When the owners of the four-masted iron hulled sailing barque Earl of Beaconsfield (1883) saw their new ship enter the River Clyde, they must have hoped for a handsome return on their investment. But although fate has a large role to play in anything to do with shipping, the owners could never have foreseen just how blighted, ill-fated if not damned this ship would be and that within the year she would be sunk after several major incidents at sea, and have never successfully made a single trip.
The Earl of Beaconsfield was launched by Russell & Co, Port Glasgow on the 5th of December 1883 for the firm of A. McAllister & Co, West India Dock Rd, London. The vessel was 269’ 1″ long by ×40’2″×24’3″ and had a tonnage of 1960 GRT and 1893 NRT.[i]
Her maiden voyage started from Glasgow under Captain Kerr and a crew of 31 with freight of coal and general cargo. Her trip would take her down the Irish Sea to the Tuskar Rock along the southern Irish coast where the deep-sea pilot Captain Warden would depart, and then southwards through the Atlantic to Cape Horn and subsequently up the American coast to San Francisco.[ii]
Captain Warden departed the vessel as planned and the ship set her sails for the South Atlantic but the weather had other ideas and as the wind picked up and the seas rose, the crew of the Earl of Beaconsfield found themselves facing a serious test of their new ship. Despite their best efforts, the crew was unable to make any appreciable headway and ultimately they found themselves bearing down on Ballyteigue Bay, Co Wexford on Tuesday evening 12th February. Both anchors were dropped and as the winds continued unabated the ship’s cargo shifted causing a serious list to port which only added to the threat of the mountainous seas that crashed aboard.[iii]
All through the night, the crew battled to stay alive. As the storm persisted the ship became increasingly damaged. The bow was stove in, spars snapped and rigging fell onto the deck. Rockets were shot from the ship into the night sky. Although seen, there was nothing those on shore could do to help except to raise the alarm. A message was sent to the lifeboat station at Duncannon which dispatched the lifeboat overland to Fethard arriving early on Wednesday morning.[iv]
Duncannon’s lifeboat was a self-righting rowboat called the Richard and Anne. The station was founded in 1869 and served on station for 17 years until 1886. Duncannon was closed as two new stations were then operating at Dunmore East and Fethard on Sea.[v]
The GWRC steamer Waterford passed close by on Wednesday morning and attempted to get close to offer assistance, signals were exchanged but it was deemed too risky to get close. Meanwhile, the Duncannon lifeboat was rowing towards the scene, but because of the gale could not render any immediate assistance. They returned subsequently when the winds moderated and dropped the crew of 32 and a stowaway, to Fethard where they were cared for by locals and an agent for Lloyds.[vi] According to information supplied by Nick Leech author of The Lifeboat Service in Ireland, Station by Stationthe crew of the lifeboat didn’t get back to Duncannon until almost 9pm on the 14th, a 26 hr rescue. (Although this does not tally with the details I have, I’m also working to try piece together another rescue of the crew of the Stowell Brown. This may account for the discrepancy as this occurred at or around the same time). The crew of the Earl of Beaconsfield were subsequently transported to Waterford and then by the Clyde steamer Skerryvore directly to Glasgow.[vii]
Meanwhile, the Waterford Steam Navigation Co has dispatched the tug Dauntless (which a few years later would play such a courageous role in the failed attempt to save the crew of the Alfred D Snow) and the Duncannon steamer PS Tintern to salvage the wreck. A telegram summoned the tugs Stormcockand Cruiser of the Liverpool Salvage Association too. On arrival at the scene, the Waterford boats were met by a group of Kilmore fishermen who had rowed to the scene and carried out some work on the hatches to help maintain the ship. An agreement was reached between the parties. The anchor cables were so taut from the strain they had endured that extra expertise had to be brought from the Neptune Ironworks in Waterford to release the anchors and then the long tow to Waterford commenced. [viii]
The ship was towed to a safe anchorage at Buttermilk Castle. Having being unloaded and patched up, the Earl of Beaconsfield was subsequently brought back to the Clyde by the tug Stormcock, but this was not without incident. For at 4 am on the 6th March both the tug and the barque each in turn collided with the schooner J M Stevens. The schooner subsequently sunk in the Firth of Clyde. The crew was saved having managed to scramble aboard the Earl of Beaconsfield.[ix]
