The Irish newspapers of Christmas 1831 were alight with speculation after a ship sailed onto the sand banks of Bannow, Co Wexford with no crew. Aboard was a full cargo, some blood-stained clothing, a box of silver dollars and a dog. The ship was the La Bonne Julie of France and here’s what I could find of her story.
The morning of Thursday 15th December 1831 dawned dry and bright on the SW Wexford coast after a storm that blew the previous day had passed off. Off Baginbun the people of Bannow Bay observed a three-masted (barque from most accounts) sailing vessel, sails set and apparently on an eastern course. But there was something in the direction of the vessel that caused concern and as the morning wore on, the people onshore became increasingly worried. They waved clothing and raised their voices in warning, for it seemed the crew of the ship were unaware of their proximity to shore.
Speculation must have been rife. Was the crew asleep, drunk or was it something more sinister? As the day went on the ship came closer and yet no answer was given from the ship. Eventually, she grounded on soft sand on a bar at a location that is not exactly specified. Bannow Bay is mentioned in one report, Bannow Island in another. The map above may give a sense of the location, but I’m open to correction.
A crew of the local coastguard (I’m guessing her that it was Fethard as again it is not made clear) (Additional info post publication. Mick Byrne was of the opinion that it was most likely the “Bar O the Lough” coastguard unit at Cullenstown, they had a boathouse nearby) set out by boat to investigate the grounding, and boarding they were greeted with a mysterious scene. The only living thing aboard was a brown coloured pointer dog. The ship had a full cargo of fish and fish oil and it was speculated initially that it had sailed from Newfoundland, but the ship’s log later proved this to be incorrect. The ship was the La Bonne Julie (most newspapers called her Le Belle Julie) of Bordeaux. She had sailed from her home port some weeks previous en route to Dunkirk with a 13 man crew.
Of her crew there was now no sign. A box of dollars was discovered along with the ship’s log and papers. Some bloodstained clothing was found in a sailors bunk. But otherwise everything seemed as it should be aboard. News of the mystery spread and speculation was widespread. The fact that earlier reports stated the ship was in perfect order only added to the confusion.
However, later reports mentioned some damage to the vessel. One report had the following to say “the main sheet had been carried away, and was lying over her side in the water. The iron stay or traveller had snapt [sic], it is supposed, and she got a dreadful lurch so that a sea-washed the entire crew overboard…”[i] The conclusion about the crew was highly unlikely I would think.
The same report carried the news that the Coastguard had removed all clothing, bedding etc from the ship and had burned it on the beach, despite the “… entreaties of the many poor who came from all parts to get what they could…” The inference here was the tradition of locals taking what materials they found from shipwrecks as rightful salvage for their own use. The authority’s concern however seems to have been a fear of Cholera which was then rife.
The report continues to describe how the cargo had been removed and put into bonded stores in Wexford. The Coastguard were doing this on the basis of The Crown and the Lord of the Soil, a rule of salvage giving the legal owners of the ships manifest a claim to their goods. If none came forward the salvors could claim, or the landlord of the land on which the ship had grounded. Although it would appear that such matters were never that simple.
As I mentioned at the outset theories into the ship and its missing crew were vividly described in the newspaper reportage of the time. Such Ghost Ships during the days of sail were a common enough occurrence, and in many circumstances a crew abandoned the ship, oftentimes in a hurry, leaving all their belongings behind. The weather had been bad the day and night before the ship was discovered. Perhaps her crew did abandon the ship and were in turn lost themselves? I found no reports of bodies being washed up at the time or in the subsequent weeks, however.
Cholera was also considered. Having left Bordeaux where the illness was then widespread, did some of the crew bring it aboard. Did they perish, one by one, to be buried at sea until no one remained? But who would have thrown the last man to die overboard? The illness was rapid and a feature was the weakened condition of the ill.
An attack was also speculated. Some wondered had the ship carried some treasure, like the locally fabled Earl of Sandwich when four of the crew turned pirate, murdered their shipmates, and left with a treasure. It’s a story featured in my latest book. One report, which was widely reprinted in numerous newspapers, told of an incident at a pub in the Faythe in Wexford Town. The “respectable and intelligent publican” noticed two foreign sailors entering his bar in the early hours and observed that one was armed with a bayonet, seemingly of French origin. Challenging the sailors, they hurriedly withdrew.[ii] If the sailors had turned on their crewmates, however, why would they have left the box of dollars behind?
The wreck of the La Bonne Julie was later auctioned as a derelict, suggesting that she never moved from the sand bar in the shallow waters of Bannow Bay. A report in the Waterford Mail stated that “A survey has been held on the hull, which was found in such a bad state to be pronounced not seaworthy”[iii] This description is at variance to the following advert however.
The cargo and value of the ship and what was sold all wound up in the Admiralty court. And over many weeks and months in the following year various hearings took place to decide on the vexatious matter of salvage rights and who was entitled to it. I can’t pretend to have followed it. There seems to have been some doubt into the legal owners of the ship in the court and these “alleged owners” were not willing to pay salvage over to the Coastguard men who had boarded the ship that day in Bannow. Two are mentioned in the reports I saw, Nobel and Doyle*. At issue was that the “alleged owners” felt that the Coastguard were paid for their work and as such this should preclude them from any claim. This was hotly contested. There was also mention of a merchant named George Beale who felt entitled to a share. In this situation, it was again argued that no payment be made. At court it was stated that “…owners must be satisfied of the name of every man engaged, the time employed, and the price per day paid…”[iv] There were some further pieces in the papers, but I could not find a conclusion.
I could find no further information as yet about the La Bonne Julie and as such I will have to leave it as just another one of those perplexing mysteries of the sea. My own opinion is that her crew abandoned ship and that their decision was the wrong one. It’s ironic that the crew in their haste left what was supposed to be man’s best friend behind. Ultimately the one living creature that stayed aboard had better luck. The pointer dog was taken in by the local landlord, Boyce. Hopefully he had a long and happy life thereafter.
Next Months blog brings me to Dunmore East, and a story of the Italian salvage operators from the 1930s.
[i] Newry Telegraph – Tuesday 27 December 1831; page 4
[ii] Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent – Saturday 31 December 1831; page 4
[iii] Waterford Mail – Wednesday 28 December 1831; page 4
[iv] Dublin Observer – Sunday 04 March 1832; page 3
*Olivia Murrey left me a note on facebook to sat that Edward Nobel was Chief Officer at the Bar of Lough coastguard unti from 1829-1835. However there was no Doyle on the station or any adjacent station