[From Manx Soc Vol XVI]


21st SEPTEMBER, being St. Matthew's Day.

In order to render the following account of the loss of the Manx Herring Fleet in 1787, as recorded in the ballad, intelligible, it is necessary to refer to the state of Douglas harbour (the scene of the disaster) at that time. Appended to the report of the Royal Commissioners (appointed to investigate certain disputes existing between the Duke of Atholl and the Manx people), printed by order of the House of Commons in 1805, and who visited the island in 1791, is a plan of the harbour of Douglas--(Appendix D, No. 18.)

By this it appears that the old pier or quay stood very nearly on the same site as the present Red Pier, the only difference being, that it ran in a direct line from the south point of what is known as "the Double Corner " (near the present Royal Hotel), 780 feet, in length.

Mr. Nicholas Christian, Harbour Master of Douglas, who was examined as a witness before the Commissioners (Appendix D, No. 17), described this pier as having been a very rude structure, being composed of small stones, which during every heavy gale of easterly wind were displaced, and repairs were continually needed. He says that at the end of the pier there stood a brick lighthouse, " between thirty and forty feet high, lighted each night by seven or eight half-pound candles, with a tin circular reflector behind them of about eight feet diameter, and could be seen at the distance of four or five leagues at sea."

This lighthouse, and a considerable portion of the pier were carried away during a storm, and hence arises one of those many vexed questions in Manx incidents--namely, the particular time.

Mr. Christian in his evidence says, "In 1787, eighty-four yards of the lowest end of the pier, with a lighthouse thereon, was destroyed by a violent gale of easterly wind." This date has been transmitted to the present time.

The Royal Commissioners, in their report dated the 21st April 1792, at page 91, speaking of the then condition of Douglas harbour, and to its state prior to the year 1786, say, "Either from the irresistible violence of a storm, or from not having been so constructed as to withstand the force of the sea in certain seasons and winds, a great part of the pier, of Douglas, with a lighthouse built at the outer extremity, were at the latter end of that year swept away."

Feltham, in his Tour through the Isle of Man, 1797-8 (Manx Society, vol. vi. p. 202), says, " In 1787, 84 yards of the lowest end of the old pier, with a lighthouse thereon, was destroyed by a violent gale of wind;" but at page 205 says, "In November 1786 (the date of 1785 being evidently a printer's error), 246 feet of the quay was washed away, with the lighthouse, by an easterly wind."

We have, however, the more particular and reliable evidence of Mr. Peter Fannin, Master in the Royal Navy, and who had resided for a considerable time in the island, on the point. This gentleman made a survey, and prepared a map of the island on a larger scale than had been previously attempted. On the 1st January 1789 he published this map, calling it a " correct plan of the Isle of Man," to which he attached a plan of Douglas harbour. In a note to the latter he says, " Sunday, 19th November 1786, Douglas Lighthouse and 82 yards of the quay was washed down in a gale of easterly wind"

Assuming, therefore, that the pier and lighthouse were destroyed in 1786, we revert to the evidence of Mr. Christian, who says, "the only light to direct vessels into the harbour is a lanthorn upon a pole, erected at the extremity of the remains of the former pier." It further appears, to use the words of the Commissioners, "that the ruinous remains of the structure sunk at the mouth of the harbour, impeded and rendered dangerous the approach to the port, which was narrow and confined."

Having thus explained the wretched condition of Douglas harbour, after the destruction of its pier in 1786, we now proceed to record the particulars of the calamity named at the heading of this sketch in the following year. It may, however, be necessary to state that the Isle of Man Herring Fishery usually commences in June (formerly in July), when the fish frequent the western coast of the island, off Peel. It continues until the end of August or the beginning of September, when the fish move round to the eastern coast, off Douglas.

On Thursday, 20th September 1787, an unusually large. quantity of fish were brought into Douglas, and the weather was beautifully fine. In the evening of that day, being St. Matthew's Eve, the whole fleet numbering, it is said, 400 boats,* proceeded to the fishing ground. We will now quote the graphic account given by an eye-witness, Mr. David Robertson, the author of A Tour through the Isle of Man, to which is subjoined a view of the Manx History, 1794, in which work is a plate showing the end of the old pier with the lighthouse mentioned in Mr. Christian's evidence before noted "The entrance of the harbour is narrow and dangerous, being fenced on each side by a range of precipices. In the centre of these, a lighthouse, at once useful and ornamental, formerly stood. This, with a great part of the quay, was destroyed by a severe storm in 1786 ; and in this ruinous state, highly injurious to the public, and fatal to many individuals, it has remained ever since.

"To enumerate the various shipwrecks this neglect has occasioned would be unnecessary ; but the awful calamity which happened in September 1787 is too interesting to be passed over in silence. I was then in Douglas, and never before witnessed such a scene of horror.

" The preceding day was delightfully serene, the sky pure and unclouded, and the sun shone forth in all his strength and beauty. In the morning, about four hundred fisher-boats appeared in the bay and harbour, deeply laden with herrings, to the amount of £5000. Gladness smiled in every eye, and the song of mirth gave new energy to labour. The earlier part of the day was passed in unlading the boats, and the remainder devoted to festivity.

