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 Station the 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 Stormcock and 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 would like to thank David Carroll for his help with the details of the Duncannon lifeboat Richard & Anne for this story. David is busy finalising his history of the Dunmore East Lifeboat station, further details here.