The Wreck of the Packet Ship Albion
The packet ship Albion, sailing from New York to Liverpool, was wrecked on the coast of Ireland on April 22, 1822. Of the 54 people on board, only 9 survived. Napoleonic General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, who appears in Napoleon in America, was among the dead. As this was the first loss suffered by a North Atlantic packet line, the disaster horrified people on both sides of the ocean. Survivors left harrowing accounts of the Albion’s final hours.
Packet ships were small 19th-century vessels that carried mail, cargo and passengers. Most importantly, they departed from port according to a regular schedule. This was a novelty at the time. Most ships didn’t sail until they had enough cargo to justify a voyage, leaving passengers waiting for days or weeks until the holds were full.
The Black Ball Line was the first company to offer scheduled packet service across the Atlantic. Its vessels began sailing between New York and Liverpool in 1818. A ship left New York on the first of every month. The Black Ball Line started out with four ships. The Albion, under Captain John Williams, was the line’s fifth ship, added in 1819. It had a capacity of 447 tons. The ships took an average of 23 days to sail to Liverpool and 40 days to make the return journey to New York. (1)
The Albion’s fatal voyage
The packet ship Albion sailed from New York on April 1, 1822, with a crew of 25 and 29 passengers (23 in the cabin and 6 in steerage). The ship carried a cargo of cotton, turpentine, rice and beeswax, as well as a considerable sum of specie (gold and silver). Captain Williams was an experienced seaman and the first 20 days of the voyage passed uneventfully.
On the afternoon of Sunday, April 21, passing the south coast of Ireland, the Albion encountered a tremendous gale. Around 8:30 in the evening, a heavy sea struck the ship. It swept overboard six of the crew and one passenger (Alexander Converse); carried away the masts, boats, bulwarks and everything on deck; and drove in the hatches, so that every wave that passed over the ship ran into the hold. According to one of the survivors, William Everhart of Chester, Pennsylvania:
When the ship was thrown on her beam ends, a prodigious destruction took place below; the doors of the state rooms, the tables bound with iron, the furniture, were all destroyed and thrown into heaps. Many of the passengers were severely injured. Gen. Lefebvre-Desnouettes had one of his arms broken; Col. Prevost was wounded in the face. (2)
The Albion was then about 20 miles from shore. Captain Williams maintained his calm and steadily gave orders.
He cheered the officers and the crew with the hope that the wind would shift, and before morning blow off shore. … All who could do no good on deck retired below; but the water was knee deep in the cabin, and the furniture floating about rendered the situation dangerous and dreadful. (3)
Henry Cammyer, the first mate, who also survived, noted:
The ship being unmanageable, and the sea making a complete breach over her, we were obliged to lash ourselves to the pumps, and being in total darkness, without correct compasses, could not tell how the ship’s head lay. The axes being swept away, [we] had no means of clearing the wreck. (4)
A number of the passengers assisted at the pumps, including Anne Powell, daughter of the chief justice of Upper Canada.
Though things looked dire, Williams concealed the imminent danger from the passengers, thus saving them from much distress in the hours preceding the ship’s destruction. The crew, however, knew what was coming.
The sailors at an early period were in a state of insubordination: many would not obey orders, and got drunk. (5)
All night the wind blew onshore, towards which the Albion was drifting at the rate of three miles an hour. Williams was familiar with the steep and rocky coast, with its sharp reefs.
He must have seen, in despair and horror, throughout the night, the certainty of their fate. At length, the ocean dashing and roaring upon the precipice of rock near the lee of the ship, told them that their hour was come. (6)
About 10 minutes before 3 o’clock in the morning on April 22, Williams summoned everyone on deck and told them the ship would soon strike the rocks. He ordered everyone to move forward. Everhart, who had suffered from seasickness through most of the voyage and was very weak, was the last to leave the cabin, crawling. One passenger, Professor Alexander Fisher, who had been injured in the fall of the masts, remained in his berth. He had taken a broken compass and was trying to repair it. (7) When Everhart asked Fisher if he would come on deck, he said no. (8)
Some, particularly the females, expressed their horror in wild shrieks. Major Gough, of the British army, remarked that ‘Death, come as he would, was an unwelcome messenger; but they must meet him as they could.’ Very little was said by others, the men awaiting the expected shock in silence. General Lefebvre Desnouettes, during the voyage, had evidently wished to remain without particular observation; and to prevent his being known, besides taking passage under a feigned name, had suffered his beard to grow during the whole voyage; he had the misfortune before the ship struck to be much bruised, and one of his arms was broken, which disabled him from exertion, if it could have been availing.
