Updated: Dec 14, 2020
This is a fictionalised account of a real event. It is based on contemporary newspaper articles about the disaster and the evidence presented at the inquests in North and South Shields, with some minor details added to bring the story alive. The real names of the crew and passengers of the Gipsy Queen have been used and, as far as possible, the narrative describes actual events as they happened. Where there is uncertainty, principally surrounding the question of who was at the helm when the Gipsy Queen struck, the story reflects the balance of the evidence. Judgments about the responsibility for the disaster have been kept to the last section which discusses the limitations of the inquests’ verdict, that the crew of the Gipsy Queen were solely to blame for the tragedy.
I first came across the Gipsy Queen when a friend pointed out the grave of John Brown, Submarine Diver, in the churchyard at St Peter’s Harton and I started to research his life. Brown dived on the wreck of the Gipsy Queen, searching the cabins for bodies on Boxing Day 1873, a horrible and dangerous job, and as the story of this forgotten disaster came to life in my research I thought it needed to be told alongside the other tales of wreck and rescue that fill the history of the Tyne. This account is respectfully dedicated to the men of the Gipsy Queen in the hope that, as the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary approaches, they will not be forgotten.
John Dunn was still half asleep when he boarded the Gipsy Queen at the New Quay steamboat landing, North Shields, just before 5am on the morning of Boxing Day 1873. He was used to early starts but, even for him, three hours before dawn on the day after Christmas was a bit much. Boxing Day was a public holiday, a Lubbock Day*, but the Commissioners* still expected their men to work when most of the population of North and South Shields were enjoying a well-earned day off, though he wasn’t complaining. He was a ladder man* on the Commissioners’ number 2 dredger. It was a good steady job, and he went home to his family every night which was something few other seamen could look forward to. The mood of the rest of the men on the landing, his mates going to their jobs on dredgers up the river as far as Dunston, was subdued. However, the weather was exceptionally mild for the time of year, the morning calm and clear, and they expected to arrive at their jobs in good time for a pipe or a tea before starting work.
Most of the men went straight down the ladder into the forward cabin when they boarded. It was always warm and comfortable there, even on the coldest of mornings, due to the proximity of the boiler. There was nothing to see anyway on the river in the dark. The topic of the day in the cabin was who was missing - the number that had boarded at North Shields was much fewer than usual - and someone mentioned an excess of Christmas spirit but there was none of the usual laughing and joking. Everyone knew that John Rollo, who was sitting apart from the rest, had buried his child on Christmas Eve and they felt his sorrow on what must have been for him the most miserable of Christmases. Among seamen the Commissioners’ men were known to be sober and reliable. There was no doubt in the cabin that the missing men would make their own way by train to their work, as the absence of even one man could shut down the dredger and cost everyone a day’s pay. They wouldn’t do that to their mates.
The crew of the Gipsy Queen, a wooden paddle tug hired by the Commissioners to take the dredger crews upriver to their work, had a very early start that Boxing Day morning. It took two hours to raise steam from cold in the tug’s boiler, even with the grate cleaned and the fire laid. The job TIC Number 4 Dredger. In 1873 the Tyne Commissioners were using steam dredgers to deepen the navigation channel along the length of the river to make it suitable for the large iron ships being built there. They were also used to remove the island of King’s Meadow at Dunston which was an obstacle to the development of Armstrong’s Elswick Shipyard. couldn’t be rushed. ‘A watched pot never boils’ was a good motto for steam raising and when time was short it always seemed to take longer. The boy, William Matthews, had as was usual when they had an early start, spent the night aboard. By the time Peter Sinclair the mate and John Taws the engineer came on board (around 2am), the tide had turned. Sinclair tipped the last three buckets of ash over the side and lit a small fire with dry driftwood in the grate using a stick and an oily rag. He liked to be called the mate but, on a tug with three men and a boy, he was really a maid of all work; his responsibilities included everything from tending the fire, to keeping a lookout and managing the lines. He also liked boats so in this case he left the engineer tending his fire and oiling round the engine while he launched the tug’s paddle box boat* and then rowed over to South Shields to pick up the skipper John McVay. Matthews washed down the deck, taking care to clean up after the Captain’s dog - a large long haired retriever of a genial nature which had been rescued by McVay from an abandoned sculler boat* during the great gale of the 16th December. It had clearly not yet adapted to the limitations of life afloat. The captain and the passengers wouldn’t appreciate dirt on deck and it could do great harm if someone slipped on it when coming alongside. Sinclair would have his hide if he found any!
The Gipsy Queen, built on the foreshore at North Shields in 1857 in the days before industrial shipyards took over the trade, was an old but handsome vessel, fast and rakish, and with her white paintwork and tall black funnel she could have been a pleasure steamer. She was often chartered by the commissioners for inspection trips as she was the ‘fastest tug on the river’, according to John McVay at least. As soon as steam was up, at about half past four, they dropped their moorings and headed upriver to the steamboat landing at New Quay where the Commissioners’ men from North Shields were waiting. John McVay was at the helm, Taws was tending his engine, the focus of Sinclair’s attention was the fire and the boy and dog were on lookout. It was the usual arrangement: the boy liked to stand on the board which served as a bridge between the two paddle boxes, acting out his ambition to be the master of a fine packet steamer of the latest type - and he had the best eyes. Matthews remembered going upriver on the morning after the great gale less than two weeks before when the streets of North Shields were carpeted with tiles, chimney stacks had fallen like rotten trees and ships had broken away from their moorings all along the river. There were so many sunk and stranded wherries*, keels*, and sculler boats that he had to stop counting them as the number was beyond his learning. The Commissioners had used the Gipsy Queen to inspect the damage but since then the weather had turned and children’s hopes for a white Christmas had vanished in the sunshine of an unseasonably warm Christmas Day. Local papers complained that the weather spoiled the festive season but families liked walking out in their best clothes, the pleasure steamers were never busier and the proprietors of the Tyne General Ferry Company certainly had no cause for complaint.
Some men, those who still had an inclination to be sailors and imagined themselves on the deck of a clipper out on the wide ocean, scorned the comforts of the cabin. William Cole, a ladder man on the number 2 dredger and Thomas Myers, the engineer of the number 6 screw hopper boarded the Gipsy Queen at North Shields and planned to remain on deck for the whole voyage. The tug shook as the paddles gathered speed and headed across the river to South Shields to pick up more men at the Mill Dam and Tyne Dock landings. Myers stood near the funnel which was already sending sparks into the night sky: Sinclair’s attention to the fire had reaped its reward. The Gipsy Queen was named after the fastest clipper on the Australia run and, like her namesake, she was a flyer. There was a friendly rivalry between North and South Shields. Each tended to regard itself as superior to the other but there was no animosity among the Commissioner’s men except when, on icy winter mornings, North Shields men took all the best places in the cabin leaving those who boarded last at Tyne dock literally out in the cold. On this occasion most of the skuetenders* who joined at Mill Dam went down into the empty rear cabin and settled down for the long journey up river which, for those who worked on the dredgers above the bridge, could take up to two hours on a bad day.
The tug’s last stop was at Tyne Dock. Most who boarded there joined their mates in the stern cabin as the Gipsy Queen accelerated across the river towards Howdon Dock, doing more than eight knots with the flood tide behind her. Robert Johnson, one of the Tyne Dock men who remained on deck, remembered seeing lights on the opposite side of the river - three white and one red - marking the position of the number 4 dredger and her hoppers, together with another white light which marked the wreck of a sunken hopper barge straddling the main navigation channel that ran close to the dock wall. The barge, sunk by the steamer Bravo on the 23rd of December, was a serious hazard to navigation but had not been removed due to the Christmas holiday: it was ninety feet long and at low tide its fore and aft decks were above water. To the south the mud flats of Jarrow would grab any vessel that strayed too far out of the channel, so passing it at low water was a difficult manoeuvre. Its position was well known to John McVay who was at the helm of the Gipsy Queen as she crossed to Howdon Dock. He had pointed it out to Robert Johnson on Christmas Eve. Now on Boxing Day morning at half-tide it was covered by more than five feet of dark river water, a deadly trap marked by a bright white light on a small boat attached to the wreck. The time was twenty minutes past five. For some reason McVay, who had been on the tiller since leaving New Quay, handed it to William Johnson, one of the Commissioners’ men and an experienced seaman - perhaps to light his pipe or maybe to take a cup of tea. We shall never know because it was then that disaster struck.
