Tag Archives: Research & Writing

The Wrecking of the San Francisco, Duneen, 1867

On 7 January 1867, after violent storms, Captain Garibaldi ran his brig ashore at Duneen Cove, Ardfield to conduct repairs. It was Monday afternoon, the light was clear, and Coastguard Carr watched her sail two points before the wind straight through the rocks and onto the sands. In fifteen minutes Carr was on the beach, and within the hour, so were two hundred others. A game began. Every time the tide rose, the people retreated, for the ship could not be reached; every time it fell, they swarmed forward. They entered the icy water, lifting each other on board and throwing down everything they could steal. For twenty-four hours, six coast guard and five police battled, night and day, to keep at bay a growing crowd of four hundred. The coastguard Captain Synge was sick in bed, and it was down to Chief Boatman Bridle to control matters, but he was late arriving.

Instead, Denis McCarthy Gallwey, arriving from Greenfield House shortly after Carr, hired a boat and with RIC Constable Shields rescued the crew. The Italian Captain barely spoke English, and could not understand that he must pay for the coastguard and police to protect his vessel. So Miss Annie Gallwey came from Greenfield to speak with him in French. As a result, the unfortunate man went up to Muckruss House and signed his entire ship and its cargo of coal over to Henry Baldwin Beamish Esq., landlord and magistrate. By now it was Tuesday afternoon. Henry’s first action was to dismiss the police. He appointed his four gentlemen sons and his elderly father-in-law to protect the vessel. The crowd swelled to five hundred. The ship began to ring as if attacked by fifty caulkers (Coastguard Carr’s statement). Even after 7 pm, ‘as high as the tide is they are still rapping at her’ (Cornelius Donovan’s words). By Wednesday, five hundred-weight (40 stone) of the sheet copper covering the hull had disappeared into the Muckruss mist.

Wreck Auction of San FranciscoConfusion arose as Captain Garibaldi changed his mind and handed the ship’s papers to the official agents Cummins of Queenstown. They arranged for its auction at Duneen on Monday 14th. Henry purchased the coals. The ship was bought by the surveyor who had been contracted to value her; but he reconsidered on the way home, and Henry got her at a knockdown price.

The Board of Trade ordered an Inquiry, partly because on Thursday night the people had taken to stoning the coast guards from the cliff, and in response John Dooley (Dirk Cove Coastguard) and boatmen John Warren and his son fired their pistols at them in the dark (no-one was hurt). Mostly, it was because the coastguard had still not been paid. The ship made £154 5s 6d at the auction; but after the shipping agents, the auctioneer, Beamish and Gallwey had submitted their claims, all that was left to her Captain was four shillings. The largest claim – at £37 8s –  had been made by Henry Baldwin Beamish.

The investigators were a lawyer John Hughes, and young Captain Henry Duncan Grant RN, who had risen through the ranks, fighting his way through India when Lieutenant on HM Pearl, and captaining anti-slavery missions in the Caribbean. They came fresh from the Elizabeth Buckram, sunk off the Wirral, Liverpool. Their brief: to inquire into the chaos that arose when her cargo of raw rum washed ashore. One hundred and fifty people fought over the barrels. A house painter emptied his paint can, wiped it with grass, filled it with rum and fell face down into a puddle. He had to have his stomach pumped. A lady, tempted to a tot, was found insensible in the dunes, having been abused. Women were seen drinking from their boots. The scenes of debauchery were unspeakable. A gentleman and a hotel boot boy disappeared into the waves never to surface again. Grant became a teetotaller.

Now here he was in Clonakilty and clear in his sights was Henry Baldwin Beamish, dodgy Irish magistrate with a bunch of pampered sons. Captain Grant asked why Beamish had dismissed the police. To save money, said Henry. Did he think that the expenses of those men would have amounted to what he had claimed for his sons? “I do not know what you do in England,” said Henry “but here we do not expect gentlemen’s sons to be paid at the same rate as labourers.”

Henry was not helped by the intervention of his younger son Tom, who accused the police of drunkenness at two earlier wrecks on his father’s land; and turning a blind eye to plundering if offered little glasses of whiskey. Tom insisted that Cornelius Driscoll should be brought in as a witness. Faced with the formality of the Court, Cornelius said he could only tell his story in Irish; the interpreter was a policeman, and Tom’s case was lost. Henry quickly established that the earlier wrecks would not fall within the scope of the current investigation.

