‘The People along the Sand’: the Spurn Peninsula and Kilnsea, a history, 1800 and 2000
by Jan Crowther

   
 

This book was published by Phillimore and Co. Ltd. in November 2006, is approximately 264 pages with almost 200 black and white and 32 colour photographs. It is now available as a softback (ISBN number 978-1-86077-654-0) at a cost of 18.99. It is available from the publishers, from Amazon, at outlets in the Spurn/Easington area or from the author at: wilgils@btinternet.com.

   
 

About The Author

 

Jan Crowther is a local history researcher/writer. She has written a number of books and articles on local history, including Beverley in mid-Victorian Times (Hutton Press, 1990), and The Diary of Robert Sharp of South Cave: life in a Yorkshire village, 1812–1837. (Oxford: O.U.P. for the British Academy, 1997 — joint editor with Peter Crowther). She has been interested in the Spurn and Kilnsea area since the early 1980s and has written several articles on its history. She has been studying original sources, and collecting material, including early postcards, photographs, personal recollections, maps, and newspaper references for many years. Her large collection of illustrative material is drawn upon in this book.

The People Along The Sand by Jan Crowther
   
   
  Humber Lifeboat
   
 

Spurn Peninsula and its neighbour, Kilnsea

 

Spurn Head, or Spurn Point, is a three and a half mile peninsula, composed of sand and shingle, that stretches out between the North Sea and the River Humber at the south-eastern tip of Yorkshire. The first peninsula developed after the retreat of the last Ice Age. How it came into existence and how it developed cannot be certainly proven, but over the centuries it has changed and breached several times. The best documented breach was in 1849 when the peninsula became a string of islands. By means of chalk revetments and a series of groynes Spurn was held in place, but now it is living on borrowed time and another breach is expected imminently.
Spurn is the home of the Humber Lifeboat, and has the only resident full-time lifeboat station in Britain. Established at the end of Spurn Point in 1810, because so many ships were being wrecked there, the lifeboat has had many distinguished coxswains and crew, who have been involved in numerous dangerous rescues. Together with their wives and families the lifeboat crew have made this unusual place their home.
Lighthouses have been located on Spurn for over five hundred years. Because of the erosion of the peninsula numerous lighthouses have been erected on the Point, the last one being built in 1895, when there was evidence that the foundations of Smeaton’s 18th-century lighthouse were giving way. It shone out over Spurn (except during war-time) for 90 years, until 1985, when modern technology made it redundant. It still however remains, to form an attractive feature of the peninsula.
The Humber is a very dangerous river with constantly shifting sand banks and changing channels. From the 16th century navigation on the Humber has been assisted by beacons, buoys and lightships, as well as licensed pilots. Today Associated British Ports pilots work from Spurn, where they occupy converted World War I buildings as their base, and a jetty where their boats are moored. The Vessel Traffic Service, which monitors all shipping in the Humber, is also controlled by Associated British Ports, and runs a 24-hour watch on the Humber from a tower established on the base of a former Battery Observation Post on the Point.
Standing at the head of a busy estuary Spurn Point has played an important role in the defence of Britain. During the Napoleonic Wars a battery with barracks was established there. At the beginning of World War I Spurn seemed an ideal place for land-based defences, and in 1915 Spurn Fort was established on the Point, whilst at the mouth of the estuary two forts, Bull Sand Fort and Haile Sand Fort, were erected on sand banks. At Kilnsea at the northern end of the peninsula another fort, Godwin Battery, was established. During the construction of these forts, a military railway was built to link Spurn and Kilnsea. It had, over its forty-year lifetime, an amazing diversity of rolling stock, including sail bogies. As a means of giving early warning of the approach of zeppelins, the Kilnsea sound mirror was erected in fields a little to the north of Godwin Battery. Whilst it was in control of the peninsula the Army took over responsibility for maintaining the sea defences from the Board of Trade.
After the war the forts were placed under a system of care and maintenance, and Godwin Battery was retained as a local military base, and also used by the Territorial Army for annual camps. When World War II was declared, the military came back in force, and in the early years of the war Spurn played an important role in home defence. When the focus of the war moved to the Continent, Spurn and Kilnsea forts continued to play an important role in the defence of the East Coast from the air. After the war a military presence remained, and in the 1950s during the Cold War more anti-aircraft ordnance was placed in the Warren area at the base of the peninsula. By the late 1950s most of the military had withdrawn and the forts were put up for sale. In 1959 Spurn itself was sold to the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust for the creation of a nature reserve and in 1960 Godwin Battery was sold and turned into a caravan site (Sandy Beaches). Some military buildings, gun emplacements, and concrete pill boxes still remain, though many were demolished in the 1970s. It is still, however, possible to see searchlight emplacements, the remains of an engine room, two gun emplacements, and other relics which give an indication of what Spurn must have looked like when it was bristling with armaments and soldiers. In the estuary the two forts, Bull Sand Fort and Haile Sand Fort, still stand, grey and forbidding, like sentinels at the mouth of the Humber.

