Ann’s People

The Sinking of the Comet

In 1835 Anne Lister made an oblique reference to the “Comet steamer” in her journal:1

22 October 1835

[…] A- had letter from Captain Sutherland this evening – good account of her sister & the little boy (born on the 13th) to be called Ewen Charles after Captain S-‘s 2 brothers one lost at sea one in the Comet steamer & another has probably just experienced the same fate, lost in coming home from the West Indies

Intrigued, we decided to look into the sinking of the Comet, and in the process came across many fascinating stories, including tales of shipwrecks, slavery, hurricanes and a dodgy baronetcy.

The Comet

The paddle steamer in question was actually the second Comet, the original also having been lost. Built in Glasgow in 1812 for Henry Bell (1767-1830), Comet was Europe’s first commercial passenger steamship, representing the cutting edge of early 19th-century technology.  On 15 December 1820 Comet was wrecked near Oban, Scotland.2  The wreck was eventually raised and the hull converted to a schooner named Ann, which was finally lost in 1875.

The first Comet. Public Domain

A second Comet began commercial service in 1821. On 18 October 1830 Comet sailed from Inverness bound for Glasgow. By about 2 a.m. on the morning of 21 October, she was just off Gourock, about 30 miles to the east of Glasgow. Newspaper reports suggest that Comet had no navigation lights and there was no moon; she was struