New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Wreck of the “England”

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This story of the wreck of the 484 ton ship, “England” was written by William Kilby Reynolds, and appeared in The New Brunswick Magazine, Volume 1, 1898.

The Wreck of the “England

by W.K. Reynolds

The loss of the ship “England” in Courtenay Bay, St. John harbor, in December, 1846, was the most serious marine disaster that ever took place in the waters immediately around the city, and to many of the older people in this vicinity it is to this day one of the saddest reminders of the holiday seasons of the past. Though more than half a century has passed, it is not difficult to find those who remember well the night of the occurrence and the incidents which attended the affair, up to the time of the burial of the body of the captain in the lot where a now crumbling stone records in brief the story of the tragedy.

The “England” was a full rigged ship of 484 tons, built at Ten Mile Creek, St. John county, in the year 1837 by Captain Robert Ellis, who was the principal owner. The vessel was iron-kneed and copper sheathed, and had a particularly high forecastle, even for those times, which were before the days of deck houses forward and aft. The “England” had for some years been owned by parties in Cork, Ireland, and was engaged in the ordinary trade between Liverpool, London and St. John.

On this last and fatal voyage the ship had sailed from London, in ballast, during the latter part of September, under command of Captain Andrew Irving, a native of London and a stranger to the navigation of these waters. This was his first voyage to St. John. The autumn of 1846 was a particularly bad one, marked by several severe storms, and thus it was that the long period of eighty-four days passed before the ship came in sight of the harbor of St. John. The ship’s complement was twenty men, but a less number was sufficient for general purposes, and on this occasion the total number on board was seventeen, including two apprentice boys, one of whom was related to the captain.

Mention has been made of the stormy character of that season. Just a month before Christmas, on the night of the 25th and morning of the 26th of November, one of the heaviest gales known in the history of the city was experienced in St. John and along the coast. It was the worst known since the great storm of 1819. In this gale the steamer “Atlantic” was lost off the coast of Connecticut and many passengers perished, while the St. John steamer “North America” was wrecked off the coast of Maine. In the city of St. John trees were uprooted, chimneys blown down and roofs of houses partially wrecked. The new ship “Howard” was driven ashore near Rankin’s wharf and fell over on its side, while the barque “Commerce” was jammed across the ferry slip in the midst of a quantity of timber. Other vessels were driven into the timber ponds, a schooner and a woodboat were sunk near the end of North wharf, and there was much other damage done. The “England” had its experience of this gale on the ocean, but came through it safely, and as Christmas week approached it came up the Bay of Fundy. Captain and crew alike were doubtless rejoicing that, after nearly three months buffeting with wind and wave at that inclement season, they were at last drawing near to port, where their perils would be over and their hard experience forgotten in the joys of a Christmas on land.

The “England” was sighted off Partridge Island early in the afternoon of Saturday, the 19th of December, in company with two other vessels, the barque “Oromocto,” from London, and the brig “Charlotte,” from Yarmouth. These were a little in advance. The barque was in charge of Captain David Cronk, a well known shipmaster who thoroughly knew the harbor, and the “England” would have been safe in following him. The brig and the barque, passing the Island, kept the course of the channel to the westward. The “England” had no pilot on board. The pilot boat “Rechab,” with John Haviland, branch pilot, had gone out to her, but a strong south-west wind was blowing and Haviland could not board the ship. He shouted what he thought were simple directions as to the course to be taken, and then put his boat about, signaling for the ship to follow in its course to the westward.

Captain Irving knew nothing of the harbor, but he had with him a mate, one John Robertson, who claimed to know all about it, from having been in a surveying vessel with Admiral Owen in the Bay of Fundy, some years before. Relying on his statements, the captain entrusted the guidance of the ship to him and paid no further attention to the course of the pilot boat or the other vessels.

It was then about an hour and a half before low water, and the wind was growing stronger every minute. Under the mate’s directions, the ship came along before the gale, under its three topsails and standing jib, and bore directly down upon the Foul Ground, on which, about half-past four o’clock, it struck with great force and remained hard and fast. At this juncture, Pilot Haviland got aboard, with one of his apprentices, Patrick Lennihan, with the hope of still saving the ship. By this time darkness had set in and the force of the wind was unabated. Nothing could be done until the flood tide should come, which would be after six o’clock, and the captain and crew had their supper as usual. While at supper, the second mate directly laid the blame of the disaster to Robertson, the first mate, who was in some way related to the captain. Had he assumed to know less and followed the pilot boat, the ship would have been safe. There was no time for discussing what might have been, however, and the great question was as to what could be done to make matters better. The only hope was that when the ship was floated by the flood tide it might be worked to a secure part of the harbor.

There was then no breakwater at the west channel, and with a southerly wind the sea had a clean sweep up the harbor. It was running furiously on this night, and when the flood tide lifted the ship it tore away the rudder, and the vessel came off the Foul Ground wholly unmanageable and with water over the ballast in the hold. It was out of the question to handle the sails so as to make a course, and the “England” was driven on the Round Reef, south of the Ballast wharf. There it remained for a time, when it went on the Dulse Reef, nearer the shore. It was then evident that the ship must go to pieces, and all hands went forward for safety. In this they made a fatal mistake. Had they gone aft they would have been safe, as was afterwards found, and they would have been perfectly secure had they taken shelter in the cabin, for the bedding in the berths was not even wet when the wreck was visited on the following day.

