The Moresby Disaster 1895

Christmas Eve: The Disaster

As is so often the case in such disasters, initial reports are incomplete, later reports add details which often conflict with previous accounts or are misreported, and only later is a much more complete and reliable account compiled.

About December 24rd, 1895 news began to come through from the Press Association and other news outlets that the Moresby, a Liverpool full-rigged schooner of 1259 tons, ladened with 1778 tons of coal, and sailing from Cardiff to Pisagua in Chile, had felt the full force of a gale off the south coast of Ireland. As a result it had been stranded about a mile and a half offshore, on the White House Bank under the Ballinacourty Lighthouse (near Dungarvan, Co. Waterford) the previous day, but had now been lost completely; this news was not definite as the sea was partially obscured by fog. The Moresby had hoisted signals of distress seen by the Dungarvan life boat, which had then been sent out but not yet returned. Further reports suggested that some crew members had sought refuge in the ship’s rigging, waiting for rescue.

Later messages told that some of the 36 crew who had been lashed to the rigging had now been rescued but the remainder were still on the vessel which was breaking up, and then — ominously — 17 had been lost in the wreck. All the officers, the captain and his wife and son had also been lost.

On Christmas Day a more complete report was being circulated. The first lifeboat (almost entirely manned by local fishermen and farmers) had made contact with the Moresby but the captain refused assistance, thinking that the ship’s anchors would hold the vessel safe as it rode out the storm. Many of the crew wished to leave the vessel however but the captain ordered them to remain and threatened to prevent any of them, by force, from leaving. The lifeboat thus returned to shore and when the Moresby started to drag its anchors, a second distress signal was sent some time later; the exhausted lifeboat crew refused to return — a refusal which would later result in charges of ‘cowardice‘ against that crew. An appeal was put out around Dungarvan for volunteer seamen, a second lifeboat crew was assembled and the men set out once more for the strickened ship. It managed to pick up seven men but had to look on helplessly at the others who couldn’t be reached. The captain had lashed his wife to a spar, and eventually tied his 10-year-old son to his back and jumped overboard. All three were lost among the breakers. Five crew members were rescued alive however.

As will be seen, some of these details were not accurate.


The crew and passengers

The Moresby had left Cardiff on 21st December. There was a crew of 23 including the Captain, Caleb Francis Coomber (all listed below). The latter also had his wife Edith Isabella (29) and their daughter Ivy (2¼) on the ship, making a total of 25. Included were three lads from Ilkeston in the crew.

Caleb Francis Coomber of Faversham (31), master;
Martin Rose, of St.Thomas, West Indies (30), mate;
Alan Barker of Ilkeston (23), second mate;
Alfred Mikkleson of Abo, Finland (25),A.B.;
E.W. Blomquist of Abo, Finland (23) A.B.;
William Hunter of Nassau, New Providence (35), steward;
P. Peterson of Farsund, Norway (30), carpenter and A.B.;
Abraham Lavo of Oleborg, Norway (36), cook;
Hugh McKinnon of Campbeltown, Scotland (43), sailmaker and A.B.;
Henry William Blount of Ilkeston (16), apprentice; had been on one voyage to sea previously
John Richardson of Annan, Scotland (30), A.B.;
Charles James Gregory of Ilkeston (16), apprentice; joined the ship in July 1895 and had been on one voyage to sea previously in the “Moresby” and is said to have made another voyage.
Thomas Hubins of Portsmouth (40), A.B.
David Kirkland Michie of Campbeltown (14), apprentice; had been on one voyage to sea previously.
John Ronning of Drontheim, Norway (32), A.B.;
Thomas Bird Sims of Bristol (28), A.B.;
William Laakkone of Viborg, Finland (28), A.B.;
Knut Samuel of Viborg (18), A.B.;
G. Jefferies of Maldon (21) A.B.;
Eugene J. Siebert of Liverpool (15), apprentice; had been on one voyage to sea previously.
William A. Caudle of Norton (18), apprentice; had not been to sea previously.
Edwin J. Deane of Middleton (17), apprentice; had not been to sea previously.
William S. Chipperfield of Manchester, apprentice; had not been to sea previously.

