History of Hull, Yorkshire, the Humber and Lincolnshire. Myths, legends and stories from the past.
A deadly trek across the Great Silence of Russia’s White Sea
A deadly trek across the Great Silence of Russia’s White Sea

A deadly trek across the Great Silence of Russia’s White Sea

The three men stumbled across the frozen surface of the White Sea. They were freezing, starving and close to exhaustion.

Through snow drifts, whipped up by cruel winds, they could occasionally see the dim beacon of a lighthouse. Desperately, they trudged on towards it, across the rough and treacherous ice, conscious that to stop might mean their deaths.

They were the last survivors of the crew of the SS Sappho, a Hull steamship which was sailing home from the Russian port of Archangel, when it became stuck fast in ice, miles from the safety of land, in December 1915. 

What happened next is one of the most tragic tales of courage and endurance in the history of Hull.

Days earlier, 23 men had abandoned ship and set off across the frozen sea in temperatures as cold as 40 below. Now, only second officer William Ashford, 17-year-old Jack Stork and a tough Russian-Finn called Martin Hanhia, remained.

Suddenly, young Jack felt the ice give way under his feet and he plunged deep into the freezing sea. As the biting-cold water closed around him, he thought it was the end.

The approximate position of the Sappho on December 24, 1915
The approximate position of the stricken Sappho on December 24, 1915, when the men set out across the ice

But just as he was giving in, he felt strong hands grab his arms and haul him back out of the water and onto the ice. He laid there for a moment, chilled to the bone, too stiff to move.

He could hear someone shouting: “Come on! Come on!” And then the big Finn, Hanhia, dragged him upright, rubbed his hands and walked him around until the circulation came back.

Second officer Ashford was also in a bad way, exhausted and badly frostbitten, but somehow the three men managed to walk through the night, sustained only by ship’s biscuits.

At noon the next day they spotted another ship, deserted and abandoned in the ice. Wearily, they climbed aboard and managed to light a fire in the galley. Their ordeal was far from over, but for now they were alive.

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Voyage to Archangel

The Wilson liner SS Sappho set out for Hull from the Russian port of Archangel at the end of November 1915, with a general cargo and a crew of 23.

The voyage home would be a dangerous one and not just because of the winter weather in the Arctic Circle. The First World War was 16 months old and German U-Boats were a constant menace in the northern seas. Seven ships of the Wilson Line had already been lost that year to submarines, torpedoes and mines, and trade with Russia had been greatly reduced. ¹

In February, the Sappho had suffered a short-lived scare when, on a voyage from Valencia, it struck a suspected submarine. A statement from the Wilson Line later revealed that the object was actually thought to be wreckage.

The perils of the White Sea were well known too. The previous year, a Hull man in Archangel had made headlines for organising a concert party for wounded Russian soldiers, after his ship was frozen in at the port.

Images of the Wilson Line steamer SS Sappho and a newspaper cutting from January 1916.
Images of the Wilson Line steamer SS Sappho and a newspaper cutting from January 1916.

Nevertheless, the crew of the Sappho could take confidence from their commander. Fifty-year-old Captain James Martin was one of Hull’s most experienced master mariners and hailed from a prominent seafaring family. “One could scarcely mention the name without at the same time feeling the breeze of the sea,” the Hull Daily Mail reported.

His father, James Lambert Martin, was a bona fide Hull legend whose career had spanned almost the entire Victorian era. As a boy of 12, James Senior had sailed on the schooner transporting the Caen stone used to build the Houses of Parliament. Later, he enjoyed numerous adventures as a blockade-runner during war between Denmark and Germany, before settling down to a highly respected career as a master mariner, shipbuilder and brother of Trinity House. ²

For James Junior, it must have been a hard act to follow, but by 1915 he had succeeded in building his own, well-respected career, having commanded numerous ships for the Wilson Line. He had also become a prominent member of the Newington community, in west Hull, where he lived at 591 Anlaby Road with his wife Florence and their three children.

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When he steamed out of Archangel harbour on November 28, he hoped he would be back home with his family for  Christmas.

His crew was a blend of experienced mariners and engineers, tough Scandinavians and fresh-faced young lads. Supporting him in command of the ship were the chief officer Frank Brumby, a 41-year-old family man, of 9 Salmon Grove, Cottingham Road, and second officer William Ashford, the 40-year-old son of a well-known police detective, who had 25 years’ experience at sea. Meanwhile, the engine room was led by the highly experienced chief engineer, James Carten, a 66-year-old Scot, who lived at 3 Cambridge Street, Hull.

