Waterford Quay

The very existence of Waterford and the quays are linked to the coming of the Vikings, who arrived in the mid 9th Century to the area.  The harbour was first seen as a staging point, from where raids could be launched inland via the Three Sisters river network of the Barrow Nore and Suir and around the coastline west of the county.

It is believed that these “Ostmen”- men from the east, settled into a new permanent home that would become Ireland’s oldest city, ‘Veðrafjǫrðr’, Waterford circa 914.  From this location, trade flourished with other Viking settlements in the UK and the European mainland.

A replica of a Viking longboat at Reginalds Tower, Waterford

Strongbow breached the city walls in 1170 and the following year the Norman King, Henry II took control of the city and much of the country.  Waterford was recognised for its strategic importance and would become a vital seaport following the Noman conquest, developing in particular trading links with Bristol, the third-largest town in England.  Protected by Royal Charters and a growing influx of merchant classes from abroad Waterford became the leading importer of wine into Ireland – a vital beverage given how poor the quality of drinking water was at the time.  Exports included wool, hides, corn, and fish. I say fish here and underline it. Fish. It’s a topic that gets very little coverage in Irish history books and in Waterford we tend to stress the Newfoundland cod fishery, but the Three Sisters abounded in fish and it was an important element in our export trade.

Henry II arrives at Waterford Oct 1171

Bubonic plague and political strife saw a decline in fortunes in the 14th Century but by the mid 15th Century trade was again rising. In 1494 Waterford earned the motto “Urbs Intacta Manet “– the untaken city, having repulsed an attempted landing by the pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck (and the earlier Simnel).  The arrival of the Huguenots in the 17th Century saw an increased trade in textiles and international links and of course gave us our Blaa!.  The provisioning of ships used in the Newfoundland cod fishery was another welcome boost, providing salt, provisions, and “green men” to work the fishery.  During this era, the city walls that had been built to protect the town were removed in part to facilitate the expansion of the port and the city quays.  A visitor in 1776, Arthur Young, described it as “the finest object in this city”

Cian Mannings Waterford City, A History Cian chose for the cover of his book Van der Hagen’s View of Waterford (1736) which shows the extent of the quay and the city open to the world in terms of trade. The original can be seen in the Bishops Palace Museum. Much of this story today draws on Cian’s wonderful work.

The 19th century would see some of the greatest changes to the port.  In 1816 Waterford harbour Commissioners were founded which would guide the developments of the port up to the present day. It took on the coordination of the port, ballast, dredging, piloting, and access – particularly the provision of faster and safer access to the city via the Ford channel.  The Commissioners needed to adapt and embrace the coming of steam power and the creation of much larger ships.  Perhaps the greatest expression of the change was the founding of the Malcomson family-controlled Waterford Steamship Company.  The family would go on to own or have an interest in, one of the largest fleets in the world.  Waterford was their base, and an expression of their confidence in the city was the creation of the Neptune Ironworks from where some of the largest and most technologically developed steamships were constructed and for which Waterford was renowned. Much of the iconic images of the city quays festooned with masts and steam funnels date from the later part of the century and is evidence of very healthy and diverse trade.

I took this photo recently in the Waterford Museum of Time – like all the Waterford museums our maritime heritage is on view, it just takes finding
The “illuminated fountain clock” so that passengers were aware of the time and the regularity of sailing times after the coming of steam power. It also provided drinking water to the horses that kept the land based activities moving.

There was more than 100 locally-owned merchant sailing ships and many others from foreign and Irish ports involved in the import and export of goods.  Almost anything made in industrial Britain could be found in the city and there were large quantities of goods such as tea, sugar, wine, spice, salt, coal, and Welsh slate arriving into port.  The exports were vast, totaling millions of pounds, much of it agriculture-based including barrels of beef and pork, sides of bacon, firkins of butter, lard, wheat, oats, and barley and flour.  Live exports were also taking place; pigs, cows, sheep, donkeys, and horses.  People of course left too; emigration was rife.

Bustling trade in the late 19th Century

The quays were festooned with ships and a myriad of work roles were evident in the city.  Ships’ captains, mates, and crewmen, more than 30 pilots to guide the ships, a small army of revenue, and customs officials to thwart smuggling and to try to ensure proper taxes were levied.  Horses and carts were required to move goods and people, drovers to lead livestock.  Ropewalks were in evidence, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, sailmakers, and shipwrights to maintain the vessels.   On the river, hobblers worked to manage the mooring of vessels, while hundreds of lightermen operated their cargo boats loading and unloading, and transhipping along with the river network to inland towns. Ships’ chandlers and provisioning stores lined the quay and streets off it and of course public houses where all could slake their thirst.

The 20th Century would witness some of the largest ever ships to grace the quays, our worst maritime tragedy in the loss of the Clyde shipping’s SS Coningbeg and SS Formby.  As the century progressed and shipping trends changed the port relocated 8km downstream to the deepwater base with onshore industrial space at Belview where the port continues to trade. 

The once-thriving quay is now a car park in every sense of the word, and let’s be honest those of us who don’t depend on a car are in the minority. But perhaps the day of the car is in the decline, or at least our pandering to it over the needs of humanity. Reclaiming the quay as a boulevard has been gaining traction and I for one would be delighted to see this happen. I would also love to see the river embraced again, for too long Waterford has turned its back on its reason to exist at all. I will borrow from Cian Mannings’s wonderful book to conclude where he quotes Luke Gernon from 1620. “Waterford is situated upon the best harbour and her beauty is in the Quay”

Hook Lighthouse gets a makeover

Last month we explored the loss of the American Sailing Ship Columbus, lost on the Hook Peninsula in 1852. The ship was wrecked on the jagged rocks, thanks in no small part to the mistaken belief that the Hook Head lighthouse was actually Tuskar Lighthouse, about 30miles to the east. That error would cause the loss of the ship and 14 passengers and crew. The Master of the Columbus Captain Robert McCerren would later express his opinion that some distinguishing marks to highlight the differences between both lighthouses, which were then both white, might have averted the tragedy.

