Tragic end to the PS City of Bristol

The City of Bristol departed the quay of Waterford in November 1840 for her home port of Bristol in a gale of wind. Anxious to keep to schedule the vessel would sail into one of the worst storms that season. She would later run aground, break up and all but two of the twenty-seven souls aboard would die.

PS City of Bristol – photo accessed from http://www.brecon-scuba.org/page.php?id=283

The City of Bristol (1828) was a familiar ship in the coastal trade of Ireland. She was a paddle steamer, built of timber, 209 tons, 144ft long and 35ft wide including her paddle wheels. She was two-masted, schooner rigged, and had main, quarter, and forecastle decks. Built by the War Office Steam Packet Co, in Bristol she was owned and operated locally by a consortium of local merchants. However, at the time she was lost the ship was in the ownership of the Bristol General Steam Navigation Co and had just undergone an extensive refit. The vessel was a regular into Irish ports including Cork and Waterford but especially Dublin it seems – where she was known to carry troops to and from the island, and also convicts amongst the more usual freight.

A contemporary advert highlighting the regularity with steam brought to sailings, and also perhaps some of the pressure that Captain Stacey may have felt in meeting his schedule. Sourced from Waterford Mail – Wednesday 11 November 1840; page 3

On Tuesday 17th November the steamer departed Waterford’s quay for her home port of Bristol. The vessel had become a regular on a route that had a long history between the ports of Bristol and Waterford. At 10 am she was observed outbound at Passage East.  Her Captain, John Stacey who had only taken charge of the vessel in the previous six weeks. Stacey however was described as knowing the route well, having served man and boy on it, first on sailing ships and later steam. Rounding the Hook he decided to return, following what was described as “…a frightful sea…” He anchored in Duncannon Bay, where he awaited the abatement of the storm, setting off again at 11 pm that same night.

Aboard the City of Bristol was an estimated 21 crew and possibly 6 deck passengers. Of the passengers little is known, most it seems were stockmen (John Sullivan is the only name of the stockmen recorded it seems), along to care for the livestock aboard. The ship’s manifest included; 575 barrels of Oats, 113 barrels of Barley, 2 tierces (casks) of lard, 120 flitches of bacon (a side of a pig ), 280 live pigs stored in pens on deck, and 15 head of cattle housed in the forehold.

As she crossed to the Pembroke coast later in the afternoon of the 18th of November the storm once more rose in strength from the SE and in near zero visibility due to snow Captain Stacey decided to seek shelter behind what he believed to be Worm’s Head to the east of Swansea. With only glimpses of land and features, Stacey was in a very difficult navigational position. After 6pm land was sighted, however, Stacey was mistaken in his calculations. He was actually at Burry Holmes a few miles to the north (perhaps as little as 2!), and instead of finding a safe anchorage where they could have weathered the storm, breakers were spotted. The captain reacted swiftly trying to get the ships head to the wind and this was partly successful, but she grounded by the stern and when she turned broadside to the waves, all hopes of getting off were lost.

They had grounded in Rhosilly Bay, close to the village of Llangennith and although the cries could be heard from the shoreline, the locals were powerless to help. The crew could do nothing in the savage seas to launch a boat for fear of being washed off the deck. As the tide rose and the seas with it, there was little they could do except lash themselves to the rigging and hope for rescue.  Broadside to the pounding waves she was battered and beaten and finally at highwater sometime close to midnight, the ship broke in three parts and all aboard were tossed into the surf.

Location of the wreck in the Bristol Channel (Or the Severn Sea as it was also referred to at the time occasionally)
Stacey had planned to make Worms Head where he was assured of a safe anchorage to weather the storm, however he was north of it, close to the village of Llangennith

Perhaps miraculously, three of the crew made it alive to shore, but only two survived. An unnamed man was dragged from the waves but never regained consciousness. Seaman William Poole was saved when a timber beam he grabbed in the water carried him in. He suffered three broken ribs and could barely walk when he floated ashore. He was clutched from the sand by locals who were standing by. The ship’s carpenter, Thomas Anstice managed to swim the distance and walked out of the surf towards a fire that was blazing as a beacon on the beach. Both men would later give evidence at a local inquest and helped to identify the bodies of those of their crewmates who were fortunate to be given back by the sea. 72 pigs and 4 cattle also made the shoreline and walked off the beach to safety.  Here’s a list of the crew that died which includes a photo of Captain Staceys grave.

