The Regiment’s Greatest Tragedy – The Wrecking of the Sea Horse, Lord Melville & Boadicea
A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History
Compiled by David Ingham & Roger Goodwin,
with grateful thanks to Ivan Fitzgerald of Dublin for major research input
The crest of the tranquil Irish seaside resort of Tramore features a Seahorse. So do the blazer badges of a local school and the golf club.
All commemorate just one part of a terrible maritime disaster which saw three ships, each packed with soldiers, their wives and children, dashed upon the Irish coast: a tragedy which took the lives of 510 members the regimental family, more than ever fell on a single day, on any battlefield, in all the regiment’s long history.
For 20 years, war with France had raged through Europe and the British Army had fought its way through Portugal, Spain and France itself to the last great battle at Waterloo on 15 June 1815. At last, peace returned to Europe, and the Army began to make its way home.
For the 2nd Battalion, 59th (2nd Nottinghamshire) Regiment – which 66 years later was to become the 2nd Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – it meant a passage back to the garrison duties in Ireland which it had left only months before after Napoleon escaped from Elba. Present on the field of Waterloo but not engaged in the fighting, the battalion had formed part of the Allied Army of Occupation in Paris. Released in December, it arrived at Dover in early January 1816 and was quartered in barracks at Deal for a few weeks while ships were found to transport it back to Ireland. Finally,the Battalion embarked at Ramsgate on the transports Sea Horse and Lord Melville. The former, a vessel of 293 tons burthen, took on board five companies, consisting of 16 Officers and 287 men, with 33 women and 38 children. The Lord Melville embarked some 450 souls, including a detachment of the 62nd Regiment, and three captains, eight Lieutenants, three ensigns, 260 men, two servants, 33 women and 30 children of the 59th.
Both vessels sailed from Ramsgate on January 25th, but came to anchor in the Downs the same evening. Here they were joined by the brig Boadicea which had sailed from Dover with a detachment of the 82nd (Prince of Wales’s Volunteers) Regiment – destined to become the 2nd Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment – 290 men of all ranks, with 34 women and children.
| The 2nd Battalion of the 59th (2nd Nottinghamshire) Regiment had been raised in 1806 at a time of emergency in Britain, mainly from militia volunteers. It had fought with honour in the Retreat to Corunna during the Peninsular War and were present at Waterloo, albeit in a supporting role. But with the loss of the Sea Horse the battalion virtually ceased to exist, and within months it was finally disbanded, with the officers being placed on half-pay and the remaining men either discharged, or transferred to the 1st Battalion in India.
The 82nd Regiment had also been a two-battalion regiment, but amalgamated on the reduction of the 2nd Battalion in December 1815. The troops on the Boadicea just one month later would therefore have been drawn from both battalions. The 2nd Battalion had also been raised in 1806 but throughout its existence had only seen “home” service providing drafts of men to the 1st Battalion. The 1/82nd however had been actively engaged for the previous ten years seeing action in Denmark, the Low Countries, during the whole of the Peninsular War, and in Canada during 1814.
They were just three amongst many. A great part of the Army, in those days largely garrisoned, and also often recruited, in Ireland, needed to return there, and for some reason the authorities had clearly decided to move them en masse during those few mid-winter days at the end of January 1816. At least 30 troopships, carrying what must have been at least 10,000 men, women, and children are known to have been at sea during the terrible storm which followed.
At 11 o’clock the following morning anchors were weighed, and the three ships headed down – Channel in fine weather and light winds from the N.N.W. At around 5pm on the 28th they rounded the Lizard and entered the Irish Sea. For mid-winter, the weather was too good to last and the next day, as they neared the Irish coast, the wind veered and a strong breeze sprang up from the S.S.E. By noon it had freshened considerably.
The Sea Horse
At 4pm Ballycotton Island was seen at about 12 miles distance. On board the Sea Horse, the Mate, John Sullivan, who was the only person aboard with knowledge of the approaching coast, climbed the foremast to spy out the land, but he fell, breaking his legs and arms. He died three hours later in his wife’s arms; a loss of local knowledge which was to have tragic consequences for his ship.
