A famous ship wreck and a Dutch surrender; the boredem of a typist and the challenges of a seaman; a politician, a rugby success and a drunken cabbie. A stolen cup and a misnamed obelisk; a poor child and a great ocean liner.

Friday 7th September 1838 was the morning when William Darling and his daughter Grace risked their lives to save others stranded on a rock in rough seas with a gale force wind. The story of their bravery is well known, but the following three pieces certainly added to my knowledge and understanding of the disaster. The ‘powers that be’ obviously needed to investigate the event and this letter to them by William Darling provides us with a concise and considered view of the happenings.
‘Dear Sir, In answer to your request of 29 ult., (I) have to state that on the morning of the 7th September, it blowing gale with rain from the north, my daughter and me being both on the alert before high water securing things out of doors, one quarter before five my Daughter observed a vessel on the Harker’s Rock; but owing to the darkness, and spray going over her, could not observe any person on the wreck, although the glass was incessantly applied, until near 7 o’clock, when, the tide being fallen, we observed three or four men upon the rock: we agreed that if we could get to them some of them would be able to assist us back, without which we could not return; and having no idea of a possibility of a boat coming from North Sunderland, we immediately launched our boat, and was enabled to gain the rock, where we found eight men and one woman, which I judged rather too many to take at once in the state of the weather, and therefore took the woman and four men to the Longstone. Two of them returned with me, and succeeded in bringing the remainder, in all nine persons, safely to the Longstone about 9 o’clock. Afterwards the boat from North Sunderland arrived and found three lifeless bodies, viz., one man and two children, which they carried to the high rock, and came to the Longstone with great difficulty; and had to lodge in the Barracks two days and nights, with scant provisions, no beds, nor clothes to change them with.’
Your most obedt. servant, Wm. Darling.
The Morning Post of Tuesday 18th September tells us that the boat, the Forfarshire, was only about two years old and was reported by the carpenters as being sound when it left port. However, one of the witnesses at the inquest – passenger James Kelly – said that so conscious was he of the inefficiency of the boilers, that he would have given all that he was worth to be put on shore again before they left the Humber. He considered the vessel quite unseaworthy and, had he been the captain, he would have put back immediately after leaving Hull. In confirmation of the bad state of the boilers the fireman stated in the course of his evidence that he understood a meeting of the committee of the proprietors of the vessel was to have been held at Dundee on her arrival to consider the propriety of repairing the boilers or laying her up until the spring. The ‘Post’ stated that the vessel had been a losing concern, though the proprietors had refused a large offer above their purchase-money for her.
The crew was reported as consisting of Captain John Humble and his wife, who were both drowned. There were also on board ten seamen, four firemen, two engineers, two coal-trimmers, and two stewards. Of these twenty persons, thirteen had been saved, viz., five from the wreck, and eight who had put out in a long boat and carried to Shields. The cabin books had not been found, and the number and names of the passengers could not be exactly ascertained. One of the survivors had stated the number at forty-two, and another at forty-seven. As only five were known to be saved, the probable loss of life, it said, would be between thirty-seven and forty-two passengers, and the master and his wife, and seven of the crew, making the total loss between forty-six and fifty-one persons.
The Hull Packet newspaper of Friday 21st September also carried a long description of the rescue together with a report of the inquest held at Bamburgh Castle on Monday 17th. That report said that the rescue found four dead bodies among the wreck although only three are named – the Rev. John Robb of Dunkeld and the bodies of J Dawson, a boy seven years of age and Matilda Dawson, his sister about five years of age, both the children of Mrs Dawson, whose life was saved by the exertions of Mr Darling and his daughter. The fourth person is not named. (One wonders if this figure is an error by the paper bearing in mind William’s letter quoted above.) The Packet also reported that: ‘The number of individuals on board at the time of the accident was fifty-two, viz., twenty cabin passengers, five steerage passengers with two children, the crew, including the steward and stewardess, twenty-five, making a total of fifty-two. It is extremely difficult to get a further account of their names than we have given above, as it is more than probable they have not been entered at Hull previous to starting.’

Monday 8th September 1664 saw the Dutch surrender the New Amsterdam settlement they had established at the southern tip of Manhattan Island after English forces seized control of the Island, along with the rest of the Dutch colony in America. The English then renamed it New York after the Duke of York – later King James II.
Thursday 8th September 1955 – Novelist Barbara Pym – at the time working at the International African Institute in London – writes in her diary: ‘In the office 3.55pm. Even at this moment some dreadful thing may be happening – a husband deciding to leave his wife; a love affair being broken; somebody dying; languishing with hopeless love or quarrelling about the Church of South India in the Edgware Road as I nearly did with Bob on Sunday. And I sit typing, revising, and ‘translating’ Harold Gunn’s MS, waiting for tea.’

