Sad centenary prompts quest to discover more about Norfolk shipwreck

Sheringham Town Crier Tony Nelson with his wife Hilary with the memorial to the crew of the French b

Sheringham Town Crier Tony Nelson with his wife Hilary with the memorial to the crew of the French boat St Francois who drowned in mysterious circumstance in 1916. A ceremony is planned on the 3rd April at Upper Sheringham Church to mark the 100th anniversary to mark the sinking. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Buffeted by tempestuous waves, the small vessel went down with all hands into the unforgiving depths of the North Sea.

Weybourne Beach where the wreck of the St Francois was spotted out to sea close to the old Coastguar

Weybourne Beach where the wreck of the St Francois was spotted out to sea close to the old Coastguard Station. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Now, 100 years after a mysterious shipwreck claimed the lives of four French crew members off the Norfolk coast, an quest has been launched to discover more about this previously obscure maritime tragedy.

It was on the afternoon of March 29, 1916 that Weybourne coastguard Henry Satterly saw wreckage floating in the surf from the French ketch St Francois.

Later that night a body was found washed up on Sheringham beach followed by the three other deceased ship mates the next morning.

The four men - captain Charles Merlen, lieutenant Louis Vasseur and able seamen Francois Agez and Joseph Minnie - were laid to rest in Upper Sheringham church.

However, amidst the chaos and carnage of the First World War their sad deaths got lost in the mists of time.

When Sheringham Town Crier Tony Nelson and his wife Hilary discovered the small cross dedicated to the seamen in the churchyard earlier this year he decided to embark on a quest to discover more about the fateful voyage.

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Mr Nelson said: 'It is a fascinating story and the more you look into it the more questions there are.

'What were they doing so far away from home in the middle of the North Sea, which must have been full of German U-Boats, at the height of the First World War. I would love to discover what cargo was being carried, the purpose of the voyage and most of all was it civilian or military?'

'The St Francois was from Gravelines, which is a small place on the French coast between Calais and Dunkirk, it was a long way to come for a small two mast sailing boat.'

Tantalising snippets of information about the crew's journey survived in the wreckage including an alien registration form issued to 21-year-old Joseph Minnie by Newcastle police on March 19.

On Sunday the memorial to the crew members will be blessed to mark the 100th anniversary of their burial.

Mr Nelson is hoping it may be possible to trace descendants of the crew men.

He said: 'They were lost in the middle of war a long way from home and the circumstances that lead to their tragic deaths may never have been fully explained to their loved ones.'

Anyone with further details about the St Francois can contact Mr Nelson on 01263 823581.

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