The Marchioness of Abercorn

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Ship on the sea in Cornwall

Dr Ben Dobson recounts the details of a nineteenth century shipwreck in Cornwall. Read on below to discover more about the story of the Marchioness of Abercorn.

At low tide at around 9am on Wednesday, 8 December 1847, the three masted barque, the Marchioness of Abercorn, was driven ashore on Crantock beach after being badly damaged in a storm on her passage from Cork to London.

She was carrying a cargo of 1,300 tons of timber from Quebec and had already been badly damaged in an Atlantic storm that had forced her into Cork for repairs. She was manned by a crew of 23, who had been recruited during her stop-over in Cork, under Captain James Dogherty (although some reports refer to him as Hegarty).

The Marchioness was built in Quebec in 1837 by the Allan Gilmour shipbuilding company. The Gilmour family originated from Glasgow and had started trading in lumber with Canada in the 1820’s. Several of the family had worked and lived in Canada, although they all appeared to have returned to Scotland once they grew old.

Canada had become a key source of timber for the UK during the war with France when the Baltic ports were blockaded. Together with three other Scottish families, the Rankins, Pollocks and Ritchies, the Gilmours had become very successful timber importers. This was due to the way in which they managed to corner much of the Canadian market by pre-emptively buying the timber in rafts as it was being floated down the St Lawrence river to Quebec.

As the timber trade boomed with the increasing demands in UK, driven by the industrial revolution, the Gilmour family realized that shipbuilding would also be a highly lucrative business and they developed a number of build yards in the Quebec area.

By the mid-1800’s the Gilmours were probably the largest ship builder/owners in the world and, at this time, they divided their business interests; the timber trade being run from Liverpool and the shipping trade from Glasgow.

The Marchioness of Abercorn was one of the Gilmours’ larger vessels, a three masted barque of 875 tonnes and around 140ft long that was registered through their Glasgow offices.

However, by the time that she met her fate on Crantock beach she appears to have been sold to new owners (John Power(?), Thomas Parkman, A. Thompson and G. Roberts), although Captain Dogherty had been retained as the master. Captain Dogherty was probably from Limerick.

In the period of 1846/47 she was one of the principal transport ships for Irish emigrants who were escaping from the potato famine. During this time, she would carry up to 500 passengers from the Irish ports of Cork and Londonderry to Quebec and, in the winter, when the St Lawrence would freeze, New Orleans. She was able to complete the round-trip in about 44 days (25 out and 19 return).

These Irish emigrant ships became know as the Famine (or Coffin) ships and some of them were infamous for the overcrowding of passengers that they would carry and the extreme conditions on-board.

Typhoid could kill many during the voyage (in one instant over 140 died from a total of 400) and those that reached Canada were often herded into poor accommodation (such as the Grosse Island quarantine station) where the disease claimed yet more lives.

From the Grosse Island records, it appears that the Marchioness had completed an “outward” voyage prior to her final trip and had landed over 400 immigrants (including 6 dead) from Londonderry at the Grosse Island Quarantine Station on 1 August.

Her return voyage that was to end on Crantock beach was eventful and, after a storm in mid-Atlantic, she was badly damaged and had to make for Cork to effect repairs to her masts and rigging. Whilst in Cork she embarked a fresh crew of 29 under the Master John Hegarty.

She left Cork, bound for London but soon after leaving she ran into yet another storm in the Bristol Channel. The ship again got into difficulties and was driven down the north coast of Devon and Cornwall. She ended up damaged and heading across Newquay bay.

It appears that the crew may have confused Trevose light (that had only been commissioned six days before) with that of Lundy so that they thought they were heading towards the relative safety of Padstow.

Whatever the cause, she ended up being swept past Towan Head with her sails torn and one of her masts broken and hanging in the rigging. A pilot gig managed to get close to the ship off Towan headland, but the ebb tide and heavy seas prevented any rescue and she eventually ran ashore on the west side of Crantock beach near Vugga cove.

It was around 9 o’clock in the morning and close to low water when she drove ashore with the seas breaking over her. She appears to have lost all but one of her boats and everything else on deck. She also had nine feet of water in her hold.

A coast-guard crew, mustered after she ran past Newquay, under Mr Llewellyn, succeeded in firing lines over the ship using their Dennett’s rocket system, but the ships’ crew was unable to secure any of them. Four of the crew succeeded in launching the last of their remaining boats but it was overwhelmed and, whilst two managed to scramble back to the ship, the other two were drowned.

However, a boat was launched from the beach by some local mariners who succeeded in bringing four of the crew ashore and attached hawsers between the ship and the shore. The fact that they were able to launch a boat at low tide suggests that it came from Vugga Cove that clearly must have harboured a number of boats and probably acted as a refuge for larger ships during rough weather. A third man was drowned trying to come ashore using a hawser.

The sad thing is that all of the remaining crew were recovered alive later in the day as the ship was driven further on-shore. The general view was that the ship would soon break up and it was considered a total wreck.

The heroism of the local mariners was recognized in the following year, 1848, by the award of RNLI silver medals to William Johns, William Darke, and William Found. All were mariners attached to different ships. The fact that all three were associated with different vessels indicates just how busy Crantock (and specifically the river Gannel) was in the mid-nineteenth century in terms of shipping.

In fact, there is a remarkable story attached to one of the rescuers; William Johns, who was the Master of the Liberty.

William lived at Tregunnel and he was the brother of Jane Johns. The story is that Jane married a Portuguese trader, José Lamanzo da Trinidade at Mawnan in 1921 (this is documented in the marriage records). She had a baby in the following year but the child died soon afterwards.

