Sailing vessels are dependent on the wind for propulsion, so a series of "rules of the road" had developed to give priority when a collision was likely. The arrival of steam vessels caused confusion - they were faster and had different ideas about priority. It was only in 1846 that Trinity House pressed Parliament to pass the Steam Navigation Act that prescribed port-to-port passing for steam vessels approaching from ahead. Vessels carried very inadequate (by modern standards) lights at night. Red and green side lights for steamships were only mandatory from 1848. The approaches to ports such as Liverpool were full of vessels - hundreds a day arriving and leaving. There were also vessels anchored in the river, ferries crossing, and small boats taking people to anchored vessels. The tidal current could be as fast as 5 knots. Collisions were inevitable, but often not serious.
One of the earliest
collisions involving steam vessels and large loss of life was in the
Clyde. PS Comet [built Lang, Dumbarton,1821] and PS Ayr collided on 21 October 1825 off Kempock,
Point, Gourock. There were 70 fatalities. The wreck of Comet was raised
and partially re-used, as sloop Ann, in 1826
See more details.
PS Queen of the Isle - PS Irishman 25th March 1835
From Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser, Tuesday 31 March 1835
On Wednesday night [25-3-1835], about 10 o'clock, the Queen of the Isle steamer, outward bound for the Isle of Man, came into contact with the Irishman steamer, inward bound from Drogheda. The accident took place about two miles from the Rock-perch Lighthouse, at the entrance of the Mersey. Both had lights up the time, and the people on board of both, state that they took the usual precautions to prevent them from coming in contact. The precautions failed however. A dreadful concussion ensued. The Queen of the Isle struck the Irishman just before the paddle-box, carried away the houses on the deck, the paddle-beam and engine, and caused a deal of damage on board the vessel. The cook-house, which is immediately before the paddle-box, was smashed to pieces, and the cook, James Bourne, a boy about of 16 years age, killed on the spot, and the leg and the thigh of a passenger were broken. The Irishman, though seriously damaged in her upper works, did not make any water. The Queen of the Isle took her in tow, and brought her into port in safety.
On Friday an inquest was held on the body the deceased, James Bourne, before Mr. Bailiff Pownall, one the coroners for this borough. Captain Heaney, the Irishman, and several of his crew were examined touching the deceased's death, and the unfortunate cause which produced it. They were also cross-examined, on the part of Captain Quayle, the Queen of the Isle, for the purpose that the fatal accident had not been caused any culpable neglect on his part. Whilst the witnesses maintained that every thing had been done to keep the Irishman clear of the Queen of the Isle, they seemed think that the same exertions had not been made to keep the Queen of the Isle clear of her. Heaney said that, having starboarded his helm, and finding that his vessel did not get much out of the way of the one of which he had seen the light, he ordered it to be put hard a-starboard, and immediately stopped his engines.
Witnesses were then examined on behalf of Captain Quayle. The evidence went to show that, as soon as the light of the Irishman had been seen, the usual precautions were taken to keep the two vessels clear of each other, the engines having been stopped, and the helm put hard a-starboard, in which state she was when the Queen of the Isle struck the Irishman. The witnesses seemed to think, that if the Irishman had held on her course when they first saw her, she would have passed a quarter of a mile from the larboard bow of the Queen of the Isle. Six minutes might have elapsed from the time the light was decried until the two vessels struck. When first seen, the Irishman was, according to the steersman of the Queen of the Isle, about a point on the latter's larboard cathead. As she neared, Captain Quayle ordered him to port his helm little; and two or three minutes must have elapsed from the time he ported the helm and the striking of the steamers. The engineer deposed, that, seeing the Irishman alter her course, and apprehending danger, he went below, and immediately afterwards received orders to stop the engine, which had been stopped about a minute and a half before the vessels struck. He was then ordered to reverse the Queen of the Isle, but the vessel would not reverse in consequence of his having stopped her so instantaneously. He was sure the paddle-wheels were not going when the vessel struck.
