Loss of Emigrant ship St. George 1852

American sailing ship St. George.
Registered New York.
Captain: Bairnson; 25 crew.
Sailing from Liverpool to New York.
Abandoned on fire and lost on or after 24 Dec 1852.
127 passengers (76 saved; remainder, 51, drowned or suffocated).
Position: 40° 12' N; 23° 30' W; somewhere about 1,200 miles south and westward of Cape Clear.

Contemporary newspaper reports:


On the 24th of November [1852] the St. George left Liverpool for New York, with a crew of twenty-five hands, and one hundred and twenty-seven emigrants, comprising men, women, and children. mostly Irish, and of the very poorest class. In addition to her stores, she had a general cargo, amongst which, as we are informed, was a quantity of naphtha and oil, to the escape of which, in all probability, may be attributed the terrible loss. In endeavouring to make her way across the Atlantic, she encountered most formidable weather, and after being buffetted about for a month, on the 24th of December, she was discovered to be on fire. The dense bodies of smoke which came up her hatchway too clearly indicated that some strongly inflammable material had ignited, and as the fire extended, a most frightful scene of excitement prevailed amongst the emigrants. A gale of wind sprung up, and all were seized with horror and dismay.

After some hours of the most dreadful suspense the Orlando, Mr. White, commander, came in sight, and, with a due regard for the safety of his own vessel, he immediately adopted what measures he could for preserving the unhappy creatures who were crying for help. The Orlando having just previously experienced a heavy gale of wind which had carried away her boats and sails; some difficulty was experienced in communicating with the St. George. The latter had only one boat left, and that was of a small size and now painful fears were entertained lest she should be dashed to pieces against the side of either ship, or be swamped by the fearful sea which was running. At length the boat was got down, and, in order to avoid being struck against the side of the vessels, the emigrants, one after another (at least those who were saved), jumped into the sea, and were picked up. This hazardous task occupied more than twenty hours. The Orlando held by for that time, the boat passed to and from sixty-four times [number 64 later disputed], and rescued seventy-six of the passengers and some of the crew. Twenty-six were left behind on board the blazing wreck, eight were suffocated by the vast body of smoke which was poured up from the hold, and seventeen were drowned.

Considering the character of the weather, however, and the position of the two ships, it is most marvellous that so many of the emigrants were saved. A list of those who perished has not yet come to hand, but it is represented to include fathers and mothers in the deplorable loss. Had the weather been moderate, the Orlando, by going nearer alongside, might have preserved more of the unfortunate beings. The violence of the elements, however, prevented such being done, and much honour is due to the master and crew of the Orlando for the humanity and daring intrepidity they displayed on the occasion. Altogether, they hovered about the burning-ship for thirty six hours; she was on fire in every part, and when they lost sight of her, she apparently would go down in a short time. The Orlando then made for the Channel, and reached Havre, where the survivors were landed.


By the arrival of the General Steam Navigation Company's steamer Sir Edward Banks, Captain Grant, from Havre, on Sunday evening, which brought over three of the survivors of the St. George emigrant ship, we have been enabled to collect the details of the abandonment of that ill-fated vessel. The disaster has attracted much attention at Lloyd's from the circumstance of its being reported that among the cargo of the St. George was a quantity of oil and naphtha, if not something of a more inflammable character, which, if true, rendered her indeed a fire-ship. Doubtless the truth of this will be ascertained by an investigation before the Naval Department of the Board of Trade. What renders the catastrophe, if anything, more shocking is, that the whole of the unhappy beings who perished in the ship were women and children - not a man among them. The subjoined is the substance of the statements made by the survivors who have reached London:

George Grant Cousins, of No. 44, Winchester-street, Clerkenwell, London, says:

