Guernsey lifeboat performs a chemical tanker rescue

The St Peter Port lifeboat and the Lee-on-Solent lifeguard worked together to rescue 22 crew from two ships – a chemical tanker and a bulk carrier – that had collided in the Channel. The ships had struck one another 30 miles north west of Guernsey at 2am, leaving one of them – the Ece – listing and at risk of sinking, complete with its cargo of 10,000 tonnes of phosphoric acid.

Fortunately, phosphoric acid sounds a lot more harmful than it actually is. It’s very weak, non-toxic and non-flammable. Although it is used in fertiliser and cleaning products, it is also a key component of water treatment and is frequently eaten as a food additive.

A second danger

This was just as well as the French-owned Ece couldn’t be recovered. The French coastguard attached it to a tug in an attempt to take it back to Le Havre for repair, but the day after the collision it sank at a depth of 70m. Its entire cargo of phosphoric acid, which had been destined for Ghent, was lost. Although there were some initial reports that the acid had started leaking from the moment the collision occurred, later analysis suggested this was not the case. Although the Ece sustained a 5m gash below the waterline it wasn’t through to the cargo containers. Of more concern was what would happen to the ship’s fuel if it started to break up underwater.

The other ship was the General Grot-Rowecki, owned by Polska Zegluga Morska (Polish Sea Shipping), which continued to the port of Police in Poland, with its own cargo of 26,000 tonnes of phosphorus still in tact.

The General Grot-Rowecki had only been lightly  damaged in the collision but, as the BBC reported, had failed several safety checks in the years running up to the event, and collided with a 20,700 tonne Swedish passenger ferry, leaving both in need of repairs.

The States of Guernsey proposes a new airport

By the mid–1930s, it was obvious that Guernsey’s only aerodrome, at L’Eree, was quickly becoming too small and impractical for a mode of transport whose importance was rapidly growing.

Thus, on 30 January 1935 the States of Guernsey discussed the prospect of constructing a new, purpose-built airport on high ground at La Villaize. They had identified 130 acres that could, they believe, be developed at a cost of £150,000 (around £10.3m today).

If that sounds like a very good price for an airport – and one that had four landing strips as opposed to the single strip Guernsey Airport has today – remember that standards were very different in the 1930s. Aircraft were lighter, so could land on grass. Apart from a narrow concrete marker used to guide the aircraft along the centre line, there was therefore no requirement for an extensive hard apron. Also, although air travel was getting more popular, planes carried far fewer passengers than they do today, so there wasn’t a need for such extensive facilities as we have now.

Lack of support

The States of Guernsey canvassed public opinion which was resolutely against the idea, not only because it would cost so much, but because the island would lose a fair chunk of its productive agricultural land.

Ultimately the peoples’ views made no difference and, for the greater good of the island and its populace, the airport was built on the proposed site. Building work began two years later and it was opened for business in 1939. It didn’t see regular services until after the war as it was used as a military airfield by the German forces throughout the occupation.

Guernsey poet George Métivier is born

Considered by many to be Guernsey’s “national” poet, George Métivier was born in Rue de la Fontaine, St Peter Port, on 29 January 1790. He died, aged 91, on 23 March 1881, and left behind a considerable body of work.

Métivier primarily wrote in Guernesiais, and as well as producing poems in the language for both newspaper and book publication, he wrote the first Guernesiais dictionary – his Dictionnaire Franco-Normand of 1870 – and translated the Gospel of St Matthew into the local language.

He hadn’t always been destined to be a poet. Métivier studied medicine in Edinburgh, but gave up on the course and returned to Guernsey to write.  He arrived back in 1830 and within a year had already produced his first volume of poetry, Rimes Guernesiais.

Metivier’s dictionary

Although Rimes Guernesiais contained a small selection of equivalent words in both English and Guernsey French, aiding those who didn’t speak patois in reading the work, it would be another 40 years before he fleshed them out into a fully-fledged bilingual dictionary.

