Tag Archives: History

For Those in Peril on the Sea

In April 2015 I took my first birding trip outside London since returning to the UK; a coach trip from London to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in East Sussex1. While I spotted species I hadn’t seen for many years what left the most lasting impression was coming across the historical Mary Stanford Lifeboat House, and learning of the disaster that had befallen the village of Rye House in 1928.

The sea has always been of huge importance to the UK as an island nation; for commerce, defence and recreation. Its coastline is broken making it longer than those of other similar-sized countries and lifeboat services have an important role to play in  reducing the loss of life at sea.

There are at least  70 independent lifeboat services in Britain and Ireland but the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the largest charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, owns and operates the majority of lifeboat stations. Founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck it has saved 140,000 lives with more than 600 lives lost in service. In 2015 lifeboat crews, which consist of mostly unpaid volunteers, rescued on average 22 people a day.

Growing up in the UK I was aware from an early age of the RNLI’s importance. One of my favourite programmes in the 1960s was Blue Peter (today, the longest-running children’s TV show in the world). Since it first aired in 1958 it has supported the RNLI through four fundraising appeals, which have funded 28 lifeboats at stations around the UK.

Until my trip to Rye Harbour the only major lifeboat disaster I knew of was that in the close-knit West Cornish fishing community of Mousehole (pronounced ‘Mowzel’), where the Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne was stationed. On the 19th of December 1981 the boat set out, with eight of Mousehole’s men, to aid the stricken cargo-carrying coaster MV Union Star. In the rescue attempt both vessels were lost with all hands; in all, sixteen people died. The loss of eight local men from the small community hit Mousehole very hard. Even the £3 million raised locally for the families of those lost at sea could not fill the gap left by the disaster. Every year, on the anniversary of the tragedy the famous Mousehole Christmas Lights are switched off for an hour in remembrance of those lost.

Walking along the top of the beach at Rye Harbour I saw a weather-beaten shed with red wreaths in the distance.

Historical Mary Stanford Lifeboat House with beach and sea in background

Wondering what they commemorated I wandered over and found a weathered Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board from which I learnt about the RNLB Mary Stanford lifeboat tragedy for the first time. According to a Wikipedia list of lifeboat disasters in Britain and Ireland the loss of 17 crew members is the most associated with any lifeboat disaster in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board: The Mary Stanford tragedy
Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board: The Mary Stanford tragedy

The disaster was particularly tragic because of the circumstances surrounding the attempt to rescue the crew of the small Latvian steamer Alice of Riga, which had collided with the larger German Vessel Smyrna.

Wreath and Poems on Shed Doors
Wreath and Poems on Shed Doors

Though the maroons2 were fired just after 5 am, the wind speeds were so high that it was difficult to even stand up and the crew members had to cover 1 ½ miles into the face of the wind and rain to get to the Boathouse on the shore. By the time they arrived it was practically low tide and three attempts were needed to get the boat away at 6.45 am, as daylight began to break. Only five minutes later Rye Coastguard received a message originally received by Ramsgate Coastguard Station at 6.12 am, saying the Smyrna had rescued the crew of the Alice of Riga. Because it was not a ‘life saving message’ it was not considered a high priority for transmission, a situation worsened by a further delay in sending the recall to Rye Coastguard due to an unsuccessful attempt to call Dungeness via Lydd.

Frantic efforts by the Signalman to recall the Lifeboat were fruitless. There was no boat-to-shore radio and the blinding spray and driving rain meant the recall flares weren’t seen by the lifeboat. At around 9.00 am the lifeboat was seen upright 3 miles (approx. 5 km) WSW from Dungeness. It was later reported that a sighting from Camber at 10.30 am suggested the lifeboat had capsized; by 12 noon this was confirmed when the lifeboat was seen upside-down floating towards the shore.

Within ten minutes Rye Harbour Coastguard was informed and maroons were fired to assemble the launchers. It is said that over 100 men were rushed to the shore where the upturned lifeboat lay, and extensive efforts were made to revive the bodies washed ashore. 15 bodies of the crew were washed up over the next two hours; Henry Cutting’s body was washed ashore at Eastbourne three months later; John Head’s was never found.

According to the Friday 16 November 1928 edition of the Western Times, the disaster wiped out practically the whole male population of Rye harbour. Three members (father and two sons) of the Head family and three members of the Cutting family were on board.

