In 1847, During the Great Hunger, the Brig Exmouth left Derry (Londonderry) for Quebec. Rather than sailing west across the Atlantic, a gale blew her east and she was wrecked on the island of Islay, off the coast of Scotland. There were only three survivors. She was registered for 165½ passengers (two children count for one adult). Nevertheless there were 240 passengers and a crew of 11. Initial reports gave the official number: 165. The passengers were, mainly, small farmers and tradesmen with their families. There were may women with their children (there were just 60 male passengers) who were to join their husbands who emigrated earlier and had established homes for their families. Of the 108 bodies recovered, 63 were children (less than 14 years of age) and 9 infants.
The information we have is, principally, from the three survivors. Their stories were printed in several newspapers and copied to others. Links to these are found below. This disaster is well commemorated on the web, in sites interested in history, tourism, genealogy and heritage; again there are links below. Most of these websites reproduce a newspaper account verbatim. The story speaks for itself. This account was published in “The Northern Star”:
The Northern Star 8 May 1847
Wreck of an Emigrant ship – One hundred and sixty five lives lost.
Accounts from Scotland report the shipwreck of the brig Exmouth, which had on board about one hundred and seventy persons, nearly all Irish emigrants, every soul of whom except three of the crew were lost.
It appears that she sailed from Londonderry on Monday 20th, and was soon caught in a gale which raged with great violence on the Scotch and Irish coasts. In the course of succession of gales and squalls every stitch of canvas was blown away, and after having been buffeted about the vessel became unmanageable and at half past twelve last Wednesday was driven amongst the rocks at Ballavanie, on the north west side of Islay, when she soon went to pieces, and every soul on board including the captain, Mr Booth, perished except three of the crew who floated ashore on the maintop. These men, who were in a state of dreadful exhaustion, were hospitably received by Mr Chinne, factor for Mt Campbell of Islay. On the Wednesday afternoon the wreck was passed by the Modern Athens, when many of the bodies were being washed on the shore. The three survivors John Stevens, George Lightford and William Coultard obtained a passage to Glasgow in the Modern Athens which arrived at the Broomilaw on Saturday and were clothed and lodged by the Shipwrecked Mariners society. The Exmouth belonged to Newcastle and was bound for Quebec. She was the property of Mr John Edons of South Shields. During the same gale a brig from New Orleans put in to Bowmore Islay in distress, with the loss of two men and bulwarks, and a schooner with the loss of one man. On the island of Fara a barque, a brig and a schooner are on shore.
Wreck of Exmouth, from Illustrated London News, 7 May 1847, from the British Newspaper Archive
According to the three sailors, the sole survivors of the wreck, and who arrived in Glasgow on Saturday evening the Exmouth, of 320 tons, Isaac Booth of Sunderland, master, sailed from Londonderry for Quebec between three and four o’clock on the morning of Sunday the 25ult. with a light south west breeze. She had a crew of 11 men (inclusive of the captain) and about 240 emigrants, consisting mainly of small farmers and tradesmen with their families, who turned their little all into money for the purpose of escaping the famine, and earning for themselves a home in the western world. Many were females and children going out to join their fathers and protectors who had already settled in Canada. There were also three cabin passengers, young unmarried ladies of the middle classes, two of them being sisters on their way to join their relatives at St John, New Brunswick.
The vessel was registered for 165½ passengers but as two children count for one adult and a very large proportion were under age – there being only about 60 men amongst the passengers – the survivors think that the total number of these ill fated emigrants must have amounted to the total stated viz.: 240.
The ship lost sight of land about four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. The breeze which had been light in the morning, increased to a gale during the day, and about eleven p.m. it came in terrific squalls accompanied by heavy torrents of rain. They then furled the fore and main sails. The wind which had been to the westward at first, veered northerly and the storm increased in violence, which blew the two topsails from the bolt ropes. The crew then commenced to bend other topsails, which they furled, but about three in the morning they were blown from the gaskets. The ship was now driving to the southward and eastward. The reason for the master not standing to the westward where they would have ample sea room, was for the purpose of attaining some harbour of refuge, where he might repair damages and replace sails.
On Monday forenoon the longboat was unshipped by the force of the seas, which broke over the vessel, and in eth course of the same forenoon the bulwarks were stove in and the lifeboat washed away. The gale continued with the same violence during the whole of Monday night and Tuesday; and an indication of the force of the hurricane may be had from the fact that on the latter day the mainsail after being furled was torn from the gaskets by the storm blast. While the crew were setting the foresail it was blown from the bolt ropes, and the trysail mast was unshipped, and the main gaff carried away which rendered them unable to carry the spanker. During this dreary time the vessel pitched dreadfully now on the crest of a mountain wave and in two seconds afterward reeling in the trough of the sea; the passengers were all below under hatches, many of them insensible to external danger from the pains of seasickness, but some of them had a fearful presentiment of disaster. Cooking, of course was out of the question but the grown up people had no heart to be hungry and moreover the cooked provisions brought from Londonderry were not yet entirely exhausted.
