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Gone Back to the Sea

“The town of Ravenser Odd was an extremely famous borough, devoted to merchandise with many fisheries and the most abundantly provided with ships and burgesses of all the boroughs of that coast. But yet, by all its wicked deeds and especially wrong-doings on the sea, and by its evil actions and predations, it provoked the vengeance of God upon itself beyond measure.”

Such was the verdict of the Chronicler of Meaux Abbey in the mid-14th century when documenting the destruction of the town.

It is mainly from the monks that we have any information at all about Ravenser Odd. Their records reveal that the town began life as a sandbank, probably an island, thrown up by the tides and currents between the river Humber and the North Sea. Located off the tip of Spurn Point and about a mile off the Holderness coast, at some point it became accessible from the mainland via a sandy path strewn with yellow stones.

The sandbank grew and was initially inhabited by a handful of enterprising souls selling provisions to passing ships.  Around 1235 the Count and Countess of Aumale whose fiefdom embraced Holderness, recognised the strategic possibilities of the site and started to build the town. A few years later the  monks of Meaux Abbey got in on the act and acquired buildings there for storing fish and other provisions.           

The town prospered. Its position between the Humber and the North Sea was perfect for fishing, trading and servicing shipping. Perhaps being at the outer reaches of the Holderness coast and away from any regular attention of the law, the men of Ravenser Odd were able to develop their own approach to trade by intercepting merchant ships and “persuading” them to berth at their port rather than at Hull or Grimsby. This practice, called forestalling, became a bone of contention with the merchants of Hull and Grimsby who saw their own trade suffer. In 1290 the King instituted an Inquiry into the deeds of the Ravenser Odd men. Grimsby merchants asserted that the Ravenser Odd men would:

“go out with their boats where there are ships carrying merchandise and intending to come to Grimsby with their merchandise. Said men hinder those ships and lead them to Ravenser Odd harbour by force when they cannot persuade them amicably”.

They also accused the Ravenser Odd men of giving false information to merchants to entice them away from Grimsby. They asserted that on several occasions the Ravenser Odd men spread the word that merchants would get a lower price for their goods at Grimsby than they would in their port when, in fact, the opposite was true. The men of Ravenser Odd made a swift counter claim, levelling the same accusations at the Grimsby men.  It was a case of the pot calling the kettle. The men of Ravenser Odd triumphed with all charges not proven.

In 1293, on the death of the Countess of Aumale, Ravenser Odd passed to the King, Edward 1. The town flourished with more than 100 houses, warehouses, quays and other port buildings. It was granted borough status in 1298/9 for which the then huge sum of £300 was paid. It is in keeping with the spirit of the town that little of the money was actually handed over.

With its new status the town gained perks and freedoms including a warden, a coroner a set of gallows and most important of all…the right to collect a very wide range of tolls and taxes. Yet there is still some evidence that the Ravenser Odd men found it hard to shake off old ways and become model citizens.  Around 1300 two Norwegian merchants petition the English king claiming that when their ship was driven ashore off Ravenser Odd “men came from there with force and arms and stole our ship and goods.” The petition ends with a plaintive request for remedy and compensation for their goods as they “have nothing from which to live”.

Under the King’s patronage, whatever piracy and misdemeanours were committed were ignored and the town grew in importance, wealth and prosperity.  The town was represented by two MPs in the Model Parliaments of the time and supported the king in the wars against the Scots by providing ships, provisions, arms and men.

However by the middle of the century it became clear that the golden years of Ravenser Odd were drawing to a close. Merchants started to move away as the flooding by the sea became more regular and more serious. There were a number of petitions made for the lowering of taxes because buildings and land had been washed away.

In 1355 flooding damaged the chapel in the town exposing bones and corpses. These were removed to Easington for reburial. The chapel itself was ultimately washed away but not before some of the townsfolk looted many of its artefacts leaving little for the monks to gather up.

The Meaux chronicler described how, on one occasion, both the Humber and the sea flooded the town “to a height exceeding the existing buildings” and the few remaining townsfolk, surrounded on all sides by the floodwaters “preserved themselves at that time from destruction, flocking together and imploring grace”

For a while after the town was abandoned it became, perhaps unsurprisingly, a pirates’ lair until the coup de grace was applied in 1362. In January of that year a south-westerly gale stormed across the UK reaching Yorkshire’s east coast around the middle of the month. This storm known as the Great Drowning of Men - raged across the North Sea and, combining with unusually high tides, produced a storm surge that swept the last stones of Ravenser Odd back to the sea. The town founded on a sandbank vanished without trace.

First published in The Yorkshire Dalesman