On a dark December night off the coast of Dunmore East, the pilot boat Gannet spotted an incoming steamer and sailed on a line upriver to intercept. The action would lead to the loss of the pilot boat and an unholy row in Waterford that would see the court of public opinion brought to the fore. But that was still to come, our story starts on that winter night.
Pilot boat Gannet was built at Whites shipyard in 1856. She was 40 ton 58ft cx16ftx 9 feet on what are now the city’s North Quays. A predecessor, the Falcon, had been deemed unfit by the board. The Gannet however had served faithfully alongside another vessel, the Seagull.
At 5.30 pm on December 3rd, 1863 the Gannet was on duty off the coast of Dunmore East, sailing around in anticipation of inbound ships requiring a pilot. Captained by a Pilot Master, and when with a full compliment, 6 pilots aboard, she would respond to a raised flag in daylight or show a light in darkness from ships requiring pilotage.
As the Gannet proceeded upriver towards Creaden Head, lights were exchanged with the ship, which later claimed in showed no signal for a pilot. The ship was the SS Beta (built 1861; 747 gross tons, 220ftx30x17) of the Malcomson lines Waterford Steamship Company (WSCo). The Beta was on a regular run between the port and London ( several reports state that she was calling to Waterford having sailed from Belfast for London). The Captain had a Board of Trade Masters certificate for Waterford, exempting him from taking on a pilot, the regularity of sailing, and his experience having been determined that he was exempt. In a later newspaper report that year Captain Upton was named as Master, but no Captain was named on the night of the incident in the reports I have found.
From later newspaper accounts, the Gannet hove-to above Creaden Head and three pilots got into the small boat that was used to board the pilots. As they did so, they noticed the Beta change direction to pass astern to the pilot boat, and at this point, the Gannet came about to again intercept. With no time to change course, the Beta rammed the hull of the pilot boat. [I]
The cutter was struck on the port side, abaft the mast, and sank immediately. The Pilot master with three pilots – Glody, Diggins, and Delaney managed to get aboard the steamer. Their three colleagues, Butler, Power, and Ryan, were towed in the small punt to Passage East. [ii]
At the next meeting of the Board a discussion into the loss of the Pilot Cutter and whether to lease another. There was a lot of upset as the master of the Beta had been quoted as telling the Pilot cutter captain that “He knew damn well he didn’t need a pilot”. Members wondered if maybe ships should be required to signal a specific light that a pilot was not required! A unanimous decision was taken to write to the Board of Trade to request an inquiry.[iii]
At the last Harbour Board meeting in December, a letter was read from the Committee of Privy Council for Trade in a response to a request from the commissioners asking for an inquiry into the case of the collision. The response was not what the Board had hoped for, but they were of the opinion that since this was a case of a collision it was not of a character in which they usually interfered and therefore they declined to get involved. However, after a discussion, it was decided that as the “Merchant Shipping Act stated that when a steamer met a sailing vessel it should keep out of her way and in this case the Beta did not, that the Board would request that the Board of Trade revisit their decision” [iv]
Given the earlier description of what had occurred…it’s difficult to understand how the Harbour Board came up with that decision. But ask they did and refused again they were; receiving what was described as “a very definite and negative response from the Board of Trade”. Somewhere amidst all this toing and froing one William Malcomson (WSCo & member of the Harbour Board) let it be known that he was happy to enter into arbitration to try to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of both parties. This was agreed to after a prolonged and rather fractious debate that went on long into the night.[v]
However, at some point in the following weeks, it seems that the Harbour Board took a decision to revisit this decision and made a request that the arbitration be overseen by Queens Advocate from Dublin. This was interpreted by some as kicking the arbitration into a legal sphere. And it provoked an unholy row.
Part of the problem seems connected to a letter written by the Steamship Company to the Harbour Board, that was overlooked at the monthly Board meeting. However, the letter found its way into the papers, and not just in Waterford. The response was explosive. The court of public opinion cared little for the navigation laws of shipping. The Malcomson family was then a huge employer in Waterford, and with an internationally good name in business and shipping circles. A very long and detailed analysis of the matter was contained in the Waterford Mail, which excoriated the Board, pointed out Malcomson’s support for Waterford, the Board, and notable charitable good works, and questioned the very purpose of the Board. The actions of the board were considered petty and unjust. Malcomson’s position was that this was an expensive way to do business. His position was that both sides should enter the arbitration in good faith and see if an agreement could be reached. If there were points that were disputed, then these could be judged by the Advocate. A much cheaper solution he believed.[vi]
At the Board meeting of March, Alderman Denny took the floor of what I can only assume was a very unsettled assembly. He addressed the controversy and acknowledged the public disquiet in the city and how the matter had been handled. He went on to extol the virtues of William Malcomson and the Waterford Steamship Company and also to discuss the current action believing it would have been better: “to have asked for reasonable compensation for the loss of the Gannet. The original cost of that boat was £1,150, and she was 7 years at sea, exposed to very trying and severe weather all seasons so that it is not too much to say that she lost 5% of her original value (PA obviously though not mentioned in the report) thus leaving her value at £757 or thereabouts. If we make up our minds that the crew the Gannet was in no way to blame in the matter, then we are entitled to about £750, and more in fairness. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that the Gannet was wrong and that the fault did not lie with the Beta, are not entitled to a single farthing.”[vii]
Councillor Walsh rebutted this pointing out that it was right and proper that the Harbour Board take legal proceedings against Malcomson and WSCo. At issue he felt was the livelihoods and property of the 7 pilots who were aboard the Gannet that night, and who were out of work since.[viii]
After much acrimony, a proposal was put forward from Mr Jacob saying that legal proceedings should be halted and that a request for a settlement of £600 be put to the WSCo. This was seconded and eventually agreed to. In what must have seemed like a very melodramatic twist, at this point, Mr. Jacob held up a letter from the WSCo stating that they would be happy to settle the matter for £600. Game set and match to Mr. Malcomson it would appear.[ix]
Members of the Harbour Board were insistent that an inquiry was required into the actions of the Pilot Master that night in the harbour. Questions were raised about his fitness to operate, and the judgment of all the pilots on the night. However, there were also pragmatic concerns. What if the Board found that the pilots were in error? Would the £600 be forfeit, would they come out the worse. It seems that a subcommittee was formed to look into the matter, but I could find no report in the papers of the time as to any findings.[x] I’d imagine that the vast majority of people had already heard too much about the incident.
