to float you off and you were on your way after a tiresome delay.
Not so at the mouth of the Humber. All that tremendous body of water, gathered on the Yorkshire Moors, the eastern Pennines and even from almost as far south as Birmingham, is suddenly restricted by the incursion of the Spurn peninsula into a relatively narrow channel. Add that to the force of an incoming tide and you have a recipe for disaster. Any vessel stuck on a sandbank could easily be turned on its side, and the wooden brigs of two hundred years ago were, in a storm, relentlessly reduced to matchwood.
It is not surprising then that a lifeboat station for the mouth of the Humber was proposed as early as the eighteenth century, and even today it is the only fully manned station in the country due to its remote situation.
In 1810 the lifeboat station financed by a local landowner and run by Trinity House, Hull, was set up and buildings erected at Spurn Head to house at least some of the lifeboat crew. None of them were paid; the master, Robert Richardson, kept the inn which was patronized by keelmen who came to collect gravel and cobbles off the Binks, and his crew earned their living by providing labour to the keelmen, and fishing. Also, of course, they could claim salvage on any vessels they rescued.
This salvage law was part of the problem; any skipper who ran aground was reluctant to be rescued as it would mean the loss of the value of their cargo, and the vessel’s owners would be very upset about this. Such was the case described in this ballad. The doggerel words are almost verbatim the description of the situation reported in The Hull Advertiser, The Rockingham and Hull Weekly Advertiser both of Saturday 27th of February,1819, and in The Hull Packet of the following Tuesday. It commences
‘About seven o’ clock on Sunday evening (21st February) during a very heavy gale at E. N. E. the Industry, Richard Evans, of Yarmouth, from Leith with potatoes, was driven ashore on the Outer Binks near Spurn Point, and before midnight fell on her broadside, and the master and crew were all unfortunately drowned.’
The ballad survived to be printed on broadsides, by John Forth of Pocklington c1850 and then by his brother, William, of Hull c1870. William had been apprenticed to John before setting up his own press in Hull c1870 and this was one of the first ballads he printed. John had been apprenticed to their father, also William, in Bridlington in 1811 so it is highly likely that the father printed the earliest version contemporary with the event, but this printing did not survive. John would not long have finished his apprenticeship when the event happened.
The ballad proved popular with coastal mariners and remained in oral tradition into the twentieth century, having travelled as far south as King’s Lynn, up the coast to Whitby and even around the coast to Southport. A full version was collected in Barton on Humber in 1908. (See O’Shaughnessy, Yellowbelly Ballads part 2, Lincoln, 1975, p40, collected by Percy Grainger, sung by George Wray.)
I learnt my version in 1969 from another Hull lad, Derek Whiting, who sang the version published in the 1909 Journal of the Folk-Song Society, p228, collected by Frank Kidson from a sailor who only sang the first stanza. Kidson took the rest from the broadside.