Ford Channel -man made gateway to Waterford Port

On last month’s blog which gave the sailing directions to Waterford City in 1790, I mentioned that I was surprised to see the Ford Channel given as an option.  This area was previously a crossing point to Little Island from the Kilkenny shore and this month I want to explore the channel, seen as crucial to the development of the port in the modern era.

Although the sailing directions to Waterford City in 1790 mention the Ford, it also stated its limitations.  The preferred deep water access was via the King’s Channel.  Although longer, winding and with dangerous stretches, it was at least navigable on most tides.  The Ford was accessible only occasionally, and I would imagine probably only really useful to the Lighters and lightermen for several centuries of our maritime history.

A video description I shot of the Ford this year.

Ford Channel is on the northern side of Little Island, separated from Co Kilkenny by the fast-flowing River Suir.   Almost certainly the Suir originally flowed around what is now the Island, when the land was part of the county of Kilkenny.  At some point, the river, as is its wont, breached the land, finding a faster route to the sea, as water always does.  The name suggests that it originates with the practice of “fording” the river or a crossing point.

Although modern charts refer to the area as the Queen’s Channel, we never, ever used this term at home.  I will come back to this.

A personal favourite image of the Ford of mine is the Guide Bank Lighthouse with the Ford on the right, Kings Channel on the left.

When the Waterford Harbour Commissioners were established in 1816 one of their key tasks was to widen and deepen the Ford Channel.  Mary Breen in her wonderful nugget of a book[i] on the establishment of the commissioners, quotes from an 1806 report of earlier work on the Ford costing £1,500 to deepen it by removing soil, mud, and sunken rocks.  However, the channel had filled with silt again.  The Board of Inland Navigation stated at the time that the King’s Channel was longer, but with much deeper water, however “…its winding course made passage difficult, and at times impossible”[ii]

After the Commissioners were formed, a loan of £10,000 was sought to develop the facilities at Waterford including the approach.  No time was lost it seems and on the 19th December 1816, a contract was signed with John Hughes of London to excavate the Ford.  The works were set to commence on May 1st the following year and to cost £14,500.  It seems the final cost was £24,588.[iii]

In 1838 the Commissioners sought a report on issues pertaining to navigation and siltation in the port and harbour from an engineer named William Cubitt.  His detailed report is outlined in the Waterford Chronicle at the time.

Cubitt states that the Ford is essential to the Port and that it needs to be deepened by at least another three feet to make it open to the largest class of ship of the era.  He also states that it might render the use of the King’s Channel almost redundant.[iv]   I find this fascinating, as it highlights that the King’s Channel was still essential to Waterford Port, and was for at least another 20 years, arguably longer.

The Munster Express of 1863 contained a large article expressing the importance of improving the Ford including the width of the channel, and that port dues should be increased to meet the cost.  Two approaches to the work are suggested, damming the upper and lower Ford and excavating by hand, or using a dredger.[v] A further article in the paper gives some specifications of what the work would look like including that the spoil should be used to create two guide banks at the lower end and reclaim almost 250 acres of land with the spoil deposited on the Kilkenny side [vi]

In Autumn 1864 newspaper advertisements were posted alerting contractors that the plans could be viewed for the Ford works in the WHC offices, and in December that year, it was secured by Patrick Moore of Limerick for the dredging of the riverbed at a cost of £15,700.[vii]

 The late Anthony Brophy gave an insight into the administrative difficulties associated with the work in February 1865, when it seems despite 6 applicants for the post of superintendent engineer to work under the consulting engineer, John Coode of London, difficulties were encountered.[viii]   

In January 1867 the contractors were looking for an extension of four months on the works.  Three reasons were communicated by Mr Coode as to why the extension should be granted.  Firstly the bottom was harder than appreciated, secondly, the weather was bad and finally, as steamers continued to use the channel, work had to be interrupted at times.  The Commissioners were less than pleased and no decision was reached at the meeting[ix]

There must have been many further twists and turns because it was May 1871 before the next phase of the Ford was completed.  The Waterford Standard[x] reported that the “…Commissioners as a body, accompanied by the members of the Corporation and the Chamber Commerce, proceeded down the river on Wednesday Iast to formally open the works. The river steamer Tintern was chartered for the purpose.”

