The Gladiator Mystery

In April 1898 some of the people of New Ross were disturbed to see what they understood to be a Royal Navy gunship, moored in the town with an intention to suppress the commemoration of the 1798 uprising.  But was this the real purpose of this ship, and where had it come from?  That’s what I had hoped to uncover with this story.

After a sick house over Christmas it was early January before we could get out and about and our first trip was to New Ross.  My wife had a message to conclude with Forrestal’s Jewellers, and while Deena joined a large queue inside the door, in an effort to maintain the male stereotype, I chose to have a jaunt around the town.  Using Myles Courtney’s walking guide – New Ross Street Focus of course.

Gladiator at New Ross 1898. Cavanagh Collection, J Fitzgibbon

Although there is always something to catch the eye in the town, (indeed I caused a bit of a twitter sensation with a crows foot post from the Quay which I hope to blog about soon) this time I dwelled on an old photo on a wall in Quay Street. 

The photo showed a paddle steamer tied up to a landing stage on the quay, and came via Jimmy Fitzgibbon from his wonderful collection of plate glass negatives from the Cavanagh Collection. Named the Gladiator, and in obvious immaculate condition, I could not help but wonder at the purpose of the vessel and the year in which it was taken.

A search online yielded a puzzling story from April 1898.  The New Ross Standard reported that the town of New Ross (or certain sections) was in turmoil over the vessel Gladiator.  Here’s the account:

A Survey Boat causes a sensation

The arrival at New Ross on Saturday of the HMS Gladiator, for the purpose of surveying the harbour appeared to give rise to an interesting misconception. Indeed, a good many queer folk jumped to the conclusion that it was in an armed cruiser bent on an unfriendly mission that had entered the port and this view of the situation they endeavoured to force down other people’s throats. Furthermore, the queer folk went so far as to conjecture that the invasion was planned in order to overawe, and if necessary, supress the ’98 celebrations in the town. Well, the mists have been cleared by this time, and the unnecessary anxiety has passed away, for New Ross will not be shelled after all. The officers and men of the Gladiator number thirty-six all told. It is understood that the process of surveying the harbour in its entirety will take about three months

New Ross Standard – Saturday 23 April 1898; page 4
Another image of the vessel, the Gladiator at the Fish House New Ross 1898. Cavanagh Collection, J Fitzgibbon

I fully expected to find out more about the proposed survey, especially if it was to take 3 months, but alas I was to be disappointed.  For no other mention could I find in the local papers, and I had never come across the name before or covered it in a blog.  I did find that the HMS was incorrect, the Gladiator was listed as both a tug and a HMSV (Her Majesty’s Survey Vessel) at different times in accounts online.  The ship was built of iron by Brassey & Co of Birkenhead in 1874. At the time of the survey work she was owned by E Griffiths Brothers & Co of Wallsea, at the mouth of the River Mersey and she seems to have had been contracted out.

April 1905 as the work nears completion

Now my only real guess as to the survey work at the time in the Barrow was in connection with the building of the SW Wexford Railway Line.  In 1898 there were many mentions of disputes between the New Ross Harbour Commissioners and the Waterford Harbour Commissioners into the building of two bridges that would later be known as the Barrow Bridge and the Suir Bridge- topic of my next blog!

Around this time, the plan for the Barrow Bridge was to construct the railway line away from Drumdowney on the Kilkenny side, along by the riverfront, and to construct a bridge towards Kents Point on Great Island, and hence along the riverfront towards Campile where the Power Stations now lie.  Not long after the route was moved slightly inland and the crossing upriver, adding to the cost because of the tunneling of Drumdowney and cutting through part of Great Island.  All of this is just speculation, but the timing fits, and the area had to be surveyed, not just on land but on the river too.

If I come across any other details that will either confirm or clarify the intentions of the Gladiator, I will happily update the blog.  But at least the New Ross Standard confirmed over the summer that the commemorations took place and were widely attended – One event was helped considerably by the services of another paddle steamer, the PS Ida, which brought over 500 from the city and Glenmore for a hurling match in August.   

