antique textiles Hand spinning

The Story of the Wreck of The General Carleton

The village of Dębki in Poland, long had a myth about a British shipwreck and the survivors who came ashore – although the name of the ship was long forgotten.

Dr Michal Wozniewski, interested to see if there was any truth in the Dębki folklore, found the remains of a wooden vessel on the sea floor, and alerted The Polish Maritime Museum in Gdansk, who catalogued the wreck as “W-32”.  Local legend had long since forgotten the name of the vessel, so its identity was unknown. In the summer of 1995, the Museum anchored its own research vessel above W-32. Luckily, a recent storm had shifted a large amount of sand from the vessel, revealing its structure, and divers  found the ship’s bell, which had the words GENERAL CARLETON OF WHITBY 1777 cast into it.

Lloyd’s List for 21st October reported the sinking of “The General Carleton, [Master of ship, William] Hustler, from Stockholm to London, is totally lost in the Baltick, and all the Crew, except three Men.”

The General Carleton was a comparatively new ship, built in 1777 by the same shipbuilder who built Captain Cook’s Endeavour. It had been a transport ship supporting the British in The Revolutionary Wars, evacuating the British troops from Savannah and Charleston; moving loyalist civilians to Jamaica. In 1785, it was back in port in London, or Hull, once more trading between Britain and the Baltic.

Repro Carleton cap. Image courtesy Interweave Press
Image: Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum Gdansk
Image: Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum Gdansk. Note jog where rounds join, and original knitter fudges repeats slightly!

Baltic waters were treacherous, and the ship had to be guided by a pilot out into the open sea, where it was the following day, when a storm hit. Taking onboard water, The General Carleton began to list badly to one side, and so William Hustler made the decision to sail for the safety of Danzig (Gdansk) Bay, and take shelter til the storm passed. It was not Danzig, but the nearby fishing village of Dębki where the ship foundered on a sand bank.

Over 775 artefacts were raised, and preserved by The Polish Maritime Museum in an excavation led by Dr Waldemar Ossowski. Many of these were knitted items of clothing; some possibly manufactured in the Baltic, but most no doubt from Yorkshire.

Stockings from the wreck. Most likely knitted in Yorkshire, c. 1780. Image courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk.
Stockings from the wreck. Most likely knitted in Yorkshire, c. 1780. Image courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk.

On the ship’s port side, the barrels of Swedish pine tar that were cargo, had been smashed up and the tar had formed a matrix with the sand and water, that preserved the artefacts it covered. Amongst these rare survivals, many items of clothing and even paper, survived.

Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk
Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk

Items of clothing included sailors’ jackets, waistcoats, shoes, stockings and hats. This was not a Royal Navy vessel, but an armed merchantman. The mariners would be wearing clothes they had bought themselves.  Miraculously, some survived on the sea-bed still neatly folded, although the ‘slop chests’ they had been stored in, had rotted away around them. “Slops” was the generic name for “sailors’ clothing”.

At this date, Whitby had six slop shops. Sir Frederick Morton Eden in ‘State of the Poor’ wrote “…. almost every article of dress worn by farmers, mechanics and labourers, is manufactured at home…” In Yorkshire at this date, both the Great Wheel and the smaller treadle spinning wheel were in use – the former mainly for wool and semi-worsted; the latter for flax. Whitby was known for its woven ‘stuff’ – a cheap fabric made from a combed wool warp and weft.
It’s worth saying at this point, not a single sailor’s ‘gansey’ or knit frock was found in the wreck. Not one. At these dates, sailors wore a woven woollen jacket called a “Fearnought”.

If you want to read more about the knitted items from The General Carleton, there’s a link to the magazine where the original article appeared, below. Stephen Baines’ book, ‘The Yorkshire “Mary Rose”‘ (2010) is well worth a read. Also available “The General Carleton Shipwreck, 1785/ Wrak Statku General Carleton, 1785”. (2008). Waldemar Ossowski (ed).  Pub CMM, Gdańsk.

The General Carleton cap pattern is available in ’10 Best Patterns from Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection‘, but is also available as a separate download, here.

It originally appeared in Piecework, Jan/Feb 2014, which is still available digitally or in hard copy.

Thanks are due to Elżbieta Wróblewska at the Polish Maritime Museum, whose help was invaluable. Also the kind folk at Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, and thanks also to Carol Kocian and Stephen Baines, whose scholarship and research made my own reconstruction of the Carleton cap, possible.


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