Goodwin Sands

The Goodwin Sands are a 10-mile long sand bank in the English Channel, lying six miles east of Deal in Kent, England. More than 2,000 ships are believed to have been wrecked upon them and as a result, they are marked by numerous lightships and buoys. Notable shipwrecks include the VOC ship Rooswijk, Stirling Castle and the South Goodwin Lightship.

There is currently a lightship on the end of the sands, on the farthest part out to warn ships. The sands were once covered by two lighthouses on the Kent mainland, one each at the north and south ends of the sands. The southern lighthouse is now owned by the National Trust, and the northern one is still in operation.

When hovercraft ran from Dover they used to make occasional trips to the sands.

An annual cricket match was until 2003 played on the sands at low tide, and a crew filming a reconstruction of this for the BBC television series Coast had to be rescued by the Ramsgate lifeboat when they experienced difficulty in 2006.

Several naval battles have been fought nearby, including the Battle of Goodwin Sands in 1652 and the Battle of Dover Strait in 1917.

Legend holds that the sands were once the fertile low-lying island of Lomea, often equated with an island known to the Romans as Infera Insula ("Low Island"). This, it is said, was owned in the first half of the 11th century by Godwin, Earl of Wessex, after whom the sands are named. When he fell from favour, the land was given to St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, whose abbot failed to maintain the sea walls, leading to the island's destruction, some say in a storm of 1099. However, the island is not mentioned in Domesday Book, suggesting that if it existed it may have been inundated before that work was compiled in 1085–86. The earliest written record of the name "Lomea" seems to be in a 1590 work De Rebus Albionicis by a John Twyne (or Twine), but no authority for the island's existence is given.

Another theory is that the sands' name came from Anglo-Saxon gōd wine = "good friend", an ironic name given by sailors.

In 1974 a plan was put forward to build a third London airport on the Goodwin Sands, with a huge harbour complex, but the idea faded into obscurity.

Shipwrecks on the Sands

17th century

  • John, the son of Phineas Pett of Chatham, was involved in an ordeal in the beginning of October 1624, when occurred: "a wonderful great storm, through which many ships perished, especially in the Downs, amongst which was riding there the Antelope of his Majesty, being bound for Ireland under the command of Sir Thomas Button, my son John then being a passenger in her. A merchant ship, being put from her anchors, came foul of her, and put her also from all her anchors, by means whereof she drove upon the brakes [the Sands], where she beat off her rudder and much of the run abaft, miraculously escaping utter loss of all, for that the merchant ship that came foul of her, called the Dolphin, hard by her utterly perished, both ship and all the company. Yet it pleased God to save her, and got off into the downs, having cut all her masts by the board, and with much labour was kept from foundering." (From the Autobiography of Phineas Pett.)

Phineas received news of the shipwreck at Deal, and was dispatched by the Lord Admiral to attend to the ship and use his best means to save her. He used chain pumps, replaced the rudder, and fitted jury masts, by which effort she was safely brought to Deptford Dock.

Great Storm of 1703

In the the Great Storm at least 13 men of war and 40 merchant vessels were wrecked in the Downs, with the loss of 2,168 lives and 708 guns. Yet, to their great credit, the Deal boatmen were able to rescue 200 men from this ordeal.

Naval vessels lost to the sands included:

  • HMS Northumberland Deptford built, and, from there locally manned, lost with all hands
  • HMS Restoration Deptford built, and, from there locally manned, lost with all hands; also
  • HMS Stirling Castle, a 70-gun third rate built at Deptford in 1679.
  • the Woolwich fourth-rate HMS Mary was totally overwhelmed with the loss of 343 men.
  • the boom ship HMS Mortar was lost with all of her 65 crew.

19th-20th century

The brig Mary White was wrecked on the Sands in a storm in 1851; seven men of her crew were rescued by the lifeboat from Broadstairs.

The Radio Caroline vessel MV Ross Revenge drifted onto the Sands in November 1991, effectively ending the era of offshore pirate radio in Britain.

Literary references

William Shakespeare mentions them in The Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 1:
Why, yet it lives there uncheck'd that Antonio hath
a ship of rich lading wrecked on the narrow seas;
the Goodwins, I think they call the place; a very
dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcasses of many
a tall ship lie buried, as they say, if my gossip
Report be an honest woman of her word.

Herman Melville mentions them in Moby-Dick, Chapter VII, The Chapel:

In what census of living creatures, the dead of mankind are included; why it is that a universal proverb says of them, that they tell no tales, though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands...

R. M. Ballantyne, the noted Scottish writer of adventure stories, published The Floating Light of the Goodwin Sands in 1870.

W. H. Auden quotes the phrase "to set up shop on Goodwin Sands" in his poem In Sickness and in Health. This is a proverbial expression meaning to be shipwrecked.

G. K. Chesterton's poem The Rolling English Road refers to "the night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands."

Ian Fleming refers to the Goodwin Sands in Moonraker, one of the James Bond novels, as well as making them a major plot point in his children's story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


Further reading

  • Richard Larn and Bridget Larn - Shipwrecks of the Goodwin Sands (Meresborough Books, 1995) ISBN 0-948193-84-0

External links

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