Lymington’s coal trade and the loss of the S.S. Lymington

The significance of the coal trade seems largely to have faded from the historical memory. I am going to attempt to rectify this. Vessels trading in coal were of great importance to the economic life of Lymington and to the whole surrounding area. Coal far exceeded timber as a source of heat; by volume and weight its calorific value is more than twice that of logs. So it played a vital role in forges and foundries as well as becoming the ubiquitous source of heat for domestic use and for making what became known as ‘town gas’. Of course, with the coming of the steam engine for power, for rail and for vessels, it was vital.

A Sway coal merchant near the end of a house-to-house delivery

Having no natural deposits of coal anywhere in our area meant that supplies had to be imported, which added transport costs to its price yet it was of such importance that its import was an integral element in all small ports, such as Lymington. Thomas Legh (1793-1857) of Lyme Hall, Cheshire, who, by purchase, became lord of the manor of Hordle in 1833, claimed that he needed the entire Hurst Spit in order to establish a large coal depot which would be supplied by coal mines he owned in Lancashire. He intended to lay a tram-road the whole length of the spit to connect with the mainland “at Milford, Hordle and Keyhaven, &c.” (The National Archives, WO.44/284) His claim brought him into conflict with the Board of Ordnance, owners of Hurst Castle, then a vital defensive asset for the country against the French. I only mention this as an example to confirm the major significance of the coal trade locally.

In Lymington the coal, generally called ‘sea coal’, carried in bulk in sailing vessels, discharged its loads on the Quay and men designated ‘coal meters’ were engaged to measure it out into convenient amounts. We find in the borough court accounts (1721) such comments as, “the Coal Meters for the future do measure all Sea Coal by putting it into the bushell with a shovell as usual and not to pour it in with basketts on pain of 20s.”

In the 17th century the principal import to Lymington was clearly coal from the Tyne, brought mainly in coasting vessels and the largest single customer was the salt industry which consumed large quantities throughout the summer months in the furnaces of the salt-boiling houses. Later, Charles Vancouver, states, “the burning of eighteen bushels or half a chaldron of coals will produce about two tons of salt.” (General View of the Agriculture of Hampshire, 1813, p.421.)

David Garrow in his History of Lymington (1825) offers the briefest of summaries, “There are also a few colliers that frequent Lymington; the Mary Ann (Capt. Temperley) from Sunderland, the most often.”

The reminiscences of Alfred Cole (1861-1951)

Alfred Cole of Milford throws light on this trade in the 1870s when he writes, “My grandfather dealt in coal, which was brought into Lymington by sea and was discharged from the ship into a wagon, the price ranged from 18s to 20s a ton. If you had any doubt as to the weight the next time you went for a load you engaged the coal meter to check the weight for which you paid a small fee. There were two or three coal meters, they were appointed by the corporation but received no salary; after appointing them I imagine the Corporation’s liability ceased…” On a later occasion he recollects, “Our coal was obtained from Lymington, most having been brought there in sailing ships. When a cargo arrived the coal merchants sent out notices that a cargo was being discharged at the Town Quay and quoting the price, which was lower if loaded directly from the ship rather than from the store. One coal-carrying brig, the Laura, I particularly remember, I should think she must have been one hundred years old and had probably been trading between Lymington and Sunderland during the whole of her existence.” (Reminiscences variously published in the magazines of the Milford-on-Sea Record Society between 1925-48). A rather sad corollary to this recollection is provided by a report in the Lymington Chronicle, 27 Jan. 1881 which states that the coal brig, Laura, “now delivering at Lymington Quay, lost two of her crew a few days ago, when in the Downs, the poor fellows being washed overboard in bad weather.” One was a Lymington mariner, named King, the other a native of Sunderland. It is worth remarking that the Downs is the sea passage between the Kent coast and the Goodwin Sands which would have been used by most of the colliers trading between the south coast ports and the Tyne and Sunderland coal fields.

But the railway network became by far the most important mode of bulk coal transport throughout the country and my older readers will well remember the large stacks of coal, fenced with old railway sleepers, which stood in the shunting yards of all our local railway stations. It was from these that the local coal merchants loaded their lorries (and a declining number of horse-drawn wagons) to replenish their local depots.

For about three centuries coal was the most important single industry in the kingdom, mining was on a vast scale and disfigured so much of the landscape with great black spoil heaps while the smoke of factories blackened the industrial landscape and the large towns  providing regular smogs of which, fortunately, we in this area were very largely spared.