But what of the Gannet? Whatever the acrimony within the offices of the Harbour Board, the matter still existed of a sunken vessel and one less pilot boat to meet the needs of the port. A wreck buoy was stationed directly over the vessel and a notice contained in papers as early as the day after the event. Subsequently, the wreck was raised, as it was an impediment to shipping. My guess is that the damage was so bad, the pilot boat was dragged closer to the Wexford shore and dropped to the bottom. Walter Foley told me previously that the salmon driftnet fishermen had a foul mark off Broomhill called the Pilot Boat. It’s the only one that I am aware of that fits the bill.
Interestingly, the Gannet was not replaced. Newspaper accounts later that year point to a drop in shipping and a struggle to meet the wages of pilots due to the resulting loss in revenue to the port. Although other boats were employed at Passage, and an occasional replacement at Dunmore, the Seagull carried out the duties on her own at Dunmore East until she was replaced at some point in the early 1930s by the Elsie J.
I’m indebted to David Carroll for this On This Day contribution to the blog today August 19th 2021. In it, David, who has written several guest features, explores the near-tragedy that occurred this day in 1988. Thankfully the keen eyes of a child playing at Dunmore East led to a quick response and ensured that four lives were saved.
While researching and writing ‘Dauntless Courage’ – the history of the Dunmore East RNLI lifeboats, I came upon the official service report from the Dunmore East lifeboat station and subsequent newspaper reports of the rescue of four sailors from a Galway Hooker that sank in Waterford Harbour on Friday, August 19th, 1988.
Knowing that the ‘Galway Hooker’ holds iconic status in Ireland’s maritime heritage, culture, and identity, I was keen to obtain additional information to make an interesting inclusion for the book. What was the name of the hooker? What type of hooker was it? Was it a restored hooker from Connemara or maybe one built in the revival of these iconic vessels that was taking place on the East Coast of Ireland? Due to time constraints, and with some reluctance, I had to omit the story from the book but vowed to return to it at a later stage to obtain the missing details.
The Galway Hooker was the traditional boat of Galway built of strong and hardy oak to withstand the rough seas of the Atlantic. The boats were easily recognised by their strong sharp bow and sides that curve outwards. They have one mainsail and two foresails all on a single mast. It is a gaff-rigged sailing boat meaning the sail is four-cornered, fore-and-aft rigged, controlled at its peak by a pole called the gaff. Traditionally painted black with eye-catching red sails these beautiful boats are something to behold.
There are four types of Galway Hooker: Bád Mór (35–44 ft.) and the Leath Bhád or “half-boat” (28 ft.) These two larger vessels were used to transport turf across Galway Bay. Two smaller vessels are known as Gleoiteog and Púcán. Both are usually 24–28 ft. but are differently rigged. The gleoiteog has the same lines and rig as the larger hookers. These boats were used more commonly for transporting people and fishing.
The hooker that sank in Waterford Harbour in 1988 was a ‘gleoiteog’, one of the smaller hookers. From newspaper reports at the time, I knew that the owner of the vessel was Professor Ivan Cosby, a lecturer in International Affairs at a Japanese University but originally from Stradbally, Co. Laois.
For many people and especially music lovers, Stradbally is best known as the site that has hosted the award-winning ‘Electric Picnic’ arts and music festival held each year at the end of the summer since it began in 2004. Stradbally Hall has been the seat of the Cosby family since the reign of Edward VI.
My connection with Stradbally would be through my interest in cricket as the village is the home of Laois Cricket Club, where the members have laid out a new ground in a beautiful setting. To establish a ‘Stradbally link’, I contacted a great friend of the entire cricket community, Roland Bradley, the doyen of the Laois club and former President of Cricket Leinster. It just so happens that Tom Cosby, owner of Stradbally Hall, is also President of the cricket club and Roland very kindly put me in touch with him. This was the breakthrough that I was looking for! Tom, in turn, very kindly put me in touch with his Uncle Ivan, who now lives in retirement in the UK.