Despite being born in Town, Métivier used the pen name Un Câtelain in honour of his connection with Castel, the western parish where his grandfather had settled upon first arriving on the island.

Regardless of the considerable age difference between them, Métivier became a friend of the poet and painter Denys Corbet, who also wrote in Gernesiais.

Guernsey’s last witch trial takes place

Belief in witches was still so strong in Guernsey, as late as 1914, that one woman – Aimee Lake – found herself before the court charged with witchcraft. She was accused not only of fortune telling and reading tea leaves, but of putting a mortal curse on one of her neighbours.

Lake, who frequently told fortunes and interpreted the dreams of anyone who came to her for insight, never made any charge for her services (donations were accepted). She did charge for remedies, like magic powders to be burnt or buried in the client’s garden to ward off evil spirits, which had led to a few complaints. However, it was only when she spooked Mrs Houtin, a farmer from St Martin, that things came to a head.

Extortion or witchcraft?

Houtin claimed that Lake had put a curse on her, demanding £3 by the end of January. Lake had said that if payment wasn’t received by then, Houtin would die. Naturally, Houtin was in a state, and having complained to both a priest and the harbourmaster at St Sampson, she was reluctant to open her door to the police for fear of who might have been knocking.

Lake initially denied a charge of extortion – until the police found several charms and powders buried in her own garden. Then the witnesses started to talk. One had seen her reading cards, one seen her burning powder and another told to wear a ring to ward off spells.

The powders she dispensed turned out to be baking powder, ground rice and corn starch, but that was not sufficient to see her let off with a warning.

It’s unlikely that such a case would ever come to trial today, and even if it did the charge would be one of menacing and extortion, not witchcraft. But this was 1914, and despite the powders being harmless, Lake was convicted as a witch and sentenced to serve eight days in prison. The court, led by Bailiff William Carey, lamented its inability to send her away for longer.

Sir Isaac Newton has his say on a mysterious Guernsey invention

The De Saumarez family has an impressive history – on Guernsey and beyond. James de Saumarez fought alongside Nelson, was honoured as a baron and, 40 years after his death, was memorialised in Delancey Park. Philip de Saumarez also went to sea and, on his return to Guernsey, served as a Jurat until he lost his hearing.

They weren’t the only de Saumarez family members to have a connection to the sea and shipping, though. Henry de Saumarez, the son of the third Baron de Saumarez, John, who had been chaplain to King Charles II, didn’t spend his life on the waves but he had perhaps been inspired by his nautical relatives.

In early 1715 he made a written statement to the Royal Society, later acquired by the British Museum, describing a device he had invented for tracking how far a ship had sailed. Were such a thing to prove accurate, it would greatly aid waterborne navigation, since vessels would be able to plot their precise position on charts showing underwater obstacles and directions to the nearest land.

The invention was a dial which, according to the statement, “will, by correspondence with a small wheel moving under water, and a little bell striking with the said dial, curiously demonstrate the geometrical paces, miles or leagues, which the ship hath run, which, being applied in a proper manner, will be of little or no hindrance to the course or sailing of the ship.”

The invention explained

Effectively, Henry de Saumarez’s invention was a water wheel that rather than turning a stone to grind corn instead turned a dial on the deck of a ship that struck a bell, allowing the crew to count off their progress. By siting the wheel underwater, rather than in the air, they could be sure that it would turn at the same speed as the ship moved forward.

As de Saumarez explained it, “the said wheel shall turn in any depth of the sea so that no storm or rough sea, nor the violent motion of the ship, will alter, hinder, or stop, the regular working thereof; but the swiftness and slowness shall be seen and heard, by the striking of the little dial.”

The matter was referred to the king, George I, who handed it on to the Admiralty who in turn showed it to famed mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. They asked his advice.

