120 years ago a ship was dashed onto the rocks off Redcar with the loss of 13 lives – and one pier. Chris Lloyd reports

FOR seven frantic hours, the Birger was driven crazily up the North Yorkshire coast by a hurricane-force gale. Torrential rain lashed her wheelhouse and mountainous seas washed her decks.

Every headland and vantage point along her 50-mile voyage to destruction was crammed with crowds of onlookers, eager to help and keen not to miss the drama, while her crew of 15 – sleepless and saturated – battled the elements and the exhaustion to man the pumps continuously just to keep her afloat.

Despite their valiant efforts, destiny drew the Birger into Tees Bay and then dashed her onto Saltscar – the fingers of hard rock that reach out from Redcar sands into the North Sea.

On those rocks, 120 years ago yesterday, she was smashed into pieces and 13 of her crew perished amid the pounding breakers.

Of course, in those long gone sailing days, there were wrecks aplenty on the east coast, but what makes the break-up of the Birger so memorable is that it caused the death of a pier.

The Birger was a 757-ton barque (a sailing ship with three or more masts) from Rauma in Finland. She'd been out for five-and-a-half weeks, carrying a cargo of salt from San Carlo in Spain to Abo in Finland.

On Saturday, October 15, 1898, she was nearing the Norwegian coast when the weather turned against her. She was blown backwards over the Dogger Bank towards Lincolnshire. On the Sunday, she sprung a leak. Rather than seek shelter in Grimsby, Captain KO Nordlink fatefully decided to press northwards to South Shields.

The weather worsened. The windmill pump that was keeping the ship afloat was blown overboard. The storm strengthened. At daybreak on the Tuesday, it had "assumed the proportions of a hurricane". Leaking and labouring heavily in the dawn, the Birger found herself a mile-and-a-half off Scarborough. Two rockets were fired from Castle Hill in the hope of attaching a line to her, but the mortars fell short.

Undeterred, the Rocket Brigade, accompanied by the lifeboat on a horsedrawn trailer "followed the vessel along the coast road as it was rapidly driven northwards by the gale".

The Birger tore past Robin Hood's Bay, her topsails in tatters, her distress signals all but obliterated by the spray and the rain. It was too dangerous for the lifeboat to put out after her.

"When the craft hove in sight off Whitby, there was a tremendous concourse of people assembled," said D&S Times' sister paper, The Northern Echo, "and the lifeboat crew were also in readiness in case of emergency."

But with "unabated fury", the gale drove her four miles out to sea – beyond the reach of rockets and the lifeboat.

On, on she went, utterly at the mercy of the storm. At Saltburn, she was driven towards the shore. By now, her rigging was all but destroyed. Waves were sweeping her decks. Her topsails were blown to oblivion. Her timbers were waterlogged. Her crew were exhausted. And then she became trapped among the towering breakers beneath the glowering Huntcliff.

Desperate on-lookers fired guns to ward her away from what seemed certain calamity. Then, to the surprise of all, the Birger escaped the tug of the undertow and forced herself away from the cliffs and back out into the open sea – back into the boiling, tumultuous open sea, and back into the teeth of the most ferocious gale in living memory.

But the elements would not let her escape for long. They drove her the handful of miles down the sands. They whisked her around the feeble matchstick legs of Redcar Pier – the most southerly of the resort’s two piers.

And, at 2pm, they smashed her onto Saltscar, the rocks beneath the northerly Coatham Pier. The force of the impact caused the Birger's mainmast to crash down onto the deck, killing the chief officer and the captain.

"The captain was taking a cradle home for his wife," said the Echo.

Redcar's two lifeboats - Emma and The Brothers – tried to reach the stranded crewmen.

“The sea was running mountains high, and as far as the eye could see was one mass of tumbling, seething foam-crested ridges, among which the advances of a boat from the shore seemed impossible,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times.

The lifeboats couldn’t make it, and, all alone, at 2.30pm, the Birger began to break apart. The wheelhouse was ripped from the hull and, with three sailors lashed to it, was flung at the pier, on which hundreds of people stood, trying to save the men.

"When they got near, lines were thrown towards them, but they were apparently benumbed by the cold through being in the water so long, and only one of them was able to retain his hold," said the Echo. "He was hauled onto the pier."

A second poor soul was seen to perish, and the D&S said: “The third held on for some minutes, but he was too exhausted to maintain his grip of the rope when he was hauled out of the water, and with a despairing cry of “oh, dear!” he fell back into the sea and was carried away.

The crowd could see they were in immediate danger, and they rushed from the pier, taking survivor Emile Nordstrom with them.

Just as well, because the next wave "dashed the deckhouse with terrible force against the supports, and about 60 yards of pier was broken". The section where the rescuers had been standing only moments earlier toppled into the water.

Continued the Echo: "Another man – Johann Nestor Makila – was seen floating towards the shore and a rush was made to get hold of him.

“He was rescued at great risk, several of the rescuers being knocked down in the water." Indeed, a chap from South Bank broke a leg when he was struck by wreckage.

So the final toll was 13 – and one pier. Coatham, opened in 1875, never re-opened, and it fell down the following year.