Friday, 3 February 2017

The Eyemouth Fishing Disaster

Recently, a new DNA match contacted me. I absolutely love the DNA discoveries in genealogy. My new match and I are 5th cousins once removed, and both descend from William Young (1760-1846) and Alison Spears (1760-1841), who are my 4th great grandparents, and who raised their family in both Berwick upon Tweed and Eyemouth.

Eyemouth lies just over the Scotland/England border in the Scottish Borders, and today is a mere 13 kilometres up the A1 from Berwick upon Tweed. One website tells me that to walk between the two towns now would take just under three hours. I wonder what the travel time would have been in the horse and buggy era.

The two towns are so close that Berwick area newspapers have always included Eyemouth news. Families, including my many Young ancestors, went back and forth.

Eyemouth's main industry was herring fishing in the North Sea. On October 14, 1881, disaster struck when much of Eyemouth's fishing fleet was wiped out by a fierce storm. That morning, the sea was calm. Fishermen ignored warnings about the coming storm because they hadn't been able to fish during the week, and since they didn't fish on weekends, families would starve. There was no food. Many sources note that no Eyemouth family was left untouched by what came to be called the Eyemouth Disaster, or Black Friday.

It was from scanning headlines of the Berwick newspapers online that I first learned about the Eyemouth Disaster a few months ago. It would be commemorated annually, and was recalled when milestones in survivors' lives were reported up to the mid 20th century.

The Eyemouth Disaster took 129 men who lived in Eyemouth. They left behind at least 78 widows and 182 fatherless children (the numbers vary from source to source). An additional 70 victims came from surrounding villages, leaving behind even more widows and children. Eyemouth's population in 2011 was reported as 3,546. The 1881 census recorded 2,952 residents. What a huge impact the Eyemouth Disaster had on this small community.

This 2006 Scotsman article gives great background about the disaster and why it happened.

from Wikipedia
The disaster has been memorialized in several ways.

A granite monument to all who drowned was commissioned in 1912 and erected initially in the Eyemouth Cemetery after fundraising and other initiatives. The memorial's inscription reads:
Erected by public subscription to the memory of 189 east coast fishermen of which 129 belonged to Eyemouth, who perished at sea on 14th October 1881. 
A beautiful 15 ft long tapestry, recording the names of each of Eyemouth's 189 fishermen who died in the Disaster, was commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster and hangs in Eyemouth Museum.

An oil painting depicting the aftermath of the disaster was featured on a 2013 Antiques Roadshow (UK) episode.

Black Friday is still remembered 136 years later. In October 2016, to mark the 135th anniversary, a magnificent new sculpture called Widows and Bairns was unveiled in Eyemouth's harbour names each mother and child directly affected, many of whom watched helplessly from shore as fathers, husbands, sons and brothers perished. The women and children are shown looking out to sea.  It remains today Britain's biggest fishing tragedy.

This link on the Eyemouth Museum's website tells more about the Disaster, and includes a short video segment made in October 2016 giving some moving oral history.

After the disaster, efforts were made to help the widows and families financially. Eventually, many family members had to move away from Eyemouth to find work.

Two of the victims that October day were part of my extended family: my 1st cousin 4x removed, William Young (1828-1881), and his son James (1857-1881), who was only 24 and left a wife, and six month old daughter. They were on two different boats that day. William was a nephew of my 3rd great grandfather, George Young (1799-1882).

My new DNA match? She is the direct descendant of William and James; the great granddaughter of that six month old child, and remembers her great grandmother talking about the disaster, which of course she didn't remember, but she certainly grew up hearing all about it, her father, grandfather and other extended family. What a wonderful gift to have those memories shared.

My new cousin has told me about a 2001 book that Children of the Sea: The Story of the People of Eyemouth by Peter Aitchison, a direct descendant of Eyemouth residents directly affected by the disaster. I look forward to reading this book.

The never ending story continues....

© Margaret Dougherty 2016-2017 All rights reserved

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