From Woolwich to Paglesham via the Galapagos

HMS Beagle

Designation news: 

The remains of a rare 19th-century dock, a mud berth on the River Roach near Paglesham, Essex, built to accommodate a coastguard watch vessel, are now protected as a nationally important site, designated as a scheduled monument by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

Mud Docks: 

Mud docks like these were once a common feature of river life, but are now rare and little-known, with only a handful recorded anywhere in England. Characteristic features included shoring to stabilise the sides, stocks to support the ship, and a brick hard. All these features are depicted in a painting by John Constable, depicting a barge being built near his father’s mill at Flatford on the River Stour, which forms the Essex-Suffolk boundary.

Historic oil painting with the barge under construction the central feature of a rural landscape on a flat river plain.
Boat-building near Flatford Mill, John Constable, 1815. © Victoria & Albert Museum An associated dock was excavated and restored at Flatford c.1988.

Coastguard Watch Vessels: 

Similarly, little is known about the history of coastguard watch vessels, which once played a prominent role along from 1822 in the long-running battle against smuggling: before 1822, the Preventive Service and ‘revenue men’ had taken on that role. They used ‘revenue cutters’, fast, small ships capable of intercepting the typically small vessels which brought in contraband and which could negotiate the often difficult waters the smugglers chose to exploit. The Essex coastline with its mud flats was one such area. (1) 

Occasionally these vessels crop up in the record as wrecks in their area of operation, for example, the revenue cutters Felicity, which stranded on a rock among the Isles of Scilly in 1790 after seizing significant quantities of contraband from a smuggling cutter, or the Fox, which stranded in 1824 near Bridport, not far from the Chesil Beach locale which inspired John Meade Falkner’s classic 1898 tale of smuggling, Moonfleet. (2) 

These were, of course, seagoing vessels, but the coastguard also made use of static watch vessels. Static service in one form or another was typical for obsolete naval vessels which nevertheless still had a useful part to play and assignment to a coastguard role was fairly typical: there is a long heritage of such vessels, which have been the subject of previous blogs examining the uses to which they were put, from the 17th century Vogelstruis to Fisgard II in 1914.

A station on the river Roach at Paglesham no doubt provided a commanding position in the flat Essex land- and sea-scape for the coastguard watch vessel. The former HMS Kangaroo, an Acorn-class brig-sloop of 1852, similarly ended up in the Essex marshes from 1870 at nearby Burnham-on-Crouch, and gives a good idea of the appearance of a 19th century coastguard watch vessel and how the Paglesham vessel must once have looked.

Dickens’ Great Expectations of 1861, exactly contemporary with the coastguard watch vessel at Paglesham, describes a similar conversion to a prison hulk (without masts or sails) on the Thames marshes as a ‘black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore’ and a ‘ghostly pirate calling out to me’.

The Paglesham coastguard watch vessel saw a long period in service over a quarter of a century from 1845 to 1870, before being sold to be broken up in situ in the dock. The lower portion of the vessel is believed to have settled into the mud, and therefore potentially survives, and thus there is a history not only of the dock but of the vessel which occupied it for so long.

Modern manipulated colour image of mud and vegetation with the outline of Beagle picked out by a red line.
Multispectral UAV survey involved flying a UAV (drone) fitted with a specialist camera, which captures red, green, infrared, near-infrared light, to create a Neutral Density Vegetation Index (NDVI). This has created a clear outline within the dataset of the original mud dock where HMS Beagle was most likely dismantled, confirming its location. © Wessex Archaeology

However, this is not only a story of a mud dock and the vessel for which it was built, but that vessel’s illustrious antecedents. Its identity was no less than HMS Beagle, famed both for three survey voyages and, above all, an association with one of the key figures of the 19th century. Charles Darwin took part in her second voyage from 1831 to 1836, as a naturalist, a voyage which would prove key in developing one of the scientific milestones of the 19th century and its public fame assured by the publication of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839.

