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The Wreck of the Sirene

by Barry Shaw

Crowds on a beach view the wreck of a sailing ship
Crowds view the wreck of the Sirene (Albert Eden Collection)

The Norwegian barque Sirene weighing 667 tonnes was launched at Genoa, Italy, in 1867 as the Battistina. On 9 October 1892 she became a total wreck at Blackpool, twenty four hours after leaving the port of Fleetwood.

After bringing a cargo of timber from Fredrikstad in Norway to Fleetwood and discharging it at the port in August, the vessel departed under fair conditions around noon on Saturday 8 October 1892. Carrying 345 tons of sand ballast, she was bound for the Gulf of Sapelo in the state of Georgia (USA) to collect a cargo of pitch pine timber.

The Norwegian Captain, Anders Gjertsen, had a crew of 10 men and a boy under his command. With 5 years’ experience as a captain it was his first voyage as captain of the Sirene, taking command of the vessel at Fleetwood. The ship was towed well out towards the Morecambe Bay lightship and all went well until around 10pm that evening when weather conditions deteriorated to near hurricane-force gales, with the Sirene making little headway despite tacking. (Tacking is a manoeuvre in which a sailing ship is unable to steer directly into the wind, therefore performing a zigzag movement to make progress).

Losing her helm, her sails in tatters and within sight of the Great Orme (Llandudno), the gales drove her back through the night towards the Lancashire coast. Eventually, and with great difficulty, Captain Gjertsen and his crew managed to manoeuvre the stricken vessel between the Central and North Piers. Becoming increasingly unmanageable, and swept in by the rushing tide and gale force winds, the Sirene looked a doomed vessel. She was helpless in the close shore currents, and unable to drop anchor she was at the mercy of the waves. She was carried alongside the North Pier, tearing off a section of the pier superstructure and part of her own keel. (The keel is a flat blade sticking down into the water from the bottom of the sailing ship, thereby giving it more stability). Thousands of people lined the Promenade to witness the spectacle as she came in on the south side of the pier; many more stood on the pier itself, but there was a mad rush for safety when the ship collided against the structure.

Some of the crew managed to jump onto the pier to safety, whilst others managed to climb ropes that were lowered by the lifeboat men and willing helpers. The Blackpool lifeboat Samuel Fletcher was on standby but not launched. The captain and crew survived, including the ship’s cat. Many offers were made for the cat, but the captain refused them.

The Sirene eventually grounded at midday by the pier entrance and the Promenade hulking, with her bow driven under the shops on the pier, totally destroying them. The barque, on striking the deck of the pier, swung around broadside to the hulking, causing the ship’s mast to crash onto the Promenade opposite the Clifton Hotel, narrowly missing the gathered crowds.

A workman views damaged planking on a pier
The damage done to North Pier by the Sirene (Albert Eden Collection)

After being rescued, the crew were taken to the Wellington Hotel at the invitation of Alderman John Bickerstaffe, who had taken a leading part in the rescue operation. Later that day, at low water, they returned to the stricken vessel to reclaim the ship’s instruments and their belongings, which had become saturated with sea water.

Sightseers and souvenir hunters also gathered on the shoreline by the Sirene collecting what they could of the contents of the demolished fur and jewellery shops that had been scattered on the beach; this activity was, however, limited due to police presence.

At the subsequent auction of the ship’s items the wrecked vessel was purchased by Mr Bullock, a furniture broker from Burnley, for the sum of £82, with the stipulation that the hulk be removed within 3 months.

During the course of the auction the auctioneer asked Captain Gjertsen how much the ship’s chronometer had cost. “Eighty pounds seven years ago” replied the Captain, whereupon in a dry, dense manner one of the ring of bidders communicated the information to his companions that the Captain has said the “chronometer cost seven quid 80 years ago.” Be that as it may, the instrument realised £12. (A chronometer is a time piece given to establishing a ship’s position in latitude and longitude).

The ship’s anchor raised five pounds ten shillings. The story goes that a Rochdale scrap metal dealer bought many metal fittings from the wreck, taking them back to Rochdale by horse and cart. The anchor however proved to be too big for the cart and was always dropping off. At Middleton the anchor fell off once too often and the dealer left it lying there, and it has been there ever since. In reality the anchor is displayed at Middleton library, after being donated to the corporation in 1893 by the family of John Hulbert, whose firm was officially appointed to dismantle the wrecked Sirene.

The ship’s wheel, identified under its original name Battistina, can be seen in the Blackpool lifeboat house, Central Promenade. There is no indication as to the whereabouts of the ship’s bell. By December 1892 all traces of the Sirene had disappeared from the Promenade.

a ships wheel mounted on a wall
The wheel of the Sirene in Blackpool Lifeboat Station (Author's image)