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Tempestuous tale of the great Norfolk gale

PUBLISHED: 11:04 30 May 2010 | UPDATED: 16:54 01 July 2010

Historian Jane Inglesby.

Historian Jane Inglesby.

Stephen Pullinger

More devastating than the notorious 1987 hurricane it took the lives of nearly 200 fishermen off Yarmouth. Inspired by a painting of her great-great-great grandfather, local historian Jane Inglesby has now pieced together the story of the Great May Gale of 1860 in time for its 150th anniversary.

More devastating than the notorious 1987 hurricane it took the lives of nearly 200 fishermen off Yarmouth. Inspired by a painting of her great-great-great grandfather, local historian Jane Inglesby has now pieced together the story of the Great May Gale of 1860 in time for its 150th anniversary. Stephen Pullinger reports.

The lugubrious painting consigned to the attic of her parents' Norwich home had always fascinated Jane Inglesby as a child.

But it was only in her 40s that the schoolteacher resolved to research the story of her severe-looking great-great-great grandfather Edward Fawcett, pictured holding her grandfather as an infant.

Referred to enigmatically in the family as an explorer, she learned that as a young man he had taken part in expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic, surviving many perilous situations, including one where his ship was completely iced up.

However, what grabbed the attention of Mrs Inglesby was his miraculous escape - much closer to home - from what she discovered to be one of the greatest natural disasters to hit the Norfolk coast.

Its memory kept alive today by inscriptions on gravestones in Winterton churchyard and in the words of the village's legendary folk singer Sam Larner, the Great May Gale of 1860 took the lives of 194 men from fishing boats and coastal vessels working out of the ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Mrs Inglesby, 57, now living in the West Midlands, said: “Edward Fawcett was 47 at the time and his story was alluded to by Sam Larner, who died in the 1960s, when he was reminiscing about his own grandfather who was killed in the gale. He said there was this other old boy who had a lucky escape.”

She discovered that her great-great-great grandfather, by then semi-retired and working as a fisherman at Winterton, had been taken unwell and put ashore by the crew of his boat the night before the ferocious storm whipped up on Whit Monday. His crewmates all perished.

Mrs Inglesby, who will be recounting the story in a talk to the East Norfolk branch of the Norfolk Family History Society on Tuesday, said: “The storm was very sudden and I think it must have been worse than the 1987 hurricane. It was quite widespread and affected the Continent as well.”

Reports in papers of the day, including the Norwich Mercury, painted a picture of the awesome state of the sea, which led to crewmen and cattle being washed overboard as well as boats foundering.

Her research also uncovered details of a shameful episode of the unseasonal storm when a quarrel among beachmen prevented the lifeboat at Yarmouth going to the rescue of the crew of a brig that had run aground on Scroby Sands.

The Norwich Mercury reported how a large crowd gathered on the beach to watch as “the crew took to the rigging and the ship continued to pitch and plough upon the sand”.

As the lifeboat quarrel continued, “the lookers on watched the crew of the brig washed one by one out of the rigging and saw five other ships go down with all hands on board”.

Many of those who perished had been on Yarmouth boats fishing for mackerel far out in the North Sea, and the way the tragedy became etched in local memory is described by fellow local historian David Higgins, of North Wootton, near King's Lynn, who last year published The Winterton Story.

He said: “I did most of my research in the 1970s and when I did interviews in Winterton and Caister I found the May Gale was still deeply rooted in the psyche of people. Winterton alone must have lost 15 to 20 people.”

He said a public subscription raised £10,410 for the disaster's 76 widows and 191 fatherless children and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert each gave £100.

Mrs Inglesby will give her illustrated talk in Middlegate Hall, Christchurch, Deneside, Yarmouth, at 7.30pm on Tuesday. Some of her local history research can be read on her website just-plain-folks.co.uk

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