The Last Victims Of Waterloo? Sea Horse Tragedy 1816

The Wreck of the Sea Horse, Tramore, 1816

On January 30th 1816 Waterloo veterans met a watery grave

As a second-generation Irishman whose parents live in deepest Tipperary, it is almost obligatory that my visits to Ireland include an excursion to Tramore in County Waterford. Its lovely sandy beach, funfair and (one-time) myriad of slot machine arcades providing something for all ages, PLUS the added bonus of Dooly’s truly excellent fish and chip shop – supplies the perfect end to any day trip. They don’t serve seahorse, but you don’t have to look far to see them in this town.

Yet, amidst my nostalgia for Tramore, the presence of a shipwreck on the beach (when I was a lad) was always a stark reminder of the perils facing mariners daring to enter her waters. To this end I have long appreciated why each side of Tramore Bay has so many large beacons – one of which is be-topped by a ‘Metal Man’ which I was wrongly informed had been erected as a kind of corporate stunt. Compounding things further, I always assumed that Tramore’s cute seahorse emblem was just an obligatory tacky seaside symbol, on a par with saucy postcards, donkeys and kiss-me-quick hats.

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Tramore Seahorse Logo – not tack, but genuine respect

But thanks to the magnificent people of Waterford, a monument is about to be unveiled which not only makes me humbly eat my words about Tramore and its logo, but is also a very sincere and poignant memorial for a maritime disaster of the highest order, which occurred on 30th January 1816 involving the ill-fated transport ship Sea Horse.

sea horse memorial

The new Sea Horse Memorial at Tramore

Whilst walking the promenade at Tramore this weekend I came across this delightful stone-built memorial commemorating the bicentennial of the tragedy of the sinking of the Sea Horse – when 363 lives were lost as she foundered during a storm in Tramore Bay. The story of the Sea Horse is very sad, not least for the 2nd Battalion, 59th (2nd Nottinghamshire) Regiment – who were all but wiped out in the icy waters of Tramore Bay. This Battalion (formed in 1806) had been garrisoned in Ireland until 1814 when they were called up to form part of the army of occupation in Paris. After Napoleon’s escape from Elba, the 2/59th were present at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th 1815. In this bloodiest of battles, the 2/59th were fortunately spared – having not been called into action by the Duke of Wellington.

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The 2/59th Regiment – Escaped death at Waterloo (but not for long)

In the aftermath of Napoleon’s final defeat, peace and subsequent demobilisation – the 2/59th sailed back to Dover, making the short journey to Ramsgate, for embarkation upon the Sea Horse which was commissioned to return them to barracks in Ireland. The full story of what happened to the 2/59th is recounted by the Lancashire Infantry Museum. It reveals that Sea Horse was one of a convoy of ships wrecked along the Irish coast that fateful night – raising the overall death toll in this regiment to 550 souls.Their account highlights one important event – in itself a tragedy – but which triggered the horrendous loss that ensued:

At 4pm Ballycotton Island was seen at about 12 miles distance. On board the Sea Horse, the Mate, John Sullivan, who was the only person aboard with knowledge of the approaching coast, climbed the foremast to spy out the land, but he fell, breaking his legs and arms. He died three hours later in his wife’s arms; a loss of local knowledge which was to have tragic consequences for his ship….

Local knowledge was indeed essential because the treacherous bay of Tramore could easily be mistaken for the calm waters of the Waterford Estuary – which lay just east of where the Sea Horse ultimately foundered

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Shipwrecks were almost daily reported in the early C19

Contemporary newspaper reportage of what was at that time (and perhaps until the sinking of the Lusitania) Ireland’s worst maritime disaster, was scant. All I could find was a report in the Morning Post (6th February 1816)

The transport Sea Horse sailed from a port in England a few days ago bound for Waterford or Cork, with a large detachment of the 59th Regiment, consisting of about 16 officers, 287 men, 33 women and 31 children… On the morning of the 30th ult the vessel was driven into Tramore Bay by a desperate gale from the south. The severity of the weather had compelled her to cut her mizen mast, before she came within the bay… she continued beating off with a view to get around Brownstown Head, and thus to reach the harbour in safety, but totally without effect. The top fore-mast fell, killed the mate, and broke the leg of one of the seamen. Two anchors were thrown out but these were dragged by the violence of the storm, and rendered totally unavailing. The vessel was then driven forward, within half a mile of the shore, in presence of hundreds of people, who could give the unhappy persons on board no aid. It was low water at the time, about one pm, which on such a beach, rendered every chance of escape almost utterly hopeless. Much of them on board then retired below, and resigned themselves to their awful and impending fate. The vessel struck upon the sands… and in a few minutes went entirely to pieces. There were 363 drowned and only 31 saved… One of the [surviving] officers clung onto something belonging to the ship… had nearly abandoned himself to his fate, when a countryman rushed into the sea, at the peril of his life, and rescued the stranger from death… It was not within the compass of human power to prevent the sad catastrophe..

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363 lives were lost in Tramore Bay

Captain Gibbs was one of the few survivors and later wrote a full narrative of events. He said of his fellow passengers

There was no disturbance amongst them, most were saying prayers, women were heard encouraging husbands to die with them, and a sergeant’s wife, with three children clasped in her arms, resigned herself to her fate, between decks.

Children fared worst of all, for many had been placed in trunks by their parents in futile hope they might float to safety. One large chest was later recovered containing the bodies of 4 tots – another child was found in the arms of his father who had refused to give him up to save his own skin. Corporal Malone (a survivor) found his son amongst many bodies piled upon the shore, and he removed his shirt to wrap the naked boy for burial.

Christ Church Tramore

Sea Horse Memorial in Christ Church, Tramore

For those left behind, the human cost can perhaps best be summed up via this advertisement from the Morning Post (February 10th 1816), which reveals the awful situation to which one widow was plunged. If only I had a time machine to help the family of ship’s carpenter Russell from Rotherhithe, who had only recently joined the Sea Horse crew and by his death left a wife and 6 children

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An uncertain fate awaited the bereaved families

To conclude, I have to say that I felt a immense pride and admiration for the people of Waterford when I learned how much this awful event is woven into their cultural history, and how fitting and respectful their hard work to memorialise the victims has been. As for me, I now understand why the Sea Horse logo so aptly befits Tramore – and I’ve finally realised that the ‘corporate’ bigwigs I believed responsible for the Metal Man – were in fact Lloyds of London who erected these maritime beacons in 1823 on the orders of the Admiralty in London, as a direct consequence of the Sea Horse disaster.

metal man tramore

So, if you are ever in Ireland and fancy a day out – why not go down to Tramore and see for yourself their heartfelt recognition for the loss of 363 souls who might, in a less tolerant society, have been disdained as soldiers from an army of occupation – rather than desperately sad victims of mother nature’s wrath.

 

For Further Information

Ivan Fitzgerald’s Blogspot is absolutely the best resource for information on the Sea Horse – not least for this 1820s poem lamenting the loss of life in Tramore Bay

tramore poem

For information as to where the wreck of the Sea Horse rests visit Wreck Site, or you might like the Sea Horse Commemoration Facebook Page. James Donahue has written a great piece on why the Sea Horse tragedy still resonates today

The Sea Horse Tramore Blog is a voluntary group comprising of various local bodies in Tramore dedicated to the memory of this event, and the Waterford Chamber of Commerce considers it to have ‘left a lasting mark upon the people of Tramore’

I have strayed off usual territory a bit here, but if your interest is The Battle of Waterloo, you might like to read about Wellington and Fitzroy Somerset or the history of the Waterloo Medal. Or if you are more of a landlubber like me, some information on London stagecoaches might be in order