Hilda shipwreck at Duncannon, Christmas 1897

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

Hilda sunk off Duncannon Fort. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wigham

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

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

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

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

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

So to the Hilda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Duncannon Fort and the Waterford militia

April’s guest blog comes from a page regular, my cousin, James Doherty. Today he’s talking about a topic that was very much part of some recent blogs and presentations I gave on the Paddle Steamer service that ran between the city and Duncannon.  In this piece James gives us an insight into the history of Duncannon fort on the Wexford side of Waterford Harbour and the use of the facility by, amongst others, the Waterford Militia.

The concept of militia is certainly nothing new, at its core lies the citizen soldier a man ready to take up arms in defence of his country when called upon. The militia movement in Ireland remains relatively obscure and the idea that thousands of these citizen soldiers would drill and assemble each year may come as a surprise to many. 

Following the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 in Scotland, an act of parliament decreed the raising of a part time force of able bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60[1]. The proviso that this force was exclusively protestant ensured their loyalty to the crown. It would be the end of the 18th century before Catholics were allowed to join. In 1793 the British Army sent a large force to Holland to fight the French as the regular army was on the continent.  It created a dilemma however as there was no protection of the home front.  The solution was an expanded militia. Catholics were allowed join and numbers quickly increased[2]
The militia and cannon pose for the camera, Waterford Barracks
Between 1793 and 1815 the 33rd Light Infantry Regiment assembled in Waterford for a month’s training each year with the reservists being paid over this period. The concept was simple if there was a landing by a foreign force these men could be called upon to defend the country. Following the defeat of France in the Napoleonic wars this threat diminished and the militia was disbanded. 
By 1854 the drums of war were sounding again, however this time the foe wasn’t the French but the Russian Empire. The militia was reformed in November 1854 and by January they had 175 men elisted with this number doubling by the summer. When assembled the men were based in the Infantry Barracks in Waterford city (officers, seeking better quarters, stayed in the Adelphi Hotel). 
Army high command decreed that some militia units should receive training with Artillery and 1855 saw the Waterford Light Infantry Militia become artillery militia. Wasting no time the unit were sent to Duncannon fort to train with artillery pieces there. This visit downriver would become a regular occurrence for the city men of Waterford. As a state of war existed the Militia stayed called up and spent nearly six months at Duncannon
a 24 pound cannon typical of the type used by the militia
The presence of the militia men in the fort continued a long military tradition at Duncannon Fort. A fortification stood there since medieval times with large parts of the stone fort that stands today dating from 1588 when the modern fort was built to withstand the threat of the Spanish invasion. It took a 6 week siege for the fort to be captured during the Cromwellian wars and later in that same conflict the fort, having being retaken, withstood the attempts of Cromwell’s army to recapture it. 
In July of 1855 the militia men were asked to volunteer for the regular army with over 90 men agreeing to service in the Crimea. The remainder of the regiment would be dismissed for the rest of the year. The practice of summer training for the militia units continued between 1855 and 1860 with the Waterford Militia being sent throughout the British Isles. The benefits of using coastal forts for artillery training needs little explanation with the fort being a popular destination for training purposes with militia units from all over Ireland. However the local Waterford unit would not return until 1860. Over the next two decades the Waterford men would use the fort nearly twenty times. 
In June of 1871 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Spencer, inspected the Irish Militia and announced in Duncannon Fort that he was most pleased in how the batteries were manned and the proficiency of the men firing at floating targets in the estuary at ranges up to 2000 yards[3]
It wasn’t all hard work for the militia of course, or at least some of them!. The officers of the regiment occasionally organised receptions at the fort for friends and guests. The Waterford papers of 1883 reporting that a special steamer was hired to convey members of Waterford society to the fort where dancing continued late into the night before the steamer returned to the city[4]
An engraving of the fort from the late 18th C

For the rank and file of the militia though life in the fort would have been more mundane. Duncannon had little accommodation with room for officers only. Men would have slept in tents on the fort glacis with some training accounts mentioning anything up to 600 men in attendance. Large metal pots were used to boil hunks of meat that was served with potatoes for dinner. Sanitary conditions were extremely basic.

