THE mid-summer seas were calm and the weather perfectly fine as the passengers on board the Leith paddle steamer SS Pegasus settled down for what they expected to be a peaceful night.
When they woke on the morning of July 20, 1843, their journey to Hull would be close to done. And just over 24 hours after leaving the bustle of the quayside at Leith, the power of the steamer would have taken them faster and far more comfortably to their destination than any road.
On board was the Rev JM MacKenzie, who had left his wife and children at home in Portobello, heading for Bedford to visit his parents, along with well-known actor Edward Elton, a widower whose seven children waiting at home had decorated his room with garlands of flowers to celebrate his return.
Sarah Briggs, her auburn hair streaked with strands of grey, her green merino cloak covering her pretty silk gown, was returning home to Hull, among her luggage her precious work box stuffed with scissors, knife, looking glass and needles.
And there was George Aird, the only son of a Hanover Street grocer, on the first stage of a business trip to London. His thrill at setting off for a new life in London was probably surpassed by the excitement the trip held for minister’s son Field Flowers, a bright 13-year-old who been visiting his sister, Fanny, at her Edinburgh school and was now returning home with her, a friend and their teacher, the strikingly pretty Maria Barton.
On the steamer charged, its paddles powering through the water as darkness fell.
The journey was one SS Pegasus had completed many times before. Sadly, as Captain Alexander Miller plotted his route from his bridge sandwiched between the huge paddle boxes, this one would be her last.
And as SS Pegasus plunged beneath the waters off the Holy Island, mortally wounded by a rock that had ripped her bow open, the desperate clamour to survive among her 41 passengers and 16 crew would result in only six making it out alive.
The loss of 51 lives, many of them Edinburgh citizens, at sea while on board the equivalent of a modern commuter train, was a loss that was felt across the country.
Of course as time passed, the incident was largely forgotten. And so it would probably remain had it not been for comedian Sarah Millican and an emotionally charged episode of family tree programme Who Do You Think You Are?
During her appearance on the show it emerged that one of her direct ancestors, James Hoult, was one of the world’s first divers. Clearly thrilled to discover he had led such a daring and adventurous life, she then found herself wiping away tears of sadness as she learned of the role he played salvaging belongings and bodies from the Leith vessel’s wreckage on the sea bed.
Hoult, the star’s three times great-grandfather, had been summoned to carry out the specialised – and highly risky – task of retrieving anything that could be salvaged from the wreck. But unlike normal salvage operations, which usually led to the divers concerned keeping a hefty share in the profits from what they found, this time Hoult handed over items to the families of the dead in an act of respect and kindness that prompted tears from the comedian. She can be forgiven for feeling emotional – the tragic story of SS Pegasus is a hugely emotive one even now. But in Victorian Britain, it was a tragedy that struck a raw nerve across the country.
The vessel had set off from Leith with 18 well-heeled passengers booked to travel within its opulent cabins, a further 23 in steerage and a crew, mostly Leithers, of 16.
According to Leith historian John Arthur, the journey would have been fairly routine for a paddle steamer of the day, although still a rare means of travel for many. “People didn’t really use the roads for those kinds of journeys because they simply were not maintained and it was far quicker to travel by sea than by land. Unfortunately,” he adds, “there were a lot of ships wrecked that left Leith.”
At the helm was Captain Miller, experienced, the Leither had done the route many times. By 10.30pm the vessel had passed Berwick-upon-Tweed, and as it headed into the waters around the Holy Island, he made the fateful decision to take the riskier but faster “inner passage”, passing between the Goldstone Rock and the Plough Rock.
But she was steered around the Goldstone buoy to starboard instead of to port. The sound of her bow becoming impaled on the jagged rock was like thunder, and soon water was gushing in.
The Scotsman of July 22, 1843 carried the distressing account from one of only two passengers to survive, Granton ferry man Charles Baillie, his story a recollection of the watery hell that must have made heartbreaking reading for grieving relatives. “I saw the Rev Mr MacKenzie on the quarter deck, praying with several of the passengers on their knees,” he said. “I saw a lady with two children close beside me, calmly resigning herself to the Almighty. The children seemed unconscious of the danger for they were talking of some trifling matter.”
He stripped and leapt into the sea in a bid to save himself. There the vessel’s stewardess Louisa Howard grabbed hold of him in a desperate attempt to stay afloat, forcing him to fight her off so he would not drown. “The water was littered with the dead and dying,” he added. “The screeching was fearful.”
Among the dead was 12-year-old David Scott who Baillie watched fight for three hours to stay afloat, holding on to a piece of skylight: “He made great exertions to save himself but sank at last,” he said. “His body was warm when picked up.”
As news of the disaster spread, devastated relatives made their way to the area, some carrying leaflets printed with painfully detailed descriptions of loved ones and offering rewards for the return of their bodies. Among those to make the trip was a teenage boy who’d left his grieving mother at Leith and journeyed, according to reports, “unprovided for the journey with no money to affray his expenses”, determined but ultimately unsuccessful in his bid to retrieve his father’s body.
The tragedy of SS Pegasus led to long debate about passenger safety on board paddle steamers, with calls for “recently invented” safety capes for those on board and beds and sofas to be made of “Macintosh cloth and inflated with air” to provide flotation devices should the worst occur.
For comedian Millican, who described the tragedy as “gut wrenching”, it was a vivid and moving insight into her ancestor’s remarkable life, particularly his kind act of handing over items he recovered from the Pegasus’s watery grave.
“It was incredibly important for the families to have keepsakes,” she said. “It’s important to know he wasn’t just doing it for money, that he had a good heart and he did the right thing.”