The Mystery of the Sunken Barge

Can you help to solve a mystery?

Cory Griffin of New York, USA, is trying to find out more about an ancestor, Simon Murphy. She has two newspaper extracts, from 1874 and 1875, in which he is mentioned; they concern an accident, in December 1873, involving his canal boat at Spencer Dock on the Royal Canal.

The newspaper accounts are incomplete, in that they don’t tell the full story of what happened, but they provide some fascinating hints about Royal Canal operations in a period about which we know little. As far as I can tell, there are no Royal Canal archives for 1850 onwards, or at least they are not cited by either Peter Clarke or Ruth Delany, the authors of the two histories of the canal. So there is a period of about 100 years for which we are reliant on external sources.

Sometimes such external material supports or confirms what Clarke and Delany tell us. Sometimes, as with Mallet’s Insistent Pontoon Bridge, it supplements what the two authors say; at other times, as with Steamers on the Royal Canal, it contradicts what they say. Those, of course, are the instances I tend to record here, because they present new information.

At any rate, I think that Cory’s articles help to improve our understanding of canal operations, but not everything is clear. I reproduce the two newspaper extracts below and then comment on what I think they tell us, but I would be grateful for comments from folk who know more than I do. And if anyone has, or can find, any information from other sources, I would welcome that too.

The accident and the sheriff

In 1873 Simon Murphy of Cavemount [also called Mullalough], King’s County [Co Offaly], owned Canal Boat 279. Cavemount is close to Killeen Bridge on the Grand Canal, north-east of Daingean, then called Philipstown.

The Freeman’s Journal of 25 June 1874 carried this notice.


Freeman’s Journal 25 June 1874

Don’t worry if you can’t read it easily: I’ll give the important parts of the text below. Then, in April 1875, this notice appeared (with the year misprinted as 1872).


Freeman’s Journal 23 April 1875

The court cases

Searches for reports of events between the two dates have so far found nothing. My Learned Friend Wikipedia says:

A fieri facias, usually abbreviated fi. fa. (Latin for that you cause to be made) is a writ of execution after judgment obtained in a legal action for debt or damages. The term is used in English law for such a writ issued in the High Court. […] It is addressed to the sheriff or High Court Enforcement Officer, and commands him to make good the amount out of the goods of the person against whom judgment has been obtained.

So Mr Murphy had to pay a debt or damages to the MGWR, who owned the Royal Canal and Spencer Dock. Was the debt the legal costs he incurred by losing his case against the MGWR? Or was that case followed by a second case, perhaps because the MGWR wanted Canal Boat No 279 and its cargo of bricks cleared out of their dock?

Where are the records of the Court of Admiralty kept? And is it possible to get (easily and cheaply) a report of the outcome of the case or cases? The UK National Archives have some Court of Admiralty material, but as far as I can see even the index exists only on paper.

Neither the Freeman’s Journal nor any other newspaper included in the Irish Newspaper Archives or the British Newspaper Archive seems to have any more information about the cases; the Irish Times archive mentions Simon Murphy three times in the two years, but all three are copies of the auction notice as carried in the Freeman’s Journal.

The nature of the accident


The entrance to Spencer Dock and the Royal Canal from the Liffey (OSI ~1900)

The sea lock, at the entrance to the Royal Canal and Spencer Dock from the Liffey, is narrow, despite having been expanded in 1873 to allow small coasters in. The Ordnance Survey maps online show that the lock was longer [distance between upper and lower gates] in around 1900 than it was in around 1840 and than it is now; a Freeman’s Journal report of 18 April 1873 says that the length was doubled.

The rebuilt lock could take a vessel of 178′ X 25′ X 15′ — but 25′ is not wide enough for two full-width canal boats side by side. As far as I know, it is the same width now as it was in 1873; here is a recent photograph.

