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Irish Gravestone Inscriptions, Tracing your Irish Ancestors: Three shipwrecks
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Those who go down to the sea in ships: seafaring connections and Ulster gravestones

Three shipwrecks affecting Ulster people


The story behind three of the shipwrecks are looked at in more detail below.


The sinking of the Arctic in 1854


In Donegore Church of Ireland graveyard a gravestone commemorates William Ferguson, son of John Ferguson of Four Mile Burn, who was lost with the US mail steamship Arctic near Cape Race on 27 September 1854. Here it is possible to discover what actually caused the sinking of the ship.

The loss of the Arctic, September 27, 1854, an ocean-going wooden paddlewheeler of the United States Mail Steamship Company (The Collins Line), occurred when Captain Luce misjudged the damage done to her after she collided with the small French steamer, Vesta, on September 27, 1854, about fifty miles off Cape Race, Newfoundland. The collision was assured by dense, rolling fog, and Luce, believing that the smaller Vesta was sinking, humanely sent one of his lifeboats to pick up survivors.

His second mistake that day was thinking his ship was slightly damaged, when the Vesta, in fact, had actually ripped open a good chunk of the Arctic's bow. Told that his ship was taking on heavy water, Luce ordered full speed toward land. Giant swells flooded the boiler rooms by the time the Arctic's lookout spotted land twenty miles distant. But it was too late; the ship was sinking rapidly.

Luce ordered his 367 passengers and crew members on deck, began to organise the lowering of boats, and instructed everyone that women and children would go first. The "black gang" (stokers) rebelled and with shouts and curses they made for the lifeboats, knocking passengers to the deck. One ship's officer drew his gun but before he could fire a stoker killed him with a vicious smash on his head with a shovel. As a result of the panic only one boat and a raft, hastily constructed of spars and wooden rails, took off forty-five passengers.

Among the 322 people lost were Mary Collins and her two children, Henry and Mary the family of shipping line owner Edward Knight Collins, who hounded Captain Luce, a survivor, from the seas. Collins screamed that he "had practically murdered" his family. For more information on the incident log on to


The wreck of the Carniatic in 1869


In Carrickfergus Church of Ireland graveyard a memorial records the death of Thomas Alexander Thompson, who was a ‘Surgeon in the Peninsular and Oriental Company's Service [and] who was lost in the wreck of the Steam Ship Car[n]ati[c] in the Red Sea on the 14th September 1869 aged 26 years’.

The enquiry into the loss of the Carnatic was published by order of the House of Commons 10 February 1870 The ship was built in London in 1862 by Samuda Bros and had a displacement of 1,254 tons, brig-rigged with three decks, two masts and two engines of 400 H. P. She was registered by P & O in March 1863 and in June of that year set sail for Calcutta. She was employed to sail between Suez, Bombay and China.

On her last voyage she carried 34 passengers, a large amount of specie, a full cargo and Government mails, besides a crew of 176 commanded by Phillip Burton Jones, its captain since 1867. On 12th September 1869 at 10 am she left Suez for Bombay in fine calm conditions but during the night the ship struck on the Sha'ab Abu Nuhas Reef and became firmly fixed.

Rather than disembarking the passengers immediately to the nearby though desolate Shadwan Island, Captain Jones decided to keep everyone on board for the time being. He satisfied himself that the ship’s pumps would be able to handle the amount of water being taken on. The next day he ordered that the large amount of cotton on the ship be thrown overboard in order to lighten the vessel and float her off the reef, but this proved unsuccessful.

As the leaks in the ship became worse the water level in the vessel began to rise quite sharply. The keel of the ship was also coming under increasing strain. In the early hours of the 14th the ships boilers were flooded and the ship was left without power and light. It was not until 11 am on the 14th that the decision was made to disembark the passengers

As several of them were in the act of getting into the boats the ship suddenly slipped down stern foremost, heeling over and leaving the foremast only out of the water, throwing several of the passengers and crew into the sea Five passengers and twenty-six of the crew were drowned. The remainder landed on the island by means of the ship's boats and were later picked up by another P & O vessel, the Sumatra.

On his return to Suez, Captain Jones was recalled to England to face an official Board of Enquiry. Following the investigation his master's certificate was suspended for nine months. The wreck of the Carnatic is very well preserved and has excited the interest of many divers and underwater archaeologists. For more information on the site of the shipwreck log on to


The loss of the Lord Downshire in 1895


In the case of the Lord Downshire, there are gravestones in several different burial grounds recording the deaths of those who perished in this shipwreck.

The Lord Downshire was a four-masted barque of 2,262 tons, owned by Thomas Dixon & Sons, timber merchants of Belfast and first registered in Belfast in 1882 It had sailed from Newport, Monmouthshire, on 15 October 1894 with a crew of twenty-five seamen and eight apprentices who had signed on for three years On its last voyage it was returning from Caleta Buena, near Iquique, Chile, to Hamburg, and collided off the coast of Brazil with the Prince Oscar, sinking with all hands on 12 July 1895 The 'Lord' fleet of ships from Belfast, was part of a large and flourishing company and most of the crew had sailed on other ships of this line.

The crew list indicates that twenty-five men came from counties Antrim or Down, three from elsewhere in Ireland and five from England The master and three of the crew were from Island Magee and three of the four were recorded on headstones in the parish.

In Ballykeel graveyard, Island Magee, a headstone commemorates Robert Gray who was ‘lost at sea in the foundering of the ship Lord Downshire on her voyage from Iquique to Hamburg 14 July 1895’. Gray was the ship’s second mate. The ship’s master, John Gibson McMurtry lies buried in Islandmagee Church of Ireland graveyard as does Samuel Purdy, able seaman.

In Dromore Church of Ireland cathedral graveyard, Co. Down, is a memorial to Reginald Theodore Harrison ‘who died at sea with all his ship mates on board Lord Downshire’, on 14 July 1895. Harrison was an apprentice who was born in Belfast in 1875 and indentured in 1890. Another apprentice Robert Towel(l), born in Ballycarry in 1878 and indentured on 22 July 1893, is commemorated in Templecorran graveyard, Co. Antrim.

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