Archive of the Month
The Leinster Tragedy
Human Interest Stories brought to life by the Church of Ireland Gazette and Other Sources
by Dr Miriam Moffitt
On the morning of Thursday, 10 October 1918, the Leinster, a Royal Mail Steamer, was torpedoed and sank soon after it left Carlisle Pier in the port of Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), a few miles south of Dublin city. One of four mail ships owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (all named after the Irish provinces) the sinking of the Leinster brought home the destruction of the First World War to Ireland.
Current research verified by Philip Lecane (historian and author of Torpedoed!) shows that there were 803 persons on board the Leinster on 10 October – 75 crew and 728 passengers: 22 postal sorters, 200 civilians and 506 military personnel. A staggering 564 persons perished, the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea. The high proportion of military passengers is explained by the presence of a significant number of military hospitals and rest homes in Ireland that would have treated wounded soldiers during the War. This probably also explains the large number of nurses on board – 18, of whom 16 lost their lives, as did Arthur Eade, a 25–year–old sick berth attendant employed by the Royal Navy. Some of the nurses belonged to the Voluntary Aid Detachment, others to the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, one belonged to the Canadian Army Medical Corps and others were civilian nurses. In the aftermath of the episode, allegations were made that the Leinster was, in fact, a form of military transport and that civilian passengers were used as ‘human shields’. The high number of military personnel meant that the sinking of the vessel impacted disproportionately across the Protestant denominations
By the autumn of 1918, the Great War was nearing conclusion, as it became clear that Britain and her allies would defeat the Germans. Negotiations to bring it to an end were actually underway, but prior to America’s entry into the war in April 1918, Germany appeared to be gaining ground. The prospect of defeat had prompted David Lloyd George, British prime minister, to suggest that conscription (in place in Great Britain since 1916) should be extended to Ireland. Throughout the island a robust campaign was mounted to resist conscription: the movement had the strong backing of the Roman Catholic Church but little support across the Protestant denominations.
The Leinster left Kingstown harbour under the command of Captain William Birch shortly before 9 am on Thursday 10 October. About an hour later, a torpedo was aimed at the ship but missed, followed by a second striking the port side near the mail room. As the ship was attempting to turn, it was hit again on the starboard side. Eye–witnesses recalled the explosion following the second hit and, within a very short time, the ship went down. Some persons were killed by the blast, some later died from their injuries, some died from drowning, and some were rescued. The Dublin hospitals and morgue were soon full to bursting point with relatives frantically seeking to identify their loved ones.
Among the many casualties was a large number of females engaged in the war effort in different ways. They included three members of the WRENs. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, usually referred to as WRENS) was an organisation founded in 1917 to free the male workforce for combative duties. Initially the WRENS were restricted to tasks such as cooking and cleaning but were soon deployed as clerical workers and wireless telegraphists. Of the three on board, two survived but a 21–year–old Church of Ireland girl, Josephine Carr from Cork became in fact the first WREN to be killed on active service when she went down with the Leinster. She had celebrated her 21st birthday on 4 October, less than a week before the sinking.
Many casualties had strong connections with the Church of Ireland and the impact of the episode was felt in parishes the length and breadth of the country. We are indebted to the historian Philip Lecane for making available his detailed paper “Some RMS Leinster Passengers of Particular Interest to Church of Ireland Readers” to accompany this online exhibition, which can be accessed as a downloadable pdf at this link here.
Further human–interest stories include that of Henrietta Mellett, the daughter of John Mellett, a Connemara–based scripture reader with the Irish Church Missions. Henrietta had emigrated to Canada where she enlisted as a nurse with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, only to find herself aboard The Leinster returning with patients to England, when it was blown out of the water.
