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The Wreck of the Sea Horse in Tramore Bay

 

 

 

 

Tramore memorial
A monument erected in their memories. Because of erosion their remains had to be moved to a safer place. The monument is now on the Doneraile Walk, which affords a spectacular view of Tramore Bay, where many souls lost their lives to the sea on that dreadful night in 1816.
BENEATH THIS TOMB ARE DEPOSITED THE REMAINS OF

Major Charles Douglas 29
Lieut. William Gillespie 19
Capt. James Macgregor 23
Ensign Andrew Ross 19
Lt. & Adj. Abraham Dent 26
Ensign Rowland F Hill 19
Lieut. William Veal 21
Surgeon James Hagan 30
Lieutenant Robert Scott 23
Assistant Surgeon Lambe 26
Lieutenant James Geddes 21
Qr. Master William Baird 38
In the month of January, 1816, the Sea-Horse transport, having on board the second battalion of the 59th foot, was driven by a raging tempest into this inhospitable bay (Tramore, Ireland).

 

The Sea Horse was a sailing transport ship. It was built in London in 1784. A vessel of 350 tons, it was constructed of Irish Oak. It was originally a three deck, three masted, fighting vessel commanded by Lord Nelson in 1799. (1) On her last voyage from Ramsgate in England to Cork in Ireland she was commanded by a Captain Gibbs, with an Irishman, John Sullivan as first mate and a crew of 17 men. On board were 16 officers, 287 soldiers, 33 women and 38 children.


It occurred in the day-time; the shore was crowded with people, who were aware of the inevitable fate of the crew, and had no possible means of relieving them. As the vessel neared the shore, those on board were distinctly seen, awaiting in agony the dreadful catastrophe. Husbands and wives, parents and children, (there were many women and infants in the ship,) were plainly observed in some few instances encouraging each other, but for the most part clinging to the timbers, or folding their arms round those they loved, that they might die together. Their anticipations were but too well founded: the vessel struck and went to pieces, when two hundred and ninety-two men, and seventy-one women and children, perished in sight of the assembled thousands.

All that courage and the most devoted gallantry could do, was attempted to save them; and there are some splendid instances of successful exertion, in which the preservers nearly shared the fate from which they had rescued others. The calamity was almost general: only thirty men were preserved.

A few days after the shipwreck, nearly sixty corpses, some of them the remains of women and children, were carried on the country cars from the coast to the burying-ground, at two miles distance. The wretched survivors accompanied the melancholy procession, and witnessed their companions and relatives deposited in one vast grave.

A handsome mausoleum was ordered to be placed over their remains: the work is now finished, but the expense of it being still unpaid, it has not yet been erected. The following inscription is on the stone:

Of His Majesty's 2d Battalion 59th Foot,
Who perished in the Bay of Tramore,

On the 30th day of January, 1816,
By the wreck of the Sea-Horse Transport.

To their revered Memories
This testimonial is erected by
Lieut. Colonel Austin, Lieut. Colonel Hoysted,
And the other surviving Officers of the Battalion;
Also a Monument at the Church of Tramore.
Returning to their native Land,
Where they looked for solace and repose,
After all the toils and dangers they had endured,
For the security of the British Empire,
And the deliverance of Europe,
Their lives were suddenly cut short

By the awful dispensation
Of an all-wise but inscrutable Providence:
But the memory of those gallant achievements,
In which they bore so distinguished a part,
Under the guidance of the
ILLUSTRIOUS WELLINGTON,
Will never be forgotten, but shall continue to illuminate
The historic page, and animate the hearts of Britons
To the most remote period of time.

 

 

The following day the transports ‘Lord Melville’, carrying the rest of the 59th, and ‘Boadicea’, carrying the 82nd Regiment, were also wrecked near Kinsale with further heavy loss of life. This was the greatest single disaster in the Regiment’s long history.

 

The account that follows was written by a descendant of one of the survivors:

 

2nd Battalion 59th Foot, now the 2nd Battalion The East Lancashire Regiment. The 59th, nicknamed "The Lilywhites," from their facings, served throughout the Peninsular War, and at the end of that hard and long campaign the 2nd Battalion went to Ireland, from which country it had come. In those days - called the "good old times" by people who did not live in them - women and children accompanied husbands and fathers to the wars, and suffered terribly and perished miserably, part of their afflictions being passage by transport.

It was thought that the war was ended, and that Napoleon was safely and finally disposed of in Elba, and the 59th imagined that they were to enjoy peace and rest in Ireland. But this was not to be. After the "Hundred Days" they were hastily recalled to England and sent over to join Wellington for the Waterloo campaign. How the 59th distinguished themselves in that final overthrow of the tyrant is a matter of history.