It was by now blowing a strong gale, and becoming very hazy. Captain Gibbs hauled his wind for Kinsale lights, intending when he saw them, to run along the coast for Cork harbour. But not seeing them after a run of two hours, with the weather becoming very thick and hazy and with a tremendous sea running, he was unwilling to proceed further. He close-reefed his top sail and hauled close to the wind, lying W.S.W. About 8pm the ship fell off, and wore round onto the other tack, most of the night lying about S.E. But with a heavy seas, the wind in the S.S.W. and the flood-tide setting, she drifted very fast northwards.
The Lord Melville and the Boadicea, although also in peril, were at this time faring rather better.
(The Museum is greatly indebted to Mr Ivan Fitzgerald, of Dublin, for much of the following information, especially relating to the Sea Horse. The untangling of her history quite literally took him years of research)
The Sea Horse, Lord Melville and Boadicea were merchant ships chartered by the Admiralty Transport Board and fitted as troop transports.
The Sea Horse
Several modern accounts of the Sea Horse tragedy list her as a frigate, but this is incorrect, arising from confusion with the Royal Navy frigate of the same name which was in commission at the same time.
Naval vessels were not commonly used for this kind of routine troop transfer, for which task at this time the Transport Board usually had hundreds of merchant vessels under charter.
Sea Horse had been a fine ship, with a long and adventurous history, but in 1816 she was 34 years of age – old for a wooden ship in those days – and probably no longer in the best of condition to face mid-winter storms in the Atlantic approaches.
Of 293 tons burthen, she was sturdily built at Gravesend in 1782 for the Hudson Bay Company, in whose service she made annual voyages between London and Hudson’s Bay for the first 10 years of her life. She then embarked on a peripatetic existence, sailing the Mediterranean as a merchantman, being captured by the Spanish, and re-captured by the British. At one stage she appears to have been a privateer operating out of Gibraltar, reported as capturing a French vessel off Algiers, from which her crew caught the Plague. In 1800 she transported troops on an abortive expedition to capture Ferrol and Cadiz from the Spanish. She was even employed for two years as a whaler in the South Seas before becoming a troop transport once again in 1805.
That year, she was part of the expedition which captured the Cape of Good Hope colony in South Africa, carrying troops outbound before being chosen, as the fastest sailer available, to carry home the news of the colony’s capture.
She served on as a troop transport for the next 10 years, sailing in European and North American waters, until her fateful final voyage in 1816.
She also appears to have been overcrowded. Transport Board accommodation regulations laid down one soldier for every ton of a ship’s tonnage, so she should not have been carrying more than a maximum of 293 military personnel, and not the nearly 400 total souls she had on board. Conditions, even in the benign weather of the early part of the voyage, must have been difficult to say the least.
The Lord Melville
The Lord Melville was a much younger ship. Built at Blyth in 1810, she was also the largest of the three vessels, rated at 351 tons burthen.
Again, she is often incorrectly referred to as an East Indiaman, a much larger type of ship built for voyages to Asia, of which there was at least one with the same name sailing at the same time.
We know much less about her, but she is known to have been Brig, a ship with only two masts. She was the smallest of the three, of 285 tons burthen, and must have been even more uncomfortable for the over 300 people she had on board.
Today, we can only wonder at a world in which it was quite obviously normal to send men, women and children to sea under such conditions in mid winter.
At five o’clock on the morning of 30 January, Mine Head, the southern point of Dungarvan Bay, appeared on Sea Horse’s lee beam, with the vessel drifting very fast to the leeward. After about an hour Captain Gibbs let a reef out of the top-sail and set the main-sail so that his ship clawed desperately to the North East, hoping to find safety in Waterford harbour.
It was now blowing very hard. At 10.30am the foretop mast went over the side, breaking the back and thigh of a seaman stationed there. The wreckage was scarcely cleared when the main-sail was torn to ribbons.