Another was Sophia Barrett (known as Violet), also born into a Church of Ireland family from Ballintava, Dunmore, County Galway, and a member of the Carrickmines branch of the St John’s Ambulance Division of the VAD, who had spent two years nursing in France and was mentioned in dispatches in January 1918. Having visited her family in Carrickmines County Dublin in the autumn of 1918, she was returning to resume nursing duties. Her family had dropped her at the quayside and were barely home in Carrickmines when the news filtered through that the ship had gone down. Her body was returned to her uncle’s house in Carrickmines, prior to her funeral service at Tullow parish church, and subsequent internment in the nearby graveyard at Kilternan. She is commemorated on memorials in both Tullow and Kenagh (County Longford) churches, while her St John Ambulance colleagues presented a chalice to the parish of Tullow in her memory.
Hardly a county was untouched by the disaster and many of the dead, although resident in England, had Irish connections. For instance, Lieut. Col. Pollard Dene and his wife Elsie, neé Koe, lived in Suffolk but Mrs Dene’s address was given as Currabawn, Nenagh in her death notice in The Irish Times. She had been married at her home parish of Castlearra in County Tipperary in 1911 and was buried in the graveyard behind the church seven years later.
The Irish roots of many of the victims can easily be overlooked. For instance, Elizabeth Emma (Emily) Barlow had been born into a Church of Ireland family in Riverstown County Sligo, but in records relating to the episode, her address was given as Chester. The inscription on her place of burial in Deansgrange Cemetary reads very simply: ‘Emily E. Barlow, lost on the Leinster 10/10/1918’. Similarly Edith Irvine, a sister–in–law of the Revd Henry Dobbs (rector of All Saints Blackrock 1914–1956) was born in Dublin but had moved to London as an adult. It has to be presumed that Edith had been visiting her sister in Dublin and was returning to London on the RMS Leinster. Her body was recovered and identified and she is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in the family vault.
In some cases, the sinking of the Leinster wiped out entire family units. Canon Edward Fitzhardinge Campbell, rector of Killyman (1886–1921) and rural dean of Armagh lost his 32–year–old son, Lieut.–Commander George Richard Colin Campbell, his daughter–in–law (Eileen, nee Knox–Browne) and his four–year old granddaughter, Eileen Hester Campbell. A report of the Armagh Diocesan Synod in the Belfast News–Letter of 26 October 1918 included an account from Canon Abraham Lockett Ford, rector of Ardee recounting how his daughter, who had connections with the VAD, happened to be in the Kingstown area when the Leinster went down. She volunteered to help in the days that followed as they struggled to transport and identify the ‘mangled remains’, and had told her father of one the most pathetic scenes she witnessed was that of a mother around whose neck her infant child’s arms were so tightly entwined they found it impossible to separate them. Canon Ford was unaware at the time that the woman was known to him, or that she was in fact daughter–in–law of his diocesan colleague, the Revd Edward Campbell.
Similarly, the entire family of Charles Evans was wiped out: Charles, a Guinness employee was relocating to England to take another position with the firm when he, his wife Charlotte and their only child, a 12–year–old boy also called Charles, perished. There were other examples of poignant deaths. For example, Dundalk–born Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Samuel Walter McKenna and his wife, Violet Adeline, were returning to England from their honeymoon in Ireland; both perished and were buried in the Protestant section of St Patrick’s cemetery, Dundalk. Another honeymoon couple, Robert and Virginia Frizell, were unable to get two tickets and decided that Virginia would travel and that Robert would take the next boat. Virginia’s body was never recovered.
Clerics of other churches were victims too. The Revd William Campbell, a Roman Catholic priest from Coventry and the Revd John Robert Bartley, Presbyterian minister from Tralee both perished. The Revd Bartley had been travelling to London to see his injured son, wounded at the Front. Although a very large number of the civilian passengers were Roman Catholics, many were members of the Church of Ireland such as Charles Evans (mentioned above) and Frances Saunders from Kingstown who perished en route to visit a sick daughter in Liverpool who died three days after her mother – a double tragedy for that family.
Numerous members of the Presbyterian and Methodist communities can be also identified among the lost, and at least two members of the Society of Friends. Some congregations were hit particularly hard; Brighton Road Methodist Church lost three of its members: Arthur Adshead, Edwin George Ferber and Robert Albert Gilmore, the last mentioned being a corporal in the army and the son of the sexton, over whose grave in Grangegorman Military Cemetery the Brighton Road congregation erected a headstone. Edwin Ferber, a superintendent engineer with the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company was on board but not on duty at the time of the disaster. It is reported that he attached a lifebelt to another employee, who survived.
The casualties also spanned the entire social scale; several persons connected with power and status were among the dead, along with 100s who were less well known but whose deaths were equally painful for their families. Two daughters of Sir Richard Musgrave, Bart., of Tourin House, Waterford, perished, as did Lady Alexandra Hamilton, daughter of the duke of Abercorn. Lady Hamilton was returning to England with two servants after a visit to her brother, the earl of Wicklow at his residence at Shelton Abbey; all three members of the party were lost. Professor Sir William Thompson of Trinity College Dublin had been knighted in early 1918 for services to the Ministry of Food. He was travelling to a meeting of the London Food Control Department and had recently transferred to the same department in Dublin so, in all probability, this would have been his last time to travel by sea in the course of his work. His body was not found.
Robert Jocelyn Alexander, last surviving son of the late Primate, William Alexander and Mrs Alexander, the noted hymn–writer, also perished in the disaster. Attention would be drawn to Robert’s literary talents in a letter published in the Gazette of 08 November 1918, referencing back 40 years earlier when his appointment as Inspector for Schools had been celebrated in same the newspaper.
Captain Robert Ernest Lee was born in Bray, County Wicklow on 14 January 1883. The second surviving son of Edward (a businessman and owner of a chain of drapery shops noted for his benevolence to his staff) and Annie Lee. Robert Ernest was educated at Wesley College and Trinity College where he studied to become a doctor, training at Baggot Street Hospital and later working in Bootle Hospital in Liverpool in 1911. He returned to Ireland as house doctor at the Royal Hospital for Incurables in Donnybrook in 1912–13, and when the war broke out in August 1914 he worked as a ship’s doctor for the Holt Line. He joined the 14 Field Ambulance of the Fifth Division as a Lieutenant, and at the front was involved in bringing up stretcher bearers during the battle for Hill 60 at the second battle of Ypres in May 1915. He was promoted Captain for his bravery during this battle. He survived four years in France and Flanders at all the major battles and was returning to England from leave on the Leinster on the 10 October 1918. As a passenger on the ill–fated Leinster, Robert helped an injured fellow officer to put on his life jacket and then jumped into the sea to save a woman and her child. He was swept away from the lifeboat and his body was washed up off Gorey, County Wexford a week later. He is buried in the family plot in Deansgrange, County Dublin, and both he and his younger brother Lt. Joseph Bagnall Lee (killed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli in August 1915) are remembered on the war memorial in St Philip and St James’ Church of Ireland in Blackrock where the family were parishioners.
The lives and deaths of those who commanded a prominent place in society are often well documented; by contrast, those who played less visible roles left fainter footprints in the written record. Some passengers were simply going to England in search of work or training. Lizzie Anne M’Lynn and Norah Henry from Sligo, for example, were making their way to England to embark on nursing careers, Norah survived but Lizzie Anne was lost. Lizzie was the great–aunt of actor Pauline McLynn. Other passengers were travelling to school in England, like 15–year old Alfred Curson–White–King, known to friends as ‘Bob’ returning to school in Winchester College. Owing to the danger of sea–travel, this boy’s parents had adopted the practice of sending their sons on different dates so that his older brother, Cecil, had travelled safely on an earlier crossing. Like many others, ‘Bob’s’ body remained lost to the sea.
Among those lost were William Birch, captain of the Leinster. Captain Birch, a member of the Church of Ireland, was born in Dublin in 1857 and baptised in the parish church of St Ann, Dawson Street. He worked with the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company from 1902 and served on its steamships the Connaught and the Munster. He took charge of the Leinster in 1915 and just a few weeks later actually evaded a German submarine. He was not so fortunate in 1918: seriously injured in the explosion that hit the Leinster, numerous witnesses saw him with significant injuries to his face and eyes. While he was initially picked up by a lifeboat, he was subsequently lost overboard and his body never found.