Many wives and children had accompanied the men to England, so as to be on the spot to greet them when they returned from France, for we must remember that in those days of sail a voyage to Ireland, especially from a Channel port, was always something of an adventure, and re-union came much sooner than if the journey had not been undertaken. The survivors of the 59th returned, and there were rejoicings when families were reunited and prepared to sail for Ireland ; but men and women and children were to meet a fate as terrible as any that could have been their lot in campaigning.

In January, 1816, some companies of the 2nd 59th and other troops sailed from Ramsgate for Ireland in the transports Sea Horse, Lord Melville and Boadicea. Lieutenant Hartford was in the Sea Horse, which, though a miserable little ship displacing only 360 tons, carried five companies, consisting of 16 officers and 287 men. There were also 23 women and 38 children, so that the state of things, even in the best of weather, can be pictured without taxing the imagination. Conditions in the Navy were bad enough, even to the officers and men whom usage and necessity had hardened; but they were infinitely worse in these small crowded vessels, where there was not, and could not be, ordinary comfort and decency as we understand them to-day. At best a passage was an affliction, and it became unendurable when ships ran into such weather as these transports encountered.

The tragic voyage began hopefully, for the weather was so calm that after clearing Ramsgate the Sea Horse anchored for the night. It was a start which enabled the packed company to settle down a little and get used to the ship and the sea, though anything like freedom of movement was impossible. There must be hundreds of thousands

of men to-day who, because of their own experiences of transports during the Great War, can visualise the conditions in the Sea Horse, though even the worst of their own tribulations fall far short of her horrible reality.

From that placid beginning the voyage developed into one of the great tragedies of the sea, for in an awful gale which arose all the three transports were lost. The Lord Melville and the Boadicea, carrying more than 200 officers and men of the 82nd Foot - now the 2nd Battalion The Prince of Wales's Volunteers (South Lancashire) - with wives and children, were lost near Kinsale, with nearly all on board, and the Sea Horse was wrecked near Tramore Bay, County Waterford, with a loss of 365 persons, chiefly soldiers of the 59th, and most of the crew.

It is with the Sea Horse that I am chiefly concerned, and I will conclude the story of her loss, as related in the official narrative. In the morning of January 29th a strong breeze sprang up from south-south-east, and by noon it had freshened very much ; but there was no reason to expect disaster, and just at nightfall Ballycotton Island was observed about twelve miles distant, giving promise of an early finish to the voyage. An event, however, had occurred during the day which doubtless led in a great measure to the subsequent misfortune of the hapless souls on board the Sea Horse. The mate, John Sullivan, who was the only person in the ship who was acquainted with the coast, met with an accident in going up the forecastle. He broke both legs and arms, and never spoke before he died three hours later.

As it now blew a strong gale and was becoming very dark and hazy Captain Gibbs hauled his wind for Kinsale Light, intending when he saw it to run down along the land for the entrance to Cork Harbour ; but not seeing the light after a run of two hours, while the weather was growing worse and a tremendous sea was running, he was unwilling to proceed farther, and therefore close reefed his topsails and hauled close to the wind, lying west-south-west.

The Sea Horse fell off at about 8 p.m. and wore round on the other tack, most of the night lying about south-east, with the wind south-south-west, but owing to the flood tide setting strong on the shore and a heavy sea running she drifted very fast on shore. At about five o'clock in the morning of the 30th Minehead, the south point of Dungarvin Bay, appeared on the lee beam. The ship was then drifting rapidly to leeward. At six o'clock the captain let a reef out of the topsail and set the mainsail.

About half-past ten the foremast went over the side, and a seaman in the foretop had his back and thigh broken. The wreckage had been scarcely cleared when the mainsail was torn to ribbons. The Sea Horse was still drifting fast to leeward, and though Hook Tower, at the entrance to Waterford Harbour, was seen under the lee bow, yet she was unable to weather Brown's Town Head.

There was now nothing to be done except to let go the anchors. The sails were clewed up and the ship brought up under the Head in seven fathoms with both anchors and nearly three hundred fathoms of cable ahead ; and the enormous seas were making breaches over her from stem to stern.

At noon the anchors dragged, the wind and sea were growing, and it was clear that the transport was doomed. In ten minutes she struck in Tramore Bay. She took the ground not quite a mile from the shore, yet the tide being nearly at the ebb, and huge seas running, the watchers who lined the shore could give no help. The doomed company could not help themselves, for the boats had been washed away, though they could not have been of any use in such a sea. Most of the then, women and children had struggled to or been helped on deck, and every sea that came claimed some of them. The children were the first victims. Those who saved their lives did so through sheer physical strength and luck, and these were all men. Not a woman or child was saved, for in addition to the ship having no life-saving appliances there was no apparatus of any sort near the spot. Such things as were washed ashore were looted by the local inhabitants.

Of the 287 men on board only 23 were saved, and of the 16 officers only 4, including the author of the following letter.

