The casual observer of Grimsby’s deserted fish-dock basin and its surrounding dilapidated buildings may be excused for blaming the demise of the town’s fishing industry on dwindling fish stocks or the acrimonious ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1950s and 1970s.
Whilst these things have certainly contributed to the town’s decline as a key fishing port, its trading problems began long before Iceland extended its maritime boundaries and fish populations began to diminish.
As long ago as the fourteenth century the town’s traders were suffering from piracy. This was not a piracy of the high seas, however. No, this was blatant profiteering conducted at the very entrance to the harbour.
Despite pleas made to the ruling monarch it was a problem that would continue unchecked until the perpetrators’ homes and lands were swept away by turbulent North Sea tides.
The Humber region is renowned for the aggressive erosion that has long eaten away at the area’s coastline, washing fields, homes – even whole villages – out of existence. Land erosion is not simply a recent phenomenon. It has been happening for thousands of years — ever since this landmass was formed. This is clearly demonstrated in the ever changing character of Spurn Point.
It was near to Spurn’s distinctive promontory, at the mouth of the estuary, that an island rose from the muddy waters early in the twelfth century and, despite an existence spanning less than 200 years, influenced both local and national history.
‘Like Aphrodite it was born of the sea’, wrote a Grimsby chronicler in 1234. This was one of the earliest accounts of the island’s birth – it is ironic then that the new land would become a bane to that town’s tradesmen and a hindrance to their prosperity.
It is little wonder that the island rose in that location, for we can see from the shape of Spurn Head that the well-known landmark had itself been created by the sea’s currents. Beyond its sickle-shaped curve the island later known as Ravenser Odd [also known in some accounts as Ravensere, Ald Ravenser, Ravensburgh and Ravensspurn] was formed.
Its name is derived from the Old Norse Hrafnseyrr — ‘the point of Raven’s promontory’; Hrafn — raven, and eyrre — promontory. The name ‘Odd’ is also derived from Old Norse: oddi meaning a point of land.
It is believed that a build-up of gravel around a shipwreck provided the island’s foundation. Tides and shifting sands added to this, allowing a sandbank to form above the waterline. Once surfaced, the island grew, creating an additional hazard to shipping in an already treacherous area.
Perhaps unsurprisingly a ship did run aground, and became so firmly stuck that it was abandoned. The stricken vessel eventually became home to an enterprising entrepreneur who clearly saw a business opportunity, and from here he supplied provisions to the crews of passing vessels.
The imaginative trader was not the only person to see the profit potential in the new island and this bizarre sequence of events eventually led to the creation of a thriving community. William de Fortibus — Lord of Holderness — also realised the possibilities and sent a bailiff and some villeins to establish a hamlet in his name.
The island’s channel-mouth location also made it popular with local fishermen who landed there to dry their nets and purchase supplies.
The town grew over time and, in order to satisfy demands for their burgeoning community, Ravensers began to divert trading vessels bound for Grimsby into their own harbour. This forestalling of ships created an outrage downriver, one that simmered in the minds of the aggrieved townsfolk until, incensed at the impact on their own livelihoods, they appealed to the king.
The complaint, issued in 1290 during the early reign of Edward the First, claimed that Ravensers were using a mixture of persuasion and force to rob Grimsby of trade. The damage was estimated to be approximately £100 per year — a considerable sum at that time.
The monarch issued a writ demanding that an enquiry be held and, in early September, the ‘grave complaint’ that ships ‘laden with wines, fishes, herrings and other merchandise from various foreign and home ports had been arrested with a strong hand’ was heard in Grimsby. Unfortunately for the complainants, the twelve jurors were unable to find sufficient evidence to support the serious allegations against the people of Ravenser Odd, and found in the islanders’ favour.
It is clear that, rather than curtail their unethical enterprises, the Ravensers continued unchecked. This is evidenced by a further complaint issued only a year later by the people of Grimsby who, bristling at the blatant transgressions, took their grievances to the King’s Bench. Far from redressing the issue, however, the case was dismissed, leaving the town at risk of incurring penalties for making a false claim.
With their squabble with Grimsby apparently settled there is no reason to suspect that the islanders’ trading methods changed at all and they continued to prosper.