Monday 9th September 1754: Born on this day, William Bligh – as a sea captain – is invariably considered a tyrannical and cruel bully who brought a mutiny down on himself. But is that really true? There is a very good case for saying that that persona is not true and it is all, probably, down to the 1930s film ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. Bligh had gone to sea at an early age – some say the age was seven, others quote 15. Whatever his starting age, he learned his trade and, in 1776, was selected by Captain Cook for the position of sailing master of the Resolution. Throughout his career Bligh was intolerant of error and had no compunction in venting his anger in abusive terms – but if the job in hand was done as it should be done there was no problem. He is now best known for the events on HMS Bounty on 28th April 1789 – but was he really at fault? Whatever we may think, aged 35, with 13 years’ experience as a ship’s officer, he and eighteen others, were cast adrift in a longboat by sailors who objected to his style. Thanks to his skills the castaways reached safety after more than 40 days at sea. Back home the Admiralty treated him as a hero and gave him a new command.
In 1797 he was anchored with the rest of the British fleet off the Kent coast when his crew joined a fleet-wide mutiny of sailors and put Bligh ashore. Again no fault was found in Bligh’s actions.
In 1805 he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia and, in 1808, suffered from a third mutiny – this time led by a British major who put Bligh in gaol. The mutiny was finally suppressed in 1810 and Bligh was released. The courts found the mutineers guilty of conspiracy and Bligh an innocent party.
Back in Britain the Napoleonic war was dragging on and William was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1811 and Vice Admiral in 1814. He died in 1817 aged 63 with a great many more plusses to his career than are normally given to him.
Sunday 9th September 1991 – I make no apologies for adding this second piece in. Before you read it I must state that I have no political allegiance whatsoever, but this was just too good to miss! It’s from a speech given on this day at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference by their President, Charles Kennedy. Commenting on the then current Government he stated that: ‘Major and Lamont are to caution and prudence what Burke and Hare were to eternal rest.’ In that same speech he told the meeting that his – their – party danced to a different tune to the others. He identified them thus: ‘Labour is the music of Dire Straits; the Tories are the music of Simple Minds but we are the Liberal Democrat Party and we are the New Kids on the Block. Priceless

Saturday 10th September 1938: Reuters’ report from Cape Town, South Africa told the following story of an International Rugby match: ‘A fine second half recovery enabled Great Britain to win the third and final test against South Africa here today by 21 points to 16. South Africa led 13-3 at half time and many thought that Britain was due for another heavy defeat. But the tourists fought back in grand style and scored 11 more points without reply, to take the lead at 14-13 midway through the second half. In spite of desperate South African attacks, the British clung on to their one-point lead until, six minutes from time, F G Turner gave South Africa the lead with a penalty goal. The British, however, did not give up, and C F Grieve, their full-back, dropped a great goal from 40 yards to make the score 18-16 in Britain’s favour. Just before the end P L Duff made certain by scoring a try. For the first time, the British were really successful in the scrums, which were very even throughout. The British forwards gave a grand display in the loose, with Walker and Dancer outstanding.’ Despite this victory the British team lost the series 2-1 and it was not until 1955 that they toured South Africa again – this time as the British Lions. That series was tied two matches all.
On Friday 10th September 1897 a London cabdriver named George Smith drove his taxi into a building and became the first person in Britain to be arrested for drunk driving. He pleaded guilty and was fined 25 shillings. Police officers ‘knew that Smith was drunk’ because he acted drunk – he had driven that cab into a wall, after all – and because he said he was!
What they lacked, though, was a scientific way to prove someone was too intoxicated to drive, even if he or she wouldn’t admit it. It wasn’t long before blood tests were introduced, but those were messy and needed to be performed by a doctor; there were urine tests, but those were even messier, not to mention unreliable and expensive. It was in 1931 that Rolla Harger, a toxicologist at Indiana University in the USA, came up with a solution – a device he called the ‘Drunkometer’. It was simple – all the suspected drinker had to do was blow into a balloon. The tester then attached the balloon to a tube filled with a purple fluid – a mix of Potassium Permanganate and Sulphuric Acid – and released the air into the tube. Alcohol on a person’s breath changed the colour of the fluid from purple to yellow; the quicker the change, the drunker the person.

