Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The ill-fated 1883 Voyage of the Emigrant Sailing Ship 'Wild Deer'

Crew posing on the prow of the "Wild Deer", 1872
[De Maus Photo, National Library of New Zealand]

During a wild and stormy night in January 1883 my Great Great Uncle William Watson, a passenger aboard the New Zealand bound emigrant sailing vessel "Wild Deer", experienced first hand what appeared to be the unfolding of a major maritime disaster off the treacherous Irish coast.

William Watson, aged 21 years, taken
in Glasgow, Scotland, c.1883
[From my own collection]

Through Boom and Bust

William Watson, then 21 years of age and a native of Dalserf Parish in Lanarkshire Scotland, had worked for his father on lands owned by the Duke of Hamilton. Financial returns were meagre for the work and energy expended, the chances of raising sufficient funds to buy one's own small block of land almost impossible, the rent would be fixed for a 19 year period through boom and bust, and any pastoral improvement from sheer hard work and determination became the property of the Duke upon the expiry of the lease. With his parents now deceased and a sister and brother already in New Zealand relating stories of greater opportunity and reward, there was nothing to hold him back.

The 'Wild Deer' at Port Chalmers, New Zealand, 1872
[De Maus Photo, National Library of New Zealand]

A Fast Sailer

Known as a "fast sailer", the emigrant ship "Wild Deer" had been built in 1863 as a China tea clipper. From 1871 she had successfully completed ten voyages to New Zealand for the Albion Shipping Company, all apparently without major incident save for a "sprung rudder stock" after a heavy storm in 1872 which necessitated a return to the Clyde for repairs. But still, with eleven previous voyage times of between 77 and 100 days half way around the world and crossing the remote and unpredictable Great Southern Ocean such a long voyage would not to be taken lightly. The 'Wild Deer' followed the classic 'clipper route', sailing at anything up to 60 degrees south through the treacherous and stormy 'Roaring Forties'. Despite the risk of storms, fierce winds, huge waves, and icebergs, this southerly route made for a shorter and faster voyage to New Zealand. Captains would weigh up the risks of sailing so far south against achieving a fast passage.

Dumbarton Rock and Castle, a familiar landmark 
for passing ships on the River Clyde, c.1890's.
[From "Views of Glasgow and the Clyde"
in my own collection]

208 Other Emigrants

With sad farewells to family and friends at home, William Watson made his way, with all that he possessed or might need packed in his trunk, to Glasgow where embarcation took place on the 9th January 1883. Joining him, along with 41 crewmen, were 208 other emigrants, the passenger manifest providing a wonderful snapshot of Scottish and Irish emigrants and their occupations or trades. Travelling steerage, bulky goods and possessions not required on the voyage would be stored in their trunks down in the hold. The "Wild Deer", under charter to the New Zealand Colonial Government, commenced her voyage by being towed down the Clyde to Greenock. Here, on the 12th January 1883 she took on a pilot who, with the vessel now under sail, remained onboard until well past Ailsa Craig, also known as "Paddy's Milestone". Captain Kerr then charted his course through the Irish Sea towards the vast expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Cloughey, North[ern] Ireland 'pinned' on a map.
The Firth of Clyde is at upper centre
[Source : Google maps]

"Bur-er-er, Thud, Thud, Thud"

The 'Wild Deer' now encountered a stiff breeze and "boisterous" conditions but with most of her sails set she was still making good speed. Heavy seas continued to prevail, but when night came on "the wind [now] blew half a gale". Just after 11 o’clock, and after losing her course and drifting, she grazed a dangerous reef known as "Cannon Rock" but sustained no injury. But half an hour later, and "with great force", she struck the "North Rock" about three miles from the mainland village of Cloughey off County Down, North[ern] Ireland. The passengers, who had all turned in for the night, were awakened by "a strange and alarming sound like bur-er-er, thud, thud, thud,’". The vessel then gave a sudden quiver and commenced to settle whereupon a general panic ensued with a rush being made for the hatchways.

