Suffocation on Board Steamer Londonderry

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Document ID 9809036
Date 06-12-1848
Document Type Newspapers (Shipping News)
Archive Linenhall Library
Citation Suffocation on Board Steamer Londonderry;The Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Wednesday, 6 December, 1848; CMSIED 9809036
   One of the most appalling catastrophes which the annals of
steam navigation have been fated to record it is this day our
distressing duty to make known to the public. The details are so
shocking, the destruction of human life so lamentable, the
general history of this most woful event so dreadful, as almost
to throw an air of discredit over its relation, though it is
unhappily but too true in very one of its horrible features.
Seventy-two men, women, and children, suffocated in the hold
of a steamer, in the dead of midnight, in the midst of angry
waters, but a few brief hours' sail from their native land!
dying like dogs. Fighting for a mouthful of the air of Heaven,
let it blow never so fiercely and sinking down in that miserable,
reeking and loathsome charnel-house, one after the other in the
expiring exhaustion of that terrible struggle for if until that
miserable doghole was filled with a mass of carcasses, almost
divested of the semblance of humanity by the fearful violence of
their death-agony!
   The rumour of some terrible accident having occurred on board
a Sligo steamer was largely circulated through town on Monday
morning, and a great number of versions were current, many of
them of the most improbable character. It was confidently alleged,
and indeed some letters received by the early mail broadly stated
it, that a band of ruffins had embarked on board the steamer, in
company with the emigrants, and in the dead of night, had
risen in arms against them, butchering in cold blood the greater
part, and plundering them of all the money with which they had
provided themselves to land them to the shores of America. Other
versions equally horrible were current, and a great degree of
excitement naturally prevailed throughout the community, but on
the arrival of the afternoon mail the full and true particulars
of the calamity were ascertained, and though the catastrophe
was found to be widely different in its cause from what had
been rumoured, its lamentable results were unhappily but too
real, and these with the other harrowing details of this
melancholy voyage we now proceed to relate as precisely and
circumstantially as it is in our power to do.
   The steamer Londonderry, Captain Johnstone, one of the North
West of Ireland Steam-packet Company's vessels, and at present
plying between Sligo and Liverpool, left Sligo at four o'clock
on Friday evening, for the later port, with a general cargo, a
large number of cattle and sheep, about 150 steerage passengers,
emigrants on their way, via Liverpool to America, and two or
three cabin passengers. As she proceeded on her voyage, the weather
became exceedingly stormy, at about midnight the wind arose to a
perfect gale. About one o'clock in the morning is was deemed
expedient to put the steerage passengers below, and the order
was executed not, we understand without some resistance on the part
of many of them. Most of our readers are probably acquainted
with the dimension of the passage cabin of an ordinary steamer; a
compartment rarely more than eighteen feet long, by ten or
twelve in width, and in height about seven feet. Into this space,
ventilated only by one opening, the companion, one hundred and
fifty human beings were packed together! We can only guess at
the necessity which gave occasion for this apparently inhuman,
and, alas! fatal order; but it is reasonable to suppose that
there was an apprehension lest some of the unfortunate
passengers might have been washed overboard, had they remained
on deck, as the sea was at the time breaking over the vessel.
The steerage being thus occupied, it was next as alleged, feared
lest the water should get admission through the companion; and
this, the only vent by which air could be admitted to the
sufferers below, was closed and a tarpalin placed over it,
thus hermetically sealing the aperture, and preventing the
possibility of any renewal of the exhausted atmosphere! The
steamer went on her way, gallantly braving the winds and waves,
and unconscious of the awful work which death as meanwhile
doing within her. No tongue, save that of a survivor, can
realize the horrors of that truly awful period, during which,
in the darkness, and heat and loathesomeness of their prison,
its wretched inmate shrieked for aid, and there were none to
hear their cries amid the boisterousness of the storm, or, is
they were heard, none sagacious enough to interpret the dreadful
meaning they meant to convey. At length, one man - the last, it
is said, who had been put down - contrived to effect an opening
through the tarpauling of the companion, and [----ing?] himself
out, communicated to the mate that the people in the steerage
were dying for want of air. The mate instantly became alarmed,
and, obtaining a lantern, went down to render assistance. Such,
however, was the foul state of the air in the cabin, that the
light was immediately extinguished! A second was obtained, and
it, too, was extinguished. At length, on the tarpaulin being
completely removed, and a free access of air admitted, the
real nature of the catastrophe exhibited itself. There lay,
in heaps, the living, the dying, and the dead, a spectacle
enough to appal the stoutest heart. Men, women, and children
were huddled together - blackened with suffocation, distorted
by convulsions, bruised and bleeding from the desperate
struggle for existence which preceded the moment when
exhausted nature resigned the strife. After some time, the
living were separated from the dead, and it was then found
that they amounted to nearly one half of the entire number.
