On a dark December day 170 years ago, an east Hull street was in mourning.
At number 12, Hood Street, the Durr family was trying to come to terms with the loss of three girls – Mary, Catherine and Maria – drowned just yards away in the River Hull. Next door, 21-year-old newlywed William Smith had also been lost.
All four had been on their way to work at the giant new Kingston Cotton Mills, when tragedy struck. ¹
They had caught a popular early morning ferry, known as the Brewhouse Wrack, which crossed the river from the Groves – an infamous district of tightly packed slums – to Wincolmlee. ²
As the crowded boat reached the middle of the fast-flowing river, it capsized, throwing about 30 people into the water. Fourteen drowned.
In the days to come, thousands of people would turn out to mourn the dead and watch their funeral processions.
What was the strange, unexplained phenomenon seen above Hull in 1801: a rare weather event, or perhaps a UFO?
The supernatural sighting was described in newspapers of the time as resembling an “immense moon with a black bar across”, which then split into seven “globes of fire”. During the time it was visible, a faint blue light fell on the surrounding area.
Mike Covell, local historian and expert in all things strange and unexplained, discovered the obscure reference a few years ago and, during a former life at the Hull Daily Mail, I was lucky enough to collaborate with him on an article about it.
Our report, published in November 2015, soon went viral and was picked up by several national newspapers, which branded it, with admirable hyperbole, “Britain’s first UFO sighting”.
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.