I think that its narrowness is crucial to the nature of the accident. Here is the description:

On the 18th of December last the canal boat, with a cargo of bricks, was about entering the Spencer Dock, but when it had passed the cut at the entrance it was discovered that the steamer was moored there, contrary to the regulations, as alleged, receiving a cargo of flax from a Belfast boat. As there was no means of stopping the barge it drifted on, and became jammed between the side of the steamer and the dock wall. It was alleged that nothing was done by those on board the steamer to extricate the boat, and that the latter became more tightly jammed, and after some time was crushed by the steamer, and was sunk with the cargo. The railway company denied the negligence imputed, and contended that the men on board the canal boat were accountable for what had occurred by persevering to enter the dock after being warned of the presence of the steamer.

If two boats are jammed together such that they can’t move, neither of them can crush the other. But, assuming the boats were downstream of the lock’s upper gate, there was another factor at work: the tide.

There is a photograph, taken in November 1945, of two barges that got jammed between the walls in the entrance to Spencer Dock and sank in the middle when the tide went out. I suspect that, in 1874, the tide caused the boats to move in relation to one another, sinking the canal boat. If you have a better theory, do please leave a Comment.

The steamer

Let us note in passing that the case confirms the evidence presented on my page about steamers on the Royal Canal: as Ernie Shepherd said, the MGWR got two steamers in 1870/1 and the steamers ordered in 1875/6 were not its first steamers.

The canal boat

I’m going to make some guesses. There is a large bog near Cavemount and it may be that Simon Murphy’s boat was used, in season, to haul turf [peat] to Dublin or other towns, being available for other cargoes outside the turf-haulage season. There were no motor-barges in those days, and if it had been steam-propelled [unlikely anyway] it would have been referred to as a steamer, so I suggest that it was horse-drawn and probably wooden.

This page has a drawing of the sterns of some wooden canal-boats on the Grand Canal in 1882 and this page has an account of the operation of horse-drawn boats on the Royal Canal in the mid-twentieth century; I imagine the life was largely unchanged from Simon Murphy’s time.

Grand or Royal?

But this leads to another guess. Given that Simon Murphy lived by the Grand Canal, and had cargoes (at least of turf) nearby, I suggest that his boat was probably registered, and regularly trading, on the Grand rather than on the Royal. Again, I would welcome Comments.

This is important because Cory’s first question to me was about records of canal permits on the Royal Canal. As I said above, I suspect that no such records exist, although Peter Clarke [in The Royal Canal: the complete story Elo Publications, Dublin 1992] says that there were 78 boats on the Royal in 1866, one of them owned by a Murphy, and one of 31 in 1892. There is no information other than the surnames. His source is the Royal Canal evidence on the Railway and Canal Traffic Act 1888 [I’m not sure whether that was evidence given when the act was being discussed or evidence given to an enquiry established under it].

But if Simon Murphy’s boat was actually registered on the Grand, it might be possible to find some records in the National Archives [OPW10]. Note that I cannot prove that it was registered on the Grand, but I have found no evidence to prove that it was not.

If there were evidence that Grand boats never went to the Royal, or at least to Spencer Dock, that would mean that Simon Murphy’s boat could not have been Grand-registered. But I have been doing some searching of the Freeman’s Journal and I have found that there was much more cross-Liffey (and indeed up-and-downLiffey) traffic by canal boats, in the 1870s, than I had expected.

Furthermore, I found that at least one canal boat was equipped with sweeps (large oars), which would have enabled it to move much more easily (presumably using the tide) on the Liffey. [We knew that the Grand Canal Company had a towing steamer on the Liffey, but small firms might not have been inclined to pay for towage.]


The Grand Canal joins the Liffey on its south side, the Royal on its north

Something else that might have ruled out the “might-have-been-a-Grand boat” theory is the number. Ruth Delany, in The Grand Canal of Ireland [David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1873] says that before 1870 all Grand boats, whether owned by the Grand Canal Company or by bye-traders, were numbered in sequence as they were registered. In 1870 the numbers passed 1000 and the company therefore instituted two new series, its own new boats starting with No 1 and bye-traders’ boats starting with 1B.

I was not sure whether that meant that existing bye-traders’ boats would have been renumbered with B numbers, but For Sale ads in the Freeman’s Journal throughout the 1870s show many bye-traders’ boats with plain (non-B) numbers. Accordingly, Simon Murphy’s Canal Boat No 279 could very well have had a Grand Canal registration number. I have no information on how the Royal Canal registered boats or how the two registration systems (if there were two) were distinguished, something else for the to-be-researched list.