Mr. M'Bride, the Master of the Clarence Dock, bore evidence to the sobriety of Captain Quayle on leaving the dock, and to his skill as commander.
The Jury retired and, after consulting about 10 minutes, returned verdict of Accidental Death, and laying deodand [a fine levied when an inanimate object caused a death] of £10 on the Queen of the Isle.
PS Antelope - Cambrian Cutter 12 December 1836
From: Gore's Liverpool General Advertiser, Thursday 22 December 1836
Vessel downed by a STEAMER - The smack Cambrian Cutter, John Williams, master, plying between this port and Amlwch, North Wales, was run down at the mouth of the river, on Monday morning week [12 December 1836], by the Antelope steamer, from Wexford. From the statement of the captain, it appears that she left dock at half-past one, a.m. with a cargo of general goods, coals, and flour, a man and a boy on board, and three passengers, one man and two females, and dropped down the river with light wind from S.S.W., the night being clear and starlit, that objects might be clearly distinguished the distance of half a mile. He sailed round the Rock without accident, but when about mile to the west of the Rock, the mate, who was at the bow, called out that steamer was in sight. She was about half a mile distant on the starboard bow. The smack was then hauled close to the wind to steer clear the steamer, and a lantern was hoisted at the forestay. The steamer, however, was coming right down upon them. When very near, he and his crew and passengers hailed the steamer, but received no answer, and immediately afterwards the smack was struck on the starboard quarter, and the cabin stove in.
The captain seized hold of the cable chains suspended from the steamer, which turned out the Antelope, and got on board; the mate, boy, and two passengers clambered on board the stern rigging, but the mate immediately went back on board the sloop to save one of the female passengers who had been left in the cabin. They got into the sloop's boat, which drifted away with the tide, and about an hour elapsed before the captain of the steamer sent his boat to pick them up. In the meantime, she was put back to get clear of the smack, and the latter immediately sank, about five minutes after she was struck.
Captain Williams, his crew and passengers came to Liverpool in the steamer. The owner of the steamer offered to render any assistance in his power to raise the vessel and bring her into port, without being responsible for any further damage, which Captain Williams declined, as he had not been in fault. The captain of the steamer alleged that the smack was on the wrong side, and ought have steered to the right, but Capt. Williams positively says that the smack was to the right when struck.
Owen Williams, the mate, gives the same testimony. He states that he was on the look-out, and saw the steamer half mile a-head when to the east of Wallasey Light, and called the boy to put up the light, which was done immediately, a quarter hour or twenty minutes before the accident occurred. About five minutes before the smack was struck, they hailed the steamer, and received no answer. The boy and male passenger, both of whom were deck, give the same testimony.
Wm. Dixon, seaman who had taken his passage on board the Antelope from Wexford to Liverpool, states that about half-past two o'clock, when nearly abreast of Wallasey, he was sitting on the paddle-box, with his back towards the bow. There was no-one forward at the time. On hearing voices hail the steamer, a man jumped on the paddle-box, and called out to the steersman to port, and, immediately afterwards, starboard his helm. When the voices were first heard, he saw the smack about quarter of a mile distant, and distinctly saw a light in the fore part of her. The engineers ran on deck, and, on the command being given to stop the vessel, they had to go below again to do so, in his opinion, the delay thereby occasioned was the cause of the accident. The wreck of the Cutter is still on the North Bank, near the Red Buoy.
The Antelope was accident prone: a report in Gore's Advertiser on 5 January 1837, states that a collision took place near the Red Noses [New Brighton beach cliffs] between two steamers: the Antelope from Wexford and the Green Isle (for Drogheda). The Antelope received considerable damage and had to be run on shore. She was later refloated and repaired.
Wooden paddle steamer Kilkenny, built Waterford 1837.
684grt, 377nrt, 174.4 x 242 x 13.5 ft, engines 280hp. Owned Wateford.
Voyage Waterford to London, Captain Price, suffered damage off Longships February 1838.
Collided with smack Nelson of Rochester which was rendering assistance.
Deck cargo of 700 pigs cleared, rudder damaged, returned to anchor off Waterford.
