The Flannan Isle mystery

Flannan Isle pic

 

Everyone loves a good mystery and what better than a tale of three men who went missing from a lighthouse, an upturned chair and unfinished meals. We have had nearly 120 years for people’s imagination to run wild and come up with all sorts of theories – ghosts, aliens, drowning and murder, to name a few.

The setting is the Flannan Isles, a set of islands 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. Stationed at the lighthouse in December 1900 were three lighthouse-keepers – Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald McArthur. Apart from a tiny chapel the lighthouse was the only building on Eilean Mor (large island), the islands being largely uninhabited. The lighthouse was built in the 1890s, taking four years to complete, largely because of the problem of getting building supplies to the remote island, and the rough and dangerous nature of that part of the Atlantic Ocean.

On 15 December a storm broke out and a passing steamer noticed that the light at the lighthouse was not working. The crew of The Fairfield, another passing ship, were both angered and worried when they noticed no light guiding them. Due to the storm The Hesperus, carrying supplies and John Moore who was to replace one of the men, was late in setting off for the Flannan Isles and didn’t arrive until Boxing Day. There they expected to see the men within minutes of landing. It was not a particularly big island and it was normal for the men to come to the shore to greet them.

Instead they were met with silence. There was no flag up and no empty supplies boxes at the shore waiting to be swapped with full ones. Something was amiss.

This is where folklore, myth and simple modern-day tale spinning play their part. It is said that as Joseph Moore entered the lighthouse three unusual birds flew out, a sign for some that the three men’s disappearance was linked to the supernatural. A dinner plate with three full plates was found, with one chair left upturned as if someone had left in a hurry. Two sets of outdoor gear were missing and only one set of oilskins. Somebody had clearly gone outside without their outdoor gear, an act that was unheard of, unpractical and against the Northern Lighthouse Board rules for the lighthouse to be left unmanned. Where had the men gone in such a rush?

A search of the island found extensive storm damage in places, with iron railing bent out of shape and an iron railing pulled completely out of the concrete. The master of The Hesperus concluded that a great storm had swept the men out to see and he sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board, telling them that and saying that:

“A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island. Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago…….”

The mystery deepened when the logbook entries were read. Entries from 12 and 13 December included such personal details as “Ducat irritable” and “McArthur crying”, while another one reported that they were all praying. As well as being vey uncharacteristic of the men involved, putting such personal information in the logbook was far from standard practice. On 14 December there was no entry and on December 15 at 1pm the entry read, “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all”.

As there had been reports that the light was not seen at 4pm on 15 December, the 1pm logbook entry suggests that the men disappeared some time in those three hours. The Northern Lighthouse Board carried out an official investigation which concluded that two of the men had got into trouble and been pulled into the sea and the third man ran out to try and save them, only for him to be pulled out also.

Over the years the mystery of what happened to the men has fascinated people, inspiring poems, songs and, most recently, a film, The Vanishing. Not content with the story that the men had been pulled out to sea, others have speculated that a sea serpent had carried the men away, they had been abducted by ghosts (or foreign spies) and that they had hired a boat to leave the island and start new lives elsewhere.

Others have queried the reliability of the reports of the diary entries and the upturned chair. Certainly The Northern Lighthouse Board website makes no mention of the entries and one would assume that they would have the documents.

In 2015 naturalist John Love, having conducted research on the mystery and the men involved, put forward a simpler theory. He found that two of the men had previously been fined for not storing their gear properly before a storm. Wanting to avoid another hefty fine, Love suggests that two of the men went out to secure the equipment, got blown away by the storm and the third man went to help.

There has most likely been some fabrication over the years, by those intent on juicing up the story, no more so than Wilfrid Wilson Gibson who wrote this poem in 1921.

Flannan Isle
“Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer’d under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night.

A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news: and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.

The winer day broke blue and bright
With glancing sun and glancing spray
While o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.

