Harbour Hobblers

Last Saturday I had the good fortune to
call over to Waterford Airport to see the materials that were uncovered by Noel
McDonagh at Creaden Head, Co Waterford. 
While there we got into a conversation with Michael Farrell of the
Barony of Gaultier Historical Society and Brendan Dunne and his son Ian about
the area around Creaden and one curious place name that jumped out at me was
the Hobblers Rock.  The feature is on the
upper side of the headland, in a sheltered spot, and was a departure point for
the hobblers and their boats in a vital element of our maritime trade, ship
pilotage and docking.
The term Hobbler was first introduced to me
as a boy, listening to the stories of my father and the older men of
Cheekpoint. Their definition has been challenged by others, enhanced or
diminished, depending on who you listen to.  Indeed many look at you, if you mention the word, like you had another head.  Thinking more likely about Hobbits!
Hobbler attending the MV Julia at Waterford circa 1950
Shortall via the Andy Kelly collection
According to my father a hobbler was defined as one of a team of
men who rowed down the harbour in long punts and vied with each other to have
the right to guide a ship into Waterford or New Ross. He admired them as hard working, tough and
resilient men who could row miles off the Hook to engage a craft, and if need be, tow a
ship past Cheekpoint up through the Kings Channel and into the city. (Or via the Barrow to New Ross) Crews were
made up from all the villages and the towns and the competition between crews was fierce. 
The method of securing the right to take charge of a ship has
variations in its telling too. Some said
that it was a straightforward race; first hobbler team to get a rope aboard the
incoming vessel secured the prize. However I have also heard that bidding wars took place with ships
masters, when conditions allowed. Competing hobbler teams would be forced into a bidding war, resulting in bad feeling, scuffles or much worse. My father had one story of a man named Whistler who lost almost all his teeth in a row with another hobbler. As my father had it, thereafter you would hear the Whistler coming because of the wind blowing through his damaged teeth! 
Other accounts say that it was just a
couple of men in a boat, which met incoming boats and won the right to tie them
up. Others talk of winning the right to
discharge or load ships. Whilst others
again talk of them almost in terms of a modern era tug boat, used to move ships
from moorings to berths and vice versa.  Another
curious aspect of the hobbler story is that in Cheekpoint one theory of the
site known locally as “the Lookout” was also linked to them.  I’ve speculated before on a link to this site
and other lookout points as a signaling system employed within the port.
Hobblers mooring a WWI era troop ship. Artist Charles Pears.
First published in the Illustrated London News Jan 1916

With the formation of the Waterford Harbour
Board[1] in
1816 piloting became more organised and pilot boats were employed to put recognised
pilots aboard ships.  This must certainly
have impacted the role of the hobbler, but not completely (I’ve seen accounts of hobblers piloting as late as 1894). I also read
that on the south coast of England “Hovellers” [2]
were a description of the craft or men that sailed as far as Lands End at times
in search of incoming ships in need of a pilot. Indeed the term also existed in Cork and Dublin (I haven’t seen it recorded elsewhere as yet). David Carroll has only recently sent me a book[3]
highlighting their courage and skill, including one poignant story of a
hobblers crew demise.

The Hobbler memorial at Dun Laoighre.  Photo via Derek Carroll and passed along by page regular David Carroll

I’m now convinced that the reason so many
definitions or accounts of hobblers exist, is because the stories I have heard
come from at least two hundred years of maritime trade. Their roles altered as times changed, perhaps initially with the
formation of the Harbour Board and the formalisation of pilotage. Increases in sailing ships with auxiliary engines, and steam boats must
have been the next phase. 

For me, Hobblers Rock in Creaden is a
very important maritime place name connection with the port of Waterford and New Ross’
past.  A point from which I’m sure men
had a lookout post, and where a wary eye was kept on the horizon, and hardened
fishermen waited impatiently for a sail to be sighted and the cry to go up of “sail ahoy”.  Mighty men, deserving
I finally got to the monument in Oct 2018
Phioto courtesy of Michael Farrell 

[2] A Dictionary of the Worlds Watercraft.  The Mariners Museum. 2000.  Chatham Publishing
[3] A Maritime History of Ringsend. 
2000.  Sandymount Community
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Passage East Quarantine Hospital