Meanwhile in Bristol, there was little by way of anxiety about the late arrival of the City of Bristol, where it was assumed that the vessel was sheltering from the violent storms. But by the second morning (Thursday) fears were mounting and a large crowd had gathered in the ports Cumberland Basin where the packet boats normally arrived. The first news came via County of Pembroke on her run from Tenby and further information arrived by other ships and post. The city was devastated by the loss, 13 of the crew were from the village of Pill, described by some as the nursery of Bristol seafarers.

Cumberland Basin in 1850s by ET Dolby. Sourced from https://bristolcitydocks.co.uk/cumberland-basin/

In the coming days, the full horror was realised and later a public subscription was established to try to help the widows and orphans who were left without an income. When the account was published in May of the following year £900 had been raised for the families and it allowed a payout of £15 to the widows involved and £14 to each of the 34 orphaned children.

Locally, the Waterford Mail gave widespread coverage of the loss but it did include some details pertaining to the city. For example about Captain Stacey, who in some quarters was held liable for the loss, there was the following:

“Captain Stacey, the master of the unfortunate vessel, had been known here for forty years, during which time he had been in sailing vessels and subsequently in steam packets between this port and Bristol. Intelligent, zealous, active in the onerous and responsible situations that he most creditably filled for many years, was held in high consideration by his various employers ; while in the walks of private life and social intercourse he was most highly esteemed and respected, and few could depart more deeply regretted a numerous circle of friends than Capt. John Stacey. His melancholy fate is indeed the subject of general, public, universal sympathy and regret.”

Waterford Mail – Wednesday 25 November 1840; page 2

Of the cargo:

…300 brls of oats, 2 trs of lard and 100 pigs, belonged to Mr. Finnucane, of Ballybricken, and we believe, very little has been saved of the property. Mr. Fennelly, a bacon merchant in Clonmel, lost 50 bales of bacon ; Mr. Murphy, of Clonmel. 100 sacks of oats; and Mr. Cooney, 100 sacks of oats.

Waterford Mail – Wednesday 25 November 1840; page 2

of the passengers, we learn that “among those who perished was a lad named Thomas Henderson, the son of honest parents, in the clothes trade in Patrick Street. Apparently, Thomas was travelling to London to purchase second-hand clothing for the family business.” Slaters Commercial Directory of Ireland (1846 ed) lists Thomas Henderson as running a Clothes Dealer business at 29 Patrick St. He is one of numerous such outlets on this street. The property is now Ryans’s Shoe Repairs (and collectibles!) The Mail also mentions “… a young man of the name of Walsh, who lately came here from Liverpool, and was returning by way of Bristol, also perished” No details are given about the only female passenger aboard but apparently there were two others who were aboard the City of Bristol, but who at the last minute stepped off the vessel and she sailed without them. Both ladies were unnamed and no other details emerged as far as I can tell – they would have got a book deal out of the same fortune in this day and age.

Today’s piece is taken from reportage at the time from an article in The Wexford Independent, 25th November 1840, The Waterford Mail, cited above and George Harries – Early Bristol Paddle Steamer Shipwrecks, 1993, The Longdunn Press, Bristol and Tom Bennett, Shipwrecks Around Wales Vol 1, 1987 Happy Fish Press, Newport, Wales. I’d like to thank Frank Cheevers who originally shared the story with me on Facebook

2 Replies to “Tragic end to the PS City of Bristol”

  1. Another great tale from you Andrew. The Captain’s name ‘Stacey’ caught my attention as it was my mother’s maiden name but after a quick think and a bit of research I remembered that branch of the family’s name was corrupted from ‘Steacy’ which crops up in family papers and the headstone of the family plot in New Ross. Also I don’t know if any maritime involvement with my famil ancestors- they were upriver folk mostly.
    Looking at the map of Burry Holmes I note it is opposite Burry Port near Llanelli/Swansea. I actually have some distant cousins there and also a friend from London. As I get older I realise I know a lot of folk or places. I was in England a fortnight ago, with friends and speaking to a stranger in the company and he told me he had family in a place called ‘Charlton something’ I replied do you mean Charleton Hill ? he said yeah New Ross.. wow. Small world got smaller.
    Carry on…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.