Columbus under Captain McCerren was sailing in southerly gales and thick weather and as a consequence, the Master could not get a fix on his actual location. On January 6th, 1852 he spotted a lighthouse, and thinking it was the Tuskar he sailed north expecting to find the Irish Sea opening out before him, but instead found Ballyteige Bay!

Ballyteige Bay accessed from https://www.southwexfordcoast.com/monitoring-in-ballyteige-bay/

Discussing the matter with Pete Goulding of Pete’s Irish Lighthouses renown recently, he reminded me that normally complaints were made about the lack of visibility of lighthouses at daytime.  As Pete explained, “…the lights were frequently obscured because they were sited at too high an elevation when they were often shrouded in mist or low cloud – Wicklow Head, Inishmore, Cape Clear, the Bailey at Howth – to name four – all had to be replaced lower down.”

The lighthouses of Hook and Tuskar were both painted white, but had different shapes and showed different lights, but unfortunately for Captain McCerren with the fleeting glimpse he got, perhaps it confirmed what he expected to see, not what the reality was. 

Hook at the time of the tragedy. George Victor Du Noyer sketch.

Although after the wreck the Harbour Commissioners held several meetings in Waterford to discuss the event by the Harbour Commissioners, the matter of the lighthouse error did not seem to arise.  Captain McCerren’s account of the wreck was widely circulated, however, prompting a letter from a Welsh Master Mariner, John Moore of Swansea to the local papers.  The Waterford Chronicle (Saturday 31 January 1852) published his letter in full and at the outset, he reproached any who dared blame the captain for the tragedy “…The vessel, it appears, made the land a few miles to the Northward of where it was expected, or should have done (not to be wondered at after being thirteen days without an observation); and, consequently, mistook the Hook for Tuskar.  From this circumstance, parties, as usual, seem inclined to throw the blame on the unfortunate Captain, who has been a heavy loser by the fatal occurrence.  However, those persons show their utter ignorance of nautical affairs, as it happens that sea is not their business, whether he erred or not in that particular…”

It seems that the RNLI also agreed on the matter of distinguishing the lighthouses.  In a report issued into wrecks and lifesaving operations for 1852 a very detailed account of the Columbus is given and the matter of the confusion, notwithstanding the differences in design and location that some might think apparent, is shown much sympathy.

The Institution demanded some resolution to the potential for confusion.  A distance of 30 miles between lighthouses after a transatlantic journey it reasoned was nothing.  It argued that the lighthouses should be given some distinguishing character – suggesting that the painting of either with vertical or horizontal bands of black and white or indeed any other manner that the Ballast Board could think of.  Indeed the issue had, it is claimed in the report, long been pointed out to the Ballast Board.

Pete Goulding did find another historical reference.  In the Naval Magazine and Nautical Chronicle of 1849 confusion with lighthouse identification appears to be a regular matter of concern. Mr. R Hoskyn (Richard I would imagine who later wrote the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland) writes and offers an experience to add to the cause.  It concerns a West Indiaman sailing vessel which in hazy weather conditions, mistook Hook for the Tuskar and sailed into Ballyteige Bay in exactly the same manner as the Columbus.  A local fisherman received a reward of £5 for acting as a pilot and directing the vessel back to safer waters.

Source: Naval Magazine and Nautical Chronicle of 1849. Clipping courtesy of Pete Goulding

It was 1859 before the matter was finally dealt with, and in the wisdom of the Board, Hook was chosen for a makeover.  As Pete Goulding remarked to me “Took them seven years but that was pretty quick for the procrastinators supreme”

Hook Head Lighthouse with its three red bands. Image courtesy of Liam Ryan.

In autumn 1859 the following notice appeared in a wide range of newspapers both in Ireland and abroad.  (I’m posting it here if full, as I think the details are worth having. Apologies to those who like a snappy version)

BALLAST OFFICE. DUBLIN. Sept. 29, 1859.
Notice to mariners.
IRELAND—SOUTH COAST.
HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE.
The Port of Dublin Corporation hereby give NOTICE, that on (or shortly before) the 1st day of December, 1859. the HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE, on the East side of the entrance to WATERFORD HARBOUR, will, In order to render it a better day mark, be coloured with RED BELTS, and its top also will be coloured RED.
Specification given of position and appearance of this Tower by Mr Halpin, Superintendent of Lighthouses.
Hook Tower Lighthouse is on the outer end of Hook Point, in Lat. 52 deg. 7 min 25 sec N., and long. 6 deg. 35 min. 53 sec. W. The building. 110 feet in height from its base to top of its dome, is cylindrical from the bottom to the lower gallery on which the fog bells are set. The main shaft of the tower will be marked with three horizontal RED BELTS, each 10 feet in height and spaced 9 feet apart; and the lantern dome also will be coloured RED. The remainder of the tower will be coloured WHITE.
The painting of these three red belts will be proceeded with at the same time. The work will commenced at the South-West side of the tower, and will continued from this point around until completed, when the lantern dome will coloured.
Bells are tolled during foggy weather.
CAUTION.—The entrance to Waterford Harbour is marked on its Eastern side by the Hook Tower Lighthouse, a single conspicuous tower. Tramore Bay. the next bay to the westward, is marked by TWO TOWERS on BROWNSTOWN HEAD. its Eastern point, distant 6½ sea miles from the Hook Point; and by THREE TOWERS on Great Newtown Head, its Western point. Mariners are cautioned to avoid the dangerous indraft of the latter bay.
By Order, WILLIAM LEES, Secretary.

But even with three red bands, the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland 1877 – still cautioned about mistaking the Hook for Tuskar. Hook would later lose its 3 red bands for 2 black ones and three white ones. The date that is generally agreed for this is 1933.  Sadly I can’t find any notice of this, however, (snappy readers might rejoice) but it is on the Irish Lights literature, Pete Goulding agrees, and so does my go to guy for all things historical around the Hook, Liam Ryan.

