Sinking of the Puffin Lightvessel at Daunt Rock

One hundred years ago the Puffin Lightvessel sank at the Daunt Rock with the loss of all hands. Jim Blaney describes the tragedy.

Thursday 8th of October 1896 is a date of tragic significance in the annals of the Irish Lights Service, for in the early hours of that morning the lightship Puffin on the Daunt Rock station foundered in a south- southwesterly gale with the loss of all her crew of eight. The gale which commenced on the previous evening did not moderate until Thursday afternoon. The vessel was last seen at 4.30 am that morning, when the gale was at its height. She was then riding at her moorings but labouring heavily in a mountainous sea.

A coastguard named Cullinan, who was stationed between Robert’s Cove and Slaty Quarry, reported that at 4.30 am the wind in a heavy squall of rain shifted to west southwest and blew with hurricane force. At the same time several very heavy seas broke into Robert’s Cove, washing away part of the sea wall, and stoving in the doors of two houses in the village. He lost sight of Puffin’s light about the same time.

John Whelan, a pilot waiting at Roche’s Point for the White Star steamer Germanic was obliged, with the help of his crew, to haul his boat out of danger from the heavy seas. Returning from this task two of the boatmen, Shea and Conway, caught a last sight of the Puffin’s light at 4.30 am. Whelan, who had twenty-five years experience, stated that on the night of 7th to 8th October a terrific gale raged round that part of the coast, and that between 3 am and 6 am the sea was the heaviest they had ever experienced; also the tide rose two feet higher than they had ever seen it before.

At daylight the Puffin had vanished from its station, five miles south-west of Roche’s Point at the entrance to Cork Harbour, although the buoy marking the rock was still in position. There was great concern all day Thursday about the fate of the vessel and crew. Telegrams were immediately sent to all coastguard stations in the hope that she had broken adrift and would be found before long.

Over the next few days a number of sightings were reported, which proved to be false. On Friday afternoon a rumour spread that the Puffin was riding safely at anchor six miles off Tramore. However, Mr Higginbotham of the Spit Bank Lighthouse, whose brother was among the missing crew, received a wire that no such vessel had been seen off Tramore, thus dashing the hopes of those expecting good news.

Two theories were advanced to explain the ship’s disappearance, the more optimistic one being that she had slipped her moorings and was now adrift off the coast; the second that she was the victim of a collision and had gone down on station. Some clung hopefully to the first theory, but as time passed it seemed strange she had not been sighted by any passing vessel or by the several coastguard stations along the south-east coast. Others argued against the probability of her being sunk at her moorings, since she had on board 700 gallons of oil and no trace of oil had been seen.

About 2 o’clock on Saturday 10th October Captain D. P. Fleming, Superintendent of Irish Lights’ Stores at Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), arrived at the Daunt Rock, where the Clyde Shipping Company’s tug Flying Sportsman was commissioned to carry out sweeping operations under Captain John Murphy. A five oared whale boat with five experienced hands brought a supply of sweeping gear and grapnels. Also on board was Mr T. Ensor of Queenstown (Cobh) whose ability in such matters was well known, two brothers of the missing crew member Robert Higginbotham, and a representative of The Cork Examiner. They spent from one o’clock to four sweeping without success.

The man from the local paper made the following observations We had scarcely reached the Spit Lighthouse when the younger of the Higginbothams, who was looking towards the shore with his glasses, immediately began to communicate by semaphore with someone ashore. It turned out to be his sister who had learned the signs so as to converse with him from her house in Moore’s Terrace, over Harbour Row, when he was on the Spit. He informed her there was no fresh news of the Puffin.

By means of soundings and the assistance of the chart the bearings of the exact position of the missing vessel were taken. It was about a quarter of a mile to the eastward of the Rock that we made our first sweep. The tide had not yet turned, the water was calm, almost placid, and there was a lull in the wind. One could not help contemplating the fate of those eight courageous souls who, anchored in one position, had to stand the full blast of the gale, while man and beast, and ships and steamers for that matter, betook themselves hastily to shelter. It seemed almost impossible to conceive that under those calm innocent looking waters should lie the lifeless bodies of eight stalwart men. One was loath to think that such could be the case, and how a vessel specially constructed to stand against every description of weather should founder without allowing the poor fellows on board an opportunity of escape.

A new lightship, the Guillemot, towed by the Irish Lights Steamer Tearaght, arrived from Dun Laoghaire on Saturday 10th October, and was placed in position at 3.30 pm. This at first caused some excitement until it was realised that it was but a replacement for the missing Puffin. On Sunday a telegram was received from the coastguards at Helvic Head stating that two oars with the words Daunts Rock Lightship burned on them had been picked up in Dungarvan Bay the previous morning.

Captain Michael Doyle and crew member William Noonan, who were on shore leave at the time of the tragedy, were taken out in the Tearaght on Monday 12th and put on board the new lightship. William Noonan’s brother Michael was among those missing. That night a report reached Cobh that three caps like those worn by Irish Lights had been found on the shore at Poer Head.

