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Date Posted: 04:40:34 09/02/02 Mon
Author: Lecture
Subject: Coffin-ships along Derry docks


Derry was one of the principal emigration ports in Ireland. Its dockside was to play a pivotal role during the years of the 'Great Hunger', which witnessed an unparalleled exodus in a bid to survive and find a brighter economic future. Contrary to common belief, research will show that Derry, and the North-West, did not in fact escape the horrors of the 'Great Hunger', or show indifference during this social calamity which our nation, bitterly endured, throughout those seven dark years, from 1845 to 1852.

It must be stated that in the early stages of the potato blight, discovered in the autumn of 1845, relief committees were established by the London authorities in areas where the need was deemed to be greatest. During the spring and summer of 1846, almost 700 such committees were set up, the majority of which were in the south and west of the country. It is noteworthy that there were fewer in the midlands, only a handful in the province of Ulster and none whatsoever in counties Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone or Derry. These counties did not establish out-door relief schemes, whereas these operated in the other 27 counties of Ireland.

It is also noteworthy that most of the Ulster counties were spared from the worst ravages of the potato blight simply because many of their small farmers were also engaged in the linen industry, usually as part-time weavers. Oats were also more widely grown than in other parts. This meant that the level of distress in the area not merely depended on the yield of the local crops but also on the state of the linen trade.

A downturn in the linen trade in 1847, combined with the smallness of the potato crop, resulted in severe distress in parts of counties Antrim, Down and Derry. The spread of fever in many Poor Law Unions had contributed to the distress, yet the local Poor Law administrators were able to provide relief without requiring assistance from the British Treasury. Such reflected upon the general prosperity of the region. Elsewhere, subsequently, Treasury funding was drastically cut as the crisis reached its lowest ebb. By September 1848 all external financial assistance ceased, at a time when the demand for relief was even higher than in the previous three years. Put simply, London had decided to wash its hands of the problem by passing legislation which would demand the impossible, that the Irish propertied-classes would be left to tackle native poverty, disease and starvation.

William Sharman Crawford, an eloquent proponent of the view that the Irish 'Famine' was constitutionally an imperial responsibility, attempted, unsuccessfully, to introduce the following amendment to the Rate-in-Aid Bill, on the grounds that:

"It is unconstitutional and unjust to impose on Ireland
separate national taxation for the wants of particular localities, so long as the public general revenue of Ireland is paid into an Imperial Treasury and placed at the disposal of an Imperial Legislature for the general purposes of the United Kingdom."

(This Great Calamity, p. 258).


Over a year and a half earlier, by the end of February 1847, in many parts of the country, notably Roscommon, Leitrim and Fermanagh, the sudden closure of the public works and the tardiness in opening the soup kitchens resulted in a hiatus in relief provision. Many of the relief committees could only provide soup and these ad hoc measures were generally inadequate to meet the rising demand. In the spring of 1847, emigration and mortality rose dramatically. The increase in deaths from starvation became so commonplace that many newspapers stopped reporting them in detail. It led to the local newspaper in Roscommon to pose the question, ""What will become of our peasantry ?''.

The local relief committees in Derry and Belfast contributed generously to relieve distress elsewhere in Ireland. The Roman Catholic clergy of Derry, led by their Bishop, Dr. Maginn, blamed the increase in mortality very firmly on the British government. For the period November
1846 to April 1847, they compiled a separate list from the parish registers of all deaths that were attributable to starvation. On 1 May 1847, they placed this list in the diocesan archive, rolled in black crepe, and inscribed:

""The Records of the Murders of the Irish Peasantry, perpetuated in A.D. 1846-47, in the 9 and 10 Vic., under the name of economy during the administration of a professedly Liberal, Whig government, of which Lord John Russell was Premier.'' (This Great Calamity, p. 102)


In the age of sail Derry possessed an ideal location. It stood at the head of a virtually land-locked Foyle, which was twenty-four miles long and only two miles wide at its head. Lough Foyle was sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds by the Inishowen peninsula, thus making it a harbour of refuge, accessible and safe in all weathers. Owing to her westerly situation, Derry, viewed from a London perspective, was halfway between that capital of an empire, and what were once considered its American colonies. It was said, "A Derry ship is no sooner out of the river, but she is immediately in the open sea and has but one course".