As I tried to imagine how a small coastal community copes in a situation like that I recalled an experience from my youth. Growing up, many of my family holidays were spent on different parts of the UK coast, exploring cliffs and rock pools. When I was 11 we visited my aunt and uncle in the small fishing village of Port Seton, outside Edinburgh, where my uncle was a fisherman for many years.

An abiding memory is of a Sunday evening service at a local church, the roof and supporting rafters resembling an upturned timber boat, and the singing of the hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save (I’d always assumed it was entitled For Those in Peril on the Sea!3). I’ve never experienced a congregation sing a hymn with such feeling – not surprising when loved ones were at the mercy of the elements each time they went out in their small boats.

The Dyckman Farmhouse – a reminder of 18th century rural Manhattan

At the northern tip of Manhattan you’ll find the neighbourhood of Inwood. Here, as you stand on Broadway outside the Inwood-207th St A Express subway station you’re over eight miles from the world-famous Theater District and surrounded by the fast food joints, nail and hair salons, bodegas, supermarkets and residential blocks of urban development.

There’s little to suggest that until the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was an area of farming communities and rural landscapes. These were swept away by the rapid urban development that accompanied the arrival of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway line extension.

However, a reminder of this 18th century Manhattan can be found amid Inwood’s urban landscape at the Dyckman Farmhouse, now the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.

I first visited the Museum in February 2014 with deep snow on the ground.  Walking west from the subway station there was little to suggest the Museum’s presence until I came across a scene totally out of place with its urban setting.  Once the centre of a 250 acre (120 ha) farm whose meadows reached to the Harlem River, the house is set back from, and above, the northern sidewalk on a half-acre (0.2 ha) plot of land, giving a feeling of a disconnect from its surrounds – both in space and time.

Dyckman Farmhouse viewed from south-west corner
Dyckman Farmhouse viewed from the west.

The farmhouse was built on the site around 1784 and has the overhanging eaves and gambrel roof of the Dutch Colonial style. That it survived was down to Mary Alice Dyckman Dean and Fannie Fredericka Dyckman Welch, daughters of the last Dyckman child to grow up in the house. They purchased the house in 1915 to safeguard it against the urban development going on around it and with their husbands, curator Bashford Dean and architect Alexander McMillian Welch, restored and furnished it to what they believed was its earliest appearance. In the process the oldest features of the house were retained where possible, while later additions were demolished. The house was furnished using objects provided by friends and family,  and in 1916 when the restoration was complete, the house and grounds were donated to the City of New York as a museum of early American life.

Today the Museum represents all the layers of the farmhouse’s history: the original modest 18th century structure, 19th century room modernisations such as staircases, and the early 20th century alterations for museum use. Current knowledge has ensured that restorations are as historically accurate as possible, including a large period parlour on the first floor and Winter Kitchen in the cellar.  A Relic Room created during the 1915 – 16 alterations exhibits objects unearthed in digs prior to urban development that have helped inform the restorations’ accuracy.

Access to the cellar is down a narrow staircase (low light and headroom) that has been built around an exposed slab of Inwood marble too big to be excavated. The slab’s surface bears a carving of an ancient game known as ‘Nine Man Morris’; for an image and more information see the January 11 post on the Museum’s Facebook page.

On the second floor you can see a large bedroom that is being restored to its 1916 condition, and a room set up as a study from the same period.

When I dropped into the Museum last week there was a very different feel about the garden, which provides a pleasing counter to the urban landscape, compared to my February visit. The snow had disappeared and the seating area to the east of the house was now an inviting area to relax. It was also easier to appreciate the impressive trees, some of which date back to the original planting of the garden around 1916. Thankfully both the bigger trees and the farmhouse survived the travails of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, even though the house was hit by falling tree limbs.

Dyckman farmhouse, early February 2014 – looking from the north-east

In the garden you’ll also see the reconstruction of a smokehouse and a military hut, similar to those used by the British during the Revolutionary War when they camped on the farm.

Smokehouse and north end of Summer Kitchen - stone back of bread oven protudes from the clapboard.
Smokehouse in foreground. Summer Kitchen (closed to public) in background – note the stone back of a bread oven protruding from the wall.

Over the next few months plants including daffodils, bleeding heart, foxglove and dogwood will bloom with the garden peaking by about the end of May. I’m going to make time to see the changing displays; when the various trees are fully-leaved in summer it will be easy to forget the plot, which feels bigger than you’d expect, is surrounded by buildings on three sides.

