The Londonderry

By Edward Laxton

Some years after the Famine, a former ship's surgeon, Doctor Custis from Dublin, wrote a newspaper series relating his experience on six emigrant ships in the late 1840s.

The torments of hell might, in some degree, resemble the sufferings of the emigrants on board… Take all the ships in Liverpool, concentrate in a given space the acts and deeds done in all for one year, and they would scarcely equal the amount of crime committed in one emigrant ship during a single voyage.

While the good doctor undoubtedly exaggerated, there was no shortage of reports of brutality to passengers. On the other hand, though many sailors were hard men and may have been unkind, the percentage of ships constantly engaged in the emigrant trade was small, and those sailing out of the Irish Ports would hardly have courted bad publicity. The worst atrocities appear to have been committed on the shorter voyages, from Ireland to Liverpool, often undertaken by fairly new steamships.

The Londonderry, a paddle steamer, berthed at the quayside in Derry one Sunday in the winter of 1848. She was only seven years old, big for a ship of her kind, weighing 222 tons. Manned by a crew of 26, she sailed regularly between Sligo and Liverpool. On this winter trip, while hugging the coast of Donegal, she hit bad weather. She was carrying general cargo down below, a deck cargo of cattle, three cabin passengers and 174 passengers in steerage. This was a fairly average-sized manifest for the relatively short journey to Liverpool- not much more than 300 miles. Many of the passengers were undoubtedly seeking onward passages on arrival in Liverpool. The majority of the steerage passengers would expect to complete most of, if not all, the voyage on deck but when a storm broke out one evening, the master ordered his crew to drive all passengers into the after cabin, though it was far too small to hold all 174 of them. They struggled for space and fought for air to breathe: some were crushed and others suffocated. When the cabin door was opened the following morning, shortly before the ship tied up at Derry, 31 women, 23 men and 18 children had died. After the tragic voyage, the master and two mates were arrested. During an inquest, survivors accused the Scottish crew of being cruel and savage. The captain protested he had given orders for the deck to be cleared for the passengers' safety, while the storm raged. The coroner's jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, commenting that more consideration was shown to the cattle than to the passengers entrusted to their care.