The Wreck of the Steamship Pegasus
There was a scene of great animation at Leith Quay near Edinburgh on the afternoon of Wednesday, 19th July 1843. Captain Alexander Miller of Leith, in his frock coat uniform, surveyed the bustle from his bridge between the paddle boxes of SS Pegasus, a paddle steamer of the Hull and Leith Steam Packet Company. Pegasus (length 132 feet 4 inches, beam 18 feet 5½ inches, and depth in hold 11 feet 1 inch) was in all respects a sound modern vessel. She had been carvel built of oak, elm and red pine, with a square stern, at the Clyde yard of Tod and Macgregor (No.9 Mavisbank) and registered in the Port of Glasgow on 13th December, 1835. She was schooner rigged with sails and her smoke stack rose from her one-and-a-quarter decks. She had recently (1840) had a new deck, and boasted a magnificent winged-horse Pegasus figurehead.1
Second Mate Thomas Miller, the Captain’s brother, was in charge on the quayside. Carriages milled around, carts unloaded barrels, sacks and cargo crates - all to be checked on the Bill of Lading. Portmanteaux, trunks, hat boxes and all the paraphernalia of a Victorian sea voyage were trundled up the gangplank by sweating porters. Steward George Parker and Stewardess Miss Lousia Howard of Hull showed cabin and steerage passengers to their accommodation.
In the engine room (on the deck), fireman William Knaresborough and coal trimmer Duncan Campbell worked hard under second engineer Alexander Agnew of Glasgow, “a very stout man”. George Taylor, the ship’s carpenter, helped them coal the boiler.
First Mate William Brown, a Leith man, supervised all this pre-voyage activity assisted by apprentice lad jack-of-all-trades Andrew Dowie of Kinross. At last, Chief Engineer William Hood reported to the Captain that the vessel had a full head of steam.
The last passengers came on board. The theatrical gentleman in wide-brimmed slouch hat, caped coaching coat and peg-topped check trousers, cut a very fine figure twirling his cane. William Elton (born 1794), fresh from his success at the Adelphi Theatre, Edinburgh, enjoyed a national reputation as “...an admirable actor ... hailed as a modern Garrick”.
The religious gentleman, stuffing sermon notes into his waistcoat pocket, was the Revd. J.M. Mackenzie (1806-1843) of the Theological College, Glasgow - “a man of Talent and piety and Editor of the Congregational Magazine”. He was on his way to Bedford, where his parents lived and where he was to preach the following Sunday. His wife and family had been left behind in Portobello.
Well wrapped up against the sea air was Mr Torry “... an English gentleman of weak mind who had been in Scotland for the benefit of his health”. He was the brother of the proprietor of the Hull to New Holland ferry and was being cared for by Charles Bailey who had been employed as a ferryman. Before this, Bailey had been a seaman, claiming (somewhat imaginatively), in a later autobiographical pamphlet, to have considerable nautical experience.
Among other cabin class passengers booked through to Hull were Mrs Edgington of Edinburgh, Mr and Mrs McLeod, Mr Eliot from Dundee and his son, and a Mrs Stewart travelling with David Scott (aged twelve). Steerage passengers included several respectable, but impecunious young men: James Hunter, son of an Edinburgh ironmonger, D. Whimster travelling to Sheffield to receive his licence as a Methodist preacher, and James Martin (Great Russell Street, London), possibly with his son. George Aird, only son of Mr Aird, grocer, of Hanover Street, Edinburgh, was on his way to London for “business experience”. The bright uniforms of some troops of the 56th Regiment added colour to the scene. Young Susan Alien, a soldier’s daughter, was on her way to join her father at his post.2
Many eyes were on pretty twenty-seven year old Maria Barton, daughter of Dr. Zephaniah Barton (1780-1854) and his wife Jane (1785-1865). Dr Barton was for many years a medical practitioner in Market Rasen and was the family doctor of the Tennyson (later d’Eyncourt) family. Four of Dr. Barton’s children died young in tragic circumstances. Miss Barton diligently chaperoned her three excited charges: Field Flowers, a lively, intelligent lad of thirteen, his pretty eleven year old sister Fanny, and a young girl, age unknown, whose surname was Hopetoun. The two little girls were pupils at Miss Banks’ Boarding School, 45 Moray Place, Edinburgh. Maria Barton was bringing them home to Lincolnshire for the school summer holidays. Young Field Flowers travelled for the sea voyage - in 1843 not many lads had been on a steamship. He would have a tale to tell his school fellows.