Henry Carter, the watchman aboard the number 4 hopper moored on the south side of the number 4 dredger, saw the Gipsy Queen coming. He had been on duty since 5pm on Christmas Day and was due to be relieved at 6am. On Christmas Eve the dredger and its two hoppers had been moved from their moorings out into the river to guard the north (bow) end of the sunken hopper. The small boat that marked the wreck itself had been shifted to guard the stern. Since the turn of the tide he had warned more than fifteen vessels - screw wherries, tugs and sailing wherries - to go to the south of the wreck marker which was close to the southern boundary of the main navigation channel. Five minutes before the approach of the Gipsy Queen, a Tyne General Ferry Steamer had passed safely to the south of the wreck light and he thought the tug coming on very fast was following the same course until she started drawing in towards the sunken hopper. The watchman called out “keep your boat to the southward” and “stop your engines” but got no response. The tug was passing between the wreck marker boat and the dredger when he heard the sound of impact. Someone called out a command, the engines stopped and the Gipsy Queen’s whistle blew and kept on blowing until she sank.
In the darkness it wasn’t clear what had happened but Carter heard cries of distress. He called John Cowie, the watchman on the dredger who was below at the time, and they set out in the dredger’s boat towards the cries. The night was black; they could only see the tip of the stricken tug’s funnel against the sky but from the calls for help they knew she was sinking and men were already in the water. The Gipsy Queen had been unlucky. With two and a half hours on the flood tide she should have easily cleared the main body of the wreck but she struck one of the two large iron winches that stood nearly three feet proud of the sunken hopper’s rear deck, tearing a hole in her side. She sank Nineteenth Century portrait of a wooden paddle tug, similar to the Gipsy Queen: In 1873 the Gipsy Queen’s mast was removed or dropped as she needed to go up river under the temporary bridge that had been built to replace the old Newcastle Bridge while the Swing Bridge was under construction. in little more than ten feet of water in three minutes and was already on the bottom with only a few feet of her funnel clear of the water when the dredger’s boat set out. For some of the Gipsy Queen’s men it was already too late. It was only after Carter and Cowie picked up the first men that they saw many more in the water and realised, to their horror, that the tug was the Gipsy Queen and that the drowning men were their mates.
On board the Gipsy Queen Thomas Myers, standing near the funnel, wasn’t aware of the danger until he heard John McVay calling out “stop the engines John (Taws)” just before they struck. It must have been a glancing blow because the tug went over the wreck without being checked and sailed on for about eighty yards before she sank, with steam roaring from her funnel and her whistle screaming until her fire was doused.
Peter Sinclair, who was feeding the fire, jumped on deck when he saw the inrush of water then launched the Gipsy Queen’s paddle box boat, a small dinghy that could comfortably hold four people. Myers, Abraham Gustard, and George Clemitson climbed in but just a moment later someone jumped from the paddle boxes and upset it, throwing them all into the water. Myers clung on to the upturned hull while Abraham Gustard somehow managed to stay afloat until they were both picked up by Cowie and Carter in the dredger’s boat, but Sinclair and Clemitson sank into the depths of the inky black river water and drowned.
Robert Johnson, who had only been on the tug a few minutes after boarding at Tyne Dock, clung onto the funnel stays as the Gipsy Queen sank under him. He was picked up by Cowie and Carter, along with John Simpson, John Thompson, Peter Lowe, and George Westwater who were all clinging onto the funnel itself. Their hands were badly burned; two others were so scalded by escaping steam that they let go, sinking into the dark waters crying “Christ have mercy”.
