Fate of the sailing barque Etta

On a wild windy winter night in December 1888, the Belfast Barque Etta, rounded Hook Head in search of shelter, the lifeboat was signaled, but the ship was driven onto the rocks of Creaden Bay before the lifeboat could reach the vessel. Miraculously all but one were rescued from the vessel, thanks, in no small part, to the knowledge and seamanship of the ship’s captain James Arthurs. This is the tale of the Etta, which grounded in a gale on Friday 21st December 1888 sometime between 11 and 12 midnight.

According to Lloyd’s Register of Shipping 1890[i] the Etta was built in Quebec in 1863.  She was registered under the company name of the Etta Ship Company, JS Wright, Belfast and was part owned by her master, Captain James Arthurs.  She arrived in St John NB via Montevideo on November 5th 1888[ii]and after loading timber, sailed for the port of Fleetwood on Nov 29th.[iii]  The ship encountered a succession of gales crossing the Atlantic and as they approached the Irish coast, a decision was made to run for shelter.

David Philip Jones, First mate of the barque Etta, later gave the following first person account of their situation. 

As it transpired, fate played a hand.  It was close to low water and rather than crash into a vertical cliff if the tide was in, the Etta grounded on the somewhat level, if jagged, rocks on the old red sandstone shore. 

Creaden Head and the bay, I can’t with any certainty say where it grounded but I would think somewhere from the ripened field of corn inwards is most likely. Author

The Dunmore East lifeboat had spotted the distress signals and the crew of the Henry Dodd, rowed with all their might to the rescue.  Although they could not get near the wreck in the conditions, they managed to rescue five of the sailors who had set off from the Etta in the ship’s boat, apparently before she struck.  The timing of their leaving or what their crew mates thought is not described. 

Meanwhile, locals ran along the cliffs, fields and roadways to lend what assistance they could.  RIC Sargent Thomas Sutcliff was guided down to the wreck scene by a local labourer named James Redmond.  They managed to get a line aboard the stranded vessel which was grinding and thumping into the jagged shoreline.  Although news reports differ it seems that there were likely 12 remaining crew, Captain James Arthurs and his wife.   

Sutcliff seems to have played a leading role in the proceedings, there is no mention of the Coastguard in the reports, even though they most certainly brought the rocket apparatus and equipment, that would eventually bring the crew and Mrs Arthurs ashore.  Redmond again proved his worth, when he plunged into the surf to assist the captain’s wife who seems to have become overcome in the chair.[v]

Some accounts state that despite the pleas of those ashore, Captain Arthurs refused to leave his vessel, perhaps determining that his ship would survive the merciless pounding on the shore.  Captain Arthurs from Islandmagee, on the east coast of County Antrim, was 2/3rds owner of the vessel and perhaps he gambled that if he stayed with the vessel he would not lose his profits on the trip to any salvage claim.  The news report claimed that the cargo was not insured.  It also stated that he was familiar with Waterford, so perhaps there was an element of calculated risk in where the ship came ashore? Alas, in full view of his rescuers, his crew and his wife, a breaking sea washed him off his feet and over the side never to be seen again.[vi]   

An illustration of the Breeches Buoy in operation sourced from The County Record. [volume 1], October 21, 1897, University of South Carolina

The local police as well as many from the surrounding locality “…rendered valuable assistance in attending to the shipwrecked crew and Mrs Arthurs. They were all subsequently taken charge of by Mr Edward Jacob, local secretary of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, and forwarded to their homes at the expense of that benevolent institution…”[vii]

The ship, however, survived.  The wind seems to have moderated on the flood tide, and the next morning the Etta was seen hard aground but upright.  Later the local tug Dauntless put a crew aboard which stripped down the masts and rigging and tried to hold the vessel together.[viii]

An effort to sell the wreck fell through, as most bidders felt the ship and cargo were doomed.  Several attempts were made to refloat the vessel, in a desperate scramble to salvage the ship and the cargo before the weather turned again.  Eventually, on Monday 31st December 1888, it was reported locally that the tug Dauntless and the PS Rosa managed to haul the wreck off the shoreline.  I’m presuming that the weather had stayed calm, and with spring tides and some patchwork and bailing, the vessel floated clear. [ix]

The Etta was brought to the relative safety above Creaden Head where she was anchored.  Soon afterwards, the vessel, lying on her beam end, was towed up to Cheekpoint by the Liverpool based tug Pathfinder. [x] It would appear she was grounded at the village, perhaps along the Strand Road.  Some of the cargo was removed and presumably, an assessment of the hull took place.

SS Pembroke February 1899 grounded at Cheekpoint following a similar incident where the vessel was inspected and made ready for towing to Liverpool. AH Poole photo

In early February two tugs were in position at Cheekpoint, but had tried unsuccessfully to get the Etta off the shore.  The owners of the Etta, J S Wright & Co, Corporation St., Belfast had decided that the vessel could be towed back to her home port following some repairs to the hull.[xi]  The floating nature of the cargo may have also played a role – earlier plans to remove the timber cargo and sell it in Waterford had been changed. Perhaps the cargo was employed as an aid to buoyancy?  I am only speculating here of course. 

Eventually, the ship was towed clear and was taken by the steam tug Rescuer out the harbour to bring her home.[xii]  But that wasn’t the final drama because the tug ran into stormy weather in the Irish Sea and later it was reported that the waterlogged Etta was labouring badly in Belfast Lough and the tug was having a difficult time getting to her home port.[xiii]  The Etta was made of strong timbers however, and in March the cargo that had taken so long to reach its destination was finally advertised for sale, although the advert did caution that the timber was a little darker, as the vessel that carried them had been ashore. An understatement for sure, given all that had transpired[xiv].

