Hook Lighthouse gets a makeover

Last month we explored the loss of the American Sailing Ship Columbus, lost on the Hook Peninsula in 1852. The ship was wrecked on the jagged rocks, thanks in no small part to the mistaken belief that the Hook Head lighthouse was actually Tuskar Lighthouse, about 30miles to the east. That error would cause the loss of the ship and 14 passengers and crew. The Master of the Columbus Captain Robert McCerren would later express his opinion that some distinguishing marks to highlight the differences between both lighthouses, which were then both white, might have averted the tragedy.

Columbus under Captain McCerren was sailing in southerly gales and thick weather and as a consequence, the Master could not get a fix on his actual location. On January 6th, 1852 he spotted a lighthouse, and thinking it was the Tuskar he sailed north expecting to find the Irish Sea opening out before him, but instead found Ballyteige Bay!

Ballyteige Bay accessed from https://www.southwexfordcoast.com/monitoring-in-ballyteige-bay/

Discussing the matter with Pete Goulding of Pete’s Irish Lighthouses renown recently, he reminded me that normally complaints were made about the lack of visibility of lighthouses at daytime.  As Pete explained, “…the lights were frequently obscured because they were sited at too high an elevation when they were often shrouded in mist or low cloud – Wicklow Head, Inishmore, Cape Clear, the Bailey at Howth – to name four – all had to be replaced lower down.”

The lighthouses of Hook and Tuskar were both painted white, but had different shapes and showed different lights, but unfortunately for Captain McCerren with the fleeting glimpse he got, perhaps it confirmed what he expected to see, not what the reality was. 

Hook at the time of the tragedy. George Victor Du Noyer sketch.

Although after the wreck the Harbour Commissioners held several meetings in Waterford to discuss the event by the Harbour Commissioners, the matter of the lighthouse error did not seem to arise.  Captain McCerren’s account of the wreck was widely circulated, however, prompting a letter from a Welsh Master Mariner, John Moore of Swansea to the local papers.  The Waterford Chronicle (Saturday 31 January 1852) published his letter in full and at the outset, he reproached any who dared blame the captain for the tragedy “…The vessel, it appears, made the land a few miles to the Northward of where it was expected, or should have done (not to be wondered at after being thirteen days without an observation); and, consequently, mistook the Hook for Tuskar.  From this circumstance, parties, as usual, seem inclined to throw the blame on the unfortunate Captain, who has been a heavy loser by the fatal occurrence.  However, those persons show their utter ignorance of nautical affairs, as it happens that sea is not their business, whether he erred or not in that particular…”

It seems that the RNLI also agreed on the matter of distinguishing the lighthouses.  In a report issued into wrecks and lifesaving operations for 1852 a very detailed account of the Columbus is given and the matter of the confusion, notwithstanding the differences in design and location that some might think apparent, is shown much sympathy.

The Institution demanded some resolution to the potential for confusion.  A distance of 30 miles between lighthouses after a transatlantic journey it reasoned was nothing.  It argued that the lighthouses should be given some distinguishing character – suggesting that the painting of either with vertical or horizontal bands of black and white or indeed any other manner that the Ballast Board could think of.  Indeed the issue had, it is claimed in the report, long been pointed out to the Ballast Board.

Pete Goulding did find another historical reference.  In the Naval Magazine and Nautical Chronicle of 1849 confusion with lighthouse identification appears to be a regular matter of concern. Mr. R Hoskyn (Richard I would imagine who later wrote the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland) writes and offers an experience to add to the cause.  It concerns a West Indiaman sailing vessel which in hazy weather conditions, mistook Hook for the Tuskar and sailed into Ballyteige Bay in exactly the same manner as the Columbus.  A local fisherman received a reward of £5 for acting as a pilot and directing the vessel back to safer waters.

