The Bannow Bay Ghost Ship

The Irish newspapers of Christmas 1831 were alight with speculation after a ship sailed onto the sand banks of Bannow, Co Wexford with no crew. Aboard was a full cargo, some blood-stained clothing, a box of silver dollars and a dog.  The ship was the La Bonne Julie of France and here’s what I could find of her story.     

The morning of Thursday 15th December 1831 dawned dry and bright on the SW Wexford coast after a storm that blew the previous day had passed off.  Off Baginbun the people of Bannow Bay observed a three-masted (barque from most accounts) sailing vessel, sails set and apparently on an eastern course.  But there was something in the direction of the vessel that caused concern and as the morning wore on, the people onshore became increasingly worried.  They waved clothing and raised their voices in warning, for it seemed the crew of the ship were unaware of their proximity to shore.

Bannow Bay, Co Wexford. From reading newspaper accounts it seems to me most likely it struck where the cursor in the photo is pointing or slightly to the east (right) of this

Speculation must have been rife.  Was the crew asleep, drunk or was it something more sinister?  As the day went on the ship came closer and yet no answer was given from the ship.  Eventually, she grounded on soft sand on a bar at a location that is not exactly specified. Bannow Bay is mentioned in one report, Bannow Island in another. The map above may give a sense of the location, but I’m open to correction.

A crew of the local coastguard (I’m guessing her that it was Fethard as again it is not made clear) (Additional info post publication. Mick Byrne was of the opinion that it was most likely the “Bar O the Lough” coastguard unit at Cullenstown, they had a boathouse nearby) set out by boat to investigate the grounding, and boarding they were greeted with a mysterious scene.  The only living thing aboard was a brown coloured pointer dog.  The ship had a full cargo of fish and fish oil and it was speculated initially that it had sailed from Newfoundland, but the ship’s log later proved this to be incorrect.  The ship was the La Bonne Julie (most newspapers called her Le Belle Julie) of Bordeaux.  She had sailed from her home port some weeks previous en route to Dunkirk with a 13 man crew. 

I’m part of Team Dunmore East working to raise sponsorship for the local Lifeboat. Details of our efforts and how to support are in the link

Of her crew there was now no sign.  A box of dollars was discovered along with the ship’s log and papers.  Some bloodstained clothing was found in a sailors bunk.  But otherwise everything seemed as it should be aboard.  News of the mystery spread and speculation was widespread.  The fact that earlier reports stated the ship was in perfect order only added to the confusion.

The view from Baginbun looking east

However, later reports mentioned some damage to the vessel.  One report had the following to say “the main sheet had been carried away, and was lying over her side in the water. The iron stay or traveller had snapt [sic], it is supposed, and she got a dreadful lurch so that a sea-washed the entire crew overboard…”[i]  The conclusion about the crew was highly unlikely I would think.

The same report carried the news that the Coastguard had removed all clothing, bedding etc from the ship and had burned it on the beach, despite the “…  entreaties of the many poor who came from all parts to get what they could…”  The inference here was the tradition of locals taking what materials they found from shipwrecks as rightful salvage for their own use.  The authority’s concern however seems to have been a fear of Cholera which was then rife. 

A sense of how a barque is rigged, but I think this ship much bigger a vessel, the three masted barque Rona 1900. Accessed from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Three-masted_barque_RONA_under_sail_(8672996385).jpg

The report continues to describe how the cargo had been removed and put into bonded stores in Wexford.  The Coastguard were doing this on the basis of The Crown and the Lord of the Soil, a rule of salvage giving the legal owners of the ships manifest a claim to their goods.  If none came forward the salvors could claim, or the landlord of the land on which the ship had grounded.  Although it would appear that such matters were never that simple.

As I mentioned at the outset theories into the ship and its missing crew were vividly described in the newspaper reportage of the time.  Such Ghost Ships during the days of sail were a common enough occurrence, and in many circumstances a crew abandoned the ship, oftentimes in a hurry, leaving all their belongings behind.  The weather had been bad the day and night before the ship was discovered.  Perhaps her crew did abandon the ship and were in turn lost themselves?  I found no reports of bodies being washed up at the time or in the subsequent weeks, however. 

Cholera was also considered.  Having left Bordeaux where the illness was then widespread, did some of the crew bring it aboard.  Did they perish, one by one, to be buried at sea until no one remained?  But who would have thrown the last man to die overboard?  The illness was rapid and a feature was the weakened condition of the ill. 