Towed into Waterford to discharge.
From Waterford Chronicle - Saturday 24 February 1838:
Monday morning. 4 o'clock.
A steamer was seen in the offing on Sunday [18th February 1838], about 3 o'clock, firing guns, upon which two coast guard boats put off to her assistance, which were soon followed by several fishing boats. Dunmore coast guard was the first to near her, and seeing her condition - loss of rudder and bulwarks - immediately returned and proceeded up the river for a steamer. The vessel anchored off the Hook, and proved to the Kilkenney steamer which sailed from this port [Waterford] last Tuesday [13th February], for London, laden with butter, bacon, and 750 pigs, the cattle she threw overboard, off the Longships Light House, when she encountered the violent gale on Wednesday [14th], and lost her rudder. The Nelson, a fine smack belonging to Rochester, in endeavouring to render her assistance was run down, and the crew narrowly escaped by jumping on board the Steamer, we understand some enquiry will called for on this affair. The vessel is now towing up the river. The pigs fought hard for their lives, on which the passengers ordered the bulwarks to be cut away, in order that the pigs might slip overboard, else they would have carried the vessel, as they did the Killarney.
Note the Kilkenny was put back in service - and is reported as colliding with a collier brig in the Thames on her arrival in April 1838. Her bowsprit and figure-head were damaged.
PS Duchess of Kent - Byron 13 April 1839
From: Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, Thursday 19 December 1839
A court case was brought in December 1839 by the Liverpool owners of a schooner, concerning a quantity of iron [value £700 - 800] shipped on board a vessel called the Byron, which sunk in the harbour at Liverpool in consequence of a collision with the Duchess of Kent steamer, the property of the defendants, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company.
It appeared that the Byron, schooner of 80 tons burden, laden with iron [for railway tracks], the property of the plaintiffs, who are merchants at Liverpool, had come up [bound for Liverpool], and was at anchor in the Rock Channel in that harbour, near the north-east buoy, on the night of the 13th of April last . The Duchess of Kent, steamer, left the Clarence Dock about eleven o'clock at night, and proceeded down the Rock Channel about eight miles, when a light was descried from vessel a-head, which after proved to be the Lady Rowley. The captain of the steamer put the helm a-starboard to avoid the Lady Rowley, and just as the steamer came abreast that vessel, the chief mate, who was stationed at the bow, sung out that there was a schooner just under the bows of the steamer, and, before the engines could be stopped, the steamer ran into the schooner, about the midships, and the latter went down almost instantaneously. The crew of the schooner were saved with some difficulty by climbing up the side of tbe steamer, and, after the captain of the Byron had been about ten minutes on board the steamer, he found that one of his crew, a cabin boy, had been left on the sinking vessel when she went down, and perished with her.
Efforts were afterwards made, by the direction of the dock
commissioners, to weigh [raise] the Byron; but in consequence of the
weight of her cargo, these endeavours were ineffectual and a buoy is now
placed over the wreck. Under these circumstances, the plaintiffs sought
by this action to recover the value of the cargo. The defendants
A great number of witnesses were examined on both sides, and much contradictory evidence given to the kind of look-out kept on board the Byron, and as to the fact whether she had any light hoisted or not at the moment the accident occurred. In order to satisfy the jury on these points, the defendants had the vessel examined, after she sunk, and ascertained that no lantern was suspended on any part of the Byron. It also appeared that, after the crew of the Byron came on board the steamer, and were charged with keeping a blind look out, the answer given was that men could not be on the watch night and day.
Mr. Justice Patteson: Then I am clearly of the opinion about the claim, on the grounds that when the accident occurred, that the Byron was lying in the middle of the channel, in the way of the steamer, instead of lying in the Bight where there was abundant room for anchorage; and that, although she lay dangerously, her crew kept no look-out, and had not even a light hoisted; that it became invisible for the people aboard the steamer on a dark night to discern her until she was within ship's length of the steamer, when it became too late to prevent a collision.
The learned bar then summed up the evidence at a late hour of the evening, and the jury returned a verdict for the defendants.
