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.
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.
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
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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