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A very pleasant stroll on a sunny wintry Sunday afternoon is along the towpath beside the river Thames. If you walk the portion from the new Dartford Bridge to Grays, West Thurrock on the Essex bank, and if the tide is out when you reach the Thurrock Yacht Club then you will see a sorry sight that betrays a grand and heroic past. For lying tilted on her side and imbedded in the silt and mud several hundred yards to the east of Pier Lodge is the relic and last remains of the old lightship No. 38 called the 'Gull'.
She is often mistakenly referred to as the Gull lightship because of her tour of duty marking the Goodwin Sands. It was in 1809 that the first 158 ton wooden lightship was positioned in the Gull Stream on the western edge of the Goodwin Sands. It cost £ 4,197 and had 'Gull' written in large white letters on its side. Two fixed lights shone from its single mast. The ship also had a fog gong. In 1856 she was run into by an American vessel but was back in service with lights ablaze within three hours.
In 1860 the old Gull was replaced by another lightship showing a one flash signal, 38 feet above sea level with a visibility of 10 miles. She too carried a fog gong and was one of the first lightships to carry a revolving light operated by clockwork.
In March 1929, after long service, the vessel then on station was withdrawn for an overhaul and another lightship, No. 38, was towed to Gull station and the crew of the withdrawn lightship transferred to her. Lightship No. 38 had already 60 years service under her belt mainly at Lyn Well station on the Wash.
No. 38's career on Gull station was brief. During the night of 18th March 1929, at 4am in thick fog, the 7,834 tons Ellerman liner 'City of York' struck her on the port side near the master's cabin and cut her down to below the waterline amidships. The 'City of York' anchored and sounded an SOS on her siren. The damage to the lightship was so extensive that she sank quickly into ½ fathoms of water. The crew were rescued with the exception of the master, Captain Williams, who was trapped in his cabin and drowned. Next morning only the day mark of No. 38 was visible above the waves. Divers entered the vessel and recovered the master's body, then examined the ship. For a time it was thought that the hulk would be blown up but it was considered worthwhile to attempt to salvage, and this was successfully done with lifting gear in July 1929. The vessel was beached at Deal for temporary repairs and then towed to Ramsgate to be made seaworthy.
A local vessel stood on the lightship's station temporarily; then a light buoy was positioned there. After repairs and a refit at Great Yarmouth, No. 38 was returned to the Goodwins in 1930. However as a result of changes in marking the narrowing navigable Gull Stream channel, caused by some alterations in the Sands, she was positioned on the western side, some four miles from Ramsgate and three and a half miles from Deal, closer to Brake Sand, which was shifting in a south west direction. The station name was changed from 'Gull' to 'Brake' and No. 38 was renamed accordingly.
On 2nd November 1935 in thick fog the Norwegian steamer 'Tres' collided and sank the steamer 'Lancresse' of Guernsey. The 'Tres', although with badly damaged bows, hove to by the 'Brake' lightship and transferred the ten surviving members of the eleven man crew of the 'Lancresse' to the lightship. Ramsgate lifeboat was called by radio to take the rescued men ashore.
On 16th January 1940, the Italian steamer 'Ernani' dragged her anchor and drifted onto the 'Brake' lightship striking it with force on the bow to near the water line and then drifted away. The crew abandoned the lightship and eventually reached the safety of the guardship HMS Holdfast. A light buoy was then used mark the 'Brake' station. The lightship was damaged and the vessel was towed stern first to Harwich to be repaired and then taken to the Mouse station near Maplin Sands in the Thames estuary where No. 38 was renamed 'Mouse'. Whilst on the station on the Thames estuary she suffered air attacks by Dornier and Stuka aircraft when strafed by the Luftwaffe.
In 1941 she was replaced with a light buoy and withdrawn and towed to Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth where she was laid up for the remainder of the war.
