The Tale of an Heirloom
As I have been writing a little about wooden ships of the past I will refer to them again, so that I can bring into my story the strange incident of an heirloom.
I hope the reader will not be frightened off this short chapter by the title, and think I am departing from my policy of dealing with pleasant memories. But I want to tell the tale of a sword which is a treasured heirloom, because it is a dramatic episode of the sea and because it has a remarkable element.
The sword belonged to my great-uncle, Lieutenant H. Hartford, of the 2nd Battalion 59th Foot, now the 2nd Battalion The East Lancashire Regiment. The 59th, nicknamed "The Lilywhites," from their facings, served throughout the Peninsular War, and at the end of that hard and long campaign the 2nd Battalion went to Ireland, from which country it had come. In those days - called the "good old times" by people who did not live in them - women and children accompanied husbands and fathers
to the wars, and suffered terribly and perished miserably, part of their afflictions being passage by transport.
It was thought that the war was ended, and that Napoleon was safely and finally disposed of in Elba, and the 59th imagined that they were to enjoy peace and rest in Ireland. But this was not to be. After the "Hundred Days" they were hastily recalled to England and sent over to join Wellington for the Waterloo campaign. How the 59th distinguished themselves in that final overthrow of the tyrant is a matter of history.
Many wives and children had accompanied the men to England, so as to be on the spot to greet them when they returned from France, for we must remember that in those days of sail a voyage to Ireland, especially from a Channel port, was always something of an adventure, and re-union came much sooner than if the journey had not been undertaken. The survivors of the 59th returned, and there were rejoicings when families were reunited and prepared to sail for Ireland ; but men and women and children were to meet a fate as terrible as any that could have been their lot in campaigning.
In January, 1816, some companies of the 2nd 59th and other troops sailed from Ramsgate for Ireland in the transports Sea Horse, Lord Melville and Boadicea. Lieutenant Hartford was in the Sea Horse, which, though a miserable little ship displacing only 360 tons, carried five companies, consisting of 16 officers and 287 men. There were also 23 women and 38 children, so that the state of things, even in the best of weather, can be pictured without taxing the imagination. Conditions in the Navy were bad enough, even to the officers and men whom usage and necessity had hardened; but they were infinitely worse in these small crowded vessels, where there was not, and could not be, ordinary comfort and decency as we understand them to-day. At best a passage was an affliction, and it became unendurable when ships ran into such weather as these transports encountered.
The tragic voyage began hopefully, for the weather was so calm that after clearing Ramsgate the Sea Horse anchored for the night. It was a start which enabled the packed company to settle down a little and get used to the ship and the sea, though anything like freedom of movement was impossible. There must be hundreds of thousands
of men to-day who, because of their own experiences of transports during the Great War, can visualise the conditions in the Sea Horse, though even the worst of their own tribulations fall far short of her horrible reality.
From that placid beginning the voyage developed into one of the great tragedies of the sea, for in an awful gale which arose all the three transports were lost. The Lord Melville and the Boadicea, carrying more than 200 officers and men of the 82nd Foot - now the 2nd Battalion The Prince of Wales's Volunteers (South Lancashire) - with wives and children, were lost near Kinsale, with nearly all on board, and the Sea Horse was wrecked near Tramore Bay, County Waterford, with a loss of 365 persons, chiefly soldiers of the 59th, and most of the crew.
It is with the Sea Horse that I am chiefly concerned, and I will conclude the story of her loss, as related in the official narrative. In the morning of January 29th a strong breeze sprang up from south-south-east, and by noon it had freshened very much ; but there was no reason to expect disaster, and just at nightfall Ballycotton Island was observed about twelve miles distant, giving
promise of an early finish to the voyage. An event, however, had occurred during the day which doubtless led in a great measure to the subsequent misfortune of the hapless souls on board the Sea Horse. The mate, John Sullivan, who was the only person in the ship who was acquainted with the coast, met with an accident in going up the forecastle. He broke both legs and arms, and never spoke before he died three hours later.