As is often the case, sometimes a blog post can shed some light on other queries, and so it was that post publication, marine artist Brian Cleare contacted me to say that the blog had helped to identify an unknown PS in Wexford – turns out the Gladiatior was alongside on the Wexford Town Quay around the same era! A conundrum that had Brian and Jack scratching their heads for some time, I had seen their queries myself but never made the connection

The Whaler’s last voyage – Boat Cove, Tramore     

I’m delighted to be able to introduce this guest blog from Eddy Deevy, a story of an old sail boat at Tramore, but also an insight into a social scene now but a memory. And yet what a great story to be preserved and retold. The story of the Seahound!

Let me tell you about her beginnings and the course of events that will lead us to embark on her last voyage. She was known as ‘the Whaler’, one of many such craft about our coast. These whaleboats were the Morris Minors of the Seven Seas, so to speak. Dating from the 17th century, these excellent seaboats were adopted by the Navy as workboats, landing craft, and also as lifeboats on larger ships.

The architect who ‘perfected’ the design was Admiral Montague. When Governor of Newfoundland he needed a coastal patrol boat to protect the fishing grounds from ‘privateers’ (pirates more or less). Many adventures were endured in these seaworthy crafts, among them Shackleton’s famous rescue voyage across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia with Tom Crean our great Antarctic survivor. At Tramore we were privileged to have had one in our harbour; Our bit of connectedness with the world of sail, which slipped away so quickly with the introduction of steam in the mid-19th century.

The Whaler

This small pier was built at what was then known as Lady Elizabeth’s Cove. The structure was intended for local needs, unsuitable for a French or Spanish landing. The fear of a foreign invasion (through the back door) caused many limitations to maritime development projects in Ireland. As a shallow onshore harbour, it endured the Atlantic swells for many years. But the storms of the 1880s had washed the walls to rubble.

Tramore Bay, on the south coast of Ireland, is open to the forces of the Atlantic Ocean across the Celtic seabed. Heaving seas have wreaked havoc and claimed many lives along this stretch of coast. Five great beacon towers were positioned on its headlands to warn away shipping after the tragic loss of 363 souls from the transport ship Sea Horse in 1816.
There were a further 55 shipwrecks in the Bay from 1816-1859 when a Lifeboat Station was built on the beach-head ; Later relocated to Long House Lane in 1899 for easier launch and recovery.

The new pier was built in 1907. This was a sturdier construction of grey limestone slabs with concrete capping. It had bollards and ladders, three sets of steps, and two slipways. Afterward, a north wall was added to block the backwash from the cliff face. Local fishermen earned a living from the bountiful sea and fed the town of Tramore through
the war years. Boating became an added attraction to those who kept ‘holiday-homes’ in this now fashionable seaside resort. A regatta was held each August which brought a large attendance from neighbouring counties. There were picnics, sports, and keenly contested swimming races, rowing, and yachting.

The popularity of local regattas in the 19th and early 20th Century is also but a memory now

Later, in our time, Tommy (‘Grumpy’ or ‘Smiles’) Murray’s boat, the Morning Star occupied the last steps, obstructing swimmers and mariners alike. There was good water here for most of the tide, protected by the storm wall against the force of the Atlantic rollers. However, the persistent gales wrecked many a craft as breakers poured over the sea wall swamping boats moored in the harbour. Smaller boats had to be “hauled up” and “chocked” beside the boathouse until the weather settled.

The Whaler was generally up here as she rarely went to sea now since misadventure had crossed her bows. Children played in her timbers and sand in the ribs told its own story. The masts had been removed since she pulled her moorings in the harbour. Yet she still looked like a formidable craft. The rounded rudder remained in place with a long baulk of a tiller and there were a couple of sturdy oars stowed inside the gunwales. Her hull was coated with thick white paint and tarry black on the inside. But the engine hadn’t been replaced after removal for winter maintenance some years previously. No one seemed to know who
owned her now since Dr. Ambrose had ‘crossed the bar’; Once a fine craft, she was registered with Lloyds of London as ‘The Seahound’.