   
  Spurn Landscape
   
 

The unique landscape of Spurn Head, and its distinctive flora and fauna have attracted naturalists to the peninsula since the early 19th century. In the 1930s some of these people realised that Spurn would be an ideal spot for a bird observatory, and made plans to take a lease upon Warren Cottage, at the north end of the peninsula. The war intervened and plans were put on hold, to be revived again in 1945/6, when Spurn Bird Observatory was born. Since then bird observation and recording on the peninsula has continued without a break. The importance of the peninsula for natural history was officially acknowledged in 1996 when Spurn became a National Nature Reserve.
The emphasis of the book is on how people have inter-acted with landscape in this unique part of the country. Struggling against the elements the people who have lived in this area have showed bravery, fortitude and steadfastness. The Spurn area has also attracted visitors from far and wide, fascinated with its distinctive topography, flora and fauna. It is now also a holiday area with caravan sites and cafes. Several studies of the lifeboat, the lighthouses, the military history, and the natural history have been published, but this is the first book to be devoted to a general study of the area.
For those wishing to purchase The People along the Sand it may be obtained from Browns, and Waterstones in Hull, from various outlets in Kilnsea, Easington and Patrington, direct from the publishers or by order from any bookseller. Signed copies may be obtained from the author (email: odinpareen@hotmail.com).

   
  Kilnsea old and new: 1800-1879
   
 

Chapter 1 Kilnsea old and new: 1800-1879.

 

This chapter covers the landscape of Kilnsea at the opening of the century; open fields, new enclosures; the church and village collapsing over the cliff; the making of the new village — the pubs, the farms, shops, new church and chapel, schooling; smuggling and coastguards; beacons; Warren Cottage and gravelling dues.

   
  Living on Spurn Island 1800-1879
   
 

Chapter 2 Living on Spurn Island: life on the peninsula 1800-1879.

 

This chapter covers Spurn at the beginning of the century; lighthouses; lifeboat; life on the Point for the coxswain and crew, the lighthouse-keepers and their families; the great breach of 1849 and its consequences for inhabitants; life on the Point in the second half of the 19th century; provisions; gardens; religion; the school; saving lives: the continuing protection of the Point.

   
  Spurn and Kilnsea 1880 - 1913
   
 

Chapter 3 Spurn and Kilnsea 1880 - 1913

 

This chapter covers improving communications — the telegraph, post office and telephones; the new school; the new lighthouse; the lifeboat and its rescues; Trinity Houses of Hull and London; Humber Conservancy Board; RNLI taking over; erosion, and the beach; archaeology; 1906 floods; life in Kilnsea in the early 20th century; travel; visitors to Spurn; holiday homes on Spurn; the build-up to war; the wildfowlers and naturalists; the coming of the railway; excursions from Cleethorpes and Grimsby.

   
  World War One: Spurn and Kilnsea play their part: 1914-1919.
   
 

Chapter 4 World War One: Spurn and Kilnsea play their part: 1914-1919.

 

This chapter covers the military evaluation of the site; the construction of the forts; the defence of coast; the boost to the local economy; the railways and forts; Spurn Fort and Port War Signal Station; Bull and Haile Sand Forts; the zeppelins and the sound mirror; life during the war for the military and civilians; the end of the war; Armistice celebrations.

   
  The Interwar period: peace and quiet returns to Spurn: 1919-1939
   
 

Chapter 5 The Interwar period: peace and quiet returns to Spurn: 1919-1939

 

This chapter covers the continuing military presence; the lifeboat; the school; domestic life — cooking, gardening, poultry; fishing; deliveries of produce; gravelling; visitors by boat; social events; entertainments; the railway line and rolling stock; accidents; the dwellings on the Point; the wild life and the naturalists; travel to the area, the beginnings of local bus services and the impact of motor traffic.

