Many of us pass by the Birger anchor that sits on Redcar Esplanade every day, without really knowing the story behind it.
But once you know how it came to be here and can picture the individuals that were sadly lost that day, and the heroic men who braved the stormy sea in trying to save them, it’s unlikely you’ll feel indifferent about it again.
The ‘Birger’ (Berga Rauma) as she was built – Photo from Kirkleatham Hall Museum.
This story starts in September 1898 when the Finnish sailing vessel ‘Berga Rauma’ set sail from San Felieu de Guixols, a small port fifty miles north of Barcelona, with fifteen crew members, all aged between just 18 and 35. The ship was heading to Abo in Finland with a cargo of salt, and the first leg of her journey through the straits of Gibraltar and the English Channel passed without a problem, aside from a small leak which had sprung up in the Mediterranean which was quickly brought under control.
The crew of the Birger. Picture from Kirkleatham Hall Museum.
But as the Birger made her way up the Norwegian coast she got pulled into a violent storm and was driven hard back down the North Sea. The battering from the ferocious waves and driving rain and wind reopened the ship’s leak, and she started taking on water. Captain Nordling decided to direct her to the port at Grimsby but his efforts against the storm proved futile and the ship was driven further up the coast towards Scarborough, where the lifeboat Queensbury was launched upon sighting her, along with the Scarborough Rocket Brigade. (coastguards who carry equipment which fires out rescue lines to a stranded boat that creates a pulley system to save crew members one by one).
A diagram drawn by Gary Green which shows the Birger’s intended course, and the course she actually took due to the storm.
Captain Nordling’s skill in manoeuvring The Birger through the hellish storm at this point, and keeping her afloat, is claimed to be extraordinary by local diver, writer and member of Tees Archaeology society, Gary Green – who has carried out extensive research on the wreck of the Birger for the book Aspects of Teesside (a book well worth reading). However, the sea continued to drive the ship relentlessly up the coast – passing Whitby and Staithes so fast that the lifeboats and rocket brigade had no chance of catching up with her. One newspaper account regretfully states:
“When the vessel rounded Huntcliff Nab the coastguard saw her coming and hoisted a red signal as an indication that the ship might be safely beached on Saltburn sands. It is supposed that the master misunderstood the signal, as immediately after clearing the end of Saltburn Pier he stood out to sea, and got a mile and a half from land. The direction he took, it was at once seen, would carry him on to Redcar rocks.”
– North-Eastern Daily Gazette, Wednesday, October 19th 1898.
Thousands of people rushed to the Esplanade to witness the tragic scene, with some of the braver (or crazier) standing on Coatham Pier (where the Regent Cinema now stands) for a better view. The Redcar Lifeboat crew launched the Brothers lifeboat as soon as the ship was sighted, and the Free Gardeners boat the Emma was launched a quarter of an hour later.
The ‘Emma’ lifeboat and her crew.
The National Redcar Lifeboat ‘Brothers’ and her crew.
The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette reported:
“First it seemed as though the mighty breakers would be too powerful for them, sweeping them back as though to dash them to destruction on the Coatham pier. But the hearts of such men were not to be daunted, the resistance they met with only causing them to double their efforts gradually reducing the distance between themselves and their intended goal. The wind, which was blowing in a slanting direction, made their task very difficult, and from the onset the attempt at rescue seemed futile. In the meantime the vessel struck with a terrific crash, and the work of demolition began in earnest. The fore and mizzen masts came down with a crash, and the terrible seas swept the wreck from end to end. The crew of the vessel were clustered under the bulwarks in the stern, and it was purely a matter of time. The lifeboat crew fought on in their superhuman efforts to reach the wreck – when, within a short distance, the end came. The mainmast fell, the hull divided, and, in the place where less than an hour before there was a fine three-masted barque, now was covered by a mass of wreckage.
– “The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette 22nd Oct 1898.
Captain Nordling and his chief officer were killed by the falling masts instantly, and the remainder of the ship’s crew thrashed around in the sea. The Emma lifeboat had to return to shore, having been driven through the pier and unable to make any more headway through the breakers. The Brothers lifeboat managed to battle on through the crashing waves and got close to the wreck but were unable to locate any survivors.
Moments later, through the chaos of wind and sea spray, a raft carrying three of the survivors was observed moving rapidly towards the pier. The following description of events is taken from Gary Green’s story:
“As the wreckage was driven through the iron legs of the pier, ropes were lowered down to the men, one of whom one managed to take a turn of rope around his arm and shouted to be hauled up. Numbed with cold and virtually exhausted, the unfortunate crewman could not hold on and was swept away by the waves. The remaining two men were by now clinging to the pier leg tie-rods and again ropes were thrown down to them. Huge waves quickly washed one man to his death, however the other, Emil Nordstom, managed to hold on just long enough to be pulled over the pier to safety. A little further along the beach a second survivor, Johan Makila, was dragged to safety from the clutches of the breakers by some of the willing members of the large crowd that had assembled to render what assistance they could.”