Among the younger members of the crew were two Flamborough lads. At 17, Jack Stork, the son of a North Street fish merchant, was making his first trip to sea. He must have been glad then to have a mate on board: Frank Bayes, 16, the son of a councillor from High Street, was making his fourth trip. Both were former Sea Scouts who, on the outbreak of war, volunteered to patrol the coastline. On one occasion, Jack had even made the newspapers when he discovered a 20ft-long whale washed up near the village.

Their ship was a workhorse of the Wilson Line. A single-screw steamer of 1,694 tons, it was built in 1903 at Earle’s shipyard on what is now the Victoria Dock housing estate.

A postcard showing Archangel in the early 20th century.
A postcard showing Archangel in the early 20th century.

Until the events of 1915, the Sappho was best-known for a bizarre incident in June 1909 – long before Captain Martin took command – when it collided with a Royal Navy cruiser of the same name, HMS Sappho, in dense fog off Dungeness. Fortunately, no one was hurt but the warship had to be grounded in Dover harbour. Newspapers referred to an “unfortunate coincidence”.

From Archangel, the Sappho steamed north-east for about 125 nautical miles, before anchoring at Sosnovets Island, off the coast of the Kola Peninsula. This was a prominent landmark for mariners, because its lighthouse and the many crosses put up across its landscape, features that won it the informal name of “Cross Island”.

The ship did not stay at anchor for long, however. Within hours, ice was seen drifting down towards the ship and Captain Martin immediately decided to get up steam to try to escape it. ³

An early 20th century postcard of Sosnovets (or Cross) Island, showing some of the cross planted on hills.
An early 20th century postcard of Sosnovets (or Cross) Island, showing some of the cross planted on hills.

Second officer Ashford recalled: “The following morning we were amongst the ice, the ship being unable to make any headway, and then drifted to the eastward about 18 miles of the lighthouse, in the meantime the ship taking a heavy list.”

With the Sappho now frozen in and trapped firm, there were little that captain and crew could do, other than drift with the ice.

Young Jack Stork, “a smart youth” according to the Hull Daily Mail, later wrote about his experiences and it is thanks to his recollections, as well as an interview he gave to the papers, that we have a detailed account of what happened next. He said: “Captain Martin then ordered us to be put on short rations two or three days. After vainly endeavouring to break the ice with our anchor, we found it impossible to get away.

“On December 22, the Sappho took a very heavy list, but two days later she righted herself again.”

The crew of the Sappho used a distant lighthouse to navigate across the ice
The crew of the Sappho used a distant lighthouse to navigate across the ice

It may have been this heavy list, or the prospect of drifting further away from land with dwindling provisions, that persuaded the crew to ask Captain Martin if they could abandon ship and strike out on foot across the ice. On Christmas Eve, with the weather clear, Martin finally agreed. At this time, the Sappho was about 18 miles south-east of Cross Island lighthouse and the ice was about 9ft thick.

The trek across the frozen sea

Young Jack recalled: “Captain Martin said it was time to clear out, as we were drifting further off land.

“About four o’clock we all camped on a big ice-floe, amid the dreary waste of hummocky ice and drifting snow. Some of the younger men would not sit down, fearing they would freeze to death, and walked about the ice all the time until about ten o’clock at night, when we again set out.”

Their compasses were frozen but they kept on all night, helped by moonlight and the stars, and navigating with the aid of the lighthouse. By 10am the next morning, however, it became clear that Captain Martin and Chief Engineer Carten, were unable to continue.

“I cannot go any further,” Martin said, and gave the ship’s papers and other documents to his steward.

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The party then set off again but after a short distance, the steward, 31-year-old F Bridgeman, bravely returned to the captain and told him: “I cannot leave you.”

Frank Bayes, Jack’s pal from Flamborough, also decided to go back, but the Captain begged them to go on, telling them he was done for. As they were debating what to do, however, the agonising decision was taken out of their hands.

Jack recalled: “Whilst waiting for the captain and out companions to join us, the ice between us suddenly cracked, and we were parted from the others. It was rapidly getting dark, and the terrible cold increased.”

