This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most dramatic shipwrecks that ever took place on the Yorkshire coast.
Sunday March 12th of 1916 was a horrible day; gale force winds from the east-south-east had been blowing for many hours, causing a tumultuous sea, and torrential rain made for poor visibility all along the north-east coast.
In the early hours of the morning, the Auxiliary Patrol Vessel HMYacht “Mekong”, senior officer’s ship of the 9th Patrol Unit, was battering her way into the storm as she headed south towards her base in Grimsby. She was under the command of Admiral Frank Finnis, CVO, who had come out of retirement at the age of 65 in order to help his country in these desperate times.
There were either 46 or 49 men aboard the ship; when I tried to get the details from the public record office back in 1966, I was told that “... it would appear that the actual records concerning HMYacht “Mekong” have not been preserved...”
At 04.50 on that awful day, HMY “Mekong” struck rocks off Gristhorpe, was driven ashore under the cliffs, and became a total wreck. Three men died in the disaster, 43 more were hauled to safety by the Filey Rocket Brigade, and it is thought that three other men had launched a liferaft from the wreck, and found safety by themselves.
The “Mekong” had been designed by Cox and King of Falmouth, and was built by Ramage and Ferguson of Leith in 1906 as the “Maund”, a luxury steam-yacht of 903 tons, for Adam Mortimer Singer, of sewing machine fame. She was 213.5 feet long, with a beam of 30.4 feet, and had a triple-expansion steam engine of 204 horse-power. Capable of a top speed of 16 knots, she carried sails that could be bent on to her two masts, was clipper-bowed, had a teak deckhouse, and was illuminated by electric lights.
A true gentleman’s yacht, she was destined to be a plaything of the rich and famous, and in her first year, visited Stockholm, where King Oscar II of Sweden was among the guests that Singer received aboard. Subsequently, she spent most of her time in the Mediterranean, on the French and Italian Rivieras. Her name “Maund”, curiously, derives from an Asiatic word describing a measure of weight - though the word “maunder” means to move in a dreamy or aimless manner. It seems unlikely now that we shall ever know why she carried this enigmatic name, but in 1912 the ship was sold to new owners who changed her name to “Mekong”, and this is more easily understood.
The new owner, the Duc de Montpensier was the younger brother of the Duc de Orleans, the Royalist heir to the throne of France. He had extensive business and financial interests in Vietnam, then known as French Indo-China, and the Mekong River is, of course, central to that country. Among his interests was the Hotel Continental in Saigon, which, apparently, he purchased for one of his lady-friends. The Duc married three times, one of his wives being Maria Isabella Gonzales Olaneta E Ibareta, who owned a large castle in Spain, but produced no children. In fact, he died, childless, at the age of just 40, apparently of a drug overdose.
Montpensier had a world-wide reputation as a hunter, sportsman, explorer and traveller, and in September of 1912 he embarked on a round-the-world voyage in his new yacht, with a paid crew, and eight to ten “distinguished guests”.
In 1915, this easy-going lifestyle came to a sudden end, as the clouds of war spread further across Europe. Steam Yacht “Mekong”, docked in Southampton at the time, was requisitioned by the Royal Navy on April 14th, and was taken to Portsmouth, where she was painted grey, fitted with two 6-pounder guns, and given the pendant number 070.
Early in 1916, the guns were replaced by two three-inch guns, and HMY “Mekong”, as she now was, headed north to her new base in Grimsby, where she was given six Admiralty trawlers as her consorts, to aid her in her role of patrolling area IX, the Humber to Berwick.
Her new career was short and inglorious. On that fateful day, March 12th 1916, she struck rocks that had already claimed at least ten other ships in the preceding years, driving over the outer reefs of Old Horse Rocks, and finally stranding close inshore near a place known locally as Chimney Hole. Guns were fired to alert the rescue services, and as the stricken vessel heeled to the stormy seas, efforts were made to get a line ashore. Fireman William H.J. Chaplow, 31, of Southampton, was drowned in his attempt to swim ashore, but this did not deter Able Seaman Roger Alan Piper, 21 years old, from following his example, and leaping into the heavy seas with a line around his waist. Tragically, he was to meet the same fate. The remains of these two men, together with one other casualty, were recovered from the shore later.
A third heroic volunteer that day, greaser Ernest Thorne, 37, managed to swim ashore, without a line, and was able to scale the 150ft cliffs, and eventually reach a nearby farm, Dennison’s, whose owner raced to Filey on horseback, where he raised the alarm.
There was no possibility of launching Filey’s rowing lifeboat, as she could never have rounded the Brigg in such a storm. Instead, the Filey Rocket Brigade rushed to the site of the disaster, and after several attempts, managed to get a line aboard the ship. The distance was so great that if the crew of the “Mekong” had taken one more turn around a fixed point on the wreck, the cliff-top rescuers would have had to let go of their end of the rope. A breeches buoy was set up, and, one by one, the crew were hauled to safety, starting with the youngest, a 17 year old.
Sadly, one man, Quartermaster J. Davis, fell into the sea while trying to climb into the breeches buoy and was lost, becoming the third victim that day. Normally, the captain would be the last to leave the ship, but in view of Admiral Finnis’s comparatively advanced years he allowed his First Officer, Lt G.Parker to fulfil that role. The survivors were taken to Dennison’s farm, and then on to Filey, where they were cared for by the Shipwrecked Mariners Society at the Foords Hotel.
Afterwards, wartime salvors removed the two guns, and the 11ft 7in diameter bronze propeller, and the wreck of the “Mekong” then lay undisturbed for some 45 years. It was 1960 when Scarborough Sub-Aqua Club was founded, and these enthusiasts soon found, and started to explore, the wreck site.
In 1963, during a spear-fishing competition, Scarborough divers noticed that large quantities of live three-inch shells were strewn around the area, and the Royal Navy Clearance Divers were alerted to the danger. As a result, a team of Navy divers from South Queensferry visited the site, laying charges which caused an explosion that sent a plume of water almost to the cliff tops.
In the ensuing years, a group of us from the Scarborough Sub-Aqua Club set out to research the wreck and learn as much as we could about her, while at the same time exploring the wreck site and searching for items of interest. In order that we could legally own these artefacts we purchased the remains of the “Mekong” from the Board of Trade War Risk Department in 1970, and threw it open to any member of the club. Shortly after we did this, one lucky diver found a gold krugerand deep in the bilges of the wreck, a reminder of her former glory days with the “jet-setters” of that era. Research into the vessel’s background and history has continued throughout the years, and in 2013 I was fortunate - and amazed - to be put in touch with Rosemary Farley of Porlock in Somerset, niece of Roger Piper, one of the men who had died while trying to save his comrades. For this, his gallantry was recognised by a citation from the Royal Humane Society, and by the Rear Admiral Commanding the East Coast of England defences. I am indebted to her for the pictures of her brave uncle, and for the copies of his posthumous testimonials. Sadly, Rosemary passed away in January 2016, before this article was completed.
Memories of the “Mekong” have also been kept alive by local singer-songwriter Anna Shannon, whose beautiful and haunting song “Echoes of the Mekong” can be found on her CD “Ready for the Shout!” Although it is now 100 years since the wreck of the “Mekong” occurred, she is not about to be forgotten, nor, I suggest, will she ever be.
Arthur Godfrey, who lives in Bridlington, is the author or co-author of six books about the Yorkshire coast.