An attack was also speculated.  Some wondered had the ship carried some treasure, like the locally fabled Earl of Sandwich when four of the crew turned pirate, murdered their shipmates, and left with a treasure.  It’s a story featured in my latest book. One report, which was widely reprinted in numerous newspapers, told of an incident at a pub in the Faythe in Wexford Town.  The “respectable and intelligent publican” noticed two foreign sailors entering his bar in the early hours and observed that one was armed with a bayonet, seemingly of French origin.  Challenging the sailors, they hurriedly withdrew.[ii]  If the sailors had turned on their crewmates, however, why would they have left the box of dollars behind?

A video that gives a great sense of the location

The wreck of the La Bonne Julie was later auctioned as a derelict, suggesting that she never moved from the sand bar in the shallow waters of Bannow Bay.  A report in the Waterford Mail stated that  “A survey has been held on the hull, which was found in such a bad state to be pronounced not seaworthy”[iii] This description is at variance to the following advert however.

Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent Tuesday 30th January 1832. Page 2. BNA.

The cargo and value of the ship and what was sold all wound up in the Admiralty court. And over many weeks and months in the following year various hearings took place to decide on the vexatious matter of salvage rights and who was entitled to it.  I can’t pretend to have followed it. There seems to have been some doubt into the legal owners of the ship in the court and these “alleged owners” were not willing to pay salvage over to the Coastguard men who had boarded the ship that day in Bannow.  Two are mentioned in the reports I saw, Nobel and Doyle*.  At issue was that the “alleged owners” felt that the Coastguard were paid for their work and as such this should preclude them from any claim.  This was hotly contested.   There was also mention of a merchant named George Beale who felt entitled to a share. In this situation, it was again argued that no payment be made.  At court it was stated that “…owners must be satisfied of the name of every man engaged, the time employed, and the price per day paid…”[iv]  There were some further pieces in the papers, but I could not find a conclusion.

I could find no further information as yet about the La Bonne Julie and as such I will have to leave it as just another one of those perplexing mysteries of the sea.  My own opinion is that her crew abandoned ship and that their decision was the wrong one.  It’s ironic that the crew in their haste left what was supposed to be man’s best friend behind. Ultimately the one living creature that stayed aboard had better luck.  The pointer dog was taken in by the local landlord, Boyce.  Hopefully he had a long and happy life thereafter.

Next Months blog brings me to Dunmore East, and a story of the Italian salvage operators from the 1930s.

The new book cover which includes the blending of two images, the building of Dunmore East pier and the city dredger, Portlairge from an original image by Jonathan Allen.

[i] Newry Telegraph – Tuesday 27 December 1831; page 4

[ii] Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent – Saturday 31 December 1831; page 4

[iii] Waterford Mail – Wednesday 28 December 1831; page 4

[iv] Dublin Observer – Sunday 04 March 1832; page 3

*Olivia Murrey left me a note on facebook to sat that Edward Nobel was Chief Officer at the Bar of Lough coastguard unti from 1829-1835. However there was no Doyle on the station or any adjacent station

Ghost Ship Maury

The appearance of a ghost ship on the Cork coastline during the recent Storm Dennis raised many eyebrows and prompted a flood of questions.  The vessel was the cargo ship MV Alta abandoned in the mid-Atlantic in 2018 when ten crew members were rescued from the ship by the American coastguard.  Floating freely since she appears to have washed up unnoticed. But ghostships have a long tradition in seafaring communities including Waterford.

On the 8th February 1886 the iron built sailing ship County of Kinross (1878) was sailing off the south coast of Ireland having only just commenced her long sea journey from Cardiff to Bombay with a cargo of coal.

County of Kinross Accessed from https://www.clydeships.co.uk/

In the early hours the watch spotted an unlit vessel wallowing in the Atlantics heavy seas, her masts and rigging in disarray.  No response was received from signals, and fearing some tragedy or mysterious event, they “lay to” until dawn and then lowered a boat and the first mate and four seamen headed towards the sailing ship which proved to be a Norweigan barque the Maury. 

Boarding the wooden sailing ship, the damage was obvious to the seamen and there was evidence of a collision as her port side bulwarks was smashed in and much of her spars and rigging was lying on the deck, she was also taking water.  A quick search proved there was no life aboard which left the sailors with a dilemma. 

Despite the damage, the vessel was at the time seaworthy, had a full cargo in her holds and was within a days sailing of Waterford (if the weather was favourable).  She was, therefore, a valuable salvage prize which the seamen could hardly spurn.  After consultation with their captain, the ships carpenter came across to make temporary repairs, before he returned to the County of Kinross, which continued on her journey,. The scratch crew of the first mate and four sailors then began the trip to Waterford. 

