The Sinking of the Hannah

The sinking of the Hannah

The sinking of the ship “Hannah” on 29 April 1849 has been dubbed “the most cowardly act by a ship's captain in the annuls of maritime history”.

The brig Hannah transported emigrants to Canada during the Irish Famine. The 287 ton brig was built in Norton, New Brunswick, Canada in 1826 and apart from the captain, could house 12 crew and 200 passengers. Sadly she came to fame for the terrible circumstances of her shipwreck in 1849, in which the captain and two officers left the sinking ship aboard the only lifeboat, leaving passengers and the rest of the crew to fend for themselves.

Hannah was transporting Irish immigrants fleeing the famine from Warrenpoint and Newry to Quebec City, when it sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on 29 April 1849, resulting in, it is believed, 49 deaths. She set sail from Newry, on 3 April 1849 with a crew of 12 under its 23-year-old master, Curry Shaw, transporting mainly agricultural labourers and their families. The exact number of passengers is difficult to determine as the ship's list was lost, but it was around 180. It has been reported that ship's doctor William Graham later accused Shaw of several times slipping into the bunks of unmarried young women during the voyage.

The Hannah hits an ice reefThe ship encountered "heavy winds, and a quantity of floating ice" on 27 April. At 4 am on the night of 29 April, the Hannah struck a "reef of ice" which punched a hole in the hull. When they found that there was no hope of saving the ship, Shaw ordered the ship's carpenter to hammer shut the after hatch, trapping the passengers below, but another seaman wrenched it open. Shaw and his first and second officers then fled in the only lifeboat. Dr. Graham asserted that he swam after them, but was held at bay by Shaw swinging a cutlass.

The barque Nicaragua, under the command of Captain William Marshall, appeared the next day and picked up 127 survivors. The Guardian of 11 June 1849 reported 49 dead and 127 rescued, a total of 176 "the total number supposed to be embarked", but this may exclude the three officers who abandoned ship. The same article also lists 159 passengers and an unspecified number of daughters of an Ann Lennox. Captain Marshall compiled a slightly different list that includes ten passengers not found on the Guardian's tally and omits four that are. Marshall later transferred a number of survivors to other ships: 28 to the barque Broom, 17 to the barque Lord Byron, 22 to the barque Aldebaran, and 20 to the Port of Glasgow. He arrived in Quebec City with the remainder on 10 or 14 May. Dr. Graham later died in a Quebec hospital.

The London Guardian reported the incident in it's issue of June 4th 1849.


The heart-rending tidings of the total wreck of the Hannah, freighted with nearly two hundred emigrants, bound for Quebec from Newry, was reported yesterday afternoon at Lloyd's, the particulars having been received by the American mail-steamer, America, at Liverpool.

The unfortunate vessel, the Hannah, was a brig between 150 and 200 tons burden, belonging to Maryport, and manned by a crew, it is said, of 12 seamen, under the command of Mr. Shaw, the master. On the 3rd of April last she sailed from Newry with the above number of emigrants on board, having previously been overhauled and examined by her Majesty's emigration agent at that port. The emigrants chiefly consisted of agricultural labourers and their wives and children.

