The Penwith Papers

The Mystery of the Burning Ship

In the collection of the Penlee Gallery in Penzance is a small painting by Frank Bodilly which shows a burning ship on a sandy beach. The painting is untitled and is generally referred to as the burning ship and at a casual glance you might not even notice that the ship is on fire. A crowd of people are gathered around and it's apparent from the wet sand and pools on the beach that the tide has recently ebbed.

The Burning Ship by Frank Bodilly, What the ship and what the beach?(Courtesy of the Penlee Gallery, Penzance)

The Burning Ship by Frank Bodilly, What the ship and what the beach?
(Courtesy of the Penlee Gallery, Penzance)

Frank Bodilly (see also On This Day 5 December) was a local Penzance boy who was associated with the Newlyn Painters as a young man. His career as an artist was cut short when he abandoned painting for a career in the law. He is however celebrated as the only Cornish artist of the famous Newlyn School's early days.

Newlyn artists about 1880, Frank Bodilly is the young man in the deerstalker on the left)

Virtually nothing is known about the 'Burning Ship' but it seems possible that it was inspired by a real event witnessed by the artist or at least known to the artist. Because Frank Bodilly had a fairly short career as an artist in Penzance there was a fairly brief window to be searched. Frank is described as an artist in the 1881 census, at which point he is living at home with his parents and brothers and sisters in Alverton Cottage. In 1886 Frank Bodilly exhibited in the Royal Academy but early in 1887 he gave up full-time art and moved to London. So it seemed likely that the event which inspired the burning ship, if such an event existed, had happened between 1879 and 1886. Maybe it had happened when he was a child and he remembered seeing it but 79-86 presented a reasonable starting point.

The period 1879-1886 is covered by The Cornish Telegraph, The Cornishman and The Royal Cornwall Gazette, all of which are available in the British Library's online British Newspaper Archive. So the search was on for a ship which had run aground on one of the sandy beaches of west Cornwall, probably somewhere between Mount's Bay and St Ives Bay.

A search of The Cornish Telegraph for the words ship, ashore, and fire for the relevant period, sorted by relevance rather than date, brought instant results. The first hit was an account of a 14 year old boy accused at Liverpool Assizes of setting fire to the reformatory ship Clarence on which he had previously been imprisoned. Interesting but probably not our burning ship as the Clarence was moored on the Mersey. The next item however looked more promising with the title American Barque Ashore At Praa Sands. Praa Sands fitted the painting admirably and the newspaper report went on to report that the ship in question had not only run ashore on the beach but had also gone on fire. This was reported in The Cornish Telegraph of Thursday 17th February and the grounding had taken place on Monday 14th February, St Valentine's Day 1881.

Other burning ships reported by The Cornish Telegraph included:

  • The Leon Crespo on passage from Swansea to Tosopilla in South America in January 1882 carrying 900 tons of coal and nine Cornish miners en route to Bolivia. Her cargo was discovered to be alight and all attempts to put out the fire failed. She was eventually beached near Port Stanley in the Falklands with her cargo still alight and became a complete loss. The Cornish miners completed their journey on board the German mail boat Luxon bound for Valparaiso. (9/3/1882)
  • The Glad Tidings, 1300 tons of St Johns, New Brunswick, which went aground in December 1882 at Prawle Point after leaving Falmouth for Amsterdam with a cargo of bagged linseed from Calcutta. The crew used burning paraffin in buckets to try to attract attention and some of this, in the rough conditions, evidently found its way into the hold and a raging fire soon burst up through the deck and isolated the crew into two groups. Eighteen of the crew of 20 were successfully rescued with the aid of rocket apparatus from the shore. (23/12/1882)
  • In November 1879 a boy named Spence, aged 13, was tried in Chelmsford for attempting to set alight the school-board ship Shaftesbury on which he was being educated. He was given 12 strokes of the birch, 10 days imprisonment and three years in a reformatory

Of 144 articles examined no other possibilities were found in The Cornish Telegraph. In 1884 The Cornishman published a survey of wrecks and casualties for the area of coast between The Lizard and Gurnards Head, this being the extent of the Lloyd's Agency of the Port of Penzance. The period 1879 to 1884 was covered by the 16th October edition and a noticeable feature of the list is the number of vessels which became embayed and wrecked in Mount's Bay. The first candidate in the list is the J.F. Whiton embayed and driven ashore on Praa Sands on February 12th 1881 following which she took fire. This is the same ship as that mentioned above in The Cornish Telegraph though the details do not quite tally.

Casualty Record from The Cornishman 16th October 1884

Casualty Record from The Cornishman 16th October 1884

No further candidates were found in this listing however the 24th February edition reported the loss of the schooner Georgina en route from London to Cork laden with railway sleepers. She went ashore on the rocks off Porthoustock late in the evening of February 22nd 1881 and the crew lit a tar barrel to attract attention. As with The Glad Tidings the naked light had unforeseen consequences, the ship went on fire and together with her cargo was totally destroyed though the crew were saved.