Right up to the onset of the Second World War in 1939
when the last trans-Atlantic passenger steamer sailed for the port, Derry was one of the principal emigration ports in Ireland. Between 1846 and 1851 over a million people left Ireland for North America. Only 20% of this total left directly from Ireland; the port of Liverpool carried 75% of all Irish emigrants. New York received well over 60% of all Irish immigrants in these years. In Ireland the potential emigrant was most likely to be a farm laborer; in America the Irish emigrant's principal role was to service industrial expansion.

In the peak years of the 'Great Hunger'. i.e. 1847 to 1850, 31,873 emigrants left through Derry. Two Derry companies, J & J Cooke and William McCorkell & Co., participated in this trade, but had no connections with a controversial steamer, named Londonderry . The Cooke firm attracted around 40% of the trade, and the names of the actual emigrants are recorded in the company's order books.

In the year 1850 the Cooke company recorded that 88% of its passengers came from the three counties of Donegal, Tyrone and Derry. Their main destinations were either Philadelphia, Quebec or St. John, New Brunswick. Heavy emigration was to continue throughout the 19th century with the population of Ireland falling from 8,175,124 to 4,458,775, in 1901.

Significant numbers went to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. However, the most popular destination was the U.S.A., where to-day, 66 million can trace their roots back to the Emerald Isle, and from that stock emerged some fifteen U.S. Presidents.

In the first 70 years of the 19th century it is estimated that 200,000 passengers left Derry port by sailing ship, with the average outward voyage to Canada and the U.S. taking 28 days. In the age of sail Derry-owned ships played a major role in the emigrant trade, only to be superseded by steam-ships. Steam took over from sail in the 1860s, as the latter type of vessels could no longer compete with the speed, comfort and reliability of the steamship.

It is appropriate to emphasis the conditions which faced emigrants in the days before steam. There was little comfort on the older sailing-ship, and things had hardly changed from the 18th century. The ships were invariably overcrowded in a bid to maximize profits, and the associated health-risks soon rightly earned for them the description 'coffin-ships'. From the old records, it seems logical to assume that there is a continuous line of human bones from the mouth of the Foyle to the various ports of North America. Other records will show that, vast, and what could aptly be described as ""disgusting profits'', were made with little regard to the most basic of standards. Great wealth was accumulated by the respective British and Anglo-Irish shipping companies on the basis of this trade, which effectively exploited human want and misery, to such an intent that livestock, as will be shown, often replaced humanity itself, by being considered the most valuable commodity on board.

The vast majority of poorer emigrants were accommodated in the space between decks - the height between the decks seldom exceeded 5' 6". 4' 6" was common. In several ships 'berths' had triple-tiers and were 18 inches wide and 2 feet in height. Port-holes to provide ventilation and light were non-existent in most ships, but provided in most vessels built for Her Majesty's Royal Navy.


In 1848, 732 more passengers were carried to the States from Derry than in the previous year, but 5,486 fewer went to British America. Of the 41 vessels employed to carry these passengers from our dockside, eight only sailed to Canada, the remainder to the USA. Actually, conditions were also very severe when the ships landed. In New York 1,000 people were reported sick with ship-fever, and were lodged in the hospital on Staten Island, at the end of 1847:

"The speed and scale of the flight from Ireland saw an under-regulated passenger trade, where dirty and dangerous vessels were pressed into service. Lack of medical screening on land and lack of medical care on board, combined with lack of food, and overcrowding, got these early vessels the name of 'coffin-ship'. On the worst of these ships sailing to Quebec and during quarantine on Goose Ile, in 1847, up to 40,000 passengers died." (Famine Echoes, p. 254)

After a tragedy on board one such coffin-ship named, Londonderry, which berthed at Derry quayside on December 3rd 1848, legislation was belatedly introduced which curbed the use of unsuitable cargo ships and regulated and significantly improved the passenger trade.

The author of Famine Echoes also notes:
"...Famine emigration reached a scale never before seen in the history of international emigration. Before the Famine, emigration had tended to be of the more solvent tenants of the north and east, mainly farmers and tradesmen. With the Famine the poorest western counties were the worst hit. While the very poor were more likely to die at home than find the resources to leave Ireland, many paupers did reach Liverpool which was seen as a staging post for further emigration'' (p. 244).