The Inquiry lasted five days. By the Third Day, Grant and Hughes had stripped away every veneer and had Beamish wriggling on a pin. Then Henry Baldwin Beamish rose to read his formal statement to the Clonakilty Court. With flamboyant elegance and little flourishes of language, he made five points. He had been appointed agent for the ship by the Captain, and had he not been ‘overruled and supplanted’ by Messrs. Cummins, things would have gone on nicely. This was his property, his land, his country and he was the magistrate in charge. His dismissal of the police demonstrated the profound moral influence he had over the people, perfectly sufficient to protect the ship. The police had better things to do as they were a military force, directed of course by him as magistrate. Further,

“I would wish to impress upon you that if you think by inverting society, by putting common officers in the place of gentlemen of proper intelligence and worth … and that if the magistrates of this country are degraded by imposing over them stipendiaries – I say that the glory of old England is set for ever! and her sister island will perish in the sea!

“I fear not your utmost! Do your business! I am here to set you at defiance! I know the rectitude of my conduct. I care as little about that petty business of the San Francisco and her value of £200 as I care for 200 pence! My son will be here, and we defy you!”

These were no idle threats. It was Saturday 6 April 1867 –  exactly one month since the Fenian Rising – and Irish courts everywhere were arresting and prosecuting the patriotic rebels. The British government was in no mood to upset local magistrates, especially now Lord Naas, Chief Secretary for Ireland, had extended the ‘Fenian Pay’ to all the magistracy – as well as the constabulary, railway and telegraph workers – to keep them ‘loyal’.

From that moment the Court was in Beamish’s hands. Grant made his acid report to the British House of Commons, and nothing further was done. Business as usual re-established around the Galley Head. What did that mean? Grant could not decide. Close examination of witness statements suggests a pact between Beamish and his locals: they got some, he got some. In this, Denis Gallwey and his sister Annie colluded. On 9 January Denis sent a telegram from Greenfield house to the London Standard falsely stating that the San Francisco’s back was broken. But what about their side of the Galley Head?

Greenfields Clonakilty Jan 9th 1867

Denis was baronial high constable for Ibane and Barryroe, recommended by his uncles, lawyers for the Crown Prosecution. His was an immensely respectable family with a long history of smuggling. Grandfather Michael and sons controlled tenancies across Kilkerran, Ballylibert, Lisduff, Donoure, & Dundeady. Their published family history relates that Michael, a brewer, was nearly convicted in 1821 but for Lord Longueville’s intervention. Professor Frank Hodnett from Clonakilty quotes O’Donaghue’s words on the Gallweys, “Smugglers, all of them.”(3)

  1. The San Francisco was one of four wrecks around the Galley Head on 6 & 7 January 1867. The other three mentioned in the Cork Examiner and Skibbereen and West Carbery Eagle, no survivors, only one identified: the St. Helena researched by the author.
  2. The eleven crew took up residence in Cornelius Donovan’s ‘small house on the cliff’ (BOTW).
  3. The Galweys & Gallweys of Munster by Sir Henry Blackall, revised by A Galwey & T Gallwey 2015.

Galley Head west creek

Research & Writing

Picture: Voyage of the Joseph Sprott 1870-1871 Manila to New York wrecked on the Long Strand, Rosscarbery, County Cork Ireland.

Chasing Hares

‘Chasing hares’ is how John Bensusan-Butt, artist and historian, described researching the 18th century locals of Colchester.  John was clearly an addict. He loved his searches, and he chased hares for over forty years. Delving into the archives, he retrieved the records of over 1,000 ordinary people, building an unrivalled picture of living connections in an 18th C British town.

Now chasing hares is fun. I agree with John.  It is a vital part of historical research, but for me there is always a question, something burning in my head that I have to find out. As I collect information, a proposition builds to solve the problem.  Each new piece suggests a scenario, another way of thinking. Whole lives pop into view, secret affairs, dodgy dealings. One minute with 1870s fur traders on a ship from Alaska to Kamchatka, down through Hong Kong and round the Cape towards Helsinki; the next in a dusky boarding house in Manila, looking at a cigar packet left by the bed.

