Bridlington Quay has possessed a harbour since medieval times...
Whilst trade and fishing have always been important elements of its activities, the harbour as we know it today in terms of size and shape owes much to the crucial role that Bridlington Quay, the Bay and local people played in servicing and sheltering the thousands of ships which carried much of the country’s commerce along the eastern seaboard of the Britain in the age of sail.
Before the end of the sixteenth century London was already one of the largest cities in Europe and increasingly reliant on fuel and foodstuffs shipped into the Thames by sea. During the seventeenth century an ever growing number of cargoes of coal were being forwarded to the Thames and other places from the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham. The Newcastle-London Sea Cole Trade was born. As populations expanded and towns grew in size during the eighteenth century many more places in England, the Low Countries and France took coal from the North-east by way of the North Sea coastal route.
Every day, large fleets of colliers could be seen plying their trade passing up and down the Yorkshire coast and larger merchantmen arriving from the Baltic - another growing avenue of trade - often looked to make landfall off Flamborough Head. The seas off the eighteenth century Holderness coast were teeming with maritime commerce.
However, the North Sea was a treacherous place for sailing ships when conditions deteriorated and nowhere was more dangerous than the Yorkshire coast north of Flamborough Head. Here the combination of one of the most dangerous seas in the world with a rocky, hostile and inhospitable coast spelt destruction for many ships and their crews and it has been suggested that as many as 50,000 vessels have been wrecked off Yorkshire since 1500.
One of the only places on the eastern seaboard of England where these large fleets of colliers and merchantmen could find some sort of refuge was to the south of Flamborough Head in Bridlington Bay. Flamborough Head formed a natural breakwater under which vessels could ride in relative safety in northerly and north-easterly gales and although Bridlington Bay is open to the south and west a considerable level of protection was provided by the Smithic Sands. As one witness to a government enquiry stated in 1847, there was no other place between the Firth of Forth and the Humber which offered such a level of protection.
During times of frequent and almost continuous north-easterly gales, large numbers of northward bound ships found shelter of Bridlington Quay and there were regular reports in the early nineteenth century of more than 300 vessels being at anchor in the Bay for weeks at a time when weather and wind was against them.
In an age of wood, sail and frequent storms, many vessels also ran for Bridlington Bay with varying degrees weather damage and sought a haven for urgent repairs. The worst the weather the more vessels needed to make the harbour and in order to afford some degree of help and safety in such times of stress Bridlington Quay was the first haven in Yorkshire to be officially granted the status of a harbour of refuge by Parliament in 1697. A similar status was granted to Whitby in 1702 and Scarborough in 1732. The 1697 act also created the Bridlington Harbour Commissioners. They were empowered to levy passing tolls on the collier fleets leaving the rivers Tyne and Wear and to use the money to extend and improve the harbour and enhance its role as a place of refuge for ships in distress. Bridlington maintained this status well into the nineteenth century and one important reason the harbour is its present size has to do with the need to provide a large area of mooring for ships from the passing fleets requiring repairs and more shelter.
Thus Bridlington Quay and its harbour provided a refuge for distressed vessels and specialised in repairing such craft. It was said in the 1840s that the harbour could supply everything a ship could want from an anchor to a mainmast and that there was never an occasion to send a vessel away for want of ability to repair it.
The large number of vessels which congregated in the bay, sometimes for weeks on end, were often in need of provisions and here the Bridlington Quay pilots and boatmen kept them well supplied with beef, bread and water and also ferried ship’s crews ashore for rest and refreshment. This trade was extremely important and the Quay’s boatmen, many of whom were licensed by Hull Trinity House were renowned as accomplished pilots who possessed an in-depth knowledge of navigating along the Yorkshire coast. Many of these experienced seafarers also crewed Bridlington’s lifeboats.
Both Bridlington Harbour and the Bay had their shortcomings. The harbour was dry at low tide and could not be entered at such times. Vessels often found it difficult to enter the harbour in stormy conditions and sometimes collided with the piers or ran onto the nearby beaches. The anchorage in the bay was open to the south and, if a strong gale blew up suddenly from the south east, then vessels could be caught in the bay and had either to try and ride out the storm at anchor or else be driven ashore. On such occasions the carnage along the coast could be considerable, as was the case during the Great Storm of February 1871 when some thirty vessels were wrecked along the shores of Bridlington Bay and seventy people lost their lives.
By this time, however, Bridlington Harbour no longer enjoyed the status of being classed as a harbour of refuge and, as larger iron and steel steam ships replaced the old sailing colliers in the last decades of the nineteenth century the bay became less important as an anchorage for the passing fleets of colliers and the Quay embarked on a new phase in its ever changing marine role.
Maritime Historical Studies Centre
The University of Hull