Her story begins in Portsmouth in 1916, where she was clincher-built as a general-purpose service boat for HMRN. A full 27ft in length, with a 6ft beam. She had a dual rig, as a Gunter sloop with gaff main and jib: Or could be ketch rigged with mizzen mast, a loose-footed main, and a small jib. Well equipped from stem to stern, the Seahound had a fine anchor and chain locker. There even was a removable bracket for a Lewis machine gun!

In service, she patrolled the Waterford/Wexford Coast recording the comings and goings of shipping on the Celtic Sea. A keen watch was kept for German submarines which sank many a merchantman along these Western Approaches. After the Great War, she was presented to Dr. C. Ambrose Esq., LLD who lived at Crobally House, Tramore.

Then for many years, she sailed along the South East shores as Charles Ambrose, a keen oceanographer, carried out his own coast watch. In those days, the Seahound was generally moored in the boat-cove at Tramore and sometimes berthed in Dunmore East harbour. Always well cared-for she attracted the attention of many young men and stories are still told of voyages made out to sea and in waters beyond the home ground. At the Autumn equinox each year she would be sailed up the Rinnashark, through the Back-strand to the ‘Firs-field’ where she was taken out of the water onto rolling poles and a turn-table. Here she would rest, downside-up for wintering and maintenance. Years later her five thwarts had been reduced to four, making room for the engine, an Amanco 8 hp.

A contemporary postcard circa 1900

So it was for many years, she brought much pleasure and adventure to the locality until Dr. Ambrose’s demise. His daughter Bebe Cathleen didn’t pass the boat on to those who were caring for and maintaining it. Instead, it was her intention that the boat be used by a wider circle of young men. Sadly Danny Sage and Jack Whalley reluctantly moved on to other interests. Having been laid up for some time and then into the care of many, she suffered as most boats do. Now at 40 years old, she rested on the hard at the boat house, drying out and wasting away above the slip at Tramore pier.

The mid-1950s were quiet years. The only Celtic Tiger then was in the Esso Blue paraffin stove, yet a good time to be growing up. Boys made their own entertainment and long summer days brought their own bit of diversion. It might have been Jim Mac’s idea to take the Whaler out for a trip to the Strand and back. She was just lying there, an idle craft so to speak.

Few preparations were made as she appeared sea-worthy by her size and reputation. This expedition couldn’t be made on a fine sunny day with too many ‘visitors’ about. A darker day was chosen and the crew of six assembled on the slip at full tide. The Seahound was
heaved into position. Then down she came rolling like thunder on the running poles, a force unleashed. As an onlooker, I stood aghast in boyhood wonder as she plunged into the sea.

They all piled in and pushed off with a flaying of oars and confusion of instructions. Oliver J. soon got control of the call and brought the oar stroke into unison. The Whaler was underway leaving the North wall to port and then out through the harbour mouth. The rowers were in high spirits, as the wash from the storm wall slung her stern out to seaward. The helmsman leaned on the tiller and a course was set for the Strand. It was the intention to keep her close to the familiar cliff face in case of emergency, hugging the shoreline.

Conditions were fair with a following sea. The huge sky was puffed with clouds scuffing in from the ocean. The wind wasn’t a gale but it blew a few white horses onto their wake. Curious seagulls rode high above, watching the proceedings. Keen eyes kept a friendly look-out from the charred remains of the Coast Guard Battery on the Doneraile. Oars dug
deep as voices were low and senses alert. Tension in the air soon gave way to alarm on board as feet were getting wet. Who was meant to put the bung in? “ Has anyone got the plug? Put a sock in it quickly”. The order of the pull was lost and oar strokes became irregular. Oops, as a white horse came in over the side, more water on board. ‘Where did that come from? Progress was painfully slow now. The bailer was working full swing. The wind was backing into the southwest with a strong following sea.

The pier looking out towards Newtown Head, AH Poole – NLI

A swamped craft is an unmanageable thing at the mercy of the sea. Waves were breaking far out from the beach, much farther than anticipated. To turn her about now was unthinkable. Energy levels were draining into the bilge, awash with brine. Eyes and minds strayed to the shore.