Twenty out of the twenty five crew and passengers were drowned. Seven were initially saved from the sea, but two of those died shortly after, on shore. Those who survived are marked * in the list above.



From the Ilkeston Pioneer on 3rd January, 1896

The wreck of the ill -fated ship “Moresby”, in Dungarvan Bay on Tuesday week, having excited so much interest in this locality, owing to the fact that two Ilkeston youths were unfortunately drowned, while a third was luckily saved by the lifeboat, our representative sought an interview with the rescued, since his return to Ilkeston, and gleaned from him the following narrative of the sad catastrophe which will be read with melancholy reflections : –

The “Moresby” (said Henry Blount, who is a fine specimen of an English sailor lad, with a bronzed countenance, speaking of travel in foreign lands) was a full rigged ship of 1,100 tons burthen, and was owned by Mr. John Dodd of Liverpool. She was in splendid condition when we left Cardiff, on the Saturday before Christmas, laden with coal, and bound for South America. Captain Comber was in command, and the crew consisted of first and second mate, nine able-bodied seamen, cook, steward, carpenter, and sailmaker. The captain had also on board his wife, as well as his child – a bonny little girl between two and three years of age. Alan Barker was the second mate, and amongst the crew was also Charles Gregory, another Ilkeston youth, who was seventeen years of age and an apprentice the same as myself, The wind was favourable when we left Cardiff and we cast off below Lundy Island where the tug-boat brought us on the Saturday afternoon. Two or three hours afterwards we got a headwind from S.E. and foul weather began to be experienced. On the Sunday morning there was a tremendous sea, the water washing the decks at every successive wave, so that it was dangerous to go on the main deck. The wind howled and blew with such terrific force that part of the sail was torn away and cast into the angry sea. We had very little sleep on Saturday night, and on Sunday we were running before the wind in the Irish Sea. Sunday was a terrible rough day, and on Monday we sighted the Irish coast, being a long distance out of our track. The canvas had suffered so severely that we had nothing left but the lower topsails and mainsail – all the others had been blown away. The mainsail had up to this not been unfurled, but it was set when we saw land, in order to try and head the ship off, but unluckily it did not answer.

About two o’clock on Monday afternoon, we were driven into Dungarvan Bay, where we dropped both anchors opposite to the Lighthouse. Prior to this we had been flying the flag of distress, but on dropping anchor, the captain ordered it to be taken down. However, it had been seen from the shore, and the lifeboat came out to offer assistance. The boat lay astern about two hundred yard from the ship, and we tried to speak to each other. But the roar of the tempest, and the lashing of the waves prevented us hearing a word for sane time. At length we managed to understand that the lifeboat crew wished to know if we needed help. The captain replied that he did not think there was any need for assistance, being of the opinion that the anchors would hold until the following morning. It was then getting dusk and the lifeboat returned to the shore. It is not true that the captain asked them to remain alongside. I was on the poop all the time, and heard every word which passed. Neither is it true, as stated in the newspapers, that any of the crew expressed a wish to go ashore; so the captain could not prevent them by force. Some sails were hanging, and after the lifeboat left we went aloft to try and make them fast. However it was so rough that we could do nothing: and we were obliged to leave the sails as they were. We came down and got a meal, after which we turned into our bunks. About 11 o’clock at night the first mate came to call all hands, rousing those who happened to be asleep after two heavy and wearisome days. The mate told us to get our lifebelts as the ship was running ashore, and soon would be on the rocks. This was terrible news, and all hands were quickly dressed and on the poop, hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. A number of rockets were sent up for the lifeboat to return, and we received one signal from the shore, so that we knew our signals had been seen. Hour after hour, we waited in an agony of suspense, but no lifeboat came. It was pitch dark, so that we could not see five yards away; and we could both feel and hear the ship’s bottom grating on the rocks. We had to hold on by anything we could, or we should have been thrown off our legs. It was an awful night and we longed to see the daylight appear. During the night, while we were all standing on the poop, Barker went below, and returned with a plum pudding , which had been sent him from home. There were seven apprentices, three of whom had never been to sea before. Dividing the pudding amongst us, Barker said ” Here, boys, this is the last plum pudding you will ever eat.” All of us ate our share of the pudding but in silence. Gregory did not speak, and everyone’s mind was far away with the dear ones we had left at home but a few days before. It was, indeed, a sorrowful feast.