An image that might give some sense on the towing of the Etta to Liverpool, Steam Tug Rescue, Capt. Robert Lumley Cook, Towing the dismasted Brig. Rapid of Shoreham, into the South Entrance Sunderland Oct. 29th 1880 by artist John Hudson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The only victim of the Etta was her master, Captain James Arthurs.  There were hopes that when the vessel came clear of the rocks at Creaden his corpse might float clear too.  Indeed it was widely reported that his body was retrieved from near the wrecksite that same day.  A follow-up report however confirmed that no body had been retrieved and an appeal was made for people to keep an eye out.  Perhaps as an inducement, it was reported that the “hardy old sailor” had £200 in gold on his person when he was lost over the side.[xv]  I could find no record of his body ever being retrieved, however.

Not the Etta, but the barque Gunvor wrecked on the Cornish coast in 1912 in a very similar circumstance, image sourced from google – Photo: E. A. Bragg, photographer of Illogan.

The only mention I could find of Captain Arthurs in the local papers of Antrim gave the following, scant detail.  “…The members of Islandmagee Masonic Lodge, No. 162, heard with sincere regret of the sad loss at sea of their worthy brother, Captain James Arthurs, who for many years was a faithful and honoured member of their lodge, and at their first meeting since his death desire to express their sympathy with his bereaved widow and sorrowing friends, and pray that the Great Architect of the Universe may comfort and sustain them under their sad bereavement.”[i] 

As is so often the case, the fate of the Etta and her crew gets lost in the mist of time. One aspect of the story however is the role that Captain Arthurs played. He decided to run for shelter, he, it seems, knew Waterford harbour well. Did he also know the lay of the land at Creaden Bay and that he was sailing to the ship’s doom, but that there was a fighting chance of survival? Had he weighed up the odds, and thought there’s a fighting chance given the wind, tide, and the geography of the shoreline in the specific part of the Bay he grounded. It seems to me that he did, but perhaps that is the romantic in me looking for a nice hook to the story. If any reader could add anything to the man’s career which might corroborate or dismiss such a conclusion I would be delighted to have it.

Below is a new initiative to try pinpoint each wreck using google maps which I will update as new blogs are completed and which I hope will cover the entire coast of Waterford in years to come


For a different account and in particular, the award for bravery given to Sargent Sutcliff see David Carroll’s book on the Dunmore East RNLI – Dauntless Courage.


[i] https://archive.org/details/HECROS1890/page/n87/mode/1up   Accessed 22/12/2023

Christmas time sailing “before the mast”

Christmas is just another time of the year for seafarers.  The oceans and seas of the world carry much of the goods that we consider essential but this desire never ceases.   This was just as true in the days of sail and to give a sense of the struggles faced by sailors at the time, I want to describe the Christmas adventures of two sailing vessels in this golden era for sea travel.  Neither vessel was unique, or in any way noteworthy but they both provide an insight into the struggles endured and the dangers faced at sea under sail.  One is the tortuous slow progress of the Waterford vessel Glide.  The other is the toil of the crew of the Hilda, coming into Waterford harbour.  A related article on the Moresby tragedy at Dungarvan at Christmas 1895 is linked also.

However before this, here’s just one report from a newspaper at Christmas 1855 to set the scene on what was admittedly a wild and windy week.

During the past week we have had some severe storms… the brigantine Isabela, 200 tons burthen, which was lost an Tuesday night… on a rock called the St. Patrick’s Bridge (Kilmore Quay)…The crew, composed of six persons and the captain, got on the stern, the sea breaking over them terrifically. One of the men, named Leary, was washed overboard and drowned…Towards morning the stern of the vessel broke away, and the captain and remaining five men held by it. After some time they were washed ashore. They suffered considerably from cold and injuries received…The schooner John Bull, (of Youghal) 120 tons burthen, coal laden, bound from Newport to Youghal, was driven ashore at the bar of Dungarvan on Thursday night, and shortly after sank. There is no report of the crew…the schooner John Webb, laden with iron ore, drove ashore inside the bar of Dungarvan on Thursday night. It is feared she will become a total wreck. The brig Thistle, lying at Passage East, Waterford, was driven ashore on the Seedes bank on Wednesday.

Glasgow Courier – Thursday 27 December 1855; page 4
Image: Off the Coast in a Snow Storm – Taking a Pilot, published by Currier & Ives (undated). Accessed from https://classicsailor.com/2017/12/christmas-at-sea/

I wanted to include this as it gives a sense of how matter of fact the newspaper reportage was, and how common it was for seafarers to get to sea in all weathers and times of year. But now to the two vessels at hand, and firstly the Glide.

The brig Glide (1837) was a Waterford-owned vessel, over 80 feet long, and 20 wide, and her stated tonnage was 154 tons.  Over Christmas 1867 the Glide departed the Waterford Quays with an undisclosed cargo for France.  The Master was John Commins, of Ballyhack, and his crew were predominantly, if not completely local. On Friday, Dec 20th, 1867 the ship was loaded at Waterford City quays. The vessel departed on Sat 21st, sailing downriver on an ebb tide and coming to anchor at Passage East, where they waited on favourable winds.  On Sunday 22nd they sailed, rounded the Hook, and ran into a strong SE wind.  On Monday the weather was worsening, and when they eventually got a sighting of land, they had travelled backwards and were off the west Waterford coastline at Mine Head lighthouse.  As the storm increased the crew struggled to make it back to the shelter, eventually arriving back to Passage East where they anchored at 5 pm that evening. 

Captain and crew of the Glide spent Christmas 1867 at anchor. However, apart from the weather, the ship’s log records nothing of the holiday, any gifts, special meals, or religious observations.  As Commins was a local, and some of the crew were from the Hook, it’s hard not to imagine that he went ashore to spend a bit of time with family, although a watch would have been required on the Glide. Hopefully, they enjoyed it, because as bad as the weather had been thus far for the crew, it was only going to get worse. 

The weather finally settled and on Sat Dec 28th they again sailed from Passage East but it would be another 3 weeks before they finally arrived at their destination, the port of Boulogne in northern France. In the interim, they had endured storms, lost an anchor, damaged masts, rigging, and sails and worked without sleep for days on end manning pumps to keep their vessel afloat. 

