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The Ilfracombe Disaster - North Devon Journal



The terribly sad and fatal accident occurred at Ilfracombe on Friday afternoon last (26 August 1887), The Monarch, a yacht of 10 tons the property of Mr. Rumson, went out for a two hours' sail, as is usual with her during the summer months. The passengers numbered 24, with two boatmen Capt. Rumson and Chas. Buckingham.

All went well till the yacht got off Seven Hills opposite the Tunnels Bathing Beaches. The sea was calm but the wind was "puffy", and the yacht was sailing splendidly with two reels in the mainsail. A puff of wind came from the land, the boat reeled, and a boathook rolled off the deck. Buckingham suggested that the boat be turned back to pick up the hook and the captain thereupon turned the yacht and she tacked back. In one of the tacks, however, it seems that a puff of wind came from the westward with such force that the boat keeled over and shipped water at the stern. At the same time the occupants tumbled to one side, and the boat not recovering herself, she filled and sank stern first in an incredibly short time, leaving the 26 persons in the water.

The accident was seen by several persons on the Torrs, at the bathing Beaches, and on the Beach and Capsone, and they say the screams and shrieks of the unfortunate people were heart rending. The Loma Doone, a yacht was sailing near the Monarch, and 2 or 3 groups of sailing boats were also in the neighbourhood, and they put off to the scene of the wreck as soon as possible, and rescued altogether 14 persons, 5 being taken in a boat to the Tunnels.

Mr. Price Junior, at the Tunnels Bathing Beaches, saw the yacht go over, and he at once fetched his father, whilst some bathers launched the boat. Mr. Price and his son, with much pluck and all speed, put out in the boat and succeeded in rescuing 5, amongst them a lady. On returning, Messrs Best and Copner, surgeons, were present to aid, and the vicar of the parish the Rev R Martin was also present. Every effort was made to restore animation, but it was proved unsuccessful in the case of Mr. Wareham, merchant, of London, who, with his wife, was visiting at Castle House; and also in the case of Miss Annie Ash, of Bond St. London, who exhibited signs of life for a considerable time after she was brought ashore.

When the news spread, hundreds of persons ran to the pier and Capstone, and watched the boats as they passed up with the rescued. The scene at the pier was a sad one. Several who were brought in were quite helpless, if not dead, and they were taken up the steps on stretchers, or on the shoulders of stalwart men. The clothes, in many instances, had been pulled off by the boatmen in view of restoring animation, and several were brought in stripped. Many visitors were in a state of great anxiety, not knowing if their friends had gone on board and if so they were amongst the lost. Several sad scenes occurred as the boats were emptied and no tidings could be given of the remainder except that they had sunk.

One little girl, Lily Hartnoll, staying with her relatives in Ilfracombe, was brought up the pier steps with her clothes dishevelled and her hair wet. She had gone out under the care of Buckingham who had been drowned, but, by great presence of mind, she kept her hands under the water and was rescued before much harm was done. She was put into a pony carriage and drove away with her grandfather, who was somewhat excited, running behind.

Several of the ladies were apparently lifeless when brought ashore. They were taken to the Pier Hotel and The White Hart, and doctors King and Gardner, and several medical men, visitors, with Messrs Barrett and Tamlyn, schoolmasters, went to work to restore animation. In one case, that of Mr. G Turner, of Bath, a medical coil was used for over an hour and ether was injected into the arm, but life could not be recalled although the body remained warm for an unusually long time.

At the Tunnels, Messrs. Toiler, Best and Copner worked hard endeavouring to resuscitate the bodies, and although in one case, they did not cease labour for over two hours, their efforts proved unsuccessful. The greatest excitement prevailed, as it was known that there was still hope of recovery, or that some were dead. Amongst the rescued were several good swimmers but it appears that the strongest swimmers had hard work to keep afloat, the waves being so rough with the squalls.

A committee has been formed to collect subscriptions for the widow and family of the deceased boatman, Buckingham. Mr Derbyshire is treasurer of the committee, Mr Maule, chairman, and the Rev M Shaw, secretary. Nearly 100 has already been subscribed and the children will also get some support from the Sailor's Society, of which the deceased was a member. There are nine children, three being under 14 years of age.

Great sympathy has been expressed on all hands for the friends of the dead. All the bodies have been taken to their own towns, except Miss Ash, which was buried in the Ilfracombe cemetery on Wednesday. Some persons are blaming the boatman, the boat, and the jury, but without any cause. The yacht had gone across the channel to Swansea and other places dozens of times in rough weather, and was as safe and well framed a yacht as could be got. The two men in charge were the most experienced. The captain Rumson has had charge of the boat for five years, and prior to that had charge of large vessels, and holds a certificate of capacity such as is held probably by no other master of a yacht in North Devon. Buckingham, who drowned had been a seaman all of his life, and had served long periods on board Her Majesty's ships. A more competent crew could not have been found in the whole county, knowing as they did every inch of the coast. The jury were men of intelligence and position, and the foreman an old master mariner, and their verdict was not only in accordance with evidence, but was reasonable and fair in every way, and considerable latitude was allowed to all who were rescued to examine the witnesses to elicit the truth and the whole truth. Those who are dissatisfied will have further opportunities of bringing any further evidence that they might have.

