Songs from the Age of Steam

The Northfleet

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ns009Northfleet.pngns009Northfleet.pngThe Northfleet the day before she sailed
[Supplement to the Illustrated London News, February 1st, 1873 p109]

Although the Northfleet was a sailing vessel, her fate is included here because she was run down by a steam vessel.

Historical Background

On 22nd Jan.1873 The sailing ship Northfleet was lying at anchor off Dungeness. There were 379 persons on board, most of whom were railway workers on passage to Tasmania to construct the Tasmanian railway. Her cargo was mainly railway iron. Her lights were burning brightly and the night was clear. At about 10.30pm, the Spanish steamer Murillo, collided at speed with the anchored ship, most of the passengers being asleep below. The Northfleet was struck amidships and cut down to the waterline, the Murillo without waiting to ascertain the extent of the damage made off in the darkness. There was considerable panic and Capt.Knowles fought, revolver in hand to keep back the crowd and save the women and children. Meanwhile the tug City of London, the lugger Mary, the Princess and a pilot cutter took off a number of people. There were many ships in the vicinity, but with the exception of these vessels they rendered no aid. The clipper Corona was lying at anchor only 300 yards away but was unaware of the tragedy as the night watchman was asleep. Two other circumstances delayed rescue - firstly Capt. Knowles did not realise the extent of the damage and did not send up distress signals until 15 minutes after the collision. Secondly, the signal gun could not be fired owing to the touch hole being blocked. Of those on board, 320 were drowned including the Captain. The Murillo was arrested off Dover on 22nd Sept., eight months after the collision. A Court of Admiralty condemned her to be sold and severely censured her officers. [i]
The Illustrated London News produced a special edition on 1st February 1873.
Only one of the songs reports the presence of other ships that failed to help.

Main Themes and Motifs of the Songs

  • The circumstances of the wreck are outlined.
  • The Reaction of the Passengers and Crew The songs are unusual in taking a disapproving view of the reaction of the passengers and in particular the crew some of whom attempted to take places in the lifeboats at the expense of the women and children
  • The Bravery of the captain. As with most shipwreck songs the captain is described as courageous a description that is particularly apposite in the case of the Northfleet.
  • The Captains Wife is given a leading role and much is made of the fact that they were newly married and she is reluctant to part from him.

Minor Themes and Motifs of the Songs

  • The emigrant status of the passengers is mentioned in the scene-setting verses and although not a major theme of the songs the fact that many of the victims were ordinary working folk made the song more meaningful to the people most likely to buy broadsides.
  • Prayers:


Individual Songs

Bar487~Farewell Wife Dearer Than Life A broadside saying that 300 were drowned - a slight underestimate

Synopsis:
The Northfleet, carrying emigrants, is rammed by a foreign steamer and sinks. Captain Knowles makes heroic efforts to save the children and women, including his wife. The Captain goes down with his ship and over 300 others.

Bar612~Dreadful Shipwreck A broadside printed in London and found in the oral tradition. Says "over 300" were drowned - the most accurate song in this respect.

Synopsis:
The Northfleet, carrying emigrants, is rammed by a foreign steamer and sinks. The steamer sails away without offering help. Captain Knowles makes heroic efforts to save the children and women, including his wife. In the course of stopping the men from taking all the places in the ship's boats He shoots a crew member. He entrusts his wife to the bo'sun and goes down with his ship

Bar476~What I Saw in My Dream As I Slept in My Chair. (1873 or soon after) A broadside printed in Manchester only two imprints survive. It was written and sung by Richard Durden who claims copyright. It is a generalised complaint about the state of the nation which concludes with two verses that seem to describe the wreck of the Northfleet, although the ship is not named. A song in the same vein What I Dreamt in My Old Arm Chair {Roud V37585} [ii] concerns itself mainly with mainly with the doings of the aris-tocracy and looks forward to the Tichbourne trial of 1871. What I Saw in My Dream is vehemently anti-establishment and may have been written as a riposte to What I Dreamt in My Old Arm Chair. In keeping with the general tone of the song it over esti-mates the number of victims at 400

Synopsis:
The narrator walks through London, returns home and falls asleep in his chair where he dreams of poverty; police mis-conduct; shorter hours and better pay for railway workers; improved industrial relations; the poverty of farm worker and the contrasting wealth of farmers; the achievements of Napoleon Bonaparte; the gas workers strike of 1871; and finally, and fianlly a collision at sea similar to the Northfleet disaster.

Bar639~Drowning of the Immigrants (1873 or soon after) A broadside printed in London. Set to the tune of Driven from Home as is

Synopsis:
The Northfleet, carrying emigrants, is rammed by a foreign steamer and sinks. The steamer hides her identity and sails away without offering help. The Captain makes heroic efforts to save the children and women, including his wife who he entrusts to the bo'sun. In the course of stopping the men from taking all the places in the ship's boats He shoots a crew member. A few survivors cling to broken timbers and are saved.

Bar486~You Have Read of the Wreck (1873 or soon after)A broadside printed in Preston that wrongly gives the destination of the emigrants as New Zealand and says that there were "412 on board"

Synopsis:
The Northfleet, carrying emigrants, is rammed by a foreign steamer and sinks. The steamer hides her identity and sails away without offering help. The Captain makes heroic efforts to save the children and women, including his wife who he entrusts to the bo'sun. There are other ships in the area but none help. The Northfleet's distress signals are ignored.

Bar351~Father Put Me in the Boat (1873) A parlour ballad. One of the "Musical Bouquet" series claims there were 500 on board

Synopsis:
The Northfleet, carrying 500 emigrants is rammed by a steamer and sinks. Men push women and children aside in their at-tempts to get into a ship's boat. A child begs her father to put her in a boat and she survives

Bar724~Theres a Sad Disaster A broadside printed in Preston that makes no statement about the number of victims

Synopsis:
As the Northfleet sinks Captain Knowles persuades his wife to take a place in a boat and entrusts her to the care of the bo'sun. The Captain shows great bravery as he goes down with his ship.

Other items not yet annotated

Bar723~The Wreck of the Northfleet [in verse] by John William Sparrow British Library General Reference Collection 11650.cc.26.(13.)

Bar724~Lines written upon the Wreck of the Northfleet, etc. by William Sanders, Poetical Writer (London 1873) British Library General Reference Collection 11647.e.1.(148.)

Bar725~The wreck of the Northfleet (Out in the ocean, not far from our coast) Bodleian library Firth c.12(112) The on-line facsimile is largely illegible. Set to the tune of Driven from Home as is Bar639~Drowning of the Immigrants

References:

[i] Dictionary of Disasters at Sea by C. Hocking http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/Wrecks/northfleet1873.shtml

[ii] Axon Ballads No 118

 

 

 

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