The East Yorkshire coastline is eroding quickly. Already thirty towns and villages have been lost to the sea. This is the story of the lost town of Ravenser Odd, now lying under the North Sea, off the Humber estuary .
By and large they were a bad lot in Ravenser Odd:
“The town of Ravenser Odd was an extremely famous borough, devoted to merchandise with many fisheries and most abundantly provided with ships… 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.
In the Beginning
The Abbey 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 time it became accessible from the mainland.
The sandbank grew larger and a handful of enterprising souls moved in to sell provisions to passing ships. Around 1235 the Count and Countess of Aumale whose fiefdom embraced Holderness, recognised the strategic possibilities of the site. They started to build the town. A few years later the monks of Meaux Abbey got in on the act and acquired buildings for storing fish and other provisions.
The town prospered; its position -between the Humber and the North Sea- 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 developed their own approach to trade. They went out in smaller boats and intercepted merchant ships, “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”.
The men of Ravenser Odd triumphed at the Inquiry with all charges not proven and even commended for their entrepreneurship.
The town flourished with more than 100 houses, warehouses, quays and other port buildings. The King granted it borough status in 1298/9 for which the townsmen paid the then huge sum of £300. It is in keeping with the spirit of the town that they actually handed over only a small amount of the money.
However, some evidence exists to show that the Ravenser Odd men found it hard to shake off old ways and become model citizens.
For example, around 1300 two Norwegian merchants petitioned 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 the Ravenser men committed were ignored. The town grew in importance, wealth and prosperity. The town had two representatives in the Model Parliaments of the time. It gave strong support to the king in the wars against the Scots by providing ships, provisions, arms and men.
Beginning of the End
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. The inhabitants made a number of petitions for the lowering of taxes because the sea had washed away many of the buildings and land
In 1355 flooding damaged the chapel exposing bones and corpses. These were removed for reburial elsewhere. The encroaching sea washed away the chapel but not before some of the townsfolk looted many of its artefacts.
Soon after this, the townsfolk abandoned the place and, unsurprisingly, it became something of a pirates’ lair.
In January 1362 a south-westerly gale raged across the UK and applied the coup de grace to the town of Ravenser Odd. This storm, known as the Great Drowning of Men, combined 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.
You can read more about the history of this coastline in my book ‘Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast.’https://www.amazon.co.uk/Close-Edge-Tales-Holderness-Coast