The vessel put into Lough Foyle at ten o'clock on Saturday
night, but for some reason, with which we are not yet
acquainted, she did not come up to the quay of Derry until
ten o'clock on the following (Sunday) morning. The excitment and
consternation of the inhabitants may well be conceived when
the astounding intelligence was circulated that the Londonderry
had put in with a multitude of dead bodies on board, the
intelligence  heightened by the exaggerated stories of robbery
and assassination which doubtless gave rise to the rumours of
that kind circulated in this town yesterday. The authorities at
once hastened to the spot, and immediate orders were given for
the arrest of the captain crew, and surviving passengers. 50 men
of the 95th depot, under the command of Major Raines, supported
by the city constabulary, were present, and prevented the
regress of any parties from the vessel. Alex. Lindsay, Esq. the
Mayor, and several of the local magistrates, were in attendance. The
scene on entering the steerage of the steamer was perhaps as
awful a spectacle as could be witnessed. Seventy-two dead bodies
of men, women, and children lay piled indiscriminately over
each, four deep, all presenting the ghastly appearance of persons who
had died in the agonies of suffocation; very many of them
covered with blood which had gushed from the mouth and nose, or
had flowed from the wounds inflicted by the trampling of
nail-studded brogues, and by the frantic violence of those who
struggled for escape. For it was but too evident that, in that
struggle, the poor creatures had torn the clothes from off each
other's backs, and even the flesh from each other's limbs! After
the lapse of some time a respectable jury was impannelled before
[---chin?] Lloyd, Esq.  Coroner : and they proceeded to hold an
inquest on the body of one of the sufferers, a little girl of
aabout eight years of age.  So witnesses were thus examined,
and at the conclusion of their testimony, it being six o'clock,
the coroner adjourned the inquest until next morning, at ten
o'clock. Meanwhile the bodies were removed from the steamer to
the stores of Mr. John Lyons. Owing to the nature of their
death and other causes, decomposition was rapidly setting in,
and it was not without difficulty that persons could be induced
to undertake the task. It required three hours to remove the
bodies. The mayor gave orders that coffins should be provided
for the dead; the survivors, by order we understand, of the
Bishop, were conveyed to the Town-hall, where every attention
was paid to them.- Nearly all of the steerage passengers, on
this most fatal voyage, were poor farmers from the
neighbourhood of Sligo and Ballina, and their families; there
were about an equal number of males and females, and a
considerable proportion of children, many of whom are now
left fatherless and motherless. Among the survivors are three
little children, saved out of a family of nine. [------?]
unnecessary to say that all these passengers were considerably
poor, many of them half naked.
   The inquest was resumed on Monday morning, and it is probable
that for some days to come the verdict of the jury cannot be
known, as a vast number of witnesses are likely to be
   The following statement is from the proprietors of the
Derry Sentinel, by whom it was obligingly forwarded to
                 Sentinel Office, Derry, Monday, Dec. 4,
                        6 o'clock, a.m.
   For the information of our contempories, we subjoin
the particulars of this most dreadful calamity. About
9 o'clock yesterday morning, the inhabitants of this city
were startled, on hearing the astounding intelligence,
that the Londonderry steamer, Captain Johnstone, which plies
between Sligo and Liverpool, had reached our quay with a
number of dead bodies on board.