I am not why they thought the change was necessary. But since the publication of this story, I had the good fortune to be loaned a copy of the late John Young’s A Maritime and General History of Dungarvan. On page 35 John describes in terrific detail the loss of the Cirilo Amoros at Stradbally in February 1926 and he wrote that the crew of the steamer which had no sightings for several days got a glimpse of the Hook and thought it was a lighthouse on the Welsh coast.

Now it’s only a historical footnote, but relevant nonetheless to the fate of the Columbus.  What if Tuskar was never built!? Would it have helped our Captain McCerren that fateful January afternoon in 1852? You see in December 1811 the Waterford Chamber of Commerce (at that time the maritime matters of Waterford were managed jointly within this body) wrote to the Ballast Board stating that the Saltee Islands would be a better position for, the then proposed, Tuskar lighthouse.  The Ballast Board disagreed however and Tuskar was built and became operational in 1815.

If you would like to know more about lighthouse makeovers, Pete Goulding has a blog on the topic.

My thanks to the time, expertise and generosity of Pete Goulding and Liam Ryan for this blog post. I can honestly say I would not have been able to bring it together without their assistance. All errors and omissions are my own. For my regulars who want to know the last piece of this story – the blaming of the Dunmore East pilots and the fallout – a story I have researched but might hold off for a while yet before publishing.

Loss of the Stowell Brown

On This Day in 1884 the fully rigged sailing ship Stowell Brown came to grief on the sand bar above Creaden Head, one of several ships caught out in a terrific February storm almost 140 years ago. A regular and popular guest contributor to our page, David Carroll has the story.

The Irish coastline suffered severe weather during February 1884. The Waterford Standard of February 13th, 1884 described the storm on the previous day as being one of the severest that hit the Waterford area for years. The newspaper reported that high tides were experienced, and flooding was widespread. Fields at Kilbarry in Waterford City were underwater. At Tramore, the weather was equally severe, with a considerable portion of the storm wall washing away.

The newspaper also reported that a large four-masted vessel, name unknown, had gone ashore off the Wexford coast and that the steamship SS Waterford, which had passed the stricken vessel was unable to render any assistance due to the severity of the weather. On arrival at Waterford, Captain Pearn of the steamship immediately informed Lloyd’s Agent of the sailing ship’s plight. We now know that this was the Earl of Beaconsfield [which we featured before].

Earl of Beaconsfield following salvage at Buttermilk Castle close to Cheekpoint. Poole. Andy Kelly Collection

The SS Lara, belonging to the Waterford Steamship Company, caused considerable anxiety in the city as she was very much overdue on her passage from Liverpool. The vessel departed from Liverpool on the previous Friday morning and did not reach Waterford until 2 o’clock on Monday, being towed into port by the tug Dauntless. Having been at sea for about nine hours, the ship lost the power of one of its boilers and became disabled.  The Waterford Standard newspaper brought news of the overdue voyage, reporting that a hurricane was blowing at the time and a very high sea ran all day on Saturday followed by a gale on Saturday night. The newspaper went on to extol the intrepidity of Captain Walsh and his crew, reported not to have left the deck during the three days that the perilous voyage lasted.

But that was not the end of the dramatic events at sea during that storm. On the same day that the Waterford Standard was being read throughout the city and environs came news of a further maritime mishap in Waterford Harbour.  The Creadan Head coastline and the nearby notorious Duncannon Bar, a scourge to sailing vessels for many years, was to claim yet another victim; the Stowell Brown.

Stowell Brown was a wooden sailing ship of 1370 tons and over 200 feet in length, built in St Martins, New Brunswick, Canada in 1873 and was registered at St John in New Brunswick. Her master was Captain Alfred Kimble Smith. The Stowell Brown was described as a full-rigged ship. It appears that the name of the ship was in recognition of Hugh Stowell Brown, born in the Isle of Man in 1823, a Baptist Minister, renowned preacher, and social reformer. He was known for his public lectures and work among the poor in the seafaring city of Liverpool.  He died in 1886. A statue in his memory, originally erected in Liverpool, shortly after his death, was restored and re-sited in 2015 at Hope Street in the city.

Baptist preacher Hugh Stowell Brown, Wikimedia Public Domain Image

In early 1884, the Stowell Brown sailed in ballast from Liverpool and loaded a large cargo of coal in Penarth, near Cardiff bound for Rio de Janeiro.  The Waterford Standard, on Saturday, February 16th, 1885, described her ill-fated voyage as follows:

WRECK OF THE STOWELL BROWN

With regard to this vessel which sank at the mouth of the harbour on Wednesday evening, inquiries have elicited that the ship left Cardiff for Rio de Janeiro on the 5th instant, with a crew of 23 hands all told under the command of Captain Smith. After leaving the port , very severe weather was experienced. The wind blowing a very stiff gale from southwest. The ship experienced the full effects of the weather and is reported to have made about two feet of water during the passage. The crew  had great difficulty in managing the ship, the hands being greatly occupied with working the pumps. Seas of a heavy character broke over the ship at intervals and added much to the perils of the crew, who were in occasional danger of being swept away. The weather continued so boisterous and the ship laboured so heavily that the captain at length decided to run for Queenstown Harbour (now Cobh), which he expected to be able to make. On Wednesday morning, however, the Saltees lightship [1]was sighted, and it was then determined to run inside the Hook for shelter. The mouth of the harbour was reached in safety, and the vessel was anchored for some time. It was at this time that the pilot cutter bore down and, it is stated, directed the captain of the Stowell Brown to follow in its wake.  The ship did follow and shortly afterwards ran aground on the Bar. The crew stood by the vessel which did not sink for some time after. Before this happened they were all taken off by a fishing boat. Most of them lost all effects. On arriving at Waterford, their wants were attended to by Mr Edward Jacob, local agent to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.

