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'The Schooner Vixen'

Date(s): 5 June 2017

Creator(s): Mullan, E.F.

Transcript: A faint photograph of a painting behind the bar in Freemasons’ Hall Ramsey caught my attention many years ago but any in depth knowledge on the vessel or its history was scarce indeed, the few words, “she made a famous voyage to Australia” seemed about it. She was however flying a blue burgee with a Masonic square and compass, and beneath her signal flags or numbers. The painting is a depiction of the schooner Vixen entering Leghorn Italy on 7th June 1863 under the command of John Sansbury. I noted in my mind that the vessel was actually a topsail schooner, i.e. a vessel predominately with fore and aft sails but also having square sails on the fore mast. A small point I grant you but any error is usually accompanied by others when put to the test. (See attached drawing of such a vessel) She also carries two Stunsails and a Staysail, the limit of sail on the course she was then steering.

I have seen the original painting courtesy of the Manx Museum and allowed to reproduce the photograph attached. It really is a work of Art. (Provenance unknown). It was not until 2017 when I began transcribing the minute book of St Germans Lodge No. 221 Irish Constitution 1858 to 1867 that the name resurfaced, not in any positive way but recorded in the minute book that a donation of £3.00 had been given to the three young children of the Master of Vixen Bro. Sansbury lost with all hands on Saturday 26th March 1864. It is mentioned the children were left totally unprovided for.

I asked myself where had I seen or become acquainted with the vessel Vixen, when I recalled I had assisted in writing an article for the Manx Masonry in the Issue No. 8 Winter 2013. The request for information was answered by W Bro Alex Downie and printed in the No 9 Spring Issue. The information obtained was obtained from a story by the Rev. John Quine. The story mainly obtained from extant documents is reasonably accurate until it comes to the final phase of the vessel and its crews lives. He reported and I quote “Years after the Vixen came home, one Saturday afternoon she was laying in Peel at the quay. It was blowing a gale, and the crew were all in the public house waiting for high water. When they came on board they were certainly not in a fit condition and experienced men on the quay expostulated with them that in the state of the weather they should not go out. The skipper of the Vixen was reported to have said that if the first port he arrived at should be in the other world, he was going to sail (I find this remark highly unlikely, a man who has his wife on board, invested his entire fortune in the vessel, leaving 3 children at home, I don’t think so) and so they sailed out of Peel in the height of the gale. The Peel men went across to the hill and watched the Vixen until she was lost in the thickness that accompanied a squall, and she was never seen again. And so she went around the world to come back and go down almost in sight of her own port”.

Pretty dramatic indeed melodramatic I must say and worthy of following up if only to satisfy my own curiosity. With the help of the Information Officer W Bro. Ron Corlett and Leece Museum curator Bro. Roy Baker I was able to gather what appears to be all the information currently available on the vessel, its history and eventual loss.

Vixen was built in Peel at the part owner Henry Graves’s quay near to the Leece museum, under the direction of Mr. Cannon the foreman, at a cost of £2,000 and christened in August 1851. Her dimensions although unproven by any official body are given as 76 feet at the keel, 20 feet beam 93 tons Register and 160 tons burden. Her overall length would probably have been in the region of 100 feet. Not a large vessel but a very fast sailer, easily handled by a small crew. She is variously called a clipper schooner, a schooner but the correct name is a topsail schooner as explained above. That she was fast is unquestioned as in moderate weather en route for Australia she was overhauled by the true clipper Marco Polo, Black Ball line, 1622 tons burden, when asked where bound and receiving the reply Australia, Marco Polo asked if they would like a tow. A few days later after the weather had abated Vixen slowly but surely overhauled the larger vessel, as imagined the offer of a tow was returned word for word.

Why would so many men risk their lives and fortune in making such a voyage? The usual answer, fame, fortune, or in this case gold. In January 1851 gold had been discovered in New South Wales and a few months later in Ballarat Victoria just west of Melbourne which had just been settled 10 years earlier. Some indication of the importance of the gold fields to Victoria’s development can be seen from the population explosion from 77,000 in 1851 to 411,000 3 years later. Obviously the Manx men wanted part of the action.

