Midnight maritime miracle

Generation after generation of Benjamin Cotgrove’s descendants, fishers in Essex, suffered the same fate.  Philip Cotgrove drowned at Leigh-on-Sea in 1884 while drawing his shrimping nets into his smack.  Just turned 20, he was described as “very steady” and had been about to get married.  What made the event particularly poignant was that his father “met with his death in a precisely similar manner on the same day last year”.

In December 1874, 20-year old William Cotgrove and his father, known as Judgement Cotgrove (although his real name was also William) again living at Leigh, were bringing their fishing smack the Requital home from market, where they had sold their catch of sprats.  It capsized opposite north Woolwich, and both men were drowned.  The son’s body washed up at Rainham marshes and the father’s on the embankment at Dagenham.  Their colleagues, who had formed a friendly Society for local fishermen, funded a stained glass window to the younger William’s memory in the parish church at Leigh.  The subject was “the lost sheep is recovered”.  It seems that drowning was so common that they needed somehow to make positive sense of it  – he was not suffering horribly in freezing water and being cruelly taken from his mother; he was being recovered by the Lord.

Amid all this drowning, perhaps the most remarkable story is of a man who against all the odds survived an event that looked far more deadly than the calm harbours and placid estuaries that claimed so many.  During his 56 year life, two things happened to Alfred Cotgrove that now make him remarkable.  First, he miraculously survived an astonishing marine incident that killed his brother, and second his recollections of the event were published by a journalist who interviewed him.  The interview contains 14 sentences in quotation marks, and allowing for a little bit of journalistic licence, they purport to be the precise words that Cotgrove said during the conversation.  And while it was the shocking maritime accident that had most effect on him at the time, it is those 300 words that make Alfred Cotgrove particularly special today.  It is by far the largest body of reported speech for any of the thousands of people descended from the original Thomas de Cotegrave before 1900 (fewer than 100 words of directly quoted speech survive from all the rest put together).

Born at Leigh-on-Sea in 1863, Alfred Stephen Cotgrove did what every male member of his family had done for two centuries; he grew up to become a fisherman.  He may have showed an early tendency for trouble when in December 1871 the boy slipped on the ice and fell “with great force” down a hill in Leigh, receiving a severe shock and a broken arm.

On the evening of 4 October 1889, Alfred and his brother George, both in their twenties, were trawling for sole about four miles from the shore of the Isle of Sheppey.  They were the only crew on one of a kind of vessel called “bawleys,” which were known by numbers rather than names.  As the Cotgrove brothers went out in Bawley Number 416, it was dusk and the weather was atrocious, with black clouds and heavy winds.  They were experienced seamen, and they knew to expect “dirty weather”.  They knew how to take precautions and did not foresee any unusual trouble, nothing they had not weathered before.  But at around 7pm, the wind suddenly and unexpectedly changed direction, sweeping George Cotgrove under the water as Alfred frantically called to him and tried to lower the sail.  George’s body was found a month later, washed up on the beach, and was only identifiable by a knife he was carrying.

The boat quickly sank but Alfred Cotgrove realised that the water was not particularly deep and that his best hope was to cling to the top of the mast, which was tossed about above the waves.  When the boat came to rest on the seabed, the mast was still protruding above the surface of the water.  In the pitch black, freezing cold, raging sea, with no hope of rescue until the sun came up eleven hours later, Cotgrove was clinging to the iron staff that on happier days, held a flag at its top during regattas.  He shouted pointlessly at the lights from distant ships as the tide rose, so much that he began to lose his voice.   “When my voice was completely gone,” he later told the journalist who interviewed him, “one of the boats belonging to our fleet came so close to me that I could have thrown a biscuit aboard.”  But he could not even hear himself, let alone make other people take any notice of him in a thrashing storm, so the trawlermen did not realise he was there.  Their boat disappeared into the darkness, leaving Alfred Cotgrove “well-nigh frantic with despair”.

It was, said the journalist, “the most hideous nightmare that a distorted imagination can conceive…the most emotional or imaginative reader would fail to comprehend a tithe of the mental torture endured by this man during a single minute of that protracted struggle for life”.  But Cotgrove was not clinging to the top of the mast for just a single minute.  He was there for thirteen hours.  It was after five of those hours, with the tide rising all the time, that a most bizarre event occurred. 

Believing all hope was lost, in pain and in despair, Alfred Cotgrove decided to give up, let go and drown as he knew his brother must have done.  His numb fingers were so rigidly tight to the bawley’s mast that it was difficult to remove them, and it was while he was “endeavouring to unclasp” them that a strange light appeared, revealing the shadowy figure of a nearby boat with a man standing in it.  “I thought it was one of my mates,” said Cotgrove, “although the attitude of the figure, standing in an open boat with arms outstretched, caused me to tighten my grip instinctively, instead of letting go.” 

The “queer navigator” and his craft vanished – a vision, a delusion, an unreal nothing.  But there was no time to be confused because almost instantaneously, the water beneath Cotgrove moved, the mast suddenly swung and Alfred had the sensation of flying.  Weird though it seemed, he knew what it meant.  The tide had turned; it was pushing in the opposite direction.  The water would not rise any further.  A glimmer of hope returned: if he could continue to hang on, he might yet survive.  But the cold was still intense and Cotgrove knew there were still many hours to go until daylight.  “I kept holding on with one hand only while I put my fingers of the other in my mouth to warm them.  I felt no strain on my hands and knees at that time; the muscles seemed to be fixed in position and my limbs were completely numbed with the cold.”

