Shipwrecks & Incidents Along the Copper Coast in the 19th Century

Terminology and Background
Most coasters had two masts, their types determined by the size and position of the masts as well as the shape and set of the sails. The coastal work-horses were schooner rigged, or schooners, although there is mention below of ketch rigged boats and of a brig (short for brigantine). Deeper sea boats had three masts such as barques (the most common for cargo).In many the captain was full- or part­ owner. U.K. based ships, once certified sea-worthy, would generally have insured their vessels, and possibly cargo, with Lloyds of London (only two of the wrecks below are listed by them ¹)  If they had to pay out on a wreck Lloyds took ownership of it to sell whatever they could in recuperation.

Therefore a Lloyds agent, based in Waterford or Dungarvan, hastened to local wrecks (they may have been acting for other insurance companies also). Meanwhile, they had to be protected from what locals would see as a bonanza and this was one of the tasks of the Coast Guard, in this case from Knockmahon.


The date parameters are set by newspaper report age.² Possibly the reason why there is so little before 1850 was that the local papers saw it only as their role to relay what was said in other papers (all papers did that to some extent) and their failure to report local shipwrecks means that these were not being picked up by other papers either. Indeed why there is so much from 1870-’80 (digitisation of local papers finishes c. 1870) is that U.K. papers pick up on Waterford wrecks. After 1880, reports become sporadic probably because of an increase in steam shipping. Life-boat records in Tramore Bay, for instance, indicate nineteen wrecks in the 20 years before 1880 but only seven in the following 20 years.³ There is no guarantee that this is a comprehensive list even for such a small sample area as the Copper Coast and it seems to be a matter of chance what got reported and in what detail. Of course there were very many other wrecks around the Irish coast, this being just a sampling. For instance, in the 12 months to early December 1862 there were nearly 2000 wrecks around the British and Irish Coasts and there had been 53 in the previous week.4

Reported Wrecks, Wreckage and Coastal Incidents

The earliest reported wreck was in Feb. 1806 when the George and Ann under Capt. Stevens from Liverpool to Waterford must have been blown off course in an easterly wind to be wrecked at Bunmahon. 5 Presumably there were many other shipwrecks over the following decades only a few of which were reported. In early 1824 the Philadelphia registered Dorothea under Capt. Michael Clooney (or Clunie) travelling from Savanah to Liverpool with a thousand bales of cotton must have had some problem because in the  dark Clooney decided to run the boat onto the beach in Bunmahon thereby saving the crew and most of the cotton with the help of the local Coast Guard. The ship, however, could not be saved and broke up.6 An unhappier fate reportedly awaited three of the crew of the eight-year-old Nova Scotia built 253-ton brig Hebron under Capt. Frederick Higginston on a regular Trans-Atlantic run travelling from Quebec or New Brunswick to Dublin with a cargo of deals. In a November storm 1835 storm she lost her top-mast. To maintain position two anchors were dropped but such must have been the force of the wind that both chains  snapped  and the  Hebron  was driven onto the cliffs west of  Kilmurrin. Captain and crew got ashore and scrambled up the cliff.7

A gale in early December 1838 drove the brigSusan intact onto the beach in Bunmahon, en route from Cork to Newport in ballast. It was floated off at high tide. 8   About six months later the schooner Ellen, under Capt. Pope, going the opposite direction (Newport to Cork with coal) also wound up on Bunmahon beach. This time while the crew were rescued, the boat was not and broke up. 9  At the end of 1839 there was a local disaster when a small fishing boat overturned in the surf at Bunmahon, drowning four of the five fathers of families on board. 10       Questions need arise about the report of the death of Walter Murphy of Annestown in July 1845. He decided to swim out to his boat which had a crew on board (why not just signal them?). They didn’t see him in the water and sailed away(?). He then drowned (??). 11

Wreckage is included here for completeness from frequently unknown tragedies somewhere off the coast. Burned timbers and bales of cotton washed ashore at Annestown as well as Tramore in February 1840 were thought to be from an American ship that went on fire.12 A terse line identifies the greatest disaster of the Copper Coast when thirteen bodies were washed ashore near Stradbally in 1840 from an unnamed Barque. The same report however gives fuller details of the Dungarvan schooner Spanaway caught in the same gale. It was en-route with copper ore from Knockmahon to Swansea but was driven back westward. The crew dropped the two anchors to hold position off Stradbally but the chains snapped. They made it into Stradbally cove where they grounded but could be floated off with the tide. 13 Nothing is said about what happened crew or ship when a cargo of ore was lost in later 1844. It was partly insured so £449 was received and the Company lost £276.14 The Dungarvan schooner Kirwan under Capt . Nugent left Bunmahon for Swansea on 17th December 1853 with about £2000 worth of ore. Shortly afterwards they hit an easterly gale and were forced to run back towards Dungarvan. They were damaged on rock or sandbank and helplessly foundered off Ballinacourty, according to one report. The two Captains Paul (W. and W.C) must have followed the progress and arrived off Ballinacourty to see the ship breaking up and the cargo lost although the crew were saved. Reportedly neither cargo nor vessel were insured. 15 Strangely, however, another report on the Kirwan says it stuck on a sand bank and that most of the 90 tons of ore were saved at no insurance cost to the company .16