It is barely possible to conceive the horror of their situation. The deadly and relentless blast impelling them to destruction – the ship a wreck – the raging of the billows against the precipice on which they were driving, sending back from the rocks the hoarse and melancholy warnings of death – dark, cold, and wet: in such a situation the stoutest heart must have quaked with utter despair. (9)
The final hour
About 3 o’clock, the Albion struck on some rocks jutting out of the water and then came to a reef where she lost her bottom. About half an hour later, the ship broke apart in the middle. The quarter deck drifted onto a ledge of rock, immediately under the cliffs, where huge waves swept over the passengers. Cammyer reported:
Up to the period of her parting, nearly twenty persons were clinging to the wreck, among whom were two females, Mrs. Pye and Miss Powell. Captain Williams had, with several others, been swept away soon after she struck; a circumstance which may be attributed to the very extraordinary exertions which he used, to the last moment, for the preservation of the lives of the unfortunate passengers and crew. (10)
Here is Everhart’s account.
In this situation every wave making a breach over her, many were drowned on deck. A woman, Mr. Everhart could not distinguish who, fell near him and cried for help; he left his hold and raised her up, another wave came and she was too far exhausted to sustain herself, and sunk on the deck; 15 or 16 corpses at one time, Mr. Everhart thought, lay near the bows of the ship.
Perceiving now that the stern was higher out of water, and the sea had less power in its sweep over it, Mr. Everhart went aft; he then perceived that the bottom had been broken out of the ship; the heavy articles must have sunk, and the cotton and lighter articles were floating around, dashed by every wave against the rocks; presently the ship broke in two, and all those who remained near the bow were lost. Several from the stern of the ship had got on the side of the precipice and were hanging by the crags as they could.
Though weakened by previous sickness and present suffering, he made an effort and got upon the rock and stood on one foot, the only one he could obtain; he saw several around him, and among them were Col. Prevost, who observed on seeing him take his station, ‘Here is another poor fellow;’ but the waves rolled heavily against them, and often dashed its spray 50 feet over their heads, gradually got those who had taken refuge one by one away, and one poor fellow, losing his hold, as he fell caught the leg of Mr. Everhart and nearly pulled him from his place. Weak and sick as he was, Mr. Everhart stood several hours on one foot on a little crag, the waves dashing over him, and he benumbed with cold. (11)
Among the last people Everhart saw alive on the ship were George Hyde Clarke and his wife, in her husband’s arms.
[A]t this period the swells entirely covered the forecastle, and drowned all who were there. Colonel Prevost by great exertions reached the rock which Mr. Everhart had gained, but was washed off. (12)
The view from shore
The Albion struck Ireland off Garretstown, near the Old Head of Kinsale. John Purcell, a local eyewitness, provided the following account.
