WHEN SPURN WAS AN ISLAND
A visitor to Spurn walking along the chalky ridge that has given Chalk Bank its present name and looking across the relatively broad area of grassland at the sheep peacefully grazing there, might find it difficult to believe that at that very spot less than a century and a half ago, fishing boats, and even the Spurn lifeboat, could and did sail from the Humber to the North Sea, taking a short cut through a wide gap, where the peninsula had been breached. A glance at the First Edition Six-inch Ordnance Survey Map of 1852 shows the peninsula as a string of islands with the Point totally cut off from the mainland and named as ‘Spurn Island’. The breaching and subsequent reclamation and protection of Spurn peninsula in the 19th century is an interesting story and perhaps a timely one given the apparent vulnerability of Spurn’s present-day link to the mainland.
Spurn had been under increasing threat of erosion from the beginning of the century, when at high tides in stormy weather, seas had begun to wash over the narrower sections. A chart of 1828 shows much of the neck below water at high spring tides, and another, published in 1830, already uses the term ‘island’ for the tip of the peninsula, where the lighthouse was then located. Before the breach, however, sand and eroded material from higher up the coast could still be carried southwards to prevent erosion at the tip itself. A traveller to Spurn in 1835, George Head, gave a description of the peninsula as it then was: “Spurn Lighthouse is four miles beyond Kilnsea, the intervening land being a narrow barren ridge, a few hundred yards in breadth … On this ridge, for a considerable part of the way, rushes grow in abundance; and these afford a resting place for numerous flights of woodcocks on their first arrival in the country … The approach to the lighthouse is across a sand-bank, covered with hard turf, barely coloured with herbage, and perforated with rabbit burrows in every direction. The whole of this sand-bank, that is to say, every part exposed to the sea, appears to be receiving augmentation, rather than sustaining diminution, for it is situated upon a point of confluence of currents, where the contributions of the soil are greater, on the average, than the quantity carried away … The site of the lighthouse, for the present, seems quite secure; though, as a place of habitation, in dreary winter weather, at the end of a narrow spit of land, and menaced on three sides by the tumultuous ocean, the prospect must be dreary and awful”.
At that time, as indeed now, Spurn was not protected by any system of sea defences such as beach groynes which would have promoted the formation of wide beaches to inhibit erosion; indeed the practice of collecting shingle on a large scale for commercial purposes actually assisted the process of erosion, making a breach so much more likely whenever the conditions most favourable to it—a high spring tide and prolonged north-westerly gales—should coincide. In the last week of December 1849, several days of gale-force north-westerlies in the north Atlantic, pushing masses of water around Scotland into the North Sea, built up a massive tidal surge, which was to cause flooding and damage down the whole of the eastern coast of England from the Humber to the Thames. The breach at Spurn came on 28th December during an exceptionally high spring tide, when the sea tore through the peninsula at a point about three-quarters of a mile north of the compound enclosing Smeaton’s lighthouse, in the area now known as Chalk Bank. The gap deepened and widened in the ensuing weeks as the bad weather and strong winds continued, and fishing vessels and other small craft soon began to use it as a short cut from the sea to the Humber at high tide.
The lifeboat is recorded as having first passed through the breach on 29th February, 1850. Later in the year, Captain James Vetch, the Admiralty engineer, reported that “on the 23rd July, I found that the sea had made a breach or gap … about 320 yards wide at [the] time of ordinary high water, and then it is about 12 feet deep, allowing a vessel of 60 tons and drawing 10 feet of water, to pass through, and as many as seven vessels have been observed to sail through in one tide”. Although the gap itself was then measured at only 320 yards, as Captain Vetch pointed out, the dunes at either end of it had been washed away, so that at high spring tides as much as three quarters of a mile of the peninsula was under water.
The breach was known locally as ‘Chance Bay’ and probably got this name on account of the dangers involved in attempting to ford it. At the wrong state of the tide such attempts could prove fatal on account of the strong current produced by the tide flowing through the gap at an estimated speed of six or seven knots. At least one man was drowned and possibly more. The Hull Advertiser reported on 20th October, 1850, how a Withernsea man, Matthew O’Connor, one of a party shooting woodcock, who had been “indulging freely” at the Lifeboat Inn, reached ‘Chance Bay’ where he “resolutely, and in spite of all remonstrance, determined to ford over, saying he had done so often and would do so again. Bidding adieu to his companions, he staggered into about two feet of water, lost his balance and fell over—the strong current rolling him over and over, so that all the efforts of his companions to save him were useless”. The report went on to remark that it was “the fourth melancholy occurrence through intemperance between Kilnsea and Spurn in and within the last two years”, but did not say whether or not the others were also lost in ‘Chance Bay’.