Source: Naval Magazine and Nautical Chronicle of 1849. Clipping courtesy of Pete Goulding

It was 1859 before the matter was finally dealt with, and in the wisdom of the Board, Hook was chosen for a makeover.  As Pete Goulding remarked to me “Took them seven years but that was pretty quick for the procrastinators supreme”

Hook Head Lighthouse with its three red bands. Image courtesy of Liam Ryan.

In autumn 1859 the following notice appeared in a wide range of newspapers both in Ireland and abroad.  (I’m posting it here if full, as I think the details are worth having. Apologies to those who like a snappy version)

BALLAST OFFICE. DUBLIN. Sept. 29, 1859.
Notice to mariners.
IRELAND—SOUTH COAST.
HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE.
The Port of Dublin Corporation hereby give NOTICE, that on (or shortly before) the 1st day of December, 1859. the HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE, on the East side of the entrance to WATERFORD HARBOUR, will, In order to render it a better day mark, be coloured with RED BELTS, and its top also will be coloured RED.
Specification given of position and appearance of this Tower by Mr Halpin, Superintendent of Lighthouses.
Hook Tower Lighthouse is on the outer end of Hook Point, in Lat. 52 deg. 7 min 25 sec N., and long. 6 deg. 35 min. 53 sec. W. The building. 110 feet in height from its base to top of its dome, is cylindrical from the bottom to the lower gallery on which the fog bells are set. The main shaft of the tower will be marked with three horizontal RED BELTS, each 10 feet in height and spaced 9 feet apart; and the lantern dome also will be coloured RED. The remainder of the tower will be coloured WHITE.
The painting of these three red belts will be proceeded with at the same time. The work will commenced at the South-West side of the tower, and will continued from this point around until completed, when the lantern dome will coloured.
Bells are tolled during foggy weather.
CAUTION.—The entrance to Waterford Harbour is marked on its Eastern side by the Hook Tower Lighthouse, a single conspicuous tower. Tramore Bay. the next bay to the westward, is marked by TWO TOWERS on BROWNSTOWN HEAD. its Eastern point, distant 6½ sea miles from the Hook Point; and by THREE TOWERS on Great Newtown Head, its Western point. Mariners are cautioned to avoid the dangerous indraft of the latter bay.
By Order, WILLIAM LEES, Secretary.

But even with three red bands, the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland 1877 – still cautioned about mistaking the Hook for Tuskar. Hook would later lose its 3 red bands for 2 black ones and three white ones. The date that is generally agreed for this is 1933.  Sadly I can’t find any notice of this, however, (snappy readers might rejoice) but it is on the Irish Lights literature, Pete Goulding agrees, and so does my go to guy for all things historical around the Hook, Liam Ryan.

I am not why they thought the change was necessary. But since the publication of this story, I had the good fortune to be loaned a copy of the late John Young’s A Maritime and General History of Dungarvan. On page 35 John describes in terrific detail the loss of the Cirilo Amoros at Stradbally in February 1926 and he wrote that the crew of the steamer which had no sightings for several days got a glimpse of the Hook and thought it was a lighthouse on the Welsh coast.

Now it’s only a historical footnote, but relevant nonetheless to the fate of the Columbus.  What if Tuskar was never built!? Would it have helped our Captain McCerren that fateful January afternoon in 1852? You see in December 1811 the Waterford Chamber of Commerce (at that time the maritime matters of Waterford were managed jointly within this body) wrote to the Ballast Board stating that the Saltee Islands would be a better position for, the then proposed, Tuskar lighthouse.  The Ballast Board disagreed however and Tuskar was built and became operational in 1815.

If you would like to know more about lighthouse makeovers, Pete Goulding has a blog on the topic.

My thanks to the time, expertise and generosity of Pete Goulding and Liam Ryan for this blog post. I can honestly say I would not have been able to bring it together without their assistance. All errors and omissions are my own. For my regulars who want to know the last piece of this story – the blaming of the Dunmore East pilots and the fallout – a story I have researched but might hold off for a while yet before publishing.

