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!
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.
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.
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”
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.
HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE.
The Port of Dublin Corporation hereby give NOTICE, that on (or shortly before) the 1st day of December, 1859. the HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE, on the East side of the entrance to WATERFORD HARBOUR, will, In order to render it a better day mark, be coloured with RED BELTS, and its top also will be coloured RED.
Specification given of position and appearance of this Tower by Mr Halpin, Superintendent of Lighthouses.
Hook Tower Lighthouse is on the outer end of Hook Point, in Lat. 52 deg. 7 min 25 sec N., and long. 6 deg. 35 min. 53 sec. W. The building. 110 feet in height from its base to top of its dome, is cylindrical from the bottom to the lower gallery on which the fog bells are set. The main shaft of the tower will be marked with three horizontal RED BELTS, each 10 feet in height and spaced 9 feet apart; and the lantern dome also will be coloured RED. The remainder of the tower will be coloured WHITE.
The painting of these three red belts will be proceeded with at the same time. The work will commenced at the South-West side of the tower, and will continued from this point around until completed, when the lantern dome will coloured.
Bells are tolled during foggy weather.
CAUTION.—The entrance to Waterford Harbour is marked on its Eastern side by the Hook Tower Lighthouse, a single conspicuous tower. Tramore Bay. the next bay to the westward, is marked by TWO TOWERS on BROWNSTOWN HEAD. its Eastern point, distant 6½ sea miles from the Hook Point; and by THREE TOWERS on Great Newtown Head, its Western point. Mariners are cautioned to avoid the dangerous indraft of the latter bay.
By Order, WILLIAM LEES, Secretary.
But even with three red bands, the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland 1877 – still cautioned about mistaking the Hook for Tuskar. Hook would later lose its 3 red bands for 2 black ones and three white ones. The date that is generally agreed for this is 1933. Sadly I can’t find any notice of this, however, (snappy readers might rejoice) but it is on the Irish Lights literature, Pete Goulding agrees, and so does my go to guy for all things historical around the Hook, Liam Ryan.
I am not why they thought the change was necessary. But since the publication of this story, I had the good fortune to be loaned a copy of the late John Young’s A Maritime and General History of Dungarvan. On page 35 John describes in terrific detail the loss of the Cirilo Amoros at Stradbally in February 1926 and he wrote that the crew of the steamer which had no sightings for several days got a glimpse of the Hook and thought it was a lighthouse on the Welsh coast.
Now it’s only a historical footnote, but relevant nonetheless to the fate of the Columbus. What if Tuskar was never built!? Would it have helped our Captain McCerren that fateful January afternoon in 1852? You see in December 1811 the Waterford Chamber of Commerce (at that time the maritime matters of Waterford were managed jointly within this body) wrote to the Ballast Board stating that the Saltee Islands would be a better position for, the then proposed, Tuskar lighthouse. The Ballast Board disagreed however and Tuskar was built and became operational in 1815.
If you would like to know more about lighthouse makeovers, Pete Goulding has a blog on the topic.
My thanks to the time, expertise and generosity of Pete Goulding and Liam Ryan for this blog post. I can honestly say I would not have been able to bring it together without their assistance. All errors and omissions are my own. For my regulars who want to know the last piece of this story – the blaming of the Dunmore East pilots and the fallout – a story I have researched but might hold off for a while yet before publishing.