An image from the 1890s highlighting the proposed works and what was completed. Accessed from Waterford History Group Facebook Page and posted originally by Vinny O’Brien

The piece reported on a portion of the work completed by Messrs Jameson and  McCormack (i think this was most likely the guide bank).  The works cost £12,000, which was to be repaid with interest in annual installments spread over forty years to the treasury.  The works were supposed to take three years but had met with unexplained difficulties.  Mr Coode (Consulting Engineer), certified that the new works had created a depth of 13 feet low water spring tides. This will give a total depth of 20 feet at high water neap tides, and 24 feet at spring tides.  The dignitaries viewed the works, then proceeded downriver on the Tintern to Duncannon and had an open-air lunch at Ballyhack supplied by the Imperial Hotel.

At the opening ceremony, the Mayor made reference to naming the new opening. Having considered the “Golden Gates” – it seems the consensus was the call it the “Queen’s Channel” – after Queen Victoria I guess!  Although this name appears on navigation charts thereafter, we only ever knew it as the Ford, and this was used by the Harbour Board too – including in their Bye-Laws.

Interestingly the same paper had a number of letters expressing concern about the Ford works, with one anonymous letter writer stating that while on the Tintern he spotted the Waterford Steamship Company vessel Lara, using Kings Channel, and referring to a previous letter to the paper from none other than William Malcomson, expressing concern that the Ford was unfinished.

After this phase of development, there was much discussion about the need for a lighthouse to mark the Lower Ford, on what we call the Guide bank – a man-made wall that helps contain the river as it meets the King’s Channel off Faithlegg.  My good blogging buddy Pete Goulding has dated the erection of the light to 1878 and he gives a detailed description of the process in his blog of the same name.[xi]

In November 1929 the Harbour Board heard a plea from their chairman on the need to enhance the Ford further.   The position was outlined as follows:  “. Thirty years ago overseas steamers with maize for the port were 2,500 tons of cargo; today 5,000 tons is a small cargo, and the average size is about 7,000 tons. Coastwise tramp steamers were 200 to 500 tons of cargo: today 400 tons is a small steamer, and many coastwise steamers constantly trading with the ports are 700 tons, while some of the Clyde Shipping Company’s steamers are about 1,800 tons capacity.” [xii]

Making use of a company already on hand to deepen the North Wharf, particularly at Halls, the time was considered perfect for offering a tender for the work.  “The Committee considers this golden opportunity to carry out this essential work the Tilbury Contracting and Dredging Co. have their rock breaker, bucket- dredger, hopper, and floating workshop in Waterford, and who have given the Commissioners an enticing offer to do the work for a lump sum price of £20,500, which, they assure us, could not be done for less than £25,500 if it was not for the fact that this work if undertaken will follow immediately their other contract with the Commissioners.”[xiii]

The proposal was accepted and although I don’t know when the work commenced, it was proceeding at a pace in April but by June there was an issue.  In the Upper Ford area, Tilbury workers had found 2,400 cubic yards of rock, that an extensive survey that they completed found previously to be mud!…, it slowed the work down, and added cost.  Meanwhile, more work was required in the Lower Ford, which was not part of the original tender apparently.  It was estimated by Captain Grover that they would need to dredge 12,000 cubic yards of material to provide 17 feet of water to shipping.[xiv] 

The Tilbury vessel Queens Channel – no, I’m not making it up…Working on the Upper Ford 1930- Poole image originally posted to the Waterford Maritime History Facebook page by Michael Butch Power . You can view the original at the NLI here. The vessel above is the rock breaker Thor W6. A third vessel, the bucket dredger Beaufort was also employed on the works.