A wreck of some thirty years previously was recalled in 1841 when “a large quantity” of dollars was found under the sand at Bunmahon and thought to be from the Mona.17 A December storm in 1840 drove the schooner Liske with fruit from Malaga ashore at Bunmahon. Fruit and ship survived and the crew were “housed and fed” locally. 18 A November gale in 1847 forced Captain Natherel to try to beach the brig Simpson at Bunmahon . Based in Hull it had traversed the Mediterranean from Smyrna bringing wheat to Liverpool when it was obviously blown off course. The coast guard were on hand and rescued someone who had been swept overboard. The “exhausted and numb” crew of seven were accommodated at the “village inn”. 19

Greater detail survives about the Greek brigSalem of Beyrant, Alexandria sailing from there to Liverpool with corn, caught in a storm which lasted three days at the very end of December 1852. It had been three months and eight days out when it lost its rudder and was fortunate to make it to the beach in Bunmahon with the waves breaking over it. In a dropping tide the Coast Guard managed to get all thirteen crew ashore before it broke in half. Captain Evans contacted the Greek consul in Dublin and Lloyds agent ordered the ship to be dismantled to save the wheat (which was understandably quite water-damaged), the rigging and anything else of value.20 The wrecked hull was still there three months later when it finally broke up in high seas and a snow storm providing firewood for local use.21 Four or five of the crew stayed on in Bunmahon and were popular locally with their “picturesque dress”.22  The exotic sequel is independently verified: they have “settled down in the village and intermarried with the local peasant women and a strange mixture of foreign tongues and customs has sprung up as a result”.23

Wreckage was washed ashore in Bunmahon along with clothes, wines, watches and household articles from an unnamed ship after a storm in late 1852. The Dublin paper rep orting this outrageously stated that these items “have rewarded the wreckers for their midnight vigils” and with added contumely stated that a body washed in had been stripped of his clothes and thrown back. 24         No such insinuation nor indeed explanation of what happened to the unnamed ship whose hull was seen floating upside down three miles south west of Bunmahon in summer 1855.25 In 1863 a Greek brig, Miranda, in ballast from Lisbon to Cardiff was wrecked “west of Tramore”. The lifeboat from there rescued the crew.26 Only the name of a wrecked ship is known as a head-board with the name Yaria was picked up near Bunmahon in 1867, 27 and similarly a barnacle-covered plank was picked up in Annestown in 1872 with the name Maryanne.28

An unnamed ship was driven ashore at Annestown in February 1856 spilling out barrels of palm oil which were immediately appropriated by the local people before the Coast Guard could get there.   However, the police from the barracks quickly found out who had barrels and seven local men found themselves in front of magistrates in Tramore Petty Sessions. They were fined from 15/- to 5/- each with two others fined one penny each for taking timbers from the wreck. The court was described as “crammed” with their friends and relatives.29   At  least one  barrel was smuggled  away and wound up in the possession of  Andrew Queally from near Stradbally. He decided to try to sell it in Waterford and sent it there by horse and cart under  cover of  night. His driver, Thomas Fleming, was picked up by the police at 7.00 am. 30

A totally avoidable accident happened in early April 1861. The Dungarvan brigantine Swallow had just taken on a cargo of ore at Knockmahon for Swansea when the wind came up. Captain John Mulcahy of Abbeyside ordered reduced sail and went below. The crew must have been inexperienced because they were slow to do so and he came out to see, when the boom (apparently unsecured) came around, hit him and knocked him into the water. The crew then thought to launch the ship’s boat to rescue him but they did so on the windward side and it was dashed to pieces against the side of the ship. He was seen floating on the water for “a considerable time” before “he sank to rise no more”. 31 The horror of that, close to land in Bunmahon Bay shocked not only the shipping community who would have known him but the mining employees as well. Contributions came in for the support of his wife and five children came from his colleagues in Abbeyside and Dungarvan (£102-13/6d), from the mining company (£22) and indeed from the seamen of Cork (£16- 5/-). Capt. Mulcahy, “an honest, sober and hard-working seaman”, 32 had also being paying three shillings a year for an insurance policy with the “Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners Royal Benevolent Society” over nine years. This entitled his widow to £11-5/- for his total contribution of