Postscript. The wreck of the Byron was obstructing the Horse Channel [Rock Channel] and it was blown up in September 1839.
PS Merlin and PS Earl of Bridgewater 5th January 1841
A collision in the Mersey between one of the Admiralty Mail steamers
to Dublin and a river ferry to Eastham.
Builder's model of steam packet Merlin (quoted as 175 x 33ft, 889 tons builder's old measurement, designed Sir William Symonds):
From Glamorgan, Monmouth, etc Guardian, 9 January 1841
COLLISION BETWEEN H. M. MAIL STEAM SHIP MERLIN AND A RIVER STEAMER.
This morning, about eighteen minutes before seven o'clock, as H.M. mail steam ship Merlin [wooden paddle steamer, 889 tons bm, built Pembroke Dock 1839] was coming down the river on her way to Dublin [after leaving Clarence Dock], and the Earl of Bridgewater [wooden paddle steamer built 1823] steamer was on her way up from George's Basin to the Duke's Dock, the two vessels came into collision [opposite the Magazines - near Egremont], and both received considerable damage. The Bridgewater had at the time just passed under the stern of the Windermere steamer, then riding at anchor. The precise cause of the vessels thus coming into contact has not transpired, but from what we can learn, the collision - the light being imperfect - was in all probability entirely accidental or unavoidable. The Merlin immediately backed her engines. The men on board the Earl of Bridgewater, thinking the vessel might sink, made their way on the board of the Merlin, while they were foul of each other, with the exception of two, for whom Captain Tudor, the commander of the latter vessel, immediately sent one of his boats. The Earl of Bridgewater had her starboard paddle box and wheel completely smashed up. One of the paddle beams was broken, and there was some slight breakage of the engine. She was, however, got safely into the Duke's Dock with the same tide, and is there afloat, though leaky. The Merlin sustained such damage in her head works, that it was deemed advisable not to proceed to sea until the vessel had been overhauled, as she was accordingly docked immediately in the Coburg. The mails were, of course, despatched by another vessel. The prompt assistance given by Captain Tudor and his officers and crew, the moment the accident occurred, was, we learn, most praise worthy and seamen like. No one was, in the slightest degree, hurt in their vessel.
Note previous accident to Earl of Bridgewater.
PS Prince of Wales and PS Royal Victoria 30th November 1842
From Cambrian, Saturday 10th December 1842
COLLISION ON THE MERSEY.
A collision took place on the Mersey on Wednesday night, in consequence of which two fine steamers were seriously damaged, one life was lost, and three individuals seriously injured. The following are the particulars of the accident: - The Prince of Wales steamer, which belongs to the Cork and Liverpool Steam-packet Company, was putting out on her voyage to Cork. She had crossed the river to the Cheshire shore shortly before nine o'clock, and had arrived within half a mile of the rock, the weather being rather thick. Captain M'Neilage, her commander, discovering a light a-head which he conceived to be a steamer inward-bound, he immediately called to the man at the wheel to port the helm which was promptly obeyed. The inward-bound vessel was the Royal Victoria, from Carlisle, [wooden paddle steamer built 1837] and it appears that she put her helm to starboard, in consequence of which she passed a-thwart the bows of the Prince of Wales, and the latter ran into her just before the paddle-box. The concussion was extremely violent, and both vessels were cut down within a few feet of the water. The damage to the Royal Victoria was much more serious than that on board the Prince of Wales, as the latter drove into the engine-room of the other. No person on board the Prince of Wales was injured but the concussion caused serious injury to five individuals in the Victoria. They were taken to the Northern Hospital on Thursday morning, but one of them, John Brown [at inquest reported as William Brown, seaman], died on his way thither. On the admission of the other four: William Savage was found to have sustained a fracture of the spine, and consequent paralysis of the lower part of his body; his wife Ellen had several severe contusions on her body; Margaret Dixon, a young woman, sustained severe injury at the lower part of the spine, with partial paralysis, and Robert Unsworth, a severe contusion in the side. The three latter are doing as well as could be anticipated, but William Savage is in a most pitiable situation. The two vessels were got round, and taken safely into dock.