When I spoke to him by telephone, Professor Cosby could still vividly recall in detail, the unfortunate events of August 19th, 1988. He was also able to tell me about the gleoiteog, called ‘Mona ΙΙ’ and its brief history. Professor Cosby, told me, that he bought the gleoiteog in 1985 from Dennis Aylmer of Dún Laoghaire.
Mona ΙΙ had been built by Charlie Featherstone in Dún Laoghaire in 1979 for Dennis Aylmer, who was a Tea Buying Director of Lyons Tea. He also had a long involvement in the revival and restoration of Galway Hookers, stretching back to 1965. The Morning Star was a bád mór – the largest type of Galway Hooker – built circa 1890, and Dennis was one of the first people to restore a boat of this type and size. He still recalls the extraordinary tale of how he located and obtained the Morning Star in 1965, and managed the extensive restoration works involved. This story is even more remarkable because Dennis lived and worked in Dublin at the time, the Morning Star was in Connemara, and he had no means of transport other than his bicycle!
Mona ΙΙ was not a full hooker but a 22-foot gleoiteog, built on the scaled-down lines of the full hooker Morning Star. Being about two tons in weight, she could be trailed by road and over the next few summers, Dennis would bring her over to the West and take on the local boats at the races in Connemara including the famous Kinvara Festival. Dennis told me: “The best I could do in the races was second. I could never beat the legendary master hooker skipper Pat Jennings of Galway. By the time we got to Athlone, the message would get through to the West that “the Dublin boat is coming!”, and this all added to the fun”.
Dennis Aylmer told me that he was very saddened when he heard of Mona ΙΙ being lost in Waterford Harbour in 1988 in deep water with all sails set and was never recovered. He had a lot of knowledge about the event. His recollection was that the gleoiteog was hit by a considerable gust which laid her over, and Professor Cosby was unable to react quickly enough to let fly the main. Perhaps he did do so, but it may not have been sufficient. Being an open boat, as soon as the water came over the beam the chances of recovery would have been minimal. Very wisely, Professor Cosby had a life-raft aboard, which floated clear, and they were able to get into it, otherwise, there could have been a serious tragedy. Dennis also has a recollection that a little girl was playing in her garden in a house at Dunmore East, and was watching MonaII, and ran in to tell her parents about it. Having gone out again, she saw the boat had disappeared and said there was a little orange boat floating nearby (which was the life-raft). Her parents then came out into the garden and realised there could have been a problem and raised the alarm.
From the official Service Report for the ‘shout’ recorded by Dr Brendan O’Farrell, Honorary Secretary of Dunmore East RNLI, it looks as if the girl may have been in the house next to his own one. The girl would now be an adult and one is left wondering if she can still recall the events of that day in August 1988, thirty-three years ago?
Dr O’Farrell in his report states that the lifeboat cleared the harbour mouth within four and a half minutes of the first maroon being launched. Coxswain John Walsh was away on pilot duty, so John Murphy, hearing the maroons dashed to the Waveney class relief lifeboat Arthur and Blanche Harris 44-006, to take the helm. Crewmembers onboard were Mechanic Seán Kearns, his son Hugh and Frances Glody. The lifeboat left her moorings at 12.05hrs in a fresh SW wind that was described as force 6-7 by the lighthouse keepers at Hook Head. Conditions were moderately choppy. High water had been at 10.15hrs. Speed was of the essence. One of the oars of the raft was lost in the capsize, so the survivors were not able to make much progress with one oar. This is not a situation that you would wish for when you are remarkably close to the rugged shoreline near Hook Head.
Writing in the Cork Examiner on the following day, Saturday, August 20th, 1988, journalist Richard Dowling (later of RTE) described how the skipper of the gleoiteog Professor Cosby, and three unnamed English companions scrambled aboard their life-raft as the hooker foundered in rough seas off Dunmore East. The gleoiteog had been taken down the River Barrow from Stradbally to Waterford Harbour and had sailed for about two miles across to Hook Head where they capsized.
The lifeboat reached the survivors at 12.25hrs and arrived back to Dunmore East at 12.40hrs. By 12.50hrs, the lifeboat had been re-fuelled and was back on station. The entire rescue operation had taken less than one hour.
Dr O’Farrell, Dunmore East RNLI Honorary Secretary was fulsome in his praise for the lifeboat crew. In his report, he noted: “Very quick efficient work on the part of crew and Acting Coxswain.” The newspaper reports also tell us that Professor Cosby praised the lifeboat crew for their efficient rescue. He described the whole incident as a “tremendous disappointment.” The records at the Dunmore East lifeboat station show that a very generous donation was made to the RNLI in recognition of the rescue.
It is always sad when a boat that has given so much pleasure to its owners and was also very much representative of Ireland’s maritime heritage is lost at sea. However, we continue to be truly grateful to the RNLI that no loss of life took place in August 1988 as is the case in countless other occasions around the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland.
