The Last Voyage of S.S. Castleton, 1886

S.S. Castleton, built in 1879 in Newcastle, England, by Schlesinger, Davis & Co. was an iron screw steamer registered in and belonging to the port of Cardiff, Wales. She was named after a village between Cardiff and Newport of the same name. Her owner, Matthew Cope (1843 - 1933), a coal merchant, lived in Bute Crescent, Cardiff. She had a gross registered tonnage of 1752t, a length of 279.5 feet (ca. 95 metres), a breadth of 34 feet (ca. 12 metres), a depth of 23 feet (ca. 8 metres), and 200hp.

From Castleton's Crew Agreements for 1885 and 1886 we know that she spent the months between 20 September 1885 and 15 October 1886 sailing to the ports of Las Palmas in Spain, Madeira in Portugal, New Orleans and Baltimore in the United States, Rouen in France, Arhus in Denmark, and Söderhamn and Sundsvall in Sweden. Although her exact cargoes are not indicated in the agreements for these voyages, they do show the daily food rations and her crew lists. The agreements also list some of the daily occurrences on board, such as crew members who did not appear for departure, those who were sick and even reports of crew members who deserted in foreign ports.

John George Brew was present as 1st Engineer on each of these voyages, having joined Castleton for the first time on 20 September 1885, in Cardiff. John George received his Certificate of Competency as a 2nd Class Engineer in December 1875 and as a 1st Class Engineer in August 1877. By the time he joined Castleton, he had been at sea as an engineer for 12 years.

The ship's Master, William Henry, was a 38 year old native Welshman, born in Porthcawl, near Cardiff, in 1848, who obtained his Certificate of Competency in Bristol in 1875.

As usual, he signed on a crew for the voyage, loaded her cargo and prepared for departure. This is confirmed by the newspaper Western Mail, in Cardiff, listing Castleton on 14 October 1886, under the heading "Shipping Intelligence" noting "Cleared (outwards) - Oct. 13...St. Lucia, Castleton, B, 1,500 coal". And, indeed, Castleton departed Penarth (Cardiff), on Thursday morning, 14 October 1886, with a crew of 23, and a cargo of coal, destined for St. Lucia in the West Indies. But this would be their last voyage - and it ended hardly a day after it began.

Reports from Lloyd's List between 18-30 October 1886 indicate that a heavy gale had sprung up off the Devon Coast on the 15 October and had claimed many ships. The Western Mail, in a headline report, stated on the 16 October 1886, "A terrific storm, with heavy rain, prevailed in the South and West of England yesterday. Great damage was done to shipping, many wrecks being reported....the extent of damage sustained cannot yet be correctly estimated" followed later by "Strong squalls of wind and heavy rain commenced at a very early hour, each gust seeming to come with redoubled force, until by daylight a perfect hurricane was raging....".

On Tuesday, 19 October, a Western Mail headline stated "Fearful Disasters in Bideford Bay. Wreckage of six vessels washed ashore" and within the underlying article, "Reports from Bideford Bay state that a large amount of wreckage has been washed ashore there, and portions have been identified as belonging to various vessels. It is said that, amongst others, portions have been picked up belonging to the....Castleton, about 1,500 tons...."

Almost a week passed before the next article appeared in the Western Mail. On the 25 October, the following report appears, "The Steamship Castleton. Respecting the apprehensions that have been felt by some as to the safety of the steamship Castleton... the opinion of those best able to judge is that the vessel has passed safely through the gale. The name-board washed ashore was hung aft near the wheel, and has been washed overboard on previous voyages when the weather was not half so bad as that experienced on the 15th and the 16th; the other wreckage washed ashore was simply washed off the deck, and would not imperil the navigation of the ship."

Newspapers around Bideford Bay, in Devon, also published many reports in the months of October and November 1886 regarding wreckage belonging to various ships.

On 21 October the North Devon Journal reported, "GREAT GALE AND FLOODS - A very heavy gale blew on Friday over nearly the whole Kingdom. In the early morning the centre of the disturbance had reached Ireland and at eight o'clock the wind had attained the force of a gale in most parts of England, as well as Ireland and France. The direction of the wind in the front of the storm's path was from south west, south, and south east, whilst in the rear, on the west coast of Ireland, the wind had already veered to the northward. Very heavy rain was experienced in the front segment of the advancing storm, and owing to the slow rate at which the whole storm area travelled [sic], the time that the rain lasted was considerably prolonged. In the course of the day the storm area passed slowly across the Irish Channel, and at two o'clock in the afternoon its centre was not far from Manchester, and the direction of its progress at this time was due east....It is a long time since so severe a storm has been experienced in England....

