The ‘Londonderry’, a paddle-steamer which berthed at the quayside in Derry one Sunday in the winter of 1848 was only seven years old, big for a ship of her kind, weighing 222 tons. She was manned by a crew of 26 and often sailed between Sligo and Liverpool.
On this winter trip, while hugging the coast of Donegal she hit bad weather. She was carrying general cargo down below, a deck cargo of cattle, three cabin passengers and 174 passengers in steerage. This was a fairly average-sized manifest for the relatively short journey to Liverpool, not much more than 300 miles. Many of the passengers would probably be seeking onward passages on arrival in Liverpool. The majority of the steerage passengers would expect to complete most, if not all the voyage on deck.
When a storm broke one evening the master ordered his crew to drive all passengers into the after cabin, though it was far too small to hold all 174 of them. They struggled for space and fought for air to breath; some were crushed and others suffocated. When the cabin door was opened the following morning, shortly before the ship tied up in Derry, 31 women, 23 men and 18 children had died.
Quebec Mercury, January 4, 1849
A summary of the disaster [omitted] and the Coroner’s verdict
VERDICT OF THE JURY – The following is the verdict of the coroner’s jury. – ‘We find that death was caused by suffocation, in consequence of the gross negligence and total want of the usual necessary caution on the part of the captain, Alexander Johnston, Richard Hughes, first mate, and Ninian Crawford, second mate and we therefore find them guilty of Manslaughter; and we further consider it our duty to express in the strongest terms our abhorrence of the inhuman conduct of the remainder of the seamen on board on the melancholy occasion; and the jury beg to call the attention of proprietors of steamboats to the urgent necessity of introducing some more effective mode of
ventilation in the steerage and also affording better accommodation to the poorer class of passengers.’
Photo: The Great Hunger Plaque, Derry, near Derry County Borough, Derry, Clooney Park, Creggan and Boom Hall