On a blustery Thursday afternoon, January 27th 1869, five Coastguard men said goodbye to their wives and children before leaving their homes in Dunmore East and traveling to Waterford city. The purpose was to collect a new lifeboat to be used at their station on the dangerous approach to the ports of Waterford and New Ross. Two days later, on Saturday 29th those same families rushed down to the quay at Dunmore on the arrival of the pilot boat in a vain hope of news of their loved ones. A local paper described the scene as a heart-rending finale to a terrible tragedy[i]. For the would-be rescuers had succumbed to the dangers posed by the harbour themselves.
The Coastguard presence in Ireland dated from 1822 with the amalgamation of several services into a single body under the control of the Board of Customs. Their role was principally to combat smuggling, but it also provided a life-saving element to seafarers from shipwrecks and attempted to protect the ships and the cargo too. For some interesting accounts of such rescues see David Carroll’s new book on the Dunmore East RNLI; Dauntless Courage[ii].
I’m afraid I have no background information on the origins of the new lifeboat to be used, but I am sure it was as a consequence of the many rescues performed on the station since the foundation of the service in the village. The new boat arrived in Waterford aboard the London steamer Vesta on the Saturday previous.[iii] (Elsewhere, Coastguards worked alongside rescue services such as the RNLI which was founded in 1824. Ironically enough a lifeboat station was founded later in 1869 at Duncannon, Co Wexford, very close to where the accident occured. The RNLI would eventually come to be based at Dunmore in 1884)
A description of the lifeboat was garnered from a number of newspaper accounts. A sharp fore and aft craft, 25-28 feet long, very beamy, painted white, four oared and elsewhere mention of a tiller for steering. The boat was built at Cowes, Isle of Wight.
The five crewmen who departed Dunmore East that day in 1869 were John Scott, Chief Boatman. William Rogers, Carpenter. John Baldwin, Commissioned boatman. Edward Nash and Henry Stewart, Boatmen
After leaving Waterford Quay later that afternoon with their lifeboat in tow aboard the Duncannon paddle steamer Tintern, the crew decided to stay the night at Arthurstown, Co Wexford due to bad weather. The wind was blowing from the southeast and darkness was setting in. That night, heavy rain, wind, and spring tides caused flooding throughout the harbour. In Waterford City, it was considered the worst flooding in 30 years. The lifeboat was hauled out and the crew received a warm welcome from their colleagues at the local station.
On the morning of Friday, January 29th, the weather was described as very unsettled with WSW winds. At 10am, the five men embarked in the open lifeboat for Dunmore on the ebb tide. The tides were strong, they were spring, and the rivers were swollen with fresh water. Matthew Shea, the officer in charge at Arthurstown, later testified that he had tried to stop the men from leaving, but John Scott overruled him.
The next time the men were seen, it was when they were mistaken by the pilot launch Seagull as shipwrecked sailors. The lifeboat was about a half-mile off Templetown on the Wexford shore, in a very dangerous spot. (Another account states that they were closer to Creaden Head, but although that course would make sense, it is hard to tally with some accounts of the pilots of the attempted rescue). The Seagull set a course for the vessel, while the crew of pilots readied a tow rope.
As the waters were shallow, and the pilot cutter had only sails for propulsion extreme caution was required in getting alongside. The Seagull drew ten feet of water, and any misjudgment could cause her to strike the bottom. Getting as close as they dared, they hailed the coastguard men, well known to them as they were all based in Dunmore. The coastguard men, however, refused their offer of assistance and waved them away. Evidence was later given that they banged the side of their boat in a show of confidence in the lifeboat’s ability.
Given the weather and the shallow draft, the Seagull had to move off. However having only traveled a short distance, a wave struck the lifeboat and two of the crew were propelled into the sea. The Seagull came around in a vain effort to reach the scene. As she approached she was struck by several seas and half-filled. At around the same time, the lifeboat overturned and the three others aboard were lost to the sea. It was as much as the Seagull and her crew could do to get themselves back out of danger. Arriving at Passage East later, the Pilot Station communicated the news by telegraph. On Saturday 30th John Scott’s body was found washed up on Duncannon strand by a young man named Furlong and was later interred at Killea, Dunmore East.
The inquest into the discovery of Scott’s body was held in Duncannon on Monday 1st February. The hearing was led by coroner Mr RB Ryan and a jury of which Captain Samuel D Bartlett was foreman. (Bartlett was captain of the PS Tintern, and owned a local hotel) Scott’s body was identified by Matthew Shea, the acting Chief Officer at Arthurstown. He described the morning of departure and how he had tried to prevent the crew from setting out but was overruled by Scott who pointed out that he was Chief boatman in charge with 18 years of experience and “knew his business”. Shea also clarified that the men “…appeared to him to be perfectly sober and steady at the time” Patrick Rodgers of the Seagull gave evidence of the pilot’s interaction which although more cautious in its description, is close to much of the reportage of the newspapers of the event. The jury found that Scott had used bad judgment in proceeding that morning to Dunmore East, and also for refusing the help of the pilots. They also found that the men should have been provided with cork life vests before boarding the vessel.[iv]
It would be March before two other crew were washed ashore. John Baldwin’s body would be found at Bunmahon, while the body of Henry Stewart was washed up at Ardmore. From what I could glean from the account it suggests that Baldwin was brought back to Dunmore for burial while Stewart was interred at Ardmore.[v]
Meanwhile the public was asked to make subscriptions to help the bereaved families and most of the leading business and civic leaders of the city and county lent their names to the campaign. All had left behind families. John Scott left a widow and daughter, William Rogers left a widow and three children, Edward Nash left a widow and two children, and Henry Stewart left a widow and one child. John Baldwin had left a widow and eight children. His unnamed wife was said to be pregnant and soon expecting a ninth child.[vi]
The men of the Coastguard service were very often veterans of the Royal Navy. At this stage, the Coastguards (Which had come under the command of the Admiralty from 1856) were also acting as a naval reserve that sought to attract local fishermen and seafarers. This might account for some very familiar surnames amongst the dead. These men were surely used to the sea, to boats, and to dealing with weather extremes. But the sea can never be taken for granted. We can never know what was in their minds in choosing to set out that morning, but it was foolhardy indeed to reject the help of the pilot men of Seagull. Whatever their motives, they lived only a short while to regret them, another five victims to the graveyard of a thousand ships and countless innocent souls.
I want to thank David Carroll, Brendan Dunne, Michael Kennedy, Walter Foley, and Liam Ryan for some observations and assistance with this story. All errors and omissions are my own.
I had to blend a number of accounts into one paragraph to try to make the story coherent and as such, I struggled to reference all the various details. The story comes from the references identified and also. Wexford Constitution – Saturday 06 February 1869; page 2&3. Waterford Mail – Friday 29 January 1869; page 2 & Waterford News – Friday 29 January 1869; page 2
[i] Waterford Mail – Monday 01 February 1869; page 2
[ii] Carroll D. Dauntless Courage: Celebrating the history of the RNLI lifeboats, their crews and the maritime heritage of the Dunmore East Community. 2020. DVF Print & Graphics. Waterford. Pp21-24
[iii] Waterford Standard. Saturday 30 January 1869; page 2. I searched numerous newspapers for this detail, and most mention the London Steamer whilst others mention that she arrived earlier that week, or many that she arrived on Thursday 28th. It’s just an interesting snippet that I was keen to capture, but offer with caution.
[iv] Wexford Independent – Saturday 06 February 1869; page 2
[v] The Standard and Waterford Conservative Gazette – Saturday Morning, 20 March 1869
[vi] Waterford News – Friday 19 February 1869; page 6