While collecting my daughter from a bus recently I happened across a limestone slab set into the pavement behind the Waterford bus station. It was battered, damaged and out of place, but the inscription was legible. It reads In Memory of Louis C Lee of Aberdeen. Found drowned here Feb 3rd 18. But who was Louis, when exactly did he die and why was a memorial stone set into the footpath for him?
Louis Cove Lee was born on the August 18th 1876 and was 20 years old when he drowned on Waterford’s quays on the night of Feb 3rd 1897. His parents were James and Jane Lee and according to the census of 1891 he had three sisters and two brothers. He was a trainee officer aboard the iron hulled sailing ship the Queen Elizabeth
The ship had sailed from Middlesboro in August of 1895 for Hong Kong and hence to Shanghai and San Fransisco under her master, Captain Charles Edward Fulton
. The trip from America had taken 170 days via Cape Horn and she had entered Waterford the previous Sunday with a cargo of 2700 tons* of wheat for RH Halls.
|Accessed from http://www.clydeships.co.uk/
She was docked on the quays close to the then Market House and the job of unloading was commenced. On the day of his death Louis was counting the bags of wheat as they were discharged ashore. Louis finished his work at about 5.30pm on that Wednesday evening. The following morning at about 10am a cry went up as a body was discovered lying in the mud between the ship and the quay.
Louis had spent three years aboard ship and was highly regarded. He was about to leave to return home and attend navigation school in Aberdeen and no doubt looking forward to seeing his family again. Within another year he would qualify into the junior officer ranks and could look forward to a life of foreign travel and, most probably, a much easier working future aboard steam vessels. The mood in the city was full of remorse and when the young man was laid out aboard his ship, many of the city residents attended to pay their respects. Understandable, given that almost every family in the city had a maritime connection at the time. Louis embodied the potential fate of so many sons, brothers, husbands and fathers.
|An map excerpt showing the quay at the time, the second line between the quay and the floating hulks is the low water mark
An inquest was called and took place at Dooleys Hotel
under the stewardship of coroner E.N. Power. Witness after witness deposed as to the good nature and upstanding character of Louis. No one seemed to know what Louis had done ashore**. The watchman aboard the ship heard no disturbance during the night and a watchman on the quay, Morgan Kavanagh, who walked between the Market House and the Graving Bank had heard nothing either. Kavanagh described the night as “very thick” meaning foggy. The verdict of the inquest was of “accidental drowning”
The coroner had some harsh words for the Waterford Harbour Commissioners
stating that he had raised for many years the need for protection along the quays and that railings ought to be erected. A follow up meeting of the Board was strongly of the opinion that such railings would cause a liability and should be discounted. However, within two years the railings were in place, by order of the Board of Trade as I understand it.
|The sad fate of the memorial stone.
And Louis? Well Louis’ father James travelled to Waterford that same week and made the arrangements to bring his sons body back to his family and his home town. Mr Lee was described as a manager of Ogston’s
(a soap factory). A service was held at St Andrew’s Church and Louis was buried at Trinity Cemetery.
|The wording on the Lee headstone. Via Pat Black of Aberdeen
As regards his memorial stone, I’ve heard two differing accounts of its origins. One that it was locally organised and paid for under the auspices of the Commissioners. However newspaper accounts did state that in early March of 1897 Louis’ father wrote to the board asking for permission to erect a memorial marble tablet to remember his son. This was initially welcomed because a further letter was received on the 18th March outlining some ideas re its design and seeking further information from the Commissioners. At this point the Board seems to have balked, stating concern about precedent and concern that what was suggested could perhaps be an interference to trade.
I don’t know the exact details of when or who decided on the present stone, but it was cut into the quay wall, where it stood until the extension of the quay and the building of the bus station. It’s obvious the stone was damaged at some point it this process and why it should be set into a footpath is beyond me. Perhaps like me, those who were responsible at the time had no notion of Louis or what his loss meant to the city. But that doesn’t mean we have to allow such a neglect to continue.
I have had a lot of help in pulling this story together as I had made an appeal via twitter and facebook for further information. Tomás Sullivan, Eoin Nevins, Brendan Grogan, Jamie O’Keeffe. In Aberdeen I got extra information via Pat Black, Pat Newman and Julie at the Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums.
The following newspapers were accessed for information :
Evening Herald. Thursday 4th Feb 1897 page 2
The Waterford Standard. Saturday Feb 6th 1897 page 3, Feb 10th page 3, April 14th page 3,
Aberdeen Press and Journal. Feb 10th 1897 page 2
Munster Express Dec 14th 1956
* Another newspaper gave the cargo at 9,700 tons, which I thought too large, but open to correction.
** A later account by Thomas Drohan in the Munster Express was of the opinion that the ships company went ashore that night to toast Louis’ departure to navigation school and that he stayed behind when they returned to ship.
If you like this, here’s some other links from a different perspective that I think you will enjoy
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