A curious factor of how the militia was treated was related to their pay; in this respect the Waterford unit was very lucky. As the regimental office was back in Waterford when the summer training was over the men would return to the city and be given their back pay. Other militia units were not so fortunate and when their training was over they would be paid and expected to make their own way home, often with disastrous results. In June of 1863 the Tipperary Militia fresh from a summer at Duncannon were disbanded on the quayside in Waterford. The Waterford News described the ensuing chaos in colourful terms. A warm patronage of our public houses was displayed by the Tipp’s, The city was filled with men made boisterous by deep potations and by no means coveted by any respectable community[5]. A few years later “The Tipp’s” were at it again although this time they started trouble on their way to Duncannon. The normal chartered steamer wasn’t available so the Tipp’s had to wait for the public steamer. Many of the Tipp’s spent their time in pubs on the quayside and when some of them were arrested a serious riot ensued when their comrades tried to affect their release[6]
1883 would see a re-organisation of the Army with the Waterford Artillery Militia becoming the 6th Brigade , South Irish Division of the Royal Artillery[7] with further army reforms in 1908 seeing the Militia being designated as reserve units. 
The military function of the fort waned at the end of the 19th century and adverts ran in national newspapers in 1915 offering the grassy area in front of the fort for rent [8] and the buildings known as the Artillery Stores offered up for rent in 1916[9]. The fort was burnt during the Irish Civil War but restored for use during the Emergency. After the Emergency the only military function of the fort was to be used for summer camps by members of the Irish Reserve Forces. 
So the next time you visit Duncannon Fort try and imagine the smoke and noise of the 19th century with artillery batteries blazing away at targets floating in the middle of the estuary as the gun crews scrambled to man the massive guns under the watchful eyes of their commanding officers. 

Having spent a number of weekends at Duncannon fort when a member of Civil Defence, I can only say it was always a wonderful place to visit and explore.  Its not our first trip to Duncannon of course, as my good pal and fellow blogger Bob, recalled a Duncannon beach family holiday in the 60’s previously. And armed with this extra insight into its history and occupation, hopefully you will make your way down to visit this summer.  It opens in June and more details are here.

If you would like to contribute a piece to any of my guest blog Friday’s (last Friday of each month) please get in touch to russianside@gmail.com.  All I ask is that the subject matter be linked in some way to the maritime heritage of the area, and 1200 words approx.

I publish a blog about Waterford harbours maritime heritage each Friday.  
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[1] The Records of the Waterford Militia by Major Otway Wheeler Cuffe 1885
[2] The Irish Militia 1793- 1802 , Ivan Nelson
[3] The Records of the Waterford Militia by Major Otway Wheeler Cuffe 1885
[4] Waterford News June 8th 1883
[5] Waterford News June 6th 1863
[6] The Manchester Guardian June 28th 1871.
[7] The Records of the Waterford Militia by Major Otway Wheeler Cuffe 1885
[8] Irish Examiner 8th of May 1915
[9] Irish Independent 13th of Sepetember 1916

Duncannon Chronicles

Our guest blog today like last months looks back to a childhood holiday spent on a beach. However this month rather than Crooke in Waterford we get to accompany the Lloyd family holidaying at Duncannon Co Wexford and there is a Waterford connection too. I’d like to thank my good pal and fellow blogger Andrew Lloyd for this account.