But, as we near’d the lonely Isle;

And look’d up at the naked height;

And saw the lighthouse towering white,

With blinded lantern, that all night

Had never shot a spark

Of comfort through the dark,

So ghastly in the cold sunlight

It seem’d, that we were struck the while

With wonder all too dread for words.

 

And, as into the tiny creek

We stole beneath the hanging crag,

We saw three queer, black, ugly birds–

Too big, by far, in my belief,

For guillemot or shag–

Like seamen sitting bold upright

Upon a half-tide reef:

But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,

Without a sound, or spurt of white.

 

And still too mazed to speak,

We landed; and made fast the boat;

And climb’d the track in single file,

Each wishing he was safe afloat,

On any sea, however far,

So it be far from Flannan Isle:

And still we seem’d to climb, and climb,

As though we’d lost all count of time,

And so must climb for evermore.

Yet, all too soon, we reached the door–

The black, sun-blister’d lighthouse door,

That gaped for us ajar.

 

As, on the threshold, for a spell,

We paused, we seem’d to breathe the smell

Of limewash and of tar,

Familiar as our daily breath,

As though ’twere some strange scent of death:

And so, yet wondering, side by side,

We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:

And each with black foreboding eyed

The door, ere we should fling it wide,

To leave the sunlight for the gloom:

Till, plucking courage up, at last,

Hard on each other’s heels we pass’d

Into the living-room.

 

Yet, as we crowded through the door,

We only saw a table, spread

For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;

But all untouch’d; and no one there:

As though, when they sat down to eat,

Ere they could even taste,

Alarm had come; and they in haste

Had risen and left the bread and meat:

For on the table-head a chair

Lay tumbled on the floor.

We listen’d; but we only heard

The feeble cheeping of a bird

That starved upon its perch:

And, listening still, without a word,

We set about our hopeless search.

 

We hunted high, we hunted low,

And soon ransack’d the empty house;

Then o’er the Island, to and fro,

We ranged, to listen and to look

In every cranny, cleft or nook

That might have hid a bird or mouse:

But, though we searched from shore to shore,

We found no sign in any place:

And soon again stood face to face

Before the gaping door:

And stole into the room once more

As frighten’d children steal.

 

Aye: though we hunted high and low,

And hunted everywhere,

Of the three men’s fate we found no trace

Of any kind in any place,

But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal,

And an overtoppled chair.

 

And, as we listen’d in the gloom

Of that forsaken living-room–

O chill clutch on our breath–

We thought how ill-chance came to all

Who kept the Flannan Light:

And how the rock had been the death

Of many a likely lad:

How six had come to a sudden end

And three had gone stark mad:

And one whom we’d all known as friend

Had leapt from the lantern one still night,

And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:

And long we thought

On the three we sought,

And of what might yet befall.

 

Like curs a glance has brought to heel,

We listen’d, flinching there:

And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d meal

And the overtoppled chair.

 

We seem’d to stand for an endless while,

Though still no word was said,

Three men alive on Flannan Isle,

Who thought on three men dead.

 

 

The man with the iron mask

I chose the title The King with the Iron Belt because it was an aspect of King James IV’s life that fascinates me. After all the idea of wearing an iron belt for penance is very foreign to us in the modern world. Equally unusual and just as fascinating is the story of Harry Bensley, the man who wore an iron mask.

WAGER-1

Harry Bensley was a west end playboy from Thetford in Norfolk, who had made his money from investments in Russia. The story came to light a few years back when Oliver Bone, curator of the Ancient House Museum in Thetford, was putting together a document on Thetford’s heritage. Mr Bone discovered a newspaper article written by a Thetford lady in the late 1970s, detailing the tale of Harry Bensley and his amazing walk around the world pushing a pram. Intrigued, he decided to look into the matter further and made public the story, in the hope of uncovering more information. Since then investigations have been underway in Thetford and abroad to try to confirm the story and to find evidence of his travels.