I wish to thank Brendan Dunne and Dunmore East RNLI for allowing me to access their archives to view the service report from August 1988. Over a long period, a number of other persons showed great courtesy to me when I contacted them in connection with this story and I would like to acknowledge their kind assistance: Brian Ellis and Padraic Ó Brolchain of the Irish National Maritime Museum, Cormac Lowth, Dennis Aylmer, Dr Mick Brogan of Kinvara, Roland Bradley of Laois Cricket Club, Brian Kenrick, Tom Cosby, Ivan Cosby, Nicholas Leach (‘ Lifeboats Past and Present’), Michael Kennedy (Dunmore East shipwright).
As always I am most grateful to Andrew Doherty for inviting me to share my stories on ‘Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales’.
A recent email from Donie Brazil with an image from Dunmore of a steamship caused a fair amount of research on my part. Donie had an image from his aunt’s collection of a ship tied up at the East Pier in Dunmore, which could have easily been dismissed as a large fishing boat, but the date gave me a smile of delight. For it was from 1936, a time when an Italian salvage company was busy in the village and it was more probably the Artiglio of the Società Ricuperi Marittim, founded in 1926 in Genoa Italy, and at the time one of the leading underwater salvage operations worldwide.
Artiglioand her crew was world-renowned at the time following the successful salvage of gold coin and bullion from the sunken SS Egypt, a P&O ocean liner that sank after a collision in 1922. The Artiglio, or more accurately the Artiglio II, had successfully retrieved the treasure (after the original Artiglio had discovered the ship in 1930 but was blown up after being moved to deal with another salvage operation) but the work had taken from 1930 to 1935. The wreck of the Egypt lay in 170metres of water after all!
Società Ricuperi Marittim, or SO.RI.MA. (Society for Maritime Recovery) of Genoa was founded in 1926 by Commendatore Giovanni Quaglia. The ships of the company were all named based on their propensity to snatch objects from the bottom of the sea and included: Artiglio, Rostro and Raffio were the first of the company, followed by Rampino, Rastrello, and Arpione. These were all bought second-hand and modified as needed which included winches, electromagnets, and support equipment for divers.
The first mention of the company I could find in Ireland was off the Cork coast in 1934, where the Arpione was salvaging copper from the SS Spectator off Galley Head. It would appear the company was also looking for the Lusitania at the time.[i] In September 1935 both the Artiglio and Rampino were reported as being exempted from pilot dues by Waterford port until such time as they were successful in finding and retrieving salvage from the wreck of the SS Lincolnshire off Hook Head.[ii]
SS Lincolnshirewas reported at the time as a “freighter of 3,695 tons…commanded by Captain Harte, and had onboard crew of thirty-one and the Captain’s wife, when, in March 1917, she encountered a German submarine…she was torpedoed, and sank almost immediately, those on board just managing to take to the boats before she went. No lives were lost. They were shortly afterward picked up by a patrol vessel and brought to Dunmore, whence they were sent to their homes through the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Agency, of which Mr. W. E. Jacob is the local agent”[iii]
Lincolnshire was one of two ships attacked and sunk that same day and by the same U-Boat U57 a sub which was one of those rarities, a sub that survived the war. The other was the SS Crispin, 2483 tons, carrying freight, passengers and almost 700 horses for the war effort. Those aboard the Crispin were not as fortunate, out of a complement of crew and passengers of 112, 8 died and of course, all the horses perished too. SS Lincolnshire was the prize the Italians were seeking however, as she was carrying copper ingots, brass bar/rod/sheet, zinc and other metals, which had a huge value at the time.
In October it was reported that they had “…located the SS Antony, a cargo vessel of Liverpool origin, which was also sunk by a submarine. A large number of automobile spares were found in the holds, while four motor cars, almost intact, were also discovered, as well as a large quantity of bones…”[iv] I couldn’t locate any details on the Antony up to the time of writing but I;m speculating the bones were of animals, and probably horses. Either way , it wasn’t the exact prize the Italians were after, but does highlight how littered the area is with wrecks.
Finally in November news broke that the “Copper Ship” had been found. Although from the report it sounds like the discovery was made a few weeks earlier. “…after many months of patient search, [Lincolnshire has] been at last located by the Italian salvage vessel, Arliglio (Capt. Bruno). The Lincolnshire, which was torpedoed by a German submarine, carried a valuable cargo of copper. The divers of the Artiglio who discovered her, estimate her cargo at eighteen hundred tons of copper and about 1,000 tons of zinc. She was found lying on a bed of mud on the ocean floor about 12 miles south-west of Dunmore Harbour. Already about 50 tons of copper has been salvaged and put aboard the Artiglio’s sister ship Rampino. The crews and divers are awaiting favourable weather to make a further trip to the Lincolnshire. It stated that when the Rampino has her full cargo she will proceed immediately to France. The Lincolnshire was found in thirty fathoms of water, and owing to obscurity, caused by the disturbed mud, the work of salvage was considerably impeded by poor visibility…”[v]
The work of the crew of these ships was incredibly dangerous and it must surely have taken nerves of steel to go down beneath the surface in what could only be described as iron coffins. From what I have read I can only try describe the activities, and these are largely based on what happened with the salvage of the Egypt, so I may be inaccurate in this. Once a likely wreck was identified, a diver was suited up and hoisted up and over the side, to go down and identify the wreck. The company used what was called atmospheric diving suits built by German firm Neufeldt and Kuhnke and later modified and enhanced this. They also used what was called a butoscopic turret as an observation chamber. Communcation with the surface was via wireless and once a wreck was identified, salvage could begin. It would appear that if needed, the divers would set explosives to create a hole to allow access to the ships hold. They would then direct operations observing the mechanical and magnetic grabs which were lowered from the surface ship. As the grabs descended, the diver operated like a conductor, issuing instructions to the surface which had to be acted on by the men operating the winches far above.
