The Wreck of the Tehwija
by Anne Walsingham
TWO pictures on a "jumble" stall at a recent Exmouth fete attracted the attention of two young children, who bought them for a penny each and took them proudly home to their father. He was surprised to find that they were photographs, nearly fifty years old, of one of the most famous wrecks in Exmouth's sea-faring history — the Norwegian vessel Tehwija which was smashed to pieces off Orcombe Point on October 10, 1907.
She was a three-masted Russian schooner and two months previously Uno Baarman and his crew of seven had loaded a cargo of deal battens and boards at their home port of Hango in Finland. They left Hango on August 29, and battled through the Baltic in variable weather, with head winds and occasional fog. Early on the morning of September 14 a freshening wind and a stronger current set the ship towards the land, and for the safety of his crew, his ship and her cargo, Captain Baarman was forced to put into Mingo for shelter. Here they stayed for a week, till the bad weather subsided a little, and a tug was hired to take the Tehwija out to sea.
On her course once again, she struck more variable winds in the North Sea and English Channel, but made good headway. Arriving off Exmouth about 4 pm on October 9, Captain Baarman signalled for a pilot. Then began a nightmare which the older members of Exmouth Lifeboat crew discuss today. With the wind freshening from the SE, Captain Baarman waited nearly two hours for a pilot, but the weather was so bad that it was impossible for the little pilot boat to put out. With the sails close reefed, Captain Baarman headed the Tehwija for the open sea, away from the towering, red cliffs and the vicious rocks. The winds and the seas grew worse throughout the night, and when a wild grey dawn broke, the Tehwija was already drifting towards the land.
At 9 am Captain Baarman again set course for the Exmouth bar, and once more signalled for the pilot. He and his crew stood anxiously waiting with both anchors ready to let go; they stared out over the heaving waters around the Pole Sands and Maer Rocks. Somewhere on board was a little creature even more terrified than the men — Captain Baarman's little Pomeranian dog. By now conditions were so bad that neither pilot nor tug could reach the straining vessel. It was impossible to discern the entrance to the Exmouth channel — had Captain Baarman attempted to cross the treacherous seas around the Pole Sands, it would have meant certain death for him and his crew. Fighting for her life, the Tehwija drifted towards the shore.
Both anchors were dropped, and for two hours there was a short respite. Then, without warning, the port anchor chain snapped, and instantly the ship headed toward the breakers. As the men hoisted the distress signal she struck the sand — her rudder smashed. Within minutes she had a strong list to windward and the heavy seas were lifting her cargo and pounding it back on her decks. So fierce was the wind that in less than an hour more than half her deck cargo was washed away, and for hundreds of yards the beach beneath the cliffs was strewn with planks.
Ned Bridle and the gallant crew of the old pulling and sailing lifeboat, Joseph Somes, fought their way toward the Tehwija — she was not much more than a mile from the lifeboat station and only yards from the beach. Coxswain Ned tried to take the lifeboat through the swashway, but every stroke of the oars was repelled by the heavy seas. By this time, news of the wreck had filtered through to the town, and crowds of watchers thronged the shore, waiting in agonised silence as the two ships fought out their battle with the furious waters. Sick with horror they stood helpless as the unequal struggle went on; an eye-witness has recalled that at one moment the lifeboat seemed to standing clear upright on her stern, her outstretched oars black against the tossed white crests of the waves. "She looked like a beetle on its back, and was just as helpless," folks said.
The Exmouth men never ceased their efforts but the task was impossible, and only in the end was the Teignmouth lifeboat able to come up to the bar on a fair wind and take off Captain Baarman and his crew. The little dog was by now so terrified that it was impossible to get her off the wreck, and Captain Baarman was forced to leave his pet behind. The men were brought ashore and taken to the old Sailor's Rest which stood on Chapel Hill. Though the Exmouth life-boat crew were unable to complete the rescue, their efforts have always ranked as one of the "finest hours" of any local lifeboat crew.
The wreck of the Tehwija split in three pieces and was washed on to the sands at the corner of Orcombe Point. The beach was littered with cargo and timber. Beside the wrecked cabin huddled a drenched, quivering little dog who was later safely returned to her master. Most of the fitments were sold at the site of the wreck. The timbers and cargo were salvaged and carried on rafts to the Exmouth dock, where the wood was auctioned by my grandfather, the late Mr. Herbert Bridle (strangely enough, no relation to the lifeboat coxswain). It is said that the proceeds of this auction actually realised more than the original worth of the cargo. The wheel and compass of the Tehwija now hang in the new Sailor's Rest buildings in St. Andrew's Road, Exmouth.
- Anne Walsingham, The Nautical Magazine, pp355-356, Volumes 175-176, 1956
The Devon Local Studies Library has a photo of the wreck, which you can see is on the Exmouth side of Orcombe Point, as well as one of Captain Baarman's Pomeranian dog. I also found a geneaological record with what's most likely a picture of Captain Baarman himself (there can't be many people called Uno Baarman working as "Sjökapten").
One slight puzzle is the ship's name, as accounts vary. Modern ones call it the Tehwija, as does the Times report for Oct 11, 1907; but Pulman's Weekly called it the Viga and the Devon archive photo captions say "Twija". I was inclined at first to think "Tehwija" to be garbled reportage for "the Viga" - but Lloyd's Register of Shipping for 1901 finds a Tehwija registered to the Latvian port of Riga. Given that, my best guess is that the ship's name was Tēvija: Latvian for "fatherland" or "homeland".
(The whole scenario rather reminds me of the beginning of Dracula, all the more so because in Bram Stoker's novel, Jonathan Harker's employer was the Exeter solicitor Peter Hawkins. I hope that no coffins of earth were found aboard, and that the Pomeranian dog was all it seemed!).