My interest in these vessels stems from identifying the wreck of the Coniston off Southport.
Section from Wrecks of Liverpool Bay Volume 2 (with permission):
Steam coaster 73 tons (45 tons register), 93 ft long, 14.3 ft beam.
Built: Liverpool 1867.
Engines: 20 h.p., screw.
Owner: Thomas Winder of Liverpool.
Date of wreck: 20 July 1868.
Reported Location of loss: off Southport.
Location: 53° 38.648' N, 3° 11.310' W.
Distance from New Brighton: 14 nautical miles.
Depth at neap low water: seabed 12 m, top of wreck 10 m, scour depth 0.5 m.
The Coniston was one of the first steam coasters to be built for the Irish Sea trades. She was one of five iron steamships built at Liverpool in 1867. Her owner was Thomas Winder of Liverpool, who is described as a cooper, and he used her to carry goods between Liverpool and Lancaster. She was initially registered at Liverpool as a steam flat with length of 67.6 ft but was then re-registered later in the year in October 1867 as lengthened to 93 ft. She was described as a schooner-rigged steamship with two masts and with engines (listed as two with length 20 ft) amidships and holds fore and aft. Her master was registered as Isaac Kirkby.
The Coniston had a short life. On Monday 20 July 1868, several Southport men were making their way to the shrimping grounds to the north of the town, when they saw a bright light offshore. A ship entering Liverpool early on Monday morning also reported seeing a fire about 10 miles NE of the Northwest Lightship which is a similar position, while a resident of Wallasey reported seeing a fire on the horizon for quite a long period of time. In the following days parts of casks were washed up on the shore, and one of them was marked "Benzine, New York, shipped by Miller and Jones". This was the clue to what had happened. The iron steamship Coniston was carrying a general cargo including 110 barrels of petroleum from Liverpool to Lancaster. The weather was unusually hot: a heat wave. After she left Liverpool at 10.30pm on Sunday night, she was not heard of again. Her captain was John Kirkby of Ulverston and she had four other crew (two from Ulverston and two from Liverpool) together with the mate's seven year old daughter aboard. The petroleum was loaded into her smaller stern hold which was separated by a bulkhead from her engine. That the fire and explosion were from these barrels is confirmed by the report that some of the cargo in the fore hold, namely a cask of fish, was washed ashore with no sign of fire damage. Two bodies were recovered several days after her loss, showing signs of burns. Presumably the crew were fighting the fire at the stern for a while before an explosion killed them and sank the Coniston. What is especially ironic is that this petroleum had been imported at great expense from America, but the Coniston sank on top of an oil field - the Lennox Field - which was only brought into use in the 1990s.
The wreck at the location given above was first found in an oil company survey in 1993 and was reported as about 35 metres long and standing about 2.5 metres above the seabed at the highest point which is amidships. One hundred years ago a channel existed into Southport and this has subsequently silted up. This same deposition of material on the seabed has also resulted in the wreck, which lies about 6 miles west of Southport, being nearly overwhelmed by the rise in the level.
The wreck is of a steamship which is fairly intact with bows facing NW. She is deeply buried in the mud of the seabed and there is some scour around her. Part of her midships is completely covered but the bow section with a winch is visible as is the section from the engines to the stern. The wreckage is 123 ft long overall with the aft section (from rear of main hold to stern) being 44 ft. She is 17 ft wide. The poop or quarter deck of the wreck has, proceeding aft, what appears to be the round hole for the funnel duct, the top of the boiler, the top of the engine which seems to have two cylinders, a small cargo hold, a metal post, then the rounded stern. The wreck has a iron hull, wooden decking and some evidence of bunker coal in compartments either side of the boiler. There is some coarse netting near the stern and a tangle of black electrical cable on the port quarter. Most significant is that the wooden decking around the stern appears to be charred and much of it is missing around the location of the small stern hold. Since the seabed is muddy here, any diving should be at slack water with care taken not to stir up the silt. Because this wreck is almost level with the seabed, there is little fish life around it. The wreck is also quite difficult to find with an echo sounder since most of it lies almost level with the seabed.
This wreck was thought at one time to be possibly that of the Gleaner but she had a wooden hull. After exploration by diver Keith Hurley, it was proposed that it was the wreck of the Blanche. The Blanche would not have had wooden decks and was a larger vessel (145 ft long). It seems most likely that this is the wreck of the Coniston. She is even heading in the correct direction (north) and is near the reported position of loss. She has two holds with evidence of fire in the stern hold and the wooden decking points to an early steamship. The only small worry is that the specification in the Liverpool register gives a smaller size than 123 ft long with 17 ft beam. Since her registered size was increased once in 1867, one can suspect that perhaps her final size was even larger.