The captain, steward Bridgeman and young Frank were cut off. James Martin must have spent his last moments thinking about Florence and their children back home in Anlaby Road. Weeks later, at a memorial service, tribute was paid to the steward who decided to stay with him, even though there was a possibility that his own life might have been saved. The Rev Aikman McKee would tell his congregation at Newington Presbyterian Church: “Whenever the story of the Sappho was told in the days to come, it would always be remembered how the steward had shown the spirit of true comradeship in standing by his master.”

With their captain gone, nineteen crewmen were left, led now by Martin Hanhia, the tough Finnish sailor from Vyborg, who went on ahead, testing the ice with a big boat hook to make a safe path for his shipmates. Young Jack would describe him as a man of “remarkable pluck, endurance and resource.”

Despite their precautions, the ice kept giving way and the men kept falling into the water.

A ship caught in sea ice (National Library of Norway)
This photo of sea ice shows the landscape the Sappho’s sailors must have faced (National Library of Norway)

Jack said: “The feeling of exhaustion from cold and fatigue increased so much that we were obliged to throw away all our packs, including food and superfluous clothing. But each man kept one blanket, thanks to which several of us saved our lives, for the temperature was about 40 degrees below zero and we in our ordinary seagoing boots and clothes.”

One of the firemen, H Fieldsend, a 45-year-old of 33 St James Place, Hull, was soon nearly frozen and refused to go on, despite being supported on either side by Hanhia and one of the Norwegian sailors.

“His hands were stiff and he could hardly move his legs,” said Jack. “We left him at 11pm the second night.”

The group splits up

At 4am on the second night, the group split when 11 of the younger sailors, who were not so well clothed as the others, decided they were being “handicapped” by the older officers and should push on ahead. Young Jack, who decided to stay with the officers, watched them walk away. All but one, he would never see them again and their exact fates are unknown.

The five men left with Jack were Chief Officer Brumby, Second Officer Ashford, Second Engineer McAndrew, Third Engineer Bartlett, and Hanhia, the Finn. After carrying on for some distance they came across Alf Ferry, the ship’s cook, who had left with the group of younger men but could go no further.

“We had had to drag him for nearly half a mile. He was badly frostbitten and we cut up blankets and tied up his limbs. He was complaining greatly of cold,” said Jack. Eventually they had to leave him.

Ferry, 42, was originally from Brixham but his widowed mother and his sister lived in 8 Brigham Terrace, Adelaide Street. A year after his death, his mother left a touching In Memoriam message in the Hull Daily Mail, including the words “in loving memory” and “rest in peace”.

In the morning, there was a moment of hope when they could see land only about three or four miles away. The way forward was barred by broken ice and water, however, and the chief officer, Brumby, now decided to rest.

Jack said: “After he had rested half-an-hour, the treacherous ice suddenly parted in front of us leaving a broad streak of open water between us and the land. We then, to our horror, commenced to drift back out to sea about ten or fifteen miles from the place we first started from.”

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By now, the six survivors were enduring their third afternoon on the ice and it was beginning to snow. At one point, Hankia, the Finn, fell into the water, but was helped out by the others. He got his clogs off, wrapped his feet in strips of blanket and put on a replacement pair of boots.

“Nothing daunted, he immediately changed his clothes, standing naked on the ice, and left his old suit behind him,” Jack recalled.

One by one during the evening and the night, the men succumbed to exhaustion: first McAndrew, then Bartlett and finally Brumby.

“Third Engineer Bartlett was thirsty and kept asking for water, said Jack. “He seemed to think at times he was on the ship. We had to leave him and the mate at two or three o’clock in the morning.”

Ashford recalled: “The third engineer then came along with us, but shortly afterwards sat down and replied to us ‘Leave me alone; I am not going on any further.’”

The three survivors

The three survivors pushed on, close to exhaustion, freezing from falling in the water, but determined to walk with all the speed they could, making for land.

Then, just as hope was dying, they spotted a steamer trapped in the ice. It was the Mascara, a Glasgow ship, wrecked and abandoned. It took two hours of hard trekking through the wind and snow to reach it, but once on board, they found paraffin and managed to light a fire.

“We then melted some snow in a tin and had the first drink of water since we quitted the ship,” Jack remembered. “No wine could have tasted better, it was so delightful and refreshing. Our friend the Finn, fortunately had some dry tea in his pocket.

“As for myself I sat three hours in front of the galley fire before my boots were sufficiently thawed to be taken off.”

