Who was steering?

The Freeman’s Journal of 26 November 1845 reported the sinking of the passage boat Longford thus:

DEPLORABLE CALAMITY — SIXTEEN LIVES SACRIFICED

At a late hour last night accounts reached town of the occurrence of a calamity of the most deplorable nature, of which, in the course of the evening, the Royal Canal was the theatre, and by which the lives of very many of our fellow-creatures were sacrificed. It is certain that sixteen are already dead! Of course, the full particulars of this shocking affair are not yet fully known, but the following facts may be relied upon, having been communicated to us by an individual who arrived in town in the course of the night from the scene of the tragedy.

The night boat to Longford started on yesterday at the usual hour, two o’clock in the afternoon. There were eight passengers in the fore or principal cabin, and considerably upwards of twenty in the after-cabin. Upon reaching the neighbourhood of Clonsilla, the steersman went below to dine, and unhappily committed the rudder, as we have been informed, to a boy employed on board the boat. This boy, either knowing nothing of the proper mode of steering, or not attending to the serious duty unfortunately and rashly committed to him, permitted the boat to run upon the bank of the Canal, which caused her immediately to capsize, and speedily to fill with water. The fore-cabin passengers were saved, as that portion of the boat lay almost out of the water, which is, of course, shallow at the bank; the unhappy after-passengers plunged into the deepest portion of the canal, could not extricate themselves, and as no immediate assistance was at hand many of them have perished in the waters. At the time our correspondent left Clonsilla, sixteen of the drowned already crowded the banks, and the drags were plying busily in search of more.

This is a horrible calamity, It must be rigorously inquired into, and this frightful sacrifice of human life be excused by evidence or punished by law.[1]

There were several minor inaccuracies in this early account, notably in that the number of deaths was fifteen rather than sixteen, but they may be excused given the inevitable confusion on the night. However, the reference to the “boy employed on board the boat” is misleading and should be clarified.

The five steerers

There were five people who might have steered the boat:

  • the regular steerer, William Keatinge, who had skived off for the day but spent part of it on board the boat
  • his nominated replacement, James Dunne, who was the boat’s regular cabin boy and who steered the boat from the Broadstone until shortly before the accident
  • the captain, Christopher O’Connor, who (according to a widely ignored regulation) should have steered while Dunne went to his dinner but whom Dunne did not tell of his leaving the helm
  • Dunne’s nominated replacement as cabin boy, Alexander Campbell, who regularly steered when the men went to their dinner. Although he was little (if at all) younger than Dunne, he was the only one who was described as a boy in evidence at the inquest and the Freeman’s Journal phrase “boy employed on board the boat” might be taken to refer to him
  • Patrick Teeling, a labourer employed on the canal who was travelling as a free passenger and was on deck when Dunne decided to go to his dinner.

Two of the five did not steer the boat on that day; the other three did but, as the Hussar Robert Jessop said, “there was no regularity on board amongst the steerers.”[2]

Dunne steered the boat from the Broadstone until just after Porterstown bridge, where the inspector, Mr O’Neil, left the boat; the captain, Christopher O’Connor, went below after O’Neil disembarked. After that, at about ten minutes to four, James Dunne handed over the helm to Patrick Teeling and, with no word to the captain, went below to his dinner.[3] The transfer was witnessed by the cabin boy Alexander Campbell[4], Michael Farrell[5] and Robert Jessop[6]; Patrick Morris saw Teeling steering.[7]

Teeling and Campbell

Teeling steered for about three minutes, then asked Alexander Campbell to take the helm.[8] According to Campbell, Teeling said that he wanted to go into the steerage, which presumably means the cooking compartment underneath.[9] Michael Farrell saw Teeling give the helm to Campbell[10], as did Robert Jessop.[11]

However, Teeling returned almost immediately and took the helm from Campbell again:

[…] he returned immediately afterwards and took the helm out of my hand again; to the best of my opinion I did not hold it more than a second; after giving the helm up to him, I went down to put on the potatoes […][12]

[…] the prisoner [Teeling] called him up to take the helm from him; he (prisoner) went down, left the helm with him, and returned in less than a minute […][13]

Saw Dunne give the helm to the prisoner, the prisoner to Campbell, and the prisoner take it again, and in four minutes afterwards the boat struck; the prisoner was only a minute away before he resumed his place at the helm[14]

After he gave up the helm I did not see the man with the frieze coat [Teeling] steering. He left the helm to go into the cabin. I think he was going back to the helm when the boat struck. There were three different persons at the helm from the time we left Dublin. They swapped and changed at it three or four times. I did not see the cabin-boy at the helm after he gave it back to the man with the frieze coat. […]

I looked at the helm about a minute before the accident happened, and saw the man with the frieze coat at it. From that time until the boat struck there was time enough for another man to take the helm. The cabin boy was cooking underneath the place where the steersman stands at that time.[15]

Campbell, the boy, was not at the helm, was not even on deck, when the boat struck; he was below cooking potatoes:

[…] I was stooping over the pot occupied with them when the boat struck; Teeling was then where the helmsman ought to be, but I cannot say that he held the helm, as my back was turned to him; Teeling had taken the helm two or three minutes when the boat struck; there was no one but Teeling near the helm when she struck; I had given up the helm about three minutes when the boat struck […][16]

Who had the helm then? — Teeling, or at least he ought to have it, as he took it from me two or three minutes before. I had the lid off the boiler, and it fell out and scalded a man. Was there any one near the helm except Teeling when the boat struck? — Not one; and he should have had it, but I cannot say he actually had it, in his hand.[17]

[…] was upon deck when she struck; […] the last witness [Campbell] was below cooking; saw him at the helm before the prisoner [Teeling] got it; he left it, and the prisoner went to it […].[18]

Teeling had taken back the helm, but almost immediately left it again, this time without finding a replacement steerer — and all this within minutes of his having first taken the helm from Dunne.