Sea Horse was still drifting to the leeward, and though Hook Tower to the north of the Waterford estuary was sighted, she was unable to weather Brownstown Head, the northern arm of Tramore Bay. Nothing remained but to throw out the anchors. The sails were clewed up, and the ship brought up under the Head in seven fathoms with both anchors and near 300 fathoms of cable, but with the sea breaching right over her from stem to stern.
It was hopeless. At noon the anchors dragged and with the sea and wind still increasing Sea Horse struck in Tramore Bay. The mizzen and main masts were immediately cut adrift, but at the second shock the rudder carried away.
The spot where the ship took ground was about a mile from the shore, but the tide was nearly at an ebb, and the seas were mountainous, so that no assistance could be given by the numerous spectators lining the shore. The boats had already been torn free, but in the conditions they would have been unusable anyway.
Most of the passengers had remained on deck, and now they began to be washed away, with the children amongst the first victims.
Major Douglas, the officer in command of the troops and a distinguished young officer, changed his uniform for a less cumbersome coat, but on seeing no chance for himself offered his watch to anyone who thought they might make it ashore. A wave soon washed him from the shrouds.
Captain McGregor, brother of the Colonel of the 1st Battalion, being an excellent swimmer, bade adieu to his friend Lieutenant McPherson, and, stripping off his jacket, jumped into the sea. After buffeting the tremendous surge for some time, he had nearly reached shore, when a part of the wreckage struck him on the head, and he sank for the last time.
At one o’clock the ship split apart at the main hatchway. The Adjutant, Lieutenant Dent, and some 60 or 70 others were seen for a time on a portion of the vessel, but a heavy wave struck it and all were overwhelmed.
Lieutenants Geddes and Cowper hung for some time to the same piece of rope, and calmly promised each other that the survivor should write to the friends of the other.
Lieutenant Veale, who although only 20, and had shared all the hardships of the Peninsular War, met his fate on deck. So did Ensign Ross and Lieutenant Gillespie, the latter being ill and scarce able to leave his berth. Ensign Hill also perished here, his former experience in the Navy availing him nothing. Surgeon Hagan “resigning himself to the Almighty”, calmly expressed his wish to meet his fate in the cabin with his comrades.
Assistant-Surgeon Lamb attempted to get ashore on a plank, but it was washed from his grasp.
Quartermaster Baird, whose wife and two young daughters were on board, was seen eagerly but fruitlessly seeking some chance of escape for them. His wife, with her younger child, met her death calmly in the cabin, while the elder one, aged eleven, was last seen with Lieutenant Scott, who vainly attempted to protect her.
Among the last washed from the wreck were Ensign Seward and Mr. Allen. The latter was a young naval officer who had taken passage on the Sea Horse in order to join his ship, the Tonnant, at Cork. The skill and activity he displayed throughout the whole of the calamity were spoken of by the few survivors in terms that do honour to his memory. The composure and self possession manifested by the officers through the whole of this distressing scene, seemed to spread amongst the ranks.
To use the simple, but expressive, words of Captain Gibbs, in describing the moment when 394 persons of both sexes were clinging to different parts of the wreck, “There was no disturbance amongst them, most were saying prayers, women were heard encouraging husbands to die with them, and a sergeant’s wife, with three children clasped in her arms, resigned herself to her fate, between decks.”
The wife of a private said to her husband, “Will you die with me and our child? No, you may escape yet and these may be of use.” Upon which she gave him her purse with her money, and even put her earrings in it. This heroine died with her child, while the unhappy husband lived to tell the melancholy story.
Mrs Sullivan, wife of the Mate who had fallen from the yards, never left his side and died still by his body.
There were still a few survivors, clinging to the wreck until it went to pieces, when they were thrown in to the sea with a crash of timbers.
“Never can I recollect without horror,” said a local man, Mr Hunt, who was to be the saviour of most of the survivors, “the awful moment when the only remaining mast rocked from side to side, while to every rope hung numbers of my fellow creatures. Could a boat have been procured, I would have gladly flown to their relief, though certain death must have awaited the attempt. I was forced to look on, with sensations bordering on distraction, until the catastrophe was completed, and the fall of the mast launched hundreds into eternity.”
