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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
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Earl of Aberdeen


Although not a cable ship, the Earl of Aberdeen figures prominently in the history of Captain Basil Combe, who began his life at sea as apprentice on the ship.

The Earl of Aberdeen was a four-masted iron barque launched in July of 1886. She was built by C. Connel & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, for D. Brown & Sons of London to ply the lucrative trade routes to India. Her dimensions were 291' 2" x 42' 6" x 24' 0", with a tonnage of 2,145 GRT and 2,084 NRT. She was wrecked in 1892.

Painting of the Earl of Aberdeen
Image courtesy of and copyright © 2006 John Goulborn

The Times of 17 May 1892 reported:

Disaster at Sea

The barque Earl of Aberdeen was wrecked on the Pembrokeshire coast on Sunday morning, and 16 of the crew were lost. She left Barry for Montevideo on Thursday.

Of the members of the crew drowned the names of three able seamen are unknown. Some of the men had managed to get into the lifeboat, but it was swamped. The others in the main-mast rigging went down with the vessel, despite every effort on the part of the crew of her Majesty's ship Foxhound. Eleven of the crew were taken from the jigger mast by boats from the Foxh6und. One apprentice, named Purcell, of London, failed to join the ship, which left without him ; and in connexion with the disaster a curious incident occurred at Penarth Police-court yesterday morning. A German fireman was sentenced to three weeks' imprisonment for attempting to join the vessel which has been lost with a discharge belonging to another seaman.

John Burgess, ship's carpenter, one of the survivors who arrived at Swansea last evening, has made the following statement: -

“We left Barry with as sober a crew as you would wish to see leave a port at 7 on Saturday morning, and were towed down 15 or 20 miles westward of Lundy, the tug leaving us at 8 p.m. We then made sail, and stood away to the northward. She got ashore on the Hats and Barrel Rocks between Milford and St. David's Head at 2 30 in the morning. Mr. Davis (chief engineer) was in command, and he immediately sent for the master (Mr. Patrick) and called up the crew. The weather was hazy at the time and the sea rough. I, as carpenter, took soundings, and found her making water so rapidly that there was no hope of saving her, so the master gave orders for the boats to be got out.

“In carrying out this order one boat got smashed up, and then all the crew took to the rigging, as the ship was sinking fast. I, alone, was left on the deck by myself, thinking to go on the fore rigging; but, before doing so, I determined to make one more attempt to get out a boat, and with that object climbed to the fore house, on which were two lifeboats. I cut two adrift, with great difficulty, and succeeded in getting one of the lifeboats out; but on reaching the water she got stove in. Before launching the boat I called to the crew to join me, but the sea was breaking over the deck so heavily that they were afraid to leave the rigging.

“The boat then drifted off with me in her, and, as she was passing the vessel, a black sailor, named Sebastian, jumped overboard, and joined me. The current was running so strongly, that we quickly left the ship. We remained an hour up to our waists in water, and had drifted 10 miles from the wreck when the steam-ship Scot Arlie, of Cork, which had seen signs of a wreck, but no boat, sighted our half-submerged boat, and picked us up. We were landed at Newport.

“Meanwhile the wreck was observed by her Majesty's ship Foxhound, which bore up and rescued the men who still remained on the rigging. These were landed at Milford on Sunday night, and on Monday they were forwarded to their lodgings by the agent of the Shipwrecked Mariners' Society. The names are William Patrick, master; Enoch Davis, chief mate; John Gordon, Steward, John O'Neil, Joseph Martin, John Tower, John Smith, Charles Elder, William Irvine, J. Jacobson, able seamen. The remaining 18 members of the crew are drowned.”

Three weeks later, The Times of 9 June 1982 had a story on the wreck inquiry:

Wreck Inquiry

(Before Mr. R.H.B. Marsham, with Assessors.)


Captain Knox, R.N., Captain Ward, and Captain Ronaldson were the assessors.

This was an inquiry ordered by the Board of Trade into the circumstances of the stranding of the sailing ship Earl of Aberdeen on the Hat and Barrels Reef off the coast of Pembrokeshire on the 15th of May last. The vessel became a total wreck, and 16 of her crew were drowned.

Mr. W.O. Danckwerts appeared for the Solicitor to the Board of Trade (Mr. W. Murton); Mr. E.W. Nelson for the master of the ship; and Mr. Gibson for the owners.

