On a wild windy winter night in December 1888, the Belfast Barque Etta, rounded Hook Head in search of shelter, the lifeboat was signaled, but the ship was driven onto the rocks of Creaden Bay before the lifeboat could reach the vessel. Miraculously all but one were rescued from the vessel, thanks, in no small part, to the knowledge and seamanship of the ship’s captain James Arthurs. This is the tale of the Etta, which grounded in a gale on Friday 21st December 1888 sometime between 11 and 12 midnight.
According to Lloyd’s Register of Shipping 1890[i] the Etta was built in Quebec in 1863. She was registered under the company name of the Etta Ship Company, JS Wright, Belfast and was part owned by her master, Captain James Arthurs. She arrived in St John NB via Montevideo on November 5th 1888[ii]and after loading timber, sailed for the port of Fleetwood on Nov 29th.[iii] The ship encountered a succession of gales crossing the Atlantic and as they approached the Irish coast, a decision was made to run for shelter.
“…We intended coming into Waterford Harbour and knew our position well. Coming in we could see the Saltees and Hook Lights. We put in here through stress of weather, preferring this harbour to Queenstown under the circumstances. We…[came]…in here about 8 p.m… on 21st…We were under two lower top sails, reefed foresail and fore top mast stay sail. The master was in charge all through. When we got within about three miles of Duncannon we let go the starboard anchor… We had a stopper at about 47 fathoms. The chain parted…We then let go the port anchor. We had a stopper of new rope on the cable at 45 fathoms, This cable parted after it had all run out all but one fathom. The cables were each 90 fathoms on deck. Neither anchor brought the vessel to a stop or checked her in the least… We had three bower anchors, a stream anchor and a kedge anchor. I cannot say the weight of any of them. After the cables parted we backed all the yards, thinking that she would go astern. We set the main and fore lower topsails, reefed foresail and fore top stay sail. Wind hauling a little to the westward, she did not lay off. We tried to slip the cables and failed, and soon after she struck. The lead was going all through, the last cast being a quarter less six about the time the anchor was let go. We showed signals of distress, blue lights, rockets, and flare-ups…”[iv]Lloyd’s List – Wednesday 02 January 1889; page 3
As it transpired, fate played a hand. It was close to low water and rather than crash into a vertical cliff if the tide was in, the Etta grounded on the somewhat level, if jagged, rocks on the old red sandstone shore.
The Dunmore East lifeboat had spotted the distress signals and the crew of the Henry Dodd, rowed with all their might to the rescue. Although they could not get near the wreck in the conditions, they managed to rescue five of the sailors who had set off from the Etta in the ship’s boat, apparently before she struck. The timing of their leaving or what their crew mates thought is not described.
Meanwhile, locals ran along the cliffs, fields and roadways to lend what assistance they could. RIC Sargent Thomas Sutcliff was guided down to the wreck scene by a local labourer named James Redmond. They managed to get a line aboard the stranded vessel which was grinding and thumping into the jagged shoreline. Although news reports differ it seems that there were likely 12 remaining crew, Captain James Arthurs and his wife.