The Waterford Standard of Wednesday, February 20th, 1884 carried the following advertisement:

Courtesy of Mr Brian Ellis, Hon. Librarian, National Maritime Museum

At this stage, the Earl of Beaconsfield had been towed to the safety of Buttermilk Point further up Waterford Harbour from where the Stowell Brown had been lost. The two wrecks had obviously created a great deal of local interest. The Waterford Standard, in the same issue,advised its reader about an excursion from Waterford to view the wrecks would take place:

Trip Round the Wrecks: – We observe that the Waterford Steamship Company’s steamer Ida will start for a trip around the wrecks, to Creadan Head and back, to-day at eleven o’clock. The fare charged is moderate, and a good number is sure to avail themselves of the opportunity of viewing the scenes of the recent shipping disasters in the harbour.

Perhaps the busiest person in Waterford at the time was Mr Edward Jacob,[2] Lloyd’s Agent, representative of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.   An ironmonger by trade and a member of the Society of Friends, Mr. Jacob was from one of the many well-known entrepreneurial Quaker families living in Waterford. Altruistic deeds such as taking care of distressed seafarers would have been very much in keeping with the ethos of his religious beliefs. he same newspaper reported as follows:Shipwrecked Mariners-

The sailors belong to the “Earl of Beaconsfield” and the “Stowell Brown” to the number of fifty-eight, one woman, and one child, had their wants well attended to by Mr. Edward Jacob, hon. Secretary at Waterford to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, who had them comfortably lodged at Mrs Ryan’s, the Quay, and Mrs Delaney’s, Bailey’s New Street, during their stay in Waterford. On Friday the first batch of them was forwarded to Liverpool and on Saturday another portion of them proceeded to Glasgow. On Friday, Saturday and up to last night, when the last of them left Waterford, parties of the men were sent to Cardiff and Swansea.

A newspaper report, dated February 26th, 1884, headlined ‘CASUALTIES AT SEA’, gave the following information:

London, Monday. – The Board of Trade have requested their solicitor to take steps for holding formal investigations into the circumstances connected with the stranding of the ship Stowell Brown, of St John’s N.B., near Creadan Head, Waterford harbour on the 13th inst.; the abandonment of the ship Earl of Beaconsfield, of Glasgow, off Fethard, County Wexford, on the 13th inst.; the loss of the steamer Emily of Sunderland, on Brigg’s Reef, County Down, on Feb 11.[3]

The Board of Trade Inquiry into the stranding and loss of the Stowell Brown opened on March 7th, 1884 at St George’s Hall, Liverpool with Mr Raffles, the stipendiary magistrate, assisted by two nautical assessors, named as Captains Ward and French.  Mr Paxton appeared to conduct the inquiry on behalf of the Board of Trade, and Mr Squarey (instructed by Messrs Forshaw and Hawkins) represented the master of the vessel, Captain Alfred K Smith. Mr Allingham, clerk to the Waterford Harbour Commissioners, watched the inquiry on behalf of that body.

The following reported evidence has been extracted from the Liverpool Journal of Commerce, dated March 8th, 1884:

She left Liverpool on the 8th of January and went to Cardiff, where she loaded a cargo of 2,094 tons of coal, and sailed on the 6th of February, bound for Rio de Janeiro, with a crew of 22 hands. Some days afterwards the weather became extremely stormy, and on the 10th, whilst wearing, a heavy sea broke on deck, smashing two of the boats and doing other damage. The captain then decided to run into Queenstown, but finding the wind heading him he changed course and ran for Waterford Harbour, thinking to shelter there until the storm abated, and to proceed to Queenstown afterwards. He anchored about three miles from the bar of the harbour, with two cables down, and, according to his own evidence, whilst so at anchor a pilot boat came up and warned him not to remain there, but to slip his cables and run into the harbour. Having doubt in his own mind as to whether there would be water sufficient to enable him to cross the bar, he asked the pilot boat particularly on this point, and received an answer that there was plenty of water, and that his vessel and all on board would be lost if he remained where he was. Upon that assurance, he slipped his cables and ran for the harbour, but before properly reaching the bar itself the vessel touched the ground in the “dip” of a heavy sea, and ten minutes afterward went hard aground, where she speedily became a wreck. No lives were lost.

The master was the only witness examined yesterday, and it was intimated that his evidence as to the statement alleged to have been made by the pilot boat would be contradicted by the pilots themselves.

The inquiry concluded on Monday, March 10th, 1884 and the following is extracted from the reported judgement delivered by Mr Raffles:

The Court considered that the master, having made up his mind to go into a port, committed an error of judgement in not attempting to get into Queenstown, being within so short a distance, the wind being fair and the night clear. The anchorage at the mouth of Waterford Harbour was too exposed to be safe or proper with a gale from the southward or westward, and, unless the last resorted, the master should not have attempted it. The Court considered that the master of the pilot cutter, under the circumstances, might have been quite justified in refusing to send a pilot on board the Stowell Brown as she lay at anchor. He led her up the harbour and sent a pilot on board as soon as he could. The evidence at this point was contradictory. The Court was inclined to think that the account of what had passed when the pilot cutter hailed the ship, as told by the master of the cutter and the pilot, confirmed to some extent by the cook and steward of the ship, was more correct than the account given by the master and mate of the ship. It might be that the master did not, in the opinion of the Court, take proper measures in navigating her up the harbour. The Court decidedly thought that he was not justified in refusing the assistance of the tug. On a careful review of the whole evidence, the court concluded that the ship had not struck when the pilot boarded the vessel and, if so, the master was certainly not justified in refusing his assistance. The Court considered that the errors of the master in the navigation of his ship up to the time when he slipped his cable at the entrance of Waterford Harbour were errors of judgement only, but they pronounced him in fault in not accepting the assistance of the pilot and tug in the navigation of his vessel up the harbour, his anchors and cables being gone. Even if the vessel had taken the ground, as the master stated, before the pilot came on board or the tug offered assistance, he was wrong in refusing their offers. The Court suspended his certificate for six calendar months and acquitted the master of the pilot cutter. The master of the Stowell Brown was offered but declined a mate’s certificate during the period of suspension.[4]

That was not quite the last matter to be reported on the Stowell Brown. At the monthly meeting of the Waterford Harbour Commissioners held on April 7th, 1884, it was noted that the pilot committee had received a bill of £240 from the firm of Messrs Jute, Coulson, and Co. for blowing up the Stowell Brown.  The amount was agreed to be paid, minus a 5% discount.[5]


[1]  This lightship was better known as ‘Coningbeg’.