   
  World War Two: return of the armed forces: 1939-1945
   
 

Chapter 6 World War Two: return of the armed forces: 1939-1945

 

This chapter covers the re-opening of the two military camps; the reactivation of the Port War Signal Station; the two river forts, Bull and Haile Sand; the preparations for invasion; the building of extra defences; defences for the air and protection of the Humber; air raids; Spurn used to accommodate soldiers returning from Dunkirk; new role after Hitler abandoned his plans for invasion and Spurn returned to the role of anti-aircraft defence; soldiers training at camps for D-day; the social events; the interaction between locals and military.

   
  The Post-War Period 1945-1959.
   
 

Chapter 7 The Post-War Period 1945-1959.

 

This chapter covers the Cold War; the beginning of Spurn Bird Observatory; the 1953 floods; changes in the local economy; the beginnings of tourism to the area; the last years of the military; the lifeboatmen and their families; changes caused by improved transport.

   
  The early years of the Nature Reserve: late 1950s to late 1960s
   
 

Chapter 8 The early years of the Nature Reserve: late 1950s to late 1960s

 

This chapter covers the creation of Spurn peninsula as a Nature Reserve; caravans and leisure activities in Kilnsea; increasing problems of coastal erosion.

   
  The recent years: 1970 to 2000
   
 

Chapter 9 The recent years: 1970 to 2000

 

This chapter covers the nature reserve; accelerating erosion; the Spurn Heritage Coast Project; Spurn Bird Observatory; the wildlife; the search and rescue services on the Point; the lighthouse; the Spurn lightship; the fate of the forts; life in Kilnsea.

   
 

The title of the book derives from this poem by Robert Frost

   
 

The People Along the Sand


The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be—
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

   
  Spurn
   
 

The People along the Sand includes a lot of material, but Jan has collected much more — reminiscences, photographs, press cuttings, and so on. This web page provides an opportunity to bring a few of them to your attention. The stories will be changed every few months. Here are some to begin with.

   
 

Coxswain Robertson Buchan
Coxswain Robertson Buchan, c.11973

   
  S.T.Rochester
   
 

Invasion of the Dutchmen

 

A rather interesting insight into life in Kilnsea in the mid-19th century is provided by a piece in a short-lived newspaper, The Holderness Times, of 27 October 1860. A few days previously, Kilnsea had been ‘invaded’ by 75 Dutch fishing vessels, containing about 700 men. They landed on the beach and demanded food from the villagers in exchange for herrings and other fish. That was apparently a regular occurrence up and down the coast, though at Filey and Bridlington, where they were also in the habit of landing, the authorities policed their behaviour, not allowing them to remain on the beach longer than one tide. At little Kilnsea they could do as they liked, and were in the habit of regaling themselves at one of the pubs, demanding of the residents ‘such toothsome things as they please’ and offering ‘some uncleaned fish’ in payment. On that particular visit the ‘700 Dutchmen’ had gone into the alehouse (quite how they all got in is another matter!), and when the landlord asked them to leave they refused to go, and proceeded to break the windows and to attack one of the villagers. The incumbent, who was there to take a service, intervened, as did the local coastguards but they were well outnumbered. The nearest policeman was several miles away but the newspaper report stated that police had visited the village no less than 10 times during the last six weeks, presumably because of earlier problems with the Dutchmen. This incident demonstrates graphically that Kilnsea, although isolated by land, was certainly not isolated by sea.

   
  Chance Bay
   
 

Death in Chance Bay

 

The Hull Advertiser reported on 20 October 1850, how a Kilnsea 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’.

   
  The New Lighthouse
   
 

The new lighthouse, 1895

 

When Spurn lighthouse was commissioned in 1895 two Elder Brethren of London Trinity House, Captains Barlow and Stewart, R.N., together with Thomas Matthews, were present at the lighting up of the new burners, and afterwards proceeded to sea in the Trinity steamer, Vestal, to verify the direction of the subsidiary lights and observe the effect of the main flashing light out at sea. It must have been a very satisfying experience for all three and an occasion for congratulation all round!

