Iona II's last days

The Iona II had a short but diverse history.

Mutiny of the Firemen

A short way into the Iona II’s final journey, a large number of the crew mutinied and refused to work the vessel as they considered it unseaworthy for the ocean voyage. 

16 January 1864

The Iona II left Glasgow on and journeyed down to Waterford Harbour to drop off the pilot but a storm blew up and the vessel had to stay in the harbour until the 24th. Travelling between Waterford and Queenstown, the fireman George McColl noticed some water in the hold. A loose rivet was discovered which was subsequently stopped up with red lead and oakum.

28 January 1864

When the order came through to set sail, 13 of the firemen refused to work on the grounds that the vessel was unfit to cross the Atlantic. The captain considered this a standard seaman’s tactic to flinch duty as the crew had already received their pay, so he had them taken ashore and put in jail, fully expecting them to willingly return to work the following day.

29 January 1864

The 13 firemen were taken before a magistrate who heard the testimonies of the chief engineer, the carpenter and a fireman. The magistrates were satisfied that the vessel was seaworthy and gave the firemen the option to return to the vessel or serve ten weeks in jail with hard labour. Most of the firemen were still quite convinced that the vessel was unseaworthy and were quoted in the local paper as saying -


 “Oh! we are quite willing to bear the lash of the law for it” Glasgow Herald 23 March 1864"


"Nine of the 13 firemen went to jail and four returned to the ship which finally set sail on the 30th January."


The nine firemen in jail, presumably upon hearing of the Iona II’s wrecking, sent a letter to the Lord-Lieutenant (Lord Carlisle), signed by the governor of the jail to free them. After a month in jail they were eventually released.

Last voyage

The events of Iona II’s last few days were chronicled at the Board of Trade inquiry and have been summarised below.

16 January 1864

The Iona II left Glasgow and arrived in Greenock on the 17th to take aboard some of the crew including the chief engineer.

18 January 1864

Arrived in Waterford Harbour to drop off the pilot but a storm blew up and the vessel had to stay in the harbour until the 24th.

24 January 1864

Iona II departed Waterford Harbour mid-morning on the Sunday. By 6pm the following night the vessel had made the Cork Harbour light, with the pilot coming on board at 7pm to take them into Queenstown Harbour.

25 January 1864

Travelling between Waterford and Queenstown the fireman George McColl noticed some water in the hold. A loose rivet was discovered which was subsequently stopped up with red lead and oakum. The vessel then lay at anchor for a few days while additional coal was taken on board. All was in order by noon on 28th January and the order was given to weigh anchor. The mutiny of the firemen, the subsequent court investigation and having to find replacement crew, delayed the vessel’s departure.

30 January 1864

Departing at midday on 30 January, the Iona II set sail for Madeira off the coast of Portugal. By 10pm that night the wind had freshened and the sea begun to rise but the vessel stayed dry.

31 January 1864

The Chief Engineer reported at the Board of Trade inquiry that the vessel started to leak on the morning of the 31st. The strong weather continued and the vessel was taking on some water so by 2pm on the 31 January the captain changed direction and headed for Milford Haven. The captain intended to go there to get the vessel looked at. In the inquiry he claimed that there was great demand for the dry docks at Cork and he was more likely to get the vessel quickly seen to at Milford Haven. At this point the bilge pumps began to clog up and impede the process of eliminating the water from the hold.

1 February 1864

Two feet of water were reported in the hold by 8am and all hands were either at the pumps or transferring coal from the main hold into the bunkers. By 6pm that day there were six feet of water in the hold and by 7pm the forward fires had been extinguished by the rising waters. Fortunately, the vessel was in sight of Lundy Island. All manner of combustibles were thrown into the fires to keep them going and to maintain the vessels speed as they were heading for the eastern side of Lundy Island, where they could seek shelter from the storm. Eventually, at 11:30pm, the engines stopped, the anchors were set and flares sent up. By midnight, several pilot boats arrived to rescue the crew.

2 February 1864

The Iona II sank in the early hours of the morning. In his testimony at the Board of Trade inquiry, the captain made sure to emphasise that he was the last off the vessel.