Following repairs, the barque was again readied for San Francisco, and a report from the 12th May 1884 stated that “…She is commanded as formerly by Captain Kerr…and the entire crew, 33 in number, were engaged at Greenock….[she]… carries to the outport about 2,700 tons cargo, principally coal. She is despatched by Messrs T. Skinner Co., Glasgow“[x]
Having negotiated the southern ocean and rounded the Horn, the Earl of Beaconsfield caught fire in the pacific just weeks away from finally reaching San Francisco. On the 13th of August, the cargo of coal combusted. The vessel was subsequently destroyed by fire in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles west of Santiago, Chile. The crew took to the lifeboat and were subsequently picked up by a passing vessel and landed at Valparaiso. Amazingly, in recording the demise of the ship, a local paper recorded two other incidents with the ship and bad weather before she ever reached Wexford in February at all. If ever there was a case of an unfortunate vessel, surely the Earl of Beaconsfield has earned the title.[xi]
I recently spotted a new book online called Words The Sea Gave Us, by Grace Tierney. Now as a maritime blogger I had an instant, professional, interest in the topic. But I have to admit, apart from being a book hoarder and with a weakness of not being able to pass up a good book, I didn’t really expect to learn a lot of new words or phrases from Grace. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.
Grace has more than 370 words and phrases featured in the book and has neatly catagorised them into various chapters such as parts of a ship, sail names, crew titles, surfer slang, marine monsters, nautical navigation, flying the flag, and of course, scurvy pirates. There’s also a really useful Index for fast finding a word.
As I read I was instantly reminded of my childhood, reared as I was in a seafarers home. Both my mother and father came from fishing and seafaring stock and my father, in particular, could never speak in a way other dads did. The kitchen was the galley, the bed was a bunk and when we had to tidy up it was expected that everything would look “ship shape and Bristol fashion”.
As I had gone fishing from an early age other words and phrases were part of my everyday vocabulary; we had to go aft, turn to starboard, and not act the galoot! If we were late we “slept our tide” and if we ran aground we risked being “marooned”. All these phrases brought a smile to my face as I was reminded on each page, and often in each paragraph of familiar words and phrases.
But I was also surprised at the origins of some words that were part of my everyday. I may know what they mean to communicate, but not the root of it. Perhaps my greatest shock was the phrase Sweet Fanny Adams – or indeed Sweet FA, or Sweet Feck All. We use it now to communicate nothing. If we hauled our nets and they were empty we caught Sweet FA. But according to Grace the origins of the phrase go back to a heinous crime committed against an 8year old girl named Fanny Adams who was murdered and chopped to pieces in 1867. Royal navy sailors who were fed on cans of chopped up meat used the unfortunate incident as slang to describe their dislike for the canned meat stews they were forced to eat! I’m not sure I want to use that phrase again.
As for Grace herself, she lives in NW Ireland, loves the outdoors, and has been blogging about the history of unusual words since 2009. She has published two books on the topic, How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary, and now Words The Sea Gave Us. I would highly recommend it.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Irish Revolutionary period (1912-1923), is the degree to which counties, and often areas within counties, varied from each other in terms of levels of IRA activity. Waterford is perhaps one of the best examples of this trend, with the west of the county seeing intense fighting on par with other Munster counties, while the city and its eastern hinterland was largely quiet, due in no small part to its strong affinity with Redmondism. Consequently, Waterford’s reputation as a republican stronghold is usually regarded as weak when compared to the likes of say Cork or Tipperary. In September 1965, that perception briefly changed when an audacious attack was launched on a British warship in Waterford Harbour by three members of the South Kilkenny IRA; an incident that occurred 55 years ago on this day.