£1-7/-  as its Dungarvan agent M. Nagel pointed out, also reminding  the  public that when the

Elizabeth Lass was lost off Portsmouth, the Society had paid to return the crew to Dungarvan.33

Annestown was the scene of two  major shipwrecks in January 1862. First was the Cork schooner Active heading home with coal from Liverpool but was swept by a gale in towards Annestown. Presumably it tried to turn out but was caught sideways and was rapidly driven towards shore by wind and waves. People gathered on the  beach and watched helplessly as the ship grounded and was knocked on its side throwing all five crew progressively to their deaths in the waves.34 Almost immediately  another  ship, a much larger  one, was seen adrift and it  was being blown towards Benvoy. Somebody recognised it as the Indian Ocean and it  was reported to  have sailed from Liverpool with passengers for Sydney. People watched in horror as it was swept in the dark towards the rocks at Benvoy. Two surreal events followed. Such was the howling of the gale that the ship’s crash and grinding on the rocks happened in silence as did the screams of the passengers.

Miraculously the wind died down overnight and at first light, clothes were floating on the calm sea, but no bodies. The explanation followed. About 20 miles off the coast the Indian Ocean lost its rudder in the gale. A Newfoundland brig Europa tried to take it in tow but failed and so took off the crew of 25 – the report of passengers was wrong. Thus this large Australian-owned ship had been left to the mercy of the winds.3 5 Lloyds salvaged some of the floating debris which they then auctioned in Waterford, namely 30  hogsheads of Scotch ale, 15 bales of paper and one package of cigars, all “damaged partly. 36 The locals of course did their own salvaging, but we only hear of those that were caught: Matthew Casey admitted he “found” copper and canvas in Benvoy.37 The wreck could not be guarded the whole time and when the hull in Benvoy shifted the locals proceeded to “plunder” it.38 Lloyds meanwhile tried to sell this valuable copper sheathed ship in situ but acknowledging that lack of response may have been the difficulty in getting at it, had the superstructure towed to Annestown beach where “horses can fully load at their greatest convenience” .39 When there were still no takers an auction was to be held on Annestown beach on 18 March 1862. Offered for sale were masts, yards, and various timbers: strangely at Benvoy was still “prime deck plank” .40 There were no serious bidders and about a year passed, with the vessel presumably deteriorating, before Lloyds decided to at least salvage the copper sheathing using divers. They worked on it in the summers of 1863 and ’64 announcing that September that they had sold the copper in Liverpool for £7000. 41 However, another report that September said that the hull had been successfully auction off in situ (having moved out again) for £120 and the sunken cargo for £6.42.

All ships so far known were sailing vessels. In May 1867 a paddle steamer’s boilers burst holing the side. The eleven crew of the Aquilla were rescued by the sailing barque City of the Sultan and the abandoned wreck with its cargo of coal drifted onto the cliffs near Bunmahon. Lloyds agent was at hand to organise salvage.43 The awful consequences of an unknown tragic loss were manifest over three days in late September 1868 when decayed bodies were washed ashore around Bunmahon. The unknown victims were buried locally.44  A single body washed ashore west of Bunmahon in March 1869 was identified as James Baldwin, victim of the overturning of the lifeboat in Dunmore where other crew also lost their lives.4 5 In October 1870 an unidentified “large vessel” was seen with broken mast and sails shredded heading for destruction near Annestown. A sudden change of wind direction brought it out to sea and it was last seen been blown across Tramore bay to an unknown fate.46 In 1871the Content, strangely bringing rags from Chester to Penzance, wound off Annestown beach. The crew got ashore in their lifeboats: rags and ship were lost.47  Seemingly its wreckage was st ill visible a year later.48

In the gales of November 1872 the Spanish barque Re di Spagna was swamped by high seas and was grounded near Bunmahon with a crew of seventeen. The Coast Guard got a line aboard and rescued one with a breeches buoy; a second drowned while being pulled through the high seas. As they watched two men were washed overboard and lost. Nothing more could be done as darkness fell but in the morning, presumably with low tide, the remaining eleven men on board were taken off before the boat broke up. Again Lloyds agent arrived to salvage its cargo of bagged wheat. 49