To follow the trail you have to think like the person you track. The world they know is the one you must come to know. Absolute evidence is meaningless without the context from which it arose. Thus I read around the bigger picture, then details make sense and new leads appear; but in research finding out what could not have happened is also useful. More interesting to me than the erratic dance of the hare, is the web of global activity at a single moment in time. My research may begin with one story but the world it plays out in is my subject. The story is its voice.

In the course of my museums work I have researched many histories to be able to invite others on the journey. Often the subject is known but only among academics, and my task is to pull together an account from scattered sources to write for exhibitions, interpretation, and publications.

As an artist and writer I have my own tales to tell. Here are a few of my projects.


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On February 19th 1871 the Joseph Sprott, a 600 ton barque returning from the South China Seas, was driven ashore on the Long Strand, Clonakilty in the earliest dark hours of the morning. The coastguard arriving by 5.00 am could discern no-one on board.  A police patrol on the road from Milltown picked up two wreckers carrying a box from the beach. By dawn the ship had entirely disintegrated and the Board of Trade Wreck Returns recorded a total loss of life.

It was the third ship to be lost on the Long Strand that month. Most attention was given to the steamer the Crescent City that had sunk with crates of silver dollars. A question was raised in the House of Commons, and a lighthouse built on the Galley Head. But of the Joseph Sprott, after a couple of newspaper reports in the Cork Examiner, nothing more was said.

My search for the truth has led me through shipping records, newspapers, colonial developments and business letters in the South China Seas; Burke’s peerage, Irish landownership and tenancies; baptism records, trade directories, and wrecking enquiries. There is but a little further to go to tell the full story of the Joseph Sprott but I am nearly there.

The Galley Head protrudes into the Atlantic like a stranded foot fringed by serrated rocks. The tides and currents swept tall ships into bays either side and the wrecks buried under their sands are uncountable. In good weather and calm nights, for local people it was most useful, in bad it could offer up rewards.

The Wrecking of the San Francisco, Duneen, 1867

The Victorian Dream

IMG_1002 j 1038 st peter'sWhen the 13th Earl of Eglinton put on a Medieval Tournament at his Scottish Castle in 1839, he was re-enacting a scene for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe.’ Only the best in society took part. As the aristocracy and princes of Europe thundered into the lists so did the Argyllshire weather. Everyone slid through the mud and the ladies were drenched, but no-one cared. Over 1,000 of the public turned up to watch and the ticket touts made a fortune, not so the Earl who lost his. Thus began the Medieval Madness of the Victorians.

The Victorian Dream tells the story of how medievalism drove the Gothic revival in church renovation and building, through the material evidence of a dozen English churches.  From the Cambridge students  who sent the public sleuthing to spot the gothic, to Sir George Gilbert Scott reinventing the 14th century to his own ideals, to the ferocious defence of the authentic by William Morris – it is an entertaining story. The churches are worth a visit, they are amazing.

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Widger’s Dig

In 1865, a Devon tailor began to dig back through time in the nearby caves. He was searching to discover the age of the world.

James Lyon Widger dug alone in the dark for twenty years, uncovering the remains of animals right back to the second to last Ice Age. That is 200,000 years of British wildlife, the most perfect sequence ever found.

Cave Hyena foot, upper & lower views, found by Widger 1866. A Monograph of British Pleistocene Mammalia, by W Boyd Dawkins

When he found the teeth and bones of over 600 hyenas mixed up with woolly rhinos and baby hippos, James thought them evidence of Noah’s Flood, for he was trying to prove the Bible right and Darwin wrong. His astounding discoveries achieved the reverse.

The story of James Lyon Widger and his dig is known only amongst palaeontologists. In his own time he was the wrong class and working from the old view, just as the battle boiled for the ancient age of the world. William Pengelly, the leading expert in excavation, ignored him.  James died impoverished, his collections mostly lost.

I pulled together sources from museums, recent excavations, and the short biography of Widger (Walker and Sutcliffe); and connected them to the history of Ice Age theory, the evidence of glaciations, and the fauna timeline for the Cattedown Bone Caves from the Devon Karst Research Society. Professor C. K. Brain’s study of hyena predation in African Cave Taphonomy, which begins with a discussion of Widger’s finds in the Torbryan Caves, gave insights into who was hunting who in Torbryan.

What did we do with all that? Created interpretation in Torbryan Church so that all visitors and locals today can discover Widger’s Dig. Widger’s Dig

NB No access to the caves, SSSI protected site.