1848 Sligo emigration sailing disaster

NOTE – there is a certain graphic nature to this report of a tragedy at sea, as reproduced from a contemporary Irish newspaper. Some people may find it distressing. Please be warned.


A dreadful loss of life happened on board the steamer Londonderry, on her voyage from Sligo to Liverpool, last Saturday, (December 2). The stories given by the Irish papers were at first absurdly discrepant, both as to the cause and the extent of the calamity. The following account from the Belfast News Letter, appears most truthful:-

The steamer Londonderry, Captain Johnston, one of the vessels belonging to the North-west of Ireland Steam-packet Company, and at present plying between Sligo and Liverpool, left Sligo at four o’clock on Friday evening for the latter port, with a general cargo, a large number of cattle and sheep, about 190 steerage passengers, emigrants on their way via Liverpool to America, and two or three cabin passengers. As she proceeded on her voyage the weather became exceedingly foul, and after midnight the wind rose to a perfect gale. About one o’clock that night, or rather Saturday morning, it was deemed expedient to put the steerage passengers below and the order was executed, not, we understand, without some resistance on the part of many of them. Most of our readers are probably acquainted with the dimensions of a steerage cabin of an ordinary steamer – a compartment rarely more than eighteen feet long by ten or twelve in width, and in height about seven feet. Into this space, ventilated only by one opening—the companion—150 human beings, as we have been informed, were packed together. We can only guess at the necessity which gave occasion for this apparently inhuman, and, alas fatal order; but it is reasonable to suppose that there was an apprehension lest some of the unfortunate passengers might have been washed overboard had they remained on deck, as the sea was at the time breaking over the vessel. The steerage being thus occupied, it was next, as alleged, feared lest the water should get admission through the companion : and this, the only vent by which air could be admitted to the sufferers below, was closed, and a tarpaulin nailed over it, thus hermetically sealing the aperture, and preventing the possibility of any renewal of the exhausted atmosphere. The steamer went on her way, gallantly braving the winds and waves, unconscious of the awful work which death was meanwhile doing within her. In the darkness and heat and loathsomeness of their airless prison, its wretched inmates shrieked for aid ! and there were none to hear their cries amid the boisterousness of the storm, or if they were heard, none sagacious enough to interpret the dreadful meaning they meant to convey. At length one man, the last, it is said, who had been put down, contrived to effect an opening through the tarpaulin of the companion, and pushing himself out, communicated to the mate that the people in the steerage were dying for want of air. The mate instantly became alarmed, and obtaining a lantern, went down to render assistance. Such, however, was the foul state of the air in the cabin, that the light was immediately extinguished. A second was obtained, and it too was extinguished. At length the tarpaulin was completely removed and a free access of air admitted. When the crew went below, they were appalled by the discovery that the floor was covered with dead bodies to the depth of some feet. Men, women, and children were huddled together, blackened with suffocation, distorted by convulsion, bruised and bleeding from the desperate struggle for existence which preceded the moment when exhausted nature resigned the strife. After some time the living were separated from the dead; and it was then found that the latter amounted to nearly one half of the entire number. Seventy-two dead bodies of men, women, and children, lay piled indiscriminately over each other, four deep, all presenting the ghastly appearance of persons who had died in the agonies of suffocation; very many of them were covered with the blood which had gushed from the mouth and nose, or had flowed from the wounds inflicted by the nail studded brogues, and by the frantic violence of those who struggled for escape. It was evident in the struggle the poor creatures had torn the clothes from off each other’s backs, and even the flesh from each other’s limbs. Nearly all the steerage passengers were poor farmers from the neighbourhood of Sligo and Ballina, with their families; and many of the dead were nearly naked, from poverty.

The Londonderry put into Lough Foyle at ten o’clock on Saturday night, but for some reason with which we are not yet acquainted, she did not come up to the quay of Derry until ten o’clock on the following (Sunday) morning. The authorities hastened to the spot, and gave orders for the arrest of the captain and all his crew, and they were accordingly removed to prison under a military escort. An inquest was held on one of the bodies on Monday; and the Jury returned the following verdict— “We find that death was caused by suffocation, in consequence of the gross negligence and total want of the usual and necessary caution on the part of the captain, Alexander Johnston, Richard Hughes, first mate, and Ninian Crawford, second mate; and we therefore find them guilty of manslaughter and we further consider it our duty to express in the strongest terms our abhorrence of the inhuman conduct of the remainder of the seamen on board on the melancholy occasion; and the Jury beg to call the attention of proprietors of steam boats to the urgent necessity of introducing some more effectual mode of ventilation in the steerage, and also of affording better accommodation to the poorer class of passengers.”


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