On a bright but blustery dawn in June 1928 three vessels departed Waterford’s quays. Leading the small convoy was a powerful tug, towing two old sailing ships. Although the tug was a stranger to the city, the sailing ships were anything but. To anyone looking on the scene must have proven ironic if not ignominious. For these were the ports last sailing vessels; Zayda and the Madcap, and they had given over fifty years loyal and trusted service to the city, only to be made redundant by steam power.
The story of these two sailing ships is also a story of Waterford and one man in particular, Geoffrey Spenser. Spenser was the son of a local farmer, but not being first born had to make his own way. He married into a coal merchant business at John Street (His wife was Catherine Lyons, daughter of a coal merchant, who later inherited the yard).
A coal merchant was at the mercy of all kinds of middle men unless the business could import its own coal and so Geoffrey bid on a decrepit old ship called the Oriental when it came up for auction in the city. The ship was so bad that his was the only bid. With the profit from this first vessel, he reinvested in expanding his fleet and other ships followed including the Arrow, Caradoc and the Olga. I read that he was also part owner in the SS Silkstone that sank in the river by Ferrybank and was a total wreck. The Caradoc sank following a fire off the Coningbeg and the Olga grounded at Duncannon 20th April 1895 and was a total loss. I’ll need to do more digging into the others.
The Zayda was a schooner (I’ve also read her described as a brigantine) and was built at Bideford in 1869. The Madcap was described as a brigantine and was built at Brixham in 1871. As far as I can tell they were built specifically for Geoffrey Spenser and both entered into the coal trade. Both ships would have been painted green which was the colour that Spenser chose for his ships. (a detail I’m indebted to Brian Cleare for) The norm was to bring pit props or other heavy cargo from Waterford to Wales and then return with coal. The ships feature regularly in Lloyds list and seem to have made a steady income.
During the Great War both ships were requisitioned, armed and staffed with a naval crew. There is one account that because the Madcap was so well known the admiralty fitted another ship out in her likeness to act as a Q ship and sunk five submarines in this role (Q ships were armed to the teeth, but disguised as ordinary merchantmen. U Boats didn’t like to waste torpedoes on them, so they surfaced and ordered the crew to evacuate the ship prior to sinking them with the deck gun. Q ships would take this opportunity, drop the deck disguise and fire upon the sub).
Although the regular sailing time between Cardiff and Waterford was given as 19 hours, in 1921 it took the Madcap just a bit longer!. Under Captain Furness she departed the Cardiff Roads in February 1921. She ran into her first difficulties at the Barrels and having shed her canvas limped into Fishguard. Following repairs she departed, getting as far as the Tuskar before a hurricane of wind forced them to run ahead of it up the Irish Sea, eventually making shelter at Belfast Lough. Her third trip was no better, this time managing to find shelter at Kingstown / Dun Laoighre. It was April before she finally arrived back in her home port, two months later.
Madcap and Zayda were victims of progress however. Ships such as these had to be loaded and emptied by hand, a slow and grueling job. Industrial techniques were advancing however and metal grab cranes could drop a bucket into the hold of a steel built ship and quickly and cheaply empty them. Joseph Spenser, Geoffrey’s heir , decided to tie the sailing ships to the quay (by the Clock Tower) and there sat for several years and, like any unused craft, fell into decay.
At 5am on June 8th 1928 they finally left Waterford’s quays under tow by the tug Eastleigh of Bristol. The ships had been sold to a ship breakers yard in Appledore. Behind the tug came the unmanned Zayda, and at the rear was the Madcap with a temporary crew of four under Captain Cox. As if she had no wish to leave her natural home, almost immediately the Madcap started to make water and the crew had to man the pumps constantly to keep her afloat. Although they crossed the Irish Sea, off the Welsh coast the winds freshened from the south’ard and the Madcap started to settle in the water and became unmanageable. The crew struggled to maintain her, but an inspection below confirmed the worst, and using a small tender they got away just in time, and were fortunate the tug was nearby.
When the Madcaps temporary crew eventually arrived back to Appledore their families stood on the quayside waiting and prayers of thanks were offered by the local vicar for their safe return . I’ve no doubt the people of Waterford were relieved to hear of the crews deliverance, but I’d imagine there was a certain satisfaction too, to think that the Madcap had went to the watery element, rather than being stripped and possibly hulked to end her days as a floating pontoon.
- I used several newsreports in todays blog.
- Waterford Standard – Saturday 05 December 1936 page 50-51
- Western Morning News – Monday 11 June 1928 page 5
- Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 15 June 1928 page 14
- I also used an article clipping by the Munster Express’ Michelle Clancy (It was cut from the paper and passed on to me several years back but with no page or date – I think it might have dated to the Tall Ships 2011)