Background to the Beagle:

Two hundred years ago this month HMS Beagle was launched at Woolwich in May 1820, as one of the numerous and long-lived Cherokee-class brig-sloops, which began to enter the Royal Navy from 1808 onwards. According to the memoirs of John Lort Stokes, a hydrographic surveyor who served aboard Beagle, and who knew Darwin on that second voyage, she stood out from the rest of her class:

The reader will be surprised to learn that she belongs to that much-abused class, the ’10-gun brigs’—COFFINS as they are not infrequently designated in the service; notwithstanding which, she has proved herself, under every possible variety of trial, in all kinds of weather, an excellent sea boat. (3)  

A number of Beagle‘s sister Cherokee-class brig-sloops were certainly wrecked around the English coastline, (4) for example  HMS Jasper (built 1808) which stranded under Mount Batten, Plymouth, in 1817 with significant loss of life in a ‘tremendous gale of wind’, while HMS Fairy (built 1826) capsized and sank with all hands off Kessingland, Suffolk, in 1840.

By contrast, HMS Skylark (built 1826) struck on Kimmeridge Ledge, Dorset in fog with no loss of life in 1845, thanks in great part to the efforts of the local coastguard, a story which also underlines not only a secondary function of the coastguard but also of their importance in the 19th century.

The voyages of the Beagle

After some time laid up out of service (‘in ordinary’ in the parlance of the time) in 1825 HMS Beagle was commissioned into the Hydrographic Service as a surveying vessel, her first voyage to Tierra del Fuego taking place between 1826 and 1830.

Historic black & white print of HMS Beagle in profile view against a backdrop of mountains with native inhabitants looking on from small canoes
HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan: frontispiece from the 1890 edition of Charles Darwin’s Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle (London: John Murray)

The Beagle was refitted and set out for her second and most famous voyage in 1831, returning to South America, this time with Charles Darwin on board as a naturalist: such survey expeditions were an opportunity to add to the body of scientific knowledge concerning regions little known to Europeans at that time, as well as to undertake chart-making surveys. This was the voyage which visited the Galapagos Islands and led to Darwin beginning to evolve his principles of natural selection, published as On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Beagle returned once more to England in 1836 and set out again the following year, this time on a survey of Australia which would last until 1843. It was after these three arduous voyages that Beagle was demoted to a coastguard watch vessel, until sold for breaking. Breaking in situ was again typical for vessels which were no longer suitable for any service, as was abandonment after a partial breaking, which then became a secondary stage of a wreck process in itself, as seems to have been the case with the Beagle.

While the Beagle, his former home for five years, was literally sinking into obscurity among the mud-flats of Essex, by contrast Darwin’s fame continued to grow. He settled at Down House, Kent, in 1842, where he led a life of active scientific research and publication against no little controversy surrounding his theories of evolution, before his death in 1882. Each layer of significance in the history of the mud dock at Paglesham is fascinating in its own right, and is all the more special for its association with the remains of a very special vessel.

Modern colour photo of historic Victorian desk with shelf and drawer files and scientific instruments.
Detail view of the Old Study of Charles Darwin’s home at Down House DP053644 © Historic England Archive


(1) Benham, H. 1986. The Smugglers’ Century: the story of smuggling on the Essex coast, 1730-1830 (Chelmsford: Essex Record Office Publications)

(2) Information derived from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database

(3) Stokes, J. 1846. Discoveries in Australia; with an account of the coasts and rivers explored and surveyed during the voyage of HMS Beagle, in the years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43 by Command of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Vol. 1. (London: T and W Boone)

(4) Information derived from Historic England’s National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) database

A miraculous rescue

The Brig Nérina

In the autumn of 1840 two French brigs left their mark on history in very different ways. One was witness to a key historical moment, the other an unusual tale of survival against all odds. The brig was, in many ways, the characteristic vessel type of the 19th century, sturdy, strong, and adaptable, and accounts for some 7% of our shipwreck records.

The first was the naval brig L’Oreste, detached from the French Levant (Mediterranean) squadron for St. Helena, where she witnessed the translation of the mortal remains of Napoleon Bonaparte aboard La Belle Poule. L’Oreste then accompanied La Belle Poule and La Favorite out of St. Helena on 18 October 1840, and as she set her course for the Mediterranean, La Belle Poule and La Favorite continued north for Cherbourg with the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte, to be translated to Les Invalides, Paris, where they have lain ever since.

Victorian sepia photograph of ship seen from afar all alone on a calm sea, sunlight striking the sea to the right of the ship from among the clouds.,
The Brig, 1856, by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 67995

The other vessel was the commercial brig Nérina which left Dunkirk for Marseille on 30 October 1840 with a crew of 7, including the captain’s teenage nephew, and a cargo of oil and canvas. What happened next was an incredible feat of survival. The English correspondent assured his readers that it was no ‘Yankee story’ but, as a local resident, had seen the people and events described with his own eyes. (1) In a similar vein, his French counterpart stated that he had both met with the survivors and had obtained a souvenir account of the event printed under the auspices of Richard Pearce, vice-consul at Penzance, as an aide-memoire ‘lest my story be ridiculed’. (2) [The story can be followed in French here.]

The wind was set fair for her voyage with a favourable breeze, but in the English Channel a typical autumn squall set in, as the wind suddenly backed to the south-east. Thereafter the Nérina beat up Channel with extreme difficulty against contrary winds, taking 15 days to reach the Lizard. The wind increased, and the exhausted crew viewed with dismay the fierce Atlantic breakers crashing onto the shore as they passed Land’s End.

They had reached a position some 12 nautical miles south-west of the ‘Sorlingues’ [the French name for the Isles of Scilly] when a heavy sea struck their vessel, which capsized suddenly, sweeping one man off the deck, never to be seen again. ‘The vessel in a moment turned completely over, not allowing time for the water to run into her, by which means the internal air kept the water out.’ (3) This describes what we would now know today as an air pocket.

Three seamen were in the forecastle, of whom one was drowned as he lost his grip, while the other two managed to keep their heads above the rising water and wriggle through a gap, making their way towards voices in the stern cabin, where the master, his nephew, and the mate had been when the ship capsized. The mate had managed to open a hatch into a watertight space and clear away some stores, then helped the master and the boy through the gap. The other two men from the forecastle followed them, and there the five managed to survive for the ensuing three days and nights, with no sustenance or space to stand up, and the air beginning to run out in that confined space. They gained some idea of the passage of time through seeing daylight striking upon the sea being reflected up through the cabin skylight, which, of course, was now below them, and then through the hatchway.

South-west of the Isles of Scilly, they were on course to drift out into the Atlantic, where they must inevitably have perished. They were completely unaware of what happened next, and, as a French journalist wrote, perhaps it was as well that it was so, or they would have suffered even greater agonies of alternating hope and despair than they were already experiencing, although the captain tried his best to maintain their morale. In the meantime the resourceful mate was trying to carve out a hole in the hull in an effort to gain some more air, but his knife broke before he was able to break through (very fortunately, or the water would have rushed in).

Aerial view of the Isles of Scilly, standing green above a calm blue sea, against a blue sky with light white clouds.
The Isles of Scilly looking SW. 23893/12 SV9217/1 © Historic England

Two fishing vessels returning to St. Mary’s spotted crowds of birds gathering over a dark whale-like shape in the water off St. Agnes, and decided to investigate. They found it to be an upturned hull and attempted to take it in tow, but the tow rope broke, and they were forced to abandon the attempt as the weather worsened, not having the least idea that there was anyone on board the derelict.

The attempted tow had, however, taken the vessel out of the currents carrying her inexorably into the Atlantic. In the middle of the night the vessel bumped bows on to the rocks at Porthellick, St. Mary’s, was clawed back by the tide, and again flung onto the rocks, each time more violently. The five survivors were forced to crawl forward as best they could to avoid the rising water, although one man fell lost his footing and drowned. The other four continued on to the ship’s side, where they were able to peer through a hole in the side.