[2]  Mr Jacob, (1843- 1924) who lived at ‘Ardview’, Tramore, was also Honorary Secretary of Tramore Lifeboat. He had a particular interest in the hazards of Tramore Bay, and this led him to make notes and gather news cuttings connected with local shipping. An article based on his records, entitled, ‘Records of Vessels Wrecked in Tramore Bay, 1816 – ’99’’, written by Maurice J Wigham, appeared in ‘Decies’ No 12, September 1979.

[3] Belfast News-Letter, February 26th, 1884.

[4]  Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, Tuesday, March 11, 1884.

[5]  Waterford Standard, Wednesday, April 9, 1884

The Columbus Calamity. Hook Head January 1852

On Tuesday 6th January 1852 the American sailing ship Columbus went ashore to the east of Hook Lighthouse and was wrecked. Despite the efforts of those onshore 14 were lost including three female passengers. It was arguably an avoidable tragedy but as is often the case in these circumstances, the fates seemed to conspire to see the noble ship meet her doom in the graveyard of 1000 shipwrecks.

The aftermath of this incident was felt far and wide but none more so than in the locality. However this story focuses on the event as seen through the eyes of Captain Robert McCerren, Master of the Columbus. Residing in the Imperial Hotel in Waterford for some weeks after, he handled the salvage of the vessel’s cargo of cotton bales and he also provided his own analysis of why the Columbus was lost, appearing before a number of sittings of the Harbour Commissioners and writing to the press.

McCerren was operating for the American company Black Star Line out of Liverpool. In 1848 he had been given command of their new ship Columbus, having previously served as Master on their vessel America. The Columbus was advertised at that time as offering the best in accommodation and care -particularly to those escaping the Irish famine. The company ran as many as 18 ships. The vessels were described as American Packet Ships and the phrase “Queens of the Western Ocean” was coined in recognition of their speed and sailing ability.

I could not find a photo of Columbus unfortunately. But this is another ship of the Black Star line Cornelia

The Waterford Mail of Wednesday 14 January 1852 reprinted a letter written by Captain McCerren into the circumstances of the loss.

Waterford, Jan 10th 1851
Messrs Washington Jackson & Sons, LIVERPOOL.
Gentlemen— lt is my painful duty to inform you of the loss of the ship Columbus under my command, 28 days from New Orleans, to your address ; in consequence of heavy gales from South, and thick weather, I was unable to get an observation after passing long. 13.50 W. and 49.20 N., on the 6th whilst running for Tusker.

At 5 p.m. I made the Hook lighthouse, and from being unable to see the land it had the appearance of Tusker. At half-past 5 saw the light and found that we were embayed. I then hauled to Southward, but could not weather Saltee’s light ship. I then wore and stood to westward and weathered the Hook light, thus having the harbour of Waterford fairly open, stood across the bay to Dunmore, discharging rockets every three minutes for a Pilot, and was seen by many persons from the pier of Dunmore, this being the proper pilot station.

Finding no pilot I was obliged to wear and stand off, and in endeavouring to weather the Hook light was forced by heavy rollers on the rocks ; during the time it was blowing a gale and heavy sea, driving on the iron bound coast I cut away the anchor before striking, to keep the ship’s head to sea. When the ship struck at 9. p.m. 1 was so near that I hailed the people shore, and was answered.

I despatched a boat in hopes of getting a line shore, but she was capsized, and the mate and two men saved and one drowned. In attempting to lower the life boat she was dashed to pieces against the ship. I then cut away the mast, and the ship held together until 5, a.m. when the bottom and top separated soon after broke amidships carrying away the stern frame, and with Edward Simmons, third mate, and two men, who were lost.

The Imperial Hotel, where the current Tower Hotel stands in Waterford. Photo via Simon Dowling from  “Beauty spots in the south east of Ireland ” 1901. Posted to the Waterford History Group Facebook page.

We then secured the ladies to a portion of the wreck. About this time ten persons were near me, the second mate assisting me in holding the ladies—the last piece fell over on us, and but four persons and myself were washed onto the rocks. Of the crew eight seamen, names unknown, Edmond Simmons, of New York, third mate, are lost, passengers, four in number, all lost—names are, Mrs. Falcon, Workington, Miss Clementina Burke, from the Island of Ascension, her way to Portsmouth, two steerage passengers, names unknown.

I feel it my duty to state, that, though no assistance was rendered from the shore, for want of means, to project a line or life boat, by which all could have been saved, as the ship held together for eight hours, every was made at the risk of life, by the people on shore, assisting all who reached the rocks, and immediately carried them to the houses, and bestowed every care and attention that could he given. I must mention, particularly, Mr. Harwood, of the coast guard, Doctor Hamilton, of H. M. Cutter, the Sparrow, Mr. Breen and Mr. Carroll, keeper of the light, and his assistant. More active benevolence could not have been exercised—the warmth of feeling and hospitality will ever he remembered by me.
Yours respectfully,
Robert McCerren
P.S. —To add to the distress of all on board the moon became totally eclipsed at the moment of breaking up.