Someone had alerted the Gardai, ( there’s always a squealer). On the strand, Guard Connolly and a group of men lined the water’s edge to encourage the whaler and crew ashore. Trousers rolled up to the knees and jackets off, they waved and called against the roar of the incoming sea. The scene was ominous as onlookers gathered. Progress depended on luck now, which ran out quickly as the whaler slung sideways to a comber, and all were thrown into the sea. The roar of the rollers drowned out all sounds of calling voices as the
the adventure turned to near disaster.

Time stood still as heads appeared and disappeared in the troughs. Thankfully, no life was lost as all were good swimmers in those days. One by one they appeared out of the surf, some wrestling with floating oars. The shore reception was angry but eased with relief
and compassion. Exhilarated with survival the crew were accompanied ashore with offers of towels before making their way homeward, exhausted and saturated yet alive to tell the tale.

It wasn’t the first time the ‘Whaler ‘had been beached at the Strand. In July 1953, there had been another misadventure in the surf, when lifeguards Malone and Molloy assisted with the rescue of a lady crew member. On that occasion, the craft had been under sail but the helmsman couldn’t gibe her about, so he ran her into the beach surf where she was rolled and capsized. After a week on the beach head, she was rowed back to the boat cove. Afterward, Reverend Wolfe censured this irresponsible outing.

Now a few years later the Whaler remained beached on the Strand for weeks afterward, her timbers so damaged she never went to sea again. Our crew, now fully recovered, were hailed as heroes and survivors of a ship-wreck, a much better outcome than the ill-fated
Seahorse of years ago. Punishment had been doled out behind closed doors and a warning read out from the pulpit by Fr. Power, sadly not enough to avert the canoe loss with all hands, just a few years later.

A tractor and trailer returned the Seahound to its place above the cove slipway where she was chocked and chained to a stanchion. There she remained a sorry-looking sight. People soon lost interest in her as she decayed into a forgotten hulk.

In modern times – Brendan Grogan collection

For the rest of us, it was back to rubber tubes and rafts in the safety of the harbour walls. Extra thrills were got by giant leaps off the storm wall down into the depths of ‘the hole’.

Ah, those were wonderful summer days in ‘Glorious Tramore’.

A fuller history of the Seahound may yet be told. This story is a recollection of around 60 years afterward. Some names have been changed to protect the ‘innocent’. I hope those who sailed in her will excuse this composition and perhaps contribute some information to expand the story of this great boat. Where did she eventually shed her timbers? Was she left there to rot along with much of our maritime heritage, uphill of the rusting old capstan
and the remains of the Guiding Star.

My thanks to Eddy Deevy for sending this delightful account for inclusion on TidesandTales. Another nugget of our maritime heritage to be preserved, enjoyed, and hopefully enhanced by others. Thanks also to Brendan Grogan for assistance with photos.

Barrow Railway Bridge Pinned open Dec 2022

In late November 2022, disappointing news started to filter out that the Barrow Railway Bridge opening span was to be pinned open because of an operational issue. It came following an earlier threat to pin it open because of the cost of the operation- a decision that was postponed following negative community, media, and political reactions. But the rationale for the move seemed plausible to many (the timing close to Christmas was excellent I must say from the company perspective), and the opening span has been pinned open since December. But is this the end of the Barrow Bridge?

The Barrow Railway Bridge was opened as part of the works to connect the South of Ireland via Waterford to the new port of Rosslare in 1906. The last commercial train to use the line was in September 2010. The line’s viability is now being examined as part of an All Island Strategic Rail Review. The review might potentially reinstate the railway, but there were also plans to create a greenway along the route. The opening span allows ships to access and egress from the inland port of New Ross via the River Barrow.

A screengrab of the vessel (one of the Arklow Shipping craft) that collided with Pier 3 of the Barrow Bridge on February 26. Photo: Iarnród Éireann

On February 26th, 2022, a ship maneuvering inwards through the span struck the central protective dolphin. In November Iarnród Éireann (IÉ) put out a press release covered by the Waterford News & Star. The subsequent article explained that “the span will need to be held open for marine traffic as there’s an increased risk of it becoming inoperable, thus preventing vessels from traversing through it.”