Reports which have come to hand from various parts of Devon and Cornwall tend to fully confirm the belief previously entertained that the gale of Friday and Saturday last was most disastrous in its effects and that the loss of life has been very great. A correspondent writing from Braunton states that the North Devon coast is strewn with wreckage, and that along the Saunton sands for a distance of about five miles the wreckage consists for the most part of cabin fittings, pieces of cork, masts, and figureheads. Among other things picked up on Saturday were a lifebuoy with the words "Nerbudda, London", painted on it, a piece of wreck bearing the name "Juanita", and the hinder part of a boat marked "Malleny, Liverpool". There is reason to suppose that several vessels have foundered just outside the bay, and there is very little doubt that the loss of life has been very great, although up to last night no bodies had been washed ashore."

The Western Mail offers the most insight into the fears of the people of Cardiff, initially speculating on Castleton's possible survival, later reporting, however, apparent unequivocal evidence that she had foundered after all. There are many articles over several weeks concerning a great number of ships and the vast damage done by the storms.

On Tuesday, 26 October, the Western Mail added to speculation that Castleton may have perhaps survived the gale, but one can almost detect a hint of doubt in the writer's belief in what he was reporting, "It is interesting to note that the screw steamer Alacrity, of Cardiff, left the Roath Basin, Cardiff, with a load of coal on the 14th inst. for Gibraltar, and arrived there on Friday last all well; also that the Alaska, of Cardiff, left the Roath Basin on the same date with a cargo of coal for Genoa, and arrived at that port on Thursday last, all well. Both vessels left by the same tide as the Castleton, and successfully weathered the gale, and it may, therefore, be reasonably hoped that that vessel will be heard of in due course as having safely arrived at her port of destination in the West Indies."

However, by the following Saturday, all hope of her survival had been dashed as further wreckage from Castleton had washed ashore, confirming worst fears. The ship's owner, Matthew Cope, sent his Marine Superintendent, a certain Mr. J. Plews, and the ship's previous Chief Officer, a Mr. Watson, to survey Bideford Bay in an attempt to clarify the situation. On 30 October, the Western Mail reported their findings, thus: "The Steamship Castleton. Hope as to her safety abandoned. Identification of wreckage", followed by "....This vessel was bound from Penarth to St. Lucia with a cargo of coal, and when the gales subsided small portions of wreckage were washed ashore on the Devonshire Coast. As the quantity was not large the owners did not attach much importance to the circumstances. But subsequently, in order to clear up matters, they judged it expedient to send their marine superintendent, Mr. J. Plews, and Mr. Watson, late chief officer of the ship, down to the place for the purpose of identifying the wreckage. These gentlemen accordingly left Cardiff a few days ago in a tug for Bideford Bay. They landed at Appledore, crossed the river to the Instow side, went over the Burrows to the lifeboat house, and came back again to what is called the Pebble Ridge. In the course of their investigation they had to go several miles inland, where they found numerous articles belonging to the ship, which had been removed by the inhabitants. Amongst the wreckage which they identified were the engine-room and cabin skylight, cabin fittings, several of the hatches of the upper and 'tween decks, and "fore and afters," shifting boards easily recognised, having 7in. figures in red painted on them, a pitch pine boom, the poop ladder, sheer legs of the pole compass, the large after steering wheel, portions of the life and other boats, also some of the bottom boards, and 70ft. of the main rail. From the appearance of the rail it is the general opinion of nautical men that the steamer must have been in collision with some vessel or vessels and then foundered. The outside of the rail for some distance is crushed, as if a heavy body had been forced against it....Thus the whole of the evidence collected seems to place beyond all doubt the fact that the Castleton must be numbered among those ill-fated vessels which foundered during the late storm." The last sentence in the newspaper report notes, "Some of the wreckage has been brought back to Cardiff on Friday."