Dyckman farmhouse - garden seating - cropped and resized 10pc

Looking around the Museum and garden is unlikely to take more than an hour, though you may spend longer relaxing in the garden. If your journey to Inwood is a long one (it takes me about an hour and a quarter from Astoria, Queens by public transport) it may be worth combining your visit with a walk through Inwood Hill Park or a trip to the Cloisters museum and gardens. Both are nearby and well worth visiting (see post on Inwood Hill Park).

I will be posting on the Cloisters museum and gardens soon but essentially it is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Its 20th  century buildings and cloistered gardens are located in Fort Tryon Park, offering great views of the Palisades, a line of steep cliffs along the west side of the Hudson River.

Having grown up in the UK I’m used to old buildings and artefacts. As a kid my family would visit Waltham Abbey, 10 miles from where I grew up and dating back to the early 12th century. However, I still think an afternoon at the Cloisters with its great collections, the fine buildings in which they are housed, and a relaxed atmosphere created by the cloistered gardens makes for an experience to remember.

 

17th century Native American caves still providing shelter

At the northern tip of Manhattan Island you’ll find Inwood Hill Park, a living piece of old New York. Unlike other Manhattan parks it is a largely natural landscape that hasn’t been altered too much by the wars and development that followed the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Park’s human history dates back to Pre-Columbian times (before  significant European influences). Local Native Americans (the Lenape) inhabited the area through the 17th century, using the Hudson (to the west) and Harlem Rivers (to the north and east) as food sources. There is historical evidence of a main encampment along the Park’s eastern edge, while  discoveries of historical artefacts and campfire remains suggest natural rock overhangs, the  ‘Native American Caves’ (the caves),  provided shelter and temporary living quarters.

Henry Hudson Bridge - resized
Henry Hudson Bridge across the Harlem River at the northeast of Inwood Hill Park.

I set off to explore the caves on a toe-numbingly cold day. They are a pretty easy 0.7 miles (1.1 km) walk from the A (8 Avenue Express) Inwood-207 Street subway station, though the last little way up to them is a little steeper in places. Click here for walking route.

The Park’s terrain is impressive with giant rock ridges, a valley, rock overhangs and potholes. It was largely shaped by the Wisconsin ice sheet, the most recent southward advance of ice in the last Ice Age, which reached New York roughly 50,000 years ago.

Inwood Hill Park Outcrop - 12pc
Cliff in Inwood Hill Park

The Shorakkopoch Rock marks the site of the tulip tree under which Peter Minuit, Director General of New Netherland (17th-century colonial province of the Dutch Republic on the East Coast of North America), allegedly ‘purchased’ Manhattan from a band of Native Americans in 1626 for the Dutch West India Company for a shipment of goods worth 60 guilders. Arriving at the Rock it’s a short walk to the caves. The image below gives an idea of what the area looks like –  at least in snow!

american Indian caves 2 - resized 10pc
Area of ‘Native American Caves’ in Inwood Hill Park – seen from near Shorakkopoch Rock

Tramping uphill through knee-deep snow I heard the faint sound of a radio as I neared the caves.  After a slight double-take I saw that the nearest habitable space providing good shelter was occupied; rough material hangings covered part of the entrance and through the gap I could see a pair of feet tapping along to the music. Further uphill the next space providing shelter from the elements was also occupied and the slope steepened making further exploration risky in the conditions. Not wanting to disturb the occupants I retraced my steps.

American Indian Caves 1 - resized 10pc
Amongst the caves, with musical accompaniment

Though I wasn’t able to explore the caves area properly it was a beautifully bright day and I spent  more time walking through the Park. I’ll definitely visit again to further checkout the caves and look for other geological features such as glacial potholes.

Leaving the Park I found the Indian Road  Café, where I had a very tasty breakfast (Smoked Salmon Scrambled Eggs for $12). My latte was fairly average, but I’m fussy; I’d certainly use the café again.

That evening, warm at home,  I reflected on  how cold it had been up at Inwood  and that I could treat myself to breakfast and a hot drink while people are sleeping rough in such brutal weather conditions. It brought home why there are such concerns about growing inequality in New York City;  a combination of jobs that don’t pay “living wages” and a lack of “affordable housing” has seen homeless figures  rise to the highest since the Great Depression (1929 – 39).