He concludes:

"Panic-driven emigration and the desire for economic betterment in foreign lands took away from Ireland a third to a half of each rising generation after the Famine", (pages 245)).


Derry docks was a major escape-hatch for these unfortunate people. However, in an earlier and bitter winter of 1848, almost mid-way through 'Great Hunger', scores of passengers, who embarked at Sligo, were not spared to even live long enough to step upon our ancient quayside.
A grim body-count of seventy-two corpses were removed from a paddle-steamer named "Londonderry" as dusk fell over Derry docks on a wintry Sunday of December 3, 1848. There was a tangible sense of public anger, revulsion and horror not only along the quayside, but throughout the city as news of this tragic event was spread by word of mouth.
We learn from "City on the Foyle" by Sam Hughes that the Londonderry was lying at anchor off Moville for 12 hours and failing to answer signals, before making its way to Derry. On arrival the explanations given by the Captain as to why so many corpses were on his vessel, led to 50 men of the 59th Foot and a force of constabulary surrounding the wharf as public outrage intensified.

Hughes writes:
"When Head Constable Magee boarded it, he found the bodies of 72 men, women and children piled indiscriminately on the deck and steerage compartment presenting the ghastly apearance of having died in the agonies of suffocation."
He goes on to explain that the crisis had reached its height following the failure of the third successive potato crop and that all the steerage passengers were bound for America and were mostly family groups. Around midnight the sea was very high and water was shipped. An order was issued demanding that all steerage passengers be put into the already overcrowded compartment, which was 18 feet by 12, and a hatch was placed on it. This was, thoughtlessly, further secured by a tarpaulin to keep out the water. Some struggled violently to get out, many swooned and died, unable to make the effort.

This Co. Derry author relates:

"But one, Michael Brennan, a powerfully-built man, who was described as a tract distributor, forced his way through and informed the first mate, who at first refused to belive him and then, reluctantly, got a lamp and followed. Brennan brought his mother and two sisters out but one of the latter was dead. Many others, both alive and dead, were badly bruised on the arms and legs, caused by nail-studded brogues in the struggle to escape".

It transpired that the Captain, Alexander Johnstone, and the entire crew of 26 men were taken into custody; the
uninjured survivors were accommodated in the Corporation Hall and the injured went to the infirmary. Feelings in the city ran very high and the crowds on the quays and outside the prison threatened to tear Captain Johnstone to pieces. The inquest in the Corporation Hall was conducted by Mr. Minchin. Mr. Alexander Linsay, the Mayor was present.
Hughes's research reveals that "through some procedural device, the case of one of the victims - Ann McLaughlin aged 8 of Co. Sligo - was taken as representative of all. Head Constable Magee said that Captain Johnstone told him that some of the passengers had mutinied and cut the throats of others who had money, and then used sulphur to set the ship on fire; he however found no trace of sulphur nor anyone with a cut throat.

"The origin of this canard lay in one of the trapped men using lucifer matches, which emitted a sulphorous smell, to see if there was any point at which the tarpaulin could be pierced. Richard Hughes, the first mate, testified: "I had so much to care about. I could do nothing. No one could keep on deck with the heavy seas. Three men were at the wheel all night."


A medical witness aptly compared the tragedy with the recent events in the blackhole of Calcutta, according to Sholto Cooke's work, "The Maiden city and the Western Ocean" (pps. 108/9). The same source noted, "There was some evidence that the Scottish crew had shown malice to the passengers", adding,"but the master appears to have given the orders for the safety of the passengers and the ship, nevertheless, they were carried out with a reckless lack of consideration, which resulted in the deaths of seventy-two steerage passengers." The author notes that one member of the Coroner's jury observed that the crew found time to show more consideration for the livestock than for the steerage passengers entrustewd to their care. The Derry jury's ultimate statement read:

"Death was caused by suffocation in consequence of gross negligence and total want of the usual and necessary caution on the part of Captain Johnstone and his first and second mate, and we therefore find them guilty of manslaughter, and we further consider it our dulty to express our abhorrence of the inhuman conduct of the reminder of the crew and call the attention of steamboat proprietors to the urgent necessity of introducing efficient ventilation in the steerage and better acommodation for the poorer class of passengers."
The "Londonderry Journal", established in 1772, was foremost in making the call for radical changes to legislation. It forcefully demanded that the Westminster government immediately draft a bill that would ensure greater safety regulations and the provision of basic essentials for passengers. Those forced into the steerage compartment had been inhumanely denied such essentials as ventilation, water and light.