Henry George Barrey (1817-99) and the SS Lymington

H.G. Barrey, unknown today, was an enterprising entrepreneur, baptised in St Thomas’s church, 24 Jan. 1817 and died in the town in 1899, aged 82. His father, Isaac, was a Lymington baker but his son did not follow this occupation and went off to seek his fortunes in Devizes, trading first as a wine merchant, with premises in Northgate Street, leading directly from the town’s market. Whilst there he married (in Bath) a local girl, Eliza Paulling who bore him two daughters, Beaulieu Fanny, herself to become later a proprietor of furnished apartments first in Bath Road and then in New Street, and Emmeline Eliza.

He evidently had developed a great interest in the study of prehistory and archaeology almost certainly while resident in Devizes which was home to a nationally important collection of Wessex prehistoric artefacts in its fine museum established in 1853. Locally, he carried out some rudimentary excavations and wrote a 92-page book entitled, Pre-Historic Lymington and People, which was published by H. Bull of Devizes in 1885. It is more important today for its description of activities in the town and surrounding area than for any contribution it makes to the study of prehistory.

The Barrey family settled in Lymington in the late 1870s where he set up business as a coal and corn merchant. In 1882 he commissioned a steel-hulled collier from Edwards and Symes of Cubit Town, London, where she was registered with a gross tonnage of 204. After six years’ service she was re-engined and re-boilered locally at Northam and classed A1 at Lloyds. The main purpose of the vessel was to carry bulk coal directly from either the South Wales mines or those in the Sunderland area, to Lymington.

On her first voyage, after the refit, on 2 Feb 1889, she was engaged to carry a cargo of coal from Swansea to Mistley, a small port about seven and a half miles upstream from Harwich, Essex. On leaving Swansea she fell in with the SS Long Ditton of about 1,000 tons, in distress, bound up the Bristol Channel against a strong WNW wind, later strengthening to become a westerly gale.

A model of the collier SS Lymington

The SS Lymington made three gallant attempts to take the Long Ditton in tow; in the first two the steel hawser parted and, in the third, disaster struck while attempting to pass the hawser Long Ditton’s bow crashed into her aft causing the furnaces to be doused by incoming sea water. Thus disabled, the Lymington was compelled to leave her, the stormy Bay of Barnstaple having been crossed and the dreaded Morte rocks, graveyard of many vessels, avoided. But without engine power her attempts to head for the safety of Ilfracombe harbour were aborted so she anchored off the shore at Lee, about three miles west of Ilfracombe. But the anchors would not hold in the fierceness of the gale and she drifted helplessly on to the Pensport Rock and there foundered with the loss of all on board.

The press accounts of the sinking often contain contradictory explanations for the tragedy but there was undoubtedly considerable confusion between the responsibilities of the coastguard service and that of the lifeboat coxswain, based in Ilfracombe. It is important to be aware that communication in this pre-telephonic period was difficult and messages had to be carried by word-of-mouth by men on horseback or on foot. Even so at the inquest held during the Tuesday and Wednesday following the loss of the vessel the jury in returning a verdict of ‘accidental drowning’ added riders to the effect that they thought that the lives of the men could have been saved had it not been for the confusion. They also censured the lifeboat coxswain “for not launching the lifeboat on receipt of the first message.” A conclusion, coloured perhaps by the statement of the widow of one of the mariners, Elizabeth Nellthorp of Portsea, who evidently had managed to attend the inquest, who declared that, “She believed her husband’s life had been sacrificed and that he had not received justice from the people of the neighbourhood.” Rather a severe judgement but one probably brought about, at least in part, by her immediate grief. (quotes abstracted from press reports of the inquest.)

Of the crew of eight, all of whom perished, three were Lymingtonians, namely, Captain A.H. Blake, aged 24, ‘of singular ability and trustworthiness, 2nd engineer Edward Miller, aged 22, and Able-seaman Walter Plowman, age 23; the entire crew being spoken of as all excellent men in their respective positions.’ Subscription lists to support the families of the lost mariners were initiated and sponsored by the mayor of Lymington, William Murdoch (1835-1903). The fund was opened for the dependents of the crew at the Wilts and Dorset Bank (now Lloyds Bank) in Lymington, and at the private bank of St Barbe, Daniel and Co., (afterwards the Capital and Counties); the opening donation of ten guineas, appropriately enough, was made by Henry G. Barrey. I can discover no further details of this fund and must assume it was successful and implemented in the way intended.

Barrey evidently continued in the trade and in the census of 1891, when resident in 14 High Street (the eastern half of Stanwell House), gave his occupation as “Steamship owner” which rather hints that he owned at least one vessel other than the recently lost SS Lymington.

Portrait of William Murdoch as mayor of Lymington at the time he initiated the collection for the families of the drowned mariners of Lymington

Photos courtesy of St Barbe Museum

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 18 May 2018.