Sutcliff seems to have played a leading role in the proceedings, there is no mention of the Coastguard in the reports, even though they most certainly brought the rocket apparatus and equipment, that would eventually bring the crew and Mrs Arthurs ashore. Redmond again proved his worth, when he plunged into the surf to assist the captain’s wife who seems to have become overcome in the chair.[v]
Some accounts state that despite the pleas of those ashore, Captain Arthurs refused to leave his vessel, perhaps determining that his ship would survive the merciless pounding on the shore. Captain Arthurs from Islandmagee, on the east coast of County Antrim, was 2/3rds owner of the vessel and perhaps he gambled that if he stayed with the vessel he would not lose his profits on the trip to any salvage claim. The news report claimed that the cargo was not insured. It also stated that he was familiar with Waterford, so perhaps there was an element of calculated risk in where the ship came ashore? Alas, in full view of his rescuers, his crew and his wife, a breaking sea washed him off his feet and over the side never to be seen again.[vi]
The local police as well as many from the surrounding locality “…rendered valuable assistance in attending to the shipwrecked crew and Mrs Arthurs. They were all subsequently taken charge of by Mr Edward Jacob, local secretary of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, and forwarded to their homes at the expense of that benevolent institution…”[vii]
The ship, however, survived. The wind seems to have moderated on the flood tide, and the next morning the Etta was seen hard aground but upright. Later the local tug Dauntless put a crew aboard which stripped down the masts and rigging and tried to hold the vessel together.[viii]
An effort to sell the wreck fell through, as most bidders felt the ship and cargo were doomed. Several attempts were made to refloat the vessel, in a desperate scramble to salvage the ship and the cargo before the weather turned again. Eventually, on Monday 31st December 1888, it was reported locally that the tug Dauntless and the PS Rosa managed to haul the wreck off the shoreline. I’m presuming that the weather had stayed calm, and with spring tides and some patchwork and bailing, the vessel floated clear. [ix]
The Etta was brought to the relative safety above Creaden Head where she was anchored. Soon afterwards, the vessel, lying on her beam end, was towed up to Cheekpoint by the Liverpool based tug Pathfinder. [x] It would appear she was grounded at the village, perhaps along the Strand Road. Some of the cargo was removed and presumably, an assessment of the hull took place.
In early February two tugs were in position at Cheekpoint, but had tried unsuccessfully to get the Etta off the shore. The owners of the Etta, J S Wright & Co, Corporation St., Belfast had decided that the vessel could be towed back to her home port following some repairs to the hull.[xi] The floating nature of the cargo may have also played a role – earlier plans to remove the timber cargo and sell it in Waterford had been changed. Perhaps the cargo was employed as an aid to buoyancy? I am only speculating here of course.
Eventually, the ship was towed clear and was taken by the steam tug Rescuer out the harbour to bring her home.[xii] But that wasn’t the final drama because the tug ran into stormy weather in the Irish Sea and later it was reported that the waterlogged Etta was labouring badly in Belfast Lough and the tug was having a difficult time getting to her home port.[xiii] The Etta was made of strong timbers however, and in March the cargo that had taken so long to reach its destination was finally advertised for sale, although the advert did caution that the timber was a little darker, as the vessel that carried them had been ashore. An understatement for sure, given all that had transpired[xiv].
The only victim of the Etta was her master, Captain James Arthurs. There were hopes that when the vessel came clear of the rocks at Creaden his corpse might float clear too. Indeed it was widely reported that his body was retrieved from near the wrecksite that same day. A follow-up report however confirmed that no body had been retrieved and an appeal was made for people to keep an eye out. Perhaps as an inducement, it was reported that the “hardy old sailor” had £200 in gold on his person when he was lost over the side.[xv] I could find no record of his body ever being retrieved, however.
The only mention I could find of Captain Arthurs in the local papers of Antrim gave the following, scant detail. “…The members of Islandmagee Masonic Lodge, No. 162, heard with sincere regret of the sad loss at sea of their worthy brother, Captain James Arthurs, who for many years was a faithful and honoured member of their lodge, and at their first meeting since his death desire to express their sympathy with his bereaved widow and sorrowing friends, and pray that the Great Architect of the Universe may comfort and sustain them under their sad bereavement.”[i]
As is so often the case, the fate of the Etta and her crew gets lost in the mist of time. One aspect of the story however is the role that Captain Arthurs played. He decided to run for shelter, he, it seems, knew Waterford harbour well. Did he also know the lay of the land at Creaden Bay and that he was sailing to the ship’s doom, but that there was a fighting chance of survival? Had he weighed up the odds, and thought there’s a fighting chance given the wind, tide, and the geography of the shoreline in the specific part of the Bay he grounded. It seems to me that he did, but perhaps that is the romantic in me looking for a nice hook to the story. If any reader could add anything to the man’s career which might corroborate or dismiss such a conclusion I would be delighted to have it.
Below is a new initiative to try pinpoint each wreck using google maps which I will update as new blogs are completed and which I hope will cover the entire coast of Waterford in years to come
For a different account and in particular, the award for bravery given to Sargent Sutcliff see David Carroll’s book on the Dunmore East RNLI – Dauntless Courage.
[i] https://archive.org/details/HECROS1890/page/n87/mode/1up Accessed 22/12/2023