Newton hedged his bets. While he acknowledged that it would be less trouble to track a ship’s progress with such a device “than by the log-line… I am not yet satisfied that the reckoning will be so exact. I have no experience in sea affairs, nor ever was at sea, and therefore my opinion is not to be much relied on, without the opinion of the Trinity-house”.

A log line was a length of rope cast out behind a ship. The speed at which it was drawn into the water was an indication of the vessel’s progress. Trinity House, meanwhile, is the UK lighthouse authority. It was responsible for the construction of Hanois Lighthouse.

Henry de Saumarez attended several meetings with Trinity House and provided it with drawings and models, but the board wasn’t convinced he’d come up with something it could approve. Its members objected on several accounts and, although de Saumarez is said to have countered each objection, it seems that his efforts may finally, after much buck passing on the part of the authorities, have come to nothing.

It is not known what became of the device, which had been lost by the 1840s.

Guernsey passengers are battered by storms

The Earl Godwin, a British Rail car ferry serving the Channel Islands, docked at Guernsey on 26 January 1977 after a very rough night at sea.

The ship had had to heave-to seven miles outside St Peter Port when the rocking motion of the boat started to shift cars on deck. When this happens, it can affect the balance of the vessel which, if serious enough, risks capsizing it. It also washed a life raft overboard.

When a crew “heaves to” it effectively parks its ship without using an anchor. This is a particularly useful tactic in a storm since laying anchor could cause even more damage if it should snag on an underwater obstacle and the ship be thrown by the waves. If the anchor snags on an undersea cable it can snap the cable, causing significant damage.

Ferry operators experiencing very rough conditions will sometimes point the ship into the force of the storm even if that is not the direction they want to take. This way the waves are sliced by the prow rather than hitting the flat sides of the vessel, thus reducing the sideways rocking motion.

A widespread storm

On this occasion, the Channel and the whole of the south of England was being battered by storm force winds, which had felled trees in nine counties and delayed trains. Even in London, the gusts were sustaining 60mph; at the coast they were approaching 100mph and throwing up 15ft waves.

The previous year, passengers had staged a sit-in on the Earl Godwin, refusing to leave the ship until they and their cars were transported from Weymouth to the Channel Islands when stranded by a strike.

Sark is awarded Dark-Sky status

Sark became the world’s third international Dark-Sky Park, and the first international Dark-Sky Community in Europe, on 25 January 2011. The announcement was made on the 31st by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Fewer than 12 sites around the world had earned themselves Dark-Sky status before Sark, but the number did include Scotland’s Galloway Forest Park.

The Dark-Sky movement promotes the fight against light pollution, making awards to locations where it’s possible to view the stars with the naked eye. Sark was a natural candidate for such an award, having no street lights or motorised traffic, aside from tractors.

An island-side endeavour

A press release from the International Dark-Sky Association explained that “a rich Milky Way is visible thanks to Sark’s island location, its generally low use of residential and commercial electricity, and of course its striking absence of public street lights.”

The Association suggested Sark had created a “purposeful directive for future lighting practices”. Several public institutions on the island, including the school and hotels, had reworked their lighting arrangements to help reduce light pollution and the island’s government pledged that any future lighting would conform to the International Dark-Sky Community’s requirements.

This latter point was particularly important since the designation is a key selling point for the island’s tourism industry. As well as promoting its less frenetic pace of life, Sark has been using its Dark-Sky status to attract astro-tourists who visit for star-gazing breaks. Enya released an album called Dark Sky Island in 2015 inspired by Sark’s status.

Guernsey wins gold at the Commonwealth Games

The 1990 Commonwealth Games opened in Auckland, New Zealand on 24 January. Guernsey competed in athletics, road cycle racing, lawn bowls, swimming and shooting, in the latter of which it won a gold medal.

Adrian Breton came first in the Men’s Rapid Fire Pistol shooting with 583 points, which put him one point ahead of Australia’s Patrick Brian Murray, and four ahead of Michael Jay, representing Wales.