The Glide continued her noble calling until February 1874. Departing Cardiff laden with coal the ship had run into fog just after sunset.  The fog was so dense nothing could be seen within a cable length of the vessel.  At some point the vessel grounded close to Kilmore Quay and broke up on rocks, the crew getting away safely.

Another ship just a few years later got closer to Waterford but met a similar fate. 

The Hilda was a small schooner, owned by Fredrick Leigh Hancock, of Hawarden, Flintshire in the UK.   Registered in the port of Chester, the vessel was built at Connahs Quay in 1893 and registered at 91 tons.  At some point over Christmas week in 1897, she sailed from Swansea with a cargo of coal. Her port of destination was New Ross, the cargo consigned to a Mr. Power.  This was a familiar journey to the ship, the harbour of Waterford was seen as a haven after crossing the Irish Sea and the dangerous approaches along the Wexford shoreline.

Having departed, the weather turned foul, and rounding Hook Head on Monday 27th December they must have hoped for better luck as they ran ahead of a SE gale and stinging sleet showers. As they headed up the harbour leaving the worst of the wind astern the vessel came close to Duncannon Fort but unfortunately, it was there that a combination of wind and tide drove the Hilda off course and onto the jagged rocks of the Fort.

No details were later recorded in local newspapers from the crew about their journey from Swansea. There would likely have been no fuss or bother made about a Christmas dinner or indeed an exchange of gifts!  Such vessels were competing with much faster and more regular steamships for cargo and any break in the weather would have meant they would sail.  Once at sea, the normal routine of watches would be in place, but in bad weather, all hands were required, often meaning there was no time for cooking, or sleeping. 

Having rounded the Hook, normally a pilot would have boarded, but in such weather, it was common that the pilots, themselves in a small sailing pilot cutter, would have been sheltering up the harbour.  The master of the Hilda may have thought he knew the area well enough to make it to Passage East for safe anchorage and later be piloted to Cheekpoint, and from there another pilot would take them on to New Ross when the weather and tides would suit.

Now, as their ship sank beneath them, the four-man crew took to the rigging, calling out to those ashore for salvation.  Luckily the Coastguard unit was at hand, only a few miles upriver at Arthurstown and a rocket apparatus was brought to the scene post haste.

The rocket originated from the work of George Manby.  At the time of the Hilda incident, a breeches buoy was in use which was part of a rope-based rescue device which was used to take sailors or passengers off wrecked vessels.  The breeches buoy was probably deployed from around Duncannon Fort using a rocket system to shoot a line into the ship’s rigging.  This line was used to haul stronger ropes to the ship and once these were secured to something solid like the ship’s mast, the system could be used to take people ashore one at a time in a chair-like device. 

The apparatus as seen in Hook Head currently

Although the four-man crew were rescued they were now formally unemployed, owning only the clothes on their back, with no pay or place to call home.  They were most likely cared for locally that night in Duncannon but probably left on the paddle steamer Vandeleur the next day on her daily run to Waterford, and from the city took the next available ship back to Wales to find another ship. Any pay due to them was only to cover the period up to when their vessel was lost. The master probably waited around to determine the fate of the vessel and his cargo.

Hilda sunk off Duncannon Fort. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wigham

One of Waterford’s worst tragedies of the sailing era of course was witnessed in Dungarvan Bay on Christmas Eve 1895 when the Morseby was wrecked. It all played out in front of the town and had a deep impact. The ship had sailed from Cardiff on Dec 21st bound for Pisagua in South America and ran into a bad storm off the Waterford coast. Of the 25 aboard including the Captain’s wife and child, only 5 of the hardy sailor crew survived. The County Museum has retained the story for posterity both in display and in words. The Mary Sinclair was lost the day before at Balinacourty.

Morseby off Dungarvan

Although the modern seafarer has little of the challenges faced by sailors in the days “before the mast” it is still a time of family separation and loneliness.  So this Christmas as you enjoy the festive spirit, spare a thought for the seafarers around the world.  Their work may have become safer and easier, but the distances from home are still vast and the work no less essential in the modern era.

Below is a 19th C Christmas carol of which there are many versions:

I saw three ships come sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; Three goodly ships came sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; And what was in those ships all three? On Christmas in the morning; The holy babe and sweet Mary, On Christmas in the morning; I saw three ships come sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; Three goodly ships came sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; But whither sailed those ships all three, On Christmas in the morning; They sailed straight into Bethlehem, On Christmas in the morning; Now all the bells on earth did ring, On Christmas in the morning; For in the heavens the angles sing, On Christmas in the morning; And all the souls on earth shall sing, On Christmas in the morning; And all of us rejoice amain, On Christmas in the morning;

The Zigzag Series by Hezekiah Butterworth (1880)

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Egeria – A True Story of Shipwreck

By Dorothy McMahan

With excerpts from On Shipboard by Anne Starrett Craig

Information gathered by Dorothy McMahan and Chuck McMahan

Olivia Murray, a page regular with a family connection to the Waterford coast, brought this guest blog to my attention. The story is one of those wonderful accounts that can be so easily lost, or remain as a footnote in history unless someone, very often a family member, has the resolve to go out and do the hard digging. Mind you in this case it’s generations of family. I am indebted to the kindness and generosity of Dorothy and Chuck McMahan for what you are about to read. It offers a unique glimpse into one human story and how it impacts a family, just one of thousands associated with wrecks that have happened along the Waterford coastline in days past.

This is a true story that needs to be preserved in the annals for the descendants of Captain Henry A. Starrett. Our knowledge of the factual information of the story has been expanding over almost 150 years and over four generations. As I retell it here I will add the various chapters in the chronological order in which they unfolded, beginning with the oral history as I heard it in my childhood and beyond.

The best way to begin is by quoting from my grandmother Anne Starrett Craig’s booklet of her memories of life On Shipboard with her parents, Captain Henry and Ellen “Nellie” Starrett. This is basically the oral history with which I grew up living in the same household
with her in Belfast. We children heard many other stories of her childhood but this is the one we most vividly remember.

