Valhalla - Thames 1841
In the centre of the Abbey Gardens is a flight of substantial, granite steps. They lead up to the gardens’ top terrace and are known as Neptune’s Steps. Overlooking these steps is what appears to be a stone bust of a classical figure, with beard and wreath. The natural assumption is that this is a sculpture of Neptune. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the surface of the ‘stone’ has flaked away in patches and that the sculpture is made of wood not stone. Far from being a bust of Neptune, this is, in fact, a ship’s figurehead of Father Thames.
Father Thames has been on Tresco for nearly 160 years. At some point during this time, its bleached timber was painted and, while the paint was still wet, covered in fine sand. The measures were probably aesthetic as well as protective in aim. This artful camouflage is certainly effective. Surrounded with leaf and flower, it is hard to imagine that it ever decorated the bow of a ship. Let not outward appearances deceive. This is no garden ornament but figurehead of the S.S. Thames, which was wrecked on Scilly. Its story is one of tragedy, peril and heroism.
S.S. Thames was a 500 ton paddle-steamer, whose regular route was between Dublin and London. Built in 1827, the Thames belonged to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company and at her helm was Master James Grey. On Saturday 2nd January 1841, the Thames left steamed out of Dublin with sixty-six people on board, including crew and passengers. Amongst those passengers were between twenty and thirty recruits for the British Army, accompanied by two regular soldiers and a sergeant.
Early on the morning of Monday 4th January the Thames was off Scilly in a strong gale, accompanied by hail, snow, rain and lightning. It was at this point that the Master made a fatal misjudgement. The light on St Agnes was spotted. Its full beam should have been visible only once a minute but survivors spoke of the light being continuous for a full fifteen minutes. On this evidence Master James Grey deduced that the light was that of the Longships near Land’s End, not St Agnes. It was not yet 4am. In the darkness of a winter storm, in Scillonian waters, this navigational error was to prove catastrophic.
At some point between 4am and 5am the appalling seas got the better of the Thames. She was swamped and took on board so much water that her boilers were put out: she had lost all power. Grey desperately tried to set sail but it was too late. The Thames was amongst the Western Rocks. Not far from the uninhabited island of Rosevear, the Irish paddle steamer hit Jacky’s Rock and her fate was sealed. The Rev George Woodley, then Minister of St Agnes, described how the terrible events unfolded in his pamphlet, Narrative of the Loss of the Steamer ‘Thames’ on the Rocks of Scilly, published in 1841.
“When the vessel struck, most of the passengers hastened on deck, surveying with afright the alarming scene...One man undressed himself, in order to endeavour to swim to the shore with a line; but the heavy sea, and the flowing tide, prevented him, and the attempt was not made. Seven recruits got into the starboard-quarter boat, which had previously been let down by the crew, to try and save their lives; and, as she was leaving the vessel’s stern, a gentleman attempted to spring into her; but falling short, he was instantly engulfed by the voracious waves! The boat had proceeded but a little distance from the steamer, when she was swamped, and all on board were drowned! (The larboard-quarter boat had just been destroyed by a heavy sea, which toe her in pieces, and thus cut off all possibility of safety from that forlorn hope!)”
Blue distress lights were lit at about 6am but on St Agnes these were taken to flashes of lightning. So it was at around 7.30am that an islander on St Agnes first noticed the shipwreck. Woodley describes the Thames as:
“...lying on the rocks, with a signal of distress flying, and the sea repeatedly breaking right over her. She appeared nearly severed in two parts, as her bows were under the water, and her stern was high upon the ledge. Her quarter-deck was crowded with people (who could be distinctly seen, with a glass, from the Garrison, at St Mary’s.”
From St Agnes, the gig or whaler, Thomas, was launched with ten men aboard. In the terrible seas, the Thomas was in great danger herself. Woodley notes that on St Agnes: “...crowds of women were out on the hills, wringing their hands and loudly bewailing the anticipated fate of their nearest relatives. Other boats, preparing to put off with other venturous hands, increased the ears and lamentations of the women. For several hours it was thought, by the people on St Agnes, that the boat Thomas, and her crew, were actually lost.”
On St Mary’s, Robert Maybee, the Scillonian balladeer, was at work in a field that morning when a man working in a nearby field told him of the wreck:
“I then left my work and when to Porthcressa. When I got there, crowds of people were on the beach, and the lifeboat and two rowing gigs had been launched. They had not got a full crew for the lifeboat; the men were hanging back, on account of the heavy sky rising in the north-east, threatening a heavy storm of wind or a downfall of snow. I had not been on the beach more than two or three minutes when a gentleman came down and gave his word that every man who would volunteer should have a sovereign. The lifeboat then started for the steamer, manned by a crew of eleven men...They had not left the beach long when there came a heavy storm and fall of snow from the north-east.” (Sixty-eight Years’ Experience on the Scilly Islands.)
