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Howstrake
Shipwrecks

 

Over the centuries, the rocky coast of Howstrake must have claimed many vessels, especially in the days of sail, but few records remain of these losses.

There is a tradition, or folk memory, that a Dutch ship was lost below the present Majestic View at the site marked as Brither Clip Gut on the Ordnance Survey maps. Perhaps the late J.J. Kneen came across this tradition when researching his Place Names, published in 1926, for he suggested that the origin of this obscure name might lie in a vessel wrecked at this place. The word "Gut" is English and means a narrow channel. However, "Brither Clip" derives from Old Norse and indicates a sharp rock and has no connection with a shipwreck.

But, ignoring the origins of this place name, the loss of a Dutch ship at Brither Clip is a completely feasible possibility. Although it might be thought that Dutch ships sailing along the Manx coasts would be few and far between, the opposite was true for nearly a century. At one time the limited produce of the Island had been exported in return for basic necessities, but from the late 1600s until around 1765, the date of the Revestment Act, this was to change. The Isle of Man became a gigantic warehouse and vessels from Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and other countries, sailed openly and legally into Manx ports with cargos of brandy, silks, teas, wines, rum, tobacco and other goods which bore high duties in Britain and Ireland, and into which countries they were eventually smuggled.

Dutch ships played a major role in this trade to the Island. One celebrated case involved a Dutch dogger called The Hope. In June 1750 she sailed from Douglas and was pursued by a British customs cutter which forced her aground on the Ramsey Sand. The boarding party from the British cutter which was put aboard the Dutch ship was, however, taken into custody by a party of Manxmen concealed in the hold and detained for several months in Castle Rushen!

There are other examples of Dutch vessels in Manx waters. On 1st December 1764, a Dutch ship ran onto rocks whilst entering Derby Haven. Her cargo of tea was saved but she sustained damage to her hull. Closer to Howstrake, there were five Rotterdam vessels, Peace, Maria, Caesar, Young Theodore and the Vrede all of which traded on a regular basis with Douglas. Bearing in mind the large numbers of Dutch craft carrying merchandise into the Island at this period, it is not difficult to visualize one attempting a landfall at Douglas, or anchoring in the bay, and, in bad weather from the south west, being carried on to Onchan Head.

In addition to vessels trading between the continent and the Island, there was also the Guinea, or Africa, trade to provide further scope for shipwrecks. This was a triangular trade whereby manufactured goods such as cloth, iron, guns and spirits were shipped out of Liverpool to the Guinea coast of Africa. The vessels then took on slaves who were transported to the Caribbean and the Southern states of America. Products of the plantations, such as sugar, rum, cotton and coffee, made up the cargo for the final leg of the triangle back to Liverpool. Many of these Guineamen called in at Douglas at the start of their voyage to Africa in order to take on items of cargo at cheaper prices. Spanish brandy, because of its higher strength, was in great demand from the Douglas merchants' warehouses. Over the years, some of these are known to have come to grief on the Manx coast and a fair proportion of these wrecks would have been on the rocks of Howstrake. However, that is conjecture.

The best known wreck hereabouts is the three-masted, iron built, barque Thorne of 841 tons register. She was built at Sunderland in 1878 and was owned by James Dowie and Co. of Liverpool and had sailed from there on 13th January 1890 bound for Adelaide in Australia. The Thorne carried a general cargo which included a large quantity of whisky and brandy but because of bad weather she had made no progress after a week at sea and was forced to put in to Douglas on 19th January to seek shelter in the bay. On the 23rd, in preparation for a departure, it was found that she had fouled her anchor chains and could not raise her port anchor. Because of this she was unable to sail as planned and was obliged to remain in the bay whilst the fouling was cleared.

In the early morning of 25th January, one anchor chain parted and she dragged the other. The Thorne was driven onto a reef of rocks at Onchan Head below where the Douglas Bay Hotel was to be built four years later. Both the Douglas lifeboats set out to the scene of the wreck and the Rocket Brigade made an arduous cross country journey, there were no roadways at that time beyond Derby Castle, to render assistance. All 18 persons on board were rescued by the crew of the lifeboat, the Thomas Rose.

During the following three weeks, salvage vessels and divers made attempts to refloat her but she had been badly damaged and their efforts were in vain. About half of her cargo was salvaged, and, in view of the nature of part of what still remained aboard her, Customs officers and police kept up a constant surveillance from the clifftops. The Thorne broke up in a gale on 13th February and large quantities of spirits were washed ashore near the electric tramway terminus. Riotous scenes followed and the police and the customs' officers were unable to control the drunken mobs. It was recorded in The Manx Sun that "..many were soon on their beam ends and in a glorious state of insensibility, rolling about higgledy piggledy on the cliffs, on the brows and on the shore..". A similar scenario occurs in Compton Mackenzie's novel "Whisky Galore" which is said to be based on the wreck of the SS Politician, during the 1939/45 war, on a Hebridean island.