By the end of June, there was an extensive account of the works, when a large deputation went down to the Ford to inspect the rock-breaking spear and the ongoing dredging.  Speeches were made, toasts were toasted and the progress of the Port was generally felt to be secured because of the developments.[xv]  The works were completed by the end of 1930. 

SS Rathlin (#2 of that name 1905-1933) of Clyde Shipping after steering failure grounded her at the Guide Bank. The incident happened on Monday 14th July 1913 when leaving port for Glasgow. A news report states that she was undamaged and expected to float on the next high tide. AH Poole photo, posted originally by Tomás Sullivan. WMH page

Speaking on the deck of the harbour launch that June the Chairman of the Harbour Board, M Cassin, expressed his thanks to the Tilbury dredging Co for the works, and also explained how such developments were essential to meet the growth and sophistication of modern shipping.  He gave credit to the Commissioners who had come before and for their foresight in opening the Ford and keeping it a pace with the shipping of their era.  He expressed a desire that bodies such as theirs look ahead 50 or 60 years to anticipate the needs and make plans accordingly.[xvi]

I guess in that sense, his words rang true.  The works gave access to the city for shipping up until the decision to move from the historic port in the city to the present site at Belview (Bellevue – the beautiful view).  Whether the people who made that decision were looking far enough ahead is still to be seen.

Interested in talk of rivers and rivermen, join me on Nov 4th to explore the Lightmen’s trade on the St Johns River. You can book on Eventbrite or email me to say you are coming please – in case of cancellation.
I’m speaking at the annual Booze, Blaas n Banter gig in Jordans on Saturday 28th Oct

My thanks to David Carroll for providing assistance with this article.


[i] Breen. Mary.  Waterford Port and Harbour 1815-42.  2019.  Four Courts Press.  Dublin

The Duncannon Lighthouses

A guest Blog by Pete Goulding. Last month I mentioned in the story about 1790 navigation into Waterford that my good blogging buddy Pete was working on a story of the lighthouses at Duncannon. It’s one of those stories I always wanted to tell, but let’s face it, when it comes to lighthouses Pete’s the man, certainly in an Irish context. So over to Mr Irish Lightouses!

Reposing in the shadow of Hook Head (not literally, except during very peculiar astronomical events), the lights of Duncannon Fort might not enjoy the limelight of its illustrious neighbour but it has an interesting history nonetheless.

The Lighthouse at Duncannon Fort. Commissioners of Irish Lights

The problem for shipping bound for Waterford in the 1700s was that, having breathed a huge sigh of relief on rounding Hook Head, they then got caught out by a nasty bar just south of Duncannon Fort. Not the sort that sells frothy pints and stale pies, but a sand bar, lying from one shore of the Suir to the other. A French visitor in 1784 wrote that it was the only natural obstacle to the harbour, with a draft of only 13 feet at low tide. Sayer’s Sailing Directions (1790) – the full title is the length of a short story in itself – clarifies this by saying that the thirteen feet only applies to low tides when accompanied by a northerly wind. The only feasible crossing place for this bar was on the Wexford side of the river at a place only 600 feet (a cable length) wide.

The narrow channel off Duncannon Fort is clearly shown here from Sayers Chart (1787)

The above-mentioned publication also gives two methods of crossing the bar in 1790. One was to line up Newtown’s Trees and Hogan’s House, which must have had many a foreign sea-captain scratching his head. The other was to keep the two lights in line.

The Lighthouse Digest[1] suggests a date of 1774 for the foundation of a light station in the fort, as does a handwritten note in a 1930s Commissioners of Irish Lights ledger. Certainly, the lights were there by 1790, as per Sayer’s above. However, a Notice to Mariners[2] for 1791 states that “a new lighthouse” would be established on 29th September of that year. The two lights, one above the other, would shine like “two stars of full magnitude” and, when the fort was passed, only one light would show.