Let me give a few extracts from a letter which Lieutenant Hartford wrote to his father after the wreck of the Sea Horse :

My Dear Father,

I lose not a moment tho' hardly able to write, to acquaint you of our dreadful shipwreck in this bay yesterday, two o'clock . . . . Since I was born I never witnessed such a sight, the screams and prayers of all - the sea beating and washing over the ship, every moment sweeping off numbers at a time. Picture to yourself our situation - the beach crowded with people who could render no assistance, no boat could live in such a sea or put out for the surf. God only knows how I was saved.

I stuck to the wreck until she went to pieces and then took hold of a plank which was washed from me four or five times and I by great good luck got hold of others. All I recollect was being completely exhausted and from the cold could hold the plank no longer and was then washed on shore and taken up apparently dead.

I don't know how I recovered, but when I did I found myself before a large fire which for a long time I fancied was a ship on fire. Every bit of our baggage is lost.

I know, my dear father, how happy my dear family will feel at my escape.

Your ever dutiful son,

HENRY.

 

 

Thomas Redding, a survivor, tells this version of the tale, in which he names the ship Sea Horse, No. 2, Transport:

She was a ship of about 280 tons; her Captain’s name, Gibbs; the Chief mate’s, Sullivan, by whom I was shipped, and that of the second mate, Wilson. We were in all a crew of 18 hands. After some delay we sailed for Ramsgate, and in about a couple of days received on board the skeleton of the 59th foot, just returned from France, where their numbers had been greatly reduced by the destructive carnage of the ever memorable battle of Waterloo. We received 384 rank and file, 30 women, and 40 children. The regiment was under the immediate command of Major Douglas, Colonel Halstead being happily on leave of absence.
---
The main stay sail was then bent and set, but the sheets, stay sail, and all were carried away like so much paper. Afterwards we set the main sail, but that shared the fate of the stay sail. Several other expedients were resorted to, but in vain; and the only probable means of saving the vessel now appeared that of up-helming and bearing away for Tremore Bay, the entrance of which we at length reached, and let go an anchor, but the ship dragged, and a second was equally ineffectual to bring her up, she having struck abaft, knocking her sternpost in. Major Douglas then advised the Captain to cut away the mizzenmast, which was accordingly done. The vessel was now filling, and it was about 10 o’clock in the morning. At the time she struck, the soldiers rushed into the quarter-boats, determined on securing the first chance of saving themselves. Whilst the mizzenmast was being cut away, they were advised to leave the boats, which could no longer afford them protection, as they were rigged to the mizzenmast head, and must go over-board, to the imminent danger to those by whom they were occupied. This command, however, they refused to obey.
---
Major Douglas, (whose wife, daughter of about sixteen, and son somewhat younger, were on board) came out of the cabin, and walking the deck with his hands in his trouser pockets, coolly advanced to the larboard side of the quarter deck, pulled out an elegant gold watch, and hitching the chain and seals round a belaying-pin, called out “This is for any man who lives to get on shore.” Without changing a feature, he descended into the cabin, and rejoined his wife and family. They perished together.

 

Notes:

 

1.  This statement appears in a number of versions, but is unlikely to be true as Nelson served, as a Midshipman, I think, on the Seahorse, (built 1748, 519 tons burthen) between October 1773 and March 1776 in the East Indies, which was not the same ship. In 1799, he was a Rear Admiral and was probably mostly ashore in what is now Italy. The ships design and date of construction are also disputed. It is reported that she was of '350 tons burthen'. The Seahorse built in 1794 was 999 tons burthen.

 

I am informed that The Seahorse I am seeking was not a Frigate as some modern writers have indicated. She was/had:
 280 tons (Thomas Redding, a crew member)
 360 tons (Lieutenant Henry Hartford, army officer, a survivor)
 350 tons (Lieutenant A McPherson, army officer, a survivor)
 350 tons (Colonel McGregor, brother of an officer who perished)
 3 masts, foremast, main mast and a mizzen mast (therefore, a barque and not a brig (a 2 mast vessel)
 Quarter deck
 Quarter deck boats, attached to the mizzen mast.
 There is mention of “between decks” so she had probably two, if not three decks.
 She must have been between 110 and 150 feet in length to accommodate nearly 400 people though they were in cramped conditions.

 

2.  Major Douglas, a distinguished young officer, who was a relative of the Fortescue family, with great calmness, changed his coat for one less cumbersome, then exclaimed, “All is over!" and taking out his gold watch, offered it to any person who saw a probability of escaping. He then took his station in the shrouds, from whence a wave soon washed him overboard, and he quickly disappeared.'

 

The entry in the Caledonian Mercury, Thursday February 15 1816 states he was the son of Captain William Douglas, late of the 11th Foot. However, Johnston's Heraldry of the Douglases has him as son William Douglas, Captain 103rd Regiment, who married Henrietta Nicholson, himself the son of Charles Douglas, who was the third son of William Douglas of Fingland.


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