Skip to content

Explosion on the Calf of Man, 1852

This extract is from the Illustrated London News, 8 January 1853 and reports on a horrific shipwreck and explosion with the loss of 35 lives when the ‘Lily’ with her cargo of gunpowder foundered on the northern point of the Kitterland, 29 December, 1852.

The violent gales, rising occasionally into hurricanes, blowing from the southward and westward from Friday night to Monday afternoon, have done great damage by sea and land. Many vessels have been seen, dismasted, and in distress, drifting down the Channel; and the fragments cast upon our shores indicate great losses at sea. A life-boat bearing the name of the British Queen came on shore in Castletown Bay, on Monday morning. At twelve o’clock on the same day, the ‘Lily’, a vessel of 160 tons register, bound from Liverpool to Ambrazo, on the coast of Africa, with a general cargo, consisting chiefly of bales of cloth, cottons, rum, cannon, firearms, and upwards of forty tons of gunpowder, having been driven back from Cork in a crippled condition, was carried by the tide from the westward into the Sound of the Calf of Man, the breadth of which is about 500 yards; and, in endeavouring to pass between the Kitterland islet and the southern extremity of the Isle of Man, was swung round in the current, which here runs, at some periods of the tide, at the rate of nine knots per hour, and struck on the northern point of the Kitterland. With difficulty, nine of the crew got upon the islet; the master, his son, and three of the crew being carried away by the surf, and drowned in the attempt; two of the nine also being severely injured.

In the course of the afternoon the vessel was handed over to the care of Lloyd’s agent at Port St. Mary, distant about two miles, and he subsequently took possession of her. He was assisted in the charge by the chief constable of Castletown and one of his subordinates, and by the constable of Port St. Mary and several others, who were stationed on the vessel, as well as on the Kitterland and the Main Island, to guard the wreck, and land the stores when the weather and tide should permit. It appears that during the night of Monday several shots were fired to deter people from venturing near, some parties having made attempts at plunder. At five minutes to eight on Tuesday morning the inhabitants of the whole of the south of the Isle of Man were alarmed at a fearful explosion and on looking towards the Calf of Man beheld a vast column of fire and smoke ascending to a great height in the air. The houses were shaken as if by an earthquake, even beyond Douglas, a distance of eighteen miles. The spot where the catastrophe took place is wild in the extreme. The southern extremity of the Isle of Man terminates in the Mull Hills, rising nearly 600 feet above the sea, bold cliffs of clay schist occupy the coasts from the Chasms and Spanish Head, round to Bradda Head and Port Erin.

On Friday, an inquest has been held at Port St. Mary, on the mutilated remains of four of the men who perished by the explosion. Very little was elicited at the inquest to throw light upon the manner and origin of this fearful occurrence. In the examination of James Kelly, the only survivor of the thirty men on board the vessel, or on the Kitterland Islet, and who is still lingering in a most precarious condition, it was made out, that on the men going aboard the vessel at six o’clock in the morning, there was a smell of smoke, proceeding apparently from about midships, and many of the men became alarmed, and desirous to leave the wreck. As it was known, however, that the powder was placed fore and aft, they were prevailed on to stay. A hole was cut in the deck for the purpose of discovering the exact position of the fire; and it is presumed that, upon the admission of fresh air, the flames burst out, and the explosion instantly took place. Originally, as stated by the mate, there were sixty tons of gunpowder on board; but as about 200 quarter casks have been found at Port Erin, which had either been washed out of the vessel, or thrown overboard by parties visiting, the wreck in the night, it is thought that about forty tons were on board at the time of the explosion. It is not true, as at first stated, that shots were heard from the vessel in the night, but lights were observed there; and, as the morning of Tuesday was calm and moonlight, it is not unlikely that some parties may have made attempts at plundering, and being disturbed, have left a light carelessly in the wreck. Two or three casks of gunpowder were found secreted in the neighbourhood.

The destruction was most complete and appalling. Not only the wooden portions, the sides, decks, and masts, but the copper sheeting and iron-work of the vessel, and the guns, cutlasses, &c., were rent into very minute fragments. No wonder, then, that scarcely any remains of the men on board should be found. An ear has been found at Scarlet, distant five miles from the scene of the disaster; the shattered casing of a watch, belonging to one of the men who perished, was discovered at a distance of three miles; at which place one of the miners working in the mine at Ballacorkish was thrown down, and the candles were extinguished by the violence of the shock. Port St. Mary is a sad scene of mourning. Twenty-two widows and seventy-two children are left, many of them, in an entirely destitute condition. We have no Poor-law on the island, the poor being supported by voluntary contributions made at the Offertory in the churches every Sunday. A wide field has just been opened for the exercise of Christian Liberality. One gentleman in this neighbourhood, well known for his charitable acts, contributed £100 to the fund being raised for the benefit of the fatherless and widows; and it is expected that the merchants of Liverpool, and the underwriters at Lloyd’s, whose property the unfortunate men who perished were trying to save, will largely assist.E. M. Gawne, Esq., Captain of Rushen parish; the Rev W . Corrin, the Vicar; and the Rev. R. Moss, Curate, are acting as trustee’s of the bounty.

Illustrated London News 8, January 1853