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Latitude 50° 18.35 N
Longitude 004° 12.90 W
Accuracy 500m
Location Description South East of Rame
Reference NMR 1174772
Craft type Hooker
Date built 1877
Date of loss 30 October 1898
Manner of loss Target Practice
Outcome Sunk
Construction Wood
Propulsion Sail
Nationality United Kingdom
Crew 2
Built Turnchapel
Master Frank Harris
Owners Frank Harris

Alfonso

The small, two man, fishing boat Alfonso may seem insignificant in the maritime history of Plymouth, were it not for the bizarre circumstances surrounding her sinking and that of another fishing vessel, named the Sunbeam.

On the morning of Friday the 30th October 1891 the vessels, both Plymouth Hookers, were fishing in the whiting grounds about 3 miles off the Breakwater, along with some 200 other boats. The area was a known firing ground for the Navy, so when the HMS Gunboat Plucky began target practice off the Eddystone Lighthouse, little was thought of it (1). The first few shots passed between the boats, but when the Plucky changed position, to fire again, disaster struck. A shot struck the Sunbeam blowing out her sides. The brothers John and Henry Harkcom, owners of the Sunbeam reacted quickly, Henry pulled off his sea boots and dived into the heavy seas, his brother soon after. They were picked up 20 minutes later by different vessels, very much exhausted from having to tread water in their heavy fishing clothes (2).

The Plucky then fired again striking the Alfonso, owned by Frank Harris of Turnchapel. The shot struck the stern and sunk immediately, leaving Harris struggling in the water; fortunately he was soon picked up. His companion, George Hisbent was not so lucky and was not seen again after the shot, leaving his wife and five children destitute (2).

Shortly after the vessel that picked up Henry Harkcom came close to the Plucky, and the rescuer Murray called out "Do you know what you have done?" with an officer replying "No What's up?". Murray explained that the gunboat had sunk two trawlers and caused the death of a fisherman. The officer inquired if they could pick the boats up, to which Murray retorted "No; how can you do that in eight fathoms of water?". The Plucky then moved off (2).

Upon returning to port the Plucky's commander, Lt. Freeman, reported the incident to the Duke Of Edinburgh, with the fisherman also paying a visit to his highness later in the day. Although Freemantle claimed in his verbal communication that he was unware of the fishing boats being in range of his guns (3), he was later taken for court martial aboard the Swiftsure (4). Freemantle was charged with negligently performing his duty during the gun pratice. However of the first 32 shots fired, a gunnery instructor, aboard a mark-boat close to the target, testified that he saw every shot strike the water. This despite his own admission that he was approached by fishing boats after the 3rd shot who were claiming vessels had been sunk, which he then attributed to ricochet, rather than a direct hit (5). Lt Freemantle was eventually acquitted of the charge, with the court attributing the disaster to "an error of judgement due to the peculiar conditions of the atmosphere prevailing at the time.." (6), which was claimed during the proceedings to be a 'haze' that made distances difficult to judge (5).

 

Images

Replica of a Plymouth Hooker

References

(1)"SAD DISASTER OFF PLYMOUTH." Royal Cornwall Gazette Falmouth Packet, Cornish Weekly News, & General Advertiser Truro, England, 5 Nov 1891, 19th Century British Library Newspapers
(2)"TWO FISHING BOATS SUNK BY PROJECTILES." Belfast News-Letter, Belfast, Ireland, 31 Oct. 1891, 19th Century British Library Newspapers
(3)"SERIOUS GUN BOAT ACCIDENT." Standard, London, England, 31 Oct. 1891 pg3, 19th Century British Library Newspapers
(4)"NAVAL AND MILITARY INTELLIGENCE." Reynolds's Newspaper, London, England, 22 Nov. 1891, 19th Century British Library Newspapers
(5)"THE FATAL GUN PRACTICE OFF PLYMOUTH." Glasgow Herald, Glasgow, Scotland, 27 Nov. 1891, 19th Century British Library Newspapers
(6) "THE 'PLUCKY' COURT-MARTIAL.—RESULT." Pall Mall Gazette, London, England, 27 Nov. 1891, 19th Century British Library Newspapers