"There is sorrow on the sea": Maritime memorialisation

There is no escaping the sea on Holy Island. From our trenches we could look out across the harbour and beyond towards the Farne Islands; the wind brought in rain from the North Sea and the cries of seabirds and seals was a constant accompaniment to life on the island.

But the sea is not just a constant as a natural phenomenon. It also appears repeatedly in a materialised form in monuments and memorials that are found across the island, particularly in and around the parish church. Not surprisingly, on an island which has produced many sailors, death by drowning was a real threat, and deaths by drowning are recorded on several graves – interestingly several have nice depictions of boats on them. For example, the grave of John Stevenson (d1875) who died in a wreck off nearby Bamburgh has his stone decorated with a fine carving of a typical local fishing boat known as a coble, and the edge of his grave is finished with rope-like cable twist moulding. Imagery of the sea can be found on other, such as the anchor symbol – a not uncommon image on 19th century graves, but a particularly potent image on an island such as this.

But in death, the sea didn’t only take people away; it also brought strangers to Holy Island. One burial plot, placed in a prime position just by the entrance to the churchyard, is the last resting place of nine members of the crew of the SS Holmrook which sank just off the island in 1892 . A now almost unreadable stone also records the burial site of 13 year old Field Flowers who died in the wreck of the Pegasus on his journey back from school in Edinburgh in 1843. 

A particularly noticeable feature of the burial traditions on the island is the importance of recording

if the departed has been involved in the lifeboats that operated from the island. Since the foundation of the lifeboat service, there have been five lifeboat houses which operated from the island (or on the immediately adjacent mainland). Not surprisingly, given the notorious rocks and reefs off the nearby Farne Islands, as well as the rocks on the north side of Holy Island itself, there have been many shipwrecks in the islands’ waters. These included both local vessels, as well as those from further afield. The role of working on the lifeboats, a volunteer role taken by fishermen and other resident seafarers, was incredibly important- and clearly purveyed a sense of corporate identity amongst its membership, which seems to have transcended many other possible social roles on the island. George Kyle who died in 1960 is recorded on his grave as Assistant Motor Mechanic of the Holy Island lifeboat for 29 years – another George Kyle (d. 1912) is noted as having been both Second Coxwain and Coxwain Superintendent of the boat. Even now there are no lifeboats operating from the island anymore, the boards listing the rescues the lifeboat crews from the island had assisted in are still carefully maintained and displayed, just outside the churchyard.

Mercifully, Holy Island never saw any lifeboat disasters such as that at Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1899 which resulted in the deaths of seven lifeboatmen, who are memorialised by an impressive suite of monuments in Aldeburgh churchyard and a brass plaque in the church itself – both laden with maritime and nautical images and symbols.

Central element of burial plot for Aldeburgh
lifeboat men lost in 1899

I’ve spent a lot of time by the coast this summer – in Northumberland, Yorkshire and currently Suffolk. And wherever I’ve visited, the importance of the sea in forming and maintaining a distinctive tradition of memorialisation and commemoration is apparent. The seafaring experience, and its incredible dangers and regular fatalities, is something that seems to have particularly impacted on post-medieval (particularly 19th and 20th century) commemorative practices. The only other employment sectors that I can think off that have been particularly and specifically highlighted in burial practices are the military (obviously) and mining (I’m thinking particularly of the tradition of pit disaster memorials). Even in relatively recent times, there is a strong thread of modern monument making related to seafaring deaths- just close to where I’m writing this in coastal Suffolk, there is a relatively recent memorial plaque to a group of coastguards drowned in a wreck on the coast between Orford and Shingle Street, despite its distance from the coast, there is an RNLI monument at the National Memorial Arboretum, and most powerfully in Hull, a city which lost 6000-8000 men to the North Sea there are a number of recent monuments to these losses, including “The Last Trip” in Zebedee’s Yard and for my mind most powerfully, a monument depicting trawlermen in silhouette on St Andrew’s Quay.
I don’t know of any large-scale study of maritime monumentality, but ultimately that the study of these kind of maritime monuments deserves to be resituated, and not just seen as part of the study of burial practices, but as an integral element of industrial archaeology, which should be recording all aspects of the lives and deaths of workers and their families

Lost Trawlermen monument, Hull (C) Creative Commons http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5289389

Fisherman’s memorial altar, Holy Trinity, Hull  three trawlers St Romanus, Ross Cleveland and Kingston Peridot, all lost within a month- also plaque to the crew of the notoriously lost FV Gaul

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: