The Last Voyage of the schooner Saint Austell

The last Friday of each month I try to source a contribution from a guest writer.  This month, David Carroll gives another slice of his early life growing up in Dunmore East concerning the shipwrecked Saint Austell.  It's a wonderfully researched account of a different age. I always enjoy reading his personal memories of the village and in this piece, a fascinating trip to the Hook via a crumbling New Ross bridge. The account of the Saint Austell, and particularly its skipper itself is quite bizarre. I'm sure you will love it. 

Recently, Michael Farrell, Chairperson of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society, kindly presented me with a copy of the ‘The Story of the Dunmore East Lifeboats’. He knew it would be of great interest to me, having lived at the harbour in Dunmore from 1947 until leaving for Dublin in 1969. A description of one rescue from 1952 particularly interested me:

“When the schooner “Saint Austell” of Howth, caught fire, 4 miles east of Hook Lighthouse, early on the morning of April 14 1952, her crew of two were forced to jump overboard. The “Annie Blanche Smith” slipped her moorings at 7-45a.m. and a fishing boat, also put to sea from Slade. Her crew rescued the two men, who by that time had been in the water for about an hour and they were both suffering from shock and exposure. The lifeboat-men passed a bottle of rum across for the rescued men and they escorted the fishing boat back to Slade, before returning to her Station at 10-15a.m.”

I was fascinated by this account as I could still recall seeing the shipwreck of a schooner about three miles from Hook Head, when I was about eight years old circa 1955. Was it the same ship? Not too many schooners remained to be shipwrecked, even in the 1950s. I contacted Andrew Doherty from Waterford Harbour Tide ‘n’ Tales, as I knew he would be an excellent source of information and he immediately sent me an extract from John Power’s ‘A Maritime History of County Wexford’ and I was now certain that this was the same vessel and with my appetite whetted for information, further investigation was required.

Incidentally, that road trip to the Hook around 1955 was an eventful one. Living in Dunmore East, we were only about three miles from Hook Head across the entrance to Waterford Harbour but to reach it by land involved a journey of over fifty miles each way. We looked across each day to the Hook to see what fishing boats or yachts were out to sea heading towards Dunmore and ships heading up the harbour to the ports of Waterford or New Ross

At night, we would watch the Hook light flashing away keeping all shipping safe. The tower looked massive compared to our small lighthouse in Dunmore. My father had long promised to visit the Hook by car and eventually the big day arrived. I can remember our car well. It was a black Morris Minor and the registration number was WI 2656. There was no car-ferry at Passage at that time so a car had to travel to New Ross to cross the river Barrow and then drive down the other side of the estuary by Duncannon to reach the Hook. The bridge in those days at New Ross was not for the faint–hearted. Barrels were placed all along the bridge to slow cars down to a snail’s pace as they zigzagged across the very unsafe looking structure. By the time President Kennedy arrived in 1963, a new modern bridge had been erected.
A lady crossing New Ross bridge, note 5mph speed limit
Courtesy of Myles Courtney. New Ross Street Focus 

A guard to ensure the speed limit on New Ross bridge
Courtesy of Myles Courtney. New Ross Street Focus 
My father, from his navy days, knew William Hamilton, one of the keepers at the Hook and he brought us to the top of the tower and were able to look back across at Dunmore, which was a great thrill. On our way home, we stopped a few miles from Slade to look for a wreck of a schooner that my father wanted to see. I now know that this was Sandeel Bay. The wreck was a bit disappointing; it was just a ‘black blob’ on the rocks. I had a much more romantic vision of wrecked sailing ships, probably from reading books where the masts were still standing and the seas crashed in over the bow! I am afraid that what little remained of the poor Saint Austell was anything but romantic. A sad end for a sailing ship that had traded for almost 80 years.

This is an image, that as a young boy, I thought all shipwrecked sailing ships looked like! 
Image courtesy ‘Clive Carter Collection at Cornish Studies Library’  www.cornishmemory.com 
By looking back on copies of the Irish Press, Irish Independent and Evening Herald from April 1952, I was able to piece together the final voyage of the Saint Austell, which is quite an interesting one:

The schooner Saint Austell was launched at Portreath in Cornwall in 1873. She one time carried coal between Wales and Devon but in later years from England to Ireland. In early 1952, the Saint Austell was damaged when she hit the quay wall at Drogheda, where she had arrived with a cargo of coal from Garston. The owners decided to dispose of her. Some members of Drogheda Harbour Commissioners, as reported in the Drogheda Independent of April 12 1952, contradicted this account of events for fear of it having a negative effect on the reputation of the port! 
Saint Austell courtesy ‘Clive Carter Collection at Cornish Studies Library’ cornishmemory.com
The purchaser was Mr. Kevin Lawler, a 29-year old marine engineer, originally from Athy, Co. Kildare but living at Kincora Road in Clontarf, Dublin. Lawler intended to make a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic to America in the schooner. He said that this was to answer a challenge made two years previously that he “had not got the courage to do it”.

After repairs and fitting out at Grand Canal Quay in Dublin and after a few postponements, the vessel finally left Howth on Holy Saturday, April 12 1952. An earlier attempt at a departure was not an auspicious one as the schooner was held in sand and had to wait the rising tide to be re-floated. The Saint Austell was to sail when winds were favourable (foresail, main and mizzen, easily hauled up by one man using a pulley block system) and sparing usage of an auxiliary diesel engine. Speaking to The Irish Press, Lawler said “I will go south about, on the Azores and Bahamas run. The best run at any time, of course, is the Canaries, West Africa and Brazil route, but,” he asked, “what would I be doing in Brazil?”

