The Salvagers

By Hervey Benham, Essex County Newspapers, 1980, 212pp (Essex County Libraries E.614.868)

Summary by Pat Marsden

The author recalls some of the exploits of salvagers off the deadly sandbanks of the Essex and Suffolk coasts. Sometimes they were lauded as heroes but the next day they would be stripping and pillaging everything on the ship that they could lay their hands on. The Colne Estuary, with its three fishing centres, Brightlingsea, Wivenhoe and Rowhedge, was one of the chief centres of the cruising salvagers. He refers to the prominence of Wivenhoe in the mid-nineteenth century, because of a bottle-neck in the river’s course which meant that derelict shipping could reach Wivenhoe but not Rowhedge. He mentions Philip Sainty, a colourful and creative shipbuilder, who used to own the shipyard at Brightlingsea: ‘By 1820 his reputation was such that the Marquis of Anglesey, home from the French Wars after losing a leg at Waterloo, sought him out to build his yacht Pearl, one of the champions of her time. This started a tradition of yacht building and introduced Colneside men to the glamorous and rewarding trade of professional yachting, where they quickly distinguished themselves. These men turned to fishing and salvaging in the winter and demanded smacks no less stylish than the yachts to which they had become accustomed.

These splendid craft, the salvagers of the second half of the nineteenth century, were produced not only by Sainty but by his successors and neighbours on the Colne, Harvey of Wivenhoe, Harris of Rowhedge and Aldous of Brightlingsea, which, being more conveniently situated at the mouth of the estuary, became predominant in the salvaging trade by the end of the nineteenth century and continued it after it had died out at Harwich.

The Colneside salvaging smacks were thus more numerous than those of any other place, though it is possible that the smaller Harwich fleet included a higher proportion of specialist salvagers. Certainly there is no record of diving smacks on Colneside. However that may be, there are accounts of thirty Colchester smacks on one salvage job in the 1830s. In 1875 there were eight Colne smacks engaged in pillaging the wrecked “Deutschland”, against three from Harwich and half a dozen Kentish-men.’

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