  I was one of the crew of the St. George emigrant-ship, and had sailed with Captain Bairnson, the master, on a previous voyage, when he was chief mate of the vessel. This last voyage was the first time of his sailing as master. The owners reside at New York; their agents in Liverpool are Messrs. W. Tapscott and Co., St. George's buildings, Regent road. The crew numbered 25 in all. She had a general cargo, such as coals, oil, iron, and miscellaneous goods. I have heard there was naptha among it, but whether such was the fact I am not in a position to say positively, as I did not see it. We sailed from the Mersey on the 24th of November, taking out with us 121 emigrants for New York. With the exception of four of the passengers, who were Englishmen, the whole of the emigrants came from Ireland: agricultural labourers and their wives and families. The ship was well provided for. Her gear, sails, etc., were ample; carrying a fire force-pump, with gutta percha hose, and, besides a new lifeboat, which was bought at Liverpool just before her sailing, she had four other boats. They were sufficiently capacious to hold the entire ship's company and passengers. The life-boat would carry 40, the ship's boat 35, and the three others from 16 to 20 persons. During the whole time we were at sea, up to the moment of the discovery of the fire, the ship encountered a succession of westerly gales, with scarcely one day's abatement, the ship all the while labouring very heavily and making a good deal of water. The pumps were worked every two hours. A day or so before the breaking out of the fire, oil was pumped out of the hold, from which we inferred that some of the casks of oil had burst. A great quantity was pumped up. The fire was discovered on the morning of the 24th of December, about 8 o'clock. Captain Bairnson was in his cabin at breakfast. He came out immediately and went with the officers between decks, where the carpenter reported that smoke was coming up from the hold beneath. To the best of my belief, the position of the ship was 40 deg. 12 min. latitude, and 23 deg. 30 min. longitude, or somewhere about 1,200 miles south and westward of Cape Clear. At first little notice was taken of the alarm, the smoke being so small. The ship was close hauled, and under close-reefed topsails, rolling tremendously. A dreadful gale was blowing, with a mountainous sea. All hands were ordered to the fire force-pumps. It was the fore-hatchway the smoke was proceeding from. I cannot say what was stowed away in this part of the vessel. The smoke that came up was thick and black, it rolled up in clouds, and filled the between decks, and became more dense every moment, being of such a suffocating character that the men were in a short time unable to live in it. Some of them had to be dragged out. One of the steerage passengers was suffocated in his berth. The situation of the vessel now became alarming; the passengers, particularly the women, were in the most excited state of alarm; the captain had previously told the women and children to go on to the poop.

Two ships being descried by the look-out on the masthead, we squared our yards and bore down before the wind towards the vessel near us. She was to the leeward of us. The moment we squared yards to put the ship before the wind, the smoke increased enormously, and poured out through the after-part of the vessel in dense volumes. As the St. George neared the vessel, we could see she was also in distress. She had her ensign down and all her sails blown away. She proved to be the Orlando, Captain White, with cotton, from Mobile, for Havre de Grace[Le Havre in France]. On coming up to within seven or eight miles of her, the St. George was hove to, when Capt. Bairnson called out to the men to clear away the boats. This was, I believe, between 11 and 12 o'clock in the forenoon - it was not later. The men had knocked off from the pumps some time, and the hatches had been battened down, and all apertures and crevices closed up tight so as to stop any vent to the fire. The smoke, however, by some means poured out from all parts of her in great quantities, more formidable than before. In attempting to clear away the boats one of them was capsized, but afterwards righted, and the water was baled out. The larboard boat was got out the same time, and I imagined at the time that the captain intended sending off some of the passengers. I was certainly taken by surprise, on looking down over the ship's side, to see the two boats some 400 or 500 yards from the vessel, making for the Orlando, containing Captain Bairnson and all the crew, with the exception of five hands. I afterwards heard that the reason of Captain Bairnson and his officers leaving the ship was to facilitate the transit of the boats with the passengers to the Orlando. He never returned to the ship. At the time Captain Bairnson and his officers took to the boats the passengers were crowding the main rigging, expecting to be taken in them, but none were allowed to go.

In about an hour and a half, we saw the life-boat returning towards the ship, but on approaching within half a mile of us, those in her beckoned to us to round the ship again to get closer to the Orlando, which we did, and bore on for about half an hour, when she hove to. The lifeboat returned to the Orlando, without taking any one off. She then made a third trip, and reached the Saint George about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and took in eight or nine passengers and two of the crew - all had to watch the boat rising on the top of a wave to jump into her. Two others in an attempt to join it fell into the sea and were drowned. She made a fourth, fifth, and sixth trip that evening. They could have taken off more of the passengers, but they would not jump, although they were implored to do so, as it was the only means left them to save their lives. I, with another seaman, left in the fifth trip that day. We were the last of the crew. I would not have left as I did, but the captain, and all the officers and men, having abandoned the ship, I was at a loss to imagine their reasons in so acting. There was no one left behind who knew how to manage the ship. Her wheel was lashed, and she was rolling fearfully - at times she was almost on her beam end - and when the boat came alongside it was necessary to keep her some distance off, to prevent the ship, as she rolled over, taking the boat under. The other, I have omitted to mention, got stove in getting alongside the Orlando, and sank. After my getting on board the Orlando, the lifeboat made two other trips. The last was made about 9 o'clock. It was then too dangerous to make any more that night, and the boat was hoisted on deck since it was not safe to launch them. They remained by all night about 10 miles distant. No communication was made during the night with the St. George, and the storm raged more furiously.