Wednesday 11th September 1895 presented a riddle which endured for very many years – ‘what did happen to the FA Cup stolen on this day from a Birmingham shop window?’ The trophy, won by Aston Villa in a 1-0 triumph over West Bromwich Albion, was taken on this night from a football equipment shop run by William Shillcock in Birmingham’s Newtown Row. Efforts to recover the Cup proved fruitless despite a £10 reward being offered for information leading to an arrest. Aston Villa bosses were forced to pay a fine of £25 because the trophy – which cost £20 to make in 1872 – was stolen while technically in their care. In due time Chief Superintendent Benbow decided that there was no realistic possibility of a conviction available and the file was closed – leaving the case unsolved for more than 60 years. Then an 80-year-old man called Henry (Harry) James Burge confessed to a national newspaper that he had committed the burglary at the shop. The Sunday Pictorial published an ‘exclusive story’, with the headline “soccer’s biggest riddle” on Sunday, February 23, 1958. Burge even posed for a photograph showing how he broke the shop’s rear door open with a small crowbar. In his admission he stated that he and two other men entered the shop and stole several pairs of football boots along with the cup. He alleged that the silver FA Cup was melted down on the night it was stolen, to be made into fake half crowns.
Discrepancies were soon spotted by Birmingham police between Burge’s newspaper tale and a contemporaneous report in the Birmingham Post. The Post’s story recorded how: “Mr Shillcock arrived at the shop on the morning after the theft and saw the back room covered with plaster, looked up and saw a hole in the roof. The robber or robbers had got onto the roof for the entry by climbing up with a hand and foot on each wall. The lead on the roof was stripped off and the lath and plaster broken through. To get back again a pair of steps found in the shop were used.” The report also stated some shillings were stolen. Records held by Birmingham CID showed the police already had details of forging gangs and had made some arrests in the Newtown area where thieves were stealing silver to make forged half-crowns which were ‘changed’ through betting at the Birmingham racecourse in Bromford Bridge. Burge had never been arrested in connection with forgery but, in July 1957, and aged 75, he pleaded guilty to housebreaking and was sentenced to two years’ probation. The following year, he appeared again at Birmingham Quarter Sessions and was sentenced to seven years’ preventive detention for stealing from cars. He was released from prison in 1961 and placed in an old people’s home. He died in September 1964.

Thursday 12th September 1878: It was on Friday 21st September 1877 that the Evening Telegraph recorded that ‘The Obelisk ship is expected to leave Alexandria this morning on her voyage to England with Cleopatra’s Needle.’ On Thursday 12th September 1878 the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette told its readers that ‘The Cleopatra Needle, which is to be placed in position today, now swings over its intended base. Underneath the obelisk will be placed two earthenware jars four feet long containing a map of London, a standard foot measure and a pound weight, and a brass model of the needle.’ What is actually there is: a set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day (I love this), a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, some children’s toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in the erection of the ‘Needle’, a 3ft bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of John 3:16 in 215 languages, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers!
On the 13th the Press Association reported that ‘Cleopatra’s Needle, after all its vicissitudes (it had almost gone overboard more than once on its journey to London), was safely placed in a perpendicular position yesterday afternoon. The operation, which occupied nearly an hour, was witnessed by about a thousand persons.’ The Burnley Express of the 14th closes off our story with: ‘The following telegram was received today by Mr John Dixon, from Sir T. Biddulph: “The Queen congratulates Mr Dixon and Mr Wilson on the successful termination of their enterprise.”
Having said all the above, the true facts are that there are three ‘Needles’ – one each in London, New York and Paris – and that none of them has any relationship with Cleopatra VII of Egypt! All three needles are genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks and were already over a thousand years old in Cleopatra’s lifetime. The London and New York “needles” were originally made during the reign of the Thutmose III – an 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, and the one in Paris dates from the time of Ramesses II!

Saturday 13th September 1941 – Mrs Nella Last of Barrow-in-Furness was one of the many volunteers across the country with the Mass Observation Archive, set up in 1937 to observe British life by recording a day-to-day account of their everyday lives. These archives now give us a unique insight into the stories and experiences of British civilians going through a time when their country was at war. In her diary for this day Nella simply records seeing a child: He was undersized, dirty, tousled and ragged. His poor little eyes were nearly closed with styes and when I touched his cheeks, his flesh had the soft, limp feeling of malnutrition.’ The war was having an impact on people no matter what their age.
Friday 13th September 1907: The RMS Lusitania a British ocean liner, briefly the world’s biggest ship, had been launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, at a time of fierce competition for the North Atlantic trade. On Sunday 8th September a crowd claimed to be of some 200,000 people had gathered to see her depart on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. It was on this Friday that she arrived at Sandy Hook, New Jersey having taken a total of 5 days 54 minutes to cross the Atlantic. Fog had delayed her on two of the days, and her engines were not yet run in but, despite this, she was only 30 minutes outside the record time held by the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II. In New York hundreds of thousands of people are reported as gathering on the bank of the River Hudson to watch the Lusitania’s arrival – all New York’s police had been called out to control the crowds. We are told that there were 100 or more horse drawn cabs that had begun queuing from the very early morning in readiness to take the passengers away to their hotels and homes. During the week’s stay on the Hudson before the return to England the Lusitania was made available for guided tours.
On 7th May 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew.


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