A number of friends accompanied Lawler as far as the Kish lightship and when other were saying farewell, Thomas McDonagh, described as a 40-year old labourer from Baldoyle, Co. Dublin hid as a stowaway in the hold. At 8p.m., McDonagh came on deck. 

At 1a.m. on Sunday the engine stopped. At 4pm. on Sunday, the Irish Lights vessel at Coningbeg saw the Saint Austell, apparently with broken-down engines, drifting inside the Coningbeg Rock. It remained in this dangerous area until midnight. Earlier in the day the Saint Austell, with the Tricolour fluttering from her masthead, had exchanged signals with a Dutch vessel. 

John Power’s A Maritime History of County Wexford states, “When off the Wexford Coast, she was observed from the lookout at Rosslare Harbour to be going around in circles for some time inside the dangerous Hantoon Bank off Wexford Harbour”.

After the engine had stopped, Lawler worked on it all day and all night but without any success. He again tried on Monday morning but the engine went on fire. The flames spread rapidly.  William Hamilton, principal keeper at Hook lighthouse was on duty and shortly after dawn saw a glare out to sea. He telephoned Dunmore East lifeboat station giving the location of the Saint Austell. Fearing that the lifeboat would not arrive in time, Mr. Hamilton later decided to get help from the nearby fishing village of Slade, where he roused Thomas Williams, Thomas Barry and Martin Fortune. The four men left at once for the blazing ship in Mr. Barry’s motor vessel Sunflower.

When rescued, McDonagh was only semi-conscious. Lawler did not appear to be any worse for his experience. The men had been in the water for over an hour and had clung to a floating ladder. As they were being hauled aboard the Sunflower, the Dunmore East lifeboat drew alongside. There was a loud explosion on the Saint Austell as the boats drew away. There was no lifesaving equipment aboard the stricken vessel apart from a rubber dinghy, which could not be launched, having been burnt out. Some minutes after the rescue craft arrived on the scene, the foremast of the Saint Austell, which was carrying a large amount of diesel oil (1,000 gallons or 1,500 gallons – depending on which newspaper you read), collapsed.

Lawler and McDonagh were brought to the home of Mrs. Richard Barry, Slade, the local representative of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Association. Here, Dr. O’Dwyer of Duncannon attended them. Later, it was learned that the two men were removed to Wexford Hospital for observation. 

Mr. Arthur Wescott-Pitt, Honorary Secretary of the Dunmore East lifeboat gave an interview to an Evening Herald reporter and said “Lawler told me that it all happened in a flash”. The boat, which was still blazing several hours later was then located just off the coast about three miles east of the Hook Tower where it was driven ashore.

Misfortune at sea seems to have followed Kevin Lawler. The Irish Press reported as a footnote to their account of the Saint Austell rescue that on August 1st of the previous year, Lawler and five companions were sailing towards the Welsh coast in the steam trawler Lady Fry when it sprang a leak off Holyhead and sank. They were rescued by another trawler. 

I endeavoured to research press cuttings in Irish newspapers about this incident but was unable to find any further information.  A headline in the Irish Press on Wednesday April 16 1952, two days after the dramatic rescue said, “Shipwrecked voyager says I’ll try again – I’ll get another boat somehow” says 29-year-old Kevin Lawler, the Athy marine engineer whose attempt to sail the Atlantic in the motor ketch, Saint. Austell, ended when the vessel caught fire off the Wexford coast. The report goes on to say, “The Saint. Austell was not insured and Lawler estimates that his loss is well over £2,000”.

On May 26 1952, in ‘Along the Waterfront’ a marine miscellany in the Irish Press, writer Mac Lir reports that Kevin Lawler had a new steam trawler Mint. He signed Thomas McDonagh on as the cook. Whether Mint ever attempted to sail the Atlantic, I shall leave to others to research!


Thank you David for another slice of a fascinating early life in Dunmore East and the harbour.  You can read David's earlier account of growing up in the fishing village and the characters he met here.  If you have a piece you would like to submit for consideration to the guest blog, all I ask is that it relates to Waterford harbour or our rivers, increases the knowledge and appreciation of our rich maritime heritage and is approximately 1200 words long. Please contact me via russianside@gmail.com or indeed if you know of someone who is interested in this topic can you let me know and I will happily follow them up.

Since then Frank Norris posted the following text and photo to the Waterford Maritime History Facebook page today 20th Feb 2018 and with his permission it is gratefully reposted
Schooner "St. Austell" dep. Dublin area April 1952 skipper  Kevin Lawler for single-handed voyage to America.  According to a press clipping I had,  when he attempted to start the engine off Hook Head a starter cartridge blew out of the engine and set a barrel of oil afire.  A stowaway then emerged from below decks.  Both men abandoned and were picked up by the Dunmore East lifeboat.   The wreck drifted onto rocks in Slade area and Bobby Shortall, a projectionist at the Coliseum in the days of Miss.Kerr, and possibly Tony O'Grady who later became a Chief Officer with Irish Shipping and Brian O'Connor   and I decided to go and see it.  We cycled to Passage East and crossed over on Patsy Barrons ferry, a half-deck fishing boat, to Ballyhack.   I think it costed 4pence and if the ferry was on the other side of the river you hoisted a flag to call it. Then onto Slade area and after trudging across some fields we found the wreck.   Burnt-out almost down to the waterline with the engine visible.   I wonder if the engine is still there? 



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