27–year–old Arthur Henry Jeffries, who lived with his wife Margaret in Glenageary, Dublin, worked as a wireless operator on the Leinster. He perished in the disaster and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery; his name is included in a memorial in Mariners’ Church, Dun Laoghaire. He identified as Church of England in the 1911 census and his future wife Margaret whom he married in 1914 was a member of the Church of Ireland.
In some instances, injuries inflicted by the explosion resulted in death, but at a later date. For instance, Owen Richard Hughes, a cook, survived the explosion but was severely burned; he was transferred to King George V Hospital (now St Bricin’s Hospital) where he later died.
Twenty–two postal workers were on board the Leinster on the evening of 10 October, sorting letters, and only one (John Joseph Higgins) survived. Of the 21 killed, 19 were married with children. Among those who perished were members of the Church of Ireland, Methodist Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches. Richard Patterson, superintendent–in–charge, was living in Leahy Terrace in 1918 and a member of the Church of Ireland. Married in Irishtown parish church, where all nine of his children had been baptised there also. As three children died in infancy, Patterson left a widow and six children in 1918.
James Warbrook, described as one of the best banjo players in Ireland in The Irish Times of 19 October 1918, lived at Wolseley Street off the South Circular Road and had been married in Christ Church, Leeson Park in 1888. He left a widow and three children. Another Church of Ireland man, Thomas Bradley of Pretoria Villas, Clontarf, left a widow and nine children. Alfred M’Donnell of Victoria Avenue, Donnybrook, also Church of Ireland, who was not supposed to be on board on the morning of 10 October but had substituted for an ill colleague, left a wife and six children. John Dewar of Carnew Street, North Circular Road, a Presbyterian, left a widow and three children; while Jennins Attwooll of Jones Road, a Methodist, left a widow and ten children. Of these six postal workers, the only body recovered was that of James Attwool.
A Mansion House fund was launched to provide for the families, many of whom had lost their bread–winner. Over the following months fundraising events were held and subscription lists published. The Gazette of 18 October stated that although it did not always support the various Mansion House funds (organised by the Lord Mayor’s office), the Church of Ireland gave its backing to the fund relating to the Leinster victims as outlined by the archbishop of Armagh:
Sympathy would be extended to all those who lost their bread–winners, and there should be a determination that they should be put in as good a position to run the race of life as they would have been if the bread–winner had not been savagely taken away
THE CHURCH OF IRELAND RESPONSE
Clergy of all denominations were swift to condemn the attack; some were closely involved with the immediate aftermath, while at least one had witnessed it. In a letter to The Irish Times, subsequently reproduced in the Church of Ireland Gazette of 18 October 1918, and his parish magazine, the Revd John Pim, rector of Christ Church Kingstown recounted how after the sinking several eye–witnesses including members of his rectory household observed from the shore:
a bank of cloud on the horizon, and against the clear sky above it there appeared for some moments the form of a great white cross, of absolutely perfect shape
One observer interpreted this ‘as if there were a great cloud figure with outstretched arms, which assumed the form of a cross, and as the sharpness of its outlines passed, it seemed to be full of the faces of men and women.
Throughout the country, clergy tried to deal with the sense of loss and anger – described in the parish magazine of St John’s Church, Monkstown (Dublin) as:
a mingled feeling of rage and pity
The proximity of Monkstown church to the site of the disaster, coupled with the deaths of some parishioners intensified the sense of outrage in this locality. This parish lamented the death of Mrs Saunders (see above) and of Miss Elizabeth Hobson who, along with her brother, Lieut. Nathaniel James Fennel Hobson, and her 10–year–old nephew, Richard Hobson, were lost. Richard or ‘Dodo’ pictured here a few years before, had been travelling to start school in England.
This magazine acknowledged that some might consider the Leinster an acceptable target on account of the number of military on board, but insisted that the killing of women and children was inexcusable.
On Sunday 13 October, three days after the sinking, high–profile memorial services were held throughout the country and in the two Church of Ireland cathedrals in Dublin church. Church leaders emphasised the need for recruitment into the forces and criticised the poor level of enlisting among the Irish. Their sermons were reported in detail in both The Irish Times and Church of Ireland Gazette, and in provincial papers.
