Remembering the Formby and Coningbeg

SS Formby

Within two days in December 1917, Waterford experienced its worst maritime disaster with the sinking of Clyde Shipping’s SS Formby and SS Coningbeg. Of the 83 souls who perished 67 were from Waterford, the harbour, and hinterland including Faithlegg and Cheekpoint, and the effects were profound.  Because it was wartime, very little was written due to censorship, and many misunderstood the reasons behind it.  But in 1992 a Wexford man, Richard McElwee, committed pen to paper and finally told the full story of the loss.

The SS Formby was built by Caledon SB. & Eng. Co. Ltd., Dundee in 1914 and was considered the flagship of the Clyde shipping company. She was 270 feet long, 1283 tons and had a top speed of 14.5 knots. Although primarily a cattle transport vessel she could accommodate 39 first class and 45 steerage passengers.

SS Formby
SS Formby With thanks to Shaun McGuire who had it from a daughter of Thomas Coffey

The SS Coningbeg was originally SS Clodagh built for the Waterford Steamship company by Ailsa shipbuilders in Troon, Scotland, August 1903. When the company was sold to Clyde Shipping in 1912 she was renamed. In 1913 she underwent a total refit. She was also 270 feet long, 1278 tons, and capable of a top speed of 16.5 knots. She could carry between 5-600 head of cattle and 86 first-class and 74 steerage passengers. 

The ships ran a twice-weekly service carrying passengers, livestock, foodstuff, and general cargo from Waterford and returning with passengers and general cargo from Liverpool. The trip was 16hrs one way and both ships had a reputation for strict timekeeping.  

As WWI raged the ships and crews were constantly in danger.  Not alone did they assist the war effort, but they kept both sides of the Irish sea fed.  More importantly for themselves, no doubt, the crews provided food and an income for their own families.

Both ships had had skirmishes with U Boats and one example I found from the Munster Express of Feb 1915 concerned the Irish sea being temporarily closed to shipping due to a U Boat threat. The Coningbeg was confined to Waterford port which caused mayhem as her cargo of cattle had to be unshipped and accommodated elsewhere. Meanwhile, the families of the Formby gathered under an increasing cloud, fearful as there were unfounded rumours that she was sunk.  Later that month, the Kerry News ran a story that the Coningbeg failed to put to sea, due to a dispute between the crew and the owners over a war bonus for the risks they were taking.

SS Coningbeg
SS Coningbeg ex Clodagh

At 11 am on Saturday 15th December the SS Formby slipped her moorings and traveled out the Mersey and into the Irish sea. Aboard were 37 crew and 2 passengers.  She was due into Waterford the following morning, but when she did not arrive there was only a minor concern.  As Saturday had progressed a storm of sleet and snow had developed and had become a gale overnight, causing widespread damage.  In Waterford, it was presumed the Formby was sheltering and would be into port later on Sunday. She never arrived.  As the fears grew it was decided to send word to Liverpool to halt the sailing on the Coningbeg.  No telegrams could be sent, however, as all the lines were down following the storm.

Having sat out the storm in Liverpool, the Coningbeg set sail for Waterford on Monday 17th December at 1 pm.  Oblivious to the concerns in Waterford she departed with a crew of 40 and 4 passengers. When she failed to arrive pandemonium ensued.  Family, relatives, neighbours, and friends gathered at the Clyde company offices for any scrap of news.  Over Christmas, the vigil continued but on Thursday 27th December the company felt obliged to write to each family confirming everyone’s worst fears, that they could no longer hold any hopes for their loved one’s return.

Of the ships, no trace was reported.  Locally it was considered to be too much of a coincidence that two fine ships would both disappear within two days of each other, except through hostile involvement. A special appeal fund was created to fundraise and provide for the seamen’s families until such time as they could qualify for the Board of Trade War Loss Pension (1920 in some cases). The appeal fund was still in use in 1927.

In time the body of the Formby stewardess Annie O’Callaghan would wash ashore in Wales, the only body to be recovered apparently (or at least positively identified).  The remains of two lifeboats and a nameplate of the Formby also.  But it would be the publication of Ernest Hashagens war diary which would finally confirm the fate of both ships, blasted from the Irish sea without any warning, or chance to get to their lifeboats, by the U Boat U-62.  

The old Clyde Shipping Co Offices
The old Clyde Shipping Co Offices, Waterford Quay where families waited over Christmas 1917 for news

There is now a significant memorial, situated on the quay of Waterford which lists all the names (as does the link here written by a fellow Cheekpoint man) and was unveiled by the then president of Ireland Mary Robinson in February 1997. They are also remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London to merchant seamen, the Dunmore East memorial wall to Waterford seafarers, and the more recent memorial wall in Dungarvan to those who died in WW I.