As it now blew a strong gale and was becoming very dark and hazy Captain Gibbs hauled his wind for Kinsale Light, intending when he saw it to run down along the land for the entrance to Cork Harbour ; but not seeing the light after a run of two hours, while the weather was growing worse and a tremendous sea was running, he was unwilling to proceed farther, and therefore close reefed his topsails and hauled close to the wind, lying west-south-west.
The Sea Horse fell off at about 8 p.m. and wore round on the other tack, most of the night lying about south-east, with the wind south-south-west, but owing to the flood tide setting strong on the shore and a heavy sea running she drifted very fast on shore. At about five o'clock in the morning of
the 30th Minehead, the south point of Dungarvin Bay, appeared on the lee beam. The ship was then drifting rapidly to leeward. At six o'clock the captain let a reef out of the topsail and set the mainsail.
About half-past ten the foremast went over the side, and a seaman in the foretop had his back and thigh broken. The wreckage had been scarcely cleared when the mainsail was torn to ribbons. The Sea Horse was still drifting fast to leeward, and though Hook Tower, at the entrance to Waterford Harbour, was seen under the lee bow, yet she was unable to weather Brown's Town Head.
There was now nothing to be done except to let go the anchors. The sails were clewed up and the ship brought up under the Head in seven fathoms with both anchors and nearly three hundred fathoms of cable ahead ; and the enormous seas were making breaches over her from stem to stern.
At noon the anchors dragged, the wind and sea were growing, and it was clear that the transport was doomed. In ten minutes she struck in Tramore Bay. She took the ground not quite a mile from the shore, yet the tide being nearly at the ebb, and huge seas running, the watchers who lined the shore could
give no help. The doomed company could not help themselves, for the boats had been washed away, though they could not have been of any use in such a sea. Most of the then, women and children had struggled to or been helped on deck, and every sea that came claimed some of them. The children were the first victims. Those who saved their lives did so through sheer physical strength and luck, and these were all men. Not a woman or child was saved, for in addition to the ship having no life-saving appliances there was no apparatus of any sort near the spot. Such things as were washed ashore were looted by the local inhabitants.
Of the 287 men on board only 23 were saved, and of the 16 officers only 4, including my great-uncle.
Let me give a few extracts from a letter which Lieutenant Hartford wrote to his father after the wreck of the Sea Horse :
My Dear Father,
I lose not a moment tho' hardly able to write, to acquaint you of our dreadful shipwreck in this bay yesterday, two o'clock . . . . Since I was born I never witnessed such a sight, the screams
and prayers of all - the sea beating and washing over the ship, every moment sweeping off numbers at a time. Picture to yourself our situation - the beach crowded with people who could render no assistance, no boat could live in such a sea or put out for the surf. God only knows how I was saved.
I stuck to the wreck until she went to pieces and then took hold of a plank which was washed from me four or five times and I by great good luck got hold of others. All I recollect was being completely exhausted and from the cold could hold the plank no longer and was then washed on shore and taken up apparently dead.
I don't know how I recovered, but when I did I found myself before a large fire which for a long time I fancied was a ship on fire. Every bit of our baggage is lost.
I know, my dear father, how happy my dear family will feel at my escape.
Your ever dutiful son,
" I never witnessed such a sight." I think that sentence alone, written by a soldier who had seen so many dreadful things in long years of warfare,
gives as vivid a picture as one can have of the horrors of the wreck of the crowded transport Sea Horse.
Now for the strange sequel, which has prompted me to tell this tale.
In 1860 forty-four years after the loss of the Sea Horse, my great uncle being then dead, another heavy gale washed several relics from the wreck on to the shore of Tramore Bay. They were secured, and amongst them was the sword of Lieutenant Hartford, still in its scabbard, its identity being verified by the maker's name and the number of the scabbard.
That is the sword which I possess - and treasure.
<-Chapter 4 -Contents- Chapter 6->
^ back to top ^