On October 19, while putting over his cover story about an old wreck and buried treasure, Von Brüning gets a little bit snooty about the local Frisians, claiming they have ‘a weakness for plunder’. He more or less describes them as pirates. Imagine my surprise to find that for hundreds of years that is pretty much what the Frisians were!
Ok, we might consider them ‘wreckers’ rather than pirates, but as I learn from a rather marvellous book called ‘The Wreckers’ by Bella Bathurst, wrecking is not simply the business of waiting patiently ‘til a ship goes on the rocks and then collecting goodies washed up onto the beach. It’s not even the more sinister business of putting up false lights in the hope of getting ships to run aground so that goodies appear on the beach (although that’s part of it).
The Frisians didn’t just wait for disaster to happen. At the first sign of a ship passing near the coast, these people would go out on shallow boats (not unlike the Dulcibella btw) and offer to ‘help’ with piloting or the lightening of the cargo. If a boat got into trouble – which it more than likely would due to dodgy ‘piloting’ – the wreckers would then load up with booty. Only after the ‘flotsam and jetsam’ had been recovered would there be any thought of saving the people onboard the target vessel.
The infamous tom Brok tribe of Frisian warlords were much feared for hundred of years by traders sailing out of the Elbe. Indeed, the Hanseatic League actually went to war with the Frisian wreckers over the amount of ‘plunder’ that was going on.
Once the Prussians got involved, a whole system of beach regulation was imposed all along the coast to try to put a stop to dodgy wrecking practices – or at least to make sure some kind of tax revenue was derived from it. By the time of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, every stretch of coast would have had its own ‘Strandvogt’, a kind of beach bailiff. It may well be that von Brüning had such a role around Bensersiel, which is why he’s so knowledgeable about this business.
Before we get too high-minded about these people on the other side of the North Sea, it should be noted that the English were just as bad. In Norfolk, wrecking was very common for centuries. And in Kent, they had their own special word for wreckers. They called them ‘hovellers’. Is it a coincidence that the East Frisian wrecking tribes were all known as ‘hovetlinge’…? As it was on the sands of Frisia, so too was it on the Goodwin Sands.
Bella Bathurst’s book has one extra revelation to make about the ghoulishly symbiotic relationship between lifeboatmen and wreckers. Actually it’s not symbiotic at all because for many years it’s pretty clear that wreckers and lifeboatmen were one and the same people.
The only difference between being one and not the other is whether you bothered to save the people or the booty first when dealing with a ship in distress. Even in the 1950s and 1960s it’s claimed that some RNLI boatmen went out armed with screwdrivers with the aim of recovering a few valuable items off a boat before it sank. Many of the early lifeboats (remember Dulcibella is a converted lifeboat) were originally wrecking boats.
Quite when we started saving people first and cargo second is not entirely clear. However, in Germany the wreck of the Johanne in 1854 certainly marked a big change in public opinion about such matters. 77 people died for want of lifeboats. The newspapers expressed a nation’s horror, and very soon afterwards a national lifeboat organisation was started.
Where was the Johanne wrecked? Just off Spiekeroog, of course. So, yes, maybe the Frisians are descended from a bunch of wreckers. But they were also pretty much the first people in Germany to man the lifeboats. They turned out to be quite nice pirates after all.
EXTRA NOTE FROM CLUB MEMBER TONY FUELL (see comments)
Here’s a terrific anecdote that suggests there might *still* be wreckers/hovellers out in the Frisians!
Just as a postscript to your coverage of wreckers, plunderers and lifeboats, the sailing friend who introduced us to the North Sea coasts was warned about – and passed the warning on to us when we sailed there – about the activities of some of the locals. Under the guise of lifesaving, and purporting to be official coastguards, these guys haunt the sea-channels in large official-looking RIB’s (inflatable boats) and in the event of a yacht (particularly a foreign-flagged one) running aground (which is quite easy to do), quickly turn up offering to pull you off.
If you accept their offer, they will pass you a tow-line and pull you free. So far, so good, but the next thing is, the yacht’s skipper will be presented with a “salvage” bill for thousands of euros, since you have used their equipment to get you out of “danger”. Even if the worst danger you have been in is to spend a few hours waiting for the tide to come in so that you can float off. According to the stories I heard, they can be very aggressive about recovering the money, and won’t leave the yacht until paid.
I have not had direct experience of this, but such stories are part of the yachtie folklore in the area. Perhaps the old traditions are still being carried on?