Between the end of the Border Campaign in 1962 and the eruption of the Troubles in 1968/1969, the IRA appeared to disappear off the radar as the republican movement turned towards socialist politics and the infiltration of civic organisations. Anglo-Irish relations appeared to be improving. Taoiseach Seán Lemass and Northern Prime Minister Terence O’Neill exchanged visits, and the British returned the remains of Roger Casement to be interred in Glasnevin.
In March 1963 Waterford Corporation passed a resolution reflecting this thaw in relations, expressing the belief that ‘…never during the past 700 years had the relations between Britain and Ireland been on a more friendly basis, whether taken on a governmental or individual basis’. The four-day courtesy visit of the Royal Navy minesweeper St David to Waterford in 1961, including a civic reception hosted by Mayor John Griffin, was just one of several such visits to the City during the 1960s. Scenes unimaginable just 20 years previously were now taking place on a regular basis, welcomed by Waterford’s civic and business leaders, but drawing the ire of local republicans.
Richard Behal of Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny had been a member of the IRA since the 1950s and had previously been involved in disturbing the visit of Princess Margaret to Abbeyleix Castle in January 1965. Behal deplored the ‘re-familiarisation of the British armed forces in Ireland’, and sought permission from IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding to launch an attack on the next such visit of a British warship to Waterford. Permission was received and an opportunity presented itself when the HMS Brave Bordererarrived in the City on the 6th of September, accompanied by the usual civic reception.
Behal, and his comrades Walter Dunphy of Mooncoin and Edward Kelly of Mullinavat, planned to fire on the motor torpedo boat from the riverside when she was scheduled to leave Waterford on the 10th. The Brave Bordererwas one of two Brave-class fast patrol boats commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1960, the other being her sister, Brave Swordsman; with a maximum speed of 50 knots they were among the fastest naval vessels in the world at the time.
In a June 2018 interview, Behal stated that the aim of the attack was never to cause harm or worse to British sailors, but rather to make a protest against the increasing presence of the Royal Navy in Waterford, and what Behal and his comrades suspected was a prelude to Ireland’s accession to NATO. The upcoming golden jubilee of the Easter Rising was also a motivating factor. Armed with an anti-tank gun retrieved from an arms dump in the Midlands, the three men set up position at Gyles Quay on the Kilkenny side of the river facing Little Island, early on the morning of the 10th of September. A number of Garda foot patrols passed the men’s position along the railway line separating them from the Suir, indicating some anticipation of an attack on the part of the authorities.
The quietness of the vessel’s jet propulsion engines caught the men by surprise, and Behal aimed for a position halfway between the deck and the waterline and about a third of the way back from her bow. He managed to fire two shots which pierced the hull, before the Brave Borderer accelerated to full speed in an attempt to escape the gunfire, without firing back. Before she managed to round the bend in the river, Behal’s third shot hit one of her engines which caused the boat to veer erratically from side to side, and disappear down the Harbour in a cloud of smoke; such was the commotion caused by this third shot that Ned Kelly fully believed they had sunk her! The Brave Borderer eventually passed the Hook and made it to Torquay the following day; her refit lasted four months and cost several million pounds. No casualties were reported.
Behal, Kelly and Dunphy were captured by Gardaí on the mudbanks close to the Barrow Bridge, and were remanded in custody in Waterford charged with ‘possessing firearms with intent to endanger life’. Throughout the trial, demonstrations were regularly held at the courthouse in support of the men, and anti-British feelings ran high in the city. The Mayor at the time, and later TD, Patrick ‘Fad’ Browne was obliged to defend himself in front of a hostile crowd which had assembled at his house on Luke Wadding Street and thrown stones at his business a few doors down.
The three men were each sentenced to nine months imprisonment, though Behal would make a daring escape from Limerick Prison in February 1966. After another brief stint in prison in the 1970s, Behal served on the Ard Comhairle of Sinn Féin, addressed the General Assembly of the United States Human Rights Commission on behalf of the 1981 Hunger Strikers, and stood as a candidate in the 1984 European Parliament elections. He currently lives in Killarney, Co. Kerry. Walter Dunphy still resides in his native South Kilkenny. Ned Kelly sadly passed away in 2011.