Farmer James Roynane was at home with his family in Ballyvooney in early January 1875 when he heard noise in his yard and found three sailors there. They stated that they were from the Glasgow barque Gwenissa and had climbed the cliffs leaving five of their colleagues below. As transpired none of them knew where they were but the good farmer somehow got four of them up; the fifth had broken his leg. Having seen that the seven were fed and looked after he galloped off to Bunmahon to alert the Coast Guard and get provisions {including spirits) for his involuntary guests. He then was reported to have rescued the fifth man, carrying him home on his back.50 When news of this reached Glasgow, the immediate issue was how could the Gwenissa, sailing home from Portsmouth with a cargo of saltpetre, have been so far off course? It was a fairly new ship built in Quebec in 1870, a sturdy 138 feet long with 31 foot beam of 522 tons. The owner/captain it transpired had taken sick and command was given to a man named Thompson who at some stage discovered that the three compasses on board were all giving different readings! Incredibly he opted for the wrong one and headed west instead of north. He’d put out no watch in fog and they hit the rocks off Kilelton under full sail at about six knots. The crew were thrown overboard on impact: three were lost and the other eight clung on to wreckage, including the roof of the wheel-house, and got ashore. They were lucky that the likes of James Roynane lived nearby.51 Reportedly he was reimbursed by the Ship wrecks’ Mariners’ Society who had also seen to the subsequent welfare of the sailors. He was then also given a reward by the Lifeboat institution. 52

This looks like Benvoy, just west of Annestown

On 12 Feb. 1881the Polly Pinkham of Plymouth, a schooner of 141 tons, likewise made a navigational mistake and was wrecked, apparently around Annestown. 53 It had left the Rio Grand (presumably the one bordering Mexico and Texas) 69 days before with, strangely, 225 tons of “calcined bones and horns” for ship-owner William Pinkham of Devon. It had already been damaged by a wave on 10 Feb. and lay-to to make repairs. When they got under away again after 28 hours due care was not exercised, no soundings were taken and only a boy was on look-out. His warning was too late, the schooner struck and sank. The crew clung to the masts for a while. The captain, Edward Bennet, managed to get a life-belt and saved himself. The mate also made it to shore: the boy and four ordinary crew members perished.

The report above of 1881is exceptional in that the digitisation of local papers ends in 1870 and it seems that reports in British papers came by telegram and therefore lack detail including basics of location. Thus, for instance, an unlocated “loss on the Waterford coast” is reported of the barque Egeria sailing from Boston to Liverpool: the mate and five crew drowned (what about the captain?).54 Thus a cryptic note in the Bristol Mercury (copied in other UK papers) simply notes in January 1883 that the wreck of a schooner had been washed ashore between Annestown and Stradbally 55 and in November that year more wreckage was reported between Bunmahon and Stradbally.56 In 1884 three bodies were washed into Stradbally and a cabin thought to be from an unidentified schooner.57 Similarly in February 1885 under heading “The Recent Storms” two or three consequences impacted on various locations along the Copper Coast. Wreckage including barrels of petroleum were washed ashore: (also?) a body from an Austrian barque, the Venus B, as well as two bodies from the Camellia of Cork. 58  Ten years passed until July 1895 when two ketches had accidents within a few weeks of each other. Apparently  supplies for  Bunmahon were landed on the  beach. The Nautilus was doing so when it was swept broadside on, overturned and filled with water. 59 Another ketch, Louisa, was beating out of Bunmahon Bay when something happened to the stays and it was driven onto the rocks. The crew were saved. 60  A well recorded wreck happened west of the Copper Coast but involved Bunmahon Coast Guard trying to get a line aboard the Moresby in 1896.61 At the end of the century the sad flotsam of a disaster was washed up in Annestown in the form of a broken-up ship’s life-boat. 62









About Copper Coast Geopark

The Copper Coast Geopark is in Co. Waterford, Ireland and is an outdoor museum of geological records; it stretches along the coast from Kilfarassy Beach, near Fenor in the east to Ballyvoile Beach near Stradbally to the west. Volcanoes, oceans, deserts and ice sheets all combined to create the rocks which provide the physical foundation of the natural and cultural landscapes of the area. Follow the self-guided "Copper Coast" trail and walking cards available from the The Copper Coast Geopark Centre in Bunmahon.

Please respect our Geology and Nature; leave them with us, take just memories away.

Contact Information

Copper Coast Geopark Ltd.
Co. Waterford,
X42 T923

Phone: +353(0)51292828


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