‘‘A Novel and Unusual Spectacle’’; Ice on the ‘Three Sisters’ in the Late 19th Century

A guest blog by Conor Donegan

Standing at the end of the breakwater in Dunmore East two Sundays ago, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the frost covered cliffs and the white roofs all around the village, despite the intense and bitter cold. The estuary was alive with the sound of a thousand gulls following the sprat fleet, who judging by the landings made at the harbour day after day, have enjoyed one of the best seasons in years. The multi-coloured hulls stood out strong against the intense, inky black of the water, which made me shiver just to look at it.

The vibrancy of that Winter scene got me thinking about what the Harbour would look like in even harsher conditions. Pictures of icebergs and great sheets of snow flashed through my mind. Had Waterford ever seen such scenes in times past? Suspiciously, when I got home a post appeared in the Waterford Maritime History Facebook group by Michael Butch Power detailing just such an occasion in December 1878, when the sheer force of ice almost caused the destruction of the Timbertoes bridge in the city.

I quickly disappeared down a rabbit hole in the Irish Newspaper Archives and discovered that this was by no means a unique phenomenon. The freezing of the River Suir further inland has occurred during many severe Winters in the past (at Cahir in 1903, Carrick-on-Suir in 1947 and at Fiddown Bridge in 2010, to name just a few).  However for it to freeze solid at the city quays, where the river is considerably wider and deeper, and pose a serious threat to shipping and infrastructure, is quite another thing. Three years in particular stand out; 1867, 1878 and 1881.

 January 1867 saw temperatures across Ireland plummet to -15 degrees Celsius.  The Waterford News of 18th January reported an almost total absence of native grain being produced for the markets, due to the heavy ground frost.  Icebergs floated aimlessly down the City quays and the paddle steamer Shamrock, which was in the final months of a thirty year career spent plying between Waterford and New Ross,  remained tied up for many days.  Fears were raised over the potential destruction of the Timbertoes bridge, and a ‘railway steamboat’ was commandeered to act as an ice-breaker, smashing up the larger bergs before they could damage the pillars and abutments. 

Ultimately, Timbertoes survived the barrage, but her counterpart on the Barrow was not so fortunate. Conditions in Kilkenny and Wexford seem to have been much harsher than at Waterford, with the Nore and Barrow being reported as frozen solid ‘…for sixteen miles above Ross’.  The American architect Lemuel Cox is perhaps best known for building the aforementioned Timbertoes in 1794, but he had also designed and built the bridge at New Ross in 1796   (the Waterford News article of 25th. Jan 1867 states that it was actually built by a private company in 1779, but most other sources agree on the later date).

Local opinion however seems to have been somewhat critical of Cox’s work, and the local press dismissed the bridge as having been ‘…long regarded a nuisance’ due to its shakiness.  Having been raised to allow the passage of a ship, the central drawbridge remained firmly stuck upright until it was swept away, the structure eventually giving way arch by arch due to the immense pressure of the ice floes, with only two arches remaining on the Kilkenny side and one at the Wexford end. 

A boat service remained the only way of crossing the river until a new and more substantial iron bridge was built in 1869.  In the long running port dispute between the two towns from 1215 to 1518, New Ross’ difficulty had been Waterford’s opportunity.  Such was the case again when parts of the bridge floated downriver to the City quays, where some quick-thinking coal porters lashed and secured the timbers, and used them as firewood.  Thus many a Waterford home was heated through the last days of that harsh Winter, by the remains of the New Ross bridge.

View of Lemuel Cox’s bridge at New Ross, circa 1832. Destroyed by ice floes in 1867. Source: https://eoceanic.com/sailing/harbours/16/new_ross.

December 1878 stands out as yet another extreme Winter in the south-east, one that saw a return of the mesmeric sight of icebergs on the ‘three sisters’. Despite the often clichéd view of the Victorian era as an age of joylessness and almost puritanical conservatism, it appears that people made it their mission to take advantage of the inhospitable conditions and enjoy themselves. Although he reported conditions in south Kilkenny as being akin to Siberia, the Piltown correspondent of the Munster Express, for example, focused on the great benefit that occurred to ‘…lovers of skating’ of whom there was ‘…plenty enough in this locality’.   A large, frozen pond on the demesne of Lord Bessborough attracted crowds of people from many miles around, and although the skating constituted ‘fine sport’, the correspondent was keen to deny any suggestions of impropriety or frivolousness; ‘No lady ventured out alone, but was always accompanied by a gentleman (her bachelor if you wish), who always took great care not to let her ‘come to grief’’.