Mr. Danckwerts, in his opening statement, said that the Earl of Aberdeen was a large iron four-masted sailing ship of 2,124 tons, registered at the Port of London, and owned by the Earl Sailing Line (Limited), Mr. David Brown, of Leadenhall-street, being the manager of the vessel. She left Barry, near Cardiff, on the 14th of May last, with a cargo of 3,099 tons of coal and a crew of 29 hands, bound to Montevideo. She proceeded from Bar at about 7 30 a.m., in tow with a pilot on board. The pilot left in Barry Roads, and at about 9 30 in the evening the tug cast off somewhere to the northward of Lundy Island.

The master had made at least two statements. According to ono version, the Milford lights at 11 30 p.m. bore north by east, distant about 15 miles; but according to his other statement the Milford lights at this time bore north-east, distant about 18 miles. At 11 30 the master went below, and it would appear that he left orders that he was to be called when the Milford lights bore east-north-east. The wind was blowing a moderate breeze from west-south-west, and throughout the whole of the night the vessel was on the port tack. The master left the second officer in charge, and at 12 o'clock the second officer was relieved by the chief officer.

The master said that when he went below he lay down on the settee in his cabin and went to sleep, and that from 11 30 until 2 30 a.m., when he felt the shock of the ship striking, he was not called. The chief officer, on the other hand, stated that he called the captain three times. However, at 2 30 a.m. the vessel struck on the Hat and Barrels Reef, she being at the time still on the port tack.

Having stranded, she at once commenced to sink; within a very short time her decks were under water, and the crew took to the rigging. Two of the crew got away in one of the ship’s lifeboats, and were subsequently picked up by a passing steamer. At about 6 a.m. the gunboat Foxhound arrived on the scene, and after great exertions and considerable danger succeeded in rescuing the whole of the crew who were in the after rigging, but was unable to reach those in the fore rigging. The result was that 16 persons, including five apprentices, were drowned.

He thought the Court would come to the conclusion that the undoubted cause of this disaster was that the ship was kept too long on the one tack, and he ought to add that statements had been made charging both the master and the mate with drunkenness.

William Patrick, the master, was then called and examined at some length. He stated that when he went below at 11 30 p.m. le left instructions that he was to be called when the Milford lights bore east-north-east, or if the wind shifted. He expected the Milford lights to bear east-north-east at about 1 a.m., and when this bearing was obtained he intended putting the ship about on to the other tack. Witness intended coming on deck himself to superintend the operation. The chief mate, who took charge at 12 o'clock, held a master's certificate but witness always directed manoeuvres of the kind himself when in narrow waters.

He was awakened at 2 30 by the shock of the ship striking the rocks. He immediately rushed on deck and ordered the main yards to be backed, but the mate had already given a similar order. As the ship remained fast, he went below to obtain some signal-rockets, and when he returned on deck she was under water aft. Almost immediately afterwards the two after boats were washed away. There was a heavy ground swell from the westward, washing over the ship aft, and witness thereupon ordered all hands to take to the rigging, which they did.

The lifebelts were in an open chest in the cabin, but access to the cabin was then cut off. Just before daylight the port lifeboat floated off the forward house and two hands got into her, but owing to the heavy sea and strong current they failed to keep the boat alongside the ship and drifted away. They were afterwards picked up, however, by a passenger steamer.

At 6 a.m. the whole of the crew, with the exception of the two who had left in the boat, were still in the ship's rigging, and at this time the sea was much too heavy for them to attempt to launch the second lifeboat. The first steamer that attempted to render assistance was the Mary Hough. She sent a boat, but owing to the heavy breakers it could not get alongside. Her Majesty's ship Foxhound subsequently came up, and her boat succeeded in taking off the 11 hands in the after rigging.

The whole of the 16 men who were drowned were in the rigging at the fore part of the ship. Owing to the rocks it was quite impossible to get the boat near the fore part of the ship. Witness hailed the men in the fore and main rigging to make their way into the mizzen rigging; two of them did so, and were rescued, but the others would not make the attempt, and were drowned.

Mr. Danckwerts: Were you asleep the whole of the time between 11 30 p.m. and 2 30 a.m.? Witness—Yes.
Did not the mate call you?—Not to my recollection.
The chief mate says that he called you at 1 a.m., that he called you again at 1 30 a.m., and that you then got up into a sitting posture and answered him, and that he called you a third time at 2 o'clock, when you again sat up, and replied, "All right." Is that true? Witness.—I have no recollection of anything of the kind, but I will not swear that it did not occur.

Witness, in answer to further questions, said that there was absolutely no foundation for the suggestion that he was at any time under the influence of liquor. Several of the seamen having been examined, the inquiry was adjourned.

Last revised: 28 June, 2017

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