At daybreak a fisherman was out on the beach, and like his fellow fishermen off St. Agnes, he was attracted to the dark shape on the rocks which he could only dimly discern. He clambered down the rocks to investigate, and, spotting the hole, put his arm into it. He received what must have been the shock of his life when the captain eagerly gripped his arm, and hurriedly pulled clear, but as they cried out to him, he grasped the situation and ran back to get help.

Soon the four survivors were pulled out by willing hands and restored with a breakfast and a sound sleep. The dead man, entangled in the shrouds when he was washed out of the vessel, was interred in a simple service, attended by his compatriots: this is most likely to have taken place at St. Mary’s Old Church, Old Town, St. Mary’s, which had until 1838 been the principal parish church of the island and was closest to where the ship had fetched up (now Grade II* listed). The hull broke up almost immediately, as the tide returned, but 50 barrels of oil are recorded as having been saved. (4) The survivors were later waved off from St. Mary’s to begin their journey home via Penzance, thanks to the good offices of Pearce as vice-consul.

The various accounts contain minor discrepancies, not at all unusual for shipwreck reports, gleaned from traumatised survivors and compounded by language difficulties, but the level of detail which made it into the English press suggests that it had been possible to relay the story via an interpreter – again suggesting Richard Pearce’s possible involvement.

In over 20 years’ recording our shipwrecks and reading extraordinary stories of survival and rescue on the coast of England, this is the only air pocket survival I have encountered. A story that seemed almost incredible in the Victorian era has at least two modern parallels, the well-documented rescues of Tony Bullimore in the Southern Ocean in 1997 and Harrison Okene off Nigeria in 2013.

(1) Morning Post, 4 December 1840, No.21,806, and widely reproduced in other UK newspapers

(2) F R de la Trémonnais, “Naufrage de la Nérina“, Revue de la presse: la gazette des familles, Vol.1, 1840, pp408-16

(3) Evening Standard, 14 Decemer 1840, No.5,144, p3, and other UK newspapers

(4) Ibid.



Diary of the War: October 1917

The Annie F Conlon

This war diary has almost taken on a life of its own: all the events selected for the diary have been chosen for their intrinsic interest, but when it comes to writing each post, a theme linking consecutive posts sometimes reveals itself.

So it is this month: last month I wrote of how the First World War contributed to the demise of the schooner as Merseyside and Deeside schooners took on the task of running coal to France for the war effort. This month’s wreck is also a schooner, the Annie F Conlon of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She left New York on August 27, also for France:  her cargo of lubricating oil suggests that it too might have been destined for the front.

Black and white photograph of two ships in harbour, with water and reflections on the ripples in the foreground, and the black shapes of two ships and their masts without sails in the centre of the image: the one in the foreground is two-masted, with a three-masted ship in the background. The masts are silhouetted against the sky.
Two schooners in harbour: the Jesse Hart lies in the foreground, while in the centre background is the Annie F Conlon. PK5195, courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, VA

It had therefore taken her just over a month to reach a point 12 to 15 miles south-east of St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, by 3 October 1917. On that day she was stopped and shelled by UC-47, under the command of Paul Hundius, a prolific U-boat commander who sank many vessels in English waters in UB-16, UC-47 and UB-103.

The Annie F. Conlon was attacked by Hundius on  his last patrol in command of UC-47, since Guenther Wigankow assumed command on 9 October. (Wigankow and his crew would all be lost when UC-47 was rammed by a patrol vessel on 18 November 1917 off Flamborough Head.)

From Hundius’ point of view, that was the end of the matter, and he left Annie F Conlon to sink. She did not sink immediately, however, but was towed a couple of days later into Crow Sound, between St. Mary’s and the Eastern Isles of Scilly. She collapsed onto her beam ends near Guther’s Island, where she was salvaged, then moved to Lower Town, St. Martin’s, then was finally beached where she now lies, 130 metres west of West Broad Ledge, on the western side of St. Martin’s, where further salvage took place. She was then abandoned as a constructive total loss.

