A story of drama and tragedy lies behind unassuming gravy boat

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by Jeannie Swales

It’s a modest, unassuming object – just a plain white gravy boat. But behind this seemingly unexciting piece of pottery, there lies a story of drama and tragedy on the high seas.

On December 16, 1914, the German battle cruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann opened fire on Scarborough and then Whitby, while three others – the Moltke, the Blucher and the Seydlitz – shelled the Hartlepools, resulting in the first loss of civilian life due to enemy fire in the First World War.

The attack on Scarborough started just after 8am and over 700 shells are believed to have rained down on the resort over the next 30 minutes. Hundreds were injured, there was extensive damage to property, and 18 people died, among their number four people in the same house on Wykeham Street, and young John Shields Ryalls, who was just 14-months-old.

What’s less well known is that, at the same time, the German light cruiser Kolberg was laying a minefield off Flamborough Head. Over 100 mines were laid, causing death and destruction for the remainder of the war years, with minesweepers, fishing trawlers and merchant vessels falling foul.

The SS Leersum, a Dutch cargo ship, was one such vessel. It struck a mine off Filey Brigg on December 26, 1914, just 10 days after the Bombardment, and 10 of its crew were killed.

The SS Leersum was one of two, or possibly even three, vessels to come to grief that day. On January 1, 1915, the Scarborough Mercury reported: “The Crew had noticed another vessel strike a mine a short distance off, and were preparing their boats to render what assistance they could when the Leersum itself was struck and the crew had to look after themselves.

“The other vessel sank, and five miles off there was suddenly seen another blaze like an explosion, and it was thought that a third vessel had met with disaster. The 17 survivors of the Leersum, who included the captain G Stekeleburg, put off in two boats, the ship sinking almost immediately.”

The gravy boat was recovered from the wreck of the SS Leersum in the 1980s during a dive by Scarborough Sub Aqua Club, which has dived many of the wrecks sunk as a result of the German mines.

It is one of several objects on loan to Scarborough Museums Trust from the Sub Aqua Club for a major new exhibition which opens on Saturday.

Remember Scarborough commemorates the Bombardment of Scarborough and those who died. It can be seen at Scarborough Art Gallery until January 4, 2015. The Gallery is open from 10am to 5pm every day except Monday, plus bank holidays.

For further information, please visit the Scarborough Museums Trust website scarboroughmuseumstrust.org.uk.