The story began one evening in 1907 over dinner and drinks at The National Sporting Club in London. The American millionaire John P Morgan was arguing with Lowther Lonsdale, the fifth earl of Lonsdale, over whether it was possible to walk around the world without being identified. Lonsdale said yes, Morgan said no, and put up a 100,000 dollar (£21,000) challenge, the largest ever bet at that time.

Harry, for some reason, decided to take on the bet – a huge challenge in itself, but there were also to be several conditions which he had to stick by. He was never to be identified (hence the mask); he must push a baby’s pram; he must finance himself on the journey, starting off with only one pound sterling; the only clothes he could take on the journey was a change of underwear; he was to be accompanied by a minder provided by Morgan; and en route he must find himself a wife without letting her know who he was.

harry 2

On New Years Day 1908 a crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square to watch Harry begin his journey. Morgan and Lonsdale had planned the route for him, consisting of 169 English towns and cities and another 125 in eighteen other countries. The iron mask, weighing four and a half pounds, was made from a suit of armour. A placard attached to the pram described his task, another round his helmet stated simply ‘walking around the world’.

Like much of the story there are slight variations in the list of countries he visited. England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, USA, South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, Egypt, Italy and France were listed in one source, with The Guardian in 1998 including Persia, Turkey and the Balkans.

To finance his journey Harry sold postcards of himself and the pram, an intuitive idea but one that was to get him into trouble. At Bexleyheath in Kent he was arrested for selling postcards without a licence. When it came to the trial he arrived with his mask on and was ordered to remove it. Refusing, he explained the story and was allowed by the judge to keep it on. He was tried under the name, “The Man in the Iron Mask” and was fined 2s 6d and allowed to continue his journey. At Newmarket races he continued selling his postcards, selling one for five pounds to King Edward VII. One story tells how the amused king asked for his autograph, but, as this would have meant revealing his identity Harry was forced to decline.

The story made the newspapers in several countries. While, back in England, The Times covered his departure from Trafalgar Square, another newspaper offered a £1,000 reward to anyone who could find out his identity. One chambermaid did come close but was discovered under the bed just in time.

There is uncertainty as to whether Harry did find himself a wife on his travels, but he was reported to have received many offers of marriage, from titled ladies throughout the world. Photographs have emerged of Harry and the pram alongside a woman and in one photograph she is with a young child. This woman is believed to be called Mabel and the child is thought to have been Harry’s. He didn’t marry Mabel. Instead he married a Yorkshire woman called Kate. Again, the story varies as to whether he married her on his journey or after he returned.

Over the next six years he covered many countries – Canada, USA, South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, Egypt, and Italy. His journey was nearly over, when in August 1914, with only 7,000 miles left, war broke out and he returned to Britain.

There are two stories surrounding his return. One has Harry returning to Britain to fight for his country, considering this of more importance than completing the walk. Another version tells of how Morgan, anxious about the effect the war would have on his steel empire, called the bet off. Receiving a telegram from Morgan, Harry was said to have been devastated.  Whichever version is true, J P Morgan paid him four thousand pounds, which Harry donated to charity, a decision which he may later have regretted as his luck took a turn for the worst.

Harry only fought in the war for a year before he was badly injured and had to return home. His Russian investments, which had provided the majority of his fortune, crashed with the Russian Revolution, leaving him penniless. His profile from then on, became less public. Between the two world wars he worked in a variety of positions- as a YMCA warden, a cinema doorman, and a Labour councillor in Essex. He died on 21 May 1956 at home in Brighton with his wife Kate, aged seventy nine.

Various sources have tried throughout the years to find proof of Harry’s travels. While researchers have plenty photographic proof of his time travelling Britain, there are no photographs of him taken abroad. With photographs widely available of his walk through Britain, one wonders why none are available of his time further a field? Did he actually ever leave Britain? Are there photographs still to be discovered? Did he simply not receive much publicity once he left Britain?