Little Hope of Anyone Being Saved

The officers implored the terrified passengers to stay below and that they were, apparently, in no immediate danger. Reefs could be observed a short distance away with large pieces of timber from the hull floating in the sea. The vessel had now developed a good list, and altogether the position appeared desperate with, as some passengers perceived, little hope of anyone being saved. The panic in that part of the ship occupied by the women was so great that the crew locked the doors to prevent them from all rushing up on deck. Rockets and distress flare lights were sent up being promptly answered by the coast-guard station. But in the rough seas their boat was stove in necessitating repairs before they could set off again at 3am.

The Cloughey based lifeboat and crew, early
1900's. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution
station at Cloughey was established in 1885.
[Source : Portaferry Lifeboat Station]  

The Main Mast Fell Into the Sea

The vessel was by now quivering and everyone feared a final plunge into the sea on the rocky and dangerous coastline. With the aim of steadying the ship one of the officers cried out, "Well, boys, what is to be done, are you going to take in sail?" Immediately they had brought down the sails the main mast fell into the sea, having snapped off at the deck tearing away the bulwarks. This however also appeared to steady the ship, as the yards rested on the reef. That all the passengers were not crowded on deck no doubt saved a further catastrophe. The passengers and crew passed a long weary night, and being midwinter there was no daylight till 8 a.m. By daybreak all were thankful to see not only land but also the coastguard boat finally approaching after four hours of "strenuous" rowing. An "armada" of fishing boats also appeared. Women and children were taken off first followed by the male passengers, with the assistance of five of the ship's lifeboats, the sixth being rendered useless by the fall of the mainmast. It was an extremely slow and difficult job, for owing to the swell and the height of the "Wild Deer" above the sea, no rope ladders could be used, and each individual had to submit to being tied to a rope, hoisted over the side, then lowered 20 feet into a waiting boat.

A 'still' from a short video of the North Rock, Cloughey.
This clearly shows the reef extending out into the sea
where the "Wild Deer"foundered.
[Source : A Short Paddle to North Rock, Cloughey

Exhorbitant Demands

Unfortunately "exhorbitant demands" were made by the fishermen to convey passengers to shore. One crew member remarked that he had been shipwrecked seven times but had never witnessed such "barbarity" as the County Down men demanding £1 per head for every passenger taken ashore. Although eventually lowered to £5 for every 15 passengers, one young un-named Scotsman "...told them I would gie them 5s [shillings] for takin' me ashore, an' after some higglin' [haggling] they agreed tae that."   

William Watson managed to save his testimonial from the
local Parish Minister at Dalserf. This is the only verified
'artefact' I hold from the voyage of the'Wild Deer'.
[From my own collection] 

Lost to the Irish Sea

But all were landed safely and thankful for their almost miraculous deliverance from a watery grave. All they had were the clothes they were standing up in and anything they could comfortably carry, their trunks and most of their possessions being lost to the Irish Sea. My Gt. Gt. Uncle managed to save his testimonial written out by the local parish minister as this pre-dates the voyage. This is the only item I can verify as having been with him on the ill-fated voyage. By the 17th January, and "after grinding and straining on the North Rock", the vessel broke its back and became a total wreck. Also lost were 900 tons of additional cargo consisting of whisky, dry goods, and pig iron. One wonders how much material floated to shore which would then have been promptly 'purloined' by the local population.

The figurehead from the "Wild Deer"
representing the Goddess Diana, 1872
[De Maus Photo, National Library
of New Zealand]

"Diana", The Roman Goddess 

I have however discovered a reference to an article which appeared in the Belfast "News Letter" of the 21st May 1965 which states that the figurehead from the "Wild Deer", being a representation of "Diana", the Roman Goddess of the Moon, of animals, of nature and of the hunt, was then held by a Mrs Anderson of Ballyhalbert which is just north of Cloughey. The figurehead itself had originally been supplied by Kay and Reid of Wellington Street, Glasgow who specialised in carved figure heads for ships. There is also an undated and unverified reference to the figurehead from the "Wild Deer" having been sold by Sotheby's Auction House to an American buyer "for somewhere between £3,000 to £4,000".

Cloughey Presbyterian Church
[Source : Geograph]

 The Shipwrecked People... Presented a Curious Sight

Having now landed at the small fishing village of Cloughey which comprised of not more than 20 small houses, over 300 passengers were billeted on the generous hospitality of the residents. The Presbyterian Church and Manse were thrown open and all the cottagers played their part in supplying food and shelter. With the help of a large quantity of straw the passengers made themselves as comfortable as they could. Arrangements were then made to transport everyone overland to Belfast. For this purpose all the "jaunting cars" [two wheeled carriages] for miles around were requisitioned to convey everyone to Newtownards, a distance of 16 miles. "The shipwrecked people,... in their various garbs, presented a curious sight driving along the country roads of Ireland."