Again, I would welcome Comments.

To sum up on this point, then: as far as I can see, there is no reason to believe that Simon Murphy’s boat was not registered on the Grand Canal. The fact that he lived beside the Grand makes it, in my view, more likely to have been Grand than Royal. And there is one more consideration that might lend mild support to that contention.

In the dock

Consider again the circumstances of the accident:

On the 18th of December last the canal boat, with a cargo of bricks, was about entering the Spencer Dock, but when it had passed the cut at the entrance it was discovered that the steamer was moored there […]. As there was no means of stopping the barge it drifted on, and became jammed between the side of the steamer and the dock wall. […] The railway company […] contended that the men on board the canal boat were accountable for what had occurred by persevering to enter the dock after being warned of the presence of the steamer.

So how did a horse-drawn boat get to the entrance of Spencer Dock? If it had been coming down the Royal towards the Liffey, it would almost certainly have been able to see the steamer in the lock or in the (equally narrow) stretch between the lock and the Liffey. Of course it may not have been horse-drawn by that stage: if the layout in 1873 was the same as that shown on the ~1900 OSI map, it is possible that a boat could not be horse-drawn from Newcomen Bridge to the sea lock because there seem to have been several obstructions in the way of either the horse or the trackline (tow rope). The boat might have been propelled by poles or sweeps or towed by a tug.

But from the descriptions we have, it seems to me to be equally possible, and perhaps more likely, that the boat was coming in from the Liffey. In that case:

  • it would not have been able to see the steamer until it came level with the entrance from the river
  • it must have crossed the river either under tow, a tow cast off at the last minute as there is no mention of a towing boat entering the narrow section, or using sweeps — and the sweeps could not be used within the narrow section
  • it would have been impractical for the canal boat to keep station outside the entrance unless it could get a line ashore: with the tow cast off (if it was towed) or with only sweeps for propulsion, it might be OK while the tide was slack but would have been uncontrollable once the flow accelerated.

I am speculating based on very little evidence, but it seems to me that this interpretation is not inconsistent with the information we have and that it might explain the canal boat crew’s ignoring the warnings about the presence of the steamer: there was probably little they could safely do about it.

If you can provide any hard information, eg about the court cases or about canal boats of that era, it would be very welcome. I would also welcome Comments about my speculations which are, I accept, based on very little evidence. The key speculative point, I suppose, is whether Simon Murphy’s canal boat had a Royal Canal number, in which case it may be impossible to find more information, or a Grand Canal number, in which case the Grand Canal Company archives may tell us more.

My OSI logo and permit number for website

[royalsteamers 40]

7 responses to “The Mystery of the Sunken Barge

  1. January 24, 2013
    A scenario by Walter Beattie — based entirely on speculation:
    1. The canal boat is steam powered. (Picture a larger version of the African Queen.)
    2. The cargo is clay brick, not peat.
    3. The canal boat is in the canal headed South, toward the Liffey River, entering Spencer Dock from the North.
    4. It passes the “1st Lock” (see 1880 map) at North Strand Street and enters “Spencer Dock” at a point where it is extremely narrow (less than the width of a street). This may be the part described as a “cut” (an area recessed so that the North Strand Street bridge could pass over). It is likely the sidewalls of the cut would prevent a view further down the dock. The lock draining (if toward the Liffey) would hurtle the canal boat, with it’s heavy load of brick down the narrow passage of the cut. Not a problem, except the passage ahead is blocked by the off-loading steamer.
    5. The steamer is described as receiving the cargo of another vessel, a “Belfast boat”. It is probable they are moored, side by side to facilitate the off-loading, and this is “contrary to the regulations” .
    6. If the two larger boats are side by side it is likely they blocked off the entire canal with perhaps only a narrow space for a small boat to pass between the dock and the steamer.
    7. The canal boat, unable to stop, probably attempted to squeeze through the space alongside the steamer where it “became jammed between the side of the steamer and the dock wall”.
    8. There are now three boats side by side, jammed in the dock, from dock wall across to the opposite dock wall.
    9. To free up the jam, the steamer probably attempted to move, back and forth, to break free, but in the process, crushed the Canal Boat and sent it to the bottom.