Johan Makila and Emil Nordstom, the only two survivors of the Birger shipwreck. – Kirkleatham Hall Museum.
Despite such a devastating loss of life, the men who risked their lives in trying to save those of the Birger were highly commended in the newspapers for their bravery:
“It was gratifying to see the manner in which attempts were made at rescue. In one instance, a seaman was seen floating upon a spar almost exhausted, when a fisherman named Richard Picknett (son of Mr Picknett, deputy coxswain of the ‘Emma’) dashed into the sea to meet him. First seizing the spar upon which the man was floating, and after a struggle, reaching the man, brought him ashore. Another man named Joseph Tratten, of 28, Oxford Street, South Bank, was one of those who, in the excitement of the moment rushed into the water to bring one of the shipwrecked crew ashore, when, a huge baulk of timber struck him, fracturing one of his legs. This is indeed a hard case. He is rendered quite unfit for work, and it will be truly hard, should such a gallant attempt to save life, go unrequited.”
– The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette 22nd Oct 1898
The article goes on to describe how events could easily have escalated into further tragedy:
“Immediately after the man was drawn on Coatham Pier by the line, there was a cry in the crowd that a raft was coming and they had only time to get clear when a large quantity of wreckage crashed into the piles where they had been standing and made a breach of some 100 yards in length. Had they not received the warning a most terrible calamity must have happened. It is estimated that the damage done to the pier will be £500 or £600.”
-The Redcar and Saltburn Gazette 22nd Oct 1898
The damaged Coatham Pier (where the Regent cinema stands)
Wreckage washed up on the shore of Redcar over the following days, and the bodies of three of the crew were recovered. Rumours circulated that the Captain had had his wife and child aboard the ship, and that a cradle had been washed ashore on the night of disaster.
The Birger wreckage.
The official inquest was held on Thursday 20th October, 1898 and is reported in the North-Eastern Daily Gazette as follows:
NORTH-EASTERN DAILY GAZETTE
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21, 1898
THE WRECK AT REDCAR.
Three of the bodies of the unfortunate seamen who lost their lives owing to the wreck of their vessel at Redcar have now been recovered. The first body recovered yesterday was washed ashore near the Breakwater, and later on in the afternoon two more were found. One of them, who was afterwards identified as Gustaf Forstof (21), was found near Coatham Pier. The other body, which was identified as Gustaf Lindross (22), was found near the South Gare Breakwater. The first body was removed to the Coatham Hotel, and the latter to the Coastguard Station. The Russian Consul at Newcastle. M. Riunnult, has appointed the Rev. J.F. Griffiths, Tees chaplain to the Missions to Seamen Society, temporary consul in relation to this wreck, and he will attend to the internment of the bodies that may be cast ashore.
Yesterday afternoon, Mr Richardson, coroner, held an inquest at the Coatham Hotel, Redcar, on the bodies of – Boiger (20), Gustaf Forstof (21), and Gustaf Lindross (22), who were part of the crew of the ill-fated barque Berger Raumo. Mr.T.M Fallow was appointed foreman of the jury. The evidence of the surviving seamen was interpreted by Mr. J.L Busch, of Middlesbrough. Mr J.M.Meek the secretary of the National Lifeboat, local captain, and the Rev. J.F.Griffiths were also present. The evidence in the case of Boiyer was taken first.- Emil Nordstom, ordinary seaman on board the vessel, said they were on a voyage from San Carlos, in Spain, bound to Finland, with a cargo of salt. They encountered the storm on Sunday, when the ship sprung a leak. They were driven across, and made for Grimsby. Witness heard the captain say “We will not go into Grimsby; we will seek Shields” The vessel became unmanageable on Tuesday, and they drifted down the coast. Witness did not think they tried to get the ship in anywhere. The mainsail and foresail were blown to shreds on Monday night. They sprang a leak on Sunday, and the water, getting to the cargo of salt, caused it to melt. There were eight men on deck when she struck on the rocks. There were three of them lashed to the rudder. Witness was several times washed overboard, and brought back with a rope. Witness last saw Boiyer when he was putting a life-belt round his body. Three of the crew jumped overboard – the cook the carpenter, and a seaman named Lindross, and he saw them floating away.
Witness and Forstof and Dokila got upon a tank or raft and floated from the ship. They came to the pier, and witness was drawn up with a rope under his arm. Boiyer was 20 years old, and an ordinary seaman. There was not a woman on board. The crew numbered 15. The lifeboat did not get to the wreck before she broke up. The first mate was in charge when the ship came on the rocks. There was no cradle on board. – Wm. Fall spoke to recovering body of Boiyer opposite the Coastguard station; and Dr. Legh de legh spoke to trying to resuscitate the body, but without success.- Michael Burnicle, coxswain of the National Lifeboat, said his crew went out to try to reach the wreck, but she broke up before they could reach her. Witness saw three men on a raft, which came under Coatham Pier, and Nordstom was saved. Other two ropes were thrown from the pier, and another man caught hold of one, but when he was being hauled up he dropped off. The other man was dashed against the piles. Witness saw one man with his arms round one of the pillars of the pier.