This would seem to indicate that the 1791 lighthouse, with its two lights, one above the other, superseded an older arrangement, maybe a light from a fort window or flat roof lined up to a perch on the coast, probably coal fires. The 1791 light was, almost definitely, the first of its kind in Ireland, with its two lights in one tower. The lights incidentally were white and fixed and powered by three Argand lamps. They could be seen for 8¼ miles. The tower was 25 feet tall and the top light sat 53 feet above high water.

Duncannon Fort Light – Pete Goulding Collection

The notion of having a lighthouse in a military installation was not new, however. The first light at what became the site of Charlesfort on the approach to Kinsale was at Barry Og’s castle in 1665. When the castle was destroyed, the light shone from a window in the newly built Charles Fort. Similarly, Rosslare Fort at the entrance to Wexford harbour also had a lighthouse. Not only did this move safeguard the lighthouse from vandalism by forces who saw the harvest of shipwrecks as a God-given right, but the Commissioners of Barracks were made responsible for lighting Ireland’s shores from 1767 to 1796. As such, they killed two seagulls with one cannonball.

Funding for the light was not straightforward. An allowance was given to the Lighthouse Superintendent Samuel Newport but he had to convene a hurried meeting with the Waterford merchants and shipowners in 1793 as the money was practically gone!

Duncannon Fort was one of fourteen coastal lights that were handed over to the Ballast Board (the precursor of Irish Lights) when that body was charged with lighting our shores in 1810. According to Engineer John Swan Sloane (writing in 1880) the cost of repairing, converting and upgrading the light at the time was £845 10s 6d[3].

By 1832, the lights were paying their own way, costing £83 for maintenance and salary per year, and taking in £308 in light dues, out-performing all other harbour lights, except Poolbeg, and indeed many sea lights such as Loop Head and Clare Island.

Duncannon North Lighthouse. Commissioners of Irish Lights

In the 1830s, a new light was erected at Duncannon North (Blackhead), though one suspects this had more to do with the situation at Roches Point at the mouth of Cork Harbour. Basically, it was decided the small light there was too insignificant for such an important headland, so they decided to build a new one and move the old lighthouse somewhere else. Duncannon North came to mind and so the new light, half a mile to the north of the Fort, was established on 1st June 1838., after being transported from Cork in two boats.

North Light – Pete Goulding collection

Because of this, the top light at the Fort became the front leading light, with Duncannon North as the rear leading light. The lower light at the Fort became a tide light, only showing at half-tide or less.

In 1859, the light was classed as a 3rd order catoptric lens, using prisms to concentrate the light. A red light was added in 1882.

Unfortunately, none of the names of any of those early keepers, who came to light the light, have come to light. During a Trinity House inspection cruise in 1859, though, it was reported that the keeper at the time succeeded his father in the job. As he was not required during the hours of daylight, his pay was only £21 per year, compared to his counterpart at Duncannon North, who raked in £46 per year.

The first name I could find for a lightkeeper at Duncannon Fort was one John Redmond who served there as Attendant Keeper in 1871. Through the years, the two Duncannon lights, with others such as Donaghadee, Dungarvan and Broadhaven, were regarded as handy numbers. Not for them the isolation of the rock stations, the relief in mountainous seas and the life without medicine or religion. As such, it was often regarded as a nice, pre-pension station, a reward for those who had spent their years battling the elements of inhospitable cliff faces.

North Light upclose. Pete Goulding collection

The further complication of having two keepers in Duncannon, each managing one of the lights, means that very often we do not know who was at the Fort and who was at the North light. Maybe when, or should I say if, Irish Lights ever get around to publishing their archives, we should get a better idea. But until then, there’s a lot of either / ors. (Post Publication edit: see comment from Attendant keeper Martin Kennedy below)

For example, George Brownell, 58-year-old keeper at Balbriggan, county Dublin, states on the 1901 census that he was born at Duncannon, county Wexford. His father, Michael, was a keeper and so was likely the keeper at one of the two lights when George was born in 1841.