It is probably partly for this reason, as well as wartime censorship, that the Annie F Conlon did not make any ripples in British newspapers of the time – because she did not meet a dramatic end as such. Perhaps, too, another American schooner had stolen the limelight – British newspapers were making much of the dramatic arrival in an open boat at Samoa of the master of another American schooner, the C Slade. His ship had been sunk by the commerce raider Seeadler, but he brought the no doubt welcome news to the Allies that the Seeadler had herself been wrecked (although her crew simply seized other vessels to carry out further attacks on shipping).

The first account of the Annie F Conlon in a regional British newspaper actually appears some 20 years after the event, giving details of a lecture at Plymouth by the then American consul at Falmouth on the work of his predecessors. The wartime incumbent was a Cornish-born naturalised American citizen, Joseph G Stephens, who was ‘kept busy repatriating shipwrecked sailors, attending to the burials of sailors, and administering relief to “stranded” Americans’, including those of the Annie F Conlon. (2)

The Annie F Conlon also turns up in a legal journal of 1926, detailing the successful claim of shipowners against the German government. The owners of the Annie F Conlon were awarded $41,514.29. (3)

However, the American press in 1917 did offer some sparse details over the wreck: confirming the general location of the Isles of Scilly, the name of the master and number of the crew, and that all hands had been safely landed – so at least on this occasion Consul Stephens had not had to bury anyone!

Each schooner which was attacked hastened the demise not only of the sailing vessel in general and of a way of life, but also of the schooner particular vessel type. Yet each sinking also reveals another story of the profound social change triggered worldwide by the First World War.

The news of the Annie F Conlon shared the front page of Der Deutsche Correspondent of Baltimore, Maryland, with a banner above its masthead proclaiming: “THIS IS AN AMERICAN NEWSPAPER PUBLISHED IN THE GERMAN LANGUAGE: Its function is to acquaint the immigrated Germans with the social and political conditions in the United States, and to familiarize them with their duties toward their adopted country and with the rights conferred upon them by the Constitution.” (4)

In this case the long heritage of German-language newspapers in the United States was also under threat: by the end of the war the Deutsche Correspondent had folded, after 77 years of publication. I never know where this blog will end up – not only do I find links between wrecks which I had chosen months earlier for the blog, but I also discover something new about the global effects of the war through the prism of a single shipwreck in English waters.

Black and white photograph of ships with masts and furled sails in harbour. three vessels are discernible in the lower centre of the photograph, with their masts standing talll against the roofs of two buildings, with a grey sky over.
Albert S Stearns, Charles E Balch, and Annie F Conlon in 1892. PK1950, courtesy of the Mariners Museum, Newport News, VA.


(1) Manchester Evening News, 5 October 1917, No.15,138, p2

(2) Western Morning News, 5 March 1937, No.24,082, p6

(3) American Journal of International LawVol. 20, Issue 4, October 1926, p794

(4) Der Deutsche Correspondent, 5 October 1917, Vol. 77, No.278, p1

Diary of the War: January 1917

Henry Blogg and the Fernebo

On the stormy winter morning of 9 January 1917, a distress signal brought out the lifeboatmen of Cromer in their lifeboat Louisa Heartwell, which launched into heavy seas to reach the Greek steamer Pyrin, drifting two miles out at sea. Since all men of fighting age were away at war, the lifeboat crew were all either middle-aged or elderly men, and were led by coxswain Henry Blogg, who had joined the crew in 1894, and a relative youngster at the age of 40. It took a party of 40 men, including soldiers, to launch the lifeboat, and over two hours for the crew to reach the wreck and successfully rescue and land 18 survivors.

Henry Blogg. RNLI

In the middle of this force 9 gale, another ship got into difficulties. The Swedish Fernebo, en route from Gavle for London with timber, was in distress, lurching in the sea with one crew member injured – and was even further out to sea, between 3 and 4 miles offshore.