The inquest on the body of Gustaf Forstof was taken next, and the witness, Nordstom, who identified the body, said he was 22 years old, and unmarried. He saw Forstof on the raft at the time he (witness) was drawn up the pier. – Thos. Snowdon Carter, fisherman, said he found the body in the water about 50 yards west of Coatham pier, about 11.15am to-day.
The inquest on the body of Gustaf Lindross was then being held, and after evidence of identification had been given by Nordstom. Thomas Stonehouse, labourer at the South Gare Breakwater, spoke to recovering the body near the breakwater this morning. Dr. Legh de Legh examined the body, and found it had a fracture of the skull.
The jury returned the verdict that the three deceased men died through accidental causes owing to the wreck of the ship Berger.
Over the following week it was reported that Christmas presents had floated ashore which the crew of the Birger were taking home to their families. The Redcar people sent what was salvageable, along with letters to the families of those of the deceased and later a letter was sent back to thank them for their thoughtfulness.
Then, 85 years later…
In the summer of 1983, local diver Gary Green received a phone call from his friend Jimmy Dick, a professional North Sea Diver, asking if he would go out to sea with him. Jimmy had been asked by a local fisherman to recover a line, or beat of crab pots that had become snagged underwater. Gary describes in his story (‘The Wreck of the Birger’ ) how it was a perfect day for diving, blue skies and brilliant underwater visibility. He goes on to tell of their discovery:
“The pots lay in shallow water almost in the middle of a triangle formed by the wreck of the Dimitris and the High Stone rocks. As we entered the water and adjusted our diving gear we could see, looking down from the surface the dappled sunlight bouncing off the rocky seabed below. Following Jimmy down the rope we soon discovered that the pots had become entangled around a very large Admiralty-pattern anchor, standing almost upright on the seabed”
Picture showing a sea urchin on the Birger anchor before the lift. Pic from Gary Green.
With Jimmy attempting to recover the fisherman’s crab pots, the sand from the sea bed was stirred and visibility became poor, but later dives took place and eventually the Cleveland Divers club organised a project which would see the anchor being hauled up from the sea bed in 1998, one hundred years after the tragedy took place. Members of the divers club filmed it all (and I will be adding this footage as soon as I can), and the anchor was given pride of place at Kirkleatham Hall Museum. And then in 2013, after the major renovation of the promenade, the anchor was brought to its present resting place – interestingly, very close to where the old Redcar pier used to stand.
Picture of the diving team who lifted the Birger anchor and took it to Kirkleatham Museum. 1998. Picture from Gary Green.
I, for one, am so glad to know this story. I used to think that history didn’t matter. But it could have been any one of us, or one of our loved ones. Our ancestors will have been there to witness this tragedy right on our doorstep. It is also a reminder of our towns rich and dramatic history.
On the 18th of October I will be remembering the young men of the Birger shipwreck. A large memorial stone stands in Coatham Church.
The lost members of the Birger:
Captain Karl Oscar Nordling, aged 35
Gustaf Benctsson Boijer, aged 19 (buried at Coatham)
Gustaf Fredrik Forlsof, aged 20 (buried at Coatham)
Gustaf Fredrik Lindross, aged 21 (buried at Coatham)
Karl Arvid Silvendoineen, aged 34
Ernst Edvart Elonen, aged 20
Josef August Mattsonsven, aged 19
Emil Artur Arvonen, aged 18 (buried at Marske)
Wilko Wilk, aged 34 (buried at Marske)
Gustaf Ludvig Fogleman, aged 18 (buried at Seaton Carew)
Johan Nestor Jokila, aged 19 (buried at Seaton Carew)
Zacharias Salonen, aged 25 (buried at Seaton Carew)
There is also a smaller single gravestone for Gustaf Frederik Forslof. Did his family arrange this I wonder?
I also wonder what become of the two survivors, Emil Nordstom and Johan Makila – how did their lives turn out after such a traumatic experience?
I’d like to thank Gary Green for his brilliantly written story of the Birger – the research he carried out for it is amazing, and for a much more in depth story of the Birger’s last voyage it is well worth buying a copy of Aspects of Teesside. I’d also like to thank Redcar Library staff (for putting up with me having my little man sat in his buggy next to me eating crisps – dropping bits on the floor, and watching Thomas the tank engine on my phone to keep him quiet). Thanks too, to Lol Hansom, Fred Brunskill and Mike Picknett.
If you would like to find out more about Redcar’s interesting history, please visit the Zetland Lifeboat Museum. Oh, also, the Cleveland Divers Club run a 6-week diving course for beginners for just £25!