By some good fortune they later managed to engaged the services of a Liverpool steam tug Great Britain which was passing, and with the assistance of the pilot cutter managed to reach and anchor at Passage East on Tuesday, February 9th at 3pm.

Their prize was the Maury(1866), a Barque rigged three masted sailing vessel, built at Arendal, Norway in the shipyard of Ananias Christopher Hansen Dekke. She had departed from New York on January 13th under Captain Hansen with a crew of 12, destined for Waterford with 3,475 barrels of paraffin oil for the company of George White & Sons on the junction of O’Connell St/Thomas St Waterford. 

Maury Accessed from https://digitaltmuseum.no/021176796121/maury-1866

In a subsequent newspaper interview the Chief Officer described the trip across the Atlantic as uneventful.  However as they approached the Irish coast on Sunday 7th the weather became thick with reduced visibility and heavy seas.  They decided to reduce sail, set a starboard tack and maintain a watch.  At a later stage a fog horn was heard, and sometime later they spotted a ship heading directly towards them, but so close there was no time to avoid a collision. The Maury was struck on her port side and the Chief Officer believed that they were almost cut in two.  As the other ship was embedded in their side, and fearing imminent sinking, the crew abandoned ship, but later returned to the Maury to try locate a missing crewman.  This man (named Paul Kostal or Rostal) was eventually located and removed from under the fallen spars, rigging and sails. 

The other ship was the Sir Henry Lawrence, an iron built, barque rigged sailing ship on a trip from Liverpool to Calcutta with a cargo of salt.  Although the two ships eventually disentangled and separated, the Sir Henry Lawrence stayed at the scene. At daylight there was no sign of the Maury, and they presumed she had sunk in the darkness. It was decided to make for Cork where the crew of the Maury were landed.  Despite medical attention, the injured crewman who had sustained damage to both legs, later died.

As a small aside, the Cork Examiner reported the incident in full, and I’m sure there was heightend expectation along the cork coastline, as the paper speculated that given the damage to the side of the Maury, that on sinking, the thousands of barrals of oil must surely float onto the cork coast! Alas

Meanwhile at Waterford the legal niceties of salvage were progressed and the cargo of paraffin was unloaded, most probably via lighter and hence to the city and the intended destination of George White and Sons.

George White & Sons advert from Waterford Standard Dec 14th 1901

Paraffin: Although lamps have been used since the earliest times it was not until the industrial revolution that the technology of lamp light developed substantially.  James Young discovered the potential of a liquid in a seam in a Derbyshire coalfield which he named Paraffin.  Although in short supply it had clear uses in lighting lamps.  Petroleum oil began commercial production in Pennsylvania in 1859 and this would become the worldwide source of paraffin for many years to come.  The increased availability led to an explosion, if you’’ pardon the pun, in lamp design and dare I say refinement!  Many of these lamps were still in evidence in kitchens when I was growing up in Cheekpoint, and indeed storm lamps were often to be seen hanging in sheds. 

At a subsequent court case where the matter of salvage was decided the following is an account that I located via a newspaper report of the time:  The Maury and her cargo were valued at £1,743 and the judge in the case, Judge Townsend fixed salvage £1.700. The salvage money was allocated as follows:  The owners of the County of Kinross Messrs Robert and John Craig (Glasgow), £300; The ships master, Captain Barry £220; James Broadfoot. first mate, who took charge of the Maury, £300; and to George Thompson. John McGillivery, James Pulett, and Henry Hett, the four seamen who went with him. £120 each; Peter Cameron. carpenter £30; and to three seamen who bad assisted him £10 each ; to Thomas, second mate of iron ship, and to the second mate and other officers and of the County of Kinross, £300.

The Maury was owned by E. Dedekam from 1866-93 and having been sold, she was renovated under the ownership of Hans H. Pettersen in 1894 and went on to sail for many years later, until finally sold to a Swedish owner in 1915. I’m not sure what happened to the ship after that.

The appearance of the MV Alta then is no great surprise in the historical context of shipping. There have been many amazing happenings on the sea. But I think the grounding, apparently out of the blue is a matter of some concern. This certainly might have been understandable in the 19th century, but hard to credit, and actually a little embarrasing, in this modern era.

I’m indebted to Eoin Robson who generously helped me with queries and translations from Norway. I also want to thank Anna Helgø, Collection manager at the Maritime Museum of Stavanger, Norway.

My new book will be published in September 2020. Its available for pre-order from the History Press