The very wildness of the weather meant that none of the other local lifeboats could put out to the rescue the crew of the Fernebo in the stead of the Cromer lifeboat. The Louisa Heartwell was the nearest and the only suitable craft, being larger and heavier than other local lifeboats, but several attempts to launch her failed, even with all the willing helpers from the town.

A party of men aboard Fernebo saw their chances of rescue slipping away and took matters into their own hands, launching one of the ship’s boats. Almost at the shoreline the vessel capsized and it took a party of onlookers, led by Private Stewart Holmes, one of the soldiers stationed locally, to rescue them by forming a human chain at the risk of their own lives. By this means all six men were rescued from their little boat, which had somehow made it all the way to shore despite the storm.

In the meantime further disaster had literally struck the Fernebo, in the form of a mine laid by UC-19, which had been caught and depth-charged off the Isles of Scilly in the previous month, leaving behind a deadly legacy of sown mines. The explosion split the steamer in two, but her timber cargo kept both halves afloat: fortunately all the crew were in one half, rather than drifting apart on two different wrecks.

The storm drove the stricken Fernebo closer inshore, where, around 5pm, both parts struck Cromer beach, but in different locations. The aft section of the Fernebo came ashore near the groyne at the Doctor’s Steps, Cromer. Once more it was clear that only the Cromer lifeboat and her crew stood between the Swedish sailors and death: with the help of army searchlights trained on the beach and the wreck, further attempts were made to launch. Once launched, several oars were wrenched from the lifeboatmen’s hands and others broken by the violence of the sea, so the crew had to put back then, then return with fresh oars.

At last – success! The crew managed to reach the survivors, safely bringing off eleven men, eleven people who would have died had it not been for the ‘great intrepidity, splendid tenacity, and endurance’ quoted in the citation for the RNLI’s gallantry award to the Louisa Heartwell‘s crew. (1)  This was the occasion on which Henry Blogg, the ‘greatest lifeboatman of them all’, received his first RNLI gold medal, but the entire crew also received awards, with another being made to Pte. Holmes, leader of the shore party which rescued the six men from the boat.

Black and white photograph of two rows of en, seated in front, standing at the back, in front of the open doorway through which the bows of a lifeboat can be seen.
The crew of the Cromer lifeboat, wearing the medals awarded for this rescue. RNLI

But for the courage of the Cromer lifeboatmen, the Fernebo‘s crew would all have shared in the fate of their injured colleague, who was killed when they struck the mine. This was certainly a rescue against all the odds, when human endurance overcame the power of nature and the violence of war.

Colour photograph of ribs of wreck, partly covered in seaweed, in the foreground of the image, on a beach, which stretches to the background of the image. The top sixth of the image is taken up by a flat band of blue sky and sea.
The wreck of the Fernebo as she now lies at Cromer. RNLI

Over 5,000 lives were saved by the RNLI during the First World War: their work is showcased in an RNLI travelling exhibition Hope in the Great War, which is touring the country for the duration of the centenary. It features the Fernebo, and another rescue we have already featured in the War Diary, the Rohilla. Do go and see it – check for a venue near you.

(1) Widely reported in a nationwide press release, for example in the Newcastle Journal,  13 February 1917, No.22,371, p3

No. 95 Thomas W Lawson

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.

Cover of the book, depicting the largest sailing ship in the world  as a sad wreck among the Isles of Scilly.

He writes:

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.

Black and white photograph of five-masted sailing ship aground in shallow water off a rocky coastline in the foreground.
Besides the seven-masted Thomas W Lawson lost off the Isles of Scilly in 1907, there was also the wreck of the five-masted ship Preussen off Kent in 1912, photographed here by a local resident. BB052702 Reproduced by permission of Historic England.

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

Date: 2015

Price: £15.00, including postage within the UK (in USA $25.00 plus postage from UK)

Obtainable from the author at