On Ramsey harbour stands a little squared-off pillar, with plaques set into it. You’ve maybe walked past it without a glance any time you’ve been strolling through the town. Whatever decision is reached in the current discussions about revamping the harbour, this landmark will surely be staying.
It’s a memorial to the Steam Packet vessel the Ellan Vannin, which is one of the saddest tales of the Irish Sea.
The Ellan Vannin was the oldest and smallest of the Steam Packet’s vessels. Some mocked it, but most of the Packet’s crew regarded the feisty little tub as the company’s mascot, giving it the nickname Li’l Daisy. If you needed mail delivered to the adjacent island, and the weather was a bit grim, Li’l Daisy could be relied on to get the post across safely. On one stormy day, the Ellan Vannin was loaded up with mail sacks and proceeded cheerfully off to the UK, past a dozen large ocean liners that were sheltering in Ramsey Bay. The bigger boats blew their whistles in admiration.
On Friday 3rd December 1909, the weather conditions weren’t actually that bad for the Isle of Man in December. Middlin’ might be the technical term. The Ellan Vannin was scheduled to do the overnight run from Ramsey to Liverpool. A bog-standard, run-of-the-mill job – a few passengers, a bit of cargo, a load of post, and (not that weird for the time) a flock of sheep.
The only unusual thing about this crossing was that it would be under a new skipper. But 37-year-old Captain James Teare, married with four children, had worked for the Steam Packet for 18 years, working his way up to the rank of captain. He’d previously skippered the King Orry and was regarded as a steady pair of hands.
At 01:13, the Ellan Vannin eased out of Ramsey Harbour with everything seeming calm and uneventful. As the journey progressed however, the weather in the Irish Sea worsened. By 06:35, just as the Ellan Vannin was approaching the mouth of the Mersey, the wind speed was recorded at Force 12 – a full-on hurricane.
There are many good things about living in the Irish Sea. One of them is that hurricanes hardly happen. On this terrible morning however, conditions changed with terrifying speed. A century on, the sequence of events is still not definitely known. It seems likely that the Ellan Vannin was blown off course, grounded on a sandbank, and then breached by a massive wave, some of which were topping seven metres at the time.
L’il Daisy was lost.
Despite the Ellan Vannin sinking at breakfast time, the loss wasn’t confirmed to Douglas until the evening of the 3rd of December. The main form of communication was the telegram, and details arrived with agonising slowness. The board of directors of the Steam Packet went into conference on the Friday night and remained there until the following Monday, as more and more bleak information was wired in from along the Mersey shoreline. The crew of the lighthouse at Formby reported the surreal sight of dead sheep and a piano floating by. One of the ship’s lifeboats was washed up on New Brighton beach. Its cover was still in place, and the equipment inside untouched. When a large chunk of the bridge was found, it was clear that all hope was gone.
There were no survivors. All 15 passengers and 21 crewmembers died. Looking at the details of the people behind those numbers, it’s easy to be struck by both the ordinariness and the great possibilities of those lives that were so abruptly stopped. A farmer from Bride, setting off on an expedition to America, to see some land there that he’d inherited. One of the Island’s advocates on a business commute to Liverpool. Visitors from London, Croydon, and Kent, going home. The youngest victim was a 10-month-old baby, Mary-Ann Crix. She died alongside her 22-year-old mother, Amy.
Post-Diana, our culture has an attitude to high-profile death that would have seemed very alien to the people of the time. It’s a gaudy, public competitive sport, with people with little or no connection to a tragedy vying to demonstrate who is the better person by how much they’re seen to ostentatiously care. Remembrance Day has shifted in recent decades from quiet reflection and the wearing of a small paper flower, to shops and councils seeing who can come up with the brightest, most disrespectfully garish, poppy-themed display to make themselves look and feel good.
In the Isle of Man, in the dark days leading up to Christmas 1909, there was a very different response to the Ellan Vannin disaster. The general mood was one of muted horror. Curtains were drawn and the bereaved were allowed to grieve in private. Other Steam Packet ships covered the journeys scheduled for the Ellan Vannin, the emotions of their crews unrecorded.
Captain Teare’s body wasn’t found until January 1910, when it was surrendered by the sea on Southport beach. Some bodies were never found. As a wreck in the busy shallow waters around the Mersey, the Ellan Vannin posed a hazard to other shipping. On the instructions of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, it was destroyed with explosives.
Just over two years later, a much larger vessel would become the most memorable sinking ship in history. The crushing of the L’il Daisy hardly had the same global impact as the Titanic. But in our close-knit Island community, our own doomed vessel has quietly resonated through the years.
The Steam Packet has a tradition of re-using names for its ships – King Orry, Mona’s Isle, Ben my Chree – but since 1909, they have never used the name Ellan Vannin again. And just as no local ship shares its name, let’s hope that no local ship ever suffers the same fate. That little pillar on Ramsey harbour needs no companion.