It was then that newspapers began reporting bodies washed up on the beaches. The Bideford Gazette wrote, "THE LATE GALES. BODIES FROM THE SEA - During the past week several more bodies have been washed up at different spots around the coast of Bideford Bay. They were all doubtless bodies of unfortunate seamen who met their death by drowning during the recent severe gale. In every case decomposition was so far advanced as to render identification by the features absolutely impossible. They were therefore, buried directly the coroner's inquests could be held. The following particulars, however, which have been gathered at much trouble by one or two friends interested in the discovery of the bodies, may be of much interest to those who are also looking anxiously for signs of identification of the bodies of relatives or friends they have lost.

The first body of which we have had intelligence was picked up at South Hole, between Clovelly and Hartland. It was that of a man five feet ten inches in height, tattoed [sic] on the right arm with a woman holding a flag. When picked up the body had no clothes on whatever. The man had had dark hair.

The next was recovered from the sea at Hartland Quay, and was the body of a shorter man, 5ft 1in, with fair hair; tattoed [sic] on the left arm with the emblems of faith, hope, and charity. The clothes were of common description. The boots, for instance, were fastened with strings.

On Friday night or Saturday morning a body was picked up at Braunton. Height, 5ft. 10in.; no clothes and no marks recorded.

On Saturday evening a body was picked up at Bucks, which was evidently that of an officer - possibly that of a captain of a small ship. Both arms were tattoed [sic], the right with a sailor and a cross, and the left of a woman and an anchor. Height, 5ft. 7in.; hair black. Dressed in black coat and waistcoat and blue serge trousers; oilskin over. Underclothing, good lambswool and apparently new. There was a gold chain, with small locket (empty) attached; silver watch, No. 14673, bearing the name of the maker, "W.M. Gothrie, Wellington Quay." This description will, of course, be quite sufficient for identification, if it should reach deceased's relatives."

A list of Castleton's crew was also printed in the country's papers, even as far north as Newcastle. I have attempted to verify it's accuracy using other sources, and have included additional information which I came across in the process. Using Castleton's Crew Agreement for her final voyage, and the Index to Marine Deaths 1886-90, held by the Family Records Centre in London, the following list of the 23 people who perished on S.S. Castleton on the 15 October 1886 can be established:

Name Age Capacity Cert. of Comp. Born

William HENRY 38 Master No. 92277 Porthcawl

Daniel KENNY 27 1st Mate No. 12680 Youghal

George HOWARD 44 2nd mate No. 11155 Preston

James PRESCOTT 29 Carpenter Porthcawl

Maurice MORETTI 34 Steward Venice

Gurge MANUEL 27 Cook Lisbon

George GAMBLING 52 Boatswain Fareham

John George BREW 36 1st Engineer No. 12854 Woolwich

Robert A. McCONOCHIE 25 2nd Engineer No. 20505 St. Petersburg

Walter WILLIAMS 28 3rd Engineer Cardiff

Agust OLSSON 26 Donkey-man Föhrenburg

William FARRELL 29 Fireman Galway

August NIETZIOL 27 Fireman Hamburg

D. DREIER 25 Fireman Bremerhaven

John HAMILTON 23 Fireman Edinburgh

Henry BEVAN 28 Fireman Bristol

C. HOLM 29 Seaman Söderham

Laurence LACY 38 Seaman Wexford

F. SMITH 29 Seaman Bridgewater

William BURNETT 34 Seaman ?, Sweden

Michael BURKE 33 Seaman Kilross

Andrew MALLAR 20 Seaman Dundee

Francis PALMER 17 Engineer's Steward Bristol

On 11 November 1886, the North Devon Journal wrote, "LAST WEEK'S WRECKS - Shipwrecks reported last week rose to 42 compared with the previous week, making the total for the present year 1235. British owned vessels numbered 21, including two steamers...."

Because she was never found intact, Castleton wasn't officially listed as missing until 5 January 1887. She was a relatively new ship, under 8 years old when lost. The Board of Trade Casualty Returns for 1886 has an entry for Castleton which concludes, "Not heard of since being left by pilot off Breaksea Point on October 14, 1886".

John George Brew's Death Certificate indicates his cause of death as "supposed drowned", his date of death as "supposed lost 15.10.86", and the place of death is left blank. His body was never recovered nor positively identified among those washed ashore.

John George left a young, pregnant widow and 2 children under 15 years of age at home in Gateshead, near Newcastle, in the north of England. Their 7th child (their 1st, 2nd, 4th and 6th had already died) was born 20 weeks after he perished. Child five, Albert, was the great grandfather of Steve Brew of Sydney, Australia who researched this information and has kindly made it available to me.

Visit Steve Brew's Website

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