On a dark November night in storm-force winds and driving rain, an Arklow schooner scurried up Waterford harbour in search of shelter. Within sight of the Spit Light below Passage East, the ship healed over stuck fast in the sand and her crew took to the rigging from where they signaled in the hope of salvation. Luckily for them, their signals were answered and four men departed Passage East in a fishing yawl. But the odds were against them and nothing but expertise and luck would ensure a positive outcome.
The schooner France Jane was built in 1858 in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her Arklow owners were Anne and Thomas J. Troy and she weighed 87 tonnes.[i] She was on a run with corn from Belfast to Courtmacsherry under Captain Furlong.
Like many schooners at the time, the Frances Jane would take any opportunities for cargo that were available, competing as they were with the more regular running steamships. Bulk cargos were a staple freight, or bagged or barrelled produce, anything that didn’t have a crucial delivery date. trips to smaller ports and out-of-the-way locations were also a means of making freight. Earlier in the summer, she had been tied up in Arklow with a cargo of coal which was advertised at knockdown prices in an attempt to clear her hold.[ii] In another sailing in September coal was again her cargo into her home port.
The run to Courtmacsherry was cut short by a strengthening gale of southeast wind, by far the worst to meet off the Hook, and in an effort to make shelter, the schooner made her way into the harbour. As the rain came down and the winds strengthened she beat her way further in until she ran aground on the Drumroe Bank.
Once stuck fast on the hard sands, her fate was sealed. With no other options, the crew took to the rigging to escape the surging seas breaking over her side, and lamps were lit and waved about in the hopes of a rescue. Fortunately, their lights were seen, and on Passage East quay four fishermen prepared their small open fishing boat to meet the challenge.
James Hearne, the skipper, had three other men with him, James Pepper, Richard Galvin, and Michael Sheehy. All the men are listed in the 1901 census as living in Passage East and all are married with a family. Hearne (age 36, fisherman) is married to Mary, a dressmaker. They have four children, the two eldest William and Ellen were born in Liverpool. Pepper (40, fisherman) is married to Statia and they have five children at the time. Richard Galvin (37, sailor) is married to Ellen, they are living with his mother-in-law, Catherine Daley. They have five children and a niece is also living with them. Patrick Sheehan (40, sailor) is married to Kate, and they have two teenage children.
Their small yawl was well used to facing the weather of the harbour and their experience would have told them that in the conditions, the closer they got to the stricken vessel the greater the danger they would face. As they pushed away from the quay they laid out the sweeps (oars) and bent their backs to their task. Rowing hard against the wind and rain, the men, who had no time to gather oilskins, were quickly soaked to the skin and the cold must have penetrated their jerseys despite the exertions. At one stage an oar was lost, and another snapped in two against the force of the seas. But on they battled with the two oars and eventually came alongside Frances Jane.
Hearne jumped aboard the stricken schooner and helped each of the sailors into the outstretched hands of his crewmates in the yawl. No details are given of the complexities of this, but I’m sure they would have come in under her leeward side (if the tidal conditional allowed) and in the shelter provided, make the transfer. Again nothing is made of the men going below to gather any valuables etc, mind you it was probably little enough they would have had. I also have no information on the names of Captain Furlong’s crew that night. Eventually, a sail was hoisted to bring them home, the sails filling with the now helpful wind, and soon they were at Passage East quay where the sailors and the fishermen alike were cared for with the attention that only a fishing and sailing village would know instinctively.[iii]
After the storm comes the calm it is said, and indeed such was the case in the days that followed. The schooner was seen wrecked and forlorn, but it was hoped that if the weather stayed calm she might be got off. Her cargo of wheat was salvaged and was later advertised for sale. “Mr. Patrick Bolger, auctioneer, New Ross, announces a very important sale of 260 barrels of fine Australian wheat, the salvaged cargo of the schooner Frances Jane, which recently came to grief in the harbour”[iv]
The schooner was not so fortunate, however, as the weather worsened and she became a total loss. I don’t know the ultimate fate of the crew thereafter, but I’m sure after a good night’s sleep, they were probably looking for a new berth to make their living from and would have shipped out at the earliest opportunity.
The rescue was widely reported and the skill and bravery displayed was eventually recognized. On Friday 30th January 1903 at the Waterford City Petty Sessions a public ceremony was conducted at which the four men were recognised by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. Mr. Wardell, secretary of the Tramore Lifeboat Committee, and Mr. Edward Jacob, Lloyd’s agent in Waterford, introduced the men and their accomplishments before asking that the magistrates present them with the certificates. Jacob explained that it was “…only common justice to the men that the attention of the Institution should have been called to their heroic action. The Institution considered the deed they had done was an act of the greatest bravery, and when the great risk that the men had run of losing their own lives was pointed out to them they could scarcely credit it. They even wrote for further particulars, and when finally satisfied they very handsomely rewarded men an act of downright actual courage and bravery, and would long be remembered”
All four received a velum certificate from the RNLI and £2 each. James Hearne and Richard Galvin were there to receive the award in person. Kate Sheehan and Statia Pepper attended instead of their husbands. The article gives no explanation for this, but most likely they were both at sea?) Hearne received an extra acknowledgment for the damage caused to his vessel of 55 shillings. (the damage included the sweeps, gunwales, and sails)
The wreck was an annoyance to fishermen and boatmen, but not to the normal traffic of the ports. An article in the Passage Notes of February 1903 rails against this injustice rightly pointing out that the wreck is an impediment to salmon fishermen and a risk to local boatmen, making a specific reference by description to the hobbler trade, though not by the name. The author articulates the view that because the wreck does not impinge on “…the grand electric lit steamers…” or the “…gondoliers…of the wealthy…” it has been ignored by the Harbour Commissioners. But I’m sure that after a few weeks the fishermen and sailors adapted, it is after all in their nature. Marks would have been taken and soon by day or night the position was identifiable by sighting hills, trees, spires, and other buildings along both shores of the harbour. Indeed the children of Passage helped too, as there was one account I came across that mentions them hacking and sawing away on the timbers of the wreck.
It was not until the summer of 1951 that the wreck was finally removed warranting a few lines in the Munster Express: “The Remains of the wreck of the Frances Jane, mentioned in this column last week, was removed from the Spit Bank by orders of the Harbour Commissioners during the week…”[iii] Sad to think the names of the Passagemen involved didn’t get a mention on this occasion, especially when you consider their bravery that night in the rescue of the crew of the Frances Jane. At that stage, all those men would have been dead of course, and would be recalled only by family and by the village elders who rarely let such memories die. A brave deed worthy of remembering and never to be forgotton.
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I’m indebted to Brian at www.arklowmaritimeheritage.ie for the information I have included on the schooner Frances Jane. Thanks also to Fintan Walsh who had first shared an account of the men and which got me interested in the story.