Canon Samuel Hemphill D.D., chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant, for example preached at the service in St Patrick’s Cathedral which was also attended by the archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John Crozier, the Lord Lieutenant, the Lord Chancellor and many other leading members of society such as the earl of Donoghmore, the duke of Abercorn, Lord Powerscourt, and many military personnel. The canon’s sermon on man’s inhumanity to man praised the ‘strong nations’ of France, England, Italy, Australia, Canada, India, America who were vigorously engaging against the Germans, and urged increased Irish involvement: ‘Will Ireland not now listen to those choking cries and sobs from beyond Kish [the lighthouse]’.
Preaching in Christ Church Cathedral, the archbishop of Dublin the Most Revd John Bernard stated that the sinking of the Leinster provided ‘proof written in blood’ that an Irishman’s duty was the obliteration of ‘Prussian militarism, with all its cruelties and barbarisms from the face of the earth’ and asserted that many Irishmen were secretly ashamed of not playing their part. He repeated this message at the Dublin Diocesan Synod the following week, where he warned:
if we fail to do our upmost we shall live to rue our apathy and half–heartedness; we shall be ashamed in the face of Christendom in the days to come
A similar message was delivered later in the day by Archbishop Crozier, at the harvest festival service in Rathfarnham parish church where he reiterated Tertullian’s dictum that ‘the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church’. Using words such as ‘self–sacrifice’ and ‘duty’, he reminded those present that Christ himself had said that ‘he who loved his live should lose it, and he who was ready to part with his life should keep it unto life eternal’.
These sentiments were echoed by other church leaders who made connections between the political situation in Ireland and Ireland’s lack of engagement with the war effort, and who denounced the connection between Irish nationalists and Germany. The Rt Revd John Allen Fitzgerald Gregg (bishop of Ossory and future archbishop of Dublin, then Armagh) for example, preached in St Stephen’s Church, Dublin where he expressed his hope that the sinking of the Leinster would ‘open the blind eyes of our fellow–countrymen, and teach them the character of that enemy of civilisation whom they chose to call their friend’. Speaking a few days after the Leinster went down, the bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, the Rt Revd Charles Dowse, told his diocesan synod that: ‘The very greatness of the sacrifice endured by the Allies serve[s] to intensify our shame … Ireland has refused to take her proper and full share of the burden’. His criticism was clearly aimed at Irish nationalists, and he could not see ‘how England can give fulfilment to the desires of a people who refuse her help, and by doing so aid and encourage her enemies’. The nationalist connection to Germany was criticised in the ‘Belfast Notes’ in the Church of Ireland Gazette, where readers were asked ‘What do the Sinn Feiners and their sympathisers think now of their German friends, or rather “fiends?”’, and continued:
It is to be hoped that this latest manifestation of Germany’s “friendship” will arouse Irishmen, who have been apathetic, and in many cases, hostile to recruiting, to a sense of their duty and responsibility in defending their shores against an enemy who would be as ruthless in Ireland as he has been in Germany if he had the opportunity
This message more directly stated in Clontarf Presbyterian Church where the Revd J.J. Morrow alluded to the involvement of Roman Catholic clergy in the anti–conscription movement, stating that ‘By a propaganda of lies, the pulpit and the rostrum have led the people to evil’.
The wide difference of opinion about how to respond to the atrocity is reflected by the fact that not all Protestant clergy brought politics into the episode; some merely expressed sorrow at the number of lives lost. Sermons in the Mariners’ Church Kingstown (by the Rt Revd Maurice Day, bishop of Clogher) and in the Methodist Church on St Stephen’s Green (by the Revd James Grubb) condemned the atrocity and expressed sympathy with the bereaved without referring to the prevailing political situation in Ireland.