McCerren also wrote a letter to the Editor of the Waterford Mail:

Sir —Permit me, through the medium of your paper, the privilege returning thanks the Rev. Peter Dunn. of Templetown, for his untiring exertions, in his clerical capacity, in restoring lost property, preventing plunder from the wreck of the ill-fated vessel commanded by me.
With much pleasure I publicly mention an extraordinary act honesty the part of James Breen, of Herrylock, a poor boy, who picked up, unperceived, a small bag of American gold, which he returned to me in the presence of his pastor, the Rev. Mr. Dunn.
By the insertion of the above, you will do an act of justice, and oblige
Your obedient servant.
Robert McCerren,
Master of the late US. ship Columbus.
Commercial Hotel Buildings,
January 13, 1552.

The Mail added this paragraph to the Captains letter:

“The following is, we understand, a list of the persons lost the Columbus: 3 ladies, passengers, 2 Irish sailors; 2 Dutch sailors; 2 Scotch sailors; 3 American sailors; 1 English sailor, and two steerage passengers (male and female)”[AD This was an error in the report as far as I can find out, one of the lady passengers mentioned above, from Waterford, elsewhere named only as Mary was in steerage, as was her nephew who she had travelled to America to bring home] “one of whom was on his passage home from California to the neighbourhood of Waterford.”

Aftermath

There’s a lot in this story to digest. You can’t help wonder is this a case of what is described as getting your own version out into public before other accounts emerge. McCerrens original miscalculation with the lighthouses seems to have cost him his job, however. In 1853 he was on the Defiance [A rather appropriate name given his personality?!] where he was involved in an altercation with the Peruvian Navy while collecting a cargo of Guano from the Chincha Islands.

In subsequent weeks the events associated with the wreck were foremost in many people’s minds and the results were far-reaching. The conduct of the pilots was a matter of investigation by the Harbour Board with a war of words in local papers too. But the reality was that having sailed into harbour near low water on a spring tide, there was little the pilots could do for a sailing ship of this size, and this would be bourn out – despite the fact that the pilots were generally the whipping boys of both the Board and the press in that era. The matter of the confusion between Hook and Tuskar would also be considered but would take several more years to resolve. The reaction and the impact are something I will return to at a later stage to explore.

Three Sisters Turkey Trade

Traditionally Christmas has been a time of excess when whatever you were celebrating was marked by feasting and making merry.  Turkey originated in Europe with the early explorers returning from America with breeding pairs.  The large bird became a favourite for feasting and special occasions.  The industrial revolution led to an increase in demand as more and more families’ incomes rose.  Turkey, a large, meaty bird, provided an excellent option to feed large hungry families. The imported birds quickly adapted to the new climate and quickly established themselves on Irish farms, principally for an export market of the large industrial cities of Scotland, Wales, and England.  This article paints a picture of what the local scene looked like in the opening decade of the 20th Century.

Waterford Quays in the early 20th Century were heaving under the weight of fowl lining the busy streets of the town.  The city was utilising its location and thriving coastal trade links to the UK to service a voracious market within hours of the city, supplied from the conduits of the rivers, roads, and the train lines that radiated towards the city quays.

A Fowl Trade

A local paper gives a sense of this trade in 1907 with a roundup of the local suppliers and their activities.  The firms included Messrs Flynn and Young of Conduit Lane, W Street of Beau Street, Messrs C J Hill, King Street (Now O’Connell St).  Prices vary from each firm for the birds, but for a sense of the variety on offer and the price here’s what Street & Co are paying: Cock turkeys, from 12s to 25s per pair; hen turkeys, 9s to 11s per pair; geese,  9s to 11s per pair; chickens, 4s to 4s 8d per pair, and ducks 4s 6d per pair.[I] 

A load of Turkeys outside the Flynn & Young premises in Conduit Lane. AH Poole photo originally via Val Flynn

Although the market includes the local, a significant amount is for export to Scotland, Wales, and England.  An estimated 25,000 turkeys have already been processed in Waterford that year  – killed, cleaned, plucked, and trussed.  Some were also sent abroad as presents.  According to the article, the quality of the Irish turkey exceeds that on offer from the continent or Russia and prices are good to the women on the farms of the surrounding countryside.[ii]

An internal shot of the Flynn & Young Premises with a large supply of salmon laid out on the left, suggesting it is summertime. Note a block of ice suspended overhead. AH Poole photo NLI

Each of the companies seems to have a different focus and it seems geese are making a better price this year but had slumped previously due to cheaper imports from Russia.  The farm women had got out of geese as a consequence, but due to a fall in supply from the East, geese were now in demand and prices were good for those who continued to rear them.[iii]

AH Poole photo from the NLI showing cartloads of Turkeys and other goods along the Quay of Waterford in 1907

Hill reports that, although Irish birds are meeting stiff competition from the French and Italians, (apparently because they show little care in the feeding and general treatment – but maybe that was just a bias of the journalist!), Irish reared turkeys continue to hold their own.   Irish geese, they claim, are a thing of the past.  “We are unable to compete with cheaper produce from Russia, and consequently there is neither the supply nor demand that ruled previous years”.[iv]

As I said not all these birds were for the foreign market.  A reporter of 1901 gives a sense of a vibrant scene, that would not be out of place in 2021.  “The season of Christmas is fast approaching, and the owners of business houses in the city are taxing all their ingenuity to make their respective establishments as attractive as possible. This is as true of the smallest shopfront to the monster warehouses. Fowl of every kind—geese and turkeys in particular—is very much in evidence… All the business houses in the city are arranged with excellent taste, especially those along the Quay, indicating that Christmas is to be viewed with eagerness and looked back upon with pleasure.”[v]

Adverts also highlighted a vibrant local trade as evidenced by the advert from AS Furlongs of 77 The Quay, Waterford. Waterford Standard – Saturday 20 December 1902; page 1 and below Waterford Standard – Saturday 12 December 1903; page 2
And not all that were sent abroad were specifically exports. Some were sent as presents to relatives working abroad as evidenced by this advert from the Waterford Standard – Wednesday 11 December 1901; page 2. And just like today’s retailers, Flynn & Young were keen to let local customers know that it’s best to get your orders in early to avoid disappointment.

