The Strandings of the "Claudine" and "Westminister" at Margate
Featured in the June 2010 handbook.
The accompanying engraving is well-known to those of us with an interest in maritime history. We tend to take it for granted that the story behind it is equally well-known, but a feature in a ,local paper a few years ago made it plain that was not the case, so here is the tale of what actually happened to them.
The ‘CLAUDINE’ and ;WESTMINSTER’ were East Indiamen on the final leg of the long voyage home from the East Indies in convoy with another vessel of the company when disaster struck, causing them to be struck ashore at Palmer Bay( now Palm Bay) in the badly damaged conciliation as depicted. Having braved the worst weather that the oceans could throw at them, they were now in charge of pilots as they made their way up the Channel into the waters of the Thames Estuary. The date was the 22nd of November, 1840 and the weather was foul when the convoy was caught in a ferocious northerly gale which sprang up off Margate. Fighting against the high seas the two ships were driven ever closer to the coat and potential disaster. The pilots, knowing the coast well, decided that the best chance to save the ships and their valuable cargoes was to run them ashore at the spot which presented the best chance of survival, and soon the vessels, with enormous waves sweeping over their decks, were pounding through the surf over the rocks to ground safety.
It will be seen that their journey to the shore had been a fraught one and both vessels had been dismasted by the fury of the storm, but thanks to the determination and bravery of the boatmen of Margate not a single life was lost. The crew of ‘ WESTMINSTER’, with her rich cargo of cotton, indigo, rice, silks and wine, was saved by the Margate Customs House boat, whilst the Margate lugger;
CITY QUEEN’ skippered by William Hubbard, rescued that of the tea laden ‘CLAUDINE’.
The third vessel, laden with a very valuable cargo of hardwoods and with her crew taken off by a lugger, was driven broadside onto the rocks at Kingsgate Bay.
There had long been a loud clamour and agitation for a harbour of refuge this side of the North Foreland, as a great many vessels had been lost due to heavy weather in the Estuary due to a lack of such facility. Many sites had been looked at by the Admiralty and plans had actually been drawn up for a massive harbour to be built at Palmer Bay, the very spot where the two East Indiamen lay in their sorry state, but nothing else ever came of the proposal.
Prominent local architectural engineer and surveyor, William Edmunds, notified the Admiralty in a letter which survives to this day in the archives that attempts were being made by the boatmen of Margate to salvage the valuable cargoes, which were expected to be eventually forwarded to London by steamship as in other salvage operations undertaken here. From records in my possession it is clear that around 70 men were engaged in these efforts, and it is equally clear from research undertaken by my colleague, Alf Beeching, that a substantial amount of salvaged goods was stored in a large warehouse situated in King Street.
“WESTMINSTER” had found bottom further out in the bay than “CLAUDINE” who had been driven right up under the cliffs, making her salvage impossible until a big tide to lift her off. She remained tight during her battering making no water, unlike “WESTMINSTER” which reported 12 feet of water in her hold. She was refloated on the 7th of December, and “CLAUDINE” a little while after. Both vessels were repaired and put back into trade.
On the night of the 5th of December, the King Street warehouse was burgled despite the presence of a watchman who was arrested and then released without charge! Cotton, silks, indigo and wine were stolen, some of which were recovered in London after a £25 reward brought a informer forward.