The wreck of the SS Delaware is a little-known story. However it is one that typifies the spirit of the islanders of Silly.
Life on the islands has always been hard, and the fortunes of the islanders have always been tied to the whims of the sea. Despite this, or perhaps because of it there were times throughout history when the islanders went so far beyond what was reasonable to help those in danger that it deserves not to be forgotten.
Never was that more true than the wreck of the SS Delaware.
The SS Delaware
The SS Delaware was a triple masted steamship with a length of 380 feet that sailed out of Liverpool. She had started life as a transatlantic trade ship with a length of 324 feet, but was lengthened in 1870. Despite her increase in size and weight her engines were not upgraded. She had a displacement of 3423 tonnes
Some say this contributed to her downfall.
She left Liverpool for Calcutta few days before Christmas in 1871 carrying a cargo of precious silks. She had a crew of fifty men as she sailed south. On December 20th the worsening weather had driven her so far off course that she was forced dangerously close to the rocks off the western side of Bryher.
The Sighting of the SS Delaware
The SS Delaware had been sighted by inhabitants of Bryher, and the local pilots had been notified. They watched the ship from the relative safety of the island, hoping that they would not be needed.
They watched as her sails were torn away by the gale, and she was driven inexorably closer to seal rock. As they continued to watch they saw her swamped by a huge wave. It destroyed the bridge of the ship and swept many of the crew into the sea.
The men of Bryher, watching from the top of Samson Hill saw the ship go down into the violent waters. They saw survivors in the water clinging to wreckage and knew they had to act.
The Launch of The Albion
The gale force winds were so strong that any attempt to launch the Pilot Gig “Albion” from Great Par would have inevitably lead to it being driven onto the rocks as well. Yet that did not put the rescuers off.
The crew consisted of
- Patrick Trevellick
- William Woodcock
- Stephen Woodcock
- Thomas Bickford
- John Webber
- Richard Ellis
- James Jenkins
- John Jacob Jenkins
- William Jenkins
- Samson Jenkins
Trevellick was chosen as Coxswain due to his experience in the waters, and his known ability as a leader in dangerous situations.
Together they carried the pilot boat over to the lee side of the island and launched her from Rushy Bay towards Samson. Once they reached Samson they once again used the oars of the gig to carry her across the island to the far side.
As they crossed Samson they saw some survivors land on white island.
Richard Ellis was sent to the top of North Hill on Samson to signal to Bryher for more men if needed.
The rest of the men launched the gig for a second time and set out to row to White Island. Six men took the oars, the rest bailed to prevent them being swamped.
The exhausted crew of the rescue boat managed to avoid the rocks around Samson and landed on White Island. However only two men had survived the wreck of the SS Delaware, and they were not pleased to see them.
The Captain of the SS Delaware had warned the crew about the inhabitants of Scilly. He had called them wreckers, and told tales of how they killed the crew of ships in order to steal their cargo.
Apparently, he was a convincing storyteller. The survivors were scared for their lives and pelted the would-be rescuers with rocks.
The men of Scilly managed to convince the crew members that they were in no danger and gave them their own clothes to keep them warm and dry. They made a thorough search of White island and scanned the water for further survivors, but there were none.
The exhausted crew rowed back to Samson where they collapsed with exhaustion. They were met by the crew of a second gig “March” who had been summoned by Richard Ellis. Together they rowed back to Bryher where the only two survivors of the wreck of the SS Delaware.
The Aftermath of the Wreck of the SS Delaware
There are several things worth noting in this story. The first is that the Albion was not a lifeboat. Despite that, its crew did not hesitate to risk their own lives in order to rescue fellow seamen in need.
The second is that the man chosen to lead the rescue, Patrick Trevellick was not a licensed Pilot. Richard Ellis who stood watch on Samson to signal for aid was licensed by Trinity House. Yet Trevellick, the man openly acknowledged to have the best ability, and the best knowledge was not.
It is safe to say that the best Pilots in the area were islanders, yet not all the best pilots were licensed as such by Trinity House.
The other point worth mentioning is that this took place only 16 years after Samson was forcibly cleared by Augustus Smith. The two remaining families on the island when it was cleared were the Webbers, and the Woodcocks. Two of the crew who rescued the survivors of the wreck of the SS Delaware bore the name Woodcock.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institute had been founded forty-seven years earlier, and gained its Royal Charter eleven years before the wreck. In recognition of the extreme bravery of the crew of the Albion they sent them the princely sum of £15. In terms of income this is somewhere in the region of £10,000 in today’s economy.
The crew of the Albion had no way of knowing they would be rewarded, and they had no obligation to do what they did. However, if anything sums up the spirit of the Isles of Scilly throughout history it is the story of the wreck of the SS Delaware.
When you live at the mercy of the sea, you help when it is needed.
So next time you visit Bryher, walk up to the summit of Samson hill and take a moment to look out over sea towards Seal Rock and Mincarlo and remember the men of the SS Delaware who lost their lives there. And remember Chief Mate McWinnie, and Third Mate Jenkins, who were the only survivors, and pelted their rescuers with rocks.
And if you find yourself in the Lifeboat station on St Mary’s marveling at the vast number of rescues and awards won by lifeboat men remember that often it was normal men and women of the islands that did what needed to be done.