Friday 14th October 1881 dawned bright, calm and clear and as their boats had been tied up in port for a week, the fisherman of Eyemouth was impatient to be off to the fishing grounds to earn a wage.
As customary, they made their way to the pierhead weatherglass. It had never been so low, forecasting severe storms to come. There was much discussion as to whether they should set sail or not but the men had families to provide for, and it is such “a grand day”, they decided to take the risk. Picking up their heavy seaboots, sou’westers and “doppers” (oilskins) they prepared to sail.
It was a point of honour that if one boat sailed the rest of the fleet were obliged to follow, so around 8 am watched by onlookers and families, 45 boats set off in tight formation, fanning out as they passed the Hurkur rocks.
They’ll no be sae close thegither when they come hame.
One old fisherman was heard to prophecies, as the fleet headed for the fishing grounds some 8 or 9 miles away.
They started shooting the lines, two for each crew member, each line with a complement of 1000 hooks which had been painstakingly baited with shelled limpets and mussels by their womenfolk the previous day. An arduous, finger-numbing exercise.
Then around 11 am an eerie stillness fell. Kutch dipped sails hung limply from the masts. Not a breath of air stirred. On land, hurricane “Euroclydon” struck. Skies grew leaden, darkening till it was black as night, and the feeble glow of oil lamps was needed in homes. The wind shrieked and howled as it increased in intensity, laying flat 30,000 trees.
An Eyemouth draper saw his horse and van blew into a pond and watched unbelievingly as uprooted mature trees were propelled along, upright, by the sheer force of the storm. At sea, waves were whipped up to a mountainous seething cauldron, bitter driving rain and stinging spray cut visibility to 500 yards. Masts snapped like matchsticks as the men cut lines and headed desperately for home.
In the hours that followed, 19 boats, each worth around £350, were lost, foundered at sea, or smashed on rocks while trying to gain safe harbour, some within sight and hailing distance of would-be rescuers, who could do nothing but helplessly watch them drown.
Two boats had a miraculous escape, when waves that could have smashed them to matchwood on rocks, lifted them over the danger and deposited them safely on land. Men were swept from decks, but two of them managed to grasp a rope, a gunwale, to be washed back aboard to eventual safety.
189 East coast fishermen lost their lives. 129 from Eyemouth alone, leaving 73 widows and 263 fatherless children. Of those 129 men lost, only 30 bodies were recovered for burial, plus some unidentifiable body parts which were interred in a mass grave on Fort point.
Donations poured into a Disaster fund from all over the land, till the incredible sum of £54,000 was raised. A pension of 5/-(25p) per week was paid to each widow from this, for life or until remarriage, with a further 2/6 for each child until they reached age 14, which kept the families together without recourse to the “poorhouse”.