Because of the collision, IÉ stated that there was a “… real risk that in the course of movements of the swing span, the span could move and strike a passing vessel” It sounds nasty, although a bit far-fetched surely! Other points were raised, although it made no more sense to me. But please read the New & Star article yourself to make your own decision.

A forelorn sight over Christmas of the bridge pinned open, the glowing lights to illuminate the channel and the red and green flashing navigation lights showing the access point. The new bridge at the Pink Rock is seen in the background.

According to IÉ the repairs could cost between €5 million and €10 million. The funds will need to be sought from the ship’s insurers…So that probably won’t be any time soon, given that almost 11 months have now passed? The South East on Track campaign group called on Iarnród Éireann to carry out the repairs in advance of monies it’s hoping to receive from insurers, but to date, this call has fallen on deaf ears.

From Cheekpoint this January 2023. A forlorn sight to see it

The opening span of the bridge was a crucial factor in alleviating the concerns of the New Ross Harbour commissioners when the bridge was originally constructed. It’s kind of ironic that the potential death knell of this magnificent piece of Edwardian industrial heritage should be sundered by IÉ on the pretext of maintaining access to the port.

To see the skill required in transiting the bridge here’s a short video I shot in 2021

Canada Street – the Emigration Connection

Although many will associate the famine as a time of mass emigration from Ireland, the fact is tens of thousands were fleeing the country for many years prior to the catastrophic events of the 1840s. Canada Street owes its name to this era, and in this blog, I want to explore how and why this came to be, and also to look at the reality of seabourn emigration from the South East of Ireland at the time.

Despite the antiquity of Waterford City, Canada St is relatively new. According to Dan Dowlings Waterford Streets, Past & Present the street dates to 1828 when the city started to expand outwards along what had been a strategically important marsh for centuries.  This boggy ground, then known as Lombards Marsh, which was regularly flooded, had on many occasions helped to keep the city’s south, and southwest flank safe from invaders. 

The street, as it still does today, bookended William St, beyond which was more marsh and countryside. The Richards & Scale map of 1764 shows a track leading along from William St to a Sugar House at what is probably now Newpark School. The modern Park Road passes the Peoples Park, but this was only created in 1857. The 1764 map shows a route toward Newtown, but the main road of that era was via Johns Bridge, and out Johnstown.  Canada Street was constructed to connect with the Scotch Quay beside the River Suir and ran past William St to Johns Pill at the opposite end.  The Pill was realigned to create the park, and so now runs several meters from its original course, but perhaps this explains the sense of a dead end at this side of Canada St for many years.

The Park end of Canada St with William St on Rt and Park Road on left. The end of the street now opens into the Peoples Park but when constructed it met St Johns Pill

As you can imagine such a location would have seen a lot of commercial trade, especially those associated with the river and waterborne trade.   The bustling Scotch Quay, – the area was also known as Gorges Quay at times – ran from the mouth of the pill to the William St Bridge.  I suppose we could argue that this section of St Johns River is probably best described as the Scotch Pill?  Whatever about such debates, what is unquestioned is the quantity of trade associated with the area.

A screengrab from the OSI Historic Map series…note the original line of the Johns Pill is illustrated as a broken line running to the west of Canada St

At one point the most prestigious industry associated with the street was Neptune Ironworks. Neptune Cottage was located where the present Marina Hotel operates. Behind this, the Malcomsons operated the Neptune shipyard (1843 -1882)- the location for some of the finest steamships built in the world of that era. But the name of the street owes itself to another Quaker enterprise – that of the Graves family – although in this case the partnership of Watson and Graves which were operating at the time that the street was built.

The river end of Canada St, the Marina Hotel now stands where Neptune Cottage once stood.

In 1828 when the street was laid out, the quaker partnership of William Graves and a man named Watson was operating an office from the new street and also in New Ross. I can find little information about Watson, the name does not feature in any street directories that I have and it seems from a newspaper article I chanced upon from 1834 that the partnership may have dissolved in difficult circumstances. William Graves would continue to flourish, however.