The following letter appeared in the Times from Mr. J.V. Durrell, Waverley Hotel, Ilfracombe :-

"Sir, My son and daughter and myself were in the pleasure yacht Lorna Doone which went to the Monarch's rescue, and picked up one of her crew. From the account this man gave us there can be little doubt that the cause was that which has been so fruitful of similar disasters to pleasure boats, viz, making fast the mainsail sheet instead of holding it, or tying it so that it can be instantly released if required. While the men were attempting to recover a boathook which had been washed overboard a sudden squall caught the boat, threw her on her side and all the occupants into the water, and, being of very light build, she was unable to right herself from the above cause, but instantly filled and sank. Whether the men were justified, under the most favourable circumstances, in taking out such a large pleasure party will be a matter for inquiry. We had intended to go aboard the Monarch but noticing her crowded condition we turned away thus providentially saved. But the competition between these two boats for custom has been extremely keen this season, and the time of their harvest is short moreover, these boatmen are not more to blame than the managers of the steam boats which ply here, and which repeatedly carry numbers largely in excess of their licence, and will probably continue to err in this way till some startling calamity cause public attention to their systematic defiance of the rules."

The Standard, commenting on the disaster, said :

The experienced boatmen who had charge of the Monarch were well used to navigating their vessel, with a full complement of more or less uncomfortable pleasure seekers, on a gusty day. But the loss of a boathook was an unusual event, and hurried them a little. In their anxiety to recover it they hastened to "jibe" their boat instead of adopting the safer course of sailing round into the wind. Jibing is also rather a ticklish operation, as every yachtsman knows, since there comes a moment in it when the sail is suddenly exposed to the whole force of the wind and the tackles to a serious strain. There is no danger if the masts and rigging is sound, if the boat is still and well ballasted, and if the wind is moderate. But when any of these conditions are absent there is always a risk, which a careful sailor will take care to avoid, of wrecking the sails, springing the mast, or capsizing the boat. It would be unfair to suggest, with the results of the coroner's inquest before us that the chances of any out of these misfortunes happening was so great as to have made it unjustifiable for the Monarch's crew to jibe but it is allowable to suppose that, but for the accident to the boathook they would have hardly run the risk, slight as it may have seemed. For the rest, there appears no reason to accuse anyone of undue negligence.

The Telegraph remarked :-

We are certainly inclined to say looking at the loss of the Monarch these fourteen precious lives that there were points of precaution for the future that the Ilfracombe jury failed to note. The first is that two hands are not enough for a boat of ten tons allowed to carry as many as thirty to forty people. There should have been a third hand to brail the mainsail, or to tend the mainsheet, while one of his two mates steered, and the other looked to the headsails. Next, it is distinctly dangerous, however common, to carry stones, or bags of shingle, or iron for ballast. These are, of course, more convenient, and lie more snugly than water ballast in casks or compartments, but when the craft fills her own ballast drowns her, whereas water instantly counts for nothing. To tell the truth, every large open passenger boat of this class aught to have air chambers sufficient to ensure the floatation of her hull when capsized, as well as a mainsail rigged so as to be at need instantly brailed or "scandalized," and a dingy towing aft. The only further recommendations which experience could offer would be the old and ever-neglected one, that the fittings of such vessels such as benches, gratings, fenders, cushions should be all easily detachable and constructed of material affording great buoyancy. Without carrying a lot of lifebelts the very sight of which would of course keep holiday sailors out of the Lively Polly, or the Star of the Sea our coast boatmen could easily render half the gear of their yacht's life saving.

The Observer :

The yachting accident in the Bristol Channel, says the Observer is a painful occurrence, but it belongs to a class of accidents that are almost inevitable if the boatmen will persist in "jibing" their craft in strong winds or squally weather. In this case the men had dropped a boathook. They tried to turn their boat back to pick it up, but apparently instead of going round on the wind they went round off the wind, at all times a risky business. They were at the critical moment when their sails were as full as they could be caught by a strong puff and capsized. Bad management, combined with lack of caution, therefore, account for this catastrophe. There is only one smacks man we know of on our coast who can "jibe" his boat with comparative impunity, and that is the Thames trawler or "bawley man". His ingenious modification of the cutter rig allows him to crumple up his mainsail almost in a moment; in fact, if he lets go of his mainsail with one hand he can by one haul on his brailing tackle demoralise his mainsail with the other. If he does this at the "Psychological moment" of "jibing" the operation is unattended with danger.


Linked toWilliam Wareham

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