About five o’clock on Tuesday morning, the vessel ran aground, bumping and rolling incessantly in a manner which was simply dreadful. Still the ship showed no signs of breaking up for the next two hours. At seven o’clock, just as the day was breaking, the “Moresby” suddenly rolled over on the starboard side. The captain, seeing the great danger in which we were placed, himself cut down the mizzen topmast rigging, and allowed the topmast to go overboard. This had the effect of holding the ship down and stopping her from rolling. The waves were then dashing over the helpless vessel and the crew took to the mizzen rigging. The captain’s wife also ascended the rigging, and the mate followed with the little child. I cannot tell you how anxiously we waited for the lifeboat, expecting to see it every minute. But still there were no signs of it, and the captain came to the conclusion that it would not come. To add to the perilousness of the situation, the ship gave unmistakeable evidence of breaking up, and then we knew it was everyone for himself. The captain was the first to propose to make an attempt to swim to the shore. The little child was placed on the captain’s back, and I lashed it securely to the gallant father. Then the captain jumped into the seething ocean, followed by the mate, who was accompanied by the captain’s wife. Only one seaman had jumped into the water prior to the captain’s leap. I was fully dressed, but I pulled off all my clothes except pants and shirt, knowing I could swim better with less clothing. While I was doing this, Barker had followed the captain into the sea . He was a good swimmer, but made the mistake of keeping on his clothes. I and Gregory and Michie (another apprentice) all jumped at once. We had all three been very fast friends. Michie was going to jump first, but I said, “Wait a bit, Mic, we will all go together”. Gregory was very silent, not a word escaping his lips. He could not swim, and dived into the water with his oilskins on. Each of us, however, had a lifebelt. It would be about twelve o’clock when we entrusted ourselves to the mercy of the waves. I lost sight of Gregory and Michie directly after we jumped; but soon afterwards I saw Michie for a moment. We were about half a mile from land, and the sea was so rough that one minute I was on the top of a huge wave, another minute in a deep chasm, with towering walls of water on either side. I saw Barker, and we swam near each other for a short time; but neither of us spoke.

I had been in the water nearly half an hour – though it seemed hours – when I saw the lifeboat coming towards me , and I tried to swim in that direction, I had been trying to swim towards the shore, but could make no headway, the tide being against us, and I was not more than 300 or 400 yards from the ship when I was dragged into the lifeboat thoroughly exhausted. I was one of the last to leave the ship, but was the first taken into the lifeboat. Three Russian Fins and a Scotchian were afterwards picked up. Michie was also taken in, but he appeared to be dead, as he never revived. Ten or twenty minutes later Barker was likewise rescued from the sea, I did not see his face, and did not know who it was at the time. He showed signs of life, but died directly we reached the shore ten or twenty minutes afterwards, I think it was about that time, but my mind is very hazy about the time after I leaped into the water.