Hours continued to pass at an excruciatingly slow pace until at eight o’clock in the morning, another bawley appeared, but it was over a mile away.  Cotgrove wanted to wave his cap to attract attention but his numb fingers refused to work.  He was “scarcely daring to hope” when the boat changed course towards him.  The crew had seen him, and eventually he was rescued by two sturdy figures in oilskins.  As the rest of the local fishing fleet started its day, another bawley soon approached, and the rescuers realised that it was manned by Alfred’s father, who like Alfred’s brother was called George Cotgrove.  He had also had a bad night, with his bawley running into a larger boat and nearly sinking. The rescuers quickly bundled Alfred below deck so that his father would not see him in his wretched state.  But they could not lie to him and immediately blurted out that the younger George Cotgrove was drowned, something that had been obvious to them when they had asked Alfred where his brother was; all he could do was point dumbly into the cruel sea.

Alfred Cotgrove spent weeks in hospital after his ordeal, with physical and psychological scars.  Repeated nightmares and what reads like clinical depression – “melancholia, lost nerves, the last cry of his brother ringing in his ears” – continued to afflict him.  He felt he could never go to sea in a fishing boat again, but the ocean was really the only source of a living at Leigh-on-Sea.  With his wife pregnant – she would give birth to a son within six months – he needed a living more than ever.  His friends helped in a practical way by buying him a couple of pleasure boats so that he could charge tourists and daytrippers for a trip on shallow parts of the sea in daylight.   The Eagle Angling Society from Tottenham in London went down to Leigh in September 1899 and had “a fine day’s sport with the flounders”.  But Alfred Cotgrove made a scant livelihood.  The London Society came just once a year, the tides in the lower Thames Estuary were not entirely suitable for pleasure boating and in any case there was established competition from members of his own family.    All of these factors meant that trippers paid only a shilling each to go out on Alfred’s boat and he had to provide them with fishing bait as part of the fee.  When the Gresham Angling Society went down to Leigh, they believed that “plenty of men and boats” were available and that Alfred’s boat – of a type known as a lugger – was out of action for repairs.  So Alfred was forced to continue his traditional trade throughout his life – he was described as a fisherman in the censuses of 1891, 1901 and 1911.  But it is significant that his sons did not follow their father into the life that every generation of the Cotgrove family had known for more than 200 years.  At the age of 21, his eldest son, also called Alfred, had established himself in a firmly land-based trade as a plumber.

Alfred Cotgrove was never a well man after the events of October 1889.  He did not recover his lost nerve.  The doctors told him his heart had been physically damaged by the pressure it had suffered while squashed tightly against the mast of the bawley.  He had trouble sleeping, feeling as he dozed off that the bed was a boat being turned over in the sea.  He struggled on until 1919, when at the age of 56, his brain haemorrhaged and he fell into a coma from which he did not recover.  He was still recorded as a fisherman on his death certificate.

There are millions of words that were written by historic Cotgraves, Cotgreaves and Cotgroves that now sit in record offices, lawyers’ safes and private houses, not least because a number of family members have made their living by writing things down.  There are wills that reveal loves and hates, personal letters that open up everything from feelings to domestic trivia, and innumerable official and formal documents, instructions, inventories, notes and orders that lay bare the details of working lives.  But there are remarkably few records of what any members of the family actually said. 

The only significant exception is the 300 words that a reporter named George A Best wrote down when he spoke to Alfred Cotgrove a decade after his petrifying near-death experience in 1889.  These few sentences form the largest corpus of recorded speech and they uncover something truly touching about Alfred Cotgrove that would not have been revealed by the mere reporting of his tale second hand.  Nowhere in the interview does he talk about his own emotions, how remarkable his own escape was, or any kind of special status that was conferred on him by the astonishing events of 4 October 1889.  He reports the facts, even in a couple of places what thoughts crossed his mind, and the excruciating details of his physical suffering.  His final words, however – the ones that speak of his character and convince us that of all the people whose stories are told on this website and the accompanying book, he is perhaps the one we would most like to have near us in a crisis – were about other people.  He was deeply concerned for his widowed sister-in-law and her orphaned children and “of home and what my wife would say if I ever got there again”.

Essex Newsman 4 November 1871, 9 December 1871, 16 November 1872, 19 December 1874, 30 October 1875, 13 September 1884, 20 September 1884, 1 August 1885
Essex County Standard 25 February 1899
Fishing Gazette 15 August 1891, 9 September 1899, 16 April 1892, 18 September 1897, 27 August 1898, 13 October 1900.
House of Commons papers 1893-94 [C.6931] Committee on Target Practice Seawards, p.173, evidence of George Cotgrove.
London Standard 11 April 1849, 9 September 1884
Essex Standard 13 April 1849, 20 October 1854, 3 November 1871, 9 July 1875, 27 September 1884.
Ipswich Journal 18 January 1845, 19 November 1872.
Daily News 12 November 1891.
Morning Post 12 November 1891, 25 January 1899.
Essex Record Office: D/P/284/1/48. 
Pall Mall Gazette 25 January 1875
Best, G. A. (1898) Bawley No.416: The story of a miraculous escape.  The Wide World Magazine, September 1898, pp.643-648.
Register of births in England and Wales, Q1 1889, Rochford District, Vol.4a, p.451.
Register of Deaths in England and Wales, Q3 1919, Rochford District, Vol.4a, p.533.
The National Archives: RG10/1668, f.126, p.28; RG11/1392, f.119, p.2; RG14/10118.


  1. Hi Philip,
    Great to hear from you. There is a full list of sources at the bottom of the blog post. The main source for Alfred’s adventure is the article in Wide World Magazine from 1898, but there is also a great deal of information about Cotgroves in Essex in the local newspapers, especially the Essex Newsman and Essex Standard, which can be searched on the British Newspaper Archive.


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