The passage up to the 27th, considering the season of the year, was as favourable as could be expected. The vessel then encountered heavy winds, and a quantity of floating ice. The master, as well as possible bore off, in order to clear it, but it flocked round in huge masses, and on the morning of the 29th the unfortunate ship struck on a reef of ice of such magnitude as to carry away part of her bottom. It was about four o'clock when she took the ice, and the concussion threw the emigrants into a state of the most painful excitement. The poor creatures were below asleep, and immediately after the fearful striking of the ship they were to be seen rushing up to the deck with merely their night clothes on in the most indescribable confusion and alarm. The sounding of the pumps at once convinced them that the vessel was foundering. There were several feet of water in the hold, and it was rapidly increasing. As the only chance of keeping the ship afloat, a cry was raised to keep to the pumps until assistance could be obtained from some passing vessel, and also, it is presumed, to allow of the boats being prepared for the rescue of the emigrants. What steps were taken to secure their preservation no mention is made in the report received. A charge, however, is laid against the master and the first and second officers, of their having been guilty of one of the most revolting acts of inhumanity possible to be conceived. They had got the life-boat out, and the moment they found the vessel would inevitably go down, they jumped into it, and abandoned the wreck with the living mass on board. the gurgling noise of the rising water in her hold intimated to the helpless creatures their perilous condition, Already was the lower deck covered, too forcibly showing that her foundering was near at hand. The terrible scene that here ensued may be briefly told as one of the most agonising description, scarcely to be depicted. Their screams for help, rent the air, and it was with difficulty, that the remainder of the crew could induce the frantic creatures to comprehend the only chance left of saving their lives. Fortunately the ice was firm under the ship's bows, and the seamen convincing them as to its security many got on it. Its solidity being then apparent, a desperate struggle took place among the emigrants to leave the wreck. Men, women, and children many having infants suckling at the breast, with nothing on but their night-attire, were to be seen scrambling over the mass of ice. Many of the poor creatures slipped between the huge masses, and were either crushed to death or met with a watery grave.

Curry Shaw The last to leave the wreck were some of the crew, who contrived to save a small portion of spirits and a few blankets.- Soon after they had got clear the ship's stern rose, as it were, above water, and she went down head foremost, just forty minutes after the collision with the ice. The sufferings of the wretched creatures, exposed as they were amid towering masses of ice, with a raging freezing gale of wind from the S.S.E., were most harrowing. The seamen who were amongst them humanely gave up what covering they had to the females, who had been shockingly wounded and bruised in their course over the ice.- Thus were they exposed the whole of that day, till five o'clock in the afternoon, when a vessel hove in sight and bore down to the field of ice. It proved to be the barque Nicarague [sic], bound for Quebec, Captain Marshall. The statement made by that gentleman, relative to the steps taken by him and his crew for the recovery of the survivors, is to the following effect.

On the 29th., about half-past six o'clock, the wind blowing a strong gale from the S.S.E. and a thick fall of sleet, the ship lying to the windward of a large field of ice, Cape Rye [Ray] being S.E. by E. about 27 miles distant, discovered something on the ice, which subsequently turned out to be a flag of distress.- Made all sail, and gained the edge of the ice, found to his astonishment, a mass of living people upon it. He got the ship's ice fenders down and prepared to take to the ice. By seven o'clock got so close in, that in the course of two hours he and his crew succeeded in getting hold of about fifty of the poor creatures and placing them on board the vessel. The remainder stood crouched in another part of the ice some distance off, inaccessible from the position of the ship. - Captain Marshall had all sails clewed up, and got a rope fastened to apiece of ice, and with the long boat pushed off with his men on the spot. After considerable difficulty he succeeded in getting to the edge, where they remained huddled together. The whole of them were saved. "No pen" Captain Marshall observes, "can describe the pitiable situation of the poor creatures, they were all but naked, cut and bruised, and frost-bitten. There were parents who had lost their children, children with loss of parents. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible. The number got on board the Nicarague [sic] were 129 passengers and seamen; the greater part of these were frost-bitten".

As far as Captain Marshall could ascertain from the survivors, the number that perished by being crushed to death between the ice and frozen to death were from 50 to 60. As soon as he had succeeded in getting all on board the ship was got under weigh, and proceeded in the direction of Cape Ray. Every comfort that his means and the ship's capability afforded were placed at the sufferers disposal. The next day, meeting with the barque Broom, of Glasgow twenty-seven of the poor creatures were transferred on board of that vessel, and, in the course of the following day, forty-nine of the survivors, for comfort's sake, were placed on board three other vessels. The Nicaragua reached Quebec on the 10th of last month, where the remainder of the sufferers were landed. their names were Alexander Thompson, his wife and four children; William Tadford, wife and one child; William Anderson, wife, and four children; John Murphy, wife and four children; David Gurwin and wife, Patrick McGill, James Murphy and wife; Dr. William Graham; Peter McFearling (his father, mother and rest of the family drowned), also the following seamen of the Hannah.- John Offin, John Smith, John Parker, Richard Harwin, Alexander Harris, and David Jordan. The names of the emigrants shipped on board the vessel(s) from the Nicaragua are not mentioned.