Similarly, a newspaper report from 1881 reports that one of the keepers, Hugh Duggan, fell down the stairs of his house and was killed. The other keeper in town, Timothy O’Leary, was called as a witness.

My sincere thanks to Pete Goulding for this excellent reprise of the navigation around Duncannon. Pete is the lighthouse blogger at Pete’s Irish Lighthouses. And author of When the Lights Go Out – a detailed history of deaths associated with Irish lightkeepers and their families.


[1] https://www.lighthousedigest.com/Digest/database/uniquelighthouse.cfm?value=4866

[2] Freeman’s Journal 20th September 1791

[3] The Irish Builder 15th June 1880

Sailing directions to Waterford Harbour 1790

Recently I chanced upon the 1790 sailing directions into Waterford and although it’s for a different era, it offers some fascinating insights into the practicalities, the difficulties, and the practices of navigation at a time when all sailors had was their wits and intelligence. Oh, and a fair bit of good luck too.

The new and complete Channel Pilot; or Sailing Directions for navigating the British Channel on the English and French Coasts as well as on the South West and West Coasts of Ireland – Adapted to the Sayers Charts of the Channel – Oh I will stop there – that’s just part of the title of this booklet I chanced upon recently. It dates from 1790 and two details excited me about the find. Firstly I have been doing research into the practicalities of accessing Waterford in this era and the detail contained was so illuminating. Secondly, I have the Sayers chart in my files – and the details below tally perfectly with the information provided in the map.

WATERFORD HARBOUR – is spacious and safe, having a light house on the Point of Hook, on the east side of the entrance; and after dark Two Lights more, which are put up in Duncannon Fort, 6 miles up the harbour; there is a Perch besides on the point of sand near Passage. A ridge of sand stretches quite across the Channel about 1/2 mile above Credenhead [sic], which at low spring tide has 10 feet of water, at high water, spring tide, 20 feet, and at high water, neap tide, 18 feet water. The usual place to anchor is about a quarter mile above Passage nearest the W. side in 5 or 6 fathoms water.

To fall in with Waterford Harbour, coming from the Southward of the Eastward, keep Sleanaman [Slievenamon I think?] Mountain N.E.12 N. or the Great Saltee island S.S.E> till you see Hook Light House, and stand at least a cables length or two, from the E. Point, to avoid the irregular streams of tide there.

Passage Perch – and Ballyhack Church – note Arthurstown was not yet built

To sail to the anchorage at Passage; after you are past the Hook, take flood tide or a brisk leading wind, steering for Creden [sic] Head, and keeping near a cable’s length from it [ a nautical unit of measure equal to one tenth of a nautical mile or approximately 100 fathoms] from thence steer N. by N. for Duncannon Fort, keeping half a cable’s length from it; after which steer N. on the church of Ballihake [sic] which stands on an Eminence, till you see the Perch near Passage bearing on the Town of Passage; then steer past the Town for anchorage.

In steering for Duncannon Fort, avoid the sandbanks that extend from both Shores: that on the starboard side begins at Bluff Head, and extends more than half a mile from the shore, terminating at Duncannon Fort. Between the Fort and Bluff Head is Ballystraw Bay. The opposite Sand is Drumroe Bank, which extends more than a mile from the shore, narrowing the passage abreast Duncannon Fort to about a cable’s length. The thwart mark for knowing when you are in the narrowest part of the channel is when Newtown Trees and Hogan’s House are in one; the Two Lights in a line are the leading mark through it.

Here’s the thwart mark line from Sayers Chart

Three-quarters of a mile Nortward of Creden House is a Bar which runs across E.N.E. and W.S.W. a little more than a ships length over; there are only 13 feet of water on it when Northerly winds prevail, but 26 when Southerly winds. The deepest water is nearly abreast of the lights; on the bar you have from 2 1/2 to 9 fathoms water.