…While the ship {was in port}…my mother and I usually managed a visit to the small New England town which we called “home”, because there my mother’s relatives lived, with their latch-string always out to us. One autumn it was decided that we should spend the winter there, my father making the trip to Liverpool without us. My first taste of school and of a New England winter was a pleasant adventure to me. But my father’s adventure was the most disastrous of his life as a sea captain. In late November there came to us from the owners of our bark, “Egeria”, a telegram; “Cable dispatch. Egeria totally lost. Captain Safe at Waterford. No particulars.”

The particulars, which came to us later, were these–Off the Irish coast in storm and fog the vessel had been driven ashore in spite of all that could be done. The anchors would not hold. The shore was sheer rock. The ship at the last was thrown by each oncoming breaker against a high detached boulder—some of the men had already been washed overboard. My father saw only one possibility of escape –to jump onto that rock as the ship was dashed against it. He watched his chance, and succeeded in keeping his footing on the rock. The little group of men set up a cheer an one by one they followed his lead. But even then they found themselves far from safe—on an isolated rock, with the tide rising toward them and the fog still dense. If only the fog would lift!

And it did lift, and the vigilant coast guards, ever on the look-out for ship-wrecked sailors, saw these men in distress. They shot them a line, and soon were able to bring them all safe to shore. Not long afterward the tide had completely covered the rock on which the men had stood. My father reached home just in season to join the large family gathering about the Christmas tree. And the next fall saw us sailing again, on a long voyage this time, bound around Cape Horn for San Francisco. We were all going, including my small brother.
On Shipboard
Anne Starrett Craig
Published by Courier-Gazette, For Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, ME 1961

It would be well to digress here and relate a few facts about those “relatives” Anne mentions. The “small New England town” is Belfast. The “relatives” were the Peirce family, a prominent Belfast family in those days. Nellie Starrett’s sister, Maria, was the wife of Hiram Peirce. Their house stood approximately where the present Belfast Area High School is now located. There were several other Peirce families in the neighborhood. I have always understood that the Christmas gathering in Anne’s memories took place in the large brick house on High Street opposite the end of John Street.

It was with Hiram and Maria that Anne and her mother were staying through this winter of 1871. Hiram was quite an entrepreneur with several business operations in the town. Possibly the most innovative was an electrical generating plant at the mouth of Goose River in East Belfast. Evidence of this is still visible from Searsport Avenue, and the property between the shore and the road is presently owned by Central Maine Power Co. Hiram also owned a mill on Goose River on Swan Lake Avenue. The present Mill Lane is a connecting road between Searsport Avenue and Swan Lake Avenue and would have been a link between the two businesses.

Shipyards at Belfast, Maine 1905. Accessed from Wikipedia public domain

Before we leave the Peirce family it is important for the family story to understand that the family name Peirce, spelled E before I is pronounced to rhyme with ‘nurse’ or ‘purse’. Far be it for me to commit the error of pronouncing it otherwise. However in the present time, it has been changed in many places to the more common Pierce. It seems to be erroneously so in Grove Cemetery Interment records. One landmark that holds true to the original is the Peirce School on Church Street, founded by the estate of one Lena Peirce and named for her.

Moving forward, we leave the 1800s and jump into the electronic age of the 1990s. My five years of work with the Starrett papers at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport yielded new insight into many of the stories I had grown up with. My computer spot was in the stacks looking down over the library offices and if I stretched my neck I could catch a glimpse of Captain Starrett’s model of the Frank N. Thayer. Finding bits of information often had me laughing loudly enough to catch the attention of those below. Imagine my delight at finding ‘bird seed’ among the stores put on board for one long voyage. Grandma Craig’s telling of her canary came to life. The loan of a fire pump to a coal-carrying vessel on fire in the Pacific was well documented as the loan was repaid later in port. The news was that the vessel had survived the fire and made it to port.

The Model of the Frank N Theyer: Image courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum, PMM Image # 2008.1.

But the most rewarding of all came when I discovered papers regarding the wreck of the Egeria. Up until then, we had only known that it was near Waterford, on the Irish coast. Here was a copy of a letter from Captain Starrett to the owners dated Nov. 22, 1871, saying that he would be going back to Ballymacaw in the morning to arrange for the sale of the Egeria and cargo – a salvage operation. There was also an invoice for new clothing (a pretty complete wardrobe!) as well as other letters concerning drawings of the wreck. A flyer advertising a steamship offering passage from Cork to New York was a clue as to Captain Starrett’s return across the Atlantic.

Missing were the usual papers concerning the details of leaving a port and arriving at a new port. From these papers, it is possible to establish the dates of leaving and of entry. These would have been in the cabin on board so of course were lost with the sinking of the Egeria. No mention of what the cargo consisted of was present.

Sadly, also gone were Captain Starrett’s charts. These can be used to establish dates of departure and reach a destination. In those days charts were usually the property of the captain and represent a substantial outlay of funds.

So then we knew the destination of the voyage was Liverpool according to Anne’s writing, the date of the wreck, and the exact location. It might be presumed that they had not had time enough to reach Liverpool and be on a return voyage, given the usual time spent off-loading and loading new cargo, whatever that cargo might have been but not much more.

Enter once more the electronic era. My son Chuck and I searched and found a website maintained by a family who actually spent vacations in Ballymacaw in the very buildings of the Coastguard men who rescued the Egeria crew. We corresponded by e-mail, saw photos, and learned more about the area. They had access to the Coastguard records and we were able to match our knowledge with the dates and information in those records. It is a beautiful area but a truly forbidding coast – sheer rock as Anne says. All this was exciting and brought the story to life in a really wonderful way. But then the website was taken down and we were without answers once again.

Recently Chuck has once again made contact with the originator of the website through Facebook. He has learned more about Ballymacaw. Through her, he found the following news item from the Irish Times of Nov. 22, 1871.

An excerpt from the Irish Times of the tragic loss of five lives and the rescue of many more. Sourced from Olivia Murray.