Fanny and her brother were the children of the Revd. Field Flowers (1805-1877), vicar of Tealby and Legsby for forty-two years of his life. He came to the beautiful Lincolnshire village with his wife in 183805, having been appointed to the living by George Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson’s grandfather. Old George Tennyson died in July 1835, leaving his Tealby estates and Bayons Manor to Charles, his favourite son, who immediately took the “Frenchified name” d’Eyncourt. He then set about remodelling Bayons to be a sixty-bedroomed castellated Romantic Gothic mansion as a fitting seat for the peer he was never to become. Revd. Field Flowers and The Rt. Hon. Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt MP (1784-1861) often clashed, although they shared many radical, political and social ideas. Revd. Field Flowers was frequently something of a thorn in d’Eyncourt’s side.4
It was sailing time. Excitement mounted. Young Field Flowers proudly consulted the fine silver pocket watch his father had given him. It was just after six. Captain Miller gave the order to seamen George Brown and Robert Melville, both of Leith. Bow and stern lines were cast off, engine went slow ahead, and the SS Pegasus slipped her mooring with eighteen cabin, twenty-three steerage passengers and a crew of sixteen. It was a lovely summer’s evening - perfect weather with light winds and good visibility. Six hours later fifty-one of the fifty-seven souls on board had perished - only six survived.
In the gallery, cook Robert Marshall of Leith prepared dinner to be served in the dining saloon. Mate William Brown stood watch as the Pegasus glided down the Firth of Forth in perfect weather. Captain Miller entertained cabin guests at his table. Mr. Elton amused the company with theatrical stories. Miss Barton was enchanting; Revd. J. McKenzie not unduly solemn.
By eight o’clock, passengers and crew were settled into shipboard routine. Fanny and Field Flowers and the other children on board were persuaded that it was time for bed after an exciting day. Mate Brown came off watch at eight and went to his cabin to sleep, whilst the Captain and the second mate, his brother, kept watch on the bridge. At about ten thirty, the lights of Berwick-on-Tweed twinkled on the starboard side as the dull thud of the paddles drove the vessel south toward the Fame Islands.
These islands lie to the south of Berwick and close to Holy Island: They number about fifteen to twenty-eight in two groups (Inner and Outer Fames) depending on the state of the tide. The jagged rocks and fast-running tides make the area one of dread for unwary navigators. It was on Great Harcar in the Outer Fames that the Hull steamship Forfarshire, having blown a boiler, was wrecked in a terrible gale in 1838. Grace Horsley Darling (1816-1842), aged twenty-two, rowed herself into immortality in this incident.5
The Fames run south-west - north-east across the track of any vessel navigating north or south along the Northumberland coast - rather like a fishing net set to catch the imprudent.
A ship’s captain heading south has two options. He can leave the Fame Island to starboard, i.e. pass them on the east side. By giving the Longstone Light a berth of more than a mile, a vessel will be clear. Or he can take the Inner passage, leaving the Goldstone Rock, north of the Fames, to port, and pass between it and the Plough Rock, near Holy Island. Captain Miller chose this option.6
About twenty minutes past midnight, SS Pegasus struck the Goldstone Rock, in position 55° 40’02 N 001° 43’35 W. The vessel had left the Goldstone buoy to starboard instead of to port and had impaled her bow on the jagged rock. It was about watch-change time, and Captain Miller was on the bridge with the helmsman Robert Melville and the look-out. Mate Brown was quickly out of his cabin and by his side. They decided to back the ship off and make for the shore of Holy Island just over a mile away.
Engineer Hood reversed the engines when he received the order. The turmoil caused by the reversing paddles upset the starboard lifeboat, which had been launched without the authority of the captain, throwing nine passengers into the sea.
The order was given for the vessel to be steered towards the shore - a tantalisingly short distance away. Before she had gone more than a few hundred yards she went down by the head, shortly after one a.m. The water, flooding into the vessel, had extinguished the boiler fires.