As you might well imagine, when these lads came ashore they must have wanted to enjoy themselves, and I’m sure the pubs and hotels must have done well from them. The Gossip of the Week column in the Standard of June 1936 describes the Italians as frequently in harbour where they have made many friends ashore. The previous weekend an imposing figure of one of the company’s directors Count Boraiggi was seen in the village. All was not plain sailing, however. A large French steamer the SS Sussien 848 tons was in harbour and her crew had given the harbour a “distinctive polyglot tinge”. The French are loading the salvage and returning to their home country where the material is being smelted down for use in the armaments industry. A major controversy was averted in the harbour during the week, thanks to the harbour master Major Lloyd when apparently his use of French managed to resolve a major logjam. At issue was the harbour blocked up when a new steel grab arrived by truck for the Artiglio which was at sea. Major Lloyd swung into action as it were, got the French steamer to hoist the grab onto her deck and get the truck on her way, although “the language, all French, was searing”![vi]
In August the Artiglio was ashore to enjoy the festivities associated with the annual Dunmore East regatta. A wonderful days weather ensured a great turnout, and it was remarked that a large number of cars were in evidence, parked along the pier. “The environs of the harbour were gaily bedecked with flags and bunting. The Italian salvage vessel, which has made its base at Dunmore East, was decorated with the ship’s flags, and the Captain and members of the crew were equally decorated with medals and ribbons.”[vii]
The Gods seem to have been looking kindly on the Italians it seems. For later that August four of the crew had a lucky escape in a traffic accident. Captain Ernesto Bruno, Cesari Albavera (chief engineer), Bonucelli Catena (diver), and Giovanni Titinini (wireless operator), were proceeding to Waterford in a taxi, driven Mr. Joe (Bunny) Murphy, when the accident occurred. The car had just passed the shop of Messrs. Harney, at the junction of the roads leading to upper and lower Dunmore, when the steering rod broke, leaving the driver without control. Swerving to the right along the upper Dunmore Road, the car dashed against the parapet, the wall gave way with the force of the impact and the car did a somersault before landing back on its wheels on the lower village road. To the astonishment of onlookers, who presumed they must all be dead, all five walked freely from the wrecked car, although Captain Bruno sustained a broken nose and required some stitches! [viii] A later report stated that the men were all improving, so perhaps they were not as unscathed as the first report suggests. [Following publication Kathleen O’Driscoll contacted me to state that her family had owned the Strand Hotel at the time. Her American relatives have a letter written by her mother from this time. In it she explained that both she and her two sisters were nursing the Artiglio’s Captain and Engineer who remained in the hotel for several weeks after the crash]
The work of the salvors was weather dependant and it would appear that they could be called away for other jobs, or return home for leave ( I found one report from April of 1937 stating that two ships were returning to complete the salvage after the winter storms). The work continued on the Lincolnshire until July 1937. The Waterford Standard of Saturday 10th July describes their departure. “The Italian salvage vessel, Artiglio, left Dunmore East on Thursday night, having completed the work of salvaging the wreck of the SS Lincolnshire. Crowds gathered on the pier to give the crew a truly Irish send-off. There is no doubt that the Italians made themselves very popular with the villagers, and from an economic point of view, too, their departure will be a loss, for nearly all the traders derived some benefit… There was much hand-shaking and leave taking before the hawsers were cast off and the Artiglio steamed out into the murky night, she sounded her siren in farewell and flashed morse signals to the waving crowd on the shore bidding them good-bye.”[ix]
War had created much of the wealth that the SO.RI.MA had salvaged, and it’s ironic to think that the metals salvaged went to creating more weapons for another war to come. But for the men of the Artiglio the work was their job, a difficult, hazardous and dangerous job for which it seems they were not very well rewarded. They did however brighten the scene at Dunmore East for the time that they stayed and their work was truly innovative. My thanks to David Carroll for assistance with this mornings piece and to Donie Brazil who asked the question that got me started.