In 1906 inmates and staff of the Waterford District Lunatic Asylum, 572 in all, were said to have “enjoyed a fine Christmas with the dining hall decorated with flowers, evergreens, and mottoes…  dinner…consisted of roast beef and mutton, turkeys and ham, potatoes and vegetables… afterward plum pudding was served…and a bottle of stout to those inmates who could take It or to whom it was allowed”[vi]

Meanwhile, at the Military Barracks, the day was celebrated with “more than the usual gusto…The fare for dinner consisted of turkeys, goose, partridges, pheasants, and roast beef and mutton, with veg of various kinds and potatoes” drink isn’t mentioned, but doubtless if flowed.[vii]

Markets and Transport

In 1907, it would appear that Messrs Flynn and Young were buying largely in Wexford.  “Several times during the past week they chartered the new steamer on the Waterford and Duncannon service, and one day alone this steamer brought 2,085 turkeys from South Wexford and district” [viii] The steamer was the SS Duncannon which due to local pressure was brought in to replace the loss of the PS Vandeleur and other ships that had connected Duncannon, Arthurstown, Ballyhack, Passage and Cheekpoint with daily sailings from 1837.  The Duncannon service would continue to 1917 when the vessel was requisitioned for war services and the service was discontinued. The turkeys were also transported via road on carts or via freight carriages on trains.

A price list for Flynn & Young, date unknown. Image courtesy of Val Flynn.

Local agents also worked on behalf of the firms, middlemen who in some cases could be rather unscrupulous as we will see below.  In New Ross a fowl market was held on a regular basis, the Paddle Steamer Ida acting as a good conduit for the transport of the birds to the city.  The PS Ida stopped running to Waterford in 1905 – the New Ross to Waterford railway had opened in 1904!) In 1903 for example the New Ross Standard reported that “The great Christmas fowl market was held in New Ross on Saturday last. Turkeys and every description of fowl were marketed in great number and good condition…The market was well attended by the Waterford, Wexford, and local buyers”[ix]

Some turkey farmers had their private clientele too as this postcard highlights sent by Mrs Pearl O’Neill nee Phelan anxious to be sure the turkey dispatched by rail had arrived safely from her farm on the Fethard Road, Clonmel, Co Tipperary. With thanks to Alan O’Neill
Patrick Kirby employed up to 300 seasonal town workers at Christmas time in Lough St, Carrick On Suir. In 1911 for example he delivered 100 tons of dead turkeys to England and on 11th December alone sent 1,000 chickens. Extra railway porters had to be employed to handle them. Photo and information supplied by Patsy Travers Mullins

In 1908 a market was held in Chaple in Wexford and was described as follows: “…was of very large dimensions, people attending with their turkeys and geese from a radius of five miles…The attendance of buyers was very good, Wexford and New Ross were well represented, and it was estimated that no less than £2,000 worth of the feathered tribe were purchased. The vicinity of the railway station was packed, and several wagons left during the day, besides many horse load by road… [a] representative of a large London poultry firm, with his New Ross agent, was in attendance also, and purchased very cautiously.”[x]  For a sense of the export business in 1908, the Waterford Chronicle reported that Flynn and Young alone, disposed of some 10,000 turkeys for the English and Scotch markets.[xi]

In 1909 we are told that Waterford poultry merchants have spent at least £10,000 in purchasing turkeys to meet that year’s demand. A good financial season is hoped for and  “…This is made more ensured now that the local railway and steamship company are offering exceptional facilities to the poultry merchants, rates having been reasonably reduced, and besides transit is now much quicker and safer than in years gone by.”[xii]

PS Ida alongside in New Ross. Andy Kelly Collection.

A flavour, if you will pardon the pun, of the scene at Ballyhack is provided by the New Ross Standard that same year:  “The turkeys are gone, but not with a vengeance. They went in carts and cars, hundreds upon hundreds of them, to Ballyhack on Monday and Tuesday last, and from thence to Waterford to undergo the death sentence in preparation for the Christmas dinners of the inhabitants of John Bull’s land. John Bull has an enormous appetite, and thousands of turkeys will go to satisfy it on Christmas and succeeding days. Everywhere you hear talk about the turkeys. They are a fertile source of gossip. It would be difficult to imagine Christmas without them. It is a pity that we cannot keep some of them for use in Ireland, and not send them all to gorge John Bull”[xiii]

In 1906 the new railway line connection to Rosslare opened up new possibilities to exporters.  However, trade continued in and out of the port city.  In December that year, Great Western Railroad Co ran the Great Southern and the Great Western on a regular basis to Fishguard and on by rail to London.  Clyde Shipping Co and Waterford Steam Ship Co also continued to trade as the advert below highlights.

Source: Waterford News Letter 8 December 1906; page 2
SS Dunbrody alongside one of Waterfords many floating hulks to avoid the notorious mud banks

Foul Trade – Crime and punishment

Given the popularity of the bird and the economic benefits, a criminal element was also associated with them.  In 1909 for example there was a crime spree reported in the Campile and Sheilbaggan districts of Wexford where no distinction between rich or poor turkey farmers was made by the perpetrators of “this reprehensible work”  The “stealers…carried on their work cleverly, stealing only a small number of birds, and extending their operations over a wide area. One poor woman had three birds ready for the market, and when she went out one morning she found that they had been stolen”  It was described as “low conduct” and  “a very mean crime”. [xiv]

In 1906 the same paper reported on two cases connected to the feathered friend, or maybe in this case fiend!  The petty sessions at Arthurstown heard of a dispute between two locals named Young and Conway who in an ironic twist, had throttled each other after a falling out about the cost of a bird.  Meanwhile, two men from Nuke – John Shea and John White had come to blows over a matter of turkey trespass. [xv] The two johnnies how are you!!

