The last great shipwreck remembered

HALF SEAS OVER ... the grounded ship drew sightseers. (Photograph courtesy of Richard Moore). Inset top, the crew were soaking wet and shivering. Bottom, being buffeted by the still-strong wind. (Photograph courtesy of Dennis MacCoy).
HALF SEAS OVER ... the grounded ship drew sightseers. (Photograph courtesy of Richard Moore). Inset top, the crew were soaking wet and shivering. Bottom, being buffeted by the still-strong wind. (Photograph courtesy of Dennis MacCoy).

IT was 4.15 on a dark January morning, during one of the worst winters of the century.

Maroons fired by coastguards into the blackness alerted local volunteers that a ship was being driven to disaster in the turbulent seas off the Tyne.

By the time dawn broke, the steamer, the Adelfotis 11, was being propelled onto rocks near the Groyne at Shields and a race against time had begun to take off her stricken crew.

All were saved and in the years since, the Adelfotis has passed into history as the last great shipwreck on this part of the North-East coast.

Fifty years on, one of the most dramatic maritime spectacles of the last half-century, locally, will be commemorated with a special open day on Sunday, from 1 pm to 5pm, at the Volunteer Life Brigade Watch House on the South Pier, South Shields.

Past and present members of the three volunteer brigades at South Shields, Sunderland and Tynemouth, including some who actually took part in the rescue, will be present.

There will be a special display of photographs, contemporary records and artefacts as well as a slideshow featuring a full description of the events leading up to the grounding of the Beirut-registered cargo ship which had left Middlesbrough 24 hours earlier, bound for Antwerp. There will also be a screening of the award-winning newsreel film by Tyne Tees Television cameraman Norman Jackson.

South Shields VLB honorary secretary Tom Fennelly said: “Everyone of a certain age in South Shields remembers the famous wreck of the Adelfotis II on January 20, 1963, which marked a significant turning point in the history of South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade.

“As well as being the first major shipwreck on this part of the coast since the Second World War, the rescue of the crew of the Lebanese steamer is also believed to be the last time that a shore-based breeches buoy was used in the North-East to save life from a shipwreck.”

The incident led to a resurgence of interest in the work of the brigade. Members of the 4th (St John’s) South Shields Sea Scouts, who had strong connections with the brigade prior to the wreck, helped coastguards and brigadesmen in the rescue. They also took part in a re-enactment of the dramatic episode the following month.

Many later joined the brigade and were followed by others, and some are still members today. This led to a period of revival, and attention turned to developing the cliff rescue and search aspects while maintaining the primary role of the breeches buoy which had proved its worth beyond all doubt in the Adelfotis II rescue. The breeches buoy was finally withdrawn by HM Coastguard in 1988.

South Shields, Sunderland and Tynemouth VLBs are the last three remaining in the country and continue to provide a search and rescue service in conjunction with HM Coastguard.

The Adelfotis II first struck the Black Middens before being driven on to the Herd Sands next to the Groyne as she tried to enter the Tyne in the teeth of a strong south easterly gale.

The minutes of the brigade record that: “... the brigade fired a rocket to the Adelfotis II but the line was fouled on board ship. After dawn Sunderland Brigade fired a rocket and secured a line on board. The crew did not leave the ship immediately and offered no contact by radio.

“The Adelfotis II was being pounded by heavy seas and was moving towards the Groyne all the time. After some time it was noticed that the ship was blowing off steam, then at 8.45 am the first man was brought ashore very exhausted. As each man was brought ashore he was taken by ambulance to the Ingham Infirmary.”

The minutes conclude: “Captain Nicholas Leondaras, together with 22 members of his crew, and mascot puppy Manuella, were rescued by breeches buoy. After the ship was abandoned at 11.20am, she was lying with a list to starboard, her bows up against the rocks of the Groyne, still with wind blowing very forcefully.”

l THE drama of the wreck of the Adelfotis was captured at the time by Gazette photographers and the paper’s legendary shipping reporter, the late John Landells - whom I’ve been proud to follow as president of South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade,

There were also many eye-witnesses, such as reader George Pattison, who remembers leaving St Stephens Church that morning, to see a number of police cars with wet and cold passengers heading towards the Ingham Infirmary.

“I found out that a ship had run aground on the North Beach and set off with the rest of my family to see what had happened.

“When we arrived, waves were breaking over the ship, and members of the Volunteer Life Brigade were manning the breeches buoy, but because of a lack of volunteers, the crew members were dropping into the water before being pulled ashore. As more people arrived, many helped to man the ropes, and eventually crew members were able to reach the beach without taking an unwelcome dip in the water.”

Nancy Clark (nee Denyer) was a student nurse at the Ingham at the time and remembers the shocked crewmen arriving. “They were soaken wet and shivering and we had to change them into hospital pyjamas and give them blankets and hot tea.”

The men were later looked after by the Missions to Seamen.

Over subsequent months, the ship – occupied for a time by Freedom From Hunger protesters – was broken up where she lay.

She also became one of the most photographed wrecks of modern times, and Cookson Country readers have been generous in sharing the pictures they took, like Dennis Maccoy, who snapped the ship later that day and who says: “I remember being buffeted by the still-strong wind and flying spray.”  

Also Robert Thompson, who lived in Greens Place, and whose camera captured the aftermath of the wreck and the gradual dismantling of the ship.

What you see here is just a small selection of photographs readers have kindly contributed.