[i] Aberdeen Press and Journal. Tuesday 1st May 1934
[ii] Waterford Standard – Saturday 14 September 1935; page 7
[iii] Waterford Standard – Saturday 14 September 1935; page 8
[iv] New Ross Standard – Friday 04 October 1935; page 5
[v] Waterford Standard – Saturday 02 November 1935; page 6
[vi] Waterford Standard – Saturday 20 June 1936, page 3
[vii] Waterford Standard – Saturday 22 August 1936; page 6
[viii] New Ross Standard – Friday 04 September 1936, page 11
[ix] Waterford Standard – Saturday 10 July 1937; page 3
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
I would like to thank David Carroll for this guest post on Captain Albert Bestic who served aboard the RMS Lusitania which was torpedoed on this day, May 7th 1915. Third Officer Bestic was one of those that survived. Over now to David for his account.
Growing up in Dunmore East during the 1950s and 60s, I was constantly regaled by my father, a Master Mariner, of stories of shipwrecks, great exploits and heroic deeds by seafarers and explorers. Names that were always to the forefront and that were given tremendous respect were Sir Robert Falcon Scott, and Irish Antarctic explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean, a member of three expeditions to Antarctica. It is sad to think and an indictment of the lack of respect shown to Ireland’s maritime heritage that it is only in recent years that the latter two and other Irish explorers have received the proper recognition and celebration that they deserve in their native land.
Another name that kept cropping up during my childhood was Captain Albert Bestic, who was Junior Third Officer on RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915. My father had served with Irish Lights for a short period before World War Two and would have known Captain Bestic on a personal basis. I can still remember the excitement that followed when my father received a copy of Captain Bestic’s book, ‘Kicking Canvas’, an autographical account of his maiden voyage as an apprentice aboard a sailing ship called the Denbigh Castlein 1908. The Denbigh Castlesailed from Cardiff and its destination was Peru. The ship had a treacherous crossing and endured many storms. The ship was feared lost until it finally sailed into Freemantle, Australia and then proceeded to its destination of Peru, a voyage that had taken over a year to complete. This traumatic voyage did not deter Bestic and he continued to work his way up the nautical career ladder to become a professional deck officer in the Mercantile Marine.
Albert Arthur Bestic was born on August 26th, 1890 and grew up in South Dublin. Bestic is not a name of Irish origin, his family descended originally from Huguenots in the Normandy region of France. He was the second child of Arthur and Sarah Stephenson. He had an older sister Olive who was born in 1888. He was educated at the Portsmouth Grammar School and St. Andrew’s College in Dublin.
As a boy on holidays in Scotland, he had seen the Lusitania in the Clyde. “If I could sail on a ship like that,” he had thought, “I’d go to sea.” He added: “To me she was my dream ship. I saw her first when in her regal beauty she sped along the surface of the Clyde upon her trials. My boyish heart went out to her in admiration.”
Later, while in the service of the Denbigh Castle, he once again saw the large liner sweep by. As he looked up at the liner, he saw, “a photographic impression of four big funnels, tiers of decks, fluttering handkerchiefs, the name ‘Lusitania’, in gold letters, and a roaring bow wave.” When the ship “streaked by”, it created a large wave that sent all the men into the lee scuppers. The sailors began cursing at her, but not Bestic. He vowed one day that he would stand upon the bridge of that ship! 1
In early 1915, Albert married Annie Queenie Elizabeth Kent, originally from Belfast but by then living in England. He sailed to the United States as an officer aboard the Leyland liner, SS Californian, that is best known for its inaction during the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 despite being the closest ship in the area. To Bestic’s great surprise, he was informed that his next assignment would be as the junior third officer of the Lusitania– his dream ship! With many officers, joining the Royal Navy for the war effort, Cunard’s recruitment policy had altered.
The RMS Lusitaniahad been launched on June 7th, 1906 at the shipyard of John Brown & Co, Clydebank, Glasgow. The ship, and her sister ship RMS Mauretania had been built because of negotiations between the British Government and the Cunard Line with a view to being capable of taking back the prestigious ‘Blue Riband’ for the fastest Atlantic crossing. She was the first British passenger ship to be built with four funnels, with a gross tonnage of 32,500 tons and an overall length of 785 feet, and with seven decks for the use of passengers.
On September 7th, 1907, after the completion of her trials, she sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Queenstown (now Cobh) and New York, watched by a crowd of 200,000 spectators. On her second voyage, in more favourable weather conditions, she did achieve the distinction of taking the ‘Blue Riband’, a record that would stand for the next twenty-two years.2
Lusitaniacompleted her last peacetime voyage from New York, arriving in Liverpool on the day Great Britain declared war on Germany, August 4th, 1914. Lusitania was not requisitioned by the Admiralty but continued to sail for Cunard once a month to New York. Between December 16th and March 13th, 1915 four more successful round voyages were made, although these were not without incident.3
The waters around the British Isles were dangerous places for Allied shipping, and in April 1915, the German Embassy in the United States published warnings in the New York newspapers that passengers, travelling on Allied ships, travelled at their own risk. At the time, the Lusitania was taking passengers on board at Pier 54, New York, for the homeward voyage, departing on Saturday May 1st, 1915, with 1,266 passengers, including many wealthy and notable Americans, and 696 crew aboard, including Junior Third Officer Bestic, making his first voyage on the ship.