They remained onboard for 22 hours, sleeping the night and drying their clothes, before setting out again for land, which they reached at dark after a two-mile trek. They walked along the shore until they found telegraph posts, and then followed them inland.

“We found the country very rough, having to climb up and slip down the hills and cross streams. The snow was from 3ft to 6ft deep, and it was terribly cold,” said Jack.

A Sami man with his reindeer, taken from the book Three Summers Among The Birds of Russian Lapland, by Henry J Pearson (1904)
A Sami man with his reindeer, taken from the book Three Summers Among The Birds of Russian Lapland, by Henry J Pearson (1904)

After walking for 15 hours up and down mountains, ravines and plains, and covering about 15 miles of terrain, they were again nearly ready to drop. Then, at 4am, through a mist of snow, appeared what must have seemed like a mirage – a sledge drawn by reindeer and driven by a man from the nearest Sami village.

As Jack explained: “He turned round and drove us with his fleet reindeer to the nearest village. Here we were received by the simple and kind-hearted nomads and treated with the greatest hospitality.”

The three men were given a meal of black bread and reindeer meat. By now, Jack’s feet were black with frostbite. A doctor arrived and cut away the black part and put on some ointment.

Hanhia, “a very hardy young man”, had not suffered to any extent from frostbite, but Ashford’s foot was swollen and blackened, and some of his fingers blackened and twisted.

For four days, they stayed in the village, resting, before being carried by sledge to another, 19 miles away. From there, they were taken to the hospital at the port of Alexandrovsk (now Polyarny) where Second Officer Ashford had surgery for frostbite.

An old postcard of Alexandrovsk, Murmansk, where the survivors of the Sappho recovered in hospital
An old postcard of Alexandrovsk, Murmansk, where the survivors of the Sappho recovered in hospital

Waiting for news

Back in Hull, the first news of the plight of the Sappho was published in the Hull Daily Mail on January 12, when it was already a fortnight overdue. The ship had been reported abandoned in the White Sea, the paper reported, but there were “no definite tidings as to when and where the crew have been landed. Telegraph inquiries are being instigated by the owners.”

In a time before widespread radio communications – mayday messages were still relatively new, used most famously on the Titanic in 1912 – the only information came by telegram via Archangel.

On the 13th, the Mail added a little more information: “… there is an optimistic feeling as far as they are concerned. After abandoning the vessel the crew apparently made their way over the ice to the shore.”

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Another week passed before more definite news was received. On Friday, January 21, the Mail published the first details of the three survivors. “These three men left the ship, and after apparently making their way over the ice, probably a number of miles, reached a place near Sosnovetz Island.”

Relatives of the other men were still anxiously awaiting news. “There is no news of Captain Martin and the rest of the crew, but it has to be borne in mind that it is next to impossible to communicate with this outlandish part of the world.”

The following day, a report described how an icebreaker had discovered the Sappho stuck fast in the ice. A boarding party had found the ship abandoned with no information left by the crew, but the Wilson Line had sent instructions to organise search parties along the shore, “as it is possible that these men may be at some outlying Lapland village. Every effort is being made to discover their whereabouts.”

Hope was retained for some time. On Wednesday January 26, the Mail printed the contents of a telegram from a Royal Navy officer in Alexandrovsk, addressed to the wife of Second Officer Ashford, telling her that he husband was safe and would arrive back in Britain in a few weeks. On the following Saturday, a description of the abandoned ship was published: “Crew evidently left in a hurry, as meal on table; doors unlocked. Log book left on special entries.”

In the meantime, after four weeks in hospital, the three survivors sailed for the UK, where they landed in Newport of February 25. A few days later, their accounts of their terrible trek began to appear in the press.

Ashford recalled: “I had hopes that some of the members of the crew would have been saved who left us at first, but I am sorry to hear there is no news of them.”

On February 29, the Wilson Line finally conceded the worst. The firm “deeply regretted that it could not hold out much hope for the remaining members of the crew.” In the following week, the grieving families began to place death notices in the Mail.

Even for a city suffering amid the carnage of the First World War, the tragic story of the Sappho struck a chord.

How the Sappho tragedy was reported around the country: Dundee Courier, Hull Daily Mail Nottingham Evening Post and Leeds Mercury
How the Sappho tragedy was reported around the country: Dundee Courier, Hull Daily Mail Nottingham Evening Post and Leeds Mercury

At the memorial to Captain Martin, the Rev McKee told his family and friends: “It must have been painful beyond expression for those who had to leave comrades, one by one overcome by sheer exhaustion, in the unmarked white highway of the ice-bound sea.”

