The Wreck of the Irex - Riddles of the Sea

Photograph courtesy of The Needles Battery
The three masted barque Irex was wrecked in Scratchell's Bay  in January 1890. The Irex was on her maiden voyage from Glasgow to Rio, having left the Clyde in December with a cargo of sewer pipes. Aboard was Captain Hutton, a crew of 33 and two stowaways.
During weeks of bad weather, the Irex was blown from the Irish Sea, to the Bay of Biscay, and back up to Falmouth where the captain was urged to go ashore, especially for the sake of the men who had been badly injured in the storms. Mad with worry and exhaustion, Captain Hutton refused to put into port and the Irex floundered on through heavy seas and gales, eventually wrecking on the rocks about 300 yards off the Needles on the night of January 25th. With the deck swept by huge, violent waves, the crew took refuge in the masts, but not before six men, including Captain Hutton, had been swept to their deaths.

Coxswain Stone and his Totland lifeboat attempted a rescue but, to the disappointment of the lifeboatmen and the sailors waiting to be rescued, the lifeboat turned back before reaching the Irex. As local Island people arrived from afar to see the spectacular wreck, the soldiers at the Needles Battery meanwhile made preparations to rescue the men by use of a breeches buoy. But how to get the rope 400 yards down and 300 yards out to the Irex? The Coastguard fired a rocket at the masts of the ship and, with luck, it caught in the rigging so that the crew were able to work their way along the mainstays to reach the bosun's chair. Fourteen year old Jones, an Apprentice, was paralysed with fear so he was wrapped in a rug and lashed to the mizzenmast where he spent the night alone on the sinking Irex. He was rescued next morning, frozen but still alive. In all, twenty-nine men and boys were rescued by the heroic efforts of the coastguard and soldiers at the Battery.

The Isle of Wight County Press duly reported the event in great detail on February 1, 1890. The coroner's inquiry had concluded that the wreck was an accident, pure and simple, and that the captain and crew had done everything they could to avoid disaster. However, evidence from some of the crew indicated that all may not have been well on the Irex and that Captain Hutton may have had something to hide, mysterious cargo to protect, perhaps, or that he may have gone insane with exhaustion and the violence of the storms. Witnesses reported that he had threatened to run the ship into the white cliffs of the Needles rather than turn back to safety.

The ship's log went down with the Irex so the truth will never be known. But we have the evidence of witnesses and pertinent questions from Mr. Reason, Foreman of the Jury. He wanted to know why the captain refused to take shelter in safe ports and why the Captain had scrambled to be first into the doomed lifeboat. Others argued that the turning back of the Totland lifeboat was shameful and Coxswain Stone and his family were shunned by the community.

The story of the Irex contains drama, terror, mystery, intrigue, bravery and death. Though we have as yet found few answers, our search for documents and revealing records goes on. Meanwhile, through drama and our poetry, we have brought the story to many people around the Isle of Wight and debates about what happened and why are still going on.

Dramatised readings of The Wreck of the Irex: Riddles of the Sea were performed at Niton Parish Church and at West Wight Middle School in 2006 and at Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater in March, 2007.

The cast at Niton Parish Church, October 3rd, 2006 Photograph used with permission of the Isle of Wight County Press

Charles Campbell, the Boatswain's Mate, has his say at the inquest

The ship was taking on water, it was plain we weren't fit to proceed. I asked the captain to put back to Falmouth but he said he would sink her first.

Mr. Reason, Foreman of the Jury, arrives at the inquest

Will we ever know the truth?

The ghost of the drowned Captain Hutton throws down his cap

Horizons are ripped and shredded into the sea that boils black and foul.
Be still I say, let me write the log.

Bombadier Reeves keeps watch from The Battery Fort

As the skies clear we can see her
a fine ship she was too.
The poor devils of sailors
trapped in the rigging
like flies in a web

Apprentice Jones, age 14, spent a night alone, tied to the mast of the Irex
I  was just a child, scared to death, wrapped in a rug, lashed to the mast, left. I thought they said we'll be back, but no, they didn't, so I knew this was the end for the boy who would never reach Rio.

News of the wreck reached the ladies in The Knitting Room

Poor Mrs. Ogilvie.
Her boy William, telegram
disaster, drowned last week.
Poor lad, same age as my Jack

Mrs. Trevanion of Freshwater brought bedding for the rescued men
Here's my pillows, soft as ducks.
Anchor your heads here, boys
Dream of glassy seas
and ships in full sail, smooth as sheets

During the rescue Queen Victoria sent Princess Beatrice to comfort survivors in the fort. Afterwards, survivors like Apprentice Jones and all those involved in the rescue were invited to Osborne. But local ladies had to have a good bonnet . . .

Tea with the Queen! Osborne! Fancy!

Survivors in the pub talk about the wreck
Was Coxswain Stone right to turn the lifeboat back?
I'll be right glad to leave this island behind
This dreadful place that is seared on my mind.
Memories of Irex; mates dead in the sea
Forever their voices will come to haunt me.

In the pub, everyone has a view
There's always some.
Never find them on a rescue boat,
propping up the bar more likely.
Always there to spin their yarn.
Any rubbish if it buys a pint.

Mrs. Stone, the Coxswain's wife, bears
the brunt of her husband's decision not
to go on with the rescue

Everywhere there's knots 
of neighbours talking
Hush their voices when they see me near
but no mistaking what the subject is

After conflicting evidence,  the Foreman of the Jury has some questions
Why wouldn't the captain turn back in bad weather?
Why did he try to abandon ship?
What happened to the ship's log?
And who tampered with the lifeboat?

The Coroner sums up
The wreck of the Irex was an accident. No one could prevent it and no blame can be attached to anyone.

Born in a house with a view of the Clyde
Played on her banks, worked on her side
It's a long way from Glasgow to Scratchell's Bay
A long way from the Clyde to the Solent

After the dramatic rescue of Apprentice Jones, Major Playfair leads the cast down to a shipwreck supper in Dimbola's cafe.

Major Playfair and two Irex sailors
enjoy the shipwreck supper

Poetry Sails and a wooden ship sculpture made by prison writers and artists at HMP Albany
Prison writers' poems are from the publication Fleet, produced by Albany writer-in-residence Lydia Fulleylove.

Young writers from Somerton Middle School read their own shipwreck poem at the Quay Arts Open Mic, February 2007

1 comment:

  1. I was interested to read your account of the Irex rescue. My great, great Grandfather (on my mothers side) was James Mackin. My children are doing a project on the rescue and would be interested if you come across any further information.

    Can you confirm that all the rescuers met Queen Victoria?

    Best regards