On Friday, May 7th, 1915 at 11.00hrs, Lusitania broke through the fog into hazy sunshine on its voyage from New York to Liverpool. To port was an indistinct smudge, which was the Irish coastline. But there was no sign of any other ships. Captain William Turner, Master of the Lusitaniahad expected to see HMS Juno, which would have acted as an escort. There was no sign of Juno.
At 11.55hrs, Captain Turner was informed of U-boat activity off the southern Irish coast. At 13.40hrs, Captain Turner saw a landmark as familiar to him; a long promontory with a lighthouse on top of it, which was painted with black and white horizontal bands- the Old Head of Kinsale. To avoid reported U-Boat activity in the area, Captain Turner was instructed by Vice Admiral Coke of the British Admiralty to change course and head for Queenstown.
However, at 13.20 hrs, the German U-Boat U-20 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger spotted the smoke from a steamer with four funnels astern approximately 12-14 miles away. Once the U-boat closed into its target, it fired a single torpedo.
At 14.10hrs, the torpedo struck the ship with a sound which Turner later recalled was “like a heavy door being slammed shut.” Almost instantaneously there came a second, much larger explosion, which physically rocked the ship. A tall column of water and debris shot skyward, wrecking lifeboat No. 5 as it came back down. On the bridge of the Lusitania, Captain Turner could see instantly that his ship was doomed. He gave the orders to abandon ship. He then went out onto the port bridge wing and looked back along the boat deck. The first thing he saw was that all the port side lifeboats had swung inboard, which meant that all those on the starboard side had swung outboard. The starboard ones could be launched, though with a little difficulty, but the port side boats would be virtually impossible to launch. 4
At 14.11hrs the Lusitania has started to send distress signals from the Marconi room. “SOS, SOS, SOS, COME AT ONCE. BIG LIST. 10 MILES SOUTH OLD KINSALE. MFA”. The last three letters were the ships call sign.
An extract from Lusitania website describes vividly the drama and mayhem that unfolded:
“At the port No 2 boat station, Junior Third Officer Bestic was in charge. Standing on the after davit, he was trying to keep order and explain that due to the heavy list, the boat could not be lowered. Suddenly, he heard a hammer striking the link-pin to the snubbing chain. Before the word “NO!” left his lips, the chain was freed and the five-ton lifeboat laden with over 50 passengers swung inward and crushed those standing on the boat deck against the superstructure. Unable to take the strain, the men at the davits let go of the falls and boat 2, plus the collapsible boat stowed behind it, slid down the deck towing a grisly collection of injured passengers and jammed under the bridge wing, right beneath the spot where Captain Turner was. Bestic, determined to stop the same situation arising at the next boat station, jumped along to No. 4 boat, just as somebody knocked out its link pin. He darted out of the way as No. 4 boat slid down the deck maiming and killing countless more people, before crashing into the wreckage of the first two boats. Driven by panic, passengers swarmed into boats, 6,8, 10 and 12. One after another they careered down the deck to join 2 and 4. The sea was now swirling over the bridge floor. Then the stern of Lusitania began to settle back, and a surge of water flooded the bridge, sweeping Captain Turner out of the door and off the ship. As the Lusitania sank beneath the waves, that same surge of water swept Junior Third Officer Bestic out through the first-class entrance hall into the sea. The Lusitania was gone, and with her had gone 1,201 people. It was now 14.28 GMT, on Friday May 7th, 1915.”
“He was still at his post on the port side of the ship when he saw the last wave charge up the deck. Without a lifebelt, he jumped over the side and tried to swim clear of the ship but was still “dragged down with the ship.” He tumbled in the water and noticed the water getting lighter as he was pushed upwards. He swam upwards for what felt like minutes, and when he burst to the surface, he realized that he was inside an overturned lifeboat. He made his way under the gunwale and felt a hand as Seaman Thomas Quinn pulled him by the collar to the top side of the boat. When Bestic surfaced, he only saw wreckage and people struggling in the water where the great ship had been. He could hardly bear the sound of hundreds of men, women, and children crying out in the water, “the despair, anguish and terror of hundreds of souls passing into eternity.”
Fearing that the capsized boat that he was on would soon be overwhelmed, he struck out on his own, swimming towards land miles away. A current carried him off by himself but could still hear the cries of children in the water. The cries soon stopped. He lost his sense of time and place, imagining that he was a young boy seeing Lusitania sail by again. Then Bestic found his own collapsible and hauled half of himself over the gunwale into the boat, the other half of him still in the water. He soon realized that this boat was taking in water. Bestic struggled to keep afloat by plugging his collapsible boat with any flotsam that was around him.
Bestic soon sighted a young, dark-haired man swimming in the water and called out to him. After the young man got himself on the boat, he quipped, “I suppose it’s no use asking you for a cigarette.” “I’m sorry,” Bestic apologised, “Mine have gone rather soggy.”
The two men rowed and bailed water from their boat to keep warm and came across the body of a young girl. They then came across a woman in a lifejacket, seemingly in shock. Her heavy, soaked garments required that both men pull her out of the water and into their boat. She asked them, “Where is my baby?” “I’m sorry,” Bestic answered, “we haven’t seen any babies.” To their horror, the distraught woman threw herself overboard. The young man grabbed the woman and lied, “Your baby is safe. I saw it taken into another boat.”