The quarantine station at Passage East was used in the past as a place where sick sailors could be held under observation, to ensure that the ports of Waterford and New Ross were protected from diseases such as Cholera.  I first heard of it as a child when fishing, as it was often mentioned as a placename, when we drifted downriver for salmon. The site is above the village of Passage on the Waterford side and it was little more than a step on the rivers edge in those days.  But the story had the power to scare, and I never once went near the location for fear of catching the plague!
OSI Historic map excerpt of the hospital
The stories I heard were of ships calling to the harbour being held at Passage and Ballyhack until they were cleared by customs to continue upriver to Waterford and New Ross. Captains were required to report the health of the ships company, and any sick sailors were expected to be declared, either to the custom officials directly or by the hoisting of a flag (the yellow jack) which led to a punt being rowed out to the vessel and the sailor, or sailors being taken ashore to the hospital. The ship was then anchored away from others to await news of the sailor in an area designated as “quarantine grounds”. In some cases it appears that ships coming from ports where illnesses had been reported, could expect to be detained. They would anchor away from others, and I had heard there was an actual spot near Buttermilk for excluding ships.

Passage Hospital via Paul O’Farrell and from an original via NLI
panoramic album photos circa 1907/8.

Quarantine has a long history, most probably originating with the black death in Europe in the 14th Century where it took millions of lives. The concerns for ship borne diseases grew and from the early 1700’s laws were enacted in the UK and Ireland to protect ports and citizenry. In some cases ships were used to guard harbours, here’s an example from Liverpool. Evidence about the local hospital however is scarce, and apart from the local folklore (always in my experience containing many grains of truth) little seems to be written about the building or its history. Online sources deal with the issue of quarantine in general, and highlight just how prevalent it was at all the major ports*.

The earliest mention I could find in the newspapers for Passage was from 1884 (1). Under a heading of Waterford Board of Guardians, we are told via a sub heading of a meeting of the board (best known for their overseeing of the workhouses and administering the poor laws). There are efforts afoot to take back control of the Quarantine Hospital, the keys of which were then in the hands of a builder who had refurbished the building at a cost of £200.(2)

Quarantine ship at Standgate Creek (Medway)
By Unknown – UK National Maritime Museum, Public Domain,
In June 1905 the Waterford Standard (3) covers another meeting of the Board, and the minutes reveal a letter received from the workhouse, seeking permission for sick children to be allowed attend Passage Hospital. The Board however, is no longer in charge. It passed to the control of the Waterford and New Ross Port Sanitary Authority in 1904.

HMS Hazard flying the yellow jack 1841
source: National Maritime Museum, London

In 1910 we learn of a dispute amongst members of the Waterford and New Ross Port Sanitary Authority where the building is referred to as an Intercepting Hospital(4). Following a cholera outbreak in Russia and three cholera incidents; on two separate ships in London (where a quarantine hospital is based close to Gravesend), and an incident in Italy, a circular has issued from the Local Government Board of Ireland urging the need for up to date disinfecting devices to treat the clothing and bedding of quarantined sailors. The article provides lots of heat, by way of argument, but not much light! Readers will be delighted to hear that a sub committee was to be formed, if any cases arose.

The most recent mention comes from 1949 (5), when we are told the Intercepting Hospital which was under the control of the Waterford and New Ross Port Sanitary Authority has passed to the control of the Health Authority.

To conclude what better than a memory from a member of the fishing community. Eamon Duffin shares this recollection with me from a fishing trip in the 1950’s;
I remember calling in there with my grandfather, Jimmy Duffin, on the way back from salmon fishing. There was a concrete landing stage with iron railings. The building was of rusting galvanised sheets. You could see old iron beds with bedclothes and pillows thrown on them and on the floor. There were bottles and jars and dressings strewn about also. That was as far as we got as my grandfather said that, “you wouldn’t know what you’d catch if you went in”.

The landing stage as it looks now

My thanks to Paul O’Farrell, John O’Sullivan, James Doherty, Bernard Cunningham, Pat Moran and Eamon Duffin for assistance with this piece

Since publication Paul O’Farrell sent on the following list of Irish quarantine stations on the Island of Ireland, from government papers dated 1828  –

  • Poolbeg in the harbour of Dublin
  • Warren point in the harbour of Newry
  • near Garmoyle in the harbour of Belfast
  • Tarbert in the River Shannon, harbour of Limerick,
  • Baltimore,
  • Passage on the River Suir, Harbour of Waterford,
  • White Gate, Cove of Cork
  • Green Castle, Lough Foyle and
  • Black Rock, Galway Bay

Also a link I have since found, dating an order for the establishment at Passage to 1824
http://www.dippam.ac.uk/eppi/documents/9788/page/214351.  This must have been a temporary station, or an area designated as a quarantine ground as a later blog post revealed that there was no hospital in place during a cholera outbreak in the country in 1832.

