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.

Since publication, I re-read Liam Ryans’s account in On the Hook Parish annual 2021 pp 22-23 and came upon an interesting story about the painting of the lighthouse. Liam had found an article in the Munster Express written in Jan 1875 raising concerns about the rag order of the tower. Describing it as posing a great danger due to the neglect of the paintwork, it seems that the weather had washed the tower to its natural dark mortar hue which can only be spotted on the brightest of days…the colour was then described as “dunduckedy”

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 certain 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. On that basis they steamed onto the Waterford coast to the east of Stradbally. Perhaps this influenced the matter?

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.

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.

For another account, could I recommend an article by Liam Ryan of Fethard in On the Hook Parish Annual 2021 p 57 which seems to be a first-person account of the tragedy from Robert McCerren