The woman allowed herself to be helped into the boat again. Bestic chided himself for not thinking of the lie. The small, waterlogged boat picked up a dozen or more survivors before they could not take on anymore. Hours passed and Bestic feared that it would be dark before help came for them. He found a watertight tin of biscuits and passed them out to everyone in his boat, “Chew these biscuits. You’ll find that working your jaws keeps you warm.” He had learned this from experience when he had sailed around Cape Horn. The lifeboat was quiet as all on board busied themselves with chewing instead of making conversation.
Four hours after Lusitaniasank, their collapsible was picked up by the trawler Bluebell. If help had come any later, the skies really would have been dark. In the messroom of the Bluebell, Bestic saw Captain Turner alive, sitting by himself. Bestic went up to him and said, “I’m very glad to see you alive, sir.” “Why should you be?” Turner asked. “You’re not that fond of me.” “Fondness doesn’t enter into it, sir. I’m glad to see you alive because I respect you as my Captain and I admire you as a seaman.”
Amongst the 1,191 who lost their lives were 786 passengers and 405 crew, and the trawlers Bluebell and the Wanderer from Peel, Isle of Man rescued most of the 771 survivors. In all, only 289 bodies were recovered, 65 of which are never identified. The bodies of many of the victims were buried at either Queenstown, where 148 bodies were interred in the Old Church Cemetery, or the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The bodies of the remaining 885 victims were never recovered.5
Courtmacsharry RNLI received news of the disaster and the lifeboat Ketzia Gwiltunder the command of Coxswain Timothy Keohane (Father of Antarctic explorer Patrick Keohane) was launched and set out to row the 12.6 nautical miles to the casualty, as in calm conditions the sails were of no use.
An extract from Courtmacsharry RNLI Return of Service log states: “We had no wind, so had to pull the whole distance- on the way to wreck, we met a ship’s boat cramped with people who informed us the Lusitania had gone down. We did everything in our power to reach the place, but it took us at least three and half hours of hard pulling to get there- then only in time to pick up dead bodies.”
The Courmacsharry Lifeboat then proceeded in picking up as many bodies as they could and transferred them to the ships on scene tasked with transferring bodies back to Queenstown. The final entry from the log stated: “It was a harrowing site to witness- the sea was strewn with dead bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, others holding on pieces of rafts- all dead. I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time to save some”. 6
Included amongst the lost passengers was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world. Yet he showed himself willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. He was travelling with his valet to Britain to conduct a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association. He refused to save himself. He gave his lifejacket away and used the critical moments as the ship was sinking to put children into the lifeboats. He showed, according to a report in the New York Times, “gallantry which no words of mine can describe”. His body was never found.
Another famous person that drowned was Sir Hugh Lane, the Irish art dealer and nephew of writer Augusta, Lady Gregory of Coole Park. He is best known for establishing Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, but his famous collection, the ‘Lane Bequest’ has proved to be a controversial issue with ownership being disputed for almost a century between Britain and Ireland until an amicable arrangement was agreed.
There were harrowing scenes in Queenstown as survivors and bodies were brought ashore. The casualties of the Lusitania included 128 Americans, leading to outrage in the United States. President Wilson later dismissed the warning printed in the paper on the day of the ship’s departure, stating that no amount of warning could excuse the carrying out of such an inhumane act. However, it would not be until April 1917, before he went to a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany.
In May 1915, a wave of anti-alien rioting spread throughout many English cities, particularly in Liverpool where the local Echo newspaper reported in May 2015: “Almost 600 people with Liverpool and Merseyside connections alone were on board the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland 100 years ago this week. At least 145 local crew members are recorded as losing their lives.”
As news of the attack on the Lusitania spread around the world, emotions and opinions became polarised. Britain and Germany each advocated for the justness of their side. The sinking became a powerful propaganda tool in the build-up to America joining the war and closer to home, many propaganda posters appeared that advocated for more men to join the war effort.
A year after the sinking of the Lusitania, Albert Bestic’s wife gave birth to their first child, Desmond. At that time, he was serving in the Royal Navy aboard minesweepers. His second son, George was born in Scotland in 1919 and his third son, Alan was born in England in 1922. Alan became a well-known journalist, initially with the Irish Times, and later as a prolific writer. One of his sons Richard, a name that many readers may recall, was an outstanding international correspondent with Sky News, broadcasting from around the world.
In 1922, Captain Bestic joined the Irish Lights Service. On December 19th, 1940, he was master of the lightship tender SS Isolda, which was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe off the Wexford coast. Sadly, six crew members, all from Dun Laoghaire were lost on that occasion. Relating this part of Captain Bestic’s maritime career must wait until another time.
Albert Arthur “Bisset” Bestic died in Bray, Co Wicklow on December 20th, 1962, aged seventy-two years. He is buried at St Michan’s Church in Dublin. The nickname “Bisset” had been given to him by Captain William Turner.
All images are courtesy of Maritime Historian Cormac Lowth, whose assistance with the article is very much appreciated.
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