Evidence of divergent opinion can be seen in the Gazette of 18 October where a discernible difference can be seen between the tone of the lead article and the ‘Editorial Notes’. The ‘Editorial Notes’ strongly advocated recruitment, insisting that ‘If Ireland is to redeem her good name in the world before it is too late her sons have no time to lose. Peace is approaching with giant and rapid strides’. It suggested that churches all over the island should replicate the appeals undertaken in Belfast:
Last Sunday special recruiting appeals were made in our churches in Belfast. When that has been done in every diocese and in every parish throughout Ireland we shall be satisfied that the clergy generally have done their best to assist the recruiting campaign.
The lead article, by contrast, was more nuanced. In a very measured piece, possibly penned by Warre B. Wells (for more about Wells see this link) it vigorously condemned Germany for the outrage and expressed a hope that the episode would ‘have a direct influence on the present peace proposals’ but it did not in any way advocate enlisting. Instead it hoped that the sinking of the Leinster would strengthen the resolve of those engaged in peace talks and would ‘stiffen public opinion against negotiation with the enemy short of dictation’.
It appears that the message delivered in the Gazette editorial fell on deaf ears as, a week after the Leinster went down, Rosamond Stephen (whose donation of books would subsequently form the nucleus of the RCB Library) reported that the disaster ‘had no effect on recruiting’. Her diary entry continued by stating that:
The Press Association says that Conscription is not to be proceeded with “under the altered circumstances
Leaving aside the political implications, it is obvious that the deaths of 564 persons caused immense suffering across the entire country. Some of the dead were never identified and a very large number of bodies never recovered. Up and down Ireland, stories of the disaster are held within the family–memories of those involved. One poignant example was recently recounted to the Venerable Revd Robin Bantry White, former archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross:
William Henry Wood was returning on the Leinster to his regiment in England. The story goes as told in Skibbereen that he had met Mrs Elizabeth Ellam from London, mother–in–law of Ronald Hackett the local dentist, who was on a visit to see a newly born grandchild. After the torpedoing of the ship, he found himself near this older lady, whom he recognised as Mrs Ellam, who was badly injured. He endeavoured to save her by helping her cling unto a baulk of timber. After an hour or more, both were rescued, but Mrs Ellam subsequently died of her wounds.
Another impact of the episode was a heightened awareness of the dangers associated with of sea–travel in wartime. A week after the disaster, Rosamond Stephen sailed from Holyhead to Dublin, later writing in her diary about the low number of passengers on board the crossing:
I did think of the torpedoe [sic] myself, though I do not think they are launched at night, but when waked by weird sounds at sea it comes into one’s head. I hardly saw anyone on the boat but went on early and off late. There may have been more than the five or six who met my view. They told me that passengers in Holyhead were “discouraged” by Govt. I think, I expect they were discouraged by themselves everywhere. The sea was like a very quiet mill pond. Really I have seldom been in a calmer sea.
Perhaps the saddest and most tragic aspect of the sinking and the loss of life was its timing – just one month later, on 11 November 1918, the war was over.
Research into the sinking of the Leinster has been facilitated by the following, whose assistance is gratefully acknowledged:
• The National Maritime Museum, especially Brian Ellis, Hon. Librarian
• Philip Lecane and www.rmsleinster.com
• Pádraig Allen, Hon. Archivist of the St John Ambulance, Ireland
• Elizabeth Armstrong
• Michael Lee
• Mission to Seafarers’ Ireland, and the Revd Willie Black, Chaplain
• John O’Grady for memorial research available at
• Julie Parsons
• Teresa Stokes
• The Venerable Robin Bantry White
The RCB Library gratefully acknowledges the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for supporting this online exhibition, and ongoing efforts to complete the digitization of the Church of Ireland Gazette as a free and open access resource for all.
In addition to the official state commemoration ceremony held 10 October 2018 (see https://www.chg.gov.ie/news-centre/ ), on 13 October 2018, the lives of two sisters from county Cork, Henrietta (born 1856) and Ida Howell (born 1858) in a house provided by the Church of Ireland at Lislee, Courtmacsherry (the last place that the sisters called ‘home’) will be honoured at a special service led by the Rt Revd Dr Paul Colton. Henrietta’s body was recovered and buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin, but Ida’s body was never found. To read more about this commemorative event see here