It was interesting to read guest-blogger Breda Murphy’s nostalgic account of A Crooke Childhood last month, because with a sufficiently good telescope she would have seen me and my siblings larking about across the water in Duncannon. A couple of months after my father died in 2001, my sister and I went down to Dorset to sort out his shed. This was where he stored all his art works and the matériel for their construction. It was impossible to believe that this was the place where the collection was executed because it was only by gingerly stepping on the few visible bits of carpet that we could reach the desk at the far end and make a start on the drawers. There were paintings everywhere – later art-class oils of still lives and slabby nudes hugger-mugger with early water colours of well-executed cloudscapes and rolling hills; craggy castles and colourful streets: from Ireland, Britain, Brittany, the Med; a dramatic view from shore of the Straits of Magellan next to a more placid panorama of boats bobbing in Dun Laoghaire harbour.

Duncannon beach 1961. Llewellyn Lloyd 

We finished the drawers, gathered all the brushes into a vase, the paints into a shoebox and started on the paintings, classifying them by theme and geography into the bins of a rack along one wall. We had a cup of tea and a scone (thanks Mum), and waded back into task. After some time, I turned over yet another grey-backed Rowney art-board to reveal Duncannon Strand 1961. There we were, my sister and I with our older brother and the red-white-&-blue Lilo air-mattress that we had brought from England that year for the annual visit to Ireland. There also was the red-white-&-blue beach-ball which never existed but which he had inserted for balance or, as we asserted indignantly at the time, because he had the paint there and didn’t want to waste it.
Apart from us and our partly mythical beach-gear, the beach in the painting was empty as far as the Fort on the headland and the sky was full of scudding cloud. So it must have been the Easter holidays. We came almost every year, often at Easter, to visit an ever diminishing store of elderly female relatives in Wexford and on the shores of Lough Derg in County Tipp. In Wexford, we would invariably stay in The Hotel, Duncannon. My father had connexions on both sides of Waterford Harbour. He had grown up in Dunmore East, where my grandfather Wilfred Lloyd was Harbour-master from the foundation of the state until he retired in 1947. My father was thus the window vandalising Llewellyn who preceded January’s guest-blogger David Carroll. Before he was The Gaffer on Dunmore’s quayside, my grandfather had restlessly travelled the world, serving in the army in the 2nd Boer War and then seeking his fortune in America. He made, and lost, several fortunes out in the Wild West. At one point, he won a section of the Hollywood hills in a card-game, but could never hold on to assets; he was always buying drinks for pretty women or everyone in the bar and really wasn’t very good at poker.
The grandfather could never pass a beggar in the street without giving something, remarking “I’ve been like that myself, m’boy, and may be again”. Between bouts of top-hat-and-tails, Grampa had indeed been a hobo, riding the rails to the next adventure. He was in San Francisco in 1906 when the city was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire. We don’t know if he was living it high at the time or currently without funds, but you may be sure he was kind and made himself useful in the aftermath of the disaster. My father was an only child and idolised this charismatic chancer. I’d love to know more about Grampa but you could see His Boy get sacked by the wrench of loss whenever he talked about his Dad, so we didn’t like to press. My father is dead 16 years now, so that gate is closed.

Whites Hotel Duncannon. With thanks to Kevin Downes 

Meanwhile back at Duncannon in the 1960s, we spent every unrainy moment on the beach or in the dunes: making bastions against the incoming tide, daring each other to touch the raw-liver-coloured sea-anemones or just turning blue and white and wrinkly in the sea. The strand there is split by a modest stream and occasionally, by Herculean efforts with a small tin bucket and two tiny shovels, we were able to dam this rill-beck-or-leat to create a wee bit of a pond between the dunes. It was, of course, unsustainable. The water kept coming through the drain on the other side of the road and we shovelled quantities of wet sand atop the berm as the water rose. But with no Little Hans Brinker (the Hero of Haarlem) to put his superhuman finger in the dyke, eventually a small failure would grow to a catastrophic collapse. We achieved dam-nirvana one fine Spring day when an elderly couple walked their dog to the far end of the strand while it was artificially dry from our exertions, and couldn’t get back after the inevitable hydro-engineering failure had re-established the river.
The dining room. A postcard view.
Via Conan Power 

