On a cold and windy day in March 1841, an American sailing ship the William Brown left Liverpool bound for Philadelphia. On board were 65 passengers from Ireland and Scotland seeking a new life in the USA. Among them were families from Cookstown, the Patrick’s, the Leyden’s and the Corr’s, and Jane Anderson, apparently travelling alone.
The voyage was anything but pleasant, and for the first few weeks, the ship fought its way through heavy seas and gales. Conditions for the passengers were far from ideal – just imagine the smell of over 60 unwashed people crammed together in cramped quarters, with the only toilet a bucket behind a curtain.
By the middle of April, the William Brown was sailing at full speed through waters where icebergs were known to drift. Inevitably, disaster struck and at 9pm on the 19th April the ship stuck an iceberg head-on, causing fatal damage to the hull. These were the days before lifeboats, and the ship only carried 2 boats on board, a longboat and a small sailing boat, known as a jolly-boat.
The skipper, Captain George Harris gave orders to abandon ship. He and his crew launched the boats and some passengers managed to scramble on board. About 30 passengers, including the Leyden family, 7 members of the Corr family and Jane Anderson were left to their fate as the William Brown slipped beneath the waves. The disaster took place off the coast of Newfoundland, not far from where the Titanic sank 71 years later. The Captain, 8 crew and one passenger, Eliza Lafferty from Cookstown, escaped on the jolly-boat, while the 1st mate Francis Rhodes, 11 crew and around 33 passengers, including the Patrick family, were on board the longboat.
The longboat and the jolly-boat stayed together overnight, but at dawn Captain Harris decided to sail for Newfoundland, over 200 miles away, despite knowing that the longboat’s rudder had been damaged and the crew on it were struggling to steer it. The next night brought rough seas and fearing that the longboat would be swamped, the crew decided to lighten the load – by throwing some of the passengers overboard! Fourteen passengers were pushed overboard during the night, although one of them, 16 year old Owen Carr (or Corr), managed to slip back on board, and another 2 were drowned at daylight. Only an hour later, a ship called the Crescent, on the way to Le Havre in France, spotted the boat and rescued all on board.
There were 19 survivors of this macabre act – 16 women, 2 men and a child. Among those who survived were James Patrick, from Lower Clagan, his wife Matilda (nee Lafferty) and their child. Matilda’s sister Eliza was the only passenger rescued by the jolly-boat. Interestingly, none of the crew lost their lives! Eliza eventually emigrated to Philadelphia, but James and his family returned home, refusing to chance the ocean again.
The story was reported in newspapers all over the world, and local papers The Belfast Newsletter and The Northern Whig carried the story. It generated enormous interest, and rumours circulated widely – reported in newspapers – that the crew demonstrated extreme brutality, including cutting off the hands of passengers who clung to the boats while begging for mercy! These stories were later refuted by passengers and crew alike.
Only one crewman was charged for his part in the tragedy – 26 year old Swedish seaman Alexander William Holmes was charged with murder, later reduced to one count of manslaughter, and was tried and convicted in Philadelphia in 1842. He was sentenced to 6 months hard labour. Eliza Lafferty gave evidence at his trial. The Canadian author Tom Koch has researched the events surrounding the sinking and the subsequent trial and his book The Wreck of the William Brown was published in 2004. The above account is largely based on Tom Koch’s book, with additional information from contemporary newspaper reports, and I acknowledge the data supplied in this book.
My interest in the story was generated when I found a reference to Jane Anderson’s demise in the records of 3rd Cookstown (now Molesworth) Presbyterian Church, while researching my family history. In 1837, the Minister of 3rd Cookstown, the Rev. John Knox Leslie, began recording details of his congregation. As well as information about church attendance and communion, Rev. Leslie also added personal notes including dates of birth, marriage and death, and emigration to America, Australia and New Zealand. His notes also record that the Patrick family survived the tragedy.
Crew & Passengers on the William Brown, Sunk on 19th April 1841
Ship’s Officers & Crew Longboat Passengers Saved
George Harris, captain James & Ellen Black
Francis Rhodes, 1st mate* Ann Bradley
Walter Parker, 2nd mate Owen Carr (or Corr)
Isaac Freeman, sailor* Sarah Corr
Alexander William Holmes, sailor* Mary Corr
Joseph Marshall, steward* Mrs. Margaret Egdar
John “Jack” Messer, sailor* Isabella Edgar
William Miller, sailor* Jane Johnston Edgar
Henry Murray, cook* Margaret Edgar
James Norton, sailor* Jean Edgar
Charles Smith, sailor* Sarah Edgar
Joseph “Jack” Stetson, sailor* Susanna Edgar
1 unnamed sailor* Julie McCadden
5 – 7 unnamed sailors Bridget McGee
Bridget "Biddy" Nugent
* in longboat – all others in jolly boat James & Matilda Patrick & child
(Lower Claggan, Cookstown)
Passengers Drowned on the William Brown Longboat Passengers Drowned
Mrs. Anderson & 3 children Ellen Askin
Jane Anderson Francis “Frank” Askin
Mary Bradley Mary Askin
Nicholas Carr (or Corr), wife & 5 children Charles Conlin
William Leyden, wife & no children George Duffy
Martin Morris, wife & child James Goeld
John Davelin (possibly Devlin) Robert Hunter
Mary Connelly Hugh Keigham
Mary Jane Weil James MacAvoy
Jolly Boat Passenger Saved John Nugent
Eliza Lafferty (Cookstown) Owen Riley
The above lists are based on Tom Koch’s book The Wreck of the William Brown, published in 2004, with additional notes by Eddie Kelso.