Wreck of Exmouth, from Illustrated London News, 7 May 1847, from the British Newspaper Archive
About 11 o’clock on Tuesday night, land and a light were seen on the starboard quarter, which Captain Booth at first took to be the light on the island of Tory, off the north west coast of Ireland, and in the belief that he has ample sea room in the course he was steering he bore along. As he drifted near the land, however and observed that the light was flashing, instead of a stationary one he became conscious of his error and dangerous position and made every effort to repair it by bringing the ship farther to the northward and westward and with the view of clawing her off the land the maintopsail and foretopmaststay sail were set and the jib half hoisted. The effort however was an ineffectual one; the ship soon got among the broken water, and at half past twelve on Wednesday morning was dashed among the rocks. If the above be a correct version on the impression on the captain’s mind as to his position – and it is distinctly spoken to by two of the survivors – the result shows that he must have been fully a hundred miles out of his reckoning; but perhaps it could not well be otherwise. The sun was obscured during all the time by black clouds; the moon was only seen through a heavy haze at intervals and from these causes it was impossible that any observations could be taken. The light seen was in reality that of Oransa or Oversay on the point of the Rhinne or Rune of Oversay to the north west of the entrance Lochindaul; and the land seen and on which the brig eventually struck, was the western part of the iron bound coast of the island. She went ashore and after striking once was dashed broadside alongside the rocks, which rose to the height of a masthead. She struck violently against the rocks three times and at the fourth stroke the mainmast went by the board, and fell into a chasm of the rock. Captain Booth had previously taken his station in the maintop, that he might personally keep a look out; and as soon as the brig struck; John Cleat, the mate and all the seamen, eight in number, joined the captain in the maintop, leaving the captain’s son a youth of about fifteen years of age asleep in his cot below. After remaining in the maintop about three minutes five of the crew went down for the purpose of ascending the foretop thinking they would have a better chance of attaining the shore from that part of the ship. At the same time one of the crew, named John Scott went out on the mainyard with a lifebuoy on his person thus leaving in the maintop the captain and three seamen, whose names were John Steevens, William Coulthard, and George Lightford, all belonging to South Shields. When the maintop along with the wreck of the mast was thrown into a rift in the rock, Coulthard, Lightfoot and then Steevens scrambled up the rigging and obtained a footing on the crags. The captain was about to follow the men, when a wave dashed over their heads as they clung to the rock but they were enabled to maintain their position; and when they looked around after the sea had retired they found that the captain and all were gone.
The mainmast had been broken into splinters by the fourth collision with the rocks and this recoiling wave had not only dragged the ship, but the fragments of the mast that adhered to her by the rigging, further into the sea, and then cut them off from the dense mass of human beings on board every chance of escape. Had the wreck remained in the chasm where it was originally thrown, and from which the three survivors escaped, it might have been used as a bridge by the others. Unhappily the last vestige of relief was taken away. The same wave which effected this fearful havoc must also have prevented the five seamen from reaching the foretop, from which they might have had a chance of escaping. A quarter of an hour elapsed from the time the brig first striking until the three passengers got on the rock. At the moment she struck or a little previous to it about half a dozen male passengers were standing on deck occasionally asking the mate if there was any danger. Of the three young ladies who were cabin passengers one of the sisters had been confined to bed with sea sickness from the moment of leaving Derry but at ten o’clock the other two took their position in the companionway and were seen there when the survivors last looked on the deck. The ship was ground and crunched so frightfully among the rocks that she must have broken up almost instantaneously. There was no cry from the multitude cooped up within the hull of the ill fated brig, or at least it was unheard for the commotion of the elements was so furious that the men on the top could scarcely hear each other at the top of their voices. The emigrants therefore must have perished in their berths as the rocks rapidly thumped the bottom out of the vessel. The three men who had escaped to the rock no soon as the ship entirely disappeared, searched anxiously for some outlet by which they might reach the mainland; but none could be found and they finally took shelter in a crevice, which however did not shield them from the rain, which fell heavily all night and here they remained till grey daylight. They discovered an opening through which they scrambled to the summit and after day had fairly broken they observed a farmhouse about half a mile distant. Thither they proceeded and were most hospitably nourished and put to bed. They were thoroughly worn out by exhaustion not one of the crew not having been in bed from the moment the ship left Derry. There were at the same time nearly naked having divested themselves of their heavy clothing when the Exmouth struck, and lost part of that which remained when scrambling on the rigging and amongst the rocks. The hospitable farmer (whose name we have not learned) and others who had been appraised by him, went to the scene of the catastrophe but of course too late to help and only to gaze on the desolation. Mr Chinnes, Islay’s factor soon heard of the event and kindly furnished the men with a passage to Glasgow by the Modern Athens steamer, which as already stated they arrived on Saturday last. Here they were consigned to the care of Mr Fildes of the naval rendezvous, and assistant to Lieutenant Forrest agent for the Shipwrecked Mariners Society and by him they have been comfortably boarded and clothed in the meantime.
Memorial to those lost on the Exmouth, photo and copyright to Rob Farrow at Geograph
On Thursday afternoon the latest date of our advices from Islay, about twenty of the bodies have come ashore. They were principally females with one little boy among them; and as many of them were in their nightclothes the probability is that they were those who had rushed upon deck at the first alarm caused by the striking of the ship. They were fearfully mangled by being dashed among the rocks and being jammed within the crevices along with pieces of the wreck, few of which were more than two feet in length. Other bodies were still floating in the surf but the sea was too high to permit any boat venturing out to bring them in. The belief is however that the great mass of the poor emigrants went down with the between decks of the ship, and that their bodies will not be recovered till this part of the vessel breaks up.
The Exmouth had nothing on board but ballast, and the provisions and little stocks of goods of the emigrants. She is the property of Mr John Eden of South Shields and though old, is stated by the survivors to have been found in every respect. All the crew and passengers were perfectly sober during this fearful time and the three seamen state that they never saw drink on board at all. The Captain was in the prime of life and has left a widow and family. All the rest of the seamen were unmarried with the exception of a man called John Ross who is amongst those perished. According to the above estimate the number who have suddenly called to their account amounts to 248.