Though our shoes were but little, we tracked unbelievable quantities of sand back into the bleak lino-floored bed-rooms of The Hotel. Wet days were spent in the front-room of The Hotel wrangling and playing cards; watching, through the rain-slattered windows, the showers coming in one after the other across the sea from beyond the Waterford shore. The clock ticked loudly in the hallway and the day inched forward. If we could blag three-pence each from our parents, we went up the village to buy, and be delighted by, Lucky Bags but otherwise we were sustained by the enormous meals cooked by Nan Doyle. She laboured away in a fug of bacon-and-cabbage in the kitchen far down the dark corridor beyond the yeasty clatter of the bar. 
The pinnacle of my day as a young gannet was the appropriately named high tea: the chairs in the dining room made no concession to little legs and my chin barely cleared my plate. But the appetite was undiminished: we ate like arctic explorers to replace the calories whipped away by wind-chill and “bracing” sea-water. After laying a foundation with slabs of white and brown soda-bread cemented with butter-&-jam, washed down by tea the colour of tomato soup, the fry arrived: rashers and sausage and fried egg sprinkled with the acrid black smuts which flaked off from Nan’s enormous black crusted skillet. After that, a selection of Nan-made sponge cakes was presented. We never ate like that at home and I’ve never eaten cakes with such loft, such subtle sweetness and such variety since that time.

Nan Doyle in later years, back row on far right
via Conan Power 

Nan Doyle has long since gone to her rest, The Hotel burned down decades ago and was replaced in the boom-time by some handsome apartments. The crumb of Madeline which sent Proust tumbling back in time to a childhood tea with his Tante Léonie was gone in a minute. My father’s painting, which wrought a similar miracle of time travel for me, has lasted better. I must remember to tell the grand-children the truth about the beach-ball lest they think we had an extravagantly flaithiúlach childhood. 

the fire gutted hotel
via Conan Power 

Pat Baldwin, my father-in-law lives in retirement in Tramore but was born (1925) in Cardiff. His father came from Knockroe just behind Passage East on the Waterford shore but left to become a driver for Pickford’s after WWI. By another weird coincidence, we washed up in another Knockroe, having spent the last 20 years in a townland of that name on the flank of Mt Leinster. A couple of years ago, it was Pat’s 90th birthday and Andrew and Deena of Tides’n’Tales gave the extended descendants of the Baldwin’s of Knockroe a guided walk around the family heritage, finishing up with lunch at Jack Meade’s pub on the Cheekpoint Road. I met a lovely woman, an in-law of the in-laws, who hailed from across the river in Wexford. I mentioned my childhood days on the beach at Duncannnon and the sand on the bedroom floors in The Hotel. She was well familiar with the lightness of Nan Doyle’s scones and sponge-cake or her deliciously fat-heavy fries. She had worked in The Hotel as a teenager during school holidays and remembered Nan far better than I did. Six degrees of separation?? Not at all: two degrees is plenty for anyone in Ireland. 
Andrew Lloyd 2012, 2013, 2017 
Like Russianside I blog regularly about science & evolution; islands & maps, food & water, language & codes. Here we go: http://blobthescientist.blogspot.com/

Thanks to Andrew for allowing us this glimpse into a different era. Thanks also for assistance in sourcing photos and further information to Maria Doyle and Conan Power, their time and effort was most appreciated. Conan administers a very interesting Facebook page called Hook Peninsula History Group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/518051638363237/

The last Friday of each month is offered as a space for a guest blog. If you would be interested in submitting a piece I’d be delighted to hear from you at russianside@gmail.com. The only criteria is that the piece needs to be about our maritime heritage, about 1200 words and I can help in editing if required, source photos and add in links etc. I’d also welcome any contributions from younger readers including students. I’ve run out of friends to pressurise or cajole so please consider it 🙂

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