Monday 23 October 2023

Sinking of the "Western Belle" of Greenock

On the night of Monday 1 May 1882, the Greenock ship Western Belle was lost after a collision with an iceberg off Newfoundland.  Thirteen members of the crew died.

The Western Bell, a barque of 1225 tons (built in the United States in 1860) had left Greenock on 11 April with a cargo of coal for Quebec.  The ship was owned by Robert Cuthbert & Co of Greenock.  The journey had gone reasonably well until just off Newfoundland when the weather changed.  A first-hand account, by one of the survivors, the mate, John Brown, appeared in the local newspaper.  He described the weather conditions on that day:- “Noon fresh southerly winds and cloudy all sail set, ship steering west north west at the rate of 9 knots an hour.  At 4pm, the wind being the same way and the weather getting thick, stowed the topgallant sails and flying jib, and placed a hand on the look-out, and kept the foghorn sounded, according to the Board of Trade regulations.  At 6pm, the fog still getting denser, reefed the upper topsails, and stowed the mainsail and jib.    At 8pm the weather still very thick, and raining hard, the ship going at a moderate speed, and every precaution taken for the safety of the ship and crew, I was relieved by the captain and second mate.”

The report goes on to state that the captain decided to remain on deck until the weather cleared.  At about 8.15 the lookout warned that there was an iceberg ahead, and almost immediately the port bow of the ship hit the iceberg.  All hands rushed on deck, but the ship was fast filling with water.  The starboard boat was cleared and some of the crew got on board while others tried to release the second boat.  Those in the first boat called to the others to leave the sinking ship and get into the boat as they were having difficulty getting the second boat free.  John Brown’s report continues “We stayed by the ship as long as we thought it safe, when we let go, and immediately afterwards we saw the stern of the ship very high and heard those that were left crying out when she disappeared, and we saw no more of the ill-fated ship and crew.  I think that from the time when she struck until she sunk did not exceed 20 minutes.

The conditions on the boat were dreadful – “We were then left alone in the boat with a heavy sea running and heavy rain, and some of us in the boat having scarcely any clothes on and nothing to shelter us.  We kept the boat head on to the sea, hoping that we would see some ship at daylight, as we had nothing in the boat but some bread and no water.  During the night the weather cleared up and became very cold.   We suffering very much from it.  When daylight broke there was nothing to be seen, only a small water-cask, which was empty.  We were then getting benumbed through cold and exposure, and no ship to be seen.  Toward noon we sighted a sail and we made for her.  When we got close to her they saw us and hove to and took us on board where we received every kindness from them.  The ship proved to be the Norwegian ship President from Antwerp for Quebec.  I don’t think that we would have survived long in the boat, owing to the cold being so severe, and the clothes that we had on being wet through.

Most of the 20 crew of the Western Belle belonged to Greenock or Glasgow.  Those saved were - John Brown, mate from Dumfries, James Oliver, carpenter from Greenock, John Singleton AB and Thomas Singleton OS were father and son from Inverkip Street, Greenock.  W McMillan AB, T Nicholas AB, and B Johnson AB were all from Glasgow.

Those drowned were - Captain Thomas J Frew aged about 40, John Ronnelly, boatswain, Sutherland Horn, sailmaker, G H Mackintosh, steward, Peter Johansen, cook, Thomas Lee OS all from Greenock.  The others were from Glasgow -, David Folley AB, William Kelly AB, John O’Connor AB, Olaf Aberstad AB, James Hughes OS, and Alexander Smart OS.  Another crew member was named as John Grant AB, Glasgow, however, it turned out that he had given a false name when he signed up, he was John McPhail of Glasgow who left a widow and four children.  (AB – able seaman, OS – ordinary seaman) 

Ironically, Captain Frew had just a year or so previously, written about the “serious losses to owners, underwriters and shippers from the detention by ice of vessels bound to Quebec” and had received a reply from Pierre Etienne Fortin (1823-1888), Canadian MP and chairman of the special committee on navigation and fisheries.  Dated 21 June 1880 it reads – “Your remarks on the navigation of the Gulf of St Lawrence are to the point, and I agree with you on this important point that signal stations must be established on every projecting headland at the entrance of that inland sea, so that vessels may have the advantage of being able, when necessary to procure information respecting the ice etc”.

Unfortunately, it took just 20 minutes for the Western Belle to sink and for 13 men to lose their lives.  The survivors, after landing at Quebec were shipped back to their homes in Glasgow and Greenock.  How terrible it must have been for the families of these mariners waiting at home to find out if their loved ones would return.  The Singleton family of Greenock were lucky in that both father and son were among those saved from the icy seas.