Loss of the Stowell Brown

On This Day in 1884 the fully rigged sailing ship Stowell Brown came to grief on the sand bar above Creaden Head, one of several ships caught out in a terrific February storm almost 140 years ago. A regular and popular guest contributor to our page, David Carroll has the story.

The Irish coastline suffered severe weather during February 1884. The Waterford Standard of February 13th, 1884 described the storm on the previous day as being one of the severest that hit the Waterford area for years. The newspaper reported that high tides were experienced, and flooding was widespread. Fields at Kilbarry in Waterford City were underwater. At Tramore, the weather was equally severe, with a considerable portion of the storm wall washing away.

The newspaper also reported that a large four-masted vessel, name unknown, had gone ashore off the Wexford coast and that the steamship SS Waterford, which had passed the stricken vessel was unable to render any assistance due to the severity of the weather. On arrival at Waterford, Captain Pearn of the steamship immediately informed Lloyd’s Agent of the sailing ship’s plight. We now know that this was the Earl of Beaconsfield [which we featured before].

Earl of Beaconsfield following salvage at Buttermilk Castle close to Cheekpoint. Poole. Andy Kelly Collection

The SS Lara, belonging to the Waterford Steamship Company, caused considerable anxiety in the city as she was very much overdue on her passage from Liverpool. The vessel departed from Liverpool on the previous Friday morning and did not reach Waterford until 2 o’clock on Monday, being towed into port by the tug Dauntless. Having been at sea for about nine hours, the ship lost the power of one of its boilers and became disabled.  The Waterford Standard newspaper brought news of the overdue voyage, reporting that a hurricane was blowing at the time and a very high sea ran all day on Saturday followed by a gale on Saturday night. The newspaper went on to extol the intrepidity of Captain Walsh and his crew, reported not to have left the deck during the three days that the perilous voyage lasted.

But that was not the end of the dramatic events at sea during that storm. On the same day that the Waterford Standard was being read throughout the city and environs came news of a further maritime mishap in Waterford Harbour.  The Creadan Head coastline and the nearby notorious Duncannon Bar, a scourge to sailing vessels for many years, was to claim yet another victim; the Stowell Brown.

Stowell Brown was a wooden sailing ship of 1370 tons and over 200 feet in length, built in St Martins, New Brunswick, Canada in 1873 and was registered at St John in New Brunswick. Her master was Captain Alfred Kimble Smith. The Stowell Brown was described as a full-rigged ship. It appears that the name of the ship was in recognition of Hugh Stowell Brown, born in the Isle of Man in 1823, a Baptist Minister, renowned preacher, and social reformer. He was known for his public lectures and work among the poor in the seafaring city of Liverpool.  He died in 1886. A statue in his memory, originally erected in Liverpool, shortly after his death, was restored and re-sited in 2015 at Hope Street in the city.

Baptist preacher Hugh Stowell Brown, Wikimedia Public Domain Image

In early 1884, the Stowell Brown sailed in ballast from Liverpool and loaded a large cargo of coal in Penarth, near Cardiff bound for Rio de Janeiro.  The Waterford Standard, on Saturday, February 16th, 1885, described her ill-fated voyage as follows:

WRECK OF THE STOWELL BROWN

With regard to this vessel which sank at the mouth of the harbour on Wednesday evening, inquiries have elicited that the ship left Cardiff for Rio de Janeiro on the 5th instant, with a crew of 23 hands all told under the command of Captain Smith. After leaving the port , very severe weather was experienced. The wind blowing a very stiff gale from southwest. The ship experienced the full effects of the weather and is reported to have made about two feet of water during the passage. The crew  had great difficulty in managing the ship, the hands being greatly occupied with working the pumps. Seas of a heavy character broke over the ship at intervals and added much to the perils of the crew, who were in occasional danger of being swept away. The weather continued so boisterous and the ship laboured so heavily that the captain at length decided to run for Queenstown Harbour (now Cobh), which he expected to be able to make. On Wednesday morning, however, the Saltees lightship [1]was sighted, and it was then determined to run inside the Hook for shelter. The mouth of the harbour was reached in safety, and the vessel was anchored for some time. It was at this time that the pilot cutter bore down and, it is stated, directed the captain of the Stowell Brown to follow in its wake.  The ship did follow and shortly afterwards ran aground on the Bar. The crew stood by the vessel which did not sink for some time after. Before this happened they were all taken off by a fishing boat. Most of them lost all effects. On arriving at Waterford, their wants were attended to by Mr Edward Jacob, local agent to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.