It was then nearly midnight. The night was intensely dark, and the scene of horror cannot be described. The vessel broke in two on the reef, and the foremast went by the board. As it did so, the broken part of it, near the heel, struck Captain Irving, killing him instantly and severing his body into two parts. The survivors clung to the top of the forecastle, which began to drift around Courtenay Bay, while the sea made continual breaches over it. Some of the party were lashed with lines, but all were in danger of perishing by the exposure. At length the drifting forecastle was driven on the east shore of the Bay, along which it was carried by wind and tide until it came to where the stern of the ship had been driven, at the rocks which make out on the sands a little to the north of the alms house. By this time four of the crew were dead. These were John Smith, of Liverpool, seaman, Thomas Rogers, cook, with Francis Burdett, of London, and Charles Ward, of Coventry, apprentices. Young Lennihan, the pilot apprentice, who was a splendid swimmer, urged Pilot Haviland to attempt to get ashore, and the venture was made with success, use being made of the wreck of the stern for a part of the distance. Then the other survivors were got to the land, but not without difficulty and danger. So exhausted were the men with their terrible night’s experience that on getting ashore some of them lay down on the snow ready to fall asleep, and had it not been for the strenuous exertions of Pilot Haviland they would have continued to lie there till the sleep of death overtook them. Rousing them up, he conducted them to the alms house, where they received every possible care.

The bodies of the dead were looked after on the following morning and placed in an outbuilding. It was a sad enough sight, that of the five frozen remains of those who, at sunset the day before, had been abounding in life and hope. Two of the bodies were those of mere boys. An inquest was held on Monday, when a verdict was returned in accordance with the facts. The only member of the coroner’s jury who is now living is Mr. Hugh Bustin.

One of the sailors rescued from the wreck was kindly treated by a family living in that vicinity. He thus made the acquaintance of a daughter of the owner of the house, to whom he was afterwards married.

The “England” had been consigned to the Hon. John Robertson, and it was supposed he would attend to the burial of Captain Irving, as became the latter’s position and the sad circumstances under which he met his death in a strange land. There appears to have been some mistake made in the matter, however, and there was great surprise and indignation among the shipmasters when they learned that both captain and crew had been buried as paupers in the Old Burial Ground, that the undertaker had taken the captain’s body to the grave late in the afternoon, that it had not been followed by a single mourner, and that no minister of religion had been called to commit the body to the earth. Upon learning these facts, a meeting of the shipmasters was held at the St. John hotel on the evening of Saturday, the 25th of December, an odd enough kind of a Christmas gathering, but one which they felt would not bear postponement. The object of the meeting was stated to be the eliciting of information relative to the interment of Captain Irving and his men, “reports having got into circulation that they had not received a Christian burial,” and Captain Abell occupied the chair. Captain Taber opened the proceedings by some remarks in which he characterized the affair as a foul blot on a Christian community, asserting that a man who had lost his life in the exercise of his duty had been dragged to his final resting place like a felon, betwixt daylight and dark. He used other strong language, and trusted the blame would be put where it belonged.

At this stage of the proceedings, Hon. John Robertson sent a note requesting that he be heard before the meeting, and he was accordingly admitted. His explanation was that he gave orders to the undertaker to have the bodies decently and respectably interred, without either extravagant or unnecessary expense, as soon as it could conveniently be done. After this Mr. Charles McLauchlan had called on him and said there was a feeling against the bodies being buried in the poor house burial ground, that the collector of customs (Mr. H. Bowyer Smith) and other officials had made a contribution toward funeral expenses, and that he, Mr. McLauchlan, was willing to take charge of the arrangements. Mr. Robertson had replied that Mr. McLauchlan would have to see the undertaker, as the bodies were in charge of the coroner. He also had suggested that the bodies be buried side by side and a tombstone erected, towards which he offered to contribute. He had left the arrangements with Mr. McLauchlan, and had not been aware of the interment until the next evening.

Captain John Leavitt then took the floor, and a lively passage of words ensued between him and Mr. Robertson. After the latter had retired, Mr. McLaughlan was admitted, and detailed the efforts he had made to find the undertaker in time, but said he had met him only when he was on his way to the grave with the captain’s body. The meeting then expressed its approbation of Mr. McLaughlan’s conduct, and proceeded to pass the following resolutions:

“Resolved, That the remains of the late Capt. Irving be removed from their present resting place, and conveyed to the grave from some respectable dwelling, for the purpose of being re-interred, and that a tomb-stone, containing a suitable inscription, be erected to his memory, and also to the memory of those of the crew who perished with him.”

It was also resolved that a subscription list be opened to defray the necessary expenses, and that the proceedings of the meeting be published in the city papers. In addition to Captains Abell, Taber and Leavitt, some of the well known old time shipmasters present were Captains Hippesly, Thomas Reed, Stephenson, Dudne and Wiley. The sum of £22. 16s. and 6d. was subscribed on the spot, and at a later date a balance remaining after the payment of funeral expenses was sent to Captain Irving’s widow and family in England.

The place where the bodies had been buried was in the lower portion of the Old Burial Ground, next to the building lots on Union street. This was the part of the ground where free interments were made. The bodies of the sailors were allowed to remain there, but that of Captain Irving was disinterred and on Wednesday, the 29th of December, ten days after the disaster, the funeral took place from the house of Mr. James Milligan, King square. The day was marked by an exceedingly violent snow storm, but a very large number of people attended and followed the body to the Church of England Burial Ground, beyond the Marsh Bridge. In due time a plain free stone tablet was placed over the grave, bearing the following inscription:


The stone is to be seen on the high ground in the eastern part of the burial ground. There is no enclosure or any evidence of care, and of the hundreds who have read the inscription, few have heard, until now, the full details of the story of the wreck of the “England”


Written by johnwood1946

March 13, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. a wonderful story about those “who go down to the sea in ships” and the hardships and danger they faced

    Don Sutherland

    March 13, 2013 at 12:33 PM

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