While the good people of Piltown entertained themselves, things were getting far more serious downriver. Solid blocks of ice, three or four feet thick, were being hurled against all manner of objects on the river and such was their strength that the ice often cut through timber, and even iron.  A lighter moored at the City’s railway station was cut in half and sunk; another on it way upriver to Carrick-on-Suir avoided a similar fate by just ‘…half an inch of planking’. The wooden piles of Timbertoes were under severe pressure, and a large number of anchors were sunk a distance from the bridge in a bid to break up the ice, whilst heavy chains were used to secure the structure in place lest it be carried out to sea by a combination of retreating ice floes and gale force winds.  Comparisons with her New Ross cousin were inevitable, and the ‘…feeble old dilapidated’ state of Timbertoes was lamented.  Ultimately however, Spring rolled around, the ice melted and the bridge survived intact. This is all the more exceptional when you consider that in those dying days of 1878, and early 1879, the Suir was frozen solid as one gigantic sheet of ice, making it possible to walk across the river from the South Quays to Ferrybank, providing a ‘…novel and unusual spectacle’ for the citizens of Waterford.

Report from the Munster Express, 28th Dec. 1878, p. 4. Note the reference at the end where it is said such scenes were not seen in 40 years. This suggests the freeze of 1878 was even more severe and dramatic than that of 1867.

Novel and fascinating though these Arctic-like scenes may have been, for the people of Waterford and the wider region extreme weather caused real hardship and misery, compounded by the general poverty of the nation at the time. In January 1881, Ireland and Britain experienced a ‘great blizzard’, one of the most severe in recorded history, in which many snow drifts exceeded 20ft.  The Mayor of Waterford, Alderman L. A. Ryan, convened a meeting at City Hall for ‘…the purpose of creating a fund to provide coal, so badly needed in many a homestead in this penetrating and death-dealing season’. 

Employment in the city was severely impacted, though this was somewhat alleviated when the Corporation hired large numbers of labourers to help clear the snow and ice from the footpaths and roads.  Many of the local charities, including the St. Vincent de Paul, were unable to keep up with the increase in demand for their services, as many families were plunged into desperate circumstances. 

On the evening of Thursday 20th January a great sheet of ice drifted down from Carrick and once again became lodged at Timbertoes bridge.  Ever keen to avoid a repeat of the New Ross incident fourteen years earlier, the Bridge Commissioners tried to blow up the ice with dynamite, an operation performed unsuccessfully by an Edward Jacob.  More effectively, the two steam tugs Father Matthew and Suir spent the remainder of the month breaking up the ice by creating semi circles around the central arches of the bridge, thus helping to alleviate some of the pressure.  Old Timbertoes had once again survived the freezing of the Suir, though this was not universally welcomed. Whether this was due to the perceived run-down state of the structure, or its despised status as a toll bridge (a situation which did not end until it was acquired by Waterford Corporation in 1907), the Waterford News reported that it was ‘… a circumstance which some people seem to regret’.  Spring came, the ice and snow disappeared and a burden was lifted off the shoulders of the people of Waterford.

View of Timbertoes bridge, Waterford, circa 1890-1900. Built in 1794, it was replaced by Redmond Bridge in 1913. Note the immense size of the Suir at this point, five times wider than Dublin’s Liffey. The transformation of the river into one solid sheet of ice must have been quite a sight. Source: U.S. Library of Congress

Fast forward back to the present, 2021. Winter has officially ended and although the weather seems to suggest otherwise, we are in now in Spring. As a part-time retail worker, much of my conversation with customers revolves around meteorology and how cold or otherwise the day may be. Usually I’m inclined to agree with said customers that is there is a particular bite in the wind this morning, and sure isn’t it only a day for the fire? Having looked back at those extreme weather events a century and a half ago, I don’t think I’m entitled to complain about such things ever again!

Those dramatic images of icebergs floating by Adelphi Quay, or any one of the ‘Three Sisters’ frozen solid from bank to bank, are incredible to picture in one’s mind, and it is a terrible pity there doesn’t seem to have been any photographs taken to record such sights. Romantic images aside, we should not forget that these events also caused considerable hardship to people all across Waterford Harbour, be it in terms of fuel poverty, unemployment, loss of shipping or the destruction of vital bridges and other infrastructure.

The crises people faced in 1867, 1878 and 1881 are not too dissimilar from the battles we face today with Covid-19. In both cases, daily life became a stagnant, seemingly never ending malaise caused by events largely outside human control. Yet as the weather improved each time in those three years, the big freezes always ended and the omnipresent ice gradually disappeared, as this virus surely will too someday. As President Barack Obama said on his visit to this country in 2011, ‘Whatever hardships the winter may bring, springtime is always just around the corner’. That was just as true in past times as it is now in our time.