The Waterford Standard of Wednesday, February 20th, 1884 carried the following advertisement:

Courtesy of Mr Brian Ellis, Hon. Librarian, National Maritime Museum

At this stage, the Earl of Beaconsfield had been towed to the safety of Buttermilk Point further up Waterford Harbour from where the Stowell Brown had been lost. The two wrecks had obviously created a great deal of local interest. The Waterford Standard, in the same issue,advised its reader about an excursion from Waterford to view the wrecks would take place:

Trip Round the Wrecks: – We observe that the Waterford Steamship Company’s steamer Ida will start for a trip around the wrecks, to Creadan Head and back, to-day at eleven o’clock. The fare charged is moderate, and a good number is sure to avail themselves of the opportunity of viewing the scenes of the recent shipping disasters in the harbour.

Perhaps the busiest person in Waterford at the time was Mr Edward Jacob,[2] Lloyd’s Agent, representative of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.   An ironmonger by trade and a member of the Society of Friends, Mr. Jacob was from one of the many well-known entrepreneurial Quaker families living in Waterford. Altruistic deeds such as taking care of distressed seafarers would have been very much in keeping with the ethos of his religious beliefs. he same newspaper reported as follows:Shipwrecked Mariners-

The sailors belong to the “Earl of Beaconsfield” and the “Stowell Brown” to the number of fifty-eight, one woman, and one child, had their wants well attended to by Mr. Edward Jacob, hon. Secretary at Waterford to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, who had them comfortably lodged at Mrs Ryan’s, the Quay, and Mrs Delaney’s, Bailey’s New Street, during their stay in Waterford. On Friday the first batch of them was forwarded to Liverpool and on Saturday another portion of them proceeded to Glasgow. On Friday, Saturday and up to last night, when the last of them left Waterford, parties of the men were sent to Cardiff and Swansea.

A newspaper report, dated February 26th, 1884, headlined ‘CASUALTIES AT SEA’, gave the following information:

London, Monday. – The Board of Trade have requested their solicitor to take steps for holding formal investigations into the circumstances connected with the stranding of the ship Stowell Brown, of St John’s N.B., near Creadan Head, Waterford harbour on the 13th inst.; the abandonment of the ship Earl of Beaconsfield, of Glasgow, off Fethard, County Wexford, on the 13th inst.; the loss of the steamer Emily of Sunderland, on Brigg’s Reef, County Down, on Feb 11.[3]

The Board of Trade Inquiry into the stranding and loss of the Stowell Brown opened on March 7th, 1884 at St George’s Hall, Liverpool with Mr Raffles, the stipendiary magistrate, assisted by two nautical assessors, named as Captains Ward and French.  Mr Paxton appeared to conduct the inquiry on behalf of the Board of Trade, and Mr Squarey (instructed by Messrs Forshaw and Hawkins) represented the master of the vessel, Captain Alfred K Smith. Mr Allingham, clerk to the Waterford Harbour Commissioners, watched the inquiry on behalf of that body.

