Among the thousands of fictions concerning ‘Haunted Britain’ that have been exploited by local authors, hoteliers, and tourist boards, the account of the ghost ship the Lady Luvibund presents a very interesting look at how a regional legend came into existence and, over seventy years after its ‘birth’, developed into a subject of international interest.
The Ghost Ship of the Goodwin Sands
In 1953, the late George Goldsmith-Carter wrote a book entitled The Goodwin Sands which focussed on an area of sand lying approximately five miles off the East Kent coast. Often known as the ‘Ship Swallower’, the Goodwins had a reputation stretching back hundreds of years for being a very dangerous area of the English Channel, where many ships had been wrecked and lives lost.
Goldsmith-Carter’s book focussed entirely upon solid histories, until the end chapter, which began with the sentence “Tradition has it that the Goodwin Sands are haunted.” The chapter went on to tell how, on February 13, 1748, a three-masted trading schooner, the Lady Luvibund, was deliberately steered onto the Sands a mile north east of the South Goodwin lightship, killing everyone on board. The captain, Simon Reed, had recently married and the newly weds were enjoying the wedding festivities with a host of guests onboard when the first mate, John Rivers, was driven to murder. He had fallen in love with his captain’s new bride and his bitter jealousy prompted him into a deadly rage.
‘Something must have snapped in Rivers’ brain and, walking casually aft he drew a heavy wooden belaying pin from the rack.’
Rivers, he continued, then crept up behind the helmsman and smashed his skull in, before grabbing the helm and swinging it over to drive the ship straight into the Sands. Conjuring up a vivid picture of the wretched ship’s failing moments, Goldsmith-Carter wrote:
‘Above the tragedy and din of a dying ship sounded the hideous cacophony of a madman’s laugher.’
The book explains that Rivers’ mother gave evidence at a court of enquiry, saying that she had heard her son say that he would get even with Reed if it cost him his life.
Goldsmith-Carter goes on to inform his reader that the Lady Luvibund was sighted three times after its sinking, each time on the exact date of it being wrecked upon the Sands.
‘In the year 1798, on the thirteenth of February, Captain James Westlake of the coasting vessel Edenbridge was skirting the edge of the Goodwins when he saw a three-masted schooner bearing down on his vessel with all sails set. He and his helmsman slammed the wheel hard over, and as the other craft sheared past he heard the sound of female voices and gaiety coming from below.’
The author tells us that Westlake reported the “criminal carelessness” of the schooner as soon as he reached the shore and that:
‘… in support of his statement, a fishing vessel said that they had seen the same schooner go aground the Goodwins then break up before their eyes. Apparently these men speedily made for the wreck finding, as they approached the spot “nothing but empty sand and water.’
Fifty years later on February the thirteenth 1848 a group of hovellers (salvagers who made their living from the ships wrecked on the Goodwin Sands) spotted a schooner breaking up on the Sands. Hurriedly the men set sail out to the Goodwins but, when they arrived there, found nothing. Another vessel, an American Clipper (unnamed by Goldsmith-Carter) agreed that they too had seen the schooner.
The last account of a sighting of the Lady Luvibund as recorded by the author was on February 13, 1898 when shore watchers sighted a three-masted schooner “pile up on the same spot on the Sands”. Launching their boats from Deal beach, as they reached the Goodwins it was clear that the ship was not there.
Goldsmith-Carter ended his account of the Lady Luvibund with the following statement:
‘So, through all eternity, every fifty years and on the thirteenth of February, a madman’s deed of violence and treachery and the phantom schooner is doomed to be wrecked on the same spot. Real ghosts are far from being shadowy, unsubstantial and things of popular belief.’
However, even though the ‘ghost ship’ apparently appeared on the thirteenth of February every fifty years after 1748, Goldsmith-Carter records no sighting in 1948. Being local to the area, it is curious that the author did not make it a specific priority to keep a watch that day (or night) for the mystery schooner. Of course, it could have been that he had not heard of the story at that time and only came into contact with the legend whilst researching for his 1953 book.