Childhood memories of the Cheekpoint pilot boat

A picture paints a thousand words they say, and that was
proven yet again recently when Catherine Heffernan posted to the Cheekpoint
Faithlegg and Coolbunnia Facebook page. 
The photo was of the Morning Star II, the pilot boat that operated from
Cheekpoint when we were children and it brought the memories flooding back.

Morning Star II photo from Catherine Heffernan White

My Uncle Sonny returned from sea in the early 1970’s and
took up the role of pilot boat officer from the village, servicing the port of New Ross.  His boat the Morning Star II was
a familiar feature, and it was rare that you wouldn’t find Sonny standing on
the quayside waiting for a boat, or in my Aunt Ellen’s house having a cup of tea in between boats.

The Cheekpoint pilot boat serviced ships entering or leaving
New Ross. Because of our location at the point where the three sisters meet, the Barrow, Nore and Suir, and the junction to the two port, Cheekpoint was a logical choice for such activities.  I can’t say I have yet discovered when the practice started but I do recall a photo, below, which depicts a pilot officer house, where pilots waited on ships from the late 1800’s, and I’m guessing it was at least for most of that century.  Hobblers would have been to the fore prior to that.

Pilot House in the left corner of photo, AH Poole

New Ross pilots
departed outgoing ships at Cheekpoint, or joined incoming ships to pilot the
ships up through the Barrow Bridge to New Ross. I’ve blogged about the difficulties caused by the bridge before.  It also marked the point where the Waterford
pilots took over.  Hence a Waterford pilot relieved his New Ross counterpart and took the ship to the mouth of the
harbour, and was then relived of his duty and taken to Dunmore by the Betty
Breen.  They also obviously performed the
reverse role.

Of the pilots themselves I can only remember a few.  The New Ross pilots of the time were my Uncle John of course, and Mickey Duffin, Kevin Barry of Fethard and a Dutchman who I can only recall a smiling face and a smell of cigars.  Of the Waterford pilots  Willie Hearne, Pat Rodgers, John Whitty and the Walsh brothers and come to mind.

What made the whole affair so memorable was that Sonny would regularly take us children aboard the Morning Star II when he was going out to a ship.  We’d be hanging around the quay, fishing for flats
with sprat bait, or playing rounders or soccer on the village green.  Sonny would give the nod and we would
carefully hop aboard and sit on a small midship deck that housed the inboard
engine.  The Morning Star was no more
than 22 feet long, but beamy, and a whole gang of us could easily sit in
Local and visitor alike were taken aboard and away the whole
party went.  We were always the happier if the pilot was coming from Ross and had to
be dropped to the Island Quay, at Great Island. 
It made for a longer trip.  Or
other times the Waterford pilot might be put on an outgoing ship, the New Ross pilot come
aboard, and then away to an incoming ship, which he re-boarded to take to New

Pilot boat Crofter working at Cheekpoint this week

The scene was familiar to
me from an early age.  Ship sited at
Ballinlaw, coming towards the Barrow Bridge. 
Sonny would slip the painter from the ladder at the quay, negotiate the salmon
punts moored at the quay, cursing a floating anchor rope.  As the ship came though the Bridge, Sonny
would get into position, lining up with the bow of the ship and approaching at
an angle to close the gap.  As we neared there was always
a flutter in my belly, the ship which looked small at the distance, rearing up
and glaring down upon us the nearer we approached.  Always a curious smell, particular
to ships a mixture of food, diesel oil and cargo such as fertiliser, oil or

The ladder was down at the ships
side, two deckhands waiting at the gunwale of the ship.  We come alongside, Sonny gunning the engine
to maintain position with the ship, the pilot deftly hops upon the jacob ladder and
ascends, something none of us would probably ever choose to do.  Sonny casually looking
around, seemingly oblivious to the anxiety we felt, would he fall away from the
ship coming close if not under the churning propeller astern, would we be
sucked beneath the side.  Then having being relived
in the wheelhouse, the New Ross pilot would be seen sauntering down the side of
the ship, leg out over and onto the ladder, and waved off by the crew.  Once he had a foot aboard, Sonny with a deft
touch on the wheel effortlessly drew the Morning Star II away and departed from
the ship.

Pilot climbing the Jacob ladder
via: newsfromthebow.wordpress.com

My preference was for going alongside tankers, which rather
than a high side, had a railing and you could see much more of the ship and her
fittings. The NO SMOKING sign seemed strangely out of place on a ship, as
everyone I associated with ships and pilotage smoked, well, with the exception
of Sonny. 

