1848 – The paddle steamer The Londonderry, with immigrants fleeing the famine, takes shelter in Derry harbour.

When the covers are removed from the hold it is discovered that 72 men, women and children have suffocated.

At 8am on Friday 1 December 1848, the steamer Londonderry left Sligo for Liverpool with a cargo of passengers and cattle. Her passengers were later described by the Liverpool Mercury as

chiefly… the wretched and destitute class who are pouring into England and in such multitudes and who are landed daily in our streets without a penny of money, and with scarcely rags enough to cover them.
Two days later, she arrived at Londonderry with 72 of her 174 passengers dead. Mary McNulty, aged about 14, of Ballina, in Mayo, gave evidence to the inquest that her mother and four sisters had died in steerage, where, people had said, robbers were attacking the passengers.

Michael Branan of Sligo had been on deck during the storm until ‘one of the crew called him an Irish – and made him go down’ below, where ‘the place was so thronged that, while those at the sides were forced to sit down, there was no sitting room for those in the centre, and they were moved to and fro with every motion of the vessel’.

This Home Office file shows how, at first, the local authorities reacted to the deaths aboard the Londonderry as a simple case of the rowdy Irish rioting among themselves.

This Home Office file shows how, at first, the local authorities reacted to the deaths aboard the Londonderry as a simple case of the rowdy Irish rioting among themselves.

Passengers who tried to keep the hatchway open because of the heat were beaten back by the sailors, who blocked the way with tarpaulin and ropes. Catherine Brady, of Tonagh, Sligo, gave evidence that the *bullocks ‘got loose every time the water came down’.

Another witness said that one of the sailors had remarked that ‘they were only Irishmen fighting among themselves’. The mate gave evidence that it had been the worst storm he had seen in 11 years, and that the captain had ordered the hatchway to be covered by a tarpaulin. The ship’s carpenter said that each passenger ‘would have two square feet for standing’.

Dr Miller, having examined the bodies, gave his opinion that those persons had come by their death through many persons having been in too small a place, and having an imperfect supply of air…the steerage accommodation being more cramped than the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The inquest jury found that the passengers had died of suffocation and charged the Captain, Alexander Johnson, as well as the first and second mates, with manslaughter, calling for better conditions for steerage passengers.

This newspaper cutting reveals the full horror of the tragedy and how the passengers had been treated worse than cattle.

There was no immediate response from the British government but after the deaths of three Irish deck passengers on the Britannia from exposure in April 1849, the Liverpool doctor who examined the bodies wrote to the Liverpool Mercury denouncing the inhumanity of the human cattle trade, for we can call it nothing less, now carried on for the mutual benefit of the steamboat owners and of persons on the other side of the water who find it convenient to ship their paupers here.

Questions were asked in Parliament and the result was an official enquiry by Captain Denman, which examined the whole question of the passenger traffic between Great Britain and Ireland, listing the shipping companies and their ships, as well as giving details of fares, routes and conditions of travel. *The Steam Packet Act was passed, coming into force in 1851.

The Act laid down that if the Board of Trade required it, the owners of a steam vessel would have to declare a maximum passenger rating for the vessel, and could be fined if those limits were exceeded. Enforcement was patchy and cases of deaths from exposure did continue to occur; moreover, many vessels that carried poorer Irish travellers were cargo boats rather than passenger ships.

Things had not significantly improved by 1854, when John Besnard, *weigh-master at Cork, gave evidence to a parliamentary enquiry that he had seen Irish passengers disembarking at Liverpool and ‘no language at my command can describe the scenes I witnessed there: the people prostrated, and scarcely able to walk after they got out of the steamers… the manner in which these passengers are carried from Irish to English ports is disgraceful, dangerous and inhuman’.

Besnard had seen one steamer sail with 1,100 deck passengers and 300 pigs travelling below decks – pigs travelled at half the fare but, he argued, were better looked after as they were of value to someone.

The Royal Adelaide was a steamship owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, which sailed between London and Cork. She was wrecked in December 1849, with the loss of all on board, including more than 150 deck passengers from Ireland. Some of their names appear in the report on the disaster published in the Illustrated London News.



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