This fascinating incident, undoubtedly the last naval engagement in the Suir’s long and turbulent history, occurred 55 years ago on this day.
Ferriter, Diarmuid, The Transformation of Ireland 1900 – 2000, (Profile Books Ltd, London, 2005)
Irish Independent, 10 August 1961
Bell, J. Bowyer, The Secret Army: The IRA, (Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 1997)
On a recent boating trip in the Suir, I spotted the rotting timbers of what appeared to be an old boat jutting out from under the low hanging branches of a sycamore tree. Further investigation revealed, what for me at least was, an amazing discovery. A once common workboat on the river, which numbered in the hundreds, but now totally extinct.
Definition of a lighter
A lighter was a workboat employed in Waterford harbour and up the rivers Barrow and Suir. The function of this craft was as the name suggests, to lighten the load of incoming vessels, thereby allowing them to float over the sand and mud bars as they journeyed to New Ross or Waterford city. They functioned in much the same way the modern truck does.
According to the Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft the lighter can be described as “any small vessel employed in lightening goods. Describing it as a “…strongly built rectangular craft, open and flat-bottomed; used for short-haul work, especially for transferring cargo to and from a ship lying at anchor.” As to the origins it “…dates at least from the late 15th Century” In an Irish context it only names them in the SW of the country….”The River Shannon in the late 17th and early 18th Century was propelled by 4 men with 2 oars. Steered by a sweep. 12-16 ft long”
Design and build
The local design seems to have been very uniform in general, but size-wise there seems to have been local distinctions. 40-ton loads are regularly referred to in newspaper accounts and elsewhere, but 20, 25, and 30 were also mentioned. I imagine local conditions and purposes may have had an important role.
Patrick C Power in an article titled “The Lower Suir – boats and boatmen long ago” for the Tipperary Historical Journal (1991) gives this description from Carrick On Suir. “The lighters were built of pitch pine with a frame of oak. They were constructed on oaken frames each set about 3ft in the boat…The lighter was 70ft long and 16ft in the beam, but with a square stern and pointed prow. The sides could be as much as 4ft high…flat bottomed…without a keel. The rudder was 16ft long. Forward there was a well-room for bailing and on deck a caboose…where a fire was kept lighting in a cast iron box-stove supplied by Graham’s of Waterford…[there was] 36ft of useful cargo room…known to carry as much as 40 tons…distributed in two parts of the hold. There was no cargo in the centre of the lighter”
I would imagine that given the design was so basic these boats were built widely and locally in much the same way that punts and prongs were built at home in Cheekpoint. A local handyman or craftsman with a good eye would be supplied with the materials and the boat would emerge. Bill Irish lists five lighters coming out of Whites shipyard in Ferrybank but only one is given her size at 35-40 tons. No name was given for the boat. According to Pat Power, the Carrick lighters were made in Carrick Beg at the graving dock of the Kehoes. There was also a man named O’Brien who despite being illiterate could gauge the materials required for a build without ever having to measure, draw, or write.
As regards the cost of building a lighter, there was a discussion at the Harbour Commissioners in March 1874 of the need for four new lighters to assist with port duties. These were estimated to cost £100. The article does not make clear, but I expect that is each. The cheapest of the five built at Whites shipyard cost £126-6-5
The lighters were sometimes referred to as dumb boats. They had no propulsion and depended on the tides and currents to get from A-B. I’m not sure dumb gives an accurate sense of their navigation, however. Anyone who has ever had to navigate the rivers knows that the vagaries of the tide, current, wind, rain, and moon play a huge role in the task. No day, indeed no hour is often the same and to simply push away from a riverbank and presume your destination would be both foolish and dumb.
The lighters had a rudder to help keep on course. According to Power it was operated by the skipper from his space in the well, it was used sparingly. The photograph above shows the rudder being operated from the stern. There was also an anchor that could be deployed in emergencies or when awaiting a favorable tide or weather. Two deckhands were also employed(I have read accounts with three men also in newspapers). Each operated a long oar (a sweep) which could be used to row the boat at specific times. They also used a pole to push along the river bed or bank. This was driven into the riverbed from the stern and then the crewman would have to clamber forward as he pushed the boat ahead. But mostly I would imaging the crew worked with the tides, with a lifetime of river knowledge, drawing the most from each knot of an ebbing or flooding current to make their way.
