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Wreck of the Thorne

Lifeboats and the Rocket Brigade


During the early hours of Saturday the strong south-westerly gale persisted and the Manx King, under Capt. Robert Howe, was out in Douglas Bay on service and probably concerned about the perious position in which the Thorne found herself. At around half past two, Capt. Howe sighted a blue light burning towards Onchan Head, and at about the same time the Thorne was observed to be drifting towards the north end of the bay.

The Manx King steamed at once, at best speed, to the harbour and informed both John Corkill, the Customs Officer, and Harbour Master Kelly and no time was lost in sending up the signal maroons, at nineteen minutes to three, to summon the lifeboat crews and the Rocket Brigade. Within ten minutes both the crews and the Brigade were at their stations. Douglas had two lifeboats on station at that time. The older boat had been presented by a Mrs Turner in memory of her husband.This was named the "John Turner-Turner" and was kept afloat on a mooring near the Battery Pier at Douglas, close in fact to the existing boat house. Mrs Turner also made an annual donation of twenty pounds towards the boat’s upkeep. Mrs Turner’s generosity stemmed from an incident which had taken place many years previously when the vessel on which she and her husband were travelling had been in danger on entering Douglas harbour.

The John Turner-Turner may have been approaching the end of her useful life. It was reported at the Annual Meeting of the Douglas Branch of the R.N.L.I. in 1890 that a replacement for her was expected shortly and this was to be the gift of the civil service. The number one boat was the "Thomas Rose" and had been presented by a Manchester gentleman of that name. She was kept in a boathouse on the Promenade, close to what is now the shopping arcade next to the Gaiety Theatre. This boat house appeared not to have been well thought of by the local branch who described it as an "objectionable building" and it was recalled that the site on which it stood had formerly been known as Senna City and there had been "a nice little stream and three or four cottages" in the neighbourhood. It was the custom to haul the boat from this unloved building and to launch it from the Iron Pier.

Two Iron Piers existed in 1890, one near the foot of Broadway and the other close to the Electric Railway terminus at Derby Castle, but it must be assumed that the one at Broadway was the launch site. Anyone who has seen the sea breaking over the sea wall near Derby Castle in a southerly gale will appreciate the difficulty of launching there in bad weather.

The Iron Pier near Derby Castle was in fact carried away by gales in 1893. The Iron Pier at Broadway, however, even in a gale from the south-west, would have been relatively sheltered being in the lee of Douglas Head. The pier consisted of cast iron stanchions, set in pairs, which supported the decking above. Exactly how the life boat was launched and recovered is not known, but it is probable that davits may have been permanently installed on the pier for this purpose.

It was from the north side of the pier that the Thomas Rose was launched on that January morning. Like other lifeboats of her time, Thomas Rose was both a pulling and a sailing boat and in addition to oars had a dipping lug sail together with a headsail and small mizzen sail. In the conditions she would probably have set just a headsail to give drive and the mizzen to steady her. It is reported that she was under way within half an hour of the maroons being fired.

She carried a crew of twelve - John Kelly, coxswain, J. McDowell, Charles Kewin, Robert Leece, R Corrin, Nicholas Cunningham, David Fargher, John Canopa, John Hay, George Green, Robert Nicholl and George Kelly. In the meantime, the number two boat, the John Turner-Turner, under the command of her coxswain, Frank McAlarney, was leaving her mooring near the breakwater.

Meanwhile, the Rocket Brigade, with their life-saving equipment carried in a cart, had set off along the promenade within fifteen minutes of the summons. Captain Quayle and his team were assisted by a large crowd of energetic young men and the cart and its gear was pulled along at a good speed in spite of a heavy layer of mud which made the going difficult. The promenades came to an end at Derby Castle and the road to Port Jack, and the King Edward Road, did not exist at the time.

The Brigade turned up Burnt Mill Hill, or Summerhill as it is now called, but this was covered in even thicker mud and the utmost exertion was required from the team to manhandle the cart up this steep incline. At the top they turned right into Strathallan Road and followed this to its end near the present St. Anthony’s Church. From here there were only footpaths and fields. Their gear was off-loaded from the cart and they made their way, precariously, through the night, along the narrow path on the clifftop above the creek of Port-e-Vada, which was later filled in and now houses the electric railway depot.

The Brigade struggled on, over fields and hedges, and across the boggy ground above Port Jack. Finally, at half past four, they arrived at the cliff top, opposite to where the Douglas Bay Hotel was built four years later. An hour and forty minutes had gone by since they had started on their long and difficult journey and their effort was, in the event, to prove to be of no avail. The Thomas Rose set off across the bay towards Onchan Head. Once clear of the beach she felt the full force of the gale and as she approached Onchan Head the sea state steadily worsened. Shortly after three o’clock the Thomas Rose sighted the Thorne lying with her stern towards the land, on a reef of rocks a little way along the coast from Port Jack.

Although heavy seas were sweeping over her the barque lay comparatively motionless. The lifeboat hailed her but obtained no reply and there were no signs of life aboard. Eventually the Thomas Rose turned to make her way back across the bay. As she did so, her crew saw a faint light towards the shore and made in its direction. They came across the Thorne’s lifeboat with the crew of sixteen and both passengers, striking matches in an attempt to attract the attention of the Thomas Rose. The boat lay about two hundred yards off the rocks.

The Thomas Rose experienced great difficulty in approaching the ship’s boat and was in danger of herself being carried on to the rocks. John Kelly, the coxswain, ordered the anchor to be laid and the survivors of the wreck, by frantic efforts, managed to row to the Thomas Rose and to transfer to her. Both the wind and the sea were increasing in severity and Capt. Kelly, the superintendent coxswain in Douglas, ordered Mr John Bell’s steam tug, the Manx King, to assist and at last the lifeboat, now containing some thirty persons, was taken in tow and safely landed at Douglas harbour.

The number two boat, the John Turner-Turner, because of the longer distance involved, had covered three-quarters of the way to the Thorne, when she met the Manx King with the Thomas Rose safely in tow and her services were not required. It may be recalled that the Thorne’s life boat had been lost on the previous Wednesday. Had it not been recovered the story might well have had a very different ending, as with their boat available, the crew of the barque were able to abandon her in a group and to row out to the anchored Thomas Rose.

When the Rocket Brigade arrived at the clifftop overlooking the Thorne, they found a large crowd of onlookers assembled but none could say with any certainty whether her crew had left the wreck or whether the Thomas Rose had taken any survivors aboard. Capt. Quayle had no choice but to assume the worst. He fired his rocket with the line attached to enable a hawser to be got to the wreck and to which a breeches’ buoy could be rigged to transfer those remaining aboard to the shore. With fine precision, the line was fired between the masts of the casualty but it soon became clear that no crew remained on board. What effort could have been saved if the means of communication which now exist had been available at that time!