In December 1917, a double tragedy was to befall the port of Waterford. Within a few days of each other two merchant ships the SS Coningbeg, and the SS Formby were sunk by a German U-Boat. The ships operated a twice weekly trade route between Waterford and Liverpool. The transportation of food during this time of war was vital but increasingly dangerous as German U-boats patrolled the Irish sea. On Saturday 15 December, the SS Formby departed Liverpool for Waterford. She should have docked the following morning but did not arrive. Overnight a severe storm swept across the Irish Sea and it was initially assumed that she had taken shelter from the weather. However, with no sighting by next morning, Monday, fears began to mount. Efforts were immediately made in Waterford to contact the SS Coningbeg in Liverpool to warn the captain of the potential danger. Unfortunately, due to damage caused by the weekend storm messages did not get through and the SS Coningbeg set sail oblivious to the loss of the SS Formby. The following morning, Tuesday, she also failed to arrive as scheduled in Waterford.
It was many years later before the logbook of U-62 told the chilling tale of how the U-boat had on Sunday evening caught sight of the SS Formby at approximately 6pm. Having torpedoed the first ship, it lurked and waited patiently in deep waters. At 11.45pm on Monday evening the SS Coningbeg came into its sights. Both ships sank quickly with all lives lost. Only one body, that of stewardess Annie O’Callaghan was ever recovered.
By the evening of Monday 17 December, dread was mounting in the hearts of the SS Formby families and just twenty-four hours later, the SS Coningbeg families were also coming to terms with the unthinkable. The SS Formby was captained by Charles Minnards, a competent experienced captain. A total of thirty-nine were on board. The SS Coningbeg captained by James Lumley, again a respected veteran seaman, had forty-four on board. Of the eighty-three lives lost, sixty-seven came from Waterford.
Initial media coverage of the disaster is notable for its absence. One can only presume that this was due to wartime censorship. In the week leading to Christmas, the families had begun to gather daily at the offices the ship owners, the Clyde Shipping Company, based on the Waterford Quays hoping for news. Though Christmas Day is reported as passing in a peaceful and quiet manner in the Waterford News of 27 December, in truth 67 families were bereaved, and at least 400 dependents left bereft. Areas outside the city were affected also, as some of the crew came from Tramore, Passage East and Cheekpoint, but it is the city centre of Waterford where the loss seems most pronounced. The city of Waterford had a population of just 26,000.
The crew lists show bereaved families spread right across the city centre. In the short distance of Lower Newton Road, St Alphonsus Street and Passage Road, at least six households had lost a loved one. Captain Lumley’s family lived on Percy Terrace off the Lower Newton Road. A family of seven, their tragedy was particularly poignant as son William was an engineer on the SS Formby, he also left behind a wife and two children. Close to his neighbourhood of Thomas Street, at least four households were impacted. In the area of Lower Yellow Road and Doyle Street, at least five families were bereaved.
The port community were quick to come to action and a meeting was held to discuss relief and assistance for the families on December 31st. It is reported that, on that evening alone, a figure of £800 was pledged by members of the wider community. One of the speakers was Mr Watt a representative of the Clyde Shipping Company. He informed the meeting that compensation in the form of insurance would be paid to the families to a maximum of £300 but due to legal requirements and investigations this would take some months. If newspapers were curtailed in their discussion of the ships sinking, the setting up of the Waterford Disaster Fund and the generosity of the those who contributed was reported on widely from this point, fundraisers were organised throughout city and county from GAA matches to cinema screenings. In the weeks that followed, the fund was to increase to over £3,000 (a value of over £90,000 in today’s terms) and by the end of January it is reported that the distribution of the funds had begun. On January 23rd, an inquiry confirmed the ships lost, presumed torpedoed. As a result, the widows eventually received war pensions, however it took several years to come through as no proof existed that the sinkings were an act of war and aid from the disaster fund was provided into the 1920s.
In 2017, many descendants including members of the Lumley family visited the city to mark the centenary of the sinking. They recalled how this tragedy was rarely spoken of by their family. Locals speak of the silence also, everybody in the community was or knew somebody effected, so it was not a topic raised lightly. The grief felt by this port community was borne for many decades quietly, a story sometimes referred to, often inaccurately and for years many preferred to blame weather rather than war for the loss.
Today, the story is commemorated widely and has found a place in the port’s history.