By now the agony of the mens’ relations was unbearable. Five of the crew were married men, and one can imagine the anguish of their wives and families. No one place suffered as much as the village of Crosshaven which lost four of its residents in the tragedy: Richard Dobson, William Joseph Daly, Michael Noonan, and Thomas Supple. Two were from Wexford: Laurence Furlong and Robert Higginbotham, and one was from Carrigaholt, Co. Clare: Patrick Hourigan.

There was indignation about the unaccountable delays in discovering any definite news. The sweeping operation was watched anxiously by the sorrowing relatives each day from Weaver’s Point and the headlands outside Crosshaven. It was generally accepted that the men were lost and the best that could be hoped for was the discovery of their bodies.

On 16th October there was a reference in a letter to The Cork Examiner to an entertainment by the officers and men of Her Majesty’s Ships in Cork Harbour in aid of the widows, orphans and any relatives, dependent on the poor fellows who lost their lives by the foundering of the Puffin.

On the morning of Tuesday 21st October diver Patrick Collins descended at the site and after 15 minutes he announced that he had discovered the cable of the Puffin. It was then a question of finding out if the vessel was still attached. Further progress was hampered for almost a week by stress of weather. On 29th October Lloyd’s Agent at Cobh telegraphed-

Captain Gallwey (sic) has just returned from Daunt’s Rock and reports that the lightship Puffin has been found in about 15 fathoms of water, a little to the eastward of her usual position. A diver went down but owing to the overcast below could not discern whether the vessel was damaged in any way beyond having her cathead broken. No trace has been found of the bodies of the crew up to the present.

The Irish Lights Tender Princess Alexandra, Captain R. Deane, proceeded to the scene on Tueday 3rd November 1896. Mr Ensor got on his diving suit and went down. He found that the deckhouse of the Puffin had been almost completely carried away. The mainmast, upon which was fixed the daymark cage and lantern, had been swept over the port side. The deck was badly scarred in the wake of where the mast was carried away, while the bulwark planks on both sides of the vessel were gone in several places. The iron main-mast, which was carried away from below the deck, brought with it part of the deckhouse, the front of which was still standing. When Mr Ensor returned to the surface Mr Collins went down and discovered that the companion hatch and the hatch inside the deckhouse were chocked with floating pieces of wood which made it impossible to enter the cabin to look for the bodies of the crew.

It was not until the morning of 12th August 1897 that the Puffin was finally taken into the inner harbour at Cobh and beached on the mudbank at Rushbrook Dock, where an inspection of the hull was carried out. Practically the entire bottom of the vessel had gone and no bodies were found.

On Saturday 28th August a survey was carried out by Sir William Watson and Captain Galwey of the Irish Lights Board together with Mr Weir and Mr Keekes, Board of Trade surveyors. Mr George Idle, the Irish Lights Surveyor of Shipping, took a number of photographs of the exterior and the interior of the vessel. Mr Weir found the hull of the ship much twisted and the sheer deformed, specially on the port side, between the fore and main mast. She was practically broken through, the copper damaged by contact with rocks and the keel entirely gone, together with the floors bottom framing and planking. The stern was broken off and splintered and the stanchions, bulwarks and several other parts above deck were gone.

Whether this damage occurred when she was afloat or by striking the rocks when she went down he could not say. The damage to the upper work being all above deck could not itself have caused the vessel to founder, he believed.

The most favoured theory in nautical circles was that the vessel rolled in the awful seas to such an extent as to start the shrouds of the mast, and that this weighty iron spar, with its heavy iron cage and lantern, broke at its weakest part near the man-hole entrance. Tumbling over the side of the vessel, it smashed the deckhouse leaving her quite open to fill with the seas breaking over the deck.

An inquiry ordered by the Board of Trade had commenced on 16th March 1897 at the Four Courts in Dublin and adjourned on the 26th until the Puffin was raised. On 1st September the assessors made a thorough examination of her on the beach at Rushbrook and the inquiry resumed on the 3rd.

The Court was informed that the Puffin was a composite built vessel. The frames, beams, floors and other internal parts were of iron, whilst the skin or outside covering, decks, bulwarks and all erections were of teak. Of 150 tons displacement, her dimensions were length 93 feet 6 inches, breadth 23 feet 9 inches, and depth 11 feet 3 inches. She had three masts. The foremasts and mizenmast were of wood, with suitable rigging. The mainmast, on which was carried the light, was specially constructed for the purpose. Strictly cylindrical and true, it was made from 5/16 inch thick steel and was 70 feet high. There were two openings in the mainmast, one below the deck and another on the level of the lantern when hoisted up. Inside the mast was a ladder which the lamplighters climbed to trim the lamps. Both openings were stiffened round the edges with wrought iron frames.

