The Penwith Papers

The Wreck of the North Britain

Tombstone of Thomas Benson in Penzance Cemetery (photo: Linda Camidge September 2018)In Penzance Cemetery, against the wall to the right of the entrance, there is a headstone which reads:

"In affectionate remembrance of Thomas A. Benson who died of congestion of the lungs, March 8th 1869, aged 29 years, caused by the upsetting of the lifeboat while endeavouring to rescue the crew of the barque “North Briton”. 6th December 1868.”

The 700 ton barque North Britain (only on the headstone does it seem to be spelt ‘Briton’) was driven ashore on the 6th December 1868 on a Sunday afternoon. She was carrying ‘deals’ – planks - and larger baulks of timber from Quebec to Southampton. The vessel was owned by John Ransome of Southampton, shipbuilder and owner, timber yard owner and specialist in rebuilding salvaged wrecks. North Britain been built in 1837 for Bentleys of Liverpool and initially sailed the government contract emigrant route to Australia, on one occasion in 1839 spending 41 days in quarantine as a result of an outbreak of typhus which had taken 20 lives on the outward journey. In April 1854 North Britain had been seriously damaged in the mid-Atlantic hurricane which had forced her to return to Falmouth for a refit. Lloyds Register for 1855 described her as having undergone a large repair and she is no longer rated as A1. Lloyds List of 4 May 1854 described her as arriving in Falmouth with her main mast sprung and having lost  three topmasts, jibbooms, rigging, sails, yards and a boat. However she was back at sea by July 1854 and on her way to Quebec to pick up more timber for John Ransome.

Lloyds Register 1855 entry for North Britain. The entry reads left to right: North Britain (part sheathed with felt and zinc in 1854, iron bolts), Barque, skipper G. Hallett, 702 tons (625 under old act), Mahogany ??? large repair 1854, built 1837, owned by J. Ransom of Southampton, last surveyed 1854 due to be surveyed again in 4 years ie 1858, trading to S. Med, no longer A1 since 1854.

Lloyds Register 1855 entry for North Britain. The entry reads left to right: North Britain (part sheathed with felt and zinc in 1854, iron bolts), Barque, skipper G. Hallett, 702 tons (625 under old act), Mahogany large repair 1854, built 1837, owned by J. Ransom of Southampton, last surveyed 1854 due to be surveyed again in 4 years ie 1858, trading to S. Med, no longer A1 since 1854.

On 6th December 1868 North Britain encountered more severe weather. A “fearful” SSW gale was blowing. A horseman rode into Penzance – his mount “reeking with foam” - with news that a large vessel was in peril in Mount’s Bay. A pilot gig, May Girl, with a crew of four was launched - but was driven back by the storm. An eight-oared barge belonging to Sir Edward St. Aubyn of St. Michael’s Mount went out - and also had to return.

The North Britain was then seen through the mist to have been driven ashore between the Mount and Long Rock (about a mile west of the Mount). The Penzance lifeboat, Richard Lewis, was made ready to be taken by road to Eastern Green.

Meanwhile, unaware that the lifeboat was on the way, Captain John Rogers of the North Britain ordered his own boats out. The first was overturned immediately and the ‘jolly boat’ – a small open boat, used mainly to ferry personnel to and from the ship - was launched, containing the captain and nine members of the crew.

As the jolly boat made for the shore, the people of Long Rock came down to offer help. They watched as the small vessel was turned over by a breaker, and the men thrown out. Three men reached the shallows and were pulled out of the sea by William Jeffry, a champion wrestler and strong swimmer, and another two reached the shore, one of whom survived.

The Richard Lewis to the rescue. Thomas Benson was one of those cresting the wave in this later depiction of the scene (courtesy of Morrab Library Photo Archive)The Richard Lewis was launched to windward through a tremendous swell or ‘ground sea’. The lifeboat took an hour to reach the North Britain, and when it came under the stern of the barque it was overturned, throwing the lifeboat-men into the water. Coxswain Thomas Carbis was trapped in the wreckage and nearly drowned, while Edward Hodge - underneath the lifeboat - was washed away but later rescued.

And Thomas Benson, memorialised on that cemetery stone? He was also under the lifeboat, but his leg was caught by the hawser, which was coiled under the bow thwarts. James Hodge, brother of the man washed away, and another crewman righted the lifeboat and released him, and the lifeboat – which had been “bottom up” for about five minutes - returned to the shore.

After Benson’s death, three months later, the newspaper obituary described him as “a fine, good-tempered young man”. He was a printer by trade, and would often call in at the Telegraph office with “bits of news”. He had written part of the report on the wrecking in which he had been involved, and the newspaper was in no doubt that his early death was caused by the lasting damage done to Benson’s lungs by his immersion. The piece concludes: “It would not be a bad world if all of us were as sincere, honestly-spoken, unselfish, and willing to do a good turn as our departed acquaintance, Tom Benson”.

Eight men remained on board the North Britain, and these were rescued when the lifeboat went out a second time with a fresh crew. Captain Rogers, who survived although six of his crew did not, had been misled by either faulty equipment, or the effects of an easterly gale earlier in the voyage, when reckoning his position. Consequently, he had mistaken the entrance to Mount’s Bay for the entrance to Plymouth Sound and St Michael’s Mount for the Mewstone. It was stated that the North Britain “had some five feet of water in her hold” before she grounded, and that she was “a leaky vessel”.

 

References:

Wreck and Rescue Round the Cornish Coast, Cyril Noall, 1965, volume 2 pp 117-118

Cornish Shipwrecks, Richard Larn OBE and Clive Carter, 1969, volume 1 p 178

Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Richard and Bridget Larn, 1995 volume 1 section 4 (pages not numbered)

The Story of the Land’s End Lifeboats, D. Bradford Barton, 1965 pp 117-118

Penlee Lifeboat Station: Service not Self, Rachel Campey, 2018 pp 53-55

Cornish Telegraph 9th December 1868 pp 2-3; 10th March 1869 p 2

Lloyds List 4th May 1854

Lloyds List 19th August 1854

Lloyd's Register of Shipping 1855

Fever, Immigration and Quarantine in New South Wales, 1837 - 1840, Katherine Foxhall in Social History of Medicine, Vol 24, Issue 3 December 2011 pp 624-642.

Information on John Ransome from Sotonopedia

 




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