 

harry3

One man who has a keen interest in Harry Bensley and is intent on discovering the truth is Ken McNaught, a great grandson of Harry’s. Ken McNaught was told by his mother of a visit she had from her father many years ago.  Reading a copy of Reader’s Digest Book of Interesting Facts containing a short report on Harry’s walk, he informed her that this was his father who he had only met just three months before Harry died.

Jim was Harry’s illegitimate son to a woman called Mabel, believed to have been the woman pictured in some of the postcards. When he eventually found him he was terminally ill in hospital in Brighton. Along with some of Harry’s other descendents, Ken McNaught is trying to piece together the real truth behind Harry’s story, and has been collecting evidence from around the world. So far he has built up a collection of photographs, postcards and old newspaper articles, but nothing to confirm that Harry actually left Britain.

Publicity in the form of a website http://mcnaught.orpheusweb.co.uk/HarryB/index.html has meant that several people from around the world have come forward with information and one man from New Zealand, Tim Kirby, has conducted extensive research.. But there are still questions left unanswered. Who was Harry’s minder who Morgan insisted must walk with him? What happened to the pram? Why have no photographs emerged of him walking abroad?

The Martha Ray murder case

Martha_Ray

 

On the evening of April 7th 1779, a young Hertfordshire woman was just about to enter her coach after an evening out at the Opera in Covent Gardens, when a man dressed in black, approached her and shot her dead. Taking out another pistol he attempted to kill himself, but failed, and was later sentenced to death for her murder.

The events of that night were to make headline news throughout the country, for the woman was the mistress of the infamous Earl of Sandwich and her assailant was a man of the church and a friend of both her and the Earl’s. Long after her death, theories would be put forward as to what exactly the relationship was between the murderer and his victim, and why he chose to kill her.

The woman was Martha Ray, who had been born in Elstree about 1745. Her father was a staymaker (involved in the making of corsets) and her mother had been a servant in a nobleman’s family. At the age of fourteen she was apprenticed to a dressmaker in Clerkenwell, and it was while there that she caught the attention of an associate of the fourth Earl of Sandwich.

We don’t have details of their early meetings or courtship, but we do know that before long the Earl had fallen in love with Martha. At the age of seventeen she became his mistress, living with him for the next seventeen years, and providing him with five children.

The pair appeared to live quite contentedly. Sandwich was enthralled by Martha’s voice and arranged for her to be trained by the finest music teachers of the time. She went on stage, while still receiving an allowance of three hundred pounds a year from the Earl and a house in Westminster. But Martha eventually began to worry about her position. She was aware that although her children were brought up as legitimate, should something happen to their father, they could be left penniless.

This is where James Hackman enters the story. Hackman was the son of a retired naval lieutenant, and was himself a captain in the army. Sandwich and Martha first met him through mutual friends, and he was soon a frequent visitor to their house. The attraction was most definitely Martha rather than Sandwich, for over the course of the next few years Hackman proposed marriage to Martha on several occasions. But opinions differ as to the nature of the relationship.

Some claim that they were lovers and that Martha was planning to leave Sandwich for him. With the worry of being left penniless hanging over her, Martha may well have been looking for a safety net, and for a more secure means of support. But then she did have a long history with Sandwich and five children to him. Another version has Martha as the innocent party, with Hackman stalking her and Martha politely refusing his advances. Taking into account the fact that she did refuse marriage to him several times, it is likely that this is more accurate.

Whichever version is true, Hackman was not prepared to give up easily and in 1779 he left the army, and joined the church. Perhaps he thought that having a stable income would persuade her to finally relent and become his wife.

But whatever Martha thought of Hackman’s career change, on April 7th 1779 she was still living with Sandwich. That evening she said goodbye to him, and went with her friend to see the comic opera “Love in a Village” at the Theatre Royal, Covent Gardens. At the end of the evening, as she was just about to get into her coach, a man dressed in black approached from nowhere and shot her in the forehead. The shot was fatal. Hackman then took out another pistol, and fired it at himself. But this time he was not so lucky, and he only managed to wound himself. He was arrested and imprisoned awaiting trial.