There is a very good anchorage two or three miles above Passage, where the stream is much weaker than at Passage. In sailing to this place, avoid a shallow spit of Sand which extends S.W. from the Point at Buttermilk Castle, about half over to the opposite side, with 9 feet of water on it. Avoid also a small bank, which lies on the S side of Cheek Point [sic] two cables lengths from the shore {Carters Patch} with only 9 feet of water on it, the least water, and half at tide 14 feet. If it is about low water keep the middle between the Points, or rather nearer Buttermilk Point, or keep in the rough stream of tide.

Such vessels as draw not above 10 or 11 feet of water may go up to the town of Waterford, where there are about two fathoms about a ship’s length from the quay. In sailing to or from the town of Waterford the safest channel is on the N. side of the Little Island {the Ford}, the other side {Kings Channel} has the deepest water, but the channel is narrow and winding and subject to eddy winds and tides.

Join me on a guided walk around Dunmore this Sunday. €10 pp pre-booking here!
I’m leading a walk along the Johns River to remember the Lightermen and their struggles on Sat Oct 7th. Cost €10pp pre-booking here!

There it concludes, but there is a few points to make for the modern reader.

One point to make clearly – The details provided are primarily for day time navigation. Day marks are the main navigation prompts for sea captains and the modern era of lighthouses, radar, and sat nav are many years in the future.

The two lights mentioned at Duncannon refer to a system for keeping to the narrow channel leading past it. Pete Goulding – our blogging buddy with a passion for Irish Lighthouses will guest blog on the system in weeks to come. Stay tuned

The thwart mark is an intriguing phrase, something I cannot find in a dictionary or any of my nautical phrasebooks. However, the image from the chart shows it clearly above. Any further clarity on this is appreciated. Update Post publication. Blog regular, D. Peter Boucher, Kt. SMOM, International Master Mariner had this update. Thwart in Old English means “from one side to another” hence our use of it for boat benches and thus I guess “thwart mark”.

The perch at Passage was a day mark, shown clearly in the chart. It did not have a light atop, so when the Spit Light was added in 1867 this radically improved navigation after darkness or in poor visibility.

The Church at Ballyhack was a perfect landmark for sailing vessels, alas, nothing of it now remains except perhaps the altar in the current graveyard on the hill.

Passage was the preferred anchorage, but Buttermilk and Cheekpoint are shown too

No mention of pilots which only became a requirement after 1816. Still disappointed that there was no mention of hobblers.

Finally, very interesting to read that the Ford Channel (sometimes referred to as the Queen’s Channel on charts) was recommended over the Kings Channel at this point. However the depth of water is an issue, as is obvious from the associated chart with a foot of water in places at low water. The need for dredging was essential to the development of the port, something only achieved once the Harbour Commissioners were established in 1816. More to come on that story next month, all going well.

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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.

White Stone – Cheekpoint fisherman’s foul mark

A lighter in operation in New Ross

For generations of Cheekpoint fishermen, the White Stone was a foul mark to be wary of, a river-based location that was notorious for dragging nets to the bottom and causing costly damage. 

Recently I stumbled upon the back story to the foul, the cause of so much anxiety and upset to us drift netters of the past.  It arose from a dispute following the introduction of scotch weirs and the difficulties posed to traditional navigation, especially in this instance to craft using the Campile Pill.  But needless to say there were different opinions and numerous twists and turns before the White stone foul emerged!

Placenames on the river

I’m certain that my regular readers will be well aware of the relevance of place names and the important role each play in preserving the history and heritage of a locality.  In a fishing community river or coastal place names can be just as valuable but with an added significant role in fishing terms too.