   
  Kilnsea Floods
   
 

Kilnsea floods of 1906

 

As after the 1953 floods some 46 years later, people had many tales to tell. The Reverend Peacock was expected in Kilnsea on that Monday to conduct a wedding. Here is his report:

On Monday I had to go to Kilnsea to perform a wedding ceremony, but when I got to the bridge, which is the divisional line between Easington and Kilnsea, I found my way was barred. Water was flowing over the bridge, and it seemed as though I would have to wade through it. Naturally, I was anxious not to disappoint the wedding party, and I felt that I must fulfil the engagement. At last a cart came along, and the driver kindly assisted me out of my predicament. I found he was loaded with sacks, and so I got well wrapped up, and we drove through the floods, the water frequently splashing over us. I got to the church, and the ceremony, which at one time I feared would have to be postponed, was performed. But I had to get back to Easington. The time of high tide was approaching, and I soon found that I was, as it were, a prisoner in Kilnsea … At six o’clock [the water] was quite six feet in some places. You may perhaps better imagine what it was like if I tell you that a farmer, a neighbour of my host, had to go out in a scalding tub to rescue his stock, or else they would have been drowned. Kilnsea was a complete island.

The Holderness novelist Edward Booth has a fictional account of the floods at Kilnsea in his book The Doctor’s Lass (1910). In this account the local doctor is summoned to the bedside of a sick little girl in Kenham Beach (Kilnsea). His account when they arrive on Long Bank bridge goes:

The dykes, running on their right and left were swollen almost to the summit of their once dry rustling flags, but here, poised on the vault of the embankment for descent of the Kenham side, they saw the full extent of the flood. Where they had left the dry road behind them in this brief gradient, they dipped down now to meet a waste of plashing waters in which all trace of a road was lost. Only the telegraph poles pricked a sparse way through the formidable flood that danced in vehement commotion like a sea. Indeed, to all intents and purposes this was the sea. Its waters were heaped up over the land by the breakers of the German Ocean not two hundred yards away that carried Kenham’s low beach by assault, wave after wave, and rushed like lines of liquid soldiery to force their passage to the Hun (Humber) … the Doctor drew momentary rein. More than once he had forded the spot by daylight, keeping the mare’s nose to a rigid centre of the submerged roadway; judging his course by the guide stakes, and telegraph posts, and the suggestive deepening of the water’s hue that showed the swollen ten-foot dykes on either hand … But now he had no such aids to guide him … For all that lay in front of him distinguishable from this living volume of water, the Doctor might have been setting his mare’s nose to the North Sea … In no place along the roadway would there lie a greater depth of water than four feet; but this water was in motion, driven by the sea and whipped by the wind. The mare refused to go further and the doctor was forced to jump from the trap and guide her forward. Eventually he saw a light and found the farmer from the first farm (Grange Farm) with a lantern to show him the way. Reaching the sick child he found her with acute diphtheria and had to perform a tracheotomy to allow her to breathe.

   
  St. Helens
   
 

High Jinks at St. Helen's Church

 

The Territorial camps between the two world wars seem to have been quite jolly affairs. Les Park remembered one occasion when about five men and the Sergeant (real name Brown but nicknamed ‘Huck’ after Huckleberry Finn) were returning after a very convivial night at the Crown. As they passed the church Huck said ‘I’ll ring that bell.’ The others tried to stop him but he climbed up the fall pipe and onto the tiles and rang the bell vigorously. It was almost midnight, and ‘no police then, so we all had a good laugh at Huck when he came down and called him a fool.’ However, the next morning as they were on the parade ground they saw a police car. ‘Now we didn’t know, it had only been a bit of a laugh but apparently the ringing of a church bell at night was a signal for a ship in distress and the rocket brigade had turned out!’

   
  Christmas in WWII
   
 

Christmas in World War II
(from Business with Pleasure by Carrie Leonard)

 

Christmas 1941 was once more almost upon us, and in honour of the age-old festival, the men did an act that will always endear them to me. They contacted the Matron of the local orphanage, and as there were a couple of hundred of the men, they asked for a corresponding number of the children’s names and promised to make toys for them. The names went into a hat back at the camp, and each man drew a name. I saw the toys when they were ready to be sent away and never before have I seen such original ideas. One in particular impressed me, both by reason of the time and care that had been taken with it and the beauty of the craftsmanship. It was a model of a pleasure yacht, and the decks were all inlaid with small plates of glass so that it was possible to see below the upper deck into the cocktail bar below. Here, everything was complete to the tiniest detail. There were tiny bar counters, a minute cabinet, and even the tiny scarlet painted stools had not been forgotten. All the toys gave great pleasure, as can be imagined, but I would have willingly changed places with the little fat, curly headed boy who received the yacht, so I might have kept it for my own. The maker of the yacht found himself in great demand after that, and he was prevailed upon to draw the design for a Christmas card for the whole Battery. It was beautifully done and I still have mine as a souvenir of those grand and thoughtful men.

