As I sat on the seafront at Worthing this week with the wind blowing through my hair and sea ebbing and flowing, my thoughts turned to those people who were lost at sea. Having published a book, Shipwrecks of Sussex, I know only too well how things can go badly wrong. This coming Sunday, 5 March, is the annual Worthing Flingathon, the throwing of oranges and lemons that will take place on the beach. The flingaton is the creation of local journalist Paul Holden and anyone can join by donating a £1 for a piece of fruit to throw. The story behind this event is an interesting one and dates back 1901 when the beach at Worthing was covered in oranges and lemons. The steamship Indiana was wrecked after colliding, in thick fog with the German Cross Atlantic Steamer City of Wellington bound for New York.
The story began on the 28 February when the large oil steamer City of Washington got into difficulties near the Owers Lightship about nine miles, south, south east of Selsey Bill, and decided to proceed slowly down the channel. Meanwhile the Indiana was sailing to London from Venice via Valencia with a cargo of oranges and lemons. She hit thick fog and was inching her way slowly up the Channel, when at around 5pm, the City of Washington ran into her hitting her amidships. The Indiana was badly damaged so the City of Washington took the crew board, but as she appeared to be still seaworthy, the crew decided that they would return to her. However the weather took another turn for the worse and finally the hawser snapped but, after several hours, the ship was still afloat when the London tug Simla arrived alongside and took the Indiana in tow, but the stricken ship began listing heavily and finally ground to a halt just one mile south of Worthing Pier. The crew were taken onto the tug which then headed off, to Newhaven with the crew. Eventually the cargo of oranges and lemons was washed ashore in their thousands and ended up scattered as far as Goring and along the coast as far as Rottingdean. Word soon spread that there were rich pickings on the beach, and the local residents rushed down and proceeded to pick large quantities of the oranges to either eat or to take home to make marmalade. Stallholders also arrived with baskets and sacks and by the time the salvage boat turned up the following day, the beach was clean. It is reported that one beachcomber lost his life when he was bowled over by a wave after wading into the sea to grab more fruit.
The local coastguards tried to take possession of the unopened cases that were washed up, but the gatherers on the beach had almost turned themselves into a fighting mob. The wreck of the Indiana, which became known as the ‘Orange Wreck’ rested in 40 feet of water, but because it was a hazard to other ships, it was later blown up, although it is now beginning to emerge and some of its ribs are sticking out of the sand, including a bathroom, complete with taps and a wash basin.
A picture board detailing the wreck can be seen near Worthing Pier. To mark the sinking of the 1000-ton SS Indiana and each March, on the nearest Sunday to day an annual fruit-flinging contest is held. Artefacts from the Indiana can be seen at Marlipins Museum at Shoreham and include the ship steam whistle, and some of the oranges and lemons washed ashore, whilst Worthing museum as the hub of her wheel and a rim from one of her portholes.
But Worthing was not the only place to receive an unexpected gift. Down the coast at Seaford another large cargo of oranges, 3560 boxes in all, from Seville bound for Leith in Glasgow deposited it load on the beach.
On 26 November 1877 the steamship Mizpah left Seville with her master and crew of twelve and arrived off Portland at 11am on Wednesday 5 December. There they dropped anchor for a short while before continuing their journey up the English Channel. What happened next is not clear. What we do know is that 4.30am the following morning, the only survivor, 20 year-old steward William Page, left his berth and went to the galley to make coffee for his fellow officers. Half an hour later he heard the mate shout, ‘Hard-a-port,’ quickly followed by a collision. It appears that the Mizpah had hit a force 6 gale and in thick fog had been struck by an unknown unlit sailing vessel. The damage to the Mizpah was severe and she was taking in water, so the master ordered the engineer to get the pumps working quickly. However this became impossible as the water had already got into the engine room and extinguished the boilers.
The collision had also carried away the Mizpah’s lifeboat and as the ship was sinking the master gave the order to get ready a small 4.3m boat. Seven hands, including William Page, got on board whilst the master, the first mate, and four of the crew lowered the boat into the water, but, the crew panicked and failed to hand the rope attached to the front of a boat to the master. Once in the sea, the boat moved off swiftly leaving the master and the other crew members unable to board. Once the error was spotted, the crew turned back to collect the others, but discovered that they only had one oar on board. Within twenty minutes the Mizpah’s bow rose up and the vessel went down stern first, taking with her the master, first mate, the first engineer, and an able seaman who was the master’s brother, as well as to other sailors.
With only one oar, the second mate steered the boat for three hours. Finally they saw what they believed was the Royal Sovereign Light ahead but, as dawn broke they realised they were heading towards Beachy Head light and the cliffs with the awesome surf breaking along the shore line. On board they discussed if they should run for shore through the surf or stay off shore and wait for help to come to them. In the end they decided take the risk of running for the shore. Suddenly they went broadside to the waves, throwing all seven men into the raging sea as the boat capsized. The action of the surf washed everyone ashore but the only man to survive the ordeal was William Page, who had been given a life belt by the master just before the boat was launched.
Meanwhile, at around 8.30am that morning Henry John Cooke was on lookout duty at Cuckmere Coastguard Station and saw the upturned boat. He quickly alerted John Heather, the officer in charge, who, looking through the telescope could see a body lying in the surf. He mustered his men and they made their way to the beach and found Page, almost naked crawling on his hands and knees up the shingle beach in driving sleet and rain. Two of the coastguards rushed to drag him clear of the water and carried him to Heather’s home to be treated for exhaustion and exposure.
During Thursday and Friday the bodies of five men were recovered from along the shoreline between Birling Gap and Seaford. At the inquest, Mr Atkins the part owner of the Mizpah, revealed that that only about a month earlier the Mizpah, under the command of the same master had been caught in a gale when sailing from Swansea to Saville and ended up 321km off course in the Atlantic Ocean.