Place names on the river at Cheekpoint denoted the commencement or end of drifts, marked hindrances to navigation or fishing, and useful landmarks for the location of nets, eel pots, etc.  They also marked fouls, spots notorious to fishermen, a location to be avoided, skirted around or just to show more caution.  One of the most infamous marks for the Cheekpoint men was the White Stone.  This blog looks at the origins of this foul mark, arising from some research I had conducted previously into the navigation of the Campile Pill. 

Salmon Driftnetting at Cheekpoint

When fishing salmon driftnets on the flood tide at Cheekpoint we principally concentrated our efforts along the Shelburne Bank, to the Campile Pill, and along up the “bank wall” – the embankment that held in the reclaimed marsh land at Kilmannock in Co Wexford.  The drift terminated at Great Island Power Station. 

As you proceeded up the bank wall, there was a mark in the wall, made by a piece of flat faced white rock which gave us the name White Stone.  This marked a notorious foul and as we approached the drift nets were hauled aboard, which pulled the boat away from the shore, and crews had their own preferred distance of net to retrieve.  (Later in the tide you might tighten up the foot rope, and take a chance on passing over) When a crew was satisfied, they would wait patiently for the onrushing tide, to drag the punt upriver, and once safely passed, the crew would resume the drift by setting the nets back into the shore.  Depending on the time of tide, some crews would set the entirety of the nets out at this point, others waiting until they got up to the “pailing” – a concrete fence post, before setting the remainder of the driftnets along the mud, or the wall – depending on how high the river had risen.   

A recent video highlighting the location
Salmon Fishery hearing 1864

Now the origins of the foul were reputed to be an old weir, but only recently did I actually get more details of this, arising from evidence gathered in New Ross in 1864. The hearing was part of a fishery commission established to examine fish weirs located countrywide – many of which had been established in the early 1800s as Scotch Weirs or had been adapted from the traditional Head Weirs.  I’ve written numerous accounts of the Weir Wars that resulted

Some of the placenames featured in my first book, Before the Tide Went Out.
Note the White Stone at Great Island

At New Ross, on March 10th, 1864 the Commission sat to gather evidence into the Kilmannock Weir with the three-person special commissioners in charge – Fredrick Eden, Captain W Houston RN, and W O’Conner Morris.   

From the report, it seems the only matter under examination was the impediment that the weir might cause to navigation, specifically traffic between the Pill and the River Barrow.  We learn that Mr. Knox of Kilmannock is the owner and the weir is fished by Richard Hewitson.  These men were represented by Mr. Ryland, instructed by Mr. Boyd, and called several witnesses to highlight that the weir posed no issues at all. Opposing this evidence was Mr. E Carr – representing the Nore, Barrow, and Suir Navigation Co. 

The entrance to the Pill is just below the lighthouse on the Bank Wall…we called this the Corner of the Pill

I won’t go into the opposing views that were reported, these continued for several days, though it is interesting to note that Fredrick Eden was less than enamored with the information provided stating that “…The evidence on both sides is biased and is to be taken with considerable caution.”

Legalities of the Kilmannock Weir

He summed up the legalities quite definitively, however – Basically the weir at Kilmannock was granted legal status under the fishery act of 1842 –  this was based on a lease dated 1669.  However other documents now presented had caused concern as they pointed to a different weir – in a different location, and the weir at use in 1864 was actually repositioned after the embankment was constructed, (The embankment is not shown in the first OSI map of the area {1829-1842} but is in the subsequent edition from 1914) or perhaps before in anticipation of its construction.  Therefore the weir was not strictly legal, as the older legal documents were for a weir, which was at that point either part of the embankment or covered in soil on the reclaimed marshland.   The decision made was that the weir should be removed.

Mahons Weir. Cheekpoint, Photo credit: William Doherty
Salmon Fishery hearing 1867

The weir verdict must have been appealed however as in 1867 it was again before the Salmon Fishery Commission in New Ross.  On this occasion appealing a decision to remove or alter the Kilmannock Weir was Maurice Wilson Knox of Kilmannock.  Several witnesses were called who operated lighters on the Pill to clarify that the weir was no impediment to navigation. 