Unfortunately there is usually a ‘fly in the ointment’ and in this unit it was in the form of a Sergeant, who was what is known in the army as ‘stripe happy’. He was thoroughly disliked by all the fellows, and at Christmas, when most things are put down to high spirits, they seized their chance to get their revenge. One night, they sneaked into his quarters and took his tunic, which they knew he would be wearing during Christmas. They then turned it inside out, stuck flypapers down the whole length of the sleeves and turned it back the right way again. Then they returned the tunic to its original place and waited for results. They didn’t have long to wait, for the Sergeant decided to dress up that night as he was going down to the village. The lads waited outside, hidden behind the next hut, and in a few minutes they were rewarded with the knowledge that they had done their work thoroughly. The air turned blue with the stream of threats and their awful language which the ‘unfortunate’ Sergeant poured forth, and the culprits hugged themselves with delight as they fled away to where they could release their bottled up laughter without fear of the result.

In this camp, the time-honoured Army Customs were faithfully carried out. For instance, the cheekiest gunner in the camp was elected to be Orderly Officer, and he strutted around the camp rather like a Bantam Cock, all dressed up in the Captain’s uniform. The officers and sergeants had to do all the fatigues that were normally done by the other ranks, and the perky little gunner put them all on duty in the cookhouse, and on guard at the gate, and rated them soundly when he thought that their work was not up to standard. The Crowning Joy of course was at the long awaited Christmas Dinner, for the officers and sergeants had to wait on the men, clear the tables, and do the washing up. Many and loud were the complaints about the water. Cheeky remarks were flying about, and many of the officers must have felt uneasy as they heard the home truths coming out.

The meal over, the next item on the Agenda was the “Stage Coach”. This peculiar contraption was piled high with men, and off they tore down the middle of the road. There was quite a rough house, and one of the riders, a Sergeant, was flung off the coach into the road. The merry throng on board bowled on their way and didn’t even take the trouble to stop for him. There he lay, in the middle of the road, and as chance would have it, a car was coming along the road at the same time. It was only the quick thinking of the driver of the car, and the swift action of pulling hard on his brakes, which averted what might have been a nasty accident. Still, all’s well that ends well, and if the Sergeant entertained any hard feelings, they were soon forgotten in the general merry making that soon followed.

   
  Fancy Dress Party
   
 

Fancy Dress Party
(from Business with Pleasure by Carrie Leonard)

 

There were many lively social evenings: one of Carrie’s favourite pastimes was dressing up. Fancy dress dances had been a common social event before the war and when nearby Skeffling organised a wartime fancy dress ball Carrie decided to go as a Hawaiian girl complete with a grass skirt and garlands. Others also took part with enthusiasm:

One very stout lady was making light of her size, for she appeared as a barrage balloon and we united to defy all. The saucy remarks that were flung in our direction! One of the village girls who is well known for her tiny figure and gentle air appeared as a nursemaid, wheeling a pram in which reposed a huge airman clad in a long night- shirt, and holding by the hand another airman in rompers. Unfortunately for the little nurse, the ‘children’ decided to have a fight and ‘baby’ leapt from his pram like a Churchill tank and attacked his ‘little brother’ who was in just the mood for noise and battle. After a short rough and tumble ‘baby’ seized nursie, lifted her into the pram and set off down the hall at a gallop. In his headlong flight he failed to notice and watch his step, and falling like a ton of coal, he overturned the pram and his tiny nurse right at the feet of the horrified nurse’s dignified mother. Instead of this making the dancers saner, they became more and more crazy as the night wore on. I had an awful time, for they were determined to set fire to my skirt. I narrowly escaped ending us as a heap of ashes, for getting tired of my determined resistance they flew off to see if the barrage balloon would burst. I will draw a discreet veil over the rest of the evening.