The Thurrock Yacht Club has been in existence (under different names) since 1892 and at a meeting in 1946 it was agreed a club should be formed at its current base. Three boats agreed to vacate their berths to accommodate No. 38. The club paid £ 750 for No. 38 in 1947 and towed her from Harwich to where she is today. With No. 38 converted for club activities the membership rapidly grew, due partly to the unusual clubhouse, with only a few actually interested in sailing. With increasing membership the club was able to appoint a full time steward who lived aboard the light vessel. Regrettably after 6 short years, membership dwindled and the steward could no longer be afforded. At one point thieves started removing the copper sheathing from No. 38, so the club decided to finish the job as the £ 240 received for the sale of the copper helped pay off the club's debts. Maintenance of No. 38 has proved an impossible task and with reluctance the building of the existing on shore clubhouse was approved.
The Thurrock Yacht club used the Gull as the clubhouse until 1976 when a shore based building was erected for the purpose. In the late 1970s there was an attempt to refit and float the vessel as a restaurant at Battlesbridge. At this time the forward canopy was added, having been manufactured from the vandalised wooden frames. The project was abandoned when it was said the new owner decided to pursue his lady who had fled to make a career in Hollywood. The stopcocks were removed which left the vessel open to the action of the tides - a normal procedure which avoids excess pressure building up and bursting the timbers. Although the tide can enter and leave freely, over a long period large quantities of mud are deposited, which preserve the timbers for up to two and a half times their original life expectancy. No. 38 was reclaimed by Thurrock Yacht Club, and then sold again in 1982. Further attempts to recover the vessel were made in 1983 and 1985 but cash ran out and the attempts were abandoned.
On Sunday 2nd June 2002 vandals set her alight much to the dismay of people who were hoping to get it restored. Once fire crews were made aware of the drive restore the lightship to its former glory, they took extra time and care to extinguish the flames.
Station Officer Dave Ferris from Grays said: "Someone had decided to set alight to the front of it and I had the crew chopping away with the axe which is what we usually do. However a very distressed gentleman from the club explained that people were trying to get lottery funding, so I changed the plan of attack."
The crew then continued to extinguish the flames using foam and taking extra time and care to leave as little damage as possible to the ship. Mr. Ferris added: "We believe it was set alight on purpose because there is no electricity or gas on the ship."
No. 38 is believed to be the second oldest lightship in European waters, built in 1860 and number 38 on the Trinity House Ancient List. Her overall length was 90 feet; maximum breadth 2½ feet and depth below upper deck 11 feet and weighed 189 tons. Trinity House records remain un catalogued but the Gull is said to have been laid down in Scandinavia. Its construction is of teak on oak frames. At about the time she was built a lightship could take up to ten years to complete. The frame was constructed first then left for about seven years to mature before the vessel was finally completed. Trinity House numbered each light vessel and branded this number on the lower timbers near where the mast is stepped. However, each vessel was referred to by the name of the station where it was placed, changing name as the vessel changed station.
The vessel banging against the jetty where it was moored caused much of the damage that can be seen around the stem post. No evidence can be seen of any of the repairs that were made to the hull and framework. The aft superstructure is a late addition, which would appear to have come from a large pleasure vessel or paddle steamer.
It's too late to save her and she has now become a dangerous hazard and must be removed for safety reasons and finally laid to rest. Perhaps the ghost of the Captain Williams who is said to haunt the hulk and pace the foreshore may also be laid to rest as well.
I wrote this history in 2006 and by February 2012 she was no more than flotsam and jetsam on the foreshore and the ever encroaching tide will soon displace them. The continued deterioration can been seen in all the subsequent photographs and comments.
The Gull was sold for scrap in 2009 but not before a campaign was launched to save her mast. £ 48,000 was raised to complete the project and the mast has now been restored and relocated inside the perimeter of Thurrock Yacht Club. On Thursday 29th November 2012 the mast was finally lit up in a special ceremony with dignitaries from Trinity House and the local Council.
Mike Millichamp © 2012