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Please note, as our exhibitions change regularly, the boats, objects and pictures featured in this section may not now be on display in the museum. Please contact us on 01326 313388 for further information.

Goodwin: The Forgotten Tragedy

Goodwin: The Forgotten Tragedy
South Goodwin lightvessel condolence book

The Dover Straits is the busiest and perhaps the most prominent shipping lane in the world. Just north of it lies the Goodwin Sands; 35 miles of sand that has been the site of many notable wrecks from Viking longships to galleons, liners, tugs, yachts and trawlers of every nationality and type and one of the most recent tragedies, a lightvessel - the South Goodwin lightvessel.

The 119 foot ship was involved in one of the most notorious maritime disasters of the 1950s, which shocked the country. The ship was part of the continuity of lightvessels that had stood station around the British coastline for centuries. Lightvessels were first introduced in the mid-1700s and steadily improved due to advancements in technology; moving from wooden hulls to steel, better light masts and more powerful engines to power the lanterns. However even at this point lightvessels did not have engines and in most cases had to be towed out into position by Trinity House tenders, which also supplied the ship.

Built in 1937 in the Philip & Son dockyards in Devon, the South Goodwin lightvessel was ordered by Trinity House as part of their new fleet. Trinity House was founded in 1514 and is responsible for lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.

The South Goodwin lightvessel was constructed from steel and came equipped with four main ‘mushroom’ shaped anchors to help stabilise its position. The role of the lightvessel was to provide a constant position for reference by navigators aboard vessels in the area. It was one of the ironies of working on a lightvessel, that crewmembers spent months at sea, yet barely moved from one position. It was part of a duo of lightvessels that were stationed at the Goodwin Sands, the other being at East Goodwin Sands.

Crewmen aboard lightvessels were not trained as lighthouse keepers; instead they came from a merchant seaman background. They were also paid less as their vessel did not move from its appointed position and no motive power. As such it took a special kind of person to work on a lightvessel, one who possessed patience and willingness to place themselves in potentially deadly conditions for the good of others. The men that crewed the South Goodwin lightvessel; Thomas Skipp from Coggeshall, Essex; Kenneth Lanham from Bow, East London; Sidney Philpott from Ramsgate, Kent; Walter Viney from Plaistow, East London; George Cox from Gorlestone, Norfolk; Thomas Porter from Holbrook, Suffolk; and Henry Lynn from Dovercourt, Essex all possessed these qualities.

On 26 November 1954 the weather around Goodwin Sands turned increasingly worse, with hurricane class winds and massive swells that the lightvessel simply could not cope with for an extended period of time with only some of her storm anchors in place. The moorings were placed under enormous strain and eventually the pressure told and they broke apart. Without the security of her anchors, the lightvessel was at the mercy of the seas and eventually capsized. The seven sailors were trapped inside the ship’s hull and rescuers were unable to reach them due to the extreme weather. Only when the storm ceased could lifeboats and divers reach the vessel; not a single body was found inside and all sailors were assumed to be lost at sea. There was one apparent miracle in this maritime disaster; Ronald Murton (a Ministry of Agriculture officer) was rescued after spending eight hours clinging to the ship’s rigging attached to the lantern.

The public outpouring of grief was sensational, with constant news coverage of the Goodwin disaster. Trinity House put together a condolences book in order for individuals to convey their grievances. It was put together just five days after the tragedy and contained messages from notable individuals in British seafaring such as the Committee of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Captain Sir Gerald Curteis, both of which expressed their heartfelt sorrow. Perhaps one of the most interesting condolences is the Rear Admiral Lyman of the US Navy, who aptly commented how ‘we do not often find occasion to express our appreciation for such services, but it seems to me that such an occasion has now, unfortunately, arisen’.

This disaster is the forgotten reminder of the dangers and sacrifices made in order to provide safe passage for ships all along the British coastline. The South Goodwin lightvessel condolence book and a select number of reproduced pages are on display in the museum's Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks exhibition open February 2010 to December 2011.

April’s Curator’s choice has been guest curated by Robert Morton, a student of Exeter University (at the Tremough Campus).

Please note, as our exhibitions change regularly, the boats, objects and pictures featured in this section may not now be on display in the museum. Please contact us on 01326 313388 for further information.

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