The lack of lifeboat volunteers on St Mary’s is unsurprising. Since her very arrival in 1837, the lifeboat had been regarded as being unfit for purpose. It may be a reflection of her poor reputation that this, Scilly’s first lifeboat, was never even given a name. 4th January 1841 was, in fact, her first and penultimate recorded rescue mission.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Thomas continued to battle towards the stricken steamer. The Rev Woodley continues:
“After rowing about an hour, in a sea that threatened every moment to swallow them up, the intrepid adventurers got within an oar’s length of the Thames, probably to the great joy (alas, how transient!) of those on board. They veered the gig (or whaler), close to the weather-quarter of the wreck, and got a rope from her; and, as it was agreed on all sides to endeavour to save the women first, the two stewardesses (Mary Gregory and Mary Meyler), were successively lashed to the rope, and drawn through the water to the boat!”
“And here, a most affecting and heart-touching scene occurred, which will long live in the sad remembrance of those who witnessed, and still survive it: an Irish gentleman, from Galway, named Morris, was accompanying his only daughter (a young lady of about fifteen years of age) for the purpose of placing her, as a boarder, in a nunnery at Lisbon; of which her aunt was the superior...The weeping and agonized girl fondly clung to her vainly-sympathizing father...refusing to embark without him...As the tide was now rising fast and the danger of delay becoming every moment more painfully apparent, the father took a last fond embrace of his heartbroken and almost lifeless daughter, and – having seen her secured to the rope, in the best manner possible – with a degree of gentle but necessary violence, he pushed her from the vessel’s side; whence she was also drawn through the water into the boat, which was now between thirty and forty yards distant! – The daughter was eventually saved, but the affectionate father perished!”
With these three women and a crew of ten aboard the Thomas, the boat was at capacity. She was also full of water and some of the men were forced into constant baling with their hats. The Thomas was forced to seek shelter from the sea and weather in the lee of rocky Gorregan along with the boats, Bee, Active and Briton. The Active took the three women aboard, towing the Thomas and Bee behind. It was now impossible to assist anyone else left on the Thames. Woodley continues:
“While the boats mentioned were lying near Goreggan, the people on board the wreck were seen climbing on the main-mast, or getting up into the rigging. A tremendous wave broke over the mast soon after; - it fell into the sea, with an awful crash; and those who clung about it were either killed or drowned! The vessel, then, quickly separated into small fragments, which were scattered as it were at random, over the waves. Five persons had remained on a kind of raft, formed by a part of the quarter deck that still held together, on which they were drifted towards Rosevear. But in this, as in most of the preceding instances, every hope of escape seemed mysteriously thwarted by fatal disappointment! The raft, indeed, drew near the islet; but – whether owing to the violence of the shock by which it was cast among the breakers, or to the previous exhaustion of the sufferers, from cold, fatigue, and apprehension – of those who had trusted themselves to its feeble frame, only one man escaped!”
The next day, conditions at sea were little better but island boats once more fought their way out to the Western Rocks. A party landed on Rosevear to collect the bodies that had been washed up.
“As the Islanders were about to return with these sad remains, they saw a man running towards them, and begging to be taken on board. His own account of preservation was singular. He stated that his name was Edward Kearons; that he was one of the steamer’s crew, but had joined her on the day when she left Dublin. Describing his escape from the melancholy fate of his companions, he said that, when the raft went ashore, he succeeded in climbing up a rock, where he sat for a long time, watching for the appearance of any of the men who had ventured with him; but in vain. Finding a cask of porter, that had been thrown ashoe, he staved-in one of the ends, and refreshed himself by a draught. He then threw away the remainder, and got the cask firmly fixed in a hollow place, between two rocks; he partly filled it with some wild grass that was growing near the spot, and slept there till the following day!” (Woodley)
Of the sixty-six passengers and crew who had left Dublin on the Saturday, only four survived the wreck. In the Royal National Life-Boat Institution Eleventh Report of The Committee of February 1842 (Case No. 768.) it was noted that the crews of the Thomas, Bee and Briton were awarded ten pounds as was the lifeboat crew. “The Gold Medallion was presented to Mr Charles Steel, and Silver Medals to W. Rowe and P. O’Neil, Coast Guard boatmen, James Hyde, Labourer, and Barnard Hicks, mariner...” Steel was the Inspecting Commander of the Coast Guard and was the man responsible for the lifeboat’s presence on Scilly. He had been at the helm of the lifeboat that day. The other named men had volunteered as crew before the offer of a sovereign. The crews of the other boats remain anonymous.
The figurehead of the ill-fated Thames is now in the Abbey Gardens, surrounded by leaf and flower, gazing out towards St Agnes and the Western Rocks.
With thanks and acknowledgements to Annabelle Read of the Morrab Library, Penzance, for providing the full text of the Rev. George Woddley’s account of the wreck.