" The herring ground was then off Clay-head and Laxey, about three leagues from Douglas. In the evening when the boats again sailed thither, there were no indications of a change in the weather ; but at midnight a brisk equinoctial gale arose, and the fishermen, impelled by their usual timidity, fled to the harbour of Douglas for refuge.

"On the ruins of the lighthouse is fixed a slender post, from which is hung a small lantern. This wretched substitute was thrown down by one of the first boats in its eagerness to gain the harbour. The consequences were dreadful. In a few minutes all was horror and confusion. The darkness of the night, the raging of the sea, the vessels dashing against the rocks, the cries of the fishermen perishing in the waves, and the shrieks of the women ashore, imparted such a sensation of horror, as none but a spectator can possibly conceive. When the morning came it presented an awful spectacle ; the beach and rocks covered with wrecks, and a group of dead bodies floating in the harbour. In some boats whole families perished. The shore was crowded with women, some in all the frantic agony of grief, alternately weeping over the corses of father, brother, and husband ; and others, sinking in the embrace of those, whom, a moment before, they imagined were buried in the waves. The bustle of trade ceased, its eagerness yielded to the feelings of nature, an awful gloom sat on every countenance, and every bosom either bled with its own anguish, or sympathised with the sufferings of others."

It is a curious fact that neither Mr. Robertson nor any other contemporary writer has given the number of boats actually wrecked, or the number of lives lost on that occasion, but it is certain that a very large number of boats were either entirely or partially destroyed. , The account given in Trains History of the Isle of Man, vol ii. page 293, wherein he says, " Nearly four hundred fishing boats with their crews were swallowed by the deep in a few hours, within sight of Douglas;' is greatly exaggerated, and is not borne out by the authority which he quotes in a foot-note, Mavor's British Tourist, which is Robertson's account of the calamity as previously given.

This fact, however, may be pretty accurately ascertained by again referring to the Commissioners' report of 1792, p. 25, in which mention is made of the herring custom, a payment by every boat employed in the herring-fishery, the amount of which is ascertained by the coroners of the several sheadings returning the number of boat-masters each year who have engaged in the fishery, and who return on oath the number of boats used, and the quantity of fish caught, and pay accordingly in proportion.

In Appendix B, No. 8, is a table giving the number of boats belonging. to the Isle of Man, for which the herring custom has been paid for ten years ending 5th January 1791. The number returned for each year remained much the same, and did not vary beyond four or five. In 1786, the number returned was 311, but in the following year, the year of the disaster, the number suddenly fell off to 253, a difference of 58, and the three following years a still further, diminution, averaging 230 for those years. By this it may be fairly estimated that from 50 to 60 boats were either totally wrecked or so much damaged as to be unfit for use, and not entered as paying the custom, the accounts of which were made up on the 5th January following, only come three months after the storm. In that year neither British nor Irish boats are entered in paying custom, so that the number of Manx boats engaged in the fishery would be about 300, instead of 400, as mentioned by different writers.

The ballad gives the number of those who perished as twenty-one, and upon referring to Felthams Memorials of Gods Acre (Manx Society, vol. xiv.), the interment of six only is recorded-namely,

Thomas Cowley aged 21, buried at Santon.
John Costain aged 31, buried at Arbory.
Nicholas Moore aged 22. ,
John Waterson aged 30.
Thomas Corrin aged 32, of Ballakilpatrick.
John Moore aged 38, of Croit e Caley.

The four last are all buried at Rushen, and on each headstone is inscribed, "Perished in a storm near Douglas on the 21st September 1787." Nothing is recorded of Tom Grimshaw or the Kinleys, who, no doubt, lie entombed with the rest of their unfortunate fellows, "with nought but the green sod over them:'

The catastrophe appears to have inspired at least two native poets one gave his effusions in Manx, and the other, which he styles "A Doleful Ditty" in English. These are appended, with a translation of the Manx ballad.

It may not be uninteresting here to note and contrast the difference in the class of boats then and now used in the herring-fishery. The figures in the following table may be relied upon as a fair average


In 1787.

In 1868.

Length of keel

26 feet.

40 feet.

Breadth of beam


13 ,




8 tons.

25 tons.





Cutter and square sail.


Cost, including nets


£390. 240 boats,150 nets.

The harbour of Douglas remained in the state described after the storm of 1786 until arrangements were made for the building of the present pier, the foundation-stone of which was laid by the Duke of Atholl on the 24th July 1793. It was not finished till 1801, at a cost of £26,000.

Until within the last few years the fishermen made a point of remaining in port on the anniversary of the loss of the fleet, whether from superstition or out of respect to the memory of those who perished is not known.

The late Rev. G. S. Parsons of Castletown, Government chaplain, when in Paris several years ago, picked up a print showing the loss of the Manx fleet in 1787, which does not appear to have been circulated or even heard of in the island.

It is unnecessary to quote other writers on this subject, which has been so variously stated, and, generally speaking, so greatly exaggerated, both with respect to the particular time of the occurrence and the extent of the loss. This has led to considerable misunderstanding in the island, and it is to be hoped the statement above given will be the means of rectifying the discrepancies.

 * It is very questionable if the fleet at this time bore any proportion to this number, although many of them were only small crafts.

[FPC see also my Disasters page also note in Manx Note Book no 3]


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