New information: This account raised some questions: what trade was Coniston built for;
where did she regularly voyage; what vessel preceeded her,...
Some answers come from contemporary newspapers, especially those of Ulverston. Ulverston is a town on the west Bank of the Leven Estuary. A ship canal was built in 1796: essentially as a linear dock with one (sea) lock. Other ports in the region (Greenodd on the river Crake which flows from Coniston Water; Haverthwaite on the river Leven which flows from Lake Windermere; etc) gradually had their trade focussed at Ulverston.
James Winder was established in business at Liverpool by 1824, described as a wooden hoop manufacturer and ship-owner. A source of wooden staves for making barrels was in the Lake District and Winder had links to ports there - Greenodd and Ulverston in particular.
With the arrival of steam vessels, they obtained a wooden paddle
steamer, Windermere, built 1835 by Mottishead at Liverpool for the Winder
family. She was 101x16x8 feet, 79 tons, with a Fawcett and Peston
engine of 50 HP. She was described as the first ship to be fitted with
Samuel Hall's surface condensor. She was also described as especially
designed to take passengers. Her first voyage, on 27 July 1835, was
from Liverpool, calling at Poulton [now Poulton-le-Sands, part of Morecambe] for Lancaster and
thence to Ulverston, returning to Liverpool, taking 65 hours including
She was advertised in 1844, in the name of Elizabeth Winder, as providing a passenger service from Liverpool to Ulverston for Lake Windermere in summer 3 times per week and in winter once per week. The vessel also voyaged to Amlwch once per week and visited Milnthorpe (for Kendal) once a week.
Until the railway reached Ulverston in 1857, many passengers for the
Southern Part of the Lake District travelled by ship from Liverpool.
Ulverston, which had a ship canal, and Greenodd were the most commonly
used ports. The railway viaduct over the Leven Estuary above Ulverston,
built 1857, had an opening section (30 ft wide) which allowed schooners
to get up to Greenodd and other small ports. There were several reports
of collisions between vessels and the viaduct.
For instance, in August 1860 the sloop William, belonging to Thomas Winder, with a cargo of gunpowder [gunpowder was made, using local charcoal, at the Low Wood Works near Haverthwaite up the river Leven], collided with the viaduct and had to be run on shore. Eventually, it was agreed to keep the viaduct closed, in exchange for a railway link from Ulverston to Greenodd and Haverthwaite which opened in 1869.
With the railway having taken the passenger trade, the steamer Windermere was broken up in 1857. Thomas Winder also owned sailing vessels, see sloop William above. The Winder family ordered a new vessel, Coniston, a small iron screw-steamer built in Liverpool in 1867. Coniston was initially registered as 68 feet long, then re-registered as 93 feet long, with beam 14 feet, 73 tons, 20 hp screw engines. The owner, Thomas Winder of Liverpool, was described as a cooper.
Coniston was crewed mainly by Ulverston men, with captain Isaac Kirkby of Ulverston.
An advertisement in the Ulverston Newspaper of 23 May 1867: New steamer Coniston, Isaac Kirkby, Master, will receive goods on board for Ulverston and the neighbourhood at Canning Dock Liverpool (apply to Thomas Winder, 3 Upper Pownall St., Liverpool) or agents at Ulverston. Goods by the Coniston will be landed at the Canal Upper.
Unlike their steamer Windermere, Coniston had a short life, as described above.
Report from the contemporary Ulverston newspaper:
LOSS OF THE STEAMER CONISTON AND ALL HANDS. We regret to have to record the loss of the steamer Coniston, which most of our townsmen will recollect made several trips last year, between Liverpool and Greenodd and Ulverston, and has recently been running between Liverpool and Lancaster. It belongs to Messrs. Winder and Co., and was commanded by Captain Isaac Kirkby, of this town [Ulverston], and had on board John Braithwaite, the mate; his step-daughter, a girl, 7 years of age; and John Dobson, aged 48, seaman, also of this town, and two others. The Coniston left the Trafalgar Dock, Liverpool, about 12 o'clock on the night of Sunday, the 19th July 1868, having on board 110 casks of refined petroleum and several of naphtha. She should have reached her destination the following morning, but was never seen any more.
At the latter part of last week, some charred casks known to have been part of her cargo, together with metal and timber pieces of a vessel were washed up at Southport and, on Friday, the bodies of two men (John Dobson and Thomas Pearson) were picked up in the Mersey. Dobson's right hand had been severely burned, as though it had had contact with flames. Upon his body was found a watch, which had stopped at five minutes to two o'clock. The crew of the north-west lightship reported, at about that hour, they saw, in the direction the Coniston would take for Lancaster, a light as if a ship was on fire. The destruction of the vessel is no doubt attributed to fire or explosion, but there is no conclusive evidence on that point.