The fledgling community’s growing importance was demonstrated when, in exchange for the sum of £300, Ravenser Odd’s charter was granted by Edward the First on April Fool’s Day, 1299. Five years later the island returned two burgesses to represent its interests in parliament. Nevertheless, accounts of the day also demonstrate that unpredictable tides were by that time playing havoc with the island’s coastline.
In 1301 the dangerous and tumultuous waters swept away a funeral cortege as a body was being conveyed to Hessle for burial. This was not an isolated incident, for between 1310 and 1339, thirty-three acres of grassland at Orwythfleet were lost to the elements. It was becoming clear that, having provided the power that yielded the island from the waters of the North Sea only a century earlier, nature now appeared set to reclaim that which she had conceived.
Accounts of the island’s history can be found in the Chartulary of Meaux Abbey. The first, dated 1251 — several years after the island’s birth — records the gift of half an acre of land at a place called ‘the Burg of Odd at Ravenser’, where the abbey’s monks erected buildings for the kippering of herrings. The monks also established a church on the island.
Just as Ravenser Odd had appeared without warning, its end — also documented in the abbey’s records — was no less dramatic.
The ancient manuscripts show that, between 1339 and 1345, ferocious tides almost destroyed the chapel and most of the town. The devastation continued and accounts written between 1345 and 1353 tell of the complete destruction of the chapel, the water’s force also stripping bodies from their graves and casting them into the sea.
By this time most of the inhabitants had fled, leaving only the hardiest individuals in the town. Together with their priest, they walked through the streets holding aloft the church’s ecclesiastical ornaments in an effort to invoke God’s intervention. No doubt some of Grimsby’s affronted tradesmen considered that the events taking place out in the river were as a result of God’s arbitration, and his wrath at the islander’s conduct was now being unleashed upon them.
The island’s rapid depopulation led to official enquiries into the Ravenser’s inability to pay their taxes. Burgesses examining the town declared that ‘two parts and more [of the town’s] tenements and soil’ had been beaten down by the sea and the ‘said town is daily diminished and carried away’.
As a result of these enquiries, the town was officially declared as abandoned, and its municipal authorities and rights suppressed.
In 1355 further storms swept away more bodies from the island’s graveyards. Unable to tolerate further sacrilege, authorities directed the Abbot of Meaux to gather the remains and give them a Christian burial in another parish. The town was finally abandoned during winter storms of 1356-57 when it was totally flooded by surge tides.
The island itself was largely destroyed in January 1362 when massive Atlantic gales swept Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands. This Grote Mandrenke — Middle Dutch, meaning ‘Great Drowning of Men’ devastated North Sea coastlines and claimed 25,000 lives. The island’s own end finally came in 1377 when the remaining sandbank disappeared beneath the waves.
From its miraculous beginnings Ravenser Odd’s growth had been no less spectacular, given its fleeting existence. From its initial recognition by Henry III, when he imparted the right to hold a weekly market and annual fair lasting sixteen days, to its tragic and abrupt end, the island played its part in the nation’s history.
Whilst the granting of a market and annual fair was one hint of the town’s importance, it was its role during England’s protracted and bitter clashes with Scotland that revealed its standing in comparison to the more established ports in the region.
During the struggles with Scotland, Ravenser Odd — together with other significant seaports — received frequent directives from the king to supply ships and men. The level of support provided by each town allows an insight into their importance to the monarch.
The king’s mandate of 6 May, 1327, for example, reveals that Ravenser Odd was called upon to provide two ships, while Grimsby’s levy was one. When the king laid siege to Cressy twenty years later, however, Ravenser provided only one ship and thirty men, compared with Grimsby’s eleven ships and 171 men. This clear downturn in the island’s importance coincided with the commencement of its destruction.
It is more than 600 years since Ravenser Odd slipped beneath the muddy waters of the North Sea, leaving mouldering accounts in aged chronicles as the only tangible evidence that it ever existed. In view of the fact that the estuary is today one of the most turbulent stretches of water in England, waters that produce the country’s most rapidly changing coastline, it may simply be a matter of time before the island rears up from the depths once more.