In September that same year in Fethard (On Sea had yet to be added), Ellen Jacob Ralph summoned a neighbour James Dunphy after his dog savaged her “real good turkey that was laying all the year round”  The turkey strayed “only into Dunphy’s Turnips – not in his corn” and was so badly mauled she could not even eat it. It seems no defence was put forward and Dunphy was fined a shilling and paid his neighbour 5s in compensation.[xvi]

Of course, there were other challenges for farmers; unscrupulous business practices.  At the Callan Petty Sessions in Kilkenny in January 1908 no less than four buyers were before the magistrates charged with having inaccuracies in their weighing measurements – calculated to give them a financial advantage over the producer.   Sergeant McDermott, inspector of weights and measures successfully prosecuted all four, despite their excuses, named Nolan, Lanigan, Griffin, and Costigan [xvii]

Blackguarding was just as harshly dealt with in Wexford Town.  That same January a laggard found himself before the court.  ” Why did you steal the turkey?” asked the magistrate. “Oh, it was merely due to impulse,” responded the prisoner, in an off-hand sort of way, glancing the while round the court as if he were a mere spectator. “yes, impulse is a curious thing,” responded the magistrate, musingly, after trying vainly to attract the prisoner’s attention. ” I feel an uncontrollable impulse just now to sentence you to six months. It is merely impulse, but there it is.[xviii]

Meanwhile back in Waterford turkey tangler Mrs. Mary Cullen was before the courts for using language that was described as abusive and filthy and given the season “…could not by any means be taken to convey peace and goodwill” Mrs. Cullen was delivering a load of turkeys at Messrs Flynn and Young’s in her cart when she stopped in the middle of High St., which was highly congested at the time.  When Constable Organ told her to move on, as the cart was causing an obstruction and congestion in the street, things became heated.  The case before the City Police Court was adjourned to await the next Petty Sessions court.[xix] (Where Mrs. Cullen was fined 5s and Costs!)

Husbandry

Although I can’t pretend to know much about the rearing of turkeys or the details of farm life then or now some details that I picked up from the papers may give a sense of the reality of the time.  The work seems to have been an aside for the women of the farms, and as such probably represented their only income stream independent of their husbands.

The work was difficult, particularly when the birds were younger.  In 1902 the New Ross Standard gave this description. “Turkey poults are notoriously delicate during the very early stages of their growth. They are very dainty feeders and require to be very carefully watched and very frequently fed if successful results are to be achieved with them. During the first few days of their existence, they should be supplied with hard-boiled eggs broken into small pieces and given in conjunction with a little biscuit meal or common bread worked into a crumbly mass either with boiling water or hot skim milk. Care should be taken not to give the meal or bread to the young birds in a soft sticky condition. Like other fowls, they do much better when the food is given rather in the form of a crumbly mass than of a soft paste”[xx] 

And of course, if you managed to get them from the hand-reared stage, you had to be constantly vigilant – including as we saw from straying into neighbouring fields! But also from illness.  But there was something to be bought for this too.  The New Ross Standard tells us of a “…certain cure for Gape in Chickens and Turkeys. Hundreds cured with one shilling tin. Sold by W. G. Williams, Quay-street, New Ross.[xxi]

Many farmer wives seem to have kept their own breeders to ensure a regular supply, but they could also be bought as this advert suggests.  New Ross Standard – Friday 11 September 1908; page 1
The aforementioned Mrs Pearl O’Neill nee Phelan was obviously a progressive farmer. Buying in an incubator to ensure healthy new chicks made it to adulthood. Although not visible, the postmark is dated 1912. With thanks to Alan O’Neill

And it seems there was also advice to be had, at least in 1908.  At the monthly meeting of the County Committee of Agriculture in Kilkenny, a report was given about poultry instruction in the county by Miss J. M. Campbell, Poultry Instructress.  She reported that she had been busy providing lectures around the county, making “…periodical inspection of the 17 egg, 22 turkey, and 3 goose stations in the county, and visiting poultry-keepers in the vicinity of these stations…”[xxii] I know absolutely nothing about this detail at all, was it in other counties? What is a turkey station?  Or what form the lectures took?  I’m sure they must have targeted the farm women – as I would doubt the men would take instruction from Miss Campbell in the era?

In a follow-up comment on the published story, Tony Molloy reminded me that there was a poultry and dairy school run by the St. Louis Sisters in Ramsgrange as part of the Home Economics College. The college started in May 1871 and continued into the 1970s. And it was not just for locals, it took in boarders from all over Wexford, Waterford, and beyond.

And of course, the economic benefits were clear to see for the farm wife as this advert proclaims New Ross Standard – Friday 29 November 1907; page 6

Conclusion

Although the trade in turkeys and other fowl was a vibrant one, it might be easy to conclude that the port trade was flourishing as a result in that opening decade.  At that stage however, rail was providing competition which was increased further when the SW Wexford line linking Waterford to the new port facilities at Rosslare opened in 1906.  Although large beasts such as pigs, cows, and horses would continue to be transported from the quay, exporters favoured rail for the lighter produce of fowl.[xxiii]

The local market must have continued to be small, for example, my mother and father rarely if ever ate Turkey in their childhoods in Ireland of the 40s and 50s.  It was, however, firmly part of our childhood in the late 1960s early 70s.  I can also remember some of my more wealthy friends having the bird at Easter, something I thought was an amazing extravagance.  But maybe that family was just ahead of the wave.  It’s now commonly available as sandwich filler and all manner of fowl can be had from the frozen goods section of supermarkets throughout the year.  Who knows what the future holds.  Meat-free turkey breast anyone?

My thanks to Val Flynn who assisted with some family mementos of Flynn & Young to enliven this piece. Alan O’Neill did likewise. I also got some information from Carrick On Suir via the one and only Patsy Travers Mullins. Also to Myles Courtney of New Ross Street Focus for clarifying some details. All errors and omissions are my own needless to say