Below decks in the cabins the men’s talk was interrupted by a loud bang as the tug struck the wreck, followed by an overpowering torrent of cold black river water rising up the ladder so quickly it almost washed the men out of the hatch. There was no panic. Everyone made it out onto the deck which was covered with breakers like a half tide rock by the time the last man reached it. Some tried to remove their heavy coats, boots, and working trousers before entering the water but there was no time to do much except jump overboard.
William Cole who boarded at North Shields was picked up by the dredger’s boat, freezing in just his shirt, having stripped off as if in preparation for his regular swim at Tynemouth Long Sands. John McVay the Gipsy Queen’s Captain saw him, followed his example but couldn’t stay afloat and was drowned.
Carter and Cowie picked up thirteen survivors in the dredger’s boat before it became unmanageable; they were forced to return to the dredger fearing it would capsize and kill them all. Henry Carter was haunted for the rest of his life by the cries of men drowning all around him when they turned back, but he knew there was nothing more they could do.
James Dryden an unemployed seaman of South Shields was dredging for coal in a small boat along the dock wall when he heard the tug’s whistle. Rushing to the scene, he picked up two men clinging to a plank along the way and went on to save four more before his boat too became dangerously overloaded, forcing his return to the shore. Henry West, a boatman making his way upriver in a sculler boat, rescued five struggling men from the water who would have drowned without his assistance.
John Rollo, who had buried his child on Christmas Eve, saw the boats going and was heard to call out “oh my poor wife” before he drowned, leaving her a widow with two young children to care for.
William Matthews, the Gipsy Queen’s boy, made it to the dock wall but lost his grip, fell back into the river and drowned before help from the customs post, just 300 yards away, could reach him.
John Dunn the last man off the Gipsy Queen couldn’t believe his luck. He was third out of his cabin but stayed on deck, climbing up to the top of the paddle boxes and out onto the plank bridge between them, as the water rose to his knees. He couldn’t swim so threw one of the tug’s light screens overboard, thinking it would serve him as a float, but it sank as soon as it hit the water. At the last moment he jumped in and, with the despair of a drowning man, grabbed what he thought was a large piece of wreckage. It was the Gipsy Queen’s dog! With the assistance of the captain’s long haired retriever, he made it to the safety of the dock wall where they were both pulled out by the customs officers. The dog ran off but was found later wandering in a distressed condition around the dock. It was taken to the South Shields river police station where there was soon a queue of applicants, keen to offer it a new home.
Eighteen men died in the wreck of the Gipsy Queen: Fourteen of the Commissioners’ workmen and all of the tug’s crew of four. Twenty nine of the Commissioners’ men survived. At first the death toll was thought to have been much higher; there was no count of the Gipsy Queen’s passengers and none of the survivors were sure how many people had been aboard. Four men reported missing were later found safely at work. The usual number travelling was more than seventy leading to wild rumours of fifty or more deaths when the news broke. Newspapers blamed absenteeism after the Christmas Day holiday for the confusion but an investigation by the Commissioners’ Superintendent of Dredgers revealed that out of the two hundred and seventy men expected to be at work on Boxing Day, only two were found to be absent from duty. Some of the hopper barges normally up river were laid up at South Shields for the holiday and their crews had reported for work on the barges while others had travelled on the train to Newcastle at their own expense as it was quicker than the riverboat.
With so many men lost, the river police began the sad task of recovering the bodies with grappling hooks at dawn, watched by thousands of people on the shore. The Commissioners’ diver John Brown went down to the wreck amid fears that many men had been trapped in the cabins because the Gipsy Queen sank so quickly, but he found them to be empty. Twelve bodies had been found by the time the search was called off at 6pm because the men couldn’t see what they were doing in the gloom of the winter evening, and another six were recovered when it was resumed the next day including that of John McVay, the captain of the Gipsy Queen. The body of William Matthews was found on the 29th December, and the last, Peter Sinclair, was picked up by a boatman at the west end of Howdon Dock on the 26th January. Sinclair’s watch had stopped at twenty seven and a half minutes past five - the exact time of the disaster.