And a tribute in the Mail’s “House and Home” column reminded readers that few communities knew better the dangers of the sea.

“There is no need to draw upon our imaginations to picture the sad fate of these brave seafarers, cut off in their icy tomb, or to picture the loneliness and the darkness of that desolate spot. These things are known to us by tradition and by many a tale handed down to us by our grandfathers from the old whaling days, but the saddest part is that these lives had to be lost under the stern decree of implacable Nature in an age when science has linked up nearly all the world.

“There are still places where man meets his Maker amid the Great Silence – places where no human hand can be stretched forth to save.”

The victims

Captain James Martin
Aged 50, of 591 Anlaby Road, Hull

Chief officer Frank J Brumby
41, 9 Salmon Grove, Newland, Hull

Carpenter F Bucknall
51, 10 Industrial Terrace, Bean Street, Hull (originally from Louth)

Boatswain Joseph William Johnson
28, 3 Primrose View, Havelock Street, Hull

Able Seaman Charles Johnson
26, 2 First Avenue, Campbell Street, Hull

Able Seaman J W Eriksen
25, 3 Brunswick Place, Victor Street, Hull (from Olesund, Norway)

Sailor H Hansen
22, 3 Churchill Street, Hull (from Bergen)

Sailor Francis (Frank) Bayes
16, High Street, Flamborough

Chief engineer James Carten
66, 3 Cambridge Street, Hull (originally from Port Glasgow)

Second engineer A McAndrew
62, 32 St Georges Road, Hull

Third engineer Robert Denton Bartlett
30, 13 St Hilda Street, Hull

Fireman H Fieldsend
45, 33 St James Place, Hull

Fireman C Armitage
40, 2 Village Place, Osborne Street, Hull

Fireman A Farrow
38, 18 Edwin Terrace, Porter Street, Hull

Fireman P Hurd
28, 45 Bean Street, Hull

Fireman J Knight
31, 143 Bean Street, Hull (originally from London)

Donkeyman Martin McWilliam
53, 12 Churchill Crescent, Hull (from Melbourne)

Steward F Bridgeman
31, 29 Beecroft Street, Hull

Ship’s Cook Alf Ferry
42, 8 Bryham Terrace, Adelaide Street, Hull (from Brixham)

Engineers’ steward E Topham
21, 5 Western Villas, Hessle Road, Hull

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The fate of the Sappho

The SS Sappho finally sank in the White Sea on May 14, 1916, after an attempt to salvage it failed in bad weather. Later that year, the Wilson Line, weakened by the loss of so many ships, merged with the Ellerman Line.

Jack Stork, who attributed his survival to his training as a Sea Scout, went back to sea and was decorated for his wartime service in the Merchant Navy, as was William Ashford, who recovered from his injuries and served for a total of 40 years with the Wilson and Ellerman Wilson lines, before dying at a relatively young age in 1930.

Of Martin Hanhia, the tough Finn whose actions undoubtedly contributed to saving the lives of his two colleagues, I have found little more information, although a Finnish sailor called Martin Houhia, of about the right age, is recorded in Merchant Navy records in 1920. His picture is shown above.

At the time of the disaster, the story of the Sappho was compared to tales from the “Heroic Age of Polar Exploration”, when adventurers such as Scott and Shackleton conducted famous feats of endurance. Today, it is largely forgotten, a footnote in the tragic history of the First World War. Rereading the first-hand accounts today, however, it is impossible not to feel sympathy and admiration for the brave sailors who were lost in that great silence, while simply doing their jobs.

Read more: How 14 people died in a River Hull ferry disaster


Main image shows a seal-hunting ship navigating a semi-frozen White Sea in 1931 (National Archive of Norway).

1) The information about Wilson Line losses, and the Archangel concert party, are taken from Hull in the Great War, by David Bilton

2) The biographical information about the Martin family and Sappho crew members is taken from contemporary Hull Daily Mail reports, census/BMD records and records about the crew of the Sappho, held in the National Archives. Where spellings of names differ between records and reports, I have first used the spelling in BMD or census records.

3) Much of the description of events is taken from interviews and statements given by Jack Stork and William Ashford, published in the Hull Daily Mail and Yorkshire Post in February and March 2016.

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