The absent steerer

When the boat struck, Campbell rushed on deck and, according to his own account, asked Teeling “how did you do that?” Again according to Campbell, Teeling replied “You villain, sure it was not me that did it.” Campbell said he was wrong and Teeling said “that he would throw me into the canal, if I kept any of my prate”.[19] At the trial, Campbell reported the use of different phrases, but with the same import: that Teeling was blaming Campbell for the accident. However, Campbell pointed out that there were witnesses to his having returned the helm to Teeling.[20]

Teeling’s original evidence at the inquest was carefully worded:

[…] the boy [Campbell] came up on the steerage, and took hold of the helm; I went in and left him at the helm, but came out of the cabin immediately after; I was not more than a few minutes away; the boat was properly under way when I gave the boy charge of her; I leaned over the railing which runs along the gunwale of the boat; I had not given up the helm more than two or three minutes when she struck; from the time I took charge of her from Dunne, until the time she struck, was about seven or eight minutes; I was satisfied that the boy to whom I gave the helm was competent to steer; it must have been through bad steering that she struck […].[21]

But the evidence of the witnesses was clear:

[…] was upon deck when she struck; saw the prisoner there; a minute before the boat struck saw the prisoner at the helm; when she struck saw no one at it […][22]

[…] I observed that there was no hand upon the tiller; just then the boat struck […][23]

[…] when the boat struck the prisoner had not a hold of the helm, but was making his way to it as fast as he could.[24]

Teeling’s evidence on the first day of the inquest was disbelieved:

The witness gave his evidence with great reluctance, and the Coroner told him so, and said he would give him to this day to consider the facts and relate them clearly, as it was evident he wished to hide something, and if he did not give his evidence more clearly, he would commit him to gaol.[25]

And, on the second day, Teeling admitted his absence from the helm. The coroner invited him to make a statement, but pointed out that he was not bound to do so:

Teeling paused for a few moments, and then said — I was not at the helm the time the accident occurred.

After another pause, Mr Murphy [QC, for the Royal Canal Company] — you have the opportunity now; make any statement you like.

Teeling — it is a hardship for me to remain silent and I not in error. I left the helm to go into the cabin, and upon coming out of the cabin I stopped at the railing, and before I left the railing the boat struck. From the time I gave up the helm until the boat sunk I never laid hand on it. […]

Mr Murphy — anything else?

Teeling — I don’t know what more I can say to your honors; the principal thing is that I was away from the helm when she struck.[26]

It is not clear what Teeling meant by “and I not in error”: his error was not that he steered badly but that he did not steer at all. He allowed the boat to be hauled in towards the bank and fifteen people died as a result.

Why did he abandon the helm? I suggest that the answer is to be found in the argument advanced in Teeling’s defence by his counsel at his trial:

It was not the prisoner’s duty to steer the boat. The helm was given to him, but he was compelled by natural reasons to leave it, and this gave rise to the accident.[27]

Teeling, who had been drinking porter, needed to relieve himself and left the helm to urinate over the side.


 

This is the sixth and last in a series of articles about the sinking of the passage boat Longford on the Royal Canal in 1845. The first outlined the accident; the second described the passage boat services and the crew of the boat; the third covered the inquest and trial; the fourth and fifth dealt with the management weaknesses of the Royal Canal Company that led the inquest jury to award a deodand.

[longford184550]

Notes and sources

[1] Freeman’s Journal 26 November 1845

[2] Evidence of Robert Jessop at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[3] Evidence of James Dunne, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[4] Evidence of Alexander Campbell at the inquest, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845, and at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[5] Evidence of Michael Farrell at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[6] Evidence of Robert Jessop, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[7] Evidence of Patrick Morris, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[8] Evidence of Alexander Campbell, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[9] ibid

[10] Evidence of Michael Farrell at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[11] Evidence of Robert Jessop, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[12] Evidence of Alexander Campbell, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[13] Evidence of Alexander Campbell at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[14] Evidence of Michael Farrell at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[15] Evidence of Robert Jessop, The Morning Post 1 December 1845

[16] Evidence of Alexander Campbell, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[17] Evidence of Alexander Campbell, The Morning Post 29 November 1845

[18] Evidence of Robert Jessop at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[19] Evidence of Alexander Campbell, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[20] Evidence of Alexander Campbell at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[21] Evidence of Patrick Teeling, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[22] Evidence of Robert Jessop at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[23] Evidence of Patrick Morris, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[24] Evidence of Michael Farrell at the trial, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[25] The Morning Post 29 November 1845

[26] Evidence of Patrick Teeling, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[27] Argument of Mr Curran at the trial, addressing the court and jury for the prisoner, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

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