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The Ouless painting of the Express wreck

Express was wrecked when a stand-in captain took an unfamiliar route past Corbiere

The Express on rocks at Corbière before the lighthouse was built

In 1847 the New South Western Steam Navigation Company was formed. It bought out the South Western Steam Packet Company's ships and property for £56,623 also the South of England Steam Packet's ships and property for £29,000 and in part cost of three new ships Express, Dispatch and Courier, £42,870. This company was loaned £50,000 by the London and South Western Railway Company.

This new company renewed the 5-year mail contract for £4,000 in April 1848. 1851 saw the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company sued by the South Eastern Railway Company for owning ships contrary to law, so afterwards the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company chartered ships from a Mr Maples who had a cargo service operating from Littlehampton to the Channel Islands and from Newhaven to Dieppe. These ships were chartered for eleven years until the Act of Parliament of 1862 allowing the railway companies to own and operate ships.

The Express was built at the same time and by the same builders as Dispatch and Courier. Before coming on the Channel Island station Express was given the important task of bringing Louis Philippe to Newhaven when he fled the revolution in France in 1848. She came to Jersey on 28 May 1848 and had a refit in 1850, costing £2,000.

On a voyage from Jersey to Weymouth on 20 September 1859, the Express struck a treacherous group of rocks off Corbiere known as Les Boiteaux. She tore a hole in her port bow and made water fast, being eventually wrecked at St Brelade just below where St Brelade's Bay Hotel is situated. Two passengers who had panicked and jumped overboard were drowned, but the rest, totalling 108, were saved, including the crew. On board were three race horses due to race at Guernsey the following day and these were also rescued by mattresses and bed linen being placed on the slippery rocks to enable the terrified animals to reach terra firma.

Story of the wreck

20 September 1859

The London and South Western passenger Steamer Express was wrecked this morning at Corbiere. [1] She was a paddle steamer carrying 150 passengers and crew, many of them ladies, and three racehorses.

Two male passengers, Mr Bursell of Warwickshire, and Philip Coudray, of St Peter, who panicked and rushed the life boats when told not to, fell into the water and drowned. The Express lies on the rocks in a cove and has become a total wreck.

At this time both the London and the Weymouth companies were operating passenger ships out of Weymouth to the Channel Islands.

New course

Time dominated Victorian days, and in a misguided decision to save 15 minutes journey time, Captain Mabb steered a course he had never taken before. He was deputising for the sick Captain Harvey and departed St Helier at 6.30 am in cloudy conditions and a light NE wind. A decision to take 'Jailers Passage' at Corbiere proved fatal.

It is unclear which rock the Express hit - Grunes Houillieres or Frouquie - but she struck at full speed of 13 knots. The engines were stopped immediately, but were soon started again as the Captain, apparently having no idea the ship was badly damaged, continued on his journey.

Soon the fore cabin steward reported water up to the floor of his cabin, and on hearing the news the Captain held a meeting of staff, and decided to head to St Ouens bay. By the time they had covered a mile the ship was filling rapidly.

The mate then suggested turning round to head for St Helier, which they did. They had to take the outside passage at Corbiere as the ship would not steer properly. Luckily the engine room was partially separate from the flooded fore cabin and the engines kept running. Second mate John Neel was noted to be very calm as he steered.

The increased swell started a panic among the passengers and the boats were lowered. Thirteen passengers and three crew got into the ship's cutter boat and were rescued by the Napier a cutter which was passing.

The passengers were told not to get into the lifeboats. Several passengers were involved in a brawl to prevent others from entering the boats. Two forced their way in, and when the lifeboat gave way when being lowered, they were thrown into the sea and died.

Local knowledge

The ship had got no further than Corbiere when Mr Brett, a passenger with local knowledge, said to captain Mabb: "How long do you think you can run her?" Captain Mabb replied: "From ten minutes to a quarter of an hour". Brett said: "We had better run her into this cove, This is our only chance, and if we can manage this, all the passengers will be saved."

Express headed to shore and when the order was given to stop engines the engineers were up to their waist in water. The bow struck shore first and the whole vessel swung round and settled.

Deputy harbourmaster Captain Hamon was on board He stood on the paddle box and calmed passengers. Once order was restored on deck the lifeboats were lowered successfully and passengers landed. The women were landed first, followed by men and crew. The Captain was the last to leave his vessel.

All the women were praised for their calmness; the only person who screamed was one who lost her husband. “He is gone” she shouted repeatedly.

The three racehorses were saved. They included three-time Guernsey cup winner Lucy Long, and prolific Jersey winner Pilot. All three horses swam to safety then climbed across the rocks covered with mattresses.

Captain Mabb had been with the company 20 years and was said to have been "prostrated" by the incident and has since "lost reason".

All the roads from St Helier to Corbiere were littered with stricken passengers, their baggage still to be salvaged. Seventy men are salvaging the wreck. All the rocks and surrounding areas are covered with the contents of the ship and passenger belongings. All the mails have been saved.

The board of trade inquiry which lasted three days terminated with no result. Crew and passengers were interviewed. There was no doubt Captain Mabb took the "Jailers passage" at Corbiere, but all the testimony was contradictory. The magistrates could not decide on the case.

Mr Bernard (chairman) said: "Under these circumstances it is difficult to know what to do. I cannot do otherwise than return Captain Mabb his certificate without expressing any opinion on the case. I have no power to retain it". The master's certificate was duly returned to Captain Mabb.

Notes and references

  1. From Facebook group Maritime Jersey, by Mark Pulley
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