The lighters carried anything and everything that came into port. Unshipping, transhipping, and loading ships at anchor in the harbour up as far as Cheekpoint I’m sure. They delivered as far as New Ross or Carrick and delivered into the villages, between the villages and from the villages to flour mills, coal stores, and lime kilns. The lighters seem to have been loaded and unloaded by their crew which must have been a back-breaking operation, but it also ensured that tight margins and any profit were kept onboard. An interesting example of the operation is a name associated with a quay on the Wexford side above Ballyhack. Tom Poor’s quay is the local name, but another associated with it according to Tomas Sullivan is Lighterman’s Quay. The quay has an old roadway leading away from it back towards Ballyhack. A similar track can be found almost directly opposite at Lambert’s cove on the Waterford side.
An interesting anecdote from the newspapers of 1908 tells of “…two little boys named Patrick Kirby and James Grant who was charged with the larceny of a quantity of coal, the property of Messrs Wallace and McCullagh…Constable Thomas Ryan deposed that on the evening of the 21st November he found the defendants taking a quantity of coal from the lighter…” Having admitted to the constable that they were going to sell it, they were discharged under the First Offender’s Act.
They were also employed in providing ballast to sailing vessels. In 1842 I came across a tender presented to the Harbour Commissioners from R and W. Hayes for shipping ballast for five years. They agreed to deliver the ballast via their lighters to vessels in port at 8s per ton, and discharge ballast from vessels at 6s per ton.
Lighters were also employed in river works such as dredging and I will share most of this interesting report from 1869 as there are some very telling details in it.
“ A report was read from Mr. Stephens, stating that little progress had been made at the ford works during the past month and that only 11 tons of rock had been raised since the last report. He further reported that he had taken up the four lighters belonging to the board from the contractors; that they were damaged state, and he repaired them. The board now had five lighters and eight punts capable of taking daily 350 tons of mud from the dredge…He further reported, in reference to the application from the sanitary committee of the corporation to clear John’s Pill…The nuisance arose from loading lighters of manure from dung yards adjacent to the pill, and the obstruction was caused stones and shingle…being dropped by these lighters in the vicinity…” Waterford Chronicle – Friday 15 October 1869; page 3
But who were these Lightermen and how did they operate. Well, it appears that many companies and businesses had their own lighters and crews employed to act on their behalf. We have also seen that they were employed by the Harbour Commissioners on various duties though dredging seems to have been a major task. An interesting court case suggests however that even these men employed by the harbour board had certain freedom.
The case arose at a special jury hearing in the County Court by James O’Neill, of Arthurstown, against the Waterford Harbour Commissioners to recover £99, the value of a quantity of 105 barrels of oats and I07 sacks of barley containing 20 stone each lost by the stranding of a lighter on the Kilmanock Embankment in October the previous year, 1898. The lighter, skippered by a man named Connolly, had arrived at Arthurstown on Monday evening 17th October 1898. They were obviously on the lookout for work and Connolly approached O’Neill and e asked him for the cargo at a price for transport at 2d. per barrel. This was stated to be the ordinary freight for corn. The deal was struck and the lighter was loaded on Friday 21st departing that evening as darkness settled. Later she was caught in a gale and grounded, causing the cargo to be damaged by water.
In evidence, Mr. John Ailingham, Secretary of the Harbour Board, explained that the Commissioners crew could take on other work when available to do so. This dated to a resolution passed in March. 1894. Two-fifths of the profits were generally paid into the Harbour Commissioners office. Since the accident happened a new rule was passed restraining their movements to not go below Cromwell’s Rock, or further up the river than Kilmacow Pill.
As regards the wages, one mention from a newspaper report in 1891 gave this insight: “THE LIGHTER SKIPPERS. The Quay Committee a recommendation to allow the lighter skippers 2s 6d a week, provided there were no complaints.” Whether there were complaints or not, I don’t know, but it gave no information as to the crew.