    The canal boat captain was told there was a steamer moored ahead, but probably did not anticipate it would be moored to another ship, thereby blocking passage, as this would be “contrary to regulations”.

  2. Thanks, Walter: that’s very interesting (and no more speculative than my own attempts). My impression is that, at the time, “canal boat” and “steamer” were two different categories, but I’m not sure that that point is vital to your interpretation. But do you see the Belfast boat being moored somewhere up around Ossory Road? bjg

  3. The scenario would have the collision happening between Oriel Street and Church Road. I can’t find Ossory Street on the 1912 map, referred to because of the clarity of street names. The 1880 Wikipedia “North County Dublin” is my original reference. (I tried uploading a diagram to your site, but it failed to paste.) BTW, the cargo of brick is “imagined” as it would increase the momentum of the boat and thus the impact with the steamer. The suggestion of the canal boat as self-propelled is made because of the elevations of the banks at North Strand Street (the “cut”) would prohibit a shore tow operation from a mule or other. Also the mule or any shore towing device could brake the boat to a stop before the collision. Also if there was any towing service, they would have been named in the suit.

  4. Whoa! Go to Google Earth, Dublin Ireland, 53 degrees, 21minutes, 15.92 seconds N, and 6 degrees, 14 minutes, 27.51 seconds W and zoom in. It is extremely unlikely that it is still there after 140 years — but that certainly looks like the wreck of a boat on the East bank, right where I expected it to be. Could it be Canal Boat 279?

  5. There certainly are (or were, last time I was there) some wrecks of canal boats in Spencer Dock, but I don’t know that anyone has been able to identify them. As trade declined, many boats were abandoned; the two Leech boats are still there out in the country, and I remember a very sad photo of boats tied by the mill in Phibsboro. Abandonment, I think, contributed more boats than sinkings did. bjg

    PS I’m still thinking about your earlier comment.

  6. My notion that the cargo was clay brick (item 2) is apparently incorrect. It seems they shaped peat into brick size and referred to them simply as “brick” (and they still do). Pardon my ignorance. However, this may strengthen the notion the canal boat was coming from the canal and not the river. Simon Murphy was from Cavemont where they have peat bogs. He may have been delivering a shipment to Dublin.

  7. I’m interested in what you say about peat being shaped into bricks and referred to as such; I’d like to find out more about that.

    Simon M was, as you say, from Cavemount, and there is a large bog nearby, but Cavemount is on the Grand rather than the Royal. Much peat (turf) was carried into Dublin by boat, right up to WW2, but to get to Spencer Dock with a cargo of Cavemount turf Simon’s boat would have had to have crossed the river. As there were bogs alongside the Royal as well as the Grand (see my piece about Leech of Killucan as well as a reference in Joyce’s “Ulysses”) I can’t see why Grand turf would have been carried to the Royal.

    One other point that may be worth making is that there were (clay) brick works along the canal, eg at Pollagh on the Grand, often associated with bogs, which could provide turf (peat) to fire the furnaces.

    So the notion of a cargo of (clay) bricks coming from either the Grand or the Royal wouldn’t surprise me. But if it, or a caargo of turf (peat), came from a place alongside the Grand, then it had to cross the Liffey and enter Spencer Dock from that end. Putting it another way, I think that cargoes of (clay) bricks or of turf (peat) could have come from alongside either canal. If they came from the Royal, your interpretation is more plausible; if they came from the Grand, mine is. But as far as I can see the nature of the cargo is not in itself enough to enable us to decide that question.

    I am still mulling over your substantive point on that subject (and, if I may say so, enjoying the stimulus you have provided). But I am also trying to complete the research on an unrelated (save that it involves the Royal, Grand and Liffey) topic. Your point requires that I check some things, and I haven’t been able to do so yet, which is why my response has been delayed, but I will get to it.


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