When we landed, I was carried to the Coastguard station. I was not hurt, but was so prostrated I could not walk. I was provided with warm clothing, having lost everything; and was shortly afterwards taken to Dungarvan Hospital, where I remained until the morning after Christmas Day. I was then fetched to identify the bodies which had been washed up. Gregory’s body was brought in by the tide on Friday, seven or eight miles from Dungarvan, and was conveyed to that place for burial. Barker was buried on Friday, and Gregory on Saturday, in the Protestant Churchyard at Dungarvan. On Saturday night, I started for home, where I arrived early on Monday morning. I should like to acknowledge the great kindness received from the inhabitants of Dungarvan, also at the Coastguard station and in the hospital. When I left on Saturday, part of the hull and one of the masts was all that could be seen of the “Moresby”. The bodies of the captain, his wife and child were washed ashore, and were all buried in one grave. The baby was washed ashore just as we were leaving Dungarvan on Saturday. I don’t blame the captain for not leaving the ship when the lifeboat came the first time. If he had done so, the lifeboat men would have stepped aboard and claimed salvage. All the three new apprentices were drowned. It has been a fearful experience for me, and one I shall never forget.



The Long Eaton Advertiser (December 28th 1895) had already added some background details about the two deceased Ilkeston youths.

“Young Gregory had seen three years of sea-faring life, as an apprentice, and had been to San Francisco on one voyage, and all around the world on another. He was at home last week, leaving Ilkeston on Wednesday (Dec 18th ?) in company with his father, to join his vessel at Cardiff. Captain Gregory yesterday received a message of condolence from the head of the firm under which his son was an apprentice, and whom he has another son, Bertie, apprenticed on another vessel. He (Captain Gregory) is of the opinion that the captain of the ill-fated Moresby only did his duty in standing by his vessel as long as there was any hope of saving her, since he would have lost his master’s certificate if he had abandoned her, and the life-boat crew had gone back, after saving the crew, had succeeded in saving the vessel”. Charles James Gregory was born in February 1878, the eldest son of Charles Hiram and Emma Jane (nee Jackson).  At that time his father was landlord of the Wine Vaults in East Street. Son ‘Bertie’ was William Herbert Gregory, born in 1880.

“Young Barker served his apprenticeship on the Netherby, another ship belonging to Messrs Dodd & Co. and had only just joined the Moresby as second mate. He left home five weeks ago last Monday and joined his ship at Cork, afterwards going with her to Cardiff. Where she charged with coal and left for America on Saturday. He too had been to Frisco, and all round the world, and to Callao”. Allen Barker was born in Awsworth Road, Ilkeston in 1872, the son of Emanuel and Hannah Rawdin (nee Brown). His father was then a lacemaker.

“In expectation that the bodies of the drowned would be washed ashore Mr A H Moon (Mr Gregory’s son-in-law) and Mr Barker left Ilkeston for Ireland on Christmas Day and reached Cork the next day”. A.H. Moon was Mapperley-born schoolmaster Arthur Henry Moon who married Mary Tamar Gregory on July 23rd 1892.


“Most of the drowned in the Moresby disaster were buried in St. Mary’s Church of Ireland cemetery, the majority in a mass grave. Here are buried the captain, his wife and child, Martin Lose (sic), Allen Barker, William Hunter, Eugene Siebert, William Chipperfield, Abraham Lavo, G. Jeffries, John Ronning and Knut Samuel.
Nearby are the individual graves of: Thomas Bird Sims, Thomas Hubins, John Richardson, Charles Gregory, David Michie and Edwin Joseph Dean. One body was never found and one was returned to Englan
d. The local Shipwrecked Mariners Society was represented in Dungarvan by Samuel Ruddell. He was in charge of the burials under direction of the Church of Ireland minister, Rev. Bain. Wooden markers were placed over the graves and afterwards maintained by Mr Ruddell, but on his death the graves were neglected and the markers disappeared”. (
from the Waterford County Musem site)

The Waterford Standard (22nd January 1896) reprinted an article on the Moresby by Miss Emma Cooke of Dungarvan :