At last! So many questions were answered. The cargo was flour which may be how the inlet came to be known colloquially as “Flour Hole.” She inward bound for Liverpool and departed from Boston in September, about two months crossing the North Atlantic. One has to wonder what happened to the eight other men who survived. Were they able to find other berths? And who notified the families of the men washed overboard? But for us, it puts to rest so many questions we had wondered about over the years.

The Flour Hole, Ballymacaw, Waterford. Photo Chuck McMahan
Olivia’s cousin Jimmy Nolan gave us an intimate guide to the Flour Hole. Photo Chuck McMahan
We imagine this is the rock that the crew lept to and were rescued from. Photo Chuck McMahan

To return to Anne’s booklet – she closes this story with the sentence “We were all going including my small brother.” The “small brother” obviously arrived during the winter or spring. The women in our family have been known to speculate that Nellie, having given birth in a ship’s cabin once, did not care to repeat the experience. Anne was born in Singapore harbor in April 1865. Her brother, Francis (Frank), was born in Belfast in May 1872, in a comfortable house with friends and family to offer help.

But what if that decision had not been made in the autumn of 1871? If Nellie and Anne had been on board the Egeria, would they have been able to jump to the rock? Would Henry have jumped himself? Would the men have jumped if their Captain had not shown that it was possible? So many unanswered questions! However, if the answers to any of the above had been “no,” I would not be writing and you would not be reading this story.

What we do know is that Captain Starrett spent the early months of 1872 raising money to buy shares in another vessel. It was customary in those days for a captain to own at least a small part of the vessel. Without easy communication between ports on opposite sides of the oceans, it was an incentive for a captain to share in the profits or losses that the vessel might incur. He needed to make good business decisions on his own.

However, he was able to raise the funds and the voyage Anne speaks of was on the Frank N. Thayer. They were six months from leaving New York on September 9, 1872 (per the date on the ‘Crew List’) to arrival in San Francisco on March 3, 1873 (per ‘Inward Pilotage’ receipt).

The model that Captain Starrett built is of the Frank N. Thayer which is presently in the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. The family oral history says that both Nellie and Anne helped to create parts of the rigging and the tiny American flag that used to fly from the masthead.

The late Elizabeth “Libby” Mills, sister of  (Right) Dorothy “Dot” McMahan.   The two grew up in the house in Belfast with their brother Edward..  Libby just finished a lifelong project of transcribing and publishing her Great-grandmother Nellie’s journal from Nellie’s first two years at sea, known as Nellie’s Diary.  Limited private publication.  More information on that project is here Photo Marti Stone
Dorothy (Dot) with the oldest and youngest of her seven grandchildren, Rebecca McMahan-Leyva, and Robin McMahan. Photo Marti Stone

Over the years I have tried to picture Henry’s homecoming and “the family gathering around the Christmas tree.” Was it a total surprise or did they have enough communication to know that he was on his way? Who got the first and biggest hug? There must have been both tears and laughter with the sheer relief that he was safely home. We know that there were to be twelve more years of voyages with his beloved family aboard before his retirement from the sea in 1884 to settle in Belfast in the house where my mother and then my siblings and I grew up and where we heard all these stories and more from our grandmother, Anne Starrett Craig.

Dorothy (Dot) McMahan Photo: Marti Stone

My thanks again to Dorothy and Chuck for allowing us this truly unique glimpse into their family archive and putting flesh on the bones as it were of a shipwreck and a coastal placename. Thanks also to Olivia Murray for the assistance. I am open to publishing guest blogs from time to time – once they help to promote and preserve the maritime and fishing history of the community.

Post Publication edit. This story was published on the 5th of September on the occasion of Dorothy’s 98th Birthday. Despite her ill health her son Chuck said she was thrilled to see the story published. Dorothy later passed away on the 25th of September. But her story of the Egeria lives on here now, as will her memory for all her loved ones. Thanks to Chuck and Dorothy for sharing this, and Rest in Peace Dorothy.

Hilda shipwreck at Duncannon, Christmas 1897

In March I was lucky enough to deliver a talk for the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers at Poolbeg and after the talk Jonathan Wigam came up to me with some images that were taken in his great grandfather’s time –Edward Jacob, an agent for Lloyds of London based in Waterford.
Jonathan made me a present of a few and one, in particular, caught my eye. It was a familiar image to me, the wreck of the Hilda at Duncannon. But I could not recall why it seemed so familiar. I promised Jonathan that as soon as I had any further information I would revert to him.

Hilda sunk off Duncannon Fort. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wigham

Some days later I had the chance to explore a list of shipwrecks that I have been compiling for the last few years. It’s an excel spreadsheet and I have three lists – Ships lost in the harbour or near it, including the Waterford coastline, Waterford ships lost elsewhere, and ships lost elsewhere coming to or sailing from Waterford. The list is based on my own research with David Carroll but also draws on the work of many others including Ivan Fitzgerald, Edward J Bourke, and John Power of Wexford. I guess we all in turn mine the work that others have done including Jonathan’s great-grandfather.

Anyway the Hilda popped up in 1898 as did detail – in this case drawn from both Edward and John. On reviewing John’s books, I found the photo of Hilda. And that was what I had found so familiar in the image Jonathan had given me. For John’s image was inverted. I had seen it before but was confused by the perspective it gave of the wreck site.

This issue is very common with glass plate images that were taken with the early cameras. Before processing, glass plate negatives have an ‘inverted’ appearance and when developed the correct image is displayed. However, with old glass negatives, it can be difficult at a hundred years remove to work out which was the correct way around. This is a regular enough occurrence, and it can really throw a person, even someone really familiar with an area.

Now can I just say here, that this is in no way a criticism of John’s fine body of work. His three books on the Maritime History of the Wexford coast will stand the test of time. We all make mistakes, and I only hope my work will be as valuable a contribution to the local history of the area that Johns has.

A present-day view of the location. Not quite from the same perspective however. I needed to get closer but my foot wouldn’t co-operate…long story

So to the Hilda.

The Hilda was all over the newspapers of 1898, but in fact, most of the reports were repeated news items, some weeks old from the original report. A report from the Waterford Chronicle of Saturday, Jan 1st 1898 stated that the schooner had come to grief the previous Monday, 27th December 1897.