The sinking of the Gipsy Queen provoked anger and disbelief in North and South Shields. The towns had suffered more than their fair share of maritime disasters but the sinking of the Gipsy Queen was different. In 1849 the South Shields lifeboat ‘Providence’ capsized, drowning twenty pilots and devastating the close knit local community, but those who died were volunteers who put out in the teeth of a gale to save lives - heroes who sacrificed their lives for others. Shipwreck and rescue were a part of the identity of both North and South Shields; the risks were well known and understood. The men of the Gipsy Queen were simply going to work in the safety of the harbour on a calm and clear morning, and their loss was both cruel and inexplicable. In the collieries that lined the banks of the Tyne sudden death was never far away from the pitman and his family but none of the Commissioners’ men ever thought that their jobs would cost them their lives.
The funerals of the South Shields men - William Baines, William Birch, Robert Clark, Richard Hunter, William Hudson, George Patterson and John McVay - took place on the afternoon of Monday 29th December and drew huge crowds as the individual corteges came together in a solemn procession from the Market Place down King Street and up Fowler Street to Westoe Cemetery for the burials, followed by a large body of the Commissioners’ men. George Rollo and three of the other North Shields men were buried at Preston New Cemetery where Rollo had buried his child on Christmas Eve telling her, in the hearing of some of the survivors, that he would see her again on Saturday. Rollo’s wife, her hands bent by arthritis, couldn’t work and she had two little children to support.
Two inquests, one in each of the towns of North and South Shields, and an inquiry by the Commissioners blamed the crew of the tug for the disaster. Their findings suggested that the Gipsy Queen was being “improperly navigated” when she ran into the sunken barge but whatever was judged to be the immediate cause of her sinking, the 18 lives lost would have been saved if she had been properly equipped with lifesaving equipment. The men of the Gipsy Queen drowned within the sight and sound of their workmates on the number 4 dredger, three rescue boats were on the scene within five minutes and the tug sank eighty yards from Howdon Dock wall in fine weather. Despite their employment on the river, few of the men could swim and the Gipsy Queen had no lifebuoys or life rafts, just her paddle box boat, a tender which could only accommodate four people. The 47 men on board, thankfully significantly less than the seventy she normally carried, would have had little chance even if the tug had sunk in daylight and it is shameful that the loss of life did not lead to any recommendations for improvements in the safety of river craft.
On the third of September 1878 the collier Bywell Castle of Newcastle collided with the pleasure steamer Princess Alice on Gallions Reach on the Thames with the loss of up to seven hundred lives – no one could be sure of the exact total as there was no count of the passengers but 640 bodies were recovered and fewer than 130 people survived. The Princess Alice, overcrowded with woefully inadequate lifesaving equipment, sank in less than four minutes but as with the Gipsy Queen the inquiry concentrated on apportioning blame for the tragedy, not on improving the safety of river craft.
Placing the blame for the Gipsy Queen Disaster on a crew who could not answer the charge of negligence laid against them, allowed the Commissioners to avoid some difficult questions about the marking of wrecks in the river which had its own peculiar regulations. The fact that the watchman of the dredger had to warn more than fifteen vessels proceeding upstream with the tide, in the early hours of Boxing Day, to pass to the south of the marker suggests there was a problem. The sunken hopper barge was well lit with five lights – four on the dredger and her hoppers, and one on the boat marking the wreck – but the arrangement was unusual. The wreck marker was required by the local custom to be placed over the wreck but in this case it was at the stern, with the dredger marking the bow of the sunken hopper. The dredger had been moved from its position to mark the wreck and was displaying the red light of a ship going upriver so it is easy to see how vessels that were not aware of the new arrangements could have assumed it was possible to pass between the wreck marker and the dredger, especially as that was where the navigation channel lay.