An advertisement of the time

Watson and Graves was the local agent for the Canada Company then settling eastern Canada. Advertisements were posted seeking people with an agricultural background with “sober, honest and industrious habits” to settle the lands taken from native tribes ( 1 million acres alone around Lake Huron alone). Of course, much of these lands needed to be cleared for agriculture which provided another welcome cargo home on the ships.  When the emigrants were carried across the Atlantic, the holds were cleared of their temporary bunks and bedding and stuffed with lucrative shipments of Canadian timber for the return trip to Waterford.  The timber was landed close by, and in my own childhood Graves timber yard still operated from the area.

Advertisements were carried in local papers and the terms offered must have seemed mouthwatering to Irish families who were suffering so much neglect and abuse on their own native shore.

The CANADA COMPANY, desirous of settling their Territories with EMIGRANTS, of sober, honest, and industrious habits, offer the following inducements to such:—The Company will give the choice of the valuable Lands of the Province ; and, as the object of the Company is not to encourage or deal with Speculators, but to open access to their Settlements bv steady and Agricultural! Population, to Individuals, or Families, or Associations of Families of that description, the Company will afford every fair and liberal Encouragement regards Price and Terms of Payment. In order to place within the reach of poor Individuals of good Character, a Settlement, the Company will erect Houses, and grant Sums of Money, to enable such Settlers cultivate their Farms, and provide for their Families, until they can raise crops from their own Lands, by which means the Payments those Advances can neither inconvenience nor distress the Settler. The Company has entered into Contracts with the Proprietors of Steam Boats and other public Conveyances along the Lakes and River St. Lawrence, to convey their Settlers at about one-third of the Price less than others are charged, which arrangement only Twenty-two Shillings and Six Pence is charged for grown People, and Half that Sum for Children, for the passage from Montreal to York, the capital.  And Settlers going to the new Town of Goderich , on Maitland River (Lake Huron’, from Buffalo or the Welland Canal, are, during the present season, conveyed free of charge.

The Company are allowed by Government to expend £45,000 in opening Roads and other useful Public Works. The well-conducted Farmers and labourers of this Country, are now offered inducements to emigrate, which never before existed, and are within the reach of every individual who can produce satisfactory vouchers of good character from two Magistrates, and the Protestant or Roman Catholic Clergymen  of their Parish, to WATSON and GRAVES, Agents to the Canada Company for Ross and Waterford.

Waterford Chronicle – Saturday 24 May 1828; page 3

This advert appeared in numerous papers around the SE during the spring and early summer of 1828. To get a sense of the numbers travelling at the time, here’s a flavour from April 1831;

On Tuesday last the City of Waterford John Morgan, master, dropped down the river, bound for Quebec. Her ample deck was crowded by passengers their number was, we are informed, 103 adults ; 17 under fourteen years; 30 under seven- total, 150. The Ocean, Joseph Hearn, master, also departed same day for Quebec. Her passengers are stated about eighty. Several other vessels, both here and at Ross, are preparing sail for different ports of America, including Newfoundland.

The invulnerable, Frances and Mary and Little Ann, are to sail in the next few days for Newfoundland with passengers; also the Don and Argyle for Halifax—the latter has about 180 passengers on board. The Bolivar, with a large number passengers is bound for Quebec.

The Town of Ross sailed on the 30th ult., from Ross for Quebec, having on board 230 emigrants; upwards of 150 of them had their passage and provisions supplied their benevolent and humane landlord, the Hon, Butler Clake Wandesford brother to the Marquis of Ormonde

Waterford Mail – Saturday 09 April 1831; page 4

The same article also gives a sense of the dangers and human cost of such journeys, in these cases, even before they have to endure the Atlantic. For example, William McGrath died at Passage East after falling into the hold of the ship Ocean.  His wife and 8 children were aboard at the time.  An unnamed woman from Thurles in Tipperary died in a lodging house in Waterford where she was waiting with her husband and 7 children on a ship to Halifax.  Finally, a small boat overturned after leaving the quay with emigrants who were being rowed out to the ship Argyle which was at anchor in the middle of the Suir. All survived after seamen went to their rescue it was believed.