Towards the end of the year, a second breach had occurred, some five hundred yards to the north of the main breach. The lighthouse keeper, reporting on the state of the peninsula on 28th February 1851, mentioned it as having been present for “some four or five months”. When he reported this smaller breach, he estimated it as being four and a half feet deep at spring tide, and stated his belief that at the next occurrence of a north-westerly gale and a spring tide, the 500 yards of spit separating the two breaches would very likely be washed away. At this time, the main breach had both widened and deepened. It is noticeable when looking at the Ordnance Survey map of 1852 (surveyed in 1851) that the tip of the peninsula or ‘Spurn Island’ does not show the characteristic ‘spoon’ shape that appears on both later maps and earlier charts. It is shown as narrow and elongated, which suggests that it had become considerably eroded since George Head described it as a secure site “receiving augmentation, rather than sustaining diminution”. It is very probable that the erosion of the Point had begun when the peninsula was breached, and that the flow of material which had previously been carried southwards to ‘augment’ it was now being interrupted at the breach and diverted into the Humber. From the reports of contemporary witnesses, it appears that if nothing had been done to effect repairs, the breaches would have continued to expand, and without its usual ‘augmentation’, the Point on which the lighthouse stood, would have continued to erode rapidly until it was completely washed away along with much of the peninsula.
Faced with this possibility and the potential danger to shipping if the shelter provided by Hawk Road, the only safe anchorage in an easterly gale between Harwich and the Forth, should be lost, and the deep-water channel made to shift, the Admiralty began to take steps to protect Spurn from further loss and destruction. Its engineer, Captain Vetch, had recommended a four-point plan: a ban on taking shingle from the beaches, the closing of the breach, the installation of groynes, and land reclamation between Spurn and Sunk Island. In the event only the last point was not adopted and put in hand.
A ban on the removal of shingle for ballast had in fact already been decreed soon after the breach was made, and although it had been relaxed to the extent of allowing the lifeboatmen to load gravel from the extreme tip of the peninsula, elsewhere the practice had been effectively stopped by the autumn of 1850. Of more immediate importance was the closing of the breaches in the peninsula. James Walker, another engineer, was given responsibility for this task, and in March 1851 he asked his employers for a sum of £10,000 to carry out the necessary work. The money was granted by Parliament in July, and Walker set about his task. He first tackled the smaller breach, and by installing groynes to build up the beaches and erecting a fence of stakes and wattles, backed up by a rampart of chalk to trap floating debris and other material brought by the sea, he succeeded in effectively closing the gap, and was able to report that this smaller breach had been sealed by May the following year. Unfortunately the main gap proved more recalcitrant and was still unsealed in 1854, when the grant of £10,000 had been exhausted. Although partly closed by the same methods at the northern end, the strong current was still carrying beach material through the remaining gap at its southern end, and the Point was still continuing to erode at a rapid rate. A further grant of £6,000 was obtained and by 1855, after a great deal of difficulty and effort, including the dumping of bargeloads of chalk from the quarry at Barton, the breach was finally closed. No sooner had this breach been sealed, however, when a third breach was made the following year. Fortunately this breach was much smaller than the two previous ones, being only 80 yards in width and 13 feet deep at high water, and after further expense and effort, it was sealed the following year, in 1857.
Thus eight years after the original great breach of 1849, Spurn was no longer an island. The traveller, Walter White, has left a description of what Spurn was like soon after the breaches had been sealed, and it is very clear that the peninsula must have still looked very fragile despite all the work of reclamation and sea defence. Looking along the peninsula northwards from the top of Smeaton’s lighthouse, he wrote: “Most remarkable is the tongue of sand … It is lowest where the breach was made and, now that the tide has risen higher, the chalk embankment seems scarcely above the level of the water”. Describing the sea defences at the Narrows and Chalk Bank, he wrote: “[the peninsula] narrows and sinks as it projects from the main shore for about two miles, and this part, being the weakest … is strengthened every few yards by rows of stakes driven deeply in and hurdle work. You see the effect in the smooth drifts accumulated in the spaces between the barriers which only require to be planted with grass. As it is, the walking is very laborious: you sink ankle-deep and slide back at every step … A little further on and we are on a rugged embankment of chalk: the ground is low on each side, and a large pond rests in the hollow between us and the sea on the left, marking the spot where a few years ago the sea broke through and made a clean sweep across all the bank”.
The “rugged embankment of chalk”, along which White walked, is not the same ridge of chalk which leads in a straight line from near Chalk Bank hide to Wire Dump, and from which present-day visitors to Spurn can look across the sheep field. This ‘chalk bank’ was constructed in 1870 as part of a later programme of defence works. Walker’s ‘chalk bank’ of 1855 was curved and followed the present shoreline of the Humber, where traces of it can be seen in the scattering of chalk boulders on the river beach. Groynes, embankments, and other sea defences continued to be built and maintained to protect Spurn for the rest of the nineteenth century and until the end of the Second World War. Indeed without them it is most unlikely that Spurn could have functioned as a military stronghold throughout two world wars. However, during this time, the coast of Holderness has continued to recede, and Spurn is now in a very exposed situation and perhaps even more vulnerable than it was on 28th December 1849. Watch this space!
Selected References: (1) De Boer, G. Spurn Point: erosion and protection after 1849; in: J. Neale and J. Flenley, eds. The Quaternary in Britain (1981), pp. 206–15. (2) The Hull Advertiser. (3) Vetch, J. Extracts from the Report … Dated 29th July 1850; issued with: Report of the Case, Williams v. Nicholson 31st May 1870 (London, 1870).