Jane and José disappear from the records soon afterwards and it is not until the census in 1841 that she reappears as Jane Trinidade, the “married daughter” of William Johns (Snr) at Tregunnel.

However, the family legend is that she was either sold into, or captured by, a harem in Algeria. There are also tales that her husband was actually already married. Her brother William is reputed to have sailed to her rescue and smuggled her out of the harem in a barrel and brought her home to Crantock. His ship, the Liberty, was named in celebration of her safe return.

An inquest was held on Monday, 13 December before J. Carlyon, coroner, into the deaths of the three crew members. The body of Joseph Penn was recovered near Vugga Cove on Saturday 11 December and that of James Cotter, who had tried to escape in the ships’ boat, was found at Salt cove on the Monday morning.

The body of the third man, James Prim (or it may have been Owen O’Harren, there are varying descriptions of the names), had not been recovered. In fact, his body did not come ashore until the end of February. A verdict of “Accidentally drowned” was recorded.

The first two seamen, Penn and Cotter, were buried in Crantock churchyard (and the church records confirm this), although there are no obvious grave-markers.

The remainder of the ships’ company appear to have been well cared for and letters were sent to both the Royal Cornwall Gazette and West Briton thanking local people for their help.
In particular, the Master, James Hegarty thanked Stephen Burridge (Collector of Customs), Capt. Nott (Inspecting Commander of Coast Guard), R B Hellyer (Agent for Lloyd’s, with whom the cargo was insured) and Richard Stephens of Pentire House.

The ship owners specifically thanked Henry Croker (aged 37) who was a carpenter and also ran the local inn (possibly the Old Albion).

By the 17 December the ship was still intact and resting with her bows facing offshore but none of the cargo had yet been saved. However, the ships’ crew had been transported to Hayle where they embarked the Cornwall steamer for Bristol on Tuesday 14 December.

The Hayle steamer, Brilliant (that used to sail once a week from Hayle to Bristol via St Ives and Ilfracombe), had just had new boilers fitted and this was probably her first voyage after the refit. It would cost 2 guineas to transport the family wagon, 25s for the horse and 16s for a saloon cabin. Four years earlier, the Brilliant had towed the carcass of a large whale into the Gannel while on passage to St Ives.

The cook (“a very intelligent black”) gave an account of the storm that had driven their ship ashore. It appeared that they had set sail from Cork on Sunday, 5 December, with the wind from the West-North-West.

However, on the Monday they ran into high winds and their sails were split and some of their spars carried away. It was at this point that they saw the Trevose light that they mistakenly thought was Lundy. It appeared that the majority of the crew had been replaced in Cork under terms of £3/man for the run to London.

Eventually, the cargo was off-loaded under the supervision of Lloyds and probably stored in what is now the Beach Road car-park in preparation for sale. But on Wednesday, 1 March, Richard George was apprehended in the act of carrying away a deal plank from the stored timber.

An accomplice managed to escape. The local magistrate (Reverend Edward) committed George to the local assizes where his case was heard before the end of the month. He was charged with the theft of the plank (property of Bernard Hall & Co, Liverpool).

The cargo had been in the charge of T. R. Avery of Boscastle, on behalf of the owners, and was being watched by Thomas Hobbs. It was Hobbs who identified George as the man who had stolen the deal plank.

A local blacksmith called Jenkin was called as a character witness, having known George for over 20 years. Clearly, his evidence that George was an “excellent character” and his provision of an alibi, resulted in the jury acquitting him of the charge.

The entire cargo from the ship was auctioned by Bernard Hall & Co. on 22nd March 1848 on Crantock Beach. The list of timber was: 14,800 Pine Deals, 2,908 pieces Standard Staves and 2,420 West Indian Puncheon Staves. These latter barrel staves were specifically imported for Liverpool.

The beached hulk of the ship had been sold to Messrs Tredwen of Padstow and, on Thursday, 3 February, under the supervision of Richard Tredwen she was refloated and taken to Padstow for repair. The Tredwen family managed an established ship building and repair business based in Padstow which employed around thirty people.

So, on 3 Feb, the ship that had been expected to become a total wreck had been saved!

In July, a notice appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette advising that the “splendid Vessel”, having undergone extensive repairs and refitting was going to voyage from Padstow to Quebec.

Whilst offering general passage for people wishing to emigrate, specific mention was made for any Surgeon wishing to make passage to Quebec.

Whilst the Marchioness of Abercorn must have finally set sail from Padstow with Cornish emigrants at the beginning of August, her bad fortune continued because she was back in Falmouth by 25 August after losing her main-top-mast!

However, she set sail again on Sunday, 3 September with a party of emigrants bound for Quebec where she finally arrived on 5 October. A ship that had been “written off” just ten months earlier was back at sea. And she resumed her Quebec – UK route for the next year or so.

It appears that the ship returned to her trading between Canada and the UK. However, her days were numbered and the Marchioness of Abercorn, still owned by the Tredwen family in Padstow, finally ran out of luck at around ten o’clock on the night of 18 November, 1849.

In another storm, towards the end of a crossing from Quebec bound for Cardiff, she ran aground between Sheep and Mizen Heads in County Cork.

Under Edwin Key, a 35 year old Padstow man, and with a crew of thirty and carrying another cargo of timber she became a total wreck. Eight of the crew took to a long-boat and succeeded in reaching Rock Island light-house and the remainder scrambled off onto the rocks without any loss.

The hull, rigging, sails and cargo were auctioned over two days (11 and 12 December) at Crookhaven and at the scene of the wreck on Mizen Head.

The final chapter in the life of a very busy sailing ship closed 2 years after she was beached at Crantock.

Dr Ben Dobson is an associate of the Institute of Cornish Studies, an organisation closely linked with Cornish Story.