The trial date was set for April 16th.. Hackman claimed temporary insanity due to his love for the woman but this wasn’t enough to let him off, and he was executed at Tyburn before a large crowd. Her funeral took place in Elstree Parish Church. Sandwich, it was said, never recovered fully. He only allowed intimate friends to see her body and arranged for her to be buried in the clothes she was killed in.

Her relationship with the Earl of Sandwich meant that Martha’s murder received much media attention. The newspapers carried detailed reports of the murder, and of Hackman’s fate. As to what the relationship was between the two, this was something that was to continue to be debated. Hackman’s lawyer later wrote a book on the case, claiming that the pair had been lovers and that Martha was to blame for his downfall.

In 1780 Herbert Croft published ‘Love and Madness’ – a book containing what he claimed to be sixty love letters between the two, although many dispute their authenticity.

Forty one years after her death, Martha’s body was discovered by workmen under a pew in the church, and was placed in a vault in the chancel until 1924. The body had been embalmed and was perfectly preserved. In 1928 one of Sandwich’s descendants erected a tombstone for Martha at the church and this can be seen today.

So was Martha Ray to blame for her own downfall? Some people liked to think so, but any evidence put forward was very flimsy and of suspicious origins. It is more likely that, keen to explain the actions of an otherwise respectable man, it was easier to put the blame on poor Martha.

It is said that George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’ was based loosely on the story of this Elstree women who mixed with the aristocracy. This play was later released as the musical ‘My Fair Lady’, but with Eliza Doolittle having a happier ending than Martha Ray.

Author event – 30 March, Berwick-upon-Tweed

berwick-river-tweed-estuary11

Berwick is a place I love to visit. My family and I try to visit at least once a year, and sometimes make it a few times. For families it is great. The beach is very accessible to the town, there are some good walks for a nice summer evening, and the castle walls are a sight to be seen.

It is also a town steeped in history. Many people are confused about whether it is part of Scotland or England,  and walking around the town you get the feeling the town is unsure also. The accents are mixed; some Scots, some English, some a mixture of the two. Both Scottish and English banks have a presence in Berwick, and we can happily pay for goods with Scottish notes without getting strange looks from shop staff who think we are handing them funny money.

At the end of this month, 30th March at 2pm to be precise, I will be holding an author event at Berwick Library and Tourist Information, on Walkergate in the town centre. This will involve me speaking for a bit on my book, The King with the Iron Belt, with time for a short question and answer session afterwards, and of course signed copies of the book to buy.

Tickets are free and can be booked in advance at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/meet-the-author-jackie-cosh-at-berwick-library-tickets-56419872357

It would be lovely to see you there.

Where was Saint Patrick born?

