On 5th January 1857, an American sailing ship, the Northern Belle, was en route from New York to London when she was driven on to rocks off the coast of Kent, at the most south eastern point of England. The weather conditions were atrocious with a blizzard blowing and there were 28 men on board the ship.
In the early hours of the morning, three luggers from Margate (small vessels with a combination of oars and sails used to supply ships or as fishing boats) named Ocean, Victory and Eclipse had gone to aid of the stricken ship when it was anchored and hoping to ride out the terrible conditions.
The sailors on board the lugger Ocean put five men on board the ship to help the 21 crew, the captain and pilot. At that time, the crews of the luggers were probably thinking of the prospect of salvaging the ship. The salvage of ships supplemented their income in the harsh winter months and was always hazardous work.
But this time, as the weather worsened and the ship dragged its anchors and foundered on the rocks, they found themselves in a perilous rescue mission, in high winds, sleet, snow and hail.
The lugger Ocean succeeded in taking off five of the crew but the lugger Victory was swamped by the heavy seas and disappeared beneath the waves. The crew, nine sailors and fishermen from Margate, were drowned. The Ocean and the Eclipse could do no more and the crew of the Northern Belle and the five Margate sailors who had been put on board had to wait out the night, lashed to the rigging of the only mast left standing.
The wind direction was such that when the coastguard had raised the alarm, the nearest lifeboats stationed at Broadstairs, a few miles away from where the ship had foundered, could not be launched. The lifeboats were the Mary White and Culmer White. They had to be hauled on trailers by men and horses two miles over hilly country to where they could be safely launched at daylight the next day.
The lifeboat crews included men from both Broadstairs and Margate. Between them, the two lifeboats made three journeys and succeeded in rescuing the remaining crew of the Northern Belle plus those who had been put on board to help its crew.
One of the lifeboat men, George Emptage, made the journey all three times. The third trip was required to persuade the Captain and the Pilot to leave the ship, the American Captain having previously declared that he would rather go down with the ship and the English Pilot having said that he would stay with the Captain until the end. With much difficulty, the lifeboat men succeeded in persuading the two men to allow themselves to be rescued.
The whole disaster and rescue was witnessed by huge crowds drawn from Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate gathered at the beach and on the cliffs, probably including relatives of those who died.
The London Illustrated News printed an engraved picture of the lifeboat Mary White returning from the wreck of the Northern Belle with seven of the crew, people on the beach assisting and crowds looking on from the cliff tops.
After all were ashore, the Second Mate of the Northern Belle exclaimed that “none but Englishmen would have come off to our rescue on such a night as this!”
The Appreciation of the Nation
The United States Consul in London launched an appeal to raise funds for the widows and more than 40 children of the nine men who had drowned when the lugger Victory was swamped. Each family received money plus a bible, with the cover embossed with the details of the disaster.
The inscription reads:
Presented by the British & Foreign Bible Society on occasion of the loss of the Victory Lugger of Margate and all her crew January 5, 1857.”
The dedication reads: “In The Fearful Gale of Monday, 5th Jan., 1857, it pleased Almighty God to permit the total loss of the Lugger “Victory” of Margate, with all her Crew, nine in number, when at sea off Kingsgate, on their dangerous errand of seeking to render aid to Vessels in distress.
In Memory of the above solemn event, this Copy of the Word of God, is presented at the request, and in the name of the Margate Committee, to Emily Ann Emptage, Daughter of William Emptage, one of the brave fellows lost on that melancholy occasion, by Rev. C.T. Astley, Vicar of St John’s, Rev. S. Prosser, Incumbent of Trinity Church, Rev. W D Goy, Weslyan Minister, Rev. H.T. Veness, Lecturer of Trinity Church.”
Those involved in the rescue received a silver medal from Franklin Pierce, the president of the USA, and contributions from the funds raised.
The medal which Alfred Emptage received is now held by the American Numismatic Society. The inscription reads: “The President of the United States to Alfred Emptage for his humanity towards citizens of the United States 1857.” We think that Alfred’s son took the medal to America when he emigrated there.
None of the men who took part in the rescue did so with thoughts of glory or reward in their mind. They were mariners. They lived by the sea, from the sea. It was second nature to go to sea to help when others were in distress even though they knew of the risk to their own lives.
The Emptage Family
One of the men put on board the Northern Belle to help the crew was Alfred Emptage. Three of his brothers, George, Charles and Edward manned the rescue boats.
Of the nine men on the lugger Victory who lost their lives, one was William Emptage, the other his nephew John Emptage.
My mother’s maiden name was Emptage. Alfred was my great great grand-father.
I am proud of the Emptage family.
11 May 2013
The York Herald Saturday, January 17, 1857
The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, May 2, 1857
The London Illustrated News
American Numismatics Society