Description of Goodwin Sands
The Goodwin Sands are a notorious stretch of sands just off the coast of Kent in the English Channel. Submerged at high tides, with areas being exposed and drying sufficiently for a man to walk on at low tides, they present a particular challenge to shipping especially given their unfortunate location… at the narrowest part of the busiest shipping channel in the world.
This article is copyright UK Shore 2008 (uk-shore.com)
Image: The Goodwin Sands, reproduced under Project Gutenberg License
The Goodwin Sands are around four miles offshore, beginning near Kingsdown, Kent and ending around Pegwell Bay, just south of Ramsgate, a total length of around nine miles. The channel between the coast and the sands is known as the Downs, and although the sands present a grave danger to shipping, their position has also provided protection and thus the Downs and Goodwin Sands, and the protective Harbour at Ramsgate made this area historically important. In fact it may be true to say that over the past 1000 years, this stretch of the English Channel can be considered historically the most important stretch of water in the world.
The geological history of the Goodwin Sands is disputed; some believing it was previously an island which became swamped by sediment and rising sea levels, others that is simply an accumulation of sediment swept into place by the English Channel funnelling back and forth through the narrow straits of Dover. It is true that the nearby Thanet area was in fact an island back in Roman times (hence the full title; Isle of Thanet) and this may lead people to believe the Goodwin Sands are of a similar nature. However the few attempts at surveying the Sands by drilling have not shown any evidence of soil or organic matter which would suggest an island existed. It is more likely that the Sands are simply an accumulation of sediment on a predominantly solid chalk base.
Since the first recorded shipwreck in the Goodwin Sands area dating back to 1298, the maritime history is one of enormous loss of life and shipping. Ships, the crew and passengers that become stranded on the sands were often facing a terrible fate. Typically a ship would break its back as the tide changed, survivors may have been able to clamber onto the sands as the tide receded, and light fires and attempt to attract the attention of the Boatsmen of Deal and Kingsdown, or the lifeboats in later eras. If no help was forthcoming then within hours the tide would return, the sands would turn into lethal quicksand, and ships and survivors would be engulfed. Many ships were simply swallowed whole within a few days.
There are over 1000 recorded shipwrecks, and it is likely that the true toll may be more like 2000-3000 ships lost.
The first documented wreck in the Goodwin Sands was in 1298, when a ship (name not known) returning from Flanders was lost “near Sandwich”.
Many more were to follow, one wreck of note was the HM Frigate Sedgmore, a 50 gun ship which was stranded near South Foreland in 1689. It was reportedly carrying over £200,000 in bullion, a vast sum in those times. No bullion was actually found or recovered, but it would be true to say that there will be many other ships carrying precious cargo which are still waiting discovery in the Sands, although they are likely to stay there for many years, maybe millennia.
This article is copyright UK Shore 2008 (uk-shore.com)
The greatest single event causing loss of life occurred with the Great Storm of 1703. Many warships had taken refuge in the Downs, and Ramsgate harbour to ride out the storm, but after an initial lull the storm returned with a vengeance. Daniel Defoe’s account of the storm (“The Storm” – republished in 2003 to mark the 300 year anniversary of the event) is the principle document covering this event, and it tells the story of 13 Man ‘o War lost, amongst many others, and over 2000 sailors. Included in the toll were:
- Northumberland, 3rd rate Man o’ War, with 70 guns and 253 men. No survivors.
- Mary, 4th rate, 272 men and the Admiral lost. One survivor.
- Stirling Castle, 3rd rate Man o’ War, with 70 guns and 349 men. 70 survivors.
- Restoration, 70 guns, all 386 crew lost.
The sole survivor from the Mary, Thomas Atkins, had an almost unbelievable escape. He was thrown from the deck of the Mary as it floundered, a large wave then throwing him onto the deck of the Stirling Castle. As the Stirling Castle became wrecked, he was again thrown into waves but again had a huge slice of luck as he was washed into the only boat to be broken adrift from the Stirling Castle. He eventually beached on the Kent coast and survived despite suffering from exposure.
The Stirling Castle has actually been located in recent years, and had been well protected by its sandy grave, but sadly is deteriorating now. See the Wessex Archaeology Coastal and Marine blog for photos of the wreck.
Other notable wrecks include the SS Violet, which was the first steamship to be claimed by the Sands in 1857. In more recent times, the story of the German U-boat U48 is notable as it is one of several wrecks that have re-emerged from the sands for short periods of time before being re-swallowed. The U48 was caught on the surface charging its batteries during World War I. It was shelled by several ships, and chased into the Goodwin Sands, where its crew were forced to surrender. It was then of course swallowed by the sands, where it lay hidden except for a brief reappearance in 1921, and then unexpectedly again in 1973.
Two wrecks, both in 1946, were in fact sister ships; The Luray Victory (9000 tons) ran aground in January, and then the North Eastern Victory broke in two on the sands the following winter. They were notable because they did not become fully swallowed like so many other ships; possibly they were positioned on the chalk base. In any case the masts of the ships were still visible as late as the 1990’s.
A history of the Goodwin Sands would not be complete without telling the story of the Boatsmen of Walmer, Deal and Kingsdown. These men were the centre of an industry along this stretch of coast, saving lives, but perhaps more importantly to them; earning a living from the salvage of wrecked shipping. The ‘industry’ had up to 1000 men involved at any one time over the centuries, and at the first sign of a wreck dozens of boats would race to be the first to board a wreck and hopefully claim salvage rights. There were four rival groups; Kingsdown, Walmer Road, Deal South End, and Deal North End. The rivalry between the two Deal groups in particular could be described as bitter.
Saving lives – The lightships and lifeboats
Before the 19th century, there had been talk of setting about beacons, and creating official lifeboats, but it wasn’t until 1852 that the first lifeboat was launched, the Northumberland operating from Ramsgate. In 1857, a further boat the “Royal Thames Yacht Club” was based in Walmer, and by 1865 there were four lifeboats.
Image: The Boom of a Distant Gun, reproduced under Project Gutenberg License from an original photograph by W.H.Franklin
The first lightship was positioned at North Sand Head in 1795, and another at the Gull Stream in 1809. The final two lightships were added at South Sand Head in 1832, and at East Goodwin in 1874. The lightships were positioned to warn shipping of the danger, but also to alert the lifeboats when a ship became stranded. The lightships are not themselves without tragedy, for example in 1954 the South Sand lightship was wrecked and all seven crew lost, the only survivor being a researcher. There is currently only one lightship in operation, at East Goodwin, the others being replaced by automated beacons.
Events on the Goodwin Sands
At low tide, the sands are firm enough to stand on and so a number of events have taken place on the Sands over the years. In recent times, probably the most famous events are the cricket matches played on the sands. The Goodwin Sands Potholing Club were able to make a number of visits when the cross-channel hovercraft were operating from Dover, this providing the ideal charter craft! The club also paid a visit this year (2008) by helicopter.
The Goodwin Sands are somewhat safer in modern times particularly with the advent of GPS, and detailed mapping of The Channel. The charts on the Visit My Harbour website are well worth a look to get a feel for the relative depths of the sea floor in this area.
Shipwrecks of the Goodwin Sands, Richard & Bridget Larn (Meresborough)
Shipwrecks of Great Britain and Ireland, Richard Larn
Heroes of the Goodwin Sands, Rev. Thomas Stanley Treanor, M.A. (The Religious Tract Society 1904). Illustrated edition now available from Amazon.
Storm victims remembered, BBC News website, as retrieved 23th May 2008