The Lord Napier Story by Ron Howell

Three quarters of a mile east of the Salcombe Bar and a quarter of a mile out to sea from the now demolished Gara Rock hotel lie two protected wreck sites. One of these sites is known as Moor Sands, Bronze Age weapons were found there in the late 1970’s. The other, known as the Salcombe site, hides two wrecks, a 17th Century Dutch Merchantman or Barbary Pirate vessel, and adjacent the remains of two Bronze Age vessels potentially the oldest in the world if not the most important because it has proved that there was trade 3500 years ago between Europe and the Mediterranean. Since the discovery of Europe’s largest collection of Islamic gold coins and jewellery on the 17th Century wreck, work continued, until 2003 when the first Bronze Age artefact was discovered, work then stopped on the 17th Century site to enable the divers to concentrate their efforts on these considerable and very important finds.

On one dive during late summer in 2003 a diver searching the outer edges of the 17th century site came across the brick one side just visible above the sea bed, as these bricks contained metallic elements that gave a signal on the metal detector the diver pulled it out to pl ace it to one side, as he did so he noticed a defined shape under the brick, pulling that out also revealed a heavy lump of bronze which turned out to be a Bronze Age palstave axe head. Two Divers had come across these bricks over the years, why there were there so many scattered everywhere, lying alongside artefacts from the 17th Century and Bronze Age, they were soon to find out.   In 2006 two of the team surveying the outer edges of the Protected area found a trail of bricks, they followed them and came across a huge pile of them, swimming over the top of the mound they discovered an anchor and chain, following the chain they discovered a winch, under the winch was a piece of pottery with the broken word ‘mouth’ impressed in the glaze. They had found the ‘Brick Wreck’ as it was soon to become known.

Divers from the South West Maritime Archaeological Group have been diving and working together for many years and know they have the responsibility for the discoveries they make and the ‘Brick Wreck’ was no exception. Within days of the discovery they consulted the ‘Board of Trade Casualty Returns’ for 1910/11 and found that on April 25th the ‘Lord Napier’ Ketch, sunk whilst carrying a cargo of bricks from Exmouth to Kingsbridge. She was lost “off Rackham”; exactly where they had found her except the admiralty chart names the area Rickham.   Further research found that her last owners were the Trout Brothers of Topsham, near Exeter, and a chance conversation revealed that the Trout Brothers still traded from the same boatyard in Topsham. A phone call soon set up a meeting with two divers of SWMAG and the descendants of the last owners of the Lord Napier.   Within half an hour of meeting the Trout family the divers had a full account that had been passed down the family of the sinking of the Lord Napier plus the names of the two surviving crew members. They were told that the ketch had loaded a cargo of ‘hot bricks’ from Exmouth 3 Brickworks for delivery to Kingsbridge, a days sailing away. Just off Prawle Point one of the crew noticed she was getting low in the water and heavy on the wheel, looking in the hold they saw she was taking in water and that the bricks being hot, acted like blotting paper. So they started throwing bricks over the side in order to lighten the vessel, eventually they realised they could not save her, so they dropped the anchor and jumped into the small dingy they towed astern and rowed to nearby Salcombe, and to safety.

The Lord Napier slipped under the water a few minutes later. As well as providing the story of the last moments of the Lord Napier the family were able to give the divers a family history booklet that had just been completed. In it were the names and addresses of the original owners. Also that very day a descendant of one of the survivors Eric Voysey was attending the nearby Topsham Museum with visiting members of his family, and the two divers were able to talk to him about his great uncle, Jim (Capt) Voysey.

Research continued into the history of the Ketch, and with the help of the internet found that the Lord Napier was built in Rye, Sussex in 1868 as a fishing smack destined for the fishing fleet of Ramsgate. In the 1881 census the Lord Napier was listed as being alongside at Sheerness, Kent with a crew of five aboard, the youngest being a cook on trial at the age of 14.

By the time the newly built Lord Napier had joined the Ramsgate fishing fleet in 1868 the North Sea fishing industry was in full swing with the then small ports of Grimsby, Hull, Lowestoft and Ramsgate reaping the rewards of the rich North Sea fishing grounds. The fishing fleets of the West Country seasonally migrated to these East Coast ports chasing the fish and unloading   4 them at docksides with close access to the markets of London and the Midlands. In 1860 the first fish and chip shop opened in London and in just a few years the demand for fish grew and the North Sea provided an abundant supply of turbot, sole, hake, cod and plaice. Also at the time of the Lord Napier the east coast ports expanded with the influx of these fleets prompting the development of new houses around the docks which are still there to this day. Having such a large fleet operating from Ramsgate created a particular social problem in as much as the presence of young boys that crewed these fishing smacks, once ashore they had no fixed abode.