This then is how Vixen achieved her fame, a vessel of such minute dimensions with 37 (some records give the total as 38 as there were two Quilliams Henry and Thomas hence the discrepancy) brave souls set sail from Peel at 3 p.m. on Wednesday 26th January 1853. Of the 37 fourteen were married and 23 single, three being only 17 years old. The 25th had originally been fixed for departure but due to low tides she was unable to sail. The total expenditure for setting up the voyage with stores and trade goods etc. was £1,015.12.71/2. They arrived in Melbourne on approximately Tuesday 3rd May 1853 a voyage of 97 days. When one considers that the record set by Marco Polo was 68 days, another Isle of Man Vessel this one built in Ramsey, the equally if not more famous Euterpe or as now called Star of India preserved in San Diego U.S.A. although a very well built ship was no clipper, her fastest passage being in excess of 100 days.

Having passed through the Southern Ocean on the edge of the roaring forties myself, I can guarantee the weather they survived in was more than equal to anything the Irish Sea can do. Seas so large a 10,000 thousand ton modern cargo liner is tossed like a cork in swells higher than the vessel itself. The old adage that ignorance is bliss comes to mind. They crossed the line on Wednesday 23rd February rounded Cape of Good Hope on 28th March, the next sighting of land Cape Otway. The official time given is 92 days, why I am unsure unless some time was spent outside Port Philip Bay before making the 40 to 50 mile voyage up to Melbourne at the head of the bay. If 92 days is taken then her arrival must have been 29th/30th April. However most historical evidence shows a date of 2nd or 3rd May as the most likely date giving a passage time of 95 or 96 days, still quite remarkable. The 3 masted clipper Uncle Tom arrived on 24th May 3 weeks after Vixen.(see F S Graves) Further comparisons are available in the voyage of Prince Arthur, a fast immigrant ship which departed Liverpool on 24th January and arrived 4 days after Vixen and British Queen which left Liverpool 3 weeks before Vixen departed arriving on the same date. Quite an astonishing feat, hats off to Captain Cubbon, his navigator Mr. Corlett and crew.

The next 2 years were spent trading around the Australian and Tasmanian coast but on 13th February 1855 she cleared out of Melbourne for Guichen Bay, west of Melbourne thence to Mauritius where she picked up a cargo of sugar for Liverpool, she topped up the sugar cargo in St. Thomas West Indies arriving back in Liverpool on probably 4th July 1855. There appears to have been no welcoming response, although she was transferred to the Liverpool registry on the same day.

Captain Cubbon retired as Master in 1856 with Captain John Sansbury taking command some time later. Hence the Masonic flag flown on entering Leghorn in 1863. We do know he became part owner in 1862 when he purchased 8 shares from Henry Graves. It is recorded he left his children unprovided for possibly he had used all his assets to purchase the 8 shares in the vessel, 8 share equalling 8/64 in total or 121/2%. Henry Graves gave £27.10.0 to a fund for the children’s benefit. Comparisons in the value of the £ sterling of say 1860 compared to today is difficulty to assess due to the numerous methods used in the calculations, a reasonably accurate figure however a rate of 100 to 1 seems a fair and easily extrapolated average, thus the cost of building Vixen is £200.000, outfitting £100,000 etc. is not unreasonable in fact if anything a little modest.

Now let us move to her last voyage. While there are several accounts of the loss those that to me seem most probable is that of the Manx Sun of the 2nd April 1864 and F S Graves short history “The Story of the Vixen”. They relate the arrival of Vixen in Port St. Mary en route from Bordeaux to Belfast with a cargo of Indian corn. Sansbury ( I believe a member of Lodge of Mona 212 I C.) and his wife and family lived in Port St Mary where he called to pick up his wife on Friday 25th March, departing on Saturday 26th at around 2.30 in the afternoon. The weather was squally from the North and the vessel soon reached the Calf of Man where the passage between the Kitterland and Calf was successfully made. “Soon after 3 p.m. when approximately 2 miles to the NNW of the Calf and on the port tack a sudden and violent squall caught her and threw her on her beam ends. The sea became furious and with a view of easing the vessel she was run up nearly in the wind, when her square sails filled aback and she immediately went down in 20 fathoms of water: the Master and his wife and five hands perishing together. The disaster was witnessed by several persons. The Castletown life boat was transferred to Port Erin on her carriage, but was too late to be of any service”. Mr Graves’s report states a strong wind from the North West was blowing, when some six or seven miles off the Calf was caught in a sudden squall in the cross seas running, before sail could be taken in heeled over, her cargo shifted and prevented her from righting and heading into the wind for safety, she filled and sank near where we pictured her just 3 hours after leaving Peel on the commencement of her memorable voyage to Australia.

