The Gladiator Mystery

In April 1898 some of the people of New Ross were disturbed to see what they understood to be a Royal Navy gunship, moored in the town with an intention to suppress the commemoration of the 1798 uprising.  But was this the real purpose of this ship, and where had it come from?  That’s what I had hoped to uncover with this story.

After a sick house over Christmas it was early January before we could get out and about and our first trip was to New Ross.  My wife had a message to conclude with Forrestal’s Jewellers, and while Deena joined a large queue inside the door, in an effort to maintain the male stereotype, I chose to have a jaunt around the town.  Using Myles Courtney’s walking guide – New Ross Street Focus of course.

Gladiator at New Ross 1898. Cavanagh Collection, J Fitzgibbon

Although there is always something to catch the eye in the town, (indeed I caused a bit of a twitter sensation with a crows foot post from the Quay which I hope to blog about soon) this time I dwelled on an old photo on a wall in Quay Street. 

The photo showed a paddle steamer tied up to a landing stage on the quay, and came via Jimmy Fitzgibbon from his wonderful collection of plate glass negatives from the Cavanagh Collection. Named the Gladiator, and in obvious immaculate condition, I could not help but wonder at the purpose of the vessel and the year in which it was taken.

A search online yielded a puzzling story from April 1898.  The New Ross Standard reported that the town of New Ross (or certain sections) was in turmoil over the vessel Gladiator.  Here’s the account:

A Survey Boat causes a sensation

The arrival at New Ross on Saturday of the HMS Gladiator, for the purpose of surveying the harbour appeared to give rise to an interesting misconception. Indeed, a good many queer folk jumped to the conclusion that it was in an armed cruiser bent on an unfriendly mission that had entered the port and this view of the situation they endeavoured to force down other people’s throats. Furthermore, the queer folk went so far as to conjecture that the invasion was planned in order to overawe, and if necessary, supress the ’98 celebrations in the town. Well, the mists have been cleared by this time, and the unnecessary anxiety has passed away, for New Ross will not be shelled after all. The officers and men of the Gladiator number thirty-six all told. It is understood that the process of surveying the harbour in its entirety will take about three months

New Ross Standard – Saturday 23 April 1898; page 4
Another image of the vessel, the Gladiator at the Fish House New Ross 1898. Cavanagh Collection, J Fitzgibbon

I fully expected to find out more about the proposed survey, especially if it was to take 3 months, but alas I was to be disappointed.  For no other mention could I find in the local papers, and I had never come across the name before or covered it in a blog.  I did find that the HMS was incorrect, the Gladiator was listed as both a tug and a HMSV (Her Majesty’s Survey Vessel) at different times in accounts online.  The ship was built of iron by Brassey & Co of Birkenhead in 1874. At the time of the survey work she was owned by E Griffiths Brothers & Co of Wallsea, at the mouth of the River Mersey and she seems to have had been contracted out.

April 1905 as the work nears completion

Now my only real guess as to the survey work at the time in the Barrow was in connection with the building of the SW Wexford Railway Line.  In 1898 there were many mentions of disputes between the New Ross Harbour Commissioners and the Waterford Harbour Commissioners into the building of two bridges that would later be known as the Barrow Bridge and the Suir Bridge- topic of my next blog!

Around this time, the plan for the Barrow Bridge was to construct the railway line away from Drumdowney on the Kilkenny side, along by the riverfront, and to construct a bridge towards Kents Point on Great Island, and hence along the riverfront towards Campile where the Power Stations now lie.  Not long after the route was moved slightly inland and the crossing upriver, adding to the cost because of the tunneling of Drumdowney and cutting through part of Great Island.  All of this is just speculation, but the timing fits, and the area had to be surveyed, not just on land but on the river too.

If I come across any other details that will either confirm or clarify the intentions of the Gladiator, I will happily update the blog.  But at least the New Ross Standard confirmed over the summer that the commemorations took place and were widely attended – One event was helped considerably by the services of another paddle steamer, the PS Ida, which brought over 500 from the city and Glenmore for a hurling match in August.   

As is often the case, sometimes a blog post can shed some light on other queries, and so it was that post publication, marine artist Brian Cleare contacted me to say that the blog had helped to identify an unknown PS in Wexford – turns out the Gladiatior was alongside on the Wexford Town Quay around the same era! A conundrum that had Brian and Jack scratching their heads for some time, I had seen their queries myself but never made the connection