“On Saturday evening, the body of the dear little girl, Ivy Neesham Coomber, was bought to Dungarvan, and in her little coffin was laid in the Parochial schoolroom. She was born on board the Lady Lawrence, off the river Plate, South America. The following morning, loving hands removed from her all traces of sand, arrayed her in white robes, and placed an ivy wreath at her feet, and the text ‘Thy will be done’ at her head, During the day hundreds of people visited the schoolroom and not one looked at her unmoved…. she was interred on Monday evening in the same grave as her parents, the small coffin, covered with flowers, was carried by four young lads. This service was jointly conducted by Rev Baines and Haskins. Since then, little Ivy’s bonnet has been washed ashore, also one of her shoes, and to-day while I write, I am told that a Methodist hymn book was found. The hymn book which belonged to Eugene J. Siebert and which is inscribed is on display in the Waterford County Museum, along with the deck board, and a piece of the wooden hull with the name of the Moresby on it.”


Disaster imagined

One can picture the scene — the drifting by the storm; the anchorage under the lee of the rock; the hopes of safety leading to the refusal to avail themselves of the proffered services of the lifeboat; the snapping of the hawsers, and the dreadful drift onto the bar; the sense of imminent danger; the tearing up of the blankets to saturate with paraffin and burn as signals of distress; the weary hours of darkness in which no relief came; the refuge in the rigging, washed up by every tumbling wave; the broken rocket line; the gradual numbing of every faculty; the surrender of hope to despair as all signals failed to bring out the lifeboat; the breaking up of the vessel; and the last plunge overboard which to so many meant the end of life and to so few a rescue. (Long Eaton Advertiser: January 4th 1896)



A court enquiry into the loss of the Moresby was held in Dungarvan on 28th -31st January and from 1st – 6th February 1896.

In the matter of a formal Investigation held at Dungarvan… before William Orr, R.M. assisted by Captain Kiddle, R.N., Captain Kennet Hore and Captain William Erskine, into the circumstances attending the stranding of the British sailing ship ‘Moresby’, of Liverpool, on the Whitehouse bank, Dungarvan Harbour… and the failure of the Ballinacourty lifeboat to render her assistance, whereby loss of life ensued.

The enquiry concluded that the following contributed to the loss of life :

  • The inability of the coxswain to get a crew in Ballinacourty to man the lifeboat.
  • Mr Cullinane, Hon Sec. of the Lifeboat Institution Dungarvan did not act appropriately.
  • James Hore, chief boatman of the coastguard in Ballinacourty ditto.
  • Michael Cummins, coxswain of Ballinacourty Lifeboat ditto.

(from the Waterford County Musem site)


Henry William Blount (1877-1938)

Henry William was born in 1877 at 2 Vicarage Street in Cotmanhay near Ilkeston. He was the youngest son of Henry and Mary Ann (nee Henshaw), his father being a blacksmith at Shipley Collieries. After the sinking of the Moresby, Henry William went back to sea. However he had time to marry — to Mary Ellen Mather Longdon, daughter of William and Lavinia (nee Mather), on January 28th, 1903 at Christ Church, Cotmanhay (where Henry William had been baptised, May 19th 1878) — and then to have at least three daughters. They were Nellie Lavina Theresa Kathleen, Helenora Eileen and Freda Josephine Frances Longdon — all of whom had least one husband.
While he was away at sea, Mary Ellen and her daughters supervised the Shipley Post Office.
On the 14th October 1938, Henry William, then captain of the steamer Melrose Abbey, on a voyage from Tunis to Dublin, took his ship into Gibralter. He was suffering from anæmia and was quickly taken to the hospital. He died there and on November 3rd was buried at Gibralter.
Henry William was making his last voyage before returning home, to Shipley. His youngest daughter, Freda, had just married ice cream manufacturer Charles Joseph Pearce at Christ Church in Cotmanhay … I wonder if Henry William had been there to witness the ceremony ?


We can now wander down Burr Lane to Albion Place.