Some stills here of a frozen Suir at Fiddow in 2010 uploaded by Joe Cashin

My thanks to Conor Donegan for this fine account. Its a story I have longed to write, and I am delighted to have it featured here now for the tidesntales crew. Conor currently attends UCC, and is presently doing an MA on the History of the Irish Revolution 1912-23. He has written for the blog before on the HMS Brave Border Incident and was recently published in the 2021 Decies: ‘1917: U-boats on the Waterford Coast’ based on his BA dissertation.

Endnotes

1.  Keyes, Dermot. (2010). Mighty Suir frozen over. Munster Express. [online]. Available at: http://www.munster-express.ie/local-news/mighty-suir-frozen-over/. [Accessed on 26th Jan. 2021]

2.  Dixon, F. E. ‘Weather in Old Dublin’. Dublin Historical Record, vol. 13, no. 3/4, (1953), p.101.

3.  Waterford News, 18th Jan. 1867

4.  Doherty, Andrew, Waterford Harbour: Tides & Tales, (The History Press, Cheltenham, 2020), pp. 30, 31.

5. Waterford News, 25th Jan. 1867

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. New Ross Standard, 4th Mar. 2017

9. Waterford News, 25th Jan. 1867

10. Ibid

11.  Bassett, George Henry. (1885). Walls, Gates, and Bridges of New Ross – Wexford Guide and Directory, 1885. Library Ireland. [Online]. Available at: https://www.libraryireland.com/genealogy/bassett/wexford/walls-new-ross.php.  [Accessed on 31st Jan. 2021]

12.  McEneaney, Eamonn; Ryan, Rosemary; (Eds). Waterford Treasures. (Waterford Museum of Treasures, Waterford, 2004), p.66

13. Waterford News, 25th Jan. 1867

14. Munster Express, 21st Dec. 1878

15. Ibid

16. Munster Express, 28th Dec. 1878

17. Ibid

18. Ibid

19. Ibid

20. Ibid

21. Simons, Paul. (2021). Blizzard in 1881 left people trapped in their homes. The Times. [online]. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/blizzard-in-1881-left-people-trapped-in-their-homes-hb6dh0bzf. [Accessed on 1st Feb. 2021]

22. Waterford News, 21st Jan. 1881

23. Ibid

24. Ibid

25. Ibid

26. Manning, Cian, Waterford City: A History, (The History Press, Cheltenham, 2019), p.102

27. Ibid

28. Waterford News, 21st Jan. 1881

The Last Voyage of the schooner Saint Austell

The last Friday of each month I try to source a contribution from a guest writer.  This month, David Carroll gives another slice of his early life growing up in Dunmore East concerning the shipwrecked Saint Austell.  It’s a wonderfully researched account of a different age. I always enjoy reading his personal memories of the village and in this piece, a fascinating trip to the Hook via a crumbling New Ross bridge. The account of the Saint Austell, and particularly its skipper itself is quite bizarre. I’m sure you will love it. 
Recently, Michael Farrell, Chairperson of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society, kindly presented me with a copy of the ‘The Story of the Dunmore East Lifeboats’. He knew it would be of great interest to me, having lived at the harbour in Dunmore from 1947 until leaving for Dublin in 1969. A description of one rescue from 1952 particularly interested me:
“When the schooner “Saint Austell” of Howth, caught fire, 4 miles east of Hook Lighthouse, early on the morning of April 14 1952, her crew of two were forced to jump overboard. The “Annie Blanche Smith” slipped her moorings at 7-45a.m. and a fishing boat, also put to sea from Slade. Her crew rescued the two men, who by that time had been in the water for about an hour and they were both suffering from shock and exposure. The lifeboat-men passed a bottle of rum across for the rescued men and they escorted the fishing boat back to Slade, before returning to her Station at 10-15a.m.”
I was fascinated by this account as I could still recall seeing the shipwreck of a schooner about three miles from Hook Head, when I was about eight years old circa 1955. Was it the same ship? Not too many schooners remained to be shipwrecked, even in the 1950s. I contacted Andrew Doherty from Waterford Harbour Tide ‘n’ Tales, as I knew he would be an excellent source of information and he immediately sent me an extract from John Power’s ‘A Maritime History of County Wexford’ and I was now certain that this was the same vessel and with my appetite whetted for information, further investigation was required.
Incidentally, that road trip to the Hook around 1955 was an eventful one. Living in Dunmore East, we were only about three miles from Hook Head across the entrance to Waterford Harbour but to reach it by land involved a journey of over fifty miles each way. We looked across each day to the Hook to see what fishing boats or yachts were out to sea heading towards Dunmore and ships heading up the harbour to the ports of Waterford or New Ross
At night, we would watch the Hook light flashing away keeping all shipping safe. The tower looked massive compared to our small lighthouse in Dunmore. My father had long promised to visit the Hook by car and eventually the big day arrived. I can remember our car well. It was a black Morris Minor and the registration number was WI 2656. There was no car-ferry at Passage at that time so a car had to travel to New Ross to cross the river Barrow and then drive down the other side of the estuary by Duncannon to reach the Hook. The bridge in those days at New Ross was not for the faint–hearted. Barrels were placed all along the bridge to slow cars down to a snail’s pace as they zigzagged across the very unsafe looking structure. By the time President Kennedy arrived in 1963, a new modern bridge had been erected.
A lady crossing New Ross bridge, note 5mph speed limit
Courtesy of Myles Courtney. New Ross Street Focus 