An extract from Sayers chart of the harbour in 1787, no embankment and I’d imagine the weir was close to the first line on the right, where the river meets the shoreline at low water. I’m afraid no weir is shown in the location on any map or chart I have, not even in the OSI historic series. The only weir in the vicinity is a flood weir shown close to the present jetty and Kents Point.

The first witness was Matthew Power – a boatman on the Pill, working lighters for 45 years.  Power described his trade, and that they carried limestones from above Waterford and reached the Cheekpoint area (I’d imagine he means here Snow Hill or Drumdowney Point) on the ebb tide where they anchored.  On the next flood tide they crossed to Cheekpoint and (depending on the tides and weather I guess) sometimes waited on the next tide before crossing to the Pill.  They went up the Pill on the flood tide.  No detail is given of how long the journey was, but I would imagine it could be two tides – as they would be under too much pressure to make it through the New Bridge.

Power later clarified that was a tenant of Knox but that the only difficulty posed by the weir was if they were heading to the Ross River (Barrow) and even that was not a major issue.  They generally headed towards Waterford and they used a single-lug sail when the wind was right.  The weir he claimed was no impediment on this tack.

John Carroll of Horsewood (spelled Hore’s Wood in the article) was another witness who had worked the Campile River for 40 years.  When heading to New Ross, he steered a course well outside the weir, keeping a line for Kents Weir on the Great Island.  He stated it was useful on a foggy night as a landmark as there is no other light (suggesting there was a light on the weir perhaps).  He remembered boats going up inside the weir in the days before the Embankment was built but not since.   The lawyer acting on behalf of the Cotmen Mr Carr, is less than taken with their evidence however and although it is not part of the article it is obvious that Carr knows very well the issues caused by the weir for lighters depending on poles and oars to get into or out of the Pill when trying to keep to the shore heading for New Ross.

A lighter in operation in New Ross
A lighter in operation in New Ross – courtesy of Myles Courtney

Another witness is a Coastguard based at Arthurstown Daniel Jenkins.  Jenkins gave evidence about the tides and how the weir impacts these.  A fisherman Richard Power had no issue with the weir either – the ground is too steep for trawling and no great advantage there to a drift net either apparently (Cheekpoint fishermen of my generation would certainly disagree – and in the 1870s there were 90 driftnet licences in the harbour area!).  Another boatman Michael Doyle also gave evidence. 

The Commission made no decision on the day – asking for a survey of the site by the Coastguard officer, to be completed in the company of one of Mr Knox’s men, and once submitted a decision would be forthcoming! 

The White Stone
Outstanding Questions

I can’t find any detail as to how the White Stone in the wall originated. It seems to have been there from the outset of the building of the embankment. I’m also not clear as to the exact date for the removal of the weir, and I can not be sure if this was a redesigned head weir that had the wing extended to the shoreline, or some other specific design like some of the scotch weirs in the Kings Channel for example. 

Conclusion

Whatever part of the weir that was left behind when ir was removed, proved to be a considerable obstacle up to my years of salmon driftnetting.   Although we have not set a driftnet at the spot since it was banned in 2006, I daresay any of those left who remember the foul would still show it some respect if were allowed back fishing tomorrow.

As regulars will know I am deeply interested in the workings of the Lighter vessels and the lightermen, and this evidence has given me a rare glimpse into the activities of these men. The details of the journey from Grannagh to Campile although brief, give a glimpse into the lives of these men who worked in harmony with the tides in order to move their freight cargos. Patience was a virtue, they had to have a deep knowledge of the river and its tides, but they also required a lot of luck for the job to go well. I’m ever hopeful of finding other snippets of their lives as my research continues.

I’m grateful to Tommy Sullivan for letting me discuss the White Stone with him recently to clarify some points. Its been so long ago I like to check in with others to be sure I am not imagining stuff. All errors and omissions are my own needless to say.

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