At daybreak the following morning (Christmas-day), Captain Bairnson came forward and asked who would volunteer to go off to the St. George to save the lives of the passengers. I was one of the party; off we went, and in the course of an hour and a half succeeded in coming alongside. Still, there were no means of assisting the passengers, and the only chance for them to reach her was to jump. Sometimes a sea would carry the boat high above the ship's bulwarks, and when she did so, several seized the opportunity, and sprang into her. We remained a long while alongside, imploring others to follow the example of those who had jumped, but fear and terror seemed to have seized them. Several missed the boat and were lost. No one was saved who fell overboard. We could do nothing to preserve them. The boat made several trips before night, how many I cannot say, and on each trip brought away some of the passengers. I don't recollect ever seeing the officers going in those trips. I am positive Captain Bairnson never left the Orlando. He urged those who went off in the trips to save the poor creatures to tell them: "for God's sake to jump in, it was the last time the boat would come", and there was no hope of saving then - Captain Bairnson would have gone off, but the crew objected to his going. I did not hear the objection, but it seemed to me that the men would have their own way. Captain White, of the Orlando, considered the lifeboat would not outlive the trips, so terrific was the sea. The men persevered till 5 or 6 o'clock, when they were forced to desist.

As anticipated, the weather became more appalling and, that night, it blew a hurricane. In the course of 13 years' service as a seaman, I never experienced such weather. The Orlando continued to lie to about the same distance as she had done all along, from seven to ten miles from the St. George. The report made by those who made the last trip was: that no male passenger remained on the wreck; the poor creatures who were left, consisted entirely of women and children - the number they could not tell; but, on calling over the names of those on board (for Captain Bairnson had saved the ship's papers and logbook), some 50 were ascertained to be missing. The men also mentioned that the ship was in the same state as on the previous day; she was enveloped in smoke, but no fire was to be seen. They never afterwards saw anything of the St. George, or heard what fate she and her passengers met with.

The next morning Captain Bairnson, who was in a dreadful state of mind, called the men together, and asked whether any of them would volunteer to risk another attempt with him to rescue the unhappy creatures, adding that it was a horrible thing to abandon the wreck while so many poor things were on it. None would volunteer to go, even one, as also those belonging to the Orlando, being convinced an attempt would prove fatal. No boat could live, the hurricane was so great; in fact, we feared for the safety of the Orlando. Captain White and Captain Bairnson, with the officers of each vessel, held a consultation as to the best corse to be pursued. It was agreed on all sides that they could do no more than they had done towards rescuing those left on the wreck, a belief being entertained that she must have gone down in the course of the night. It was then proper to make all speed to Havre, and accordingly the Orlando was so directed. She reached that port on the 11th day after we had been taken on board. My impression is, knowing that the St. George made considerable water, and that a large quantity of water had been pumped into her, that she foundered within 12 hours after they left her. She was fast setting down when the last boat left her. I heard from one of those who were last brought off from her that he decks had become so hot that they could scarcely walk upon them, and that the glass of the the skylight was cracking. I can't give any opinion as to the cause of the fire. I think Captain Bairnson did all he could to preserve the passengers. He was a very kind and humane commander to the crew and passengers, and while he remained on the ship, the crew went prompt to his orders. I cannot explain more than I have why he and the crew so quickly left the ship. I have heard since that he did so in consequence of anticipating something serious from an explosion. Some of the passengers said there was naphtha and gunpowder on board, but I knew nothing of such materials being in her. Considering the distance which the boats had to travel between the two ships, and in such a sea, it is surprising that so large a number of passengers were saved.

John Star, one of the emigrants of the St. George, a framework knitter, of Nottingham, who had paid for a passage in her, taking with him his boy, five years of age, describes the discovery of the fire, and the desertion of the ship by the captain and crew. He adds that the emigrants seemed quite bewildered at being left alone in the ship, and he complains bitterly of the conduct of Captain Bairnson and his officers and men. He says:
  Had they remained to direct the terrified passengers in making their escape, the whole of them might have been saved; I managed to escape in the sixth trip of the boat on the first day; I lost, however, my poor boy. I don't think that the boat made altogether more than 20 trips. I am positive it was not 64, as has been represented; it was impossible for it to have done so, in consequence of the distance of the two ships from each other. I do not know why the Orlando was kept so far off, excepting that it was feared the St. George would blow up. Some of the passengers said that she had gunpowder on board, but I do not know it of my own knowledge. In the trips that were made to the St. George from the Orlando I did not observe any of the officers go in the boat. Captain Bairnson evinced great anxiety to save those that were left on the wreck. He once or twice offered to go off in a boat for that purpose, but his crew would not join him. In all, I think, 101 were saved. I never saw any fire. When I left the St. George we were enveloped in smoke.

Mr. Baterham, another of the survivors, belonging to Lincolnshire, also made a statement confirmatory in respect of that made by Star. The poor fellow has suffered much from being frost-bitten; he has lost the use of his feet, and moves about on crutches. He speaks in very grateful terms of the treatment he experienced from the inhabitants of Havre.

They are the only survivors of the St. George, as we can learn, who have returned to England. Captain Bairnson remains at Havre, with most of the crew, and we understand that it is the intention of the agents at Liverpool to provide the remainder of the emigrants who continue at Havre with passages in their first vessel to New York.

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