A guard to ensure the speed limit on New Ross bridge
Courtesy of Myles Courtney. New Ross Street Focus 

My father, from his navy days, knew William Hamilton, one of the keepers at the Hook and he brought us to the top of the tower and were able to look back across at Dunmore, which was a great thrill. On our way home, we stopped a few miles from Slade to look for a wreck of a schooner that my father wanted to see. I now know that this was Sandeel Bay. The wreck was a bit disappointing; it was just a ‘black blob’ on the rocks. I had a much more romantic vision of wrecked sailing ships, probably from reading books where the masts were still standing and the seas crashed in over the bow! I am afraid that what little remained of the poor Saint Austell was anything but romantic. A sad end for a sailing ship that had traded for almost 80 years.

This is an image, that as a young boy, I thought all shipwrecked sailing ships looked like! 
Image courtesy ‘Clive Carter Collection at Cornish Studies Library’  www.cornishmemory.com 
By looking back on copies of the Irish Press, Irish Independent and Evening Herald from April 1952, I was able to piece together the final voyage of the Saint Austell, which is quite an interesting one:
The schooner Saint Austell was launched at Portreath in Cornwall in 1873. She one time carried coal between Wales and Devon but in later years from England to Ireland. In early 1952, the Saint Austell was damaged when she hit the quay wall at Drogheda, where she had arrived with a cargo of coal from Garston. The owners decided to dispose of her. Some members of Drogheda Harbour Commissioners, as reported in the Drogheda Independent of April 12 1952, contradicted this account of events for fear of it having a negative effect on the reputation of the port! 
Saint Austell courtesy ‘Clive Carter Collection at Cornish Studies Library’ cornishmemory.com
The purchaser was Mr. Kevin Lawler, a 29-year old marine engineer, originally from Athy, Co. Kildare but living at Kincora Road in Clontarf, Dublin. Lawler intended to make a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic to America in the schooner. He said that this was to answer a challenge made two years previously that he “had not got the courage to do it”.
After repairs and fitting out at Grand Canal Quay in Dublin and after a few postponements, the vessel finally left Howth on Holy Saturday, April 12 1952. An earlier attempt at a departure was not an auspicious one as the schooner was held in sand and had to wait the rising tide to be re-floated. The Saint Austell was to sail when winds were favourable (foresail, main and mizzen, easily hauled up by one man using a pulley block system) and sparing usage of an auxiliary diesel engine. Speaking to The Irish Press, Lawler said “I will go south about, on the Azores and Bahamas run. The best run at any time, of course, is the Canaries, West Africa and Brazil route, but,” he asked, “what would I be doing in Brazil?”
A number of friends accompanied Lawler as far as the Kish lightship and when other were saying farewell, Thomas McDonagh, described as a 40-year old labourer from Baldoyle, Co. Dublin hid as a stowaway in the hold. At 8p.m., McDonagh came on deck. 
At 1a.m. on Sunday the engine stopped. At 4pm. on Sunday, the Irish Lights vessel at Coningbeg saw the Saint Austell, apparently with broken-down engines, drifting inside the Coningbeg Rock. It remained in this dangerous area until midnight. Earlier in the day the Saint Austell, with the Tricolour fluttering from her masthead, had exchanged signals with a Dutch vessel. 
John Power’s A Maritime History of County Wexford states, “When off the Wexford Coast, she was observed from the lookout at Rosslare Harbour to be going around in circles for some time inside the dangerous Hantoon Bank off Wexford Harbour”.
After the engine had stopped, Lawler worked on it all day and all night but without any success. He again tried on Monday morning but the engine went on fire. The flames spread rapidly.  William Hamilton, principal keeper at Hook lighthouse was on duty and shortly after dawn saw a glare out to sea. He telephoned Dunmore East lifeboat station giving the location of the Saint Austell. Fearing that the lifeboat would not arrive in time, Mr. Hamilton later decided to get help from the nearby fishing village of Slade, where he roused Thomas Williams, Thomas Barry and Martin Fortune. The four men left at once for the blazing ship in Mr. Barry’s motor vessel Sunflower.