All in all a magical era.  A time when health and safety and all manner
of regulation were yet to be devised and jobs to oversee them yet to be created.  In some ways it was a bad time for children.  We know that from the various scandals that
have come to light.  But it was also a
great time to be a child, when we had freedom, were left to create our own entertainment,
when parental fears, screen time and mobile devices were yet to suck up so much of children’s time and

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The unique but crumbling “Spider Light”

Let us honour if we can, the vertical man
Though we value none, but the horizontal one

These lines from Auden often come to mind when someone dies, and particularly when I realise just how much I used to rely on them, or value them.  I’ve mentioned this about my deceased father on more than one occasion. He was renowned for his tall tales and good company. But what many dismissed as yarns I’ve proven several times as based on fact, most recently the story of Press Gangs.

I’m afraid I took my Father for granted when he was alive, how many times have I wished I could chat to him since he died. But if we can feel a loss at human presence is it not also possible to miss a feature of our lives, such as a building too? This came to mind recently when a friend of mine John O’Sullivan made a plea on Facebook concerning, what we locals would know as the “Spider light” at Passage East.  You see the Spider light, which is more officially known as the Passage East Spit Light, is slowly falling asunder and unless some remedial action is taken will crumble away into the harbour currents and fade from our lives altogether.

The “Spider light” from Passage East
the structure up close, via Barony of Gaultier Historical Society
According to the Lighthouse Directory the Spider light dates to 1867 and was one of four built in the country. The man who designed it, and who won a world wide patent for the technology used, was a Dublin born engineer named Alexander Mitchell. His patent was known as the “Mitchell Screw Pile Mooring System” or in modern parlance the “Helical Pile” and has been used in the building of lighthouses, bridges and piers etc. It was specifically for use in strong tidal conditions where shifting sands were a threat to foundations. His technology was said to be inspired by the use of a corkscrew.
Sheer force and sea shanties

The system itself though basic, took a number of weeks to complete.  First a working platform was positioned on the chosen site.  Each pile was then individually screwed into place by a team of men working a capstan winch.  As they worked, they sang sea shanties.  And Mitchell, although completely blind, since the age of 22, was generally in the thick of it.  Once the piles were driven on the corners of the site a central pile was driven to complete it and then the light platform was constructed from there.

Mitchell died in 1868, a year after the Spider light was completed.  I can’t find any mention of his working on it, however he was active up to his death and several of his sons were engaged in the trade, so if not he, then probably his sons overlooked the work at Passage. Unfortunately I could find nothing in a brief search of the newspaper archives. I’m sure some account is there, and certainly the minute book of the Harbour Commissioners would be informative.
Alexander Mitchell 1780 -1868
Next year the Spider light will reach is 150th year of operation.  In that time it has effectively marked the entrance to the inner harbour and ports of Waterford and New Ross.  It has seen a legion of merchant ships, naval vessels, pleasure craft and fishing boats safely upriver.  It has also welcomed many a tall ship.  One of the old “buoy gang” of the harbour told me that he recalled it being refurbished last in the late 60’s, but this blog piece highlights that the fabric of the light have been slowly eroded over time. I believe that the current plan is that the Spider Light be decommissioned and I guess either allowed crumble, or be removed. A replacement pole! with a light atop is now positioned to mark the spit.
Now John’s plea was driven by a sense of outrage I think. A pal of his had shared a photograph (below) of a similar lighthouse in Cork harbour close to Cobh. The comparisons are clear for anyone to see. The Spider is clearly un-cared for, whilst the cork lighthouse has recently been refurbished and offers a practical stylish use and historical link to times past in the Cork harbour area.
Via Derrick O’Neill Skinner 23/4/16
I know that the Port of Waterford (having replaced the Commissioners), which is tasked to maintain the beacon, has struggled financially in recent years. And it’s pointless to compare the two ports. (And in their defense, I understand that the Cork lighthouse was damaged by a ship strike some years back and insurance may have provided the much needed restoration work there.)  All that being said however, I do believe that if the port was to seek support from the harbour area and the mariners who ply its waters, that the necessary funds and expertise could be leveraged to maintain this heritage landmark.
Too often we lament those that are gone, and wish we had done something about it.  The Port Lairge comes to mind.  Are we to lose yet another feature of our maritime heritage?  One hopes not.

Many thanks to John O’Sullivan and his friends who gathered a lot of information about the topic. Thanks also to the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society  who have promoted the cause of the lighthouse.

Extra information -http://www.buildingsofireland.ie/Surveys/Buildings/BuildingoftheMonth/Archive/Name,1402,en.html

A piece on Alexander Mitchell.  http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/alexander-mitchell-1780-1868-belfasts-blind-engineer/

Blog piece by Pete

County Waterford Lighthouses link incl Spider and Dunmore East