Lieutenant McPherson, after buffeting for some time in the waves, fortunately caught a rope fastened to some planks of the quarter-deck that had held together. He was washed off them several times, but managed to keep hold of the rope, until a countryman named Kirwan rushed into the sea and saved him.
Lieutenant Cowper, after being swept off first from a single plank, and then those that supported McPherson, was carried near shore by part of a mast, and then rescued by Mr. A.P. Hunt, who, although in ill-health, dashed into the sea to save him.
Lieutenant Henry Hartford, after many efforts to cling to various planks, at last, when nearly exhausted, succeeded in clasping arms and legs round one full of spikes, this one carried him ashore, where he was picked up insensible. (Exactly 31 years later, on January 31st 1847, another great storm washed ashore several relics from the Sea Horse. Amongst them, still in its scabbard, was what was left of Henry Hartford’s sword, identified by the makers name and serial number. It was returned to his family, who treasure it to this day).
Ensign Seward, who was one of the last to leave the wreck, having climbed the fore-mast nearly to the round top, fell with the mast, but could not keep his hold. He then secured a plank, which brought him, bruised and apparently lifeless to land.
To the exertions of Mr. Hunt all the above, and most of the other survivors, owed their lives. One man was washed ashore, insensible but alive, fixed to a plank by a large spike, which he had grasped so fiercely that it had pierced his hand.
Many bodies of children were found in trunks, in which their parents had placed them in hopes of safety. In one large chest were four little ones. One body of a soldier floated to shore with his child clasped to his breast. Corporal Malone, who escaped, recognised his son amongst the many bodies collected for burial, and stripping off his shirt, wrapped it round the naked boy, saying it would be the last one he would require, but “God’s will be done.”
All that were brought ashore were taken to the only cottage on this part of the shore where they were well taken care of, and as soon as they were able to travel were removed to Waterford.
The total number on board the Sea Horse was 394 men, women and children, of whom just 30 – all men, including the ship’s master and two seamen – survived. The survivors, as reported (sometimes incorrectly) in the newspapers at the time, were:
- Lieutenants J. Cowper, A. McPherson and H. Hartford
- Ensign W. Seward
- Sergeant T. Curtis
- Corporals N. Ball and M. Malone
- Drummer W. McNeil
- Privates J. Armstrong, J. Clayton, Jos Clayton, R. Colvey, P. Darcey, E. Donegan, J. Fitzpatrick, D. Gailey, J. Hames (now known to be John Emmes, who served at Vittoria and San Sebastian), J. Huffin, J. Kelly (1), J. Kelly (2), J. McKibben, R. McKitterick, J. McLaughlin, P. Malone, R. Scott, H. Styles (now known to be Edward Styles, who married at Tramore and was killed at the Battle of Bhurtpore), and J. Tuntcliffe (now thought to be John Tunnecliffe).
- Captain Gibbs,the Master, and two seamen.
The Lord Melville
Meanwhile, the Lord Melville, a larger vessel of 351 tons burthen, carrying the rest of the Regiment, had initially fared better in the attempt to reach safety at Cork, but it was not to last.
Despite some first- class seamanship by her Master, Captain Arman, who kept her hove-to well out in the Irish Sea for over 14 hours, the ferocity of the storm drove her inexorably towards the coast. By late in the day of the 30th she was 70 miles to the southward of the Sea Horse, embayed in Courtmacsharry Bay, and fighting to claw her way clear Kinsale Head. But she failed and, faced with a choice of anchoring on a bed of rocks which were likely to smash his ship to matchwood, or driving her ashore, Arman deliberately beached her, keeping the sails up so that she drove well up the beach. It was an action which would save the lives of nearly everyone aboard.
