Ship Ellen Southard
Its 1875 sinking led to wide deployment of self-righting lifeboats
The full-rigged ship Ellen Southard, launched in 1863 in Richmond, Maine, was named for the daughter of the builder and owner, Thomas J. Southard. From its homeport of Bath, Maine, it engaged in international trade for twelve years, touching at numerous ports worldwide. It carried a wide variety of cargoes, including some of the first railway locomotives from the Atlantic coast to San Francisco in 1864. In June 1867, while transporting 360 Chinese laborers from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Captain Howe, the master died. His wife assumed command. When the ship’s water supply ran low, she maintained discipline using a revolver and alerted a passing ship, which brought word to California. The US Revenue Cutter Wayanda rendezvoused with Ellen Southard about 80 miles off Santa Cruz. The screw steam cutter relieved the distress by providing water, taking some of the stricken crew and passengers on board, and escorting the ship into port. On 12 August 1875, the ship departed Saint John, New Brunswick for Liverpool. It carried a cargo of what was then referred to as tropical deal (Acacia dealbata), better known today as mimosa, which was used in furniture making. Captain Henry Woodworth was in command. With him were his wife and fifteen crew members. After a rough crossing of the North Atlantic, Ellen Southard approached the River Mersey and Liverpool on 26 September, just as a strong storm struck. It picked up a pilot and was taken in tow by the steam tug United Kingdom at about 1 p.m. At about 9 p.m., off Formby, the towline broke and the tug departed for the purpose of returning with a lifeboat, but it soon grounded. At about midnight, the now dismasted ship grounded on Jordan Flats off the Crosby Lighthouse. As no flares were carried onboard, the distress signal was ineffectual during the night. First word on the sinking was received at 5 a.m. The Liverpool tubular lifeboat, with a crew of fourteen Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) volunteers, set out in the heavy weather. Similar lifeboats were also launched from New Brighton, Formby, and Hoylake, along with the steam tug Rattler. The Liverpool lifeboat, arriving first at the wreck, took everyone on board. Unable to retrieve a towline from Rattler, the lifeboat crew was forced to row toward Liverpool. On the way, a freak wave broke over the lifeboat, capsizing it. The New Brighton lifeboat arrived on scene, rescuing the survivors and picking up one casualty. Nine from Ellen Southard, including the master, his wife, and the pilot, as well as three lifeboatmen, drowned or died of exposure. A court of inquiry convened by the Board of Trade found everyone properly performed their duties, but raised the question of whether the tubular lifeboats should be replaced with self-righting lifeboats. It took twelve years for the decision to be made and more modern lifeboats to be fully deployed. General Lucius Fairchild, the United States consul in Liverpool, recommended that the lifeboatmen be recognized for their gallantry. The US Congress concurred, but took two years to amend federal law so as to allow the Lifesaving Medal to be awarded to foreign nationals (19 Stat. 240). In 1877, Gold Lifesaving Medals were awarded to the 27 surviving lifeboatmen. Families of the three deceased lifeboatmen were awarded the sum of $200 in gold in lieu of a medal.