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Brig First of May Wrecked at Prior’s Haven During a Day of Destruction, 21st December 1876

Pier, Tynemouth, 1868. The presumed hull of the wreck remains lodged against the rocks.

“At 10:30 in the morning of 21st December 1876, the brig “First of May” of Blyth was running for shelter in the Tyne. She was swamped by four massive waves, which disabled the helmsmen, and was driven onto Prior’s Haven.

An attempt was made to launch the RNLI Tynemouth lifeboat Charles Dibdin from her boathouse in the Haven, but a drunken fellow got his leg trapped in the wheel of the launch carriage.

The TVLB, assisted by members of the Cullercoats VLB, put a line aboard from the lower pier within ten minutes of her stranding and brought ashore her eight man crew. The ship later broke up where she lay. Her figurehead is on display elsewhere in the Watch House.”

This figurehead stood in the garden of the Watch House for many years and, as a result, suffered serious decay. In 1983, it was rebuilt by Peter Swan and George Miller.

The Wreck of the “First of May” 21st December 1876

Nothing of any moment occurred on the north side of the Tyne between daylight and 10.30 in the forenoon. By that time, however, enormous crowds of people, notwithstanding the torrents that were falling, had flocked down from the neighbouring towns to witness the awful spectacle presented seaward from the various promontories commanding a view of the mouth of the Tyne.  

The sea on the north side of the pier continued to be churned into a creamy like appearance with its violence in beating upon the rocky shore. Showers of sea flakes drifted inland upon the gale; and appearances of the line of coast, without any exaggeration of language, presented some of the sublimest aspects of the destructive forces of great waters that it were possible to witness. Vessels which approached the mouth of the river had to encounter them in single conflict; and the most skilful seamanship seemed to be paralysed, for as the ships began to run in towards the coast, their decks were swept by the heavy seas which washed on board of them, and the men at the wheel were generally thrown down and injured. The vessels were then thrown athwart the sea, and it was the merest chance that they were saved from sudden and instant destruction.  

About 10.30 yesterday morning, a stout brig, which subsequently proved to be the First of May, of Blyth, ran for the Tyne, when she came pretty closely within the piers. She was swept by four tremendous seas consecutively. The men at the wheel were disabled at once, and the vessel, which to some extent might have been described as a thing of life upon the water, drifted in towards the north side of the Tyne like a helpless log. She took away a crane with her jibboom, and she swept inside the north pier. An attempt was made to get the National Lifeboat, Charles Dibdin, out, but a drunken fellow got his leg fast in the wheel of the lifeboat carriage, and threw everything into confusion, the lifeboat was therefore of no service.

During the course of the morning and forenoon the Tynemouth Life Brigade had been largely reinforced by the Cullercoats Life Brigade. The fishermen are capital hands for work of this description, and they and the Tynemouth Brigade, no doubt, made up one of the finest brigade forces in the kingdom. They were in the charge of the coastguard, Captain Jos. Spence, Alderman Jno. F. Spence, Mr. Anderson, and others. The apparatus was got down the lower pier with extraordinary rapidity. A shot was fired which was effective, and the life preserving apparatus was got into active operation little more than ten minutes after the vessel struck.  

The first landed was a little boy – Robert Berridge of Rotherhithe, London, he is a fine, sharp, intelligent youth. He was making what he called his trial voyage. The crew, with the usual generosity which characterises our seafaring population especially in their tender treatment of little boys, got little Berridge into the breeches buoy first, and had him landed. The reminder of the crew were got ashore in ten minutes after, and were carefully attended to in the Life Brigade House. They consisted of Mr. Robert Coulson, captain, of Blyth; Wm. Scott, mate, Blyth; Samuel Barber and Robert Hill, North Shields; Isaac Killard, Bristol; Richard Ellis (boy), London; Henry Barbedder, London; and the poor little boy Berridge. Killard, who had been thrown from the wheel with great violence by the sea, was a good deal hurt about the knees, and had one of his hands dislocated. He was attended by Dr. J.B. Bramwell and Dr. Wilkinson.

The First of May belongs to Mr. Edward McKenzie, of Blyth. She is likely to be a wreck and is, unfortunately, not insured. Mr. McKenzie has lost another vessel recently under similar circumstances, and a large amount of sympathy is expressed with him under such a combination of misfortunes.

From a local publication, unknown

Dec. 21 1876 — 30 Seamen Drowned

4.15am — A fearful SE storm with a tremendous sea.  Wreck of the S.S. Claremont, of Newcastle, ashore on south side of South Pier.  Crew of 19, together with the Captain’s wife and child rescued by South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade. Four members of the Brigade had a narrow escape from being washed off the South Pier. The South Shields, South Beach lifeboat Willie Wouldhave launched at 3.00am, as the first crew were being brought ashore by breeches buoy.

6.30am — S.S. Tyne ashore on south side of the South Pier end. South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade fired lines onto the vessel, whose crew were in the rigging. The waves were running at half-mast height and all 17 crew were washed overboard and drowned.

7.30am — S.S. Fenella, of London, ashore on the south side of South Pier, close to the wreck of the Tyne. South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade fired lines onto the vessel, but the crew remained on-board and walked ashore at low water.

11.00am — Loss of the brig First of May, of Blyth, in Tynemouth Haven. Crew of eight saved by Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade.

2.40pm — S.S.Blenheim, of Hartlepool, ashore on the south side of the South Pier end. Six crew landed by South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade 14 crew jumped ashore, except one who fell short and drowned.

3.00pm — Loss of the schooner Albion, of Whitstable on the Black Middens. The Tynemouth lifeboat, Charles Dibden, was unable to get alongside due to the heavy seas. The crew of seven were rescued by Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade.

4.00pm — The schooner, New Cornwall, of Barnstable, foundered with loss of all five crew, outside the Piers. South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade on bad weather watch.

From the Brigade records
Pier View — John Falconer Slater

Thank you to Brigade Chairman and Historian, John Wright, for help in curating this information.

The Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade need support in order to continue to their vital work keeping people safe on our shorelines. Please consider a donation here: justgiving.com/tynemouth-vlb 

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3 thoughts on “Brig “FIRST OF MAY””

  1. By the late 70’s and prior to the restoration work by Pete and George, the First Of May figurehead had morphed into a grotesque looking lump of timber. it wasn’t so much the toll of the weather, but the previous repairs by the old Caretaker, Albert Gardner. Various fillers had been utilised to cover the rotted timber on her face, however, Albert’s knowledge of anatomy failed miserably as her nose was remodelled above her eyebrows! Rather like a unicorn.

  2. About 3 years ago Captain Coulsons great grand son visited the Watch House to view the relics from the ship. With a tear in his eye he thanked me on behalf of his family as if the tvlb had not saved Captain Coulson he would not have been born. Then when we happened to look at the date it was the first of May. Spooky. John Wright TVLB.

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