The Newcastle Journal reported that, on Christmas Eve, a passenger steamer of the Tyne General Ferry company had a narrow escape when, after leaving Howdon Dock landing, it attempted to pass between the dredger and the marker boat but, with the tide against it, managed to back off after being warned by the watchman. A witness commented that if the tide had been with them the crowded steamer would have gone onto the wreck with great loss of life.
The inquest jury at South Shields, after concluding that there was no evidence to show why the Gipsy Queen was out of her course, pointedly requested the coroner to recommend the commissioners to “guard wrecks in future by three bright lights in the form of a triangle similar to those used on the Thames and other important rivers”.
Life after Death
A few days after the sinking, both the Gipsy Queen and the hopper barge were raised. The fate of the barge is unknown but the Gipsy Queen was repaired and put back into service. In 1876 she was at Hull and she served in the ports of Hull and Grimsby until the 1890s. Despite her age the Gipsy Queen kept her reputation for speed. She was in the news in March 1882 when she was chartered by the police to patrol the mouth of the Humber for five days, stopping fishing smacks and searching them for Fredrick Rycroft who was wanted in connection with the notorious murder of William Pepper, an apprentice aboard the fishing boat “Rising Sun” who was bullied, tortured, and finally killed by the crew. There was a dramatic scene when the Gipsy Queen arrived at the Albert Dock with Rycroft aboard, only to find the quayside occupied by a large hostile crowd forcing her to run off down river to land the prisoner at a private staith. Rycroft was acquitted of the murder but found guilty of common assault and sentenced to three months hard labour. He gave evidence against the skipper and owner of the Rising Sun, Osmond Brand, who was convicted of the murder and executed at Armley Gaol in Leeds on the 23rd May 1882. In 1888 the Gipsy Queen was again in the news when she towed the brig ‘Swift of Shoreham’ out of Newcastle, laden with coal, to Grimsby in a gale - but her final fate is unknown.
The Dead of the Gipsy Queen
William Bains, South Shields, William Birch, South Shields, Robert Clark, South Shields, Robert Cleghorn, North Shields, George Cleminson, North Shields, David Gustard, North Shields William Hudson, South Shields, Richard Hunter, South Shields, William Johnson, North Shields, George Patterson, South Shields Robert Ralph, North Shields John Rolla, North Shields, William Scott, North Shields George Young, North Shields.
The Crew of the Gipsy Queen
John McVay, Master, South Shields, John Taws, Engineer, North Shields, Peter Sinclair, Deckhand, North Shields, William Matthews, Boy, North Shields.
A relief fund opened at South Shields on 6th January for the families raised £400 on the first day. The final total is not known.
David Kidd is a trustee of The Coble and Keelboat Society and runs the Society’s twitter account. He was born and brought up in South Shields and his Granda worked for the Tyne Improvement Commission at Howdon Yard. David remembers going on the Ferry with the old man who told him to always stand next to the life raft because a ferry once sank, and a lot of men were drowned. He never found out the ferry’s name and thought it was just a story but now he believes it must have been a folk memory of the Gipsy Queen. David studied Art part time at Newcastle Polytechnic while working for a bank in Newcastle and later became a teacher. He is now retired.
- Additional Bank holidays like Boxing Day which began in 1871 were called Lubbock days after the promoter of the Bill that introduced them.
- The Commissioners were the Tyne Improvement Commission formed in 1850 which took over the responsibility of the Corporation of Newcastle for the River Tyne. In 1861 they began a comprehensive scheme to improve the river including building the piers and the swing bridge. In 1968 they became the Port of Tyne authority.
- A ladderman was responsible for the operation of the bucket chain on a dredger (see picture)
- A paddle box boat is a paddle steamer’s tender, a boat small enough to be kept on top of the paddle box.
- A sculler boat is a small boat propelled by a single oar over the stern often used as a water taxi to transport passengers on the river.
- Wherries and Keels are barges used on the River Tyne. Wherries were improved versions of keels, clinker built with fore and aft sails and a rudder. Screw wherries were steam powered.
- Skuetender is a nickname (not complimentary) for someone from the riverside district of South Shields.