By 1878 there were over 200 Smack boys as they were known, many of them recruited from Reformatories, Poor Law Schools, Orphanages, and Training ships having no known parents. Local inhabitants were often disturbed by rowdy, cheeky boys in the streets until a local vicar took it upon himself to open a home especially for boys from these fishing smacks. Opened in 1881 as ’The Home for Smack Boys’ it lasted until the decline of the fishing fleet and the start of the First World War, it finally closed its doors in 1915 and is now the Harbour Office for Ramsgate. By 1898 the old fishing smacks were being replaced by the new steam trawlers, the Lord Napier now 30 years old was sold on to a William Hall of Galmpton, South Devon for the coastal trade, the articulated lorries of that time. She was not listed by Lloyds, in other words not insured for valuable goods cargo that is why we see her trading i n timber, sand, concrete, stone, slate, bricks and other heavy materials. A local Dartmouth newspaper writes in 1903 of “The Ketch Lord Napier hitting the Horse Ferry, resulting in spearing a covered wagon with her 5 bowsprit”. After taking two hours to disentangle her she proceeded up the River Dart narrowly missing the Floating Bridge (Ferry) only to run aground off Noss where she remained for several days. The skipper was either having a bad day or he was intoxicated, history does not record his eventual fate. The painting below is by ‘Robert Dennis’

By 1904 it was obvious she was nearing the end of her days, research shows that her owner William Hall had connections with Topsham near Exeter and so he sold her on the Trout’s, a well known Topsham shipping family at the time, who had a reputation of buying up old vessels cheaply and fitting them out to do heavy dirty work. Her rig was changed from Ketch to a Yawl and she plied the south coast with all manner of heavy goods. Bridport Harbour records several such cargo’s being loaded on the Lord Napier to Dartmouth and Exmouth. And it so it was on her final voyage with a cargo of bricks, she ended her 43 year career as she slipped beneath the calm waters off Salcombe that April day in 1911. So that was the end of the Lord Napier, but what of her crew and owners? Research continued, revealing a fascinating story of the end of 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, reopening individual lives in those troubled times. Samuel Trout one of the two final owners of the Lord Napier was a Master Mariner and probably skippered the Lord Napier in her later years. He was born in 1842 and died in 1927, his son and co –shareholder Rupert Henry Trout was born in 1875, and he lived all his life in Monmouth Street, Topsham, and by strange coincidence, was killed in action, when HMS Monmouth was sunk with all hands at the 6 beginning of the First World War The battle one the first great naval actions of that war was fought off the coast of Chile, South America.

Known as the Battle of Coronel it resulted in the complete destruction of Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock’s squadron by the German Admiral Von Spee with his battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both HMS Monmouth and Good Hope were lost with all hands along with Admiral Craddock. The action prompted the then 1st Sea Lord Winston Churchill to send a fleet south which later resulted in the complete destruction of the German squadron. Samuel’s only son Wallace Henry Trout joined the Royal Navy between the wars and became a Chief Engine Room Artificer, he also lost his life in action aboard the Cruiser HMS Bonaventure when the Italian ‘Ambra’ torpedoed her off Crete in 1941 with the loss of 139 lives. One of the two survivors of the Lord Napier, Jim (Capt) Voysey lived out the rest his life fishing from Topsham also surviving another wrecking when the Ketch Julie was lost off the Lizard in 1935. Research shows Reg Chambers working in the coastal trade up to the Second World War before serving on Russian Convoy duties. Painting of the ketch below is by ‘Eric Voysey’ of Topsham

Eric Voysey the grand nephew of Jim (Capt) Voysey has worked all his life as a fisherman, he is also a talented artist who has recently (2009) had an exhibition of his art in Topsham Museum, he has painted many pictures depicting sailing ketches of the Lord Napier period including the ill-fated Julie. Now 80 he still lives in Topsham.

Etched on the war memorial outside Topsham’s church are the names of Rupert 7 and his son Henry both killed in action whilst serving their country in separate world wars. A link to the little fishing smack that started her life in 1868 helping to create a great fishing industry on the east coast of Britain and ending her life 43 years later as a tired old Ketch carrying bricks. Little did Jim Voysey and Reg Chambers know but in trying to save the Lord Napier that day in April 1911 just one of those bricks would reopen their stories and a social history of their a century later.

Photo of a brick from the Lord Napier


Ron Howell