On Monday, Mr. Clarke Aspinall, borough coroner, held an inquest on the bodies of Thomas Pearson and John Dobson, which had been placed in the dead house Prince's Dock, Liverpool, when the following evidence was given:
Daniel Sayle, being sworn, deposed: I am a labourer in the employ of Mr. Winder, wood-hoop merchant, and owner of the steamship Coniston, trading between Liverpool and Lancaster, who had an office in Upper Pownall-street. The deceased Thomas Pearson was about 31 years of age, and a fireman on board the Coniston. The deceased John Dobson was a seaman on board, and was 44 years of age. On Friday week, I was on board the Coniston in the Trafalgar Dock. The captain was Isaac Kirby, the mate John Braithwaite, and the engineer James Pearson. The crew consisted of five persons. The vessel sailed for Lancaster on Sunday night, the 19th July, at eleven o'clock. The only person on board besides the crew, was a little girl, the mate's daughter. The vessel would carry about 80 tons, and had on board a general cargo. I saw the bodies of the two deceased at the deadhouse on Saturday, and identified them.
Henry Charles Steer, a seaman on board the tug Flying Childers, stated that the body of Thomas Pearson was picked up on Friday night in the Queen's Channel and subsequently removed to the deadhouse.
Edward Seward, a boatman, deposed that on Friday morning he picked up the body of deceased John Dobson, near the Formby Lightship. He took it to the Prince's Pier, from whence it was conveyed to the deadhouse.
John Hudson Ker deposed - I am a member of the firm of Robert Ker and Co., commission and shipping agents, 13, Goree Piazzas. I was agent for the steamer Coniston. On Saturday, the 18th July, she received on board a general cargo, a portion of which consisted of 110 casks of refined petroleum, five barrels of turpentine, and two casks of oil. These items I take from a copy of the ship's manifest. The vessel was due in Lancaster on Monday morning, but has never arrived there. I have seen three casks at Southport, one containing oil, one partially filled with petroleum, and a third an empty petroleum cask. The oil cask I can identify as part of the vessel's cargo; the others I believe to be so. I also saw a gaff at Southport which I believe to have belonged to the steamer. The half-empty cask seemed a good deal charred with fire externally. I believe the vessel to have been seaworthy in all respects.
William Morton deposed - I was quay clerk to the Coniston. She completed taking in her cargo on the 18th July, but did not sail until the following (Sunday). The cargo was stowed under the supervision of the captain and mate on the Saturday. The petroleum with the exception of one cask, was in the after hold, which is abaft the engines and furnaces. The engines would be between the after hold and the furnace and boilers. We had two casks of oil and five of turpentine in the fore-hold, in the centre of it, with grain and flour at either end. We had one barrel of petroleum on deck, but not near the funnel. It was covered with canvas to keep the sun from it. I have been accustomed to shipping petroleum and there was nothing peculiar in the mode in which this was stowed. The petroleum casks were not all full when taken on board, they were taken by weight.
Thomas Paton said he was an engineer occasionally employed by Mr. Winder to survey the engines of the Coniston. He overhauled the steamer about the middle of June last, and found her in good condition. The boilers were then cleaned. On the 18th instant he again saw the steamer, and her engineer reported she was still in good condition. Her nominal power was 25-horse; she was registered at 44 tons, and carried between 70 and 80 tons. She had one boat with her.
Dr. Ayrton stated that he had seen the bodies of the deceased. They appeared to have died from drowning. The right hand of Dobson had been severely burned, apparently by fire rather than by hot water. Pearson was not burned at all.
In summing up, the Coroner said he had entered somewhat minutely into the evidence in that case, as it was of more than usual importance that they should get at the real facts if possible. Now, notwithstanding that, the real cause of the accident by which these men had lost their lives was unknown. Many things might have arisen to occasion death. They might have jumped overboard, but that was not likely. They might have been shipwrecked, but considering the calm weather which had prevailed that was not likely. Again, they might have been ran down by another vessel. The doctor's evidence was conclusive that there had been a fire explosion on board the steamer, as Dobson's hand had been burned by the flames. As there had not been sufficient evidence on that point, it seemed to him (the coroner) that the only verdict which could be returned was, that the deceased had been drowned, but that how they got into the water there was no evidence to show. After some deliberation the jury returned a verdict in accordance with the coroner's.