Charles Bailey (born April 1804 in Selby) was one of the two non-crew members to survive. He lived to tell the tale in a pamphlet7 out of which he made a considerable profit, for such was the public interest in the disaster that a first edition of 1,000 copies out in Hull in a matter of days. (This reflected the similar widespread morbid Victorian curiosity engendered by the earlier SS Forfarshire/Grace Darling incident)
Shortly after eleven, Bailey, one of the last passengers on deck, had been with the Captain who was “quite sober” (sic). Mr Torry was sleeping in his cabin. Bailey took a last look around and went below where he was resting “on a sofa” when the vessel struck. He rushed on deck and ascertained that the Pegasus had struck a rock. Having got Mr. Torry dressed; he managed to put him in the starboard lifeboat and leapt in after him. The boat had about a dozen people in it. As the Engine was put ahead, the violent backwash upset the boat “throwing out a female first - the only one in the boat”. His charge, Mr. Torry, having been torn from his grasp; Bailey managed to cling to the rudder chain and was hauled back on board by the mate. The port lifeboat, which was larger and contained about eighteen people, suffered the same fate. Only two of these escaped “...two sailor-passengers climbing up the stern tackle”. The mate ordered the stewardess to fetch “blue distress lights and a rocket - the former were burnt and the latter fired - but no one came”.
As the Pegasus went down, Bailey reported:
“I saw the Revd. J.M. Mackenzie, with his head raised towards heaven, his arm uplifted, and a dosed book in his hand surrounded by a number of passengers on their knees. Although all were engaged in prayer, I distinctly heard Mr. Mackenzie’s voice above the rest. I was struck with his cool and collected
Just before he entered the sea, Bailey witnessed another touching sight:
“One the opposite side of the companion (way), was seated a lady; calmly and prayerfully resigning herself to God. There were two children at her side, unconscious of their danger and in cheerful conversation...”
Was this pathetic little group Miss Barton and the Flowers children?
By this time the water had reached the quarter deck and Bailey saw Captain Miller, “with both hands in his pockets”, and the Mate standing on the starboard paddle-box. They disappeared beneath the advancing water “... neither attempting to save himself nor anyone else”.
Before leaping into the sea, he gave a last farewell look and saw Revd. J.M. MacKenzie and his flock, “the water just about touching them”. A female and the engineer had climbed into the main mast rigging.
The “last moment” had arrived. The naked Bailey leapt into the water, intending to swim the two miles to Holy Island...
“... suddenly I was laid hold on by, 1 believe the stewardess [Miss Louisa Howard], crying out for the Lord to have mercy on her soul, the grasp was so firm that I could not swim; and we both sank together to a considerable depth, and was only released but by her drowning...”
The night was dear and the water still and Bailey could “perceive a great number of persons struggling in the water ... their cries and groans most awful and inexpressible”.
About half past three in the morning a steamer [The Duke of Wellington] passed two miles away and a fishing boat. The look-outs saw nothing.
Between three and five, Bailey floated about on a piece of wood about “two and a half feet square”. He was near to, but unable to help,”... a little boy, about twelve years of age, about seventy or eighty yards off... on a skylight crying to me for help...” This was probably David Scott. The lad survived until within half an hour of the SS Martello coming to the rescue. His body “was warm when picked up...”
The iron screw-driven steamship SS Martello belonged to the same company as SS Pegasus. She was commanded by Captain Blackwood and was bound for Leith on her scheduled run. The exhausted Bailey watched anxiously as the Martello’s boats ferried to and fro, obviously picking remains from the wreck. Having waved frantically “with a stick”, he was at last hauled on board the steamer stiff with cold and unable to speak.
Also rescued were mate William Brown, engineer William Hood, and coaltrimmer/fireman Duncan Campbell. The ship’s carpenter, George Taylor, was rescued clinging to the topmast with Robert Hildyard, son of a Beverley Minster clergyman. Hildyard eventually made a report which substantiated what Bailey had said. He described the woman climbing the rigging as the Pegasus sank “... she must have gone down with the vessel for I never saw her again”.
Captain Blackwood and his crew picked up six bodies “... three of them female. One appeared a middle-aged married woman, apparently pregnant... attired in a dark gingham dress. Another was a Miss Barton who had in her arms when found a child a few years old...” who this child was remains a mystery. The body of her charge, young Field Flowers, was picked up more than three weeks later by some French fishermen “whose behaviour on the occasion would have done honour to any country. Several letters from his parents, a silver watch, and other articles were found on his person untouched”.