Breton’s gold was the only medal Guernsey brought home from the two-week event, but this still put it in joint 19th position among the 55 nations that took part.

Previous wins

It wasn’t the first time the marksman had won a Commonwealth medal. Breton had been competing at the Games since the 1982 event in Brisbane, where he came seventh in his field. He took silver at Edinburgh 1986 and bronze for the Men’s pairs 25m Rapid Fire Pistol shooting in Victoria in 1994. Breton’s last games were the 1998 event at Kuala Lumpur from which the Guernsey team returned empty handed.

Adrian also competed in the Summer Olympics of 1988 (in Seoul) and 1992 (in Barcelona), as well as the Island Games of 1987 in which he won two gold medals.

Radiant Med sinks with loss of life

The Radiant Med, a 3000-ton Liberian-registered cargo ship, sank 15 miles off Guernsey on 23 January 1984. She had been carrying grain from Ghent to the Congo when she struck rocks in force 11 gales, ruptured her number two hold and started to take in water.

Despite being so close to Guernsey, the Radiant Med was still within the area for which France had responsibility for search and rescue. The French control centre near Cherbourg immediately swung into action to affect a rescue operation and notified the British coastguard within quarter of an hour of receiving the Radiant Med’s distress message.

The French planned to escort the stricken ship to port so the damage could be assessed, but around 90 minutes after it had started taking on water things took a turn for the worse. The ship’s cargo had shifted in the hold, making her list to one side.

Abandon ship

The crew abandoned ship, taking to the lifeboats and rafts at 1.15am, at which point the French authorities called on the St Peter Port lifeboat for assistance. It was dispatched shortly after 1.30am and was joined by HMS Orkney, an island-class patrol vessel that has since been sold to the Trinidad and Tobago coastguard and renamed TTS Nelson. She was the sister vessel of HMS Guernsey, which was sold to Bangladesh in January 2004.

Despite having so many resources on hand, nothing could be done to save the Radiant Med and she sank at 2.47am at a depth of 68m. Britain sent three Sea King helicopters to the scene, at the request of the French authorities, and the search for survivors began. The St Peter Port lifeboat rescued nine of the 24 crew from the Radiant Med’s own lifeboats, but none of the others survived. All but one of the bodies were later recovered.

Guernsey Steam Tramway stops running

There’s no longer any evidence of the route it used to take between St Peter Port and St Sampson, but for many years Guernsey had a steam tram linking the island’s two main towns.

The Steam Tramway, which had been set up with two engines running on three miles of track, had only been operating ten years when the trams ground to a halt. The journey from one end of the line to the other took 18 minutes, initially with just one tram leaving every hour. There was only one line, but it had passing places that allowed one tram to get out of the way of the other.

It proved massively popular in an era where cars were a rarity. The first motor vehicle was only invented in the mid–1880s, so transport in Guernsey would have otherwise been by bike, foot or horse. The tramway therefore quickly expanded, with four new engines being added to the fleet within its first four years of operation.

But perhaps the Tramway owners should have looked a little further ahead. While they were investing in rolling stock, the first excitement over the tramway’s presence was waning and the number of people using it was starting to decline. Thus, on 22 January 1889, the tramway had no choice but to cease all operations.

The steam tramway returns… of sorts

Fortunately for the people of Guernsey, it was only a suspension rather than a definitive termination of the service. The company changed its name to the Guernsey Railway Company and resumed its operations in December of the same year.

The name change was just the first step in a more extensive reorganisation of the service, though. German manufacturing giant, Siemens, electrified the track in 1892 and leased it back to the Guernsey Railway Company for the next twelve months following the introduction of the first electric rail services. When the opening year was up, Siemens sold the line to the Guernsey operator.

This modern incarnation fared better than the steam tramway had done, but still only persisted for a little more than 40 years. It finally closed down in 1934 and the tracks were quickly removed, which is why there is no longer any sign of the route either it or the original tramway used to ply on the island.

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