The fate of the master and the others who took to the life boat and abandoned the emigrants is not known.

On 11 June 1849 the Newry Telegraph reported.

Authentic Particulars.

We (Newry Telegraph) by this week's mail from America, have received, from a friend in Quebec, the following communication relative to the loss of the brig 'Hannah' from this port. For the perfect accuracy of the representation of our correspondent, we can unhesitatingly vouch; and his statement, with the explanatory list setting forth the names of the parties saved and lost, and specifying the counties whence they had emigrated will be read with much interest, and will have the effect of allaying the deep and painful anxiety which the tidings of the disastrous occurrence excited in the minds of many of the inhabitants of the rural districts adjacent to Newry:- Quebec, 18th May, 1849.

By the last mail you will have heard of the melancholy loss of the ship, Hannah, Captain Shaw, which sailed from Warrenpoint for this port, with passengers on the 3d. of April last. Many of the passengers went down with the vessel, or perished miserably on the ice; but the exact loss cannot now be ascertained, as the ship's list of their number and description was lost.- I enclose you a printed list of the persons saved, the publication of which, in The Telegraph, will answer all the purposes of a full list of all lost and saved - as the friends of those parties who sailed by the Hannah, and who are not mentioned in the enclosed, will understand, that all such are among those who perished. It would appear that great blame is to be attached to Captain Shaw, in this melancholy affair, whose cowardice and inhumanity are said to have been conspicuous throughout.

Warrenpoint Harbour The Doctor's disposition, with that of Richard Irving, one of the sailors on board the Hannah, (which corroborate each other) are both forwarded by this mail to Mr. James Ferguson, the charterer of the vessel. The surviving passengers arrived at Quebec, of course in a miserably destitute and almost naked condition; but through the active and benevolent exertions of Mr. Hyde, a sum of 50 and a large quantity of clothing, were collected from the charitably disposed, and they were enabled to proceed free, and with each a small supply of money, to their several destinations, comfortably clad, and without any loss of time. The head-money, which would have been leviable on the passengers, had the Hannah arrived in port, was handed by Messrs. Hyde & McBlain, on account of Mr. Ferguson, to the Emigration Agent, and by him repaid to the surviving passengers.

List of passengers per brig 'Hannah', Curry Shaw, master, from the port of Newry, Ireland, which was wrecked by the ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the 29th April, 1849, distinguishing those saved and those lost, as nearly as can be ascertained: James Murphy and wife; William Tadford, wife and child (1 child lost); Michael McGill, wife and two children; Owen McCourt and wife; Patrick McGurk, with wife and two children; Joseph Kerr, wife and 2 do.; (5 children lost); Alexander Thompson, wife and 4 children, (father and mother, and his child lost); Peter Murphy, wife and child; John Delaney, wife and sister; Wm. Henderson, wife and 4 children (1 child lost); John Murphy, wife and 4 children (2 children lost); David Garvin, and wife; Ann McGinn (6 children lost); Ann McEwan and sister (2 brothers and 2 sisters lost); Henry Grant and wife (4 children lost); Ann Lennon, daughters, 2 sons and niece; Daniel McGuigan and brother; William Wood; Thomas Cannon, sister and 2 brothers; (father, mother, and the children's niece lost); Eliza Blackstock; Samuel Henderson; Edward Nugent; Charles Mulholland; Edward McElhern, wife and child (mother, and 6 of his children lost); Patrick McGrory, wife and 3 children,(4 children lost); James Ward, wife and 4 children; Alice McKinley and cousin; James McVerry; Peter Loughran, wife and 6 children; Eliza Perdue and 2 daughters; Thomas Quin, brother and brother and sister-in-law; Jane Thompson and sister, (father and mother lost); Mary Ann Brantford; Peter McFarlane, (father, mother, and two brothers lost); Michael Grant, mother, sister, uncle, and brother - the foregoing persons are from the County Armagh. Patrick McGinn; John Tuft and son, (wife and 2 children lost); County Down; Andrew Kelly, County Tyrone; Joseph Murphy and sister, children - South of Ireland. Catherine Hart -unknown.