The following reported evidence has been extracted from the Liverpool Journal of Commerce, dated March 8th, 1884:

She left Liverpool on the 8th of January and went to Cardiff, where she loaded a cargo of 2,094 tons of coal, and sailed on the 6th of February, bound for Rio de Janeiro, with a crew of 22 hands. Some days afterwards the weather became extremely stormy, and on the 10th, whilst wearing, a heavy sea broke on deck, smashing two of the boats and doing other damage. The captain then decided to run into Queenstown, but finding the wind heading him he changed course and ran for Waterford Harbour, thinking to shelter there until the storm abated, and to proceed to Queenstown afterwards. He anchored about three miles from the bar of the harbour, with two cables down, and, according to his own evidence, whilst so at anchor a pilot boat came up and warned him not to remain there, but to slip his cables and run into the harbour. Having doubt in his own mind as to whether there would be water sufficient to enable him to cross the bar, he asked the pilot boat particularly on this point, and received an answer that there was plenty of water, and that his vessel and all on board would be lost if he remained where he was. Upon that assurance, he slipped his cables and ran for the harbour, but before properly reaching the bar itself the vessel touched the ground in the “dip” of a heavy sea, and ten minutes afterward went hard aground, where she speedily became a wreck. No lives were lost.

The master was the only witness examined yesterday, and it was intimated that his evidence as to the statement alleged to have been made by the pilot boat would be contradicted by the pilots themselves.

The inquiry concluded on Monday, March 10th, 1884 and the following is extracted from the reported judgement delivered by Mr Raffles:

The Court considered that the master, having made up his mind to go into a port, committed an error of judgement in not attempting to get into Queenstown, being within so short a distance, the wind being fair and the night clear. The anchorage at the mouth of Waterford Harbour was too exposed to be safe or proper with a gale from the southward or westward, and, unless the last resorted, the master should not have attempted it. The Court considered that the master of the pilot cutter, under the circumstances, might have been quite justified in refusing to send a pilot on board the Stowell Brown as she lay at anchor. He led her up the harbour and sent a pilot on board as soon as he could. The evidence at this point was contradictory. The Court was inclined to think that the account of what had passed when the pilot cutter hailed the ship, as told by the master of the cutter and the pilot, confirmed to some extent by the cook and steward of the ship, was more correct than the account given by the master and mate of the ship. It might be that the master did not, in the opinion of the Court, take proper measures in navigating her up the harbour. The Court decidedly thought that he was not justified in refusing the assistance of the tug. On a careful review of the whole evidence, the court concluded that the ship had not struck when the pilot boarded the vessel and, if so, the master was certainly not justified in refusing his assistance. The Court considered that the errors of the master in the navigation of his ship up to the time when he slipped his cable at the entrance of Waterford Harbour were errors of judgement only, but they pronounced him in fault in not accepting the assistance of the pilot and tug in the navigation of his vessel up the harbour, his anchors and cables being gone. Even if the vessel had taken the ground, as the master stated, before the pilot came on board or the tug offered assistance, he was wrong in refusing their offers. The Court suspended his certificate for six calendar months and acquitted the master of the pilot cutter. The master of the Stowell Brown was offered but declined a mate’s certificate during the period of suspension.[4]

That was not quite the last matter to be reported on the Stowell Brown. At the monthly meeting of the Waterford Harbour Commissioners held on April 7th, 1884, it was noted that the pilot committee had received a bill of £240 from the firm of Messrs Jute, Coulson, and Co. for blowing up the Stowell Brown.  The amount was agreed to be paid, minus a 5% discount.[5]


[1]  This lightship was better known as ‘Coningbeg’.

[2]  Mr Jacob, (1843- 1924) who lived at ‘Ardview’, Tramore, was also Honorary Secretary of Tramore Lifeboat. He had a particular interest in the hazards of Tramore Bay, and this led him to make notes and gather news cuttings connected with local shipping. An article based on his records, entitled, ‘Records of Vessels Wrecked in Tramore Bay, 1816 – ’99’’, written by Maurice J Wigham, appeared in ‘Decies’ No 12, September 1979.

[3] Belfast News-Letter, February 26th, 1884.

[4]  Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, Tuesday, March 11, 1884.

[5]  Waterford Standard, Wednesday, April 9, 1884