At a time when the political ideology of the day was "Free Trade" - a policy of strict non-intervention in the "market-place", or even on social issues, such as mass starvation in Ireland - the "Journal's" campaigning spirit in the aftermath of December 3, 1848, must surely have been viewed as a voice from the wilderness of the Irish bogs as far as the rulers of the Empire were concerned. Howver, other influential individuals and agencies echoes its clarion call. Eventually, many expressions of public horror penetrated the corridors of power, and the London government was, belatedly, forced to take action.
The newspaper gave a break down of those who died, and other details as follows:


Steerage Passengers............................174
Cabin ditto......................................3
Captain and Crew................................26
Of those who died on board, (all steerage passengers.)
Children................................18 - 72
Remaining to be accounted for 131

Steerage Passengers surviving..........102
Cabin ditto ditto.............3
Captain and Crew........................26 - 131

Black cattle.......................44 died 13
Sheep..............................62 " 25
Pigs...............................26 " 1

While the "Journal" was able to list 50 of the dead, by name, and/or relationship, it noted that some 22 bodies had been unidentified. Among the names of those listed as dead were six members of a family called McAnulty. Its grim, yet gripping report of December 13, concluded:

"We understand that a sum of 124, 15 shillings and 8 pence and a farthing was found by the Constabulary on the bodies of the deceased individuals, and on examining the floor after their removal from the scene of death, a further 10 was discovered. It is scarcely necessary to add, that all this money will be accounted for."

This latter point is interesting insofar as it shows just how little money these poor families possessed, with which to coverage potential costs on board and set themselves up for a new life in America. It may well be that their fare from Liverpool to the US might not have been already paid out, having only paid for the voyage from Sligo to Liverpool. It works out at approximately one pound and eighty-seven pence per head in to-day's money.

The "Liverpool Mercury" was one of those influential organs which took up the issue, commenting:

"Regrettably these miscreants infringed no positive enactment by putting nearly 200 passengers on a vessel with accommodation for only 50...the last and greatest culprit is the Legislature which has not yet provided any general act for the lives and safety of passengers at sea."

This paper's comments and the associated outcry in other sections of the Victorian media, as well as within the general community, forced the question of conditions in Irish cross-channel steamers unto the floor of the Westminster parliament.


The late Sam Hughes's invaluable research on this tragic incident, published by Ogmios Press, 30 Clarendon Street, Derry, in 1984, around ten years before his own demise, remarks of the fate of those found guilty:

"After a two-day hearing at the following Spring Assizes, the three were acquitted and, again, the blame was placed on the government. Within a year, codes of safety for passengers at sea were enacted, but within a month the Londonderry, quickly refurbished, was back on the booming emigrant trade; two years later, Captain Johnstone, an old man at 48, died at portrush.

"The victims were taken for burial to Derry Workhouse which was opened the previous year. The buildings then stood in open country and the clergy of the Roman Catholic, Established and Methodist Churches officiated.

"The field selected was on the north side and not that which was later known as "the paupers' graveyard". No stone marked it and in succeeding generations its whereabouts became a matter of the vaguest hearsay. About 20 years ago, howver, in consequence of house building in land adjoining, mains were laid across it and the excavation turned up some coffin-boards and fragments of bone.

"One day on a mound of soil, I saw a disintegrated skull with tawney coloured hair, and a thin red ribbob still adhering to it. It could well have been little Ann Mclaughlin."
(City on the Foyle, P.24).

This well-received lecture was researched by a local author and historian, Mr. Fionnbarra Dochartaigh, BA[Hons.]. He delivered it to a cross-community audience at the Hibernian Hall, Foyle St., Derry, as part of a drive to increase membership in 1995. In a gesture of solidarity the Derry Division #1 of the AOH allocated the use of two small rooms, on their top floor,which are have since been used as city-centre offices for the N-W Memorials Committee work. Its author imposes no copyright if used for educational purposes. Please acknowledge source.

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