It was a chapter in the Wallasey story as wild as the great storm that caused it. It happened over a century ago. It brought vast crowds. It brought skirmishes with the forces of law and order. It was a massive public grab at harvest from the sea. A rich cargo came floating into town on the waves of the Mersey. A ship broke its back – and a town broke loose.
It was in the early hours of December 30, 1904, that the ‘Ulloa’, from Barcelona, failed to pick up a Mersey Pilot and was swept in a fierce gale on to the treacherous Burbo Bank.
From her holds fruit and wines floated shorewards. The calm life of Wallasey was shattered in much the same way as the gale had torn ‘Ulloa’ apart.
Dawn visitors to the sands at New Brighton and Leasowe found cases and boxes of oranges and lemons, and hundreds of casks of wine. They were piled in heaps from the Red Noses to Moreton.
News of the wreck spread quickly. People came over from Liverpool and Birkenhead. They brought with them containers of every shape and size.
According to local reports at the time “some people walked, some hobbled, and others ran. They brought handcarts and wheelbarrows, baskets and boxes.
“The wind howled – and so did the great crowd at the sight of all the fruit and fine wine. The scene was a fantastic one.
Gushing fountains of wine were transferred into all sorts of containers. Even empty orange skins were utilised.
It was no uncommon sight to see the mouth of a pillow case yawning to receive the fruits of the earth which were scattered about in such profussion.”
Contemporary reports described the washed-up cases of oranges, lemons, grapes and onions as ‘uncountable’. They represented well over half the total cargo of the ship.
A local newspaper reporter observed: There were beatific expressions on the face of everyone who gained the shore and cast a longing glance at the quantity of the spoil washed up by the sea for their delectation.
“In between the gusts of wind could be heard sounds of revelry. The boxes and casks came rolling in like a miniature invading army.”
Some of the ‘wreckers’ were so impatient that they could not wait until the bounty reached the sands. Scores of them waded into the river and dragged the cargo shorewards.
The news reporter who was on the spot said :”It is surprising how generous people can be when they are disposing of other people’s goods. Certain men acted in a very lordly manner. They broke open boxes, turned their contents on the sands, and invited those around to ‘pick the best out’.
“Everyone staggered under their burdens, which, like that of Christian in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, threatened to overcome them’.
“The barrels of wine were attacked quickly. Wherever a penknife of gimlet was forced into one of them out spurted a stream of rich red wine.
“By nine o’clock in the morning the ‘good health’ of the wreck was being drunk by those on the sands. Receptacles of every kind were held out to receive the fine nectar.”
As the wine disappeared down eager throats, rowdyism grew. There was dancing. There were fights.
The reporter went on: “Certain there were who had come entirely unprepared for such an occasion, and in their desire to sample the juice of the grape flowing so unrestrainedly they fashioned the skins of oranges into the shapes of cups.
“Sooner than let the opportunity go by, one or two individuals applied their lips to the small holes through which the wine was pouring. It was all somewhat Bacchanalian.”
The sands were soon dyed a blood red in the vicinity of the barrels. The plundering was wild and noisy.
It went on all through the Saturday. It continued into the early hours of the Sunday.
Then the police and the coastguards arrived. All was hurry and scurry.
There were scuffles. Truncheons were used on the more unruly.
The crowd was dispersed – but only for an hour or two. It was soon back again.
Under cover of darkness, an army of men, women and children converged on the sands. They raided the banks of golden oranges, brought with them donkey carts and barrows.
The news reporter described “much carousing”, scenes of “great merriment, interspersed with brawls”. The town, he said, had “completely broken loose”.
Several arrests were made. There were summonses for ‘unlawful seizures’.
By Monday morning, January 2, 1905, it was all over. There was little left on the shore. Only a few children searched along the tide line.
The ‘Ulloa’ remained broken and battered on Burbo Bank for nearly a fortnight. Then a storm as fierce as that which had wrecked her carried the last pieces of her away.
The wreck was big news. It got Wallasey into the national newspapers.
The story was told all over the country. It was even featured in a novel – ‘The Hind Let Loose’, by Montagu.