McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Wreck of the Steamer "Mohegan"

Manacles Rocks, the Lizard, Cornwall

Good people of high and low degree,
I pray ye all to list to me,
And I’ll relate a terrible tale of the sea
Concerning the unfortunate steamer, Mohegan,
That against the Manacles Rocks, ran.

‘Twas on Friday, the 14th of October, in the year of ninety-eight,
Which alas! must have been a dreadful sight;
She sailed out of the river Thames on Thursday,
While the hearts of the passengers felt light and gay.

And on board there were 133 passengers and crew,
And each one happier than another seemingly to view;
When suddenly the ship received some terrible shocks,
Until at last she ran against the Manacles Rocks.

Dinner was just over when the shock took place,
Which caused fear to be depicted in every face;
Because the ship was ripped open, and the water rushed in,
It was most dreadful to hear, it much such a terrific din.

Then the cries of children and women did rend the air,
And in despair many of them tore their hair
As they clung to their babies in wild despair,
While some of them cried- ‘Oh, God, do Thou my babies spare!’

The disaster occurred between seven and eight o’clock at night,
Which caused some of the passengers to faint with fright;
As she struck on the Manacles Rocks between Falmouth and Lizard Head,
Which filled many of the passengers’ hearts with dread.

Then the scene that followed was awful to behold,
As the captain hurried to the bridge like a hero bold;
And the seamen rushed manfully to their posts,
While many of the passengers with fear looked as pale as ghosts.

And the poor women and children were chilled to the heart,
And crying aloud for their husbands to come and take their part;
While the officers and crew did their duty manfully,
By launching the boats immediately into the sea.

Then lifebelts were tied round the women and children
By the brave officers and gallant seamen;
While the storm fiend did laugh and angry did roar,
When he saw the boats filled with passengers going towards the shore.

One of the boats, alas! unfortunately was swamped,
Which caused the officers and seamens’ courage to be a little damped;
But they were thankful the other boats got safely away,
And tried hard to save the passengers without dismay.

Then a shriek of despair arose as the ship is sinking beneath the wave,
While some of the passengers cried to God their lives to save;
But the angry waves buffetted the breath out of them,
Alas, poor sickly children, also women and men.

Oh, heaven, it was most heartrending to see
A little girl crying and imploring most piteously,
For some one to save her as she didn’t want to die,
But, alas, no one seemed to hear her agonizing cry.

For God’s sake, boys, get clear, if ye can,
Were the captain’s last words spoken like a brave man;
Then he and the officers sank with the ship in the briny deep,
Oh what a pitiful sight, ’tis enough to make one weep.

Oh think of the passengers that have been tempest tossed,
Besides, 100 souls and more, that have been lost;
Also, think of the mariner while on the briny deep,
And pray to God to protect him at night before ye sleep.

November, 1898.

See the poem at McGonagall Online here.

SS Cleopatra or Mohegan

The SS Mohegan had two names in her short and unlucky life. Launched as SS Cleopatra in April, 1898, she sailed on her maiden voyage from London to New York on 31 July. It quickly became apparent that her construction had been botched, when boiler problems and serious leaks developed on the voyage. She returned to London for major repairs, emerging as the SS Mohegan.

Captain Richard Griffith

Her second maiden voyage was even more of a disaster. She left London, bound for New York, on 13 October, 1898, with 57 passengers, 97 crew and 7 cattlemen for the livestock on board. The newspapers must have misreported the total, for McGonagall would surely have got his information from the Edinburgh press.

The following day, she reached her full speed of 13 knots while steaming along the English Channel, with the coast of Cornwall on her starboard (right) beam.

There is no explanation for what happened that night, beyond the fact that the Mohegan took the wrong bearing and headed towards the Cornish coast at full speed, hitting the Manacles, submerged rocks lying off the Lizard Peninsula, just before 7:00pm.

The passengers were at dinner, and amazingly did not feel the impact, but the Mohegan’s hull was ripped open and she sank in 12 minutes. Only two lifeboats could be launched due to the ship’s heavy listing, and one of those capsized. There were 106 casualties, including Captain Richard Griffith and all his officers. McGonagall was probably right about the selflessness and courage of the Mohegan’s crew.

Her masts and funnel remained above the waterline, and most of the cargo of spirits, beer and antimony was salvaged at the cost of one more life – a salvage diver. But there was more to her cargo than than the valuable goods you could risk a diver’s life to recover. Her cargo manifest tells us much about the daily life of ordinary Victorians:

1,280 tons general, including 3000 slabs of tin, spirits, beer, linoleum, prunes, matches, cheese, nutmeg, preserves, jute, rice, books, coffee, toys, lard, pepper, tobacco, bacon, horse hair, furniture, lace, church ornaments.

Makes you think, doesn’t it, about the passengers and crew – about how much like us they were.

The more I research McGonagall’s disasters, the more I become aware of the human tragedies behind the bad poetry. Did McGonagall  empathize with the people he so glibly wrote about? It’s hard to tell because the poetry is so bad, but I think in this one he felt something. This verse, for example:

Oh, heaven, it was most heartrending to see
A little girl crying and imploring most piteously,
For some one to save her as she didn’t want to die,
But, alas, no one seemed to hear her agonizing cry.

Perhaps, as an old man of 73 in poor health (he died in 1902), and with intimations of mortality, he was learning to regard his subjects as more than broadsheet-fodder.

The SS Mohegan disintegrated over the years. It is now a prime dive site. The Havering Scuba Divers website gives a detailed account of what’s left on the seabed. And the Atlantic Transport Line 1881-1934 website has an excellent in-depth page on the SS Mohegan, complete with dive pictures.

2 thoughts on “McGonagall’s Poetic Gems: The Wreck of the Steamer "Mohegan"

  1. The link you have given to the Scuba Divers website provides intimate detail of the wrecking of the ship.
    Sounds as though it had a similar fate to the recent wreck in the Mediterranean, where the captain was one of the first to get off the ship. That ship also appeared to have taken the wrong course.

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