At some time before four o’clock this morning, I was informed that a ship was cast on the rocks…to which place I immediately repaired; and…found a vessel on the rocks, under a very high cliff. At this time, as it blew a dreadful gale, with spring-tide and approaching high water, the sea ran mountains high; however, I descended with some men as far down the cliff as the dashing of the sea would permit us to go with safety, and there had the horrid spectacle of viewing five dead bodies stretched on the deck, and four other fellow-creatures distractedly calling for assistance, which we were unable to afford them, as certain death would have attended the attempt. Of those in this perilous situation, one was a female, whom, though it was impossible from the wind and the roaring of the sea to hear her, yet from her gestures and the stretching out of her hands, we judged to be calling for and imploring our assistance. At this time the greater part of the vessel lay on a rock, and part of the stern, where this poor woman lay, projected over a narrow creek, that divides this rock from another. Here the sea ran over her with the greatest fury, yet she kept a firm hold, which it much astonished me that she could do; but we soon perceived that the vessel was broke across, where she projected over the rock, and after many waves dashing against her, this part of the vessel rolled in the waves, and we had the heart-rending scene of seeing the woman perish. The three men lay towards the stern of the vessel, one of whom stuck to a mast, which projected towards the cliff, to whom, after many attempts, we succeeded in throwing a rope, and brought him safe ashore. Another we also saved; but the constant dashing of the waves put an end to the sufferings of the others. (13)
As soon as it was light enough and the tide ebbed, some of the locals descended the rocks as far as they could and dropped William Everhart a rope, which he fastened around his body so he could be drawn to safety. Everhart was the only cabin passenger to escape the wreck. Stephen Chase, a steerage passenger from Canada, was also saved. Henry Cammyer, the first mate, described how he survived.
after gaining a rock in a very exhausted state, I was washed off, but by the assistance of Providence, was enabled, before the return of the sea, to regain it; and before I could attempt to climb the cliff, which was nearly perpendicular, I was obliged to lie down, to regain a little strength, after the severe bruises and contusions I had received on the body and feet. (14)
The other survivors were crew members William Hynt (or Hyate) (boatswain), John Simson, John Richards, Francis Bloom, Ebenezer Warner and Hierom Raymond.
(An asterix * denotes those whose bodies were found, identified and interred. Four bodies that could not be recognized were also interred.)
Napoleonic General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes (sailing under the name of Gravez), age 48, was returning to France after six years of exile in the United States. He was looking forward to joining his wife Stéphanie and the daughter he had never seen. See my article about Lefebvre-Desnouettes.
Professor Alexander Metcalf Fisher, age 28, was head of the Mathematics Department at Yale College (now University) in New Haven, Connecticut. His fiancée, Catharine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), took the money Fisher bequeathed her and founded the Hartford Female Seminary. It is thanks to Fisher’s death that Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, one of the 19th century’s most successful cookbooks, was written, as explained by Fred Glynn on Cookbooks-a-la-Carte.
*Anne Powell, age 35, the daughter of William Dummer Powell, the chief justice of Upper Canada, came from one of the most prestigious families in York (Toronto). She had been sailing to England in dogged pursuit of the man she loved. See the Dictionary of Canadian Biography for the sordid details.
Major William Gough, age 44, a member of Britain’s 68th light infantry regiment, had fought under the Duke of Wellington at the Battles of Salamanca and Vitoria in Spain, where he was severely wounded by grapeshot in the leg.
*Lieutenant-Colonel John Augustine Prevost, age 52, of Cooperstown, NY, was the son of Augustine Prevost Jr. and the grandson of Augustine Prevost Sr., both of whom fought on the Loyalist side in the America Revolution.
*George Hyde Clarke, of Albany, NY, was the eldest son of George Clarke (1768-1835). The latter was the descendant of a prominent colonial New York family and the owner of Hyde Hall in Cooperstown, NY. George Hyde Clarke’s brother, who lived in England, was married to Colonel Prevost’s sister. Assuming that George Hyde Clarke was born after his parents’ marriage, he was no older than 29 years.
*Mrs. George Hyde Clarke, wife of the above, described by Everhart as “young,” also perished in the wreck.
The other cabin passengers who died were: Alexander B. Converse, age 24, of Troy, New York, the son of Hon. John Converse; *Nelson D. Ross, age 20, of Troy, New York, Converse’s brother-in-law (Converse’s wife Julia had died in November 1821 at the age of 22); *Rev. G.R.G. Hill, lately of Jamaica (he was returning home to England); *William H. Dwight, Boston; Mr. G.W. Beynon, London; Mr. William Proctor, New York; *Mrs. Mary Pye, New York; *Mrs. Gardiner (or Garnier), Paris; Mrs. Gardiner’s son, about 8 years old; *Victor Millicent, Paris; Mr. Chabut, said to be the nephew of Lefebvre-Desnouettes, Paris; Mr. Lemercier, New Orleans; Philotime Depla, Bordeaux; John Gore, North Carolina; Mr. Bending.