Total number ascertained to be lost, 49, which, with 127, the number saved, made 176, the total number supposed to be embarked were mostly from the Forkhill area of Co. Armagh.

Curry Shaw and the other two officers were rescued by the Margaret Pollock and reached Quebec. The Ballina Chronicle reported that a charge was laid against the three "of their being guilty of one of the most revolting acts of inhumanity that can be conceived." However, Shaw successfully defended himself by casting doubt on the testimony of Graham and others, and escaped punishment.

Almost 160 years later, the Montreal documentary maker Gala Films is hoping to include this remarkable incident in its survey of the Irish famine migration to Canada. It is seeking descendants of those who survived the sinking of the Hannah. One of those descendants, Paddy Murphy, says the incident is laced with both cowardice and courage. He notes accounts of the day which reported that the Hannah crew and captain had departed in a lifeboat, leaving the boat’s passengers exposed to the elements. All would have died had Captain Marshall of the Nicarague not made his ship fast to the iceberg at great risk to himself and his crew.

Warrenpoint Harbour “‘No pen can describe the pitiable situation of the poor creatures,” Marshall reported to the Armagh Guardian on June 4, 1849. “They were all but naked, cut and bruised and frost-bitten. There were parents who had lost their children, children with loss of parents. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible.” Three other ships also pitched in to bring survivors through the ice floes to Grosse Ile, the immigrant quarantine station in the St. Lawrence River.

Paddy Murphy’s great-great-grandparents John Murphy and his wife Bridget (McParland) had already endured tragedy before setting out for Quebec in April, 1849. In January of that year, their house had burned down and one of their children had died in the blaze. On the Hannah they had four of their children, and the two eldest were lost. “The children went into the water and John went in after them. The story in our family is that his hands were so badly frozen he couldn’t handle the rope he’d taken to try to pull them to safety. He held the rope in his mouth in the hope he’d find them and they could grab on. But he couldn’t save them. He lost all his teeth as a result,” Paddy recounts. “Rose, who was approximately three years old, fell in the water and was rescued but did not speak for years because of the shock. Bernard, ‘Barney,’ aged two, also fell in the water but was pulled to safety by the wife of Henry Grant who thought he was one of her own children.”

It was Barney’s son, Mike, who recounted the incident to Paddy on the occasion of Paddy’s marriage to his wife Jane, in the summer of 1962. “Grandfather Mike was delighted at the marriage because Jane’s maternal great-great-grandfather Michael Coburn came from the same area in Forkhill, County Armagh as the Murphys. He said we were two old Irish families uniting. Michael Coburn had left Ireland in 1848, a year before the Hannah disaster, and Grandfather Mike, whose mother, Ellen Bennett, was also from Forkhill, told us about John Murphy coming over on a ship that hit an iceberg, the many lives lost, and his father who was saved from the water.” Paddy, who grew up in the township of North Crosby, south of Ottawa, where many of the Hannah survivors settled to farm, went on to conduct his own research into the shipwreck, and his findings later became the basis of a book called A Famine Link: The Hannah, South Armagh to Ontario. The authors, Kevin Murphy and Una Walsh, are members of the Mullaghbawn Community Centre in Forkhill, South Armagh.

Clearly the story of the Hannah is a stirring tale that speaks to the times and to the Irish in Quebec. It is estimated up to 40 percent of the province’s citizens have Irish blood.

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