This and other reports gave me further details. The schooner Hilda was sailing from Swansea to New Ross with a cargo of coal for a Mr Power of that port. When coming up the harbour running ahead of a SE gale and a heavy sea, she grounded and sank just off Duncannon Fort. (All the newspaper accounts mentioned that it was off Duncannon pier).

At this stage there must have been a general alarm sounded, there were four crew aboard and the papers mentioned that the coastguards from the adjoining station arrived on the scene with the rocket apparatus. This sounds like the Coastguard was based in the village. I can’t recall hearing of a station or a Coastguard presence in Duncannon. The two stations I was aware of that are nearby are Arthurstown and Fethard Coastguards but the detail is not in any of the accounts that I read*.

The rocket apparatus mentioned (and I saw an example at the Hook Lighthouse when I last visited) originated with the work of George Manby. At the time of the Hilda, a breeches buoy was in use which was basically part of a rope-based rescue device that was used to take sailors or passengers off wrecked vessels. The breeches buoy was probably deployed from around Duncannon’s strand using a rocket system to shoot the line into the rigging of the ship and once secured could be used to take people ashore. See Lugnud.ie for a good description of the system. For more on the lifesaving activities of the Coastguard visit the coastguards of yesteryear site

Winslow Homer, The Life Line: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A couple of reports afterward mentioned that the vessel was from Bridgewater. However, there were actually numerous vessels similarly named at that time including 11 in the UK alone. It would appear that the correct vessel was owned by Fredrick Leigh Hancock, of Hawarden, Flintshire. Her official number was 96284. Registered in the port of Chester, and built at Connahs Quay 1893 and registered at 91 tons.

On the 8th of January, the Enniscorthy Guardian stated that the ship had become a total wreck and that her cargo was at that point advertised for sale by public auction. I could find nothing more on this – was the cargo on the ship and expected to be salvaged, had it been brought ashore, had the Hilda washed ashore…so many questions that I am sure the answers exist but are outside my grasp for now.

But was the ship a total wreck? Well on January 15th the New Ross Standard stated that the Hilda had been sold. “The Hilda was, as announced in the last issue, sold on Friday, at Duncannon, when after spirited bidding it was knocked down to Mr J A Stephens for £86.”
If the Hilda sailed again, perhaps she was renamed but I could not find her. Just as likely, she was sold for scrap value and broken up. (I later found an Abraham George Stephens in my notes when looking up a query for an author from the UK into the wreck of the SS Kinsale at Broomhill in 1872. Stephens from Duncannon gave evidence to the Board of Trade inquiry and spoke up for the locals of the area who had been castigated in newspapers and called wreckers after the tragedy, Stephens evidence was clear and unambiguous in exonerating locals’ conduct) (Post publication – David Carroll tells me there is a lot more info on the Stephens family in the 2023 On The Hook publication)*

Whatever the aftermath, I’m sure the four shipwrecked sailors and those that went to their rescue took some time to celebrate their deliverance from the choppy waters off Duncannon, Co Wexford. I am hopeful that more of this story may emerge. Just this week I got a comment on a story I wrote several years ago giving more details on the SS Hermoine shipwreck at Dunmore East. Just like Jonathan’s photo, these stories send out ripples and its amazing how far they can reach in the internet age.

  • *I mentioned David Carroll’s tip about further information on the Stephens family in On The Hook. This annual publication edited by Liam Ryan is chock full of current and historical details including much to be admired by maritime history enthusiasts. I eventually picked up my copy on the 6th July 2023, and there is a very detailed piece about the Stephens family and their business interests in it (pp49-54) by Eileen Cloney. The family were corn and coal importers amongst other interests. Elsewhere (PP -18-26) Tom Martin gives a terrific synopsis of the history of the Fethard Coast Guard unit, to use the current spelling of the service.

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How Two Brave Brownstown Fishermen Changed the Course of Lifesaving in Tramore Bay

To conclude our Mayday Mile coverage on the blog this year David Carroll shares a fascinating insight into the ultimate sacrifice of two fishermen and how it provoked the community to campaign for a lifeboat station. Remember the Mayday mile runs until the end of the month, and there are numerous events happening countrywide to sustain the voluntary efforts of the RNLI. Our own Dunmore East team can still be supported too. Over to David Carroll now.

Tramore Bay lies about eight miles west of the entrance to Waterford Harbour and the famous Hook Head Lighthouse and is embraced by two headlands, Brownstown, 110 feet high, to the east and Great Newtown, 150 feet high, to the west. The Bay is about eight square miles and is divided by a spit of sand three miles long running west to east, hence the name Trá Mhór, Great Strand. The south side of the strand is washed by the open sea whilst the side forms a lagoon connected at the east end to the sea by a narrow deep channel known as Rinneshark Harbour.

On one side of Tramore Bay is Brownstown Head, with two towers and on the other is Great Newtown Head, which has three towers, one of which has on top the famous Metal Man statue. Tramore Bay has, for centuries, held an infamous reputation as a graveyard of ships.1

Tramore Bay.    Courtesy of: http://tramoreshippwrecks.blogspot.com/ The chart by Doyle dating from 1737 uses the spelling ‘Rineshark’ for Rinneshark, an area that has several variations in the spelling, including ‘Rhineshark’ (1858).

From the sea, it was difficult to distinguish Tramore Bay from the entrance to Waterford Harbour, which vessels in distress would normally try to reach for shelter. The towers on Brownstown and Great Newtown Head were placed there in 1822-’23 in order to prevent this confusion. The towers were easily obscured in darkness and bad weather. Once a square-rigged ship got into difficulty in Tramore Bay, it was difficult to get on a tack that would clear one of the headlands. Facing south-south-west, the bay gave insufficient shelter from the prevailing winds to make anchoring effective. Only the Rinneshark channel at the north-east corner of the bay provided potential shelter but this was influenced by severe tides and complicated by many sand bars.