When rescued, McDonagh was only semi-conscious. Lawler did not appear to be any worse for his experience. The men had been in the water for over an hour and had clung to a floating ladder. As they were being hauled aboard the Sunflower, the Dunmore East lifeboat drew alongside. There was a loud explosion on the Saint Austell as the boats drew away. There was no lifesaving equipment aboard the stricken vessel apart from a rubber dinghy, which could not be launched, having been burnt out. Some minutes after the rescue craft arrived on the scene, the foremast of the Saint Austell, which was carrying a large amount of diesel oil (1,000 gallons or 1,500 gallons – depending on which newspaper you read), collapsed.
Lawler and McDonagh were brought to the home of Mrs. Richard Barry, Slade, the local representative of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Association. Here, Dr. O’Dwyer of Duncannon attended them. Later, it was learned that the two men were removed to Wexford Hospital for observation. 
Mr. Arthur Wescott-Pitt, Honorary Secretary of the Dunmore East lifeboat gave an interview to an Evening Herald reporter and said “Lawler told me that it all happened in a flash”. The boat, which was still blazing several hours later was then located just off the coast about three miles east of the Hook Tower where it was driven ashore.
Misfortune at sea seems to have followed Kevin Lawler. The Irish Press reported as a footnote to their account of the Saint Austell rescue that on August 1st of the previous year, Lawler and five companions were sailing towards the Welsh coast in the steam trawler Lady Fry when it sprang a leak off Holyhead and sank. They were rescued by another trawler. 
I endeavoured to research press cuttings in Irish newspapers about this incident but was unable to find any further information.  A headline in the Irish Press on Wednesday April 16 1952, two days after the dramatic rescue said, “Shipwrecked voyager says I’ll try again – I’ll get another boat somehow” says 29-year-old Kevin Lawler, the Athy marine engineer whose attempt to sail the Atlantic in the motor ketch, Saint. Austell, ended when the vessel caught fire off the Wexford coast. The report goes on to say, “The Saint. Austell was not insured and Lawler estimates that his loss is well over £2,000”.
On May 26 1952, in ‘Along the Waterfront’ a marine miscellany in the Irish Press, writer Mac Lir reports that Kevin Lawler had a new steam trawler Mint. He signed Thomas McDonagh on as the cook. Whether Mint ever attempted to sail the Atlantic, I shall leave to others to research!
Thank you David for another slice of a fascinating early life in Dunmore East and the harbour.  You can read David’s earlier account of growing up in the fishing village and the characters he met here.  If you have a piece you would like to submit for consideration to the guest blog, all I ask is that it relates to Waterford harbour or our rivers, increases the knowledge and appreciation of our rich maritime heritage and is approximately 1200 words long. Please contact me via russianside@gmail.com or indeed if you know of someone who is interested in this topic can you let me know and I will happily follow them up.


Since then Frank Norris posted the following text and photo to the Waterford Maritime History Facebook page today 20th Feb 2018 and with his permission it is gratefully reposted

Schooner “St. Austell” dep. Dublin area April 1952 skipper  Kevin Lawler for single-handed voyage to America.  According to a press clipping I had,  when he attempted to start the engine off Hook Head a starter cartridge blew out of the engine and set a barrel of oil afire.  A stowaway then emerged from below decks.  Both men abandoned and were picked up by the Dunmore East lifeboat.   The wreck drifted onto rocks in Slade area and Bobby Shortall, a projectionist at the Coliseum in the days of Miss.Kerr, and possibly Tony O’Grady who later became a Chief Officer with Irish Shipping and Brian O’Connor   and I decided to go and see it.  We cycled to Passage East and crossed over on Patsy Barrons ferry, a half-deck fishing boat, to Ballyhack.   I think it costed 4pence and if the ferry was on the other side of the river you hoisted a flag to call it. Then onto Slade area and after trudging across some fields we found the wreck.   Burnt-out almost down to the waterline with the engine visible.   I wonder if the engine is still there?