What little remains of the Thorne occasionally appears on exceptionally low tides a little to the East of the sewer outfall below the site of the former Douglas Bay Hotel. One such tide occurred on 19th February 1992 and it was possible to walk a short way out along part of the bottom of her hull.

Ten years later, a few hundred yards East of the Thorne, a further stranding took place and this event was recorded in The Examiner. On 21st July 1900 the paddle steamer Lily, owned by Liverpool and Douglas Steamers Ltd., went aground near Onchan Harbour in dense fog. She had 628 passengers and a crew of 42 on board and was on passage from Liverpool. Although a steamship, the Lily was rigged as a schooner and had been built of steel at Birkenhead in 1880. She was reported as being of 306 tons register. The Liverpool and Douglas shipping company was formed in 1899 but made heavy losses and ceased operations in December 1902.

The location of the stranding was variously recorded to be "..in the vicinity of Onchan Harbour.."; "..high upon a shelf of rocks to the east of the Douglas Bay Hotel.."; and "..on the rocks in Onchan Bay". The Rocket Brigade fired their first rocket "..from the roadway above Onchan Harbour..". From this information it may be deduced that the Lily lay grounded on the rocks below the detached houses on Sea Cliff Road, where the figure-of-eight of the former amusement park had stood. The steamer had run onto the rocks to within a few feet of her paddle-boxes and these were undamaged. The Lily went aground at about 3.40 PM, a little after half flood, high water being at 6.30.

News of the stranding was telephoned to the harbour by Mr Marsden of the Douglas Bay Hotel and the tug Empress, and all three boats of The Douglas Ferry Company, set out to assist. Fortunately the sea was calm and many of the passengers were transferred to these vessels. The Rocket Brigade were successful in getting a line to the casualty but, although the newspapers stated that some of the passengers were taken off by breeches buoy, the deposition of the Master was that "..the life-saving apparatus came but rendered no assistance..". Similarly, although the Douglas lifeboat stood by, her services were not required. The remaining passengers managed to clamber, or were lowered, onto the rocks. These included women and some children and they were assisted up the brows by a chain of helpers. It was reported that "..many of the women...were in a fainting condition owing to the excitement..". The Examiner also recorded that "..Great praise is due to the people from the neighbourhood for the manner in which they worked in assisting the unfortunate passengers..", and "..there was an unlimited supply of brandy from the Bay Hotel".

An attempt by the Barrow company's steamer Manxman to refloat the Lily was unsuccessful. However, on the following day on a bigger tide, and with both her paddle wheels going full astern, she was refloated, without assistance, and with only minor damage.

A little to the East of Far End House on King Edward Road, beneath the junction of the coastal footpath and the highway, lies another wreck. This is the Saturnus, which was a singularly unfortunate vessel. This Dutch motor vessel was built in 1935 by N.V. Scheepwerk Derfzijl and was of 200 tons gross register. In June 1940 she was requisitioned by the British Government for use as an anti-aircraft barrage balloon vessel anchored in the Mersey estuary as a defence against German bombers in their attacks on Liverpool. In January 1941 she broke her moorings and drifted across to the Island. Douglas lifeboat was launched to assist the Saturnus on 31st January 1941 and Service Boards at the R.N.L.I. boathouse at Douglas state that the vessel was saved. There are no records of this launch in local newspapers but this may be due to wartime censorship.

On 23rd April 1941 the Saturnus left Douglas, under tow, bound for Fleetwood. Again, she broke adrift and was wrecked on the coast of Howstrake below Far End House on the King Edward Road. On 1st May 1941 she was declared a total constructive loss by the Naval Loss List.

On the 29th April 1950, the steam trawler Mary Heeley, which was owned by the Vigilant Fishing Company of Lowestoft, had to obtain medical treatment at Douglas for an injured crewman. The weather had been foggy but visibility began to improve in the evening and she left Douglas on a E.N.E. course at 11.30 P.M. A little later the trawler hit a rock, lost her propeller, and went aground.

Mr R.C. Pickford was among the first of the new residents to move to Howstrake after the war and lived at Thallooyn ny Creg on the King Edward Road. He was listening to the Mary Heeley's periodic fog signals as she steamed up the coast. Suddenly, instead of fog signals the unseen vessel was sounding an S.O.S. on her whistle. Mr Pickford telephoned both the Police and the Harbour Master at Douglas and, sighting flares in the vicinity of Far End House, he was able to indicate the position. Both the lifeboat and the Life Saving Corps set out for the casualty.

Mrs Beatrice Groves lived at Far End House on the King Edward Road and heard the crash as the vessel ran on to the rocks. Having ascertained that help was on its way, she shouted down the cliff to the crew to inform them and to keep their spirits up.

The crew of ten of the Mary Heeley were taken off by the Douglas lifeboat but the weather rapidly deteriorated and the vessel soon became a total wreck and lies near to the remains of The Saturnus.