Tramore Bay. To this day, it can still be seen that the bay was once a graveyard for many sailing ships.  Courtesy of Jamie Malone

Mr Edward Jacob (1843 – 1924) of Tramore was Lloyd’s Agent in Waterford and also the local representative for the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.  He was also the Honorary Secretary for many years of Tramore RNLI. These involvements led him to have a particular interest in the hazards of the bay and to take notes and gather newspaper cuttings as well as plotting the location of shipwrecks on charts.  Starting in 1816, Mr Jacob’s records span eighty-four years of which no less than eighty-three shipwrecks occurred with the loss of four hundred and forty lives were lost.  The worst casualty was that of the Sea Horse. 2

Edward Jacob (1843 – 1924).
Courtesy of Jonathan P Wigham

The Sea Horse was a troop ship that sailed from Ramsgate in Kent bound for Cork with soldiers of the 59th Regiment and their families, who were returning from the Napoleonic Wars. In an attempt to reach the safety of Waterford Harbour, the ship found it impossible to round Brownstown Head and regrettably broke apart in Tramore Bay. To this present day, the tragedy of the Sea Horse is synonymous with Tramore and still resonates with the people of Tramore.  Records show that of the 393 people on board, 363 perished and only 30 of the strongest survived. 3

The records of the shipwrecks, starting with the Sea Horse in 1816 up until 1858 were published in the Waterford Mail on February 4th, 1858. This list had been compiled by Mr JW Maher and had been first sent to the Mayor of Waterford in response to the latest wreck in Tramore Bay and also as part of a campaign to have a dedicated lifeboat station at Tramore.  Up until that point, rescue attempts to save the lives of shipwrecked sailors fell to local fishermen and boatmen from HM Coastguard to venture out, usually in very difficult conditions.

The wreck that Mr Maher referred to was the French brig, La Capricieuse, with a cargo of coal, on a voyage from Llanelly to St Malo, with a crew of seven, which got into difficulty in Tramore Bay on January 25th, 1858.

A local newspaper described it thus:

WRECK AND LOSS OF LIFE AT TRAMORE

On Monday morning last a wreck, which was unfortunately attended with loss of life, occurred in Tramore Bay.- It appears from all that can be gathered on the subject, that a French vessel, La Capricieuse, laden with coals from Llanelly to St Malo, with a crew of seven men, had been some time previous to the catastrophe, beating outside the bay of Tramore, the sea running mountains high at the time. Shortly afterwards the vessel waterlogged, drove into the bay, and struck on Rhineshark point,remaining there in a most perilous condition. The coast guards put out in their boat to the relief of the vessel, but could not approach her; when a yawl, with four brave fishermen, put out and succeeded in reaching the vessel, the crew of which they took on board; but on her return, a heavy sea struck the yawl and upset it. At this time the coastguard boat, which had lain on its oars, came to the rescue, and taking six men on board brought them safely to the shore. She then returned and found three men holding on by the keel of the upturned boat, whom she took on board; but three who remained behind after the coastguard boat had first went to land, viz., John Fitzgerald and Thomas Crotty, fishermen and Pierre Dubois, one of the crew, had met a watery grave. Had there been a lifeboat here it is believed that all hands would have been saved. The vessel is now dry at low water. We are glad to learn a subscription list is now in course of signature for the relief of the families of the brave fishermen, who to save the lives of others, sacrificed their own.

The Waterford News of January 29th, 1858

Note:  In the Board of Trade record of Gallantry Medal Awards, there are six fishermen named as being in the yawl and not four as per the newspaper report. The crew members, who survived the capsizing of the yawl were: Michael Downey,  Edward Kelly, John Kelly, and John Dunn. They received Bronze Gallantry Medals in addition to a gratuity of £2 each. Robert Aicheson, Chief Boatman of HM Coastguard was also awarded a Bronze Gallantry Medal.

The loss of the two fishermen, who had gallantly sacrificed their own lives to save others, sent shockwaves through the local community. There was an immediate response. On the following day, January 30th, 1858, the Waterford Mail published the details of a petition sent to John E Feehan, Mayor of Waterford requesting a Public Meeting to make provision for the families of the drowned fishermen and to take steps to procure a lifeboat that would be stationed in Tramore. The notice read as follows:

To the Right Worshipful the Mayor of Waterford

We, the undersigned Residents of Waterford, and its neighbourhood, request you will convene a Public Meeting to take steps towards making some provision for the families of John Fitzgerald and Thomas Crotty, who were drowned in their attempts to rescue the Crew of the French Brig, La  Capricieuse in Tramore Bay, on Monday, the 25th Inst., ; and also, to take such steps  as may be necessary for procuring a Life Boat, to be stationed at Tramore, to prevent, as far as possible, such casualties in future.

                                                                   Waterford, 27th January 1858.

Waterford Mail. January 30th, 1858

The letter was signed by a large number of prominent citizens and merchants and Lord Mayor Feehan arranged for a public meeting to be held on February 1st in the Town Hall at 12 o’clock. The same newspaper also contained details, posted by Thomas Walsh, Auctioneer,  of the sale of the wreck of the La Capricieuse and her cargo of coal, to be held on February 2nd.

Waterford Mail, February 4th,1858.

In the Waterford Mail, dated February 4th, 1858, a Mr Dillon had a letter published in which he notes that an efficient committee had been formed at the public meeting, which had elected him as treasurer, in his absence. Mr Dillon also noted that he and Mr JW Strangman had already been collecting subscriptions for the aid of the two bereaved families. This amounted to £95 -19- 0 and when added to monies received by the editor of the Waterford Mail and the Mayor, the total amount came to £117-9-6. It is also recorded that the RNLI donated £20 to the fund set up to bring relief to the families of the two bereaved fishermen. Philip Dunphy, a local history enthusiast states that the final amount far exceeded the above figure.

A month later, in the edition of March 4th, the Waterford Mail published copies of correspondence between the Mayor Feehan of Waterford and the French Ambassador and other diplomats in London, seeking compensation for the bereaved families.  The French responses seemed to be rather pedantic. 

