Maritime tales – remember the Ellan Vannin

8 May 2007 by Stephen

black and white photo of a steam boat pulling into an old harbour mouth

The Ellan Vannin. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

The tragic story of the Ellan Vannin has fascinated me, Stephen Guy, since childhood holidays on the Isle of Man. Everyone on board the Manx ferryboat perished in a terrible storm when 24ft waves sent the sturdy vessel to the bottom as she approached Liverpool.

Ellan Vannin (Manx Gaelic for ‘Isle of Man’) left Ramsey on 3 December 1909 with 14 passengers, 21 crew and 60 tons of cargo including sheep, pigs and vegetables. The weather was reasonable when she set out but deteriorated as the voyage progressed. By the time she reached the Mersey Bar the wind was near hurricane strength with mountainous waves crashing into the ship.

The court of inquiry concluded that the most probable explanation for the disaster was that the 339-ton Ellan Vannin was overcome by the huge seas, although the precise cause of the tragedy remains a mystery.

When the storm abated, her masts could be seen sticking out of the sea. Divers examined the wreck and found damage to the bows. The lifeboat davits were swung out ready for lowering. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board later blew up the wreck as it was a danger to shipping.

In the Merseyside Maritime Museum collections there is a builder’s wooden half model showing the doomed ship when she was first built in 1860 as the paddle steamer Mona’s Isle. In 1883, she was converted to twin-screw propulsion and renamed Ellan Vannin. The model reflects the view that she was a strong ship. She had put to sea in many a storm when other vessels had run for cover in Ramsey Bay.

A contemporary broadsheet carries photographs of some of the people who died in the shipwreck. Dressed in their finery or everyday clothes, they are frozen in time. They include passengers Mr and Mrs Heaton Johnson looking the personification of respectability – he is in his immaculate high-collared shirt, she in a fashionable ruffled dress. Another passenger, WE Higginbotham, appears in full Highland costume. Manxman Mark Joughin stares out of the picture with a full beard, sporting a trilby hat. Captain Teare is in smart uniform while seaman T Corkish wears a lifejacket and sou’wester. Stewardess Mrs Collister has her hair in a bun. All very different people who shared the same fate.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

  1. Mark Higginbotham says:

    I’m the great grandson of WE Higginbotham. My Grandfather (who was 6 when the Ellen vannin sank) told me his father only had the highland costume on as a prank and that he didn’t play the bagpipes. He was liscencee of the trafalgar pub in Ramsey at the time and i believe there was a scottish garison based near Ramsey at some time not long before the Ellan vannin sank. Until recently i was told there was only this one picture of him, but at the centanary memorial service last week i was informed of a second photo in a newspaper in the British library.

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