Victor Hugo and Guernsey: Captain Harvey and the loss of the Normandy

22nd October 2018

The loss of the paddle-steamer Normandy, 17 March 1870

The Normandy first arrived in the Channel Islands on 19 September 1863. She was greatly admired for her exquisitely proportioned outline.   The Normandy had the reputation of being one of the fastest vessels sailing to the islands and was the first Channel Island steamer to have a straight stem.

The catastrophic collision between the Normandy and the Mary occurred in dense fog 20 to 25 miles southwest of the Needles.  The sailing conditions prior to the collision had been clear and the Normandy was travelling at her usual rate of speed.  The screw steamer Mary had been sighted by the Normandy only briefly before the fog engulfed her. 

The calamity claimed thirty-three lives including that of her well-respected captain, Captain Harvey.  As great volumes of water flooded the Normandy the sleepy passengers hurried to the deck.  The force of the collision had left only two boats remaining on the Normandy and Captain Harvey called to the Mary for assistance.   The Mary stood by and did all it could to assist, sending up rockets and putting out boats.  As the survivors reached the Mary the Normandy went down, carrying with her the captain and remaining passengers.

Victor Hugo had himself travelled on the Normandy and become well acquainted with its captain. He was deeply affected by its loss, as he seems to have been by all shipwrecks.   He donated money to the families of the sailors who died and it was as a result of this tragedy that Hugo, horrified by the lack of safety equipment aboard the Normandy, expressed his wish to present a specially-made lifebelt and buoy to the islander responsible for the greatest number of rescues.   Captain Abraham Martin, who had performed forty-five rescues in his life, was chosen to receive the life-saving equipment, which is now in the Guernsey Museum.