St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Armagh, where I was born, has two St Patrick Cathedrals, and St Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the world, by the Irish, and those who have even the tiniest of links to the Irish. Patrick was of course not Irish, but where was he born?
Wales, Britannia, Roman Britain, Cumbria – the man has more possible birthplaces than William Wallace, whose birthplace is also often disputed. But did they in fact have more in common? Was St Patrick also born in Scotland. Mike Haesler, archaeologist and researcher, certainly thinks so. Patrick, says Haseler, was not in fact born in Roman Britain, but in Scotland.
“Experts say he was born in Roman Britain” explains Haseler “and this is the popular belief. But evidence only shows that he used Latin words and had a Roman grandfather. St Patrick himself admitted to being poor at Latin, so it is unlikely he was born in Roman Britain. His father was a priest and his grandfather a local councillor, and his family were Roman, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he was born in Roman Britain.”
According to Mohrmann, author The Latin of St Patrick, Patrick’s writing was, “the most difficult Latin to understand and to criticise that I have ever studied.” Writing about St Patrick and his biographer in 1962 Professor Binchy described him as the ‘simple Patrick of the Confessio’, a writer of ‘stumbling barbarous Latin’.
Haseler believes that, for whatever reason, St Patrick’s family lived in Strathclyde. Whether it was by choice or by force, the natural exit from Roman Britain would have been to go north, as opposed to leaving by sea, so Strathclyde was definitely the easier option. There is considerable evidence of Roman coins being found in the area, particularly in the 4th century when Patrick was alive. Far from being two separate kingdoms which had no contact, it appears that some trading did occur. Romans moving out of Roman Britain is another reason for Roman coins being found elsewhere.
“His father was a deacon, his grandfather was aa priest” highlights Haseler. “So Patrick and his family could have been missionaries or refugees. Many of the early slaves were Christians and we know that runaway slaves would have headed north outside the empire.”
“One of the main arguments used against Old Kilpatrick being the place of St. Patrick’s birth is to use the argument that a Latin speaker could only have been born south of Hadrian’s wall, so it’s interesting to find out that Gildas, Britain’s first historian who wrote the Latin ‘De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, was born in 500AD and came from Strathclyde.”
Wales is often cited as a possible birthplace of St Patrick, as it is claimed he spoke Welsh and some Welsh believe that Bannavem Taburniae, where his grandfather lived, could be Banwen in Neath Port Talbot. But, argues Haseler, the language spoken in Strathclyde at the time was akin to Welsh and the Picts were known to have spoken a language which we would today recognise as Welsh.
Ravenglass in Cumbria is sometimes said to be the home of Patrick’s grandfather’s villa, the argument being that the nearby Glannoventa is in fact Banna Venta, or Bannavern, the ‘g’ having been mistaken for a ‘b’, but there is no further evidence to substantiate this claim, and claims Haseler, it is very unlikely that such an obvious mistake would have been made.

“Out of the five early biographies of St Patrick three state that he was born in Strathclyde” says Haseler. “In addition, the Gaelic hymn of Fiacc (written before 800AD) says that he was born in Nemhur or Nemturi. Nemthuri, or the early name Nemthus, is a place often linked to Old Kilpatrick.”
An unknown 11th century scholar tells us that Nemthur was near Alcluid, which Bede informs us was on the Clyde (usually assumed to be Dumbarton Rock). Probus’ fifth life of St Patrick states that St Patrick was sprung from the Britons of Strathclyde, and that Nemthur was the place or district of his birth. “De Britannis Alcluidensibus originem duxit Sanctus Patricius. Nemthur, quod ex vocis etymo coelestem turrim denotat, patria, et nativitatis locus erat”. The sixth life is Jocelyn’s, assigned to the year 1183, and it agrees with the others in stating that St Patrick was born in Nemthur of Strathclyde.
“The Aberdeen Breviary gives an explicit statement for Old Kilpatrick being the birthplace in ~1500, saying he was conceived in Dumbarton and born at Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde (Dumbarton = Dunbertane. Kilpatrick = Kilpatrik).”
Turner, writing in 1872, is adamant that Saint Patrick was born in Strathclyde.
“Four of the five perfect lives explicitly state that Saint Patrick was born in Britain; three of them add, in the district of Strathclyde! It is hard to imagine how anyone could be so audacious as to reject such a weight of ancient testimonies,”
There is much evidence to support Haseler’s claim. So why has there ever been any doubt?
“I presume that because the age of a church was important in setting the seniority of churches, that it suited the new churches close by to see Old Kilpatrick cast as a “doubted” place of birth of Saint Patrick,” says Haseler.
“Archaeological evidence suggests that after the Viking raid of 871, Dumbarton Rock was largely abandoned and that Govan replaced it as the chief place of the kingdom of Strathclyde. Given the Viking behaviour on Lindisfarne in 793, there’s little doubt the Irish-based pagan Viking kings Amlaíb and Ímar ravaged the area around Dumbarton and therefore Old Kilpatrick during their four month siege to Dumbarton Rock.”

You can read more on his website http://roman-britain.co.uk/nemthur.htm which explains his research in much more detail.