George Elbra

Bosun aboard Drummond Castle lost when ship was wrecked

THE FOLLOWING ACCOUNT OF THE LOSS OF THE DRUMMOND CASTLE AND GEORGE ELBRA'S DEATH HAS BEEN GIVEN TO ME BY HIS GRANDSON, TONY

 L’Ile de Molène

You can get to the Island, and the more remote island pf Ouessant (Ushant) by ferry from le Conquet or Brest. We stayed a couple of nights in Le Conquet at a good hotel which unfortunately is about to close.

The ferry takes about forty minutes to get to Molène. The Island is small and takes about one hour to walk all round. It boasts a couple of shops, a hotel and a restaurant.  There is minimal road traffic and the streets are just narrow lanes. It is an attractive spot or would be if the winds were not both strong and frequent.

The reason for our visit was to find out about the wreck of the “Drummond Castle”. This is mentioned on all the publicity about the Island and one gets the impression that it was the last important thing to happen there. There is a museum devoted to the subject. When we arrived, we were told at the small information bureau that the museum was closed. We expressed horror at this, pointing out that we had a family connection to one of the victims. The lady at the information office then made a couple of telephone calls to see if she could find the curator, a certain M. Carovan. No luck at the time but she promised to keep on trying.

In the meantime we went to look at the church and there we found the first reference to the disaster. There is a corner of the churchyard devoted to 29 victims commemorated by a plaque on the wall.

Only one of the victims is identified. Inside the church there is another plaque recording the gifts made to the Island by the people of Britain in acknowledgement of their efforts, although largely unsuccessful, to save the ship’s complement.

After trying the museum, still closed, we sampled the local restaurant and then, on the off chance, went back at the museum. To our surprise it was open, the information office lady having contacted M. Carovan. The museum consisted of only one room and it was obvious that its collection was largely the work of M. Carovan himself. He had collected press cuttings of the event, had dived down to the wreck to collect a few artefacts, had constructed a model of the ship and had amassed letters and photographs. Even the clock given to the Island had found its way into the museum.

About a dozen people were present and M. Carovan sat us all down and gave us a long lecture in French about the events of 16th June 1896. Luckily he was a good actor and did not rattle on at great speed. There was an English-speaking woman there who helped us with the more difficult bits. As often happens with translations, we found that five minutes of French would be compressed into about one minute of English.

The story was briefly this. The night was foggy and the ship was off course.  While she should have been well to the west of Ushant she was well to the east and near Molène. She struck on the Pierres Verts and sank within a few minutes, some say she took seven minutes to sink, some say four but anyway the disaster was very rapid.

No one on the islands knew that anything was amiss. There was no wind along with the fog that night so the fishing boats, which were driven by sail, did not go out. The next day, one boat, captained by the most experienced fisherman, did go out, probably under oars. He found a quantity of wood floating on the sea. Since wood is a rare commodity on Molène, they began to haul it on board using grapnels. They noticed that some of it was good wood but they were surprised to find among it a large bunch of bananas. At this stage they began to think that something was wrong. This was confirmed when one of the survivors, who had heard all the splashing and the hauling in of timber, called out to them. They brought the survivor on board but he was unable to explain what had happened as he spoke only English and they spoke only Breton. Anyway they returned to Molène to summon the other boats.  The fishing fleet began to search the area and eventually found another survivor as well as the 29 bodies. Another survivor found his way to Ushant but he had been injured by falling among the wreckage and died a few days later.

 


 


There was a problem of identifying the bodies. About a week later relations of the people on board and a representative of the Castle Line came out to Molène. Identification remained difficult as many of the passengers were returning from several years in South Africa and had changed a great deal in that time. It is unlikely that our grandfather was among the recovered bodies as he would have been recognised by the surviving officer. 347 people died in the disaster. Most have never been recovered. A few are buried in Ushant and a few at Le Conquet but the majority are the 29 on Molène. These were buried two to a tomb as it was expected that many more would be found and they needed to save space. But this precaution was not necessary as the number stayed at 29.

The museum included some photographs of the ship.

There was also a copy of the official report into the loss and a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury thanking the local priest for officiating at the burial.

We had met a French couple over lunch and they told us that, after lunch, they had also met the grandson of one of the men who had helped with the salvage. We were then taken to meet this man who showed us a picture of his grandfather. He looked a real fisherman, complete with grizzled beard and pipe. He had died in 1953 at the age of 88 so must have been 31 when the wreck occurred.

By chance we went to Molene on 14th June, just two days short of the 110th anniversary.

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