Board of Trade Inquiry

On 22 March 1864, an inquiry into the sinking of the Iona II, instituted by the Board of Trade, commenced. The legal proceedings took place at the old Justice of the Peace Court Hall Brunswick Street Glasgow and were reported in the Glasgow Herald 23-25 March 1864. Many of the crew were present as witnesses to the event along with other experts with a connection to Iona II.

Five crew members gave evidence and they had mixed opinions of Iona II’s seaworthiness. The Chief Officer, Joseph Sigar Gray and Second Engineer, George McGregor, simply recounted the events from their perspectives and gave no opinion on why the vessel sank. William Allen, Chief Engineer, seemed to insinuate that the failure of the bilge pumps may have contributed to the sinking of the Iona II. Andrew McGowan, carpenter, gave evidence at both the Queenstown mutiny investigation and the Board of Trade inquiry. On both occasions he verified that the vessel was seaworthy and that that he had safely sailed to Nassau in a vessel that took on more water than the Iona II. George McColl was the inquiry’s representative for the mutinous firemen, having served one month in jail for refusing to do his duty. He gave evidence that, while he thought the Iona II as fine and well-built vessel, he did not consider it appropriate for crossing the Atlantic, which he had previously successfully crossed in a similar vessel.

After the crew’s accounts had been heard, other experts in the matter were consulted who similarly had conflicted opinions of the sinking. George Barber was the shipwright surveyor that had seen to the Iona II during construction. He considered the vessel to be very well built and suitable for river steaming but entirely inappropriate for the Atlantic crossing. Despite the reinforcement work, which he had witnessed while working on a nearby vessel, the Iona II was too weak in longitudinal strength for large sea waves. This was in contrast to testimony from, Andrew Burns, manager at J. & G. Thomson Ltd. who stated that he considered the strengthening works sufficient for the ocean voyage and would have crossed the Atlantic on the Iona II if given the opportunity.  John Main, shipyard foreman and David Mc Nutt, owner, simply stated details of the hull maintenance and strengthening works that had taken place in the month prior to Iona II’s last voyage.

The captain, Thomas Chapman, gave the final evidence via a letter in which he recounted the events from 16 January until the final sinking on the 2 February 1864. He stated that he believed the vessel to be seaworthy upon departing Queenstown and, when the incoming water proved too much for the pumps, he took every effort to head for port to seek swift repairs for the vessel and ensure the safety of the crew.

The final judgement of the inquiry was reported that no blame was to be placed on either the captain, who had operated the vessel to the best of his ability, or the owners, who had done everything in their power to adapt the well-built vessel for the Atlantic crossing.

Reasons for sinking

Many reasons have been suggested for why the Iona II sank:

  • the bilge pumps could not keep up with the water leaking in

  • overladen with cargo, the vessel strained in the heavy weather and sprang a leak

  • the bending and flexing of the long and thin vessel allowed water in through the hull plates

  • the unenclosed engine room may have allowed waves to come in and douse the engine

It seems that no one at the time knew what caused the sinking, and it was not the responsibility of the Board of Trade inquiry to find out. This did not stop the speculation, however, as was suggested in the local newspaper -  


'…by this time the water had so gained on the efforts of the crew to keep the vessel clear as to render her unmanageable, and to obstruct the working of the engines.' North Devon Journal 4 February 1864


It is possible that the cause of the loss may only be found through examination of the remains of the hull, now buried in sediment off Lundy Island.

Contemporary Salvage

While it is still uncertain what cargo the vessel was carrying, it was obviously important enough for the crew to risk their lives in removing the cargo as the vessel was sinking. One of the boats attempting to recover cargo was overloaded and sank and the other broke loose and drifted to Woolacombe Sands near Mortehoe.

In the middle of March 1864 a diver went down on the wreck and released one of the life buoys to prove the identity of the wreck. It was noted to be lying upright on a sandy bottom. It was at this point that it was considered still possible to raise the entire vessel. However it was noted that there was no flat beach on which to land the vessel and so it would have to be taken to the mainland once raised.

In May 1864 the Glasgow Herald reported that the Liverpool Steam-Tug Company were about to commence operations on the wreck. However, in June 1864 the Glasgow Herald reported that a fresh contract for the salvage of Iona II’s cargo was being sought after the previous company only raised a funnel and a few fathoms of chain cable. A final report in the North Devon Journal recorded that the masts, compasses and anchors had been salvaged but little of value had been left on the seabed apart from the engines.