In 2013 the total number of homeless people in municipal shelters in 2013 was 53,270. The NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) estimated that in 2013 a further 3,180 homeless people were unsheltered, i.e. sleeping in parks, subways, and other public spaces; this figure was based on the DHS annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) survey, which takes place on a SINGLE winter night (27 January in 2014). The Coalition for the Homeless considers  the DHS figure to be an underestimate because the survey is unlikely to log those sleeping in out of the way places, such as those I came across and in the remoter parts of the subway.

It’s dangerous living rough especially in this winter’s brutal weather. Unfortunately, for some, municipal shelters aren’t necessarily a better option. Thinking back to earlier in the day and those feet tapping along to the music I hope that shelter sees its occupant safely through the winter.

 

Last week I travelled from Queens to Ireland for $US 5.00!

Standing Stone, Irish Hunger Memorial, Battery Park City, NYC
Standing Stone, Irish Hunger Memorial, Battery Park City, NYC

That’s the price of a return subway fare.

OK so I didn’t actually leave New York City but by visiting the Irish Hunger (also known as The Great Irish Famine or, particularly outside Ireland, the Irish Potato Famine) Memorial in the Battery Park City neighbourhood at the southwestern tip of Manhattan you are literally stepping onto a piece of Ireland.

 

Looking east along Vesey Street toward One World Trade Center
Looking east along Vesey Street toward One World Trade Center

Dwarfed by the surrounding buildings the landscaped plot uses stones brought in from each of Ireland’s counties, along with soil, and native vegetation from Ireland’s western coast. You’ll also see the ruins of an authentic Hunger-era cottage from County Mayo.

 

 

 

Reconstructed 19th century cottage
Reconstructed 19th century cottage

The ruined cottage on the plot reminded me of the abandoned buildings I  came across with my brother Mike when we hiked the moors and fells of Northern England, Scotland and Eire many moons ago.  These dwellings and other ruins always seemed to exude a certain poignancy that made us wonder why they had been abandoned.

The Memorial plot cantilevered above a Citi Bike docking. station.
The Memorial plot cantilevered above a Citi Bike docking. station.

The plot on which the cottage, winding path, and standing stones, are found is cantilevered above the sidewalk. This means that you might walk past it without realising what lies above your head.

Entrance tunnel to the memorial.
Entrance tunnel to the memorial.

When you visit you’ll enter from street-level via a limestone tunnel. The tunnel walls are covered in writings related to the Hunger. Take your time, read and reflect on them to get some appreciation of the context of the Hunger that claimed over a million people between 1845 and 1852. Approximately two million immigrated to the US between 1845 and 1860. Many settled in New York City, which  today has the largest number of Irish-Americans of any city in the US.

The ships that carried Irish immigrants escaping the Hunger were referred to as ‘coffin ships’. Conditions on board were crowded and disease-ridden. Owners provided little food, water or living space. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships because so many bodies were thrown overboard. Mortality rates of 30% were common.

P1010033
The sculpture “Arrival” celebrating the contribution of the Irish diaspora to societies around the world
The Irish National Famine Monument at Murrisk, County Mayo. This image is the property of Pamela Norrington. Link: https://ssl.panoramio.com/photo/4888725

Sculptures of the ships commemorate immigrants departing Ireland and arriving in the US. In the Sculpture Garden of the United Nations  on First Avenue in Midtown Manhattan there is a 26-by-24-foot (8m-by-7m) bronze sculpture by Dublin-born sculptor John Behan entitled ‘Arrival’, which I’ve visited on more than one occasion.

The sculpture  celebrates the Irish who traveled the world in search of a new life, the nations and countries that offered them a chance for a better life, and the contribution the Irish diaspora has made to societies throughout the world. Irish immigrants are depicted disembarking from a coffin ship along two gangplanks.

‘Arrival’ is a variation on Behan’s ‘Coffin Ship’, the National Famine Memorial at Murrisk, County Mayo, on the West Coast of Ireland. Mary Robinson, then the Irish President, unveiled the ‘Coffin Ship’ in 1997 for the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. The sculpture in Ireland, rather than celebrating the safe arrival of immigrants, conjures up the horror of the coffin ships through the symbolic representation of the ship’s rigging by skeletons and bones.

Visiting the Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City reminds you of the opportunities New York City  offered the desperate Irish immigrants. It continues to be a place for new beginnings for millions of immigrants from all over the world. In return they contribute to the city’s amazing cultural diversity, economic activity (nearly one-third in 2011), and workforce (44 per cent in 2011).

Footnote: I am currently checking out what opportunities there are for visitors to the UN complex to visit the Sculpture Garden. I’ll post any details once I get them.