The mainmast was supported by four shrouds of 4½ inch wire rope, shackled on each side to a band at the masthead, and placed so as to give the best possible support. The lantern, which had its lower half constructed of iron and the upper part of glass, weighed about 2 tons 13 cwt. It was hoisted and lowered by a chain rove through cheek blocks near the masthead and brought down to a winch some distance abaft the mast. When hoisted, the lower part of the lantern was 27 feet above the deck.

The Court found that the hull of the Puffin was properly constructed; there was no weakness in the bows or any other part of her, and she was fit for the service intended. The steel mast of the Puffin was in good condition but was not efficiently and properly constructed. The rectangular doorway was a source of weakness as sufficient strength was not put into the frame round the doorway to compensate for the material taken out of the mast. Considering however that this mast had been severely tested on many occasions when the Puffin was on the Blackwater and Daunt’s Rock stations and that facsimile masts had been used in the Cormorant since 1871 and the Torch since 1880, it was natural to suppose that the mast was strong enough for any work required up to the 8th October. When the Master Mr Doyle left the vessel on 1st October she was in all respects in good and seaworthy condition and she was properly moored. The foundering of the vessel and loss of life was due to the steel mast breaking below the dec k carrying away the house and tearing a large portion of the deck. The area of the hole made in the deck was about 20 feet and would admit enormous quantities of water below, so that undoubtedly the vessel would fill rapidly and founder. Whether the mast gave out first or whether some of the rigging carried first, causing the mast to lose its support, or whether she was struck by any wreckage causing a sudden shock the Court is unable to say. The cause of the loss of life was the Puffin foundering.

The Crew of the Puffin

James Henry Morgan aged 36 from Summer Hill, Cork city, was Mate of the vessel and was in command in the absence on liberty of the Master, Michael Doyle. After some years at sea he joined the Irish Lights Service about 1886. He was an excellent seaman, and a popular member of Cork Church of Ireland Young Men’s Association. He was unmarried, and lived with his father Daniel Morgan, a naval pensioner.

Richard Dobson (36) was a native of Arklow married to Jane, daughter of Robert Watson of Weaver’s Point, Crosshaven, with whom they lived. They had four young children including twins Mary and Robert. Richard was a man of light-hearted disposition and often enlivened the evenings on board ship with songs and recitations. He had nine years’ service and was engaged as a gunner.

Patrick Hourigan (32) was a native of Carrigaholt, Co. Clare where he lived with his wife Margaret (Scanlan), son Michael (1), and daughter Mary (2). A man of powerful build, Patrick was a fluent Irish speaker and often taught his shipmates to express themselves as Gaeilge.

Robert Higginbotham (22), the youngest on board, was the vessel’s carpenter. Born in Cobh, he lived in Parnell Street, Wexford. One of twelve sons of William Higginbotham who for many years was a Keeper on the Spit Bank Lighthouse, he was not married. Eight of Robert’s brothers were also in the Irish Lights Service. He joined the Puffin in August 1896.

Thomas Supple (58) was a native of Crosshaven, where he lived. His wife Mary (Sullivan) died in 1882 leaving Thomas with a young family of five, now grown up

Michael Noonan (35) was a native of Crosshaven where he lived with his wife Margaret (Browne) and daughter Helena Mary (1½). He was engaged as a seaman on the ship, as was his brother William who was on shore liberty at the time of the disaster.

Laurence Furlong (23) was a native of Wexford town where he lived in Parnell Street with his family. He had just recently been appointed a seaman on board the Puffin.

William Joseph Daly (26) was born at Dock Street, Passage, on 6th October 1870 and lived with his father William at Crosshaven. His father was engaged as Master of the Chie, a steam yacht belonging to Mr J. Murphy of Ann Mount. His mother Catherine was formerly Mackesy. He was not a regular member of the crew of the Puffin but was brought on board as a substitute for lamplighter James Regan.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad go léir.

I am grateful to the following for help and information: David Bedlow and Frank Pelly of Irish Lights; Barbara Heathcote, Central Library, Newcastle-upon-Tyne; Dr Ian Buxton, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; Tim Cadogan, Cork County Library; Ciaran Burke, Cork City Library; Very Rev. Patrick Culligan, P.P. Carrigaholt; Heather Bird, Cobh Museum; Rosemary Daly, Ballincollig; John Keating, Cloghroe. I would like to thank all the people of Crosshaven for their help and kindness, especially Norma Twoomey, Very Rev. Denis O’Donoghue P.P., Majory Fitzmaurice, Joan McCarthy, Alice Heffernan, the O’Flynn family, the Angland family, Mrs Wagner, Tom Aherne, Helen Brennan, Dinny Cronin, Batt Noonan, Mrs Cogan, Diarmuid Ó Murchadha, Kathleen Higgins, and Joan Creedon.

© Jim Blaney, October 1996.

Originally published in the CIL “Beam” magazine.

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