The body of Revd. MacKenzie was found floating immediately over the wreck on 7th August. “His clothes were all on except his hat and shoes ... his purse was in his pocket and two slips of paper apparently containing notes of sermons in short-hand...”
For weeks after the wreck, bodies and various items were washed up along the Northumbrian shore including a carpet bag containing Revd. MacKenzie’s religious books, Mr. Elton’s wardrobe, several packets and parcels, and a soldier’s greatcoat.
Some three weeks later the grisly remains of William Milne of Edinburgh and Captain Miller were found. An inquest was held in Berwick-on-Tweed. Thomas Cormack, skipper of the Eyemouth fishing boat, Alert, gave evidence that about a mile north of Emmanuel head [Holy Island]:
“we saw the body of a man floating ... we put up the helm and made preparations for taking it up ... It had on it grey check trousers and a black silk waistcoat... the name upon the linen was William Milne.”
The inquest heard further macabre details that:
“the face was much disfigured and the tongue much swollen ... and those parts of the body which were unprotected by the clothes were torn ... as if by fish...”
After much deliberation, the result of the inquest was that William Milne and [Captain] Alexander Miller had died “accidental death occasioned by the gross carelessness of the master and those on look out”.
Charles Bailey, whilst sanctimoniously stating that “It is my duty to tread lightly on the ashes of the dead” expressed the view that the captain had been “un-seamanlike to tell a passenger when both boats were sunk and gone ‘they must do the best they could for themselves’ and concluded that, when the vessel struck, “his mind was also struck of (sic) its balance...”1
Attempts by the Hull and Leith Steam Packet Company to raise the wreck of the Pegasus were soon abandoned. All that remains of the tragic disaster is a tombstone memorial to Maria Barton in Market Rasen Churchyard and another to the Flowers children outside the west door of Lindisfarne Priory, both sadly flaking away.
The twenty-second, and last, stanza of a poem entitled “The Wreck of the Pegasus’, by F.W.N. Bayley, published in the Illustrated London News, 29th July, 1843, reveals much of Victorian attitudes to what Arthur Credland, Keeper of Maritime History in Hull calls: ‘a very sorry affair...’
A memory for the perish’d ship!
A love-thought for the drown’d!
A prayer to God for all who sunk
Into the sea profound!
And in the great bark of the world
May those who stride the deck,
Be ever warn’d of such a fate.
And armed for such a wreck!
wishes to thank the staffs of the reference and Local History Sections of
Edinburgh, Grimsby, Hull, Lincoln and Nottingham Public Libraries for
invaluable help and advice; also Hull City Record Office, The Mitchell Library,
Glasgow, Strathclyde Regional
Office and Lincolnshire
Archives Office. Particular thanks are due to the Revd. Canon David Adam, Vicar
of Holy Island
and Mr Arthur Credland,
Keeper of Maritime History, Town Docks Museum, Hull. Practical help was given by Mr Roy Clements.
1. For details of SS Pegasus see Lloyds Register of Shipping 1843/1844.
2. Main sources for crew, passengers, and wreck of Pegasus are reports in: The Times, The Scotsman, Hull News, Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Hull and General Advertiser, and the Illustrated London News, 21st July, 1843 and 11th September, 1843, inter alia.
3. Barton family memorial Market Rasen Parish Churchyard.
4. See Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1870. For Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt see Sir Charles Tennyson and Hope Dyson, The Tennysons, Background to Genius, London (1974) and Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, Oxford (1983).
5. R. Armstrong, Grace Darling, Maid and Myth, London (1965).
6. Admiralty Charts Nos. Ill and 1192.
7. Charles Bailey, A Narrative of the Life of Charles Bailey, one of the surviving passengers of the SS Pegasus, Hull (1843).
8. This tragic vignette inspired The Last Prayer, pamphlet No. 528, published by the Religious Tract Society, London (1843).
9. His tombstone can be seen in Bamburgh Churchyard, Northumberland. A memorial (badly eroded) to the two Flowers children stands just outside the west door of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island.
10. Not only did Bailey set himself up as judge in the case, but subsequently allied himself with Alexander Carte (died 1853), inventor of life-saving rockets, and the work lifebelt approved by the Board of Ordnance. Bailey seems to have made a good living out of his Pegasus experience.