First published in the January 1984 issue of Sea Breezes, this article describes the few days before Christmas 1894 which saw the wildest weather experienced in the British Isles and Northern Europe for many years.
By ten o’clock, the night could truly be described as a wild one, for the rain was falling like a deluge and the wind had increased in strength. Towards midnight, the rain ceased, but its boisterous companion became more violent than ever and there was an ominous sound in its voice, which made belated travellers quicken their steps and seek their homes with unaccustomed haste. In the small hours of the morning, the storm developed into a gale and the tremendous gusts of wind in their unceremonious flight began to loosen slates and tiles and subsequently to precipitate them into the streets...”
So, the flowing prose of a Victorian journalist recounts the early stages of the great gale of December 1894, which rampaged across the British Isles and northern Europe causing vast destruction and the loss of over 500 lives. About noon on Friday, December 21, the beginnings of an alarming fall in barometric pressure were observed, and, as witnessed above, conditions dramatically worsened from the persistence of drizzle, “which made pedestrianism far from desirable and interfered considerably with the comfort of the many citizens bent on Christmas shopping”. By the conclusion of the storm, it had established in the minds of those who experienced it as an event by which the scale of all future gales would be judged, joining a select number of notoriously severe spells of weather such as the “Big Wind” of 1839 and the Royal Charter gale of 1859.
More significantly, from the point of view of maritime history, the storm of 1894 was the last really furious and sustained one of the sailing ship era. Around the British Isles, 47 vessels in all were wrecked or foundered, and the extraordinary number of 49 British-flag alone simply disappeared at sea. (Missing foreign vessels were not officially recorded by the Board of Trade).
All but 14 of the known total, which does not include inshore fishing vessels under 20 tons, were sail-powered. But the era of sail was closing; though extremes of weather recur – the chaos of the Fastnet race and the Penlee disaster being recent reminders – never again have our coasts seen wreck, rescue and general mayhem on the scale of December 21-23, 1894
The reader, casually browsing through the files of newspapers for these dates, would see little of impact to convey the events of the gale, this partly being due to the format of close packed columns of print, long before banner headlines backed up by a string of impotent clichés of “shock” and “horror”, partly to the storm’s severance of telegraph wires across the country. The first brief reports are granted little space amidst the stories of topical interest: trouble in Madagascar and Turkey; the sensational trial of Captain Dreyfus in Paris; the Test Match victory of “Mr Stoddart’s team” over “an eleven of Australia”. Queen Victoria had adjourned for her Christmas vacation to Osborne, where General Tchertkof, special emissary of the new Czar had the honour of being received by her. Meanwhile, her subjects flocked to laugh at “Charley’s Aunt” at The Globe, or marvel at “a new spectacle”, The Orient Exhibition, at Olympia.
Telegraphed intelligence from Lloyd’s signal stations – extracts from which most daily newspapers published – reveals, however, that on the 21st, with the rapid fall in the barometer, shipping had begun to seek shelter. As the wind rose from the West North West, favoured anchorages began to fill up – Lamlash, Isle of Arran; Lundy Roads; Brixham; Bridlington Bay.
On the North coast of Ireland, obviously the first area to feel the onset of a gale from the Atlantic, the master of the Dominion liner Labrador, perturbed by the ominous conditions, decided to remain in the safety of Lough Foyle with the well-being of his passengers and mails in mind. No doubt, he was wise; at 3am, the city of Londonderry “was in the grip of a cyclone unprecedented in modern memory”. Passing the mouth of the Lough, about this time, was the steamer Garnock of Ayr, bound with coal from Glasgow to Galway, a cargo that was never delivered, for the Garnock was last observed off Tory Island, the wind at that time being logged as Force 11 on the Beaufort Scale – “Storm”.
Although its depredations were felt throughout the British Isles, it was the more northerly parts which suffered most. Mill chimneys toppled, slates shattered on the pavements, roofs were lifted. At Cheetham Hill, Manchester, a woman was killed by the fall of a hoarding, while in Lancaster, a family were all injured by the collapse of their house in James Street.
Nowhere, though, were the storm’s effects more spectacular than on Merseyside. The ebb tide began to set in at first light, this being, of course, against the wind, and as the Press Association correspondent reported, “the scene was one of wild commotion, the spindrift flying in clouds”.
In full view of spectators on the river bank, an inward-bound schooner, later identified as the Mary Agnes of Bridgwater, was seen to founder, her crew of three men and a boy being swept out to sea. The Egremont and New Brighton ferry traffic was suspended, while the crossings to Woodside and Seacombe were irregular. Ashore, too, transport was hazardous with two fatal accidents involving tramcars.
On the afternoon of that day, Saturday 22nd, the New Brighton steam lifeboat put out to save the three-man crew of the Manx schooner Margaret Gerton, ashore on Crosby beach, though in accomplishing a skilful rescue she stranded herself. Back at New Brighton, the Mersey flats Edward Blower and Eleanor were cast ashore. All these vessels later floated off again, but the really serious casualties occurred on the lethal sand-banks in the Mersey approaches, where three disastrous wrecks occasioned 39 deaths. A chillingly brief telegram, first published in “Lloyd’s List”, tells of the loss of what proved to be the barque Minnie Browne of Glasgow:
“Liverpool. 22 December 4.50pm. A barque is ashore on the West Hoyle 3.45 pm. Broke up and disappeared 4.10 pm. Crew supposed lost”.
It was only the discovery on nearby Hilbre Island of a small boat bearing the name of the Minnie Browne that identified this substantial vessel, indeed that differentiated her wreckage from that of another victim of the West Hoyle Bank, the barque Loweswater, 603 net registered tons. Belonging to Liverpool, where her managing owner was WK Jackson, the Loweswater was outward bound from the Mersey to Santos with coal, a cargo also carried by the Minnie Browne, her destination being Buenos Aires.
Holyhead, however, was the scene of the most gripping events in this locality. On the morning of Saturday 22nd, the barque Kirkmichael of Liverpool, outward from the Mersey for Melbourne with general cargo, grounded on the breakwater about 400 yards from the lighthouse, her bow to the East. With gigantic seas exploding right over the breakwater, the local coastguards laboriously hauled off 12 of the crew, including the master, but seven others perished.
The Liverpool Salvage Association were at once called in, to save some of the valuable cargo and Captains Young and Pomeroy arrived on the scene and summoned the association’s famous salvage steamer Ranger. Over Christmas, work continued heaving spars and debris off the deck, but then it was found that the pounding on the stones had forced up the barque’s bottom, jamming most of the cargo.
Meanwhile, nearby at Penrhos Point in Holyhead Bay, two coal-laden Norwegian vessels were wrecked on the 22nd, the barque Titania, Whitehaven for Kragero, and the brigantine Valhalla, Glasgow for Vera Cruz. Both had attempted to shelter at Holyhead, but had dragged their anchors; in either case, though, the crew were plucked off by lifeboat.
Norway’s colossal fleet of merchant ships was a feature of the maritime scene in this period and no fewer than eight were wrecked on British shores in the great gale of 1894. In fact, the very first victim of all was the barque Abana owned by L Larsen of Farsund, which was forced aground near Cleveleys on the Lancashire coast in the early stages of the storm on Friday evening. The barque rig predominated among Norwegian deep-sea traders and a trio, all outward bound from Fleetwood, were wrecked at different points in the Irish Sea on the Saturday.