The committee set up to collect money to assist the families of the two drowned fishermen were successful in their appeal to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in London for a lifeboat to be stationed at Tramore.  There was an immediate response from the Institution and an inspector arrived shortly afterwards and selected a site for a lifeboat house, which was built and Tramore received its first RNLI lifeboat in January 1859, thirty feet in length,  which was unnamed.  Mr JW Maher, the compiler of the early list of wrecks in Tramore Bay, became the first honorary secretary of the lifeboat and Richard O. Johns became coxswain. Coxswain Johns would be the recipient of three RNLI Silver Medals during his time with the Tramore lifeboats. 4  

Coxswain Richard O. Johns.
Courtesy of Jonathan P Wigham

Over the next eight years, Mr Jacob records the lifeboat being launched on fourteen occasions to give aid to vessels and saving about one hundred and twenty lives. With the advent of steam, the number of shipwrecks began to decrease towards the end of the 19th century.  With the planned arrival of a new motor lifeboat ‘C & S’ (ON 690) to Dunmore East in 1925, the Tramore lifeboat was withdrawn in 1924. Tramore had to wait for forty years until 1964, when an inshore lifeboat station was established and has given outstanding service since that time.

One wonders, if any of the one hundred and twenty or so fortunate mariners that were rescued by the Tramore lifeboats, spare a thought as to how the lifeboat service that rescued them came to be established.   It was the gallantry of the two fishermen, John Fitzgerald and Thomas Crotty that caught the imagination of the people of Waterford and the surrounding area and galvanised them to successfully petition the RNLI to establish a lifeboat in Tramore Bay.

Dunmore East’s Trent class RNLB Elizabeth and Ronald (ON 1215), rounding Brownstown Head, following an exercise in Tramore Bay during 2014. This is close to the spot where John Fitzgerald and Thomas Crotty lost their lives in 1858. Photo courtesy of Neville Murphy

I first became aware of the names of John Fitzgerald and Thomas Crotty in February 2020. Along with Brendan Dunne, a volunteer crewmember from  Dunmore East RNLI, we visited the RNLI Heritage Department at Poole in Dorset to carry out research for the book Dauntless Courage.

David Carroll at the RNLI Memorial in Poole, February 2020. Courtesy of Brendan Dunne

Outside the entrance to the RNLI College, there is a memorial that honours the courage of all those lost at sea while endeavouring to save the lives of others around the United Kingdom and Irish coasts.  The names of John Fitzgerald and Thomas Crotty are inscribed on this memorial. The memorial unveiled in 2009, serves as a source of inspiration for current and future generations of lifeboat volunteers and supporters. It is a reminder that people who carry out selfless acts of heroism to help others will always be remembered.

Since then, I have endeavoured to find out more about these two brave fishermen. I have been unable to find any information on where John Fitzgerald and Thomas Crotty were buried, that is if their bodies were recovered. It is more likely that they were never found. No reports of their bodies being washed ashore could be found in an exhaustive search through newspapers by Philip Dunphy.   I am open to correction, but no plaque or memorial appears to exist in Ireland to remember these brave men. With the two hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the RNLI taking place in 2024, maybe it would be a fitting time for favourable consideration to be given to adding their names to those on the memorial in Dunmore East Harbour that commemorates all those lost at sea?  It is appreciated that such a request would be subject to certain protocols and procedures before it could be considered.

Lost at Sea Memorial, Dunmore East Harbour. Courtesy of Neville Murphy

Certain comfort can be taken that these two men are remembered at  RNLI Headquarters in Poole. Above the list of names on the Poole memorial to those who sacrificed their own lives to save others, the simple motto of Sir William Hillary is inscribed.  Sir William founded the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck in 1824. The name changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854.  The words say:

‘WITH COURAGE NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE

_______________________________________________________

Sources:

Records of Vessels Wrecked in Tramore Bay, 1816- ‘99’ by Maurice J Wigham,        Decies No 12., September 1979. http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/ejournals/100733/1007333.pdf

http://tramoreshippwrecks.blogspot.com/

Waterford News, January 29th, 1858

Waterford Mail, January 30th, February 4th, and March 4th, 1858.

‘Lifeboat Gallantry’ by Barry Cox (Spink  &Son Ltd and RNLI 1988).

References:

  1.  Dauntless Courage , page 16.
  • Information extrapolated from ‘Records of Vessels Wrecked in Tramore Bay, 1816- ’99.’
  • For more information on the wreck of the Sea Horse, please see Decies No. 71, 2015 –‘The Sea Horse 1782-1816’  by Ivan Fitzgerald.  

               4.  ‘Lifeboat Gallantry’, pages 129,145, and 148.

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Jonathan Wigham, Jamie Malone, Neville Murphy, and Brendan Dunne for their courtesy in allowing their photographs to be used.

Thanks also to Philip Dunphy of Carballymore for his local insight and assistance and also to Ivan Fitzgerald, formerly of Tramore, for information and documentation to enable me to compile the article.  Ivan has carried out extensive research on the Sea Horse tragedy, and has determined the accurate numbers of soldiers, family members, officers, and crew on board the vessel.

Historical Footnotes:

Tragedy was to strike the Fitzgerald family again, almost ninety years later. On May 1st, 1947, John Fitzgerald, aged 29 years, who had served in the Coast Watching Service at LOP 17, Brownstown Head, during World War ΙΙ, was drowned along with his father, Michael, while lobster fishing.  These men were descendants of John Fitzgerald, lost in 1858.  Please see ‘Dauntless Courage’, page 143.

Readers may find the following ‘blog’ of interest?   Phillip Dunphy can confirm that the ‘John Dunne’ referred to in the article to be the same ‘’John Dunn’ who was part of the crew of the yawl that went to the rescue of the La Capricieuse in 1858.

https://irishamericancivilwar.com/2019/10/05/an-elderly-fisherman-in-dunmore-east-remembers-his-part-in-the-american-civil-war/

Medal awarded to John Dunn – From Philip Dunphy’s Collection.