We explored the difficulties posed by cholera in this era before and the reception that awaited emigrants at Grosse Isle Quebec

Carlow Sentinel – Saturday 14th July 1832; page 1

Today Canada Street is a commercial and residential area, much like it was when it was named, but it is now firmly located within the city which has extended many miles into the countryside. As a nation working to accommodate immigration from many war-torn and economically deprived countries, and where the rise of anti-immigration sentiments are rising, it’s perhaps no harm to be reminded of our own history of having to flee.

I’d like to thank my readers for all the support in 2022 and wish you and yours a very happy, prosperous and safe 2023. If you would like to join my small but loyal mailing list, you can add your email below and get an email update on each blog published directly to your inbox.

Tragic end to the PS City of Bristol

The City of Bristol departed the quay of Waterford in November 1840 for her home port of Bristol in a gale of wind. Anxious to keep to schedule the vessel would sail into one of the worst storms that season. She would later run aground, break up and all but two of the twenty-seven souls aboard would die.

PS City of Bristol – photo accessed from

The City of Bristol (1828) was a familiar ship in the coastal trade of Ireland. She was a paddle steamer, built of timber, 209 tons, 144ft long and 35ft wide including her paddle wheels. She was two-masted, schooner rigged, and had main, quarter, and forecastle decks. Built by the War Office Steam Packet Co, in Bristol she was owned and operated locally by a consortium of local merchants. However, at the time she was lost the ship was in the ownership of the Bristol General Steam Navigation Co and had just undergone an extensive refit. The vessel was a regular into Irish ports including Cork and Waterford but especially Dublin it seems – where she was known to carry troops to and from the island, and also convicts amongst the more usual freight.

A contemporary advert highlighting the regularity with steam brought to sailings, and also perhaps some of the pressure that Captain Stacey may have felt in meeting his schedule. Sourced from Waterford Mail – Wednesday 11 November 1840; page 3

On Tuesday 17th November the steamer departed Waterford’s quay for her home port of Bristol. The vessel had become a regular on a route that had a long history between the ports of Bristol and Waterford. At 10 am she was observed outbound at Passage East.  Her Captain, John Stacey who had only taken charge of the vessel in the previous six weeks. Stacey however was described as knowing the route well, having served man and boy on it, first on sailing ships and later steam. Rounding the Hook he decided to return, following what was described as “…a frightful sea…” He anchored in Duncannon Bay, where he awaited the abatement of the storm, setting off again at 11 pm that same night.

Aboard the City of Bristol was an estimated 21 crew and possibly 6 deck passengers. Of the passengers little is known, most it seems were stockmen (John Sullivan is the only name of the stockmen recorded it seems), along to care for the livestock aboard. The ship’s manifest included; 575 barrels of Oats, 113 barrels of Barley, 2 tierces (casks) of lard, 120 flitches of bacon (a side of a pig ), 280 live pigs stored in pens on deck, and 15 head of cattle housed in the forehold.

As she crossed to the Pembroke coast later in the afternoon of the 18th of November the storm once more rose in strength from the SE and in near zero visibility due to snow Captain Stacey decided to seek shelter behind what he believed to be Worm’s Head to the east of Swansea. With only glimpses of land and features, Stacey was in a very difficult navigational position. After 6pm land was sighted, however, Stacey was mistaken in his calculations. He was actually at Burry Holmes a few miles to the north (perhaps as little as 2!), and instead of finding a safe anchorage where they could have weathered the storm, breakers were spotted. The captain reacted swiftly trying to get the ships head to the wind and this was partly successful, but she grounded by the stern and when she turned broadside to the waves, all hopes of getting off were lost.

They had grounded in Rhosilly Bay, close to the village of Llangennith and although the cries could be heard from the shoreline, the locals were powerless to help. The crew could do nothing in the savage seas to launch a boat for fear of being washed off the deck. As the tide rose and the seas with it, there was little they could do except lash themselves to the rigging and hope for rescue.  Broadside to the pounding waves she was battered and beaten and finally at highwater sometime close to midnight, the ship broke in three parts and all aboard were tossed into the surf.