The steerage passengers who lost their lives were: James Baldwin, cotton spinner, Yorkshire; Dr. Carver, veterinary surgeon; Mr. Harrison, carpenter; *Mrs. Mary Hunt; *Mrs. Mary Brereton (or Brewster).
The deceased crew were: Captain John Williams, age 37 (he left a wife and seven children); Edward Smith, second mate; Alexander Adams, carpenter; Harman Nelson; Harman Richardson; Henry Whittrell; William Trisserly; James Wiley; Robert McLellan; Thomas Goodman; Samuel Wilson, boy; William Snow, boy; *William Dockwood; Lloyd Potter, steward (black); Samuel Penny, steward (black); Francis Isaac, boy (black); *Thomas Hill, cook (black); *Adam Johnson, cook (black). (15)
Everhart and Cammyer both spoke highly of the local population. The residents of Garretstown and Kinsale offered every kindness to the living, prepared coffins for the dead, and salvaged what they could of the vessel and its cargo. Jacob Mark, the US Consul at Kinsale, James Gibbons, the agent for Lloyd’s at Kinsale, Mr. Pratt, surveyor of Kinsale, and John Purcell, the steward of a local landowner, were singled out for praise. The bodies were buried at Templetrine churchyard, about four miles from Kinsale and one mile from the site of the shipwreck. Some were later moved.
Sadly, there was a subsequent tragedy related to the wreck of the packet ship Albion. A few days later, a boat trying to salvage a piece of the Albion capsized, drowning seven of the eight men on board. (16)
It was feared that the Albion’s fate would, for a time, make packet ships “somewhat unpopular.”
There are two lines of them from New York to Liverpool – and they must be content for a short time to come to discard the spirit of competition, and to consult their safety instead of expedition. (17)
The morning smiles, the ocean billow sleeps,
But where’s the tall ship that late ploughed its breast,
The gallant ALBION? Pity, shuddering weeps;
No more, – only on the dark wave’s crest
That night, at times, were dimly seen, ’tis said,
Some forms of misery, whose hands in vain
Were lift imploring, – they sank with the dead,
And piteous cries and shrieks were heard, – ’twas still again. (18)
You might also enjoy:
- Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, Vol. II (London, 1824), p. 345.
- “The Albion Packet,” The Times (London), September 7, 1822, p. 3 (a communication from survivor William Everhart).
- “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet,” The Times (London), October 12, 1822, p. 3 (an interview with survivor William Everhart).
- “Loss of the Albion,” The National Advocate (New York), July 30, 1822 (survivor Henry Cammyer’s account of the wreck).
- “The Albion Packet.”
- “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet.”
- Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Boston, 1891), p. 24.
- Mary Grey Lundie Duncan, Memoirs of the Life and Character of the Rev. Matthias Bruen (New York, 1831) p. 138.
- “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet.”
- “Loss of the Albion.”
- “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet.”
- “The Albion Packet.”
- “Melancholy Shipwrecks,” The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser (Lancaster, England), May 4, 1822.
- “Loss of the Albion.”
- These names are based primarily on Cammyer’s “correct list of the crew and passengers” in “Loss of the Albion.” However, since Cammyer’s cabin passenger list falls short of the 23 he says were on board, and includes four unnamed “French gentlemen,” I have supplemented it with passenger names included in other newspaper accounts. No single account lists all of the 54 people said to be on the Albion. The final determination is complicated by the fact that different spellings of the names are used in different accounts of the wreck.
- “Melancholy Shipwrecks.”
- Louisville Public Advertiser (Louisville, KY), July 6, 1822.
- William B. Tappan, The Poems of William B. Tappan (Philadelphia, 1834), p. 60.
It is barely possible to conceive the horror of their situation. The deadly and relentless blast impelling them to destruction – the ship a wreck – the raging of the billows against the precipice on which they were driving, sending back from the rocks the hoarse and melancholy warnings of death – dark, cold, and wet.