Although numerous ship fires were found, such as the Arbroath brigantine which went on fire in Penzance harbour in October 1879 (Cornish Telegraph 12/10/1879) no other ships matching the circumstances of the Bodilly painting were found. A search like this vividly exposes just what a hazardous business it was to be a 19th century seaman and perhaps the most poignant story was reported by the Cornishman of 16th November 1882: A bottle has been washed ashore at Porthleven containing a small quantity of Indian corn and a paper on which was written, “Ship Anna, from America to London, caught fire in the Atlantic after a gale. I think all hands will be burnt or drowned, having no boats. T. Williams. Lord have mercy upon us. 20th Aug., 1882.”

The Barque T.F. Whiton

The barque T.F. Whiton, or bark as it would have been spelled in the United States, would probably have been a three masted vessel rigged square on the fore and main masts and fore and aft on the mizzen. She was of 547 tons and registered in Searsport, Maine. Her skipper was Captain James Nickels of Searsport, an experienced man of 53 who had had the T.F. Whiton since 1877 and had been a Captain since 1861. She was 140 days out from Vancouver Island bound for London carrying a cargo of tinned salmon and wool valued at £20,000. Since she had rounded Cape Horn her crew of ten had had no sighting of land until they saw the cliffs between Porthleven and the Lizard.

Captain James Nickels (courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum)Captain Nickels was from a family of seafarers and from a tightly knit seagoing community. James Nickels and his brother William both commanded the brig Waccamaw at different times, as well as the barque McGilveray and their father was also a sea captain. The upheavals of the Civil War saw the Waccamaw briefly pass into Confederate hands and James Nickels claim his place in history as the only master ever to sail a vessel into Penobscot Bay flying the Confederate flag. But this is to pass into a different story which you can discover in M.R. Pattangall's Fifty five years at sea: Captain William Sewall Nickels of Maine.

Monday 14th February 1881

Visibility was poor as the T.F. Whiton came into the Western Approaches, so bad in fact that she was almost aground near Loe Bar before Captain Nickels perceived the danger. On a lee shore he was forced to drop anchor to try to save the ship but the second anchor fouled on the windlass and with only one anchor out it wasn't long before the chain parted in the heavy sea. Nickels decided to beach his ship and ran her on to Praa Sands about two hours after high tide. With heavy waves breaking the crew of 10 were rescued by the Prussia Cove Rocket Brigade, their second rescue of the day. First ashore was the Chinese cook and last ashore was Captain Nickels.

Nickels hoped to be able to refloat the barque when the weather improved and set out for Penzance but less than an hour after he arrived he was informed that his ship was on fire. As the tide rose and waves broke over the ship the fire worsened prompting Nickels to think that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion of the greasy wool in his cargo, a recognised hazard of carrying wool aboard ship. The Penzance Fire Brigade were sent to the scene of the blaze on Tuesday afternoon but were too late to achieve anything because of the rising tide. By Tuesday evening the vessel was ablaze from stem to stern and mizzen and main masts soon went. The conflagration drew a crowd said to number in the hundreds from as far away as Penzance and Helston. By eight thirty the ebbing tide allowed the fire brigade to get to work but they were unable to bring the fire under control before the rising tide forced them to abandon the attempt at about two thirty on Wednesday morning.

The T.F. Whiton was a total loss but part of her cargo was brought off by the salvers during Tuesday morning while further boxes of pickled salmon were picked up by small boats during the evening. About 300 boxes were in Penzance by Wednesday morning but it is estimated that the owners, Carvell & Co of Searsport, lost in excess of 16000 of the 18000 boxes of salmon aboard. The cargo was insured but the barque was not.

Bodilly's Painting

Frank Bodilly's painting appears to show the ship with only one standing mast, flames and smoke coming from the stern and midships. There's certainly a crowd but not the hundreds claimed in the press. According to the Cornish Telegraph the main and mizzen masts were lost on Tuesday evening by which time it would have been dark but Bodilly's painting does not depict a scene set in darkness, the flames are surely too muted for that. To the right of the ship are three small carts or waggons, possibly the appliances of the Penzance Fire Brigade getting back to work on the falling tide, as evidenced by the wet beach.

All in all it looks as if Bodilly has created a fairly accurate depiction of the events of Tuesday evening around 9pm but has opted to set the scene in daylight rather than in darkness, probably to create a more interesting view. As to the ship herself, maritime authority John McWilliams of the St Ives Archive agrees that the ship shown could well be the barque T.F. Whiton after the loss of her main and mizzen masts. John also added that some locals who sold part of the rescued cargo at 3s per dozen tins were later prosecuted. Bodilly would certainly have known of the wreck, would probably have read about and could easily have witnessed the scene at first hand.


Most sources are given in the text but M.R. Pattangall's Fifty five years at sea: Captain William Sewall Nickels of Maine can be found online at Google Books

More information on the ships and sailors of Searsport, Maine, can be found in the Penobscot Marine Museum


The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

Edited by
Sally Corbet

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