From a pure navigation and sailing point of view the reports of what occurred is to me doubtful in its accuracy and needed looking at, but one further important item is mentioned. With a cargo of Indian corn or maize, it is very probable that having been thrown on her beam ends the cargo would have shifted so that it would have been nigh impossible to get her on anything like an even keel. All grain is notorious for shifting due to its settling, which was combatted in later years with the use of shifting boards, due to the loss of so many vessels. The speed in which she foundered would also indicate that large amounts of water had been shipped, possibly from structural damage, loss of hull shell from the standing rigging being torn from their foundations, or hatch opening, thus rendering her with negative buoyancy. With a northerly wind and opposing tide the furious seas could well have been a result of this phenomenon, one which is frequently seen in the narrow waters of the Sound and further North.

My queries with regards to the report from onlookers are: 1. Why was the vessel carrying square sails when sailing NNW into a Northerly wind. Impossible. 2. Why on the port tack, directly into the land, Bradda Head and Fleshwick Bay, no shelter there only a death trap as one expert replied to my question. (See attached chart). If instead of a port tack she was on a starboard tack then the events recorded all fall into place. Unless the distance from the Calf is incorrect, rather than 2 miles NNW possibly only 1 mile in which case they may have decided to run into Port Erin bay for shelter which would answer the port tack, difficult with square sails set, but why? If the wind was from the North West it would have been impossible to have navigated through the Sound. Having safely navigated the Sound and finding the wind probably backing into the West as the low pressure area moved to the North, Sansbury may have been forced to come round unto a port tack, making for Port Erin. Sandsbury was undoubtedly well skilled in navigating the waters around the south of the Isle of Man and how the tidal streams affected a passage between the Calf, Thousla Rock and the Kitterand. The records show he departed Port St. Mary at approximately 2.30 which would coincide with High Water, or more likely an hour later when the tide had turned and was beginning to flow towards the Calf and the stream in the Calf running at 1.5 to 3 knots to the North West. While the vessel is reported as sinking at roughly 3pm and 2 miles NNW of the Sound or even further North, the latter position seems improbable but not impossible.

Distance from Port St Mary to this southern position is approximately 6 miles giving a speed of 12 knots. While Vixen was fast I do not think quite as fast as that, given the weather conditions. However 15 minutes each way adding a half hour would make it acceptable, one report does give the time as 3.15, likewise the tidal flow would have increased to 3 to possibly 4 knots. With this current opposed by a Northerly wind the tumultuous seas reported were quite possible, indeed very probable. Questions still without definite answers, as modern investigators have found out, 10 witnesses to the same accident will give at least 7 different accounts, even more when asked at a later date.

The report mentioned above from Rev. John Quine is inaccurate in almost every aspect, Peel rather than Port St. Mary, a gale rather than squally weather, crew drunk, the boast of the skipper, the Peel men watched. Just ask if she was in Peel and departed for Belfast why go in the opposite direction? Rev. Quine writing some 32 years later, which coincidentally was during the popularity of the Temperance Movement or Band of Hope, would appear to be preaching the immorality and dangers of drink rather than recording factual history.

Since writing the above further information has come to hand which unfortunately only adds to the mystery, further eye witnesses. Distance of sinking has been increased to six or seven miles and in another reduced to one mile, winds from the North West not North; but consistent is going over on her beam ends and sinking almost immediately, indeed one has it instantly.
I have no doubt that better researchers than me will come up with more descriptions and perhaps answers, irrespective of which, it is indeed a sad ending to a remarkable vessel that literally conquered the world’s oceans but fell prey to the ever more dangerous Irish Sea.

Manx Museum
Leece Museum
F S Graves. The Story of the Vixen
Isle of Man Sailing Directions
Various Manx Newspapers
British Admiralty Charts
Dictionary of Shipwrecks off the Isle of Man

Scope & Content: The writer recaps the history of this vessel and her crew before analysing details of her last voyage in March 1864 during which she went over on her beam ends and sank almost immediately approximately two miles NNW of the Calf of Man. He uses his navigation and sailing knowledge to highlight inaccuracies in contemporary accounts, closing, 'I have no doubt that better researchers than me will come up with more descriptions and perhaps answers, irrespective of which, it is indeed a sad ending to a remarkable vessel that literally conquered the world's oceans but fell prey to the ever more dangerous irish Sea.'

Language: English

Extent: 5 pages

Physical description: typescript

Item name: article

Collection: Manuscript Archive

Level: ITEM

ID number: MS 14272

Access conditions: No regulations or restrictions are implemented on this material. Advance notification of a research visit is advisable by emailing


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