PS Sea Nymph and PS Rambler Collision 25 May 1846
13-14 people died aboard PS Rambler.
Rambler beached, repaired and put back in service.
From Cardiff Newspaper 30th May 1846
DREADFUL COLLISION ON THE MERSEY. GREAT LOSS OF LIFE. LIVERPOOL, MAY 27, 1846.
Yesterday evening [Monday 25 May 1846] , a dreadful collision took place on the river, between two Irish steamers, the Sea Nymph and the Rambler [both iron paddle steamers built on the Clyde in 1845], attended with a melancholy sacrifice of human life. The details of the unfortunate occurrence are as follows:
The Sea Nymph, Captain Thompson, an iron steamboat, plying between Liverpool and Newry, left the Clarence dock for the latter place about ten o'clock at night, with about 50 passengers on board. The Rambler, from Sligo, also an iron steamboat, was entering the river at the time, with about 250 passengers, and numerous pigs and cattle on board. When opposite the Magazines, about a quarter of a mile from the Cheshire shore, the two vessels came into collision, the Sea Nymph striking the Rambler on the larboard bow, cutting away her bulwarks and her hull, much below the water-line, forcing her over almost on her beam ends, and killing and wounding many of the passengers who were above and below deck in that part of the vessel. The shrieks of the poor creatures were awful. A general panic seized the passengers - several jumped overboard, and in attempting to swim to shore were drowned. A blue light, as a signal of distress, was immediately hoisted in the vessel, and the life-boat, under the command of Mr. Evans, was launched, manned, and made for the vessel.
Some of the passengers, however, impatient of relief, lowered one of the boats, twelve or thirteen jumped into it, but it upset, and they were all drowned with the exception of one, who was picked up by the life-boat, clinging to the keel. The life-boat made three voyages to the vessel, and nothing could exceed the confusion which prevailed each time on its arrival. The passengers, men and women, leaped from a great height into it, and some, falling over the side, were drowned. Of these, one poor woman, with a child in her arms, was particularly noticed but all attempts to save her life were in vain. The deck being completely covered with pigs and cattle, caused great confusion, and numbers of these animals were injured. Some poor children, too, were literally trampled to death. The captain, who was standing on the paddle-boxes at the time of collision, used his utmost endeavours to inspire confidence and preserve order, but all his exertions were ineffectual.
In about ten minutes after the event the vessel was ran aground. The Elizabeth, a new Brighton steam ferry-boat, came to her assistance, and took the remaining passengers, who amounted to upwards of one hundred, to Liverpool, where the wounded, the precise number of whom we have not yet ascertained, were removed without delay to various hospitals. The Sea Nymph lost its bowsprit, and was otherwise much damaged; but none of those on board, we are happy to learn, sustained any injury. At the time of the collision, the mate of the Rambler jumped on board, and the Sea Nymph immediately put back to the Clarence Dock. The occurrence took place at about a quarter before eleven o'clock. There was a fresh breeze from the N.W. the night was fine and clear. It is said that on seeing the approach of the Sea Nymph, the alarm was given on board the Rambler; the bell was rung, and loud shouts were also given, but they had either been disregarded, or unfortunately misunderstood. No less than 13 dead bodies are at present lying in the boat-house - those of three men, three women, and seven children; but their names are not yet known. Some of them are so much mutilated that it is almost impossible they can be identified. The number of those drowned has not been ascertained but the relatives or friends of those who are missing are in a state of the deepest distress and anxiety One poor woman, out of seven children, has only one left; what has become of the others she cannot tell. Most of the passengers were coming to Liverpool, for the purpose of emigrating to America, and were mostly, we believe, from the neighbourhood of Sligo. Their sea store, etc., has in several cases been injured or destroyed, and they will probably be considered as proper objects of public benevolence. Those who were brought on shore by the life-boat were treated with the greatest kindness by persons living in the locality. Three of the poor men who were taken to the Northern Hospital, we have just learned, have died.
