In the first part of a special Christmas double bill, it is my pleasure to . introduce my guest blogger John Hicks, who, as a descendant of those involved in the rescue, has recently written a book on the wreck of the Thomas W Lawson.
The Isles of Scilly, off the south-west tip of Great Britain, have been the scene of innumerable wrecks (over 900 have been recorded by name), of which probably the best known are those of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s flagship HMS Association and three other vessels from his homecoming fleet in 1707, with the loss of the Admiral and an estimated 1,400 to 2,000 others, and of the Schiller, a 3,421 ton German transatlantic liner, in 1875, with the loss of most of her crew and passengers, to a total of 335.
The name of the Thomas W Lawson, while not so notorious among the general public, is well known locally, and among many others with an interest in wrecks. Towards sunset on Friday, 13 December 1907 she reached the mouth of the English Channel after a stormy first transatlantic crossing and with another gale brewing. Thinking themselves well clear of any land, the crew realised, too late, that they were among the rocks and shoals of the islands and hurriedly anchored. She was attended by the St Agnes and St Mary’s lifeboats, but for different reasons each had to return to its station. In the night there was a violent storm, and by the small hours of the following morning the Lawson was a wreck. At daylight a six-oared island gig was launched into a still high sea to search for survivors, and by the end of the day, after three perilous trips among the rocks, had rescued the only three, one of whom died within hours of his injuries.
That brief narrative omits many dramatic, intriguing or disputed details, but in addition to the fascination of the immediate story there are at least three other features of great interest in the vessel and personnel involved.
As to the vessel, she was a seven-masted schooner of 5,218 registered tons, the largest fore-and-aft rigged sailing vessel of all time, at the time of her loss the largest sailing vessel of any rig afloat, and still the largest vessel propelled purely by sail throughout her life which has yet existed.
As to the personnel, there was first the man after whom she was named: one of the moving spirits behind her conception and creation and a major participant in her financing and ownership. Thomas W Lawson was a buccaneering and intensely superstitious Boston stockbroker who started work as a fatherless, penniless boy of 12, made and lost several fortunes, was reputedly worth at his zenith some $30 to $50 million (the equivalent of something like $750 million to $1.25 billion now) but died in poverty.
And finally – there was the tiny, isolated, close-knit island community into which the schooner irrupted. Of the 17 men from St Agnes who went out in their lifeboat to the Lawson on the 13th or in their gig to search the rocks on the 14th or who (in four cases) were involved in both ventures, all but one were related and 13 bore the same surname. One of them was aboard her as pilot when she went down, and was drowned.
There have been many accounts of the wreck of the Thomas W Lawson, but it is now the subject of a full-length investigation into all these features and their interrelation. It is entitled An Absolute Wreck and its author is a great-nephew of the dead pilot and related to all but one of the St Agnes men involved.
Serena adds: the Isles of Scilly gig was an adaptable craft, often a salvage and rescue vessel at need, and involved in other incidents. Wrecks sometimes caused other wrecks of those that went to their aid: we know of two gigs that were lost respectively in a rescue attempt in 1816 and in salvage work in 1839, underlining the courage of those who crewed them.
Publication details of An Absolute Wreck: the loss of the Thomas W Lawson are as follows:
Title: An Absolute Wreck – the loss of the Thomas W Lawson
Author: John Hicks
Publisher: Scotforth Books, on behalf of the author
ISBN: 978-1-9098 17-25-8
Price: £15.00, including postage within the UK (in USA $25.00 plus postage from UK)
Obtainable from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org