The story of the wreck of the SS Thames is yet another tragic tale. In it there is bravery, extrme heroism, and tragically more lives lost in the waters around Scilly. Sixty-Two people died in the waters around the Crebawethan rocks. All because of a simple mistake.
The Background to the Wreck of the SS Thames
The SS Thames was a 500-ton paddle steamer built in 1827. She was owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. Her regular route was between Dublin and London and was a regular visitor to the waters of Scilly.
She set sail from Dublin on the 2nd January 1841 with 66 passengers and crew aboard. At the helm was Captain James Grey.
As the Thames sailed south on the 3rd January the weather began to worsen, until it was blowing a fierce gale with extremely high seas. There was hail, snow, thunder and lightning. In the hours before dawn the Captain of the SS Thames made a mistake that was to prove fatal to almost everyone on his ship.
A few hours before dawn a light was sighted ahead and to port. The crew described it as being a steady light visible for several minutes. Based on this evidence Grey assumed that they were sailing past the Longships Lighthouse. His course would take him clear into the open water to the south of Lands End and then on to London.
The light however was not Longships. It was the Scilly Light on St Agnes. The SS Thames was heading directly into the Western Rocks.
Not long afterwards a freak wave swamped the SS Thames. She took on so much water that the boilers were flooded, and the ship lost any power it may have had.
Grey ordered the crew to set sails in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control.
It was too late.
The Wreck of the SS Thames
The ship was driven by the ferocious winds directly onto Jacky’s Rock in-between Crebawethan and Rosevear. It was not long after 5am. The skies were still dark, and the storm was raging around them.
The crew rushed to the deck and one man stripped to his underwear in order to attempt to swim to some sort of land with a line. The high seas, the rising tide, and the ferocity of the storm prevented him.
The crew lowered the lifeboat from the starboard bow, and seven passengers – recruits for the British army – made it in. One man jumped from the deck in an attempt to join them, but missed the boat and was immediately swept away by the waves.
The boat made it no further than a few metres before it too was swamped by the seas and all inside were swept away to their deaths.
The only other boat had already been destroyed and so the passengers and crew had no choice but to sit and await their fate. They lit blue lights – a recognized distress signal, but these were assumed to be lightning from the storm if they were even seen.
The Attempted Rescue
As dawn rose inhabitants of St Agnes saw the ship on the rocks. Her back was clearly broken, and the waves were repeatedly crashing right over her.
Visibility had improved enough that she could also be seen by a watcher on the Garrison Hill on St Mary’s.
The Gig “Thomas” was launched from Agnes, as the islanders stood on the hill and watched. For some time she vanished into the waves and it was assumed she too had been swamped and the men inside lost.
The coastguard on St Mary’s set to launch the brand-new RNLI lifeboat, but he only had a partial crew. The lifeboat was not considered seaworthy by the islanders. Due to this she had never even been named. However, the gathering crowds were offered a full sovereign for every man who would volunteer. The lifeboat was launched for the very first time soon afterwards with a full crew of eleven men.
The “Bee”, “Active” and “Breton” had also been launched to try to get to the wreck of the SS Thames. But the weather was deteriorating again.
Some are Rescued from the Wreck of the SS Thames
It was now snowing heavily, and visibility was worsening, but after an hour of fighting against the wind and waves the crew of the “Thomas” made it close to the Thames. A line was thrown from the steamship and the Thomas caught it. They hauled aboard two women, but a third refused to leave as she had lost her child and would not leave until she found them. An Irishman by the name of Morris was seen to try to persuade his daughter to go to the Thomas but she did not want to leave without him. Her father tied the line around her, and after a last embrace pushed her against her wishes into the water. She was hauled aboard the Thomas, and now full to capacity they set off back to Agnes.
Heavily laden, the Thomas was now taking on water and so half the crew set to bailing with their hats to try to keep the gig afloat. Half a crew however was not enough to row her back to Agnes.
The took shelter in the lee of Goreggan where they met the Active, the Bee, and the Breton. The Active had more space and so took the women on board. They attached a line to the Thomas and together they made it back to safety.
The Destruction of the SS Thames
The remaining survivors of the wreck of the SS Thames were now clinging to the rigging. As the only rescue boat to reach them made its way back to safety a huge wave swamped the wreck and snapped the mast clear off. Almost all of the survivors were swept away apart from five. As the remains of the wreck of the SS Thames began to break up they managed to fashion a kind of raft and headed for Rosevear. The nearest island of any size.
It very nearly made it, but either due to the ferocity of the storm and sea, or the exhaustion of the men attempting crew it the raft never made it. All but one man were washed away. He crawled half dead onto the shores of Rosevear as the storm worsened to the point that all the remaining rescue boats turned back to save themselves.
An Amazing Tale of Ingenuity
He must go down in history as one of the luckiest men alive. He searched the island to see if anyone else had made it alive. But all he found was a large barrel. Taking a rock, he smashed the top to find it full to the brim with fine Porter Ale.
He drank his fill and then emptied the rest out. He jammed the barrel between two rocks, filled it as much as he could with wild grass and crawled inside. Due to a combination of exhaustion and beer he promptly fell asleep.
The next day the weather had hardly improved, but several crews set out in order to try and recover the bodies of any who had made it to Rosevear. They found ten and they were readying them to be transported to St Mary’s for burial when a man ran towards them begging to be taken to St Mary’s too. His name was Edward Kearns, and other than the three women saved by the crew of the Thomas, he was the only survivor of the wreck of the SS Thames.
The Scilly lifeboat had never even made it to the wreck, and indeed was only ever launched one more time before being replaced by a much sturdier and more seaworthy boat the “Henry Dundas”.
The Aftermath of the Wreck of the SS Thames
The coastguard, and the three members of the crew who did not need bribing aboard all received commendations. This set the tone for the St Mary’s lifeboat over the years. The crew have earned an amazing number of awards and medal. We’ll talk about them in future articles.
The crews of the Thomas, the Bee, and The Briton all received awards of £10 per crew. Whether the Active was also rewarded does not seem to be recorded.
Among the bodies was that of the young woman who had refused to leave without her child. No children’s bodies were ever found.
If you visit the Abbey Gardens on Tresco, you can still see the figurehead salvaged from the wreck of the SS Thames. He stands, disguised as whitewashed stone looking down a long flight of granite steps. Father Thames has been there for 160 years.