Image Illustrated London News 30 May 1846;
The sketch by a Liverpool Artist gives a good idea of the injured part of the Rambler as she lay on the sands on Tuesday when thousands flocked to witness the wreck
Report from North Wales Chronicle 6th June 1846
THE LATE COLLISION ON THE MERSEY. INQUEST ON THE THIRTEEN BODIES LANDED IN CHESHIRE. On Tuesday last the adjourned inquest on the thirteen dead bodies, taken from the Rambler, steam-boat, after the late melancholy collision, and placed in the Magazines Life-boat House, was resumed before Henry Churton, Esq. coroner, for the county of Chester, at the Royal Hotel, Liscard, Only six of the bodies had been identified. These were the bodies of Bridget Fury, Owen Fury, Margaret Ford, Bridget Ford, Patrick Charles O'Mealey, and James Lally. The evidence was similar in its tendency to that given at the former inquiry, before the borough coroner. About four o'clock on Thursday, the examination of witnesses was concluded, and the jury retired to consider their verdict. After being shut up nearly an hour, returned with a verdict of "Accidental death," and a deodand [fine] of £500 against the Sea Nymph.
The jury also begged to state, that they considered the accident was caused by the want of a proper look out on board the Sea Nymph, and expressed a wish that the coroner should communicate with the proper authorities, in order that some rule should be established for steam-vessels at night navigating the river, so that each might keep their respective sides of the river, inward bound vessels proceeding up the Cheshire shore, and outward bound on the Lancashire shore. Some conversation took place between the coroner and the jury, as to who would be the proper parties to communicate with on the subject, when it was agreed that a communication should be made to the Dock Committee, and also to Sir G. Clerk, who was about bringing in a bill for the regulating of steam-vessels.
Wreck of PS Rambler 14 June 1846
Iron paddle steamer built Napier, Clyde 1845
620 grt, 250 hp engines.
Aground on North Maiden Rock 14 June 1846 on voyage Liverpool to Sligo.
Crew and passengers saved. Engine removed.
From Sligo Champion, Saturday 20 June 1846:
LOSS OF THE RAMBLER. But a short time ago it was our painful duty record a frightful collision between the Rambler and Sea Nymph steamers, by which a great numher of human lives were sacrificed. Indeed the amount of the loss was never properly ascertained. We have now to announce the total wreck of the former vessel. This second disaster, coming immediately after the first one, is very singular, and we trust the master and crew will be able to clear themselves of blame.
The Rambler struck last Sunday [14 June 1846] at 3:50am upon the Maiden Rocks [also described as North Maiden Rock - now known as West Rock - in North Channel off Larne], where she still remains, it having been found impossible to get her off by reversing the engines. The weather was calm but foggy at the time, but the Maidens have a conspicuous lighthouse. The cargo, which was almost totally uninsured is nearly all lost. The bale goods, sugar, tobacco, etc., were in the after hold, and have been under water during the entire week; of course they will utterly useless; that saved would not, we have been informed, be more than to pay salvage. We trust the accounts we have seen, have been over drawn, but if they be true, the loss must be great indeed and it is a really lamentable thing in this period of general depression, to see so much of the property of the people of Sligo thrown, as it were, into the sea. The loss of the Rambler must be thoroughly investigated; the accident may have been perfectly unavoidable, but for the satisfaction of the people of Sligo, it will be right to make the strictest inquiries into the manner in which it occurred.
The St. Columb steamer was at the wreck during the week, and we understand the decks were broken and the machinery removed, so that we will never see anything more of the Rambler, and when we consider the frightful loss of life occasioned by the collision, and the subsequent loss of property, we have no reason to regret that we will have nothing more to do with so ill-fated a vessel. The Rover will be here [Sligo] in a day or two to carry on the trade between Sligo and Liverpool, which is every day increasing, and is certainly likely to increase still more.
Postcript The salvaged engine of the Rambler was subsequently installed in Thistle, built by Napier in 1848. She was, in turn, wrecked approaching Sligo on 9 December 1858.
Return to early SS.