Location of the wreck in the Bristol Channel (Or the Severn Sea as it was also referred to at the time occasionally)
Stacey had planned to make Worms Head where he was assured of a safe anchorage to weather the storm, however he was north of it, close to the village of Llangennith

Perhaps miraculously, three of the crew made it alive to shore, but only two survived. An unnamed man was dragged from the waves but never regained consciousness. Seaman William Poole was saved when a timber beam he grabbed in the water carried him in. He suffered three broken ribs and could barely walk when he floated ashore. He was clutched from the sand by locals who were standing by. The ship’s carpenter, Thomas Anstice managed to swim the distance and walked out of the surf towards a fire that was blazing as a beacon on the beach. Both men would later give evidence at a local inquest and helped to identify the bodies of those of their crewmates who were fortunate to be given back by the sea. 72 pigs and 4 cattle also made the shoreline and walked off the beach to safety.  Here’s a list of the crew that died which includes a photo of Captain Staceys grave.

Meanwhile in Bristol, there was little by way of anxiety about the late arrival of the City of Bristol, where it was assumed that the vessel was sheltering from the violent storms. But by the second morning (Thursday) fears were mounting and a large crowd had gathered in the ports Cumberland Basin where the packet boats normally arrived. The first news came via County of Pembroke on her run from Tenby and further information arrived by other ships and post. The city was devastated by the loss, 13 of the crew were from the village of Pill, described by some as the nursery of Bristol seafarers.

Cumberland Basin in 1850s by ET Dolby. Sourced from

In the coming days, the full horror was realised and later a public subscription was established to try to help the widows and orphans who were left without an income. When the account was published in May of the following year £900 had been raised for the families and it allowed a payout of £15 to the widows involved and £14 to each of the 34 orphaned children.

Locally, the Waterford Mail gave widespread coverage of the loss but it did include some details pertaining to the city. For example about Captain Stacey, who in some quarters was held liable for the loss, there was the following:

“Captain Stacey, the master of the unfortunate vessel, had been known here for forty years, during which time he had been in sailing vessels and subsequently in steam packets between this port and Bristol. Intelligent, zealous, active in the onerous and responsible situations that he most creditably filled for many years, was held in high consideration by his various employers ; while in the walks of private life and social intercourse he was most highly esteemed and respected, and few could depart more deeply regretted a numerous circle of friends than Capt. John Stacey. His melancholy fate is indeed the subject of general, public, universal sympathy and regret.”

Waterford Mail – Wednesday 25 November 1840; page 2

Of the cargo:

…300 brls of oats, 2 trs of lard and 100 pigs, belonged to Mr. Finnucane, of Ballybricken, and we believe, very little has been saved of the property. Mr. Fennelly, a bacon merchant in Clonmel, lost 50 bales of bacon ; Mr. Murphy, of Clonmel. 100 sacks of oats; and Mr. Cooney, 100 sacks of oats.

Waterford Mail – Wednesday 25 November 1840; page 2

of the passengers, we learn that “among those who perished was a lad named Thomas Henderson, the son of honest parents, in the clothes trade in Patrick Street. Apparently, Thomas was travelling to London to purchase second-hand clothing for the family business.” Slaters Commercial Directory of Ireland (1846 ed) lists Thomas Henderson as running a Clothes Dealer business at 29 Patrick St. He is one of numerous such outlets on this street. The property is now Ryans’s Shoe Repairs (and collectibles!) The Mail also mentions “… a young man of the name of Walsh, who lately came here from Liverpool, and was returning by way of Bristol, also perished” No details are given about the only female passenger aboard but apparently there were two others who were aboard the City of Bristol, but who at the last minute stepped off the vessel and she sailed without them. Both ladies were unnamed and no other details emerged as far as I can tell – they would have got a book deal out of the same fortune in this day and age.

Today’s piece is taken from reportage at the time from an article in The Wexford Independent, 25th November 1840, The Waterford Mail, cited above and George Harries – Early Bristol Paddle Steamer Shipwrecks, 1993, The Longdunn Press, Bristol and Tom Bennett, Shipwrecks Around Wales Vol 1, 1987 Happy Fish Press, Newport, Wales. I’d like to thank Frank Cheevers who originally shared the story with me on Facebook