It’s also likely that individuals or indeed families or crew invested in the trade. For example, there was a report in the Munster Express from December 1863 about a Carrick lighter which was lost in a gale in Waterford carrying freight for a man named Walsh. The crew survived but the paper concluded: “…It is hoped a subscription will be opened for the relief of the unfortunate men whose all may be said to have been invested in the lighter.”
Some of the characters of these men will be evident from what we have already learned, hard-working, resilient, impervious to the weather, and determined. Some other pieces from the newspapers of the time might put more meat on the bones.
In 1838 Morgan Doyle and William Nash were in court after a bare-knuckle fight aboard a lighter on Waterford Quays. A large crowd had gathered to watch the match and when the constabulary arrived, the men forgot their quarrel and working together let go the lighter, and shoved away from the quay to avoid the lawmen. They were subsequently apprehended, however, and found guilty of a breach of the peace.
In another situation, they were law-abiding. In February 1829 the crew of a Clonmel lighter observed bags being removed from a newly arrived schooner from St John’s, Newfoundland in suspicious circumstances. They raised the alarm with a Quay watchman, who instantly aroused the Tidewaiter (a member of the customs) from his bed. The bags were discovered to contain tobacco. A follow-up search discovered that the contraband had been hidden among a cargo of oil, and was that morning taken and put into bags, for transport. The mate and three of the crew were committed to gaol, but the Master was not with the ship at the time of the arrest.
Others were unfortunate, and there are many accounts of the crew falling over the side of their vessels and being drowned. For example on a cold wet Saturday night in November of 1864 a lighterman named Michael Meyler, was lost at Strangman’s Wharf. He was about 70 years of age and was in the habit of sleeping onboard lighter belonging to his brother. He slipped when boarding via the gangplank and despite efforts to save him, he was lost.
And then again others were just tough out. In May 1875 a case that was taken against James Doherty, a lighterman who cut a tow rope of the barque Constant that was being winched off the graving bank in Ferrybank. In court, the Captain of the barque was claiming damages of £20 against Doherty. It transpired that Doherty was coming up the quays just as the tide was starting to turn. In a hurry to make his berth he found the way blocked by the tow rope. Words were exchanged and tempers flared. As the barque would not release the tow rope, Doherty grabbed an axe and cut the hawser that blocked his path, before proceeding upriver. In a lengthy proceeding, it was found that the lighter had reacted hastily and the court found against Doherty for a much-reduced sum of £1. Doherty let it be known that he disagreed and would appeal.
End of the era
When the lighter’s reign in the harbour ended is not very clear. But the improvements in navigation including the opening of the Ford and the deepening of the river after the Harbour Commissioners came into existence must have been a crucial factor. The arrival of steam-driven vessels must have also played a part. Further upriver, the coming of the railways and improvements in road transport would have contributed to the undermining of transport by water.
Triton, the marine correspondant with the Munster Express had a lovely article in 1973 which drew on the memories of a previous marine correspondant Jimmy Hartery. It highlights that lighters were still in use in the first world war.
The wreck that I found that afternoon on the river, is to the best of my knowledge the only remains of a lighter that worked the river for centuries. In a way, it’s a shame that such a vessel would be left to rot away into the mud. And yet ironically, if it had not been abandoned where it was, it must certainly have rotted completely away. If anyone knows anyone in maritime archaeological circles that might have an interest in taking measurements and recording the vessel, tell them to get in touch. As such it might be the only such measurements to exist? I would also appreciate any further written details on the Lighter, particularly on the build or the propulsion.
My wife Deena and I have participated and/or coordinated an event for every year of Heritage week since 2005. For this year’s event we initiated an online project exploring the placenames along the Three Sister River network of the Barrow, Nore and Suir. The event ran from Saturday 15th August with twice daily storys from guest authors and concluded on Sunday 23rd August, Water Heritage Day with a new webpage; An A-Z of Placenames of the Three Sisters. You can view it at the link below.