The ship remained intact but because of the violence of the storm the situation was critical. A boat was launched which successfully carried a rope ashore, then returned to try to save some of the women. In her were two officers’ wives, Mrs Mancor and Mrs Fawson; Mrs Weld, a sergeant’s wife, with her child; and two soldier servants of the 59th Regiment, Privates J. Wheatley and R. Mooney; along with Captain Radford of the 62nd Regiment who was ill. It was hopeless, and half way to shore the boat was swamped, and 12 of the 13 on board were drowned. Perhaps miraculously, they were to be the only fatalities from the Lord Melville.
For the rest of the day, the mass of survivors huddled on the deck of the wreck, finding what shelter they could from the pounding waves which washed over them from stern to stem. Finally, the tide fell, and Arman manoeuvred a spar over the bows, which reached nearly to the shore. Starting at midnight, nearly nine desperate hours after the Lord Melville had first grounded, the whole of the rest of the passengers and crew, nearly 450 people, were safely passed over the spar and onto the rocks, where a Lieutenant Harty and the men of the Kinsale Light signal station were waiting with burning torches to assist them the last few difficult steps to the shore.
Without any doubt, the seamanship and leadership of Captain Arman saved a great many lives that day, later very properly recognised by the award of £100 – a fortune in 1816 – for saving the troops.
The eight officers, 272 men and 34 women and children of the 82nd Regiment, (Prince of Wales’s Volunteers) – which in 1881 became the 2nd Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment – crammed into the brig Boadicea were not to be so fortunate.
Boadicea had spent much of the voyage in company with the Lord Melville and also found herself embayed in Courtmacsharry Bay. She may have made the mistake of heading for the notorious Strand of Garretstown, an area which had proved fatal for many a ship running for Cork Harbour. It did seem at first that she might ride out the storm, however the captain appears to have mistaken his bearings, and having lost both his anchors was driven onto the deadly lee shore of the Bay.
When dawn broke, rescuers found the Boadicea on the Curlane rocks which separate Garretstown and Garrylucas beaches, a mass of broken masts and woodwork intermixed with piles of dead bodies of men, women and children, the whole area presenting a heart-rending scene of devastation.
Nearby was a rock, still above water level, onto which some 100 or so survivors had scrambled from the vessel. On the beach, rescuers with local knowledge urged them to stay where they were until low tide, but some, impatient for safety, tried to make it to the shore, and perished in the attempt.
Of those on board Lieutenants Edmund Devonport and Edwin Harding, Assistant Surgeon Henry Randolph Scott and his wife, eight sergeants, nine corporals, 140 privates, 13 women and 16 children perished – a total of 190 men, women and children.
Initially, they were buried in a mound on the beach, but in 1900 the remains were exhumed and buried at the Old Court churchyard at the base of the Old Head.
In Tramore, a monument to the tragedy is located on Doneraile Walk, and an Obelisk commemorates the tragedy in the Church of Ireland graveyard on Church Road. Both overlook the site of the shipwreck.
Most of the dead – some 82 men, women, and children – are buried in the old Church of Ireland graveyard across the bay in Drumcannon. However, bodies continued to be washed ashore for weeks afterwards, and were buried on the beach itself. The last church record for a beach burial is dated 26 May 1816, some four months later.
The wreck of the Sea Horse focused long-overdue official attention on the dangers of Tramore Bay, graveyard before and since of too many ships which mistook it for the safety of Waterford Harbour. So that the treacherous bay could be more easily identified by ships at sea, in 1823 three towers were erected on Great Newtown Head and two on Brownstown Head, each over 60 feet high. A metal statue of a sailor was placed atop the centre pillar of the three on Great Newtown Head.
They have only been partially successful. As of March 2014, the remains of six separate vessels, most of which came to grief after the Sea Horse, could be seen in the sands at low tide.
|The 14-foot tall Metal Man statue remains a local landmark to this day. A romantic legend says that if a girl succeeds in hopping around the Metal Man pillar three times on one foot she will be married within the year.
Another legend, far more appropriate to its purpose, says that on stormy nights the Metal Man can be heard chanting:-
“Keep out good ship, keep out from me, for I am the rock of misery”.