Historian Keith Johnson looks at a maritime tragedy that claimed the lives of six men...
In the second week of December 1868 the schooner ‘Three Janes’ left the Victoria Quay at Preston bound for the Isle of Man with a cargo of coal.
Under the guidance of skipper Alfred Jackson and his crew the vessel made good time and by 9 o’clock on the Saturday evening they
anchored in Douglas Bay.
There was a heavy gale from the south south-east blowing at the time and, as Douglas Bay is particularly exposed with the wind in that direction, there was an unusually heavy sea in the bay.
One of the harbour boats put off to the assistance of the schooner, and the crew were engaged by the captain to assist them. The captain then went ashore in this boat for the purpose of engaging the services of the steamer which had just arrived from Liverpool to tow the schooner into the harbour.
In the meantime, a second boat had put off to the assistance of the schooner, and the Douglas Rocket Brigade had also established communication with the vessel by means of rockets and line.
The schooner was at this time dragging her anchor and drifting towards a part of the beach which was enclosed between the present pier and a new landing pier under course of construction. When there was an inshore wind accompanying the tide the force of the sea was usually so great that very few boats could live in it. The crew of the Three Janes finding she was dragging in this direction, abandoned her and went ashore in a smaller boat.
Meanwhile, skipper Jackson was waiting upon the manager of the steam packet company and endeavoured to hire the steamer, but failed, as it was considered that the steamer would be endangered in leaving the harbour. The captain, therefore, unwilling to lose his vessel, hired the services of five men, namely James Lacey, James Hullan, John Mucklehorn, John Caren, and George
Dalgleish, and with them put off in a four-oared boat to the assistance of the schooner.
The Douglas Rocket Brigade showed their light, as the night was intensely dark and the sea raging in a terrific manner around the schooner. When they were close to her a high sea struck the boat and knocked the oars out of the hands of the men on the lea side. This caused the boat to cant, and the men on the other side lost their oars also, and the same wave washed three men out of the boat.
The three remaining men were battling manfully for life in the midst of the raging surf, and endeavouring to guide the boat by means of her bottom boards. This dreadful struggle continued for some quarter of an hour, those on the shore unable to render them assistance in any way.
A boat owned by Robert Curphey, a coxswain of the Douglas lifeboat, put off from shore to their assistance but was unable to reach them. The last that was seen of them was as they stripped off their clothes, evidently with the intention of swimming to shore, and after this the boat disappeared in the darkness. Nothing could be done to assist those in peril.
The harsh reality of what had occurred was felt the following morning when four of the bodies were recovered – those of Lacey, Hullan, Dalgleish and Jackson, the master of the schooner.
A coroner’s inquest was opened in Douglas on the following Monday morning, but was adjourned for a week until more information could be obtained.
At the resumed inquest the evidence as to how six men had lost their lives was carefully studied. After a short consultation the jury returned the following verdict, the deceased lost their lives through the accidental upsetting of a boat in Douglas Bay.
They concluded by saying that although Robert Curphey, the coxswain of the lifeboat, exhibited great bravery by going out in his own boat; but instead of doing so he should have been out in the lifeboat, and in that case most of the lives, if not all, would have been saved.
This criticism of the Douglas lifeboat crew was later investigated by the local committee, who concluded that neither the coxswain or crew were guilty of the charges laid against them. The Preston vessel was lost to the ocean and the crew returned to Preston without their much admired skipper.