If you would like to hear the story here’s a fine audio piece from the BBC on the sinkings and aftermath narrated by Julian Walton

To subscribe for free to get the blog to your inbox email

which will generate an offer email asking you to subscribe,

Subscription is free, and you can unsubscribe at any time

For daily events/updates

Remembering the Schooner Lapwing

On the 9th of November* 1917 a small schooner slipped her moorings at Waterford Quays and sailed out of the harbour and towards the Irish Sea.  Her destination was Cardiff Wales. But she never arrived.  At the centenary of the end of the First World War, I thought it fitting to remember a small incident in the context of the war, but no less significant for the families left behind. What was the fate of the Schooner Lapwing?
The schooner Lapwing was registered in the port of Arbroath, where she had been built.
She was of 110 gross tons and 95 net and measured 84.0’ length x 21.4’  beam x 10.5’ depth. She was owned at the time by several people from Arklow in Co Wicklow, but largely by members of the Kearon family.
SV Lapwing. Photo credit Arklow Maritime Museum
Schooners had originated in America but had quickly spread to Europe as their size and sailing capacity made them a favourite for the shorter coastal trade and the difficulties associated with navigating smaller harbours and estuaries.  I could only find a few mentions of her coming into local ports, two in particular are worth recalling.  In 1909 a young sailor boy named Patrick Hogan was recorded as having taken his own life while in port at New Ross.[i]  Another account from 1912 describes a collision between her and the Dublin steam pilot boat as she entered port, resulting in severe damage to the schooner.[ii]

On that fateful day in 1917, she departed the city with a cargo of pit props.  My understanding of this trade is that it was normally associated with freshly cut timber from
local estates which was drawn to the port and exported. The Lapwing most probably had arrived previously with a load of coal.

The Lapwing that day was sailing into treacherous waters.  We’ve previously examined the
ferocious naval campaigns being waged off the Irish coast, sometimes referred
to as the “killing lanes” where U Boats and mines were a constant threat.  From February 1917 the German Navy had initiated their unrestricted U Boat Campaign, meaning that ships would be sunk on sight with no warnings.  It was a response to the desperation they felt at home and the near starvation of her citizens.
Families of course could not be sure of when they might hear from loved ones, so it was probably a matter of weeks before they would even begin to have concerns.  And even then
how could they know for sure.  Were they weather bound? Had they struck a mine? Had they succumbed to U Boat attack?
Of the five man crew three were of the one family. Four were from Arklow including the skipper and part owner Joseph Kearon(65), his sons Edward(19 and George(17), George Tyrrell(18). The fifth crewman was from New Ross, Patrick Merrigan, Age 23 from Old Post Office Lane, New Ross, Co. Wexford**
The only other reference I can find to the boat or her crew dates from a court action in Arklow in 1918.[iii]  Mary Tyrell (sister of George) has taken an action on behalf of her mother against the owners of the Lapwing.  We are told only that since she left Waterford “…no tale or tidings have been heard since.” George Tyrell had only been aboard for two weeks and was employed as a cook.  Although there was some dispute about whether she was lost or not, this appears to have been accepted on the basis that the owners had received a settlement under the war risks. The court found in his mother’s favour.
I’m sure it was probably many years after the war before the families would know their loved ones fate for certain.  As it happens one account is that she struck a mine, and it has often been repeated. (A steamer SS Lapwing was struck by a mine a day later, and if you look at the link you may spot an error confirming that confusion still may exist as Kearon is listed as her master too!) However the true facts are that the ship was sunk by shellfire as she sailed towards Wales after being spotted by U-95.  Her last resting place here.
Perhaps for me one of the most frustrating things about the loss of the schooner was her obvious vulnerability.  In the following weeks the Coningbeg and Formby would be blasted from the Irish Sea too, but in their cases the U Boat had reason to be cautious.  They were steam driven and could have outrun the U boat, they could also have rammed her or they could also have fired on her, being armed and with naval gunners aboard.  But the Lapwing had nothing.  Five men on a timber ship at the mercy of the wind and tide.  A hard target to justify, except perhaps, she was unarguably an aid to the allied war effort. That perhaps and the fear that if they gave a warning to abandon the craft, she may have turned out a Q ship.

Tower Hill Memorial, London via

I’d imagine that as the media acknowledge the end of the First World War this weekend, most of the commentary will be about the guns falling silent and the troops leaving the trenches.  But for thousands of men and many women, it was just a different day as they struggled against the elements to keep lines of trade open.  Gone was the menace of U Boats, but mines would persist for many more years to come.  The majority of those who died at sea had no grave of course, but their names are recorded on the memorial to the merchant marine at London’s Tower Hill memorial

* From her position when sunk on the 10th  I’m assuming she left Waterford on this date**Patrick Merrigan of the Lapwing was a son of Patrick Merrigan River Pilot in New Ross. One of 9 children. He was 15 years and 3 months and described as a Labourer in the 1911 Census. Via Mark Minihan

I’d like to acknowledge the help of Arklow Maritime Museum and Brian Cleare in help with this piece.

Irish Times. September 25th 1909. P14
Irish Times. February 16th 1912.
Wicklow Newsletter and County Advertiser. October 26th 1918. P2.
I also can be found on you tube