Irish "Jaunting cars" outside Newtownards Railway Station
[Source : A Digital Encyclopedia of Newtownards]

Did Not Risk Another Sailing Ship

From Newtownards, all were taken onto Belfast by the railway where they arrived in the evening and spent Sunday night thence by the steamer "Dromedary" back to Glasgow, arriving there just one week from the day they went on board. The emigrants were lodged in Glasgow until re-shipped, most sailing out on the "Caroline". My own Gt. Gt. Uncle did not risk another sailing vessel and chose to transfer to a steam ship! Quite how he managed the additional cost I do not know but his family and friends may have taken pity on him and given some assistance.

The track "up the brae" leading to the farmhouse is
just visible at centre right, Cander Mill is to the left.
[From my own collection]

An Unexpected but Pleasant Surprise

My late Mother often related the story her Grandmother told of looking out her kitchen window and exclaiming “If I didnae know that Willie Watson was away to New Zealand I’d say that was him coming up the brae.” William obviously managed to re-visit his family before news of the wreck reached them via the Glasgow newspapers. It would have been an unexpected but pleasant surprise for his remaining family in Scotland but again the same sad goodbyes. William Watson would have been faced with again buying and packing a new trunk. I can remember this same red ochre painted wooden trunk with his initial and surname written in large letters on the side.

John Kerr,

Suspended for Three Months

The Court of Inquiry held Captain John Kerr firmly to blame "for failing to accurately determine his exact position." But, having been with the company for an otherwise incident free fourteen years, the Court determined that “the punishment would be reduced within the narrowest limits [and] that the Captain’s certificate be suspended for three months.” Had there been any loss of life I fear the sentence may not have been so generous. My apologies that the above portrait is such poor quality.

William Watson, Taken 1920's

Rammed and Sunk the 'Tryst'

As an aside, William Watson, who died in 1931, returned to Scotland for a visit in 1909 but fared no better with his later seafaring adventures. Just before reaching Portsmouth his steam ship, the 'Ortona' rammed and sunk the "Tryst" which had not given way. William and his wife then endured a very slow return voyage home on the 'R.M.S. Osterley' after engine problems, including a blown cylinder on the quadruple expansion steam engine necessitated triple expansion working for the rest of the voyage. After emigrating to New Zealand in 1883 William went on to become a successful and highly progressive farmer. You can read about his experimentations with the new "agricultural motor" HERE

Bibliography :

- Watson family papers & history (from my own collection)
- New Zealand Electronic Text Collection / Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa
- "The Glasgow Herald", 1883
- "Dundalk Democrat", 20 January 1883
- "News Letter", Belfast, 21 May 1965
- "Papers Past" / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- "Views of Glasgow and the Clyde", c.1890's (from my own collection)
- Various Internet resources
- Coast Guards of Yesteryear
- "Shipwrecks of the Ulster Coast" by Ian Wilson


  1. Thank you for your interesting writing on the fate of the Wild Deer. One of my ancestors was also on board, and came to New Zealand aboard the Caroline, and I would love to find copies of the actual passenger list. Do you happen to know where I might find it? Many thanks.

    1. Happily both passenger lists exist. Please email me using the link in the right hand menu bar so I can email you the links. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this, which I have just uncovered. My great Grandfather and Great Great Grandmother were on this voyage. They did travel back to NZ on the Caroline. I shudder to think what they experienced

    1. Thank you. Glad my blog was of personal interest to you

  3. The Images of the "Wild Deer" show above were taken in 1872 and formed the basis for the half tones used in the Otago Times. The originals are in the Turnbul Collection acquired by the Maritime Museum in San Francisco

    1. Thank you Neil, I've taken your word on that and changed the dates. As Turnbull also quote the images as circa 1880 do you have a specific source for the specific 1872 attribution date? I can then let Turnbull know. Papers Past doesn't throw anything up in the way of illustrations. Thanks again.


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