In fact, the first problem when deconstructing the myth surrounding the Lady Luvibund posses itself in the shape of the word ‘research’. Where exactly did the author gain his knowledge of the vessel and the subsequent sightings of her – also, how did he know what had happened aboard the schooner on that apparently fateful day?
Exploring the legend
Any attempts by historians to obtain primary evidence of the vessel at the Guildhall Library, the Greenwich Maritime Museum and the Greenwich Local History Department have met with failure. After trying to uncover any record of the Lady Luvibund, the director of the local maritime museum commented:
‘Of the ship, its loss, any possible survivors and any resulting courts of inquiry, no trace could be found after a diligent search.’
In his 1986 article titled ‘Ghost Ship of the Goodwins’ and published in Fate magazine, Michael Goss raises the question of any solid research surrounding the vessel and goes as far as interviewing the author on the matter and reporting that, when questioned as to where his researched stemmed from,
‘ …George Goldsmith-Carter told me that he couldn’t remember when or where he first heard it.’
Goss informs his readers,
‘When one tracks down ghostly classics, one should always begin at the beginning: that is to establish who first told the story.’
His research of the story led him to, what appears to be, the very first mention of the ghost ship, published in the Daily Chronicle on the fourteenth of February, 1924. An article appeared in the newspaper announcing that:
‘…the ghostly anniversary of the Lady Luvibund sunk in the Goodwins in 1724 (sic), was marked last night by a terrific gale. There was at least one wreck, but from enquiries … the legendary apparition due every 50 years at midnight on February 13 was not seen.’
Goss goes on to document the fact that “G.W.H.” a correspondent of Notes & Queries investigated the article, questioning the people of the local town, to find that no resident had ever heard of the ghost ship. His research into the legend also uncovered the fact that nothing had ever been documented in terms of the sinking of the schooner.
‘After checking 13 books on the history and legends of the Sands, G.W.H. found no reference of a wreck on the Goodwins called the Lady Luvibund let alone its supernatural renaissance in 1874 or any other time. “The story,” G.W.H. said, “would appear to be of modern origin. Did it first appear in some work of fiction, and if so what is the title and by whom was it written? As no local historians mention the legend, perhaps its author may be known to some … readers.” Evidently not, since none of N&Q’s numerous and learned correspondents appear to have replied to G.W.H.’s appeal for further information.
Michael Goss concludes that:
‘Conceivably an oral version of the Lady Luvibund may have circulated during the 19th Century – although, given theVictorian enthusiasm for getting folktales into print, its escape from avid collectors seems little short of miraculous.
Goss surmises that the story was first born ‘between 1914 and 1924’ and that the choice of the thirteenth of February was not in any way a fluke.
‘What more appropriate time than the eve of St Valentine’s Day could there have been to bring forth a ghost story based on a tragic love affair?
Even though, it would seem Goss deconstructed the myth of the Lady Luvibund in very clear terms, covering all aspects of the tale and, in doing so, assuring his readers that it could not possibly be true, this did not stop a huge amount of media hype that appeared in early 1998, preceding the next supposed appearance of the apparition.
In fact the Fate article on the ghost ship had enabled the story to cross the Atlantic and interested ‘ghost hunters’ from as far as the USA took a massive interest in the Lady Luvibund and the prospect of her appearing on the thirteenth of February, 1998. Any confusion that might have been apparent over the mix up of dates as chronicled in Michael Goss’s article over the exact dates of the ship’s sinking, were deemed unimportant, and Goldsmith-Carter’s story was presented as ‘gospel’.
The ressurection of the myth
The updated version of Lloyd’s List, as compiled by Richard Larn, (which records all known British shipwrecks) has documented the Lady Luvibund as being an authentic wreck, although its only source was attributed to Goldsmith-Carter’s book The Goodwin Sands. However, due to this fact it appears, on the surface, that the schooner was not real and that the events of that night never took place, as authenticated shipwrecks would have been sourced to that date and numbered.
Since the publication of Goldsmith-Carter’s book, several other chapters have appeared in different books and magazines, telling exactly the same story (again solely crediting its source as Goldsmith-Carter). Thirty-one years before Michael Goss wrote his article on the ghost ship, Fate magazine had published another account of the sinking written by Frank Madigan. The article almost retold the chapter from The Goodwin Sands word for word, fleshing it out here and there with descriptions such as ‘The captain and his guests were trapped below and drowned instantly.’ But, perhaps, the most keenly read retelling of the Lady Luvibund appeared in Philip MacDougall’s 1991 book Phantoms of the High Seas in a chapter titled ‘Phantom Ships’. MacDougall refers to the ship as the Lady Lovibund, but tells exactly the same story and recalls precisely the same sightings as George Goldsmith-Carter.
This book, still in print in 1998, was undoubtedly the main source of reference for a little girl who wrote up to the children’s TV programme Blue Peter, telling them about the two-hundred and fiftieth anniversary. The programme made a feature of the story, interviewing local maritime historians and staging a scene where the girl camped out with local ‘characters’, waiting for the apparition.
On February 1, 1998, the Sunday Telegraph ran an article detailing the story and featuring a local skipper who was chartering a boat from Ramsgate harbour on the afternoon of Friday the thirteenth of February at 13.00 with precisely thirteen people on board. ‘I have had enquiries from all over the country,’ he remarked. ‘the story just lives on and on.
On the day of the thirteenth, great excitement was evident both locally and nationally. The Daily Mail and Guardian, among others, featured stories on the ghost ship, titled, ‘The Spectre of the Sands’ and ‘Riddle of the Sands’. Along with the boat trip, over two hundred people gathered on the pier, binoculars at the ready, expectantly staring out across the sea for the ghostly apparition. Needless to say, nothing materialised except the odd cold.
On Saturday the fourteenth of February, the Independent ran the story ‘The ghost ship that refused to come back from the dead’, detailing the trip aboard the charter boat and remarking:
‘So it was yesterday, on the ship’s 250th anniversary, hotels and boarding houses were booked solid with ghost-hunters from as far a field as America, Italy and Germany.
The feature went on to quote a historian who dryly observed:
‘The mid-18th Century was the height of the smugglers. How better to keep people away from your nefarious activities than to invent a ghost story? We are not talking about spirits of the ethereal kind, but the ones found in bottles.
Indeed, the only ghostly noises that might have been heard on February thirteenth 1998 would not have been the madman’s laughter of the murderer John Rivers, but that of George Goldsmith-Carter having a good old chuckle at the expense of all those gazing expectantly out to the Goodwins for the ghost ship that never even existed.
No doubt, in the year 2048, hundreds will again flock to the Kent coast for the possibility of sighting the ghostly apparition, regardless of the fact that the mystery schooner was entirely fictional. Michael Goss, in the summing up of his findings, notes that:
'At all events, it – and every ghost ship of the same ilk – is essentially a harmless, romantic response to an evocative seascape and to a sense of historical tradition. No amount of sceptical cold water can remove tales of this kind from people’s hearts.'
A sensible approach, but Goss possibly did not foresee the national frenzy that would be caused by the Lady Luvibund in 1998. Even so, apart from a handful of locals making money from the myth, the romanticism surrounding the event and the portrayal of it on children’s TV was, indeed, quite harmless. That said, those who were gathered there on the evening of Friday thirteenth should count themselves extremely lucky that programmes such as Most Haunted had not ‘materialised’ at that point. Blue Peter featuring a child’s interpretation of a ghostly tale is one thing, but the likes of Derek Acorah conjuring up the dead is quite another.
- George Goldsmith-Carter: The Goodwin Sands (Constable and Co Ltd., 1953) pp137 – 140.
- Philip MacDougall: Phantoms of the High Seas, (1991) pp89 - 93
- Fate Magazine, ‘Ghost Ship on the Goodwin Sands’, Frank Madigan (June, 1955).
- Fate Magazine, ‘Ghost Ship of the Goodwins’, Michael Goss (October, 1986).
- Sunday Telegraph ‘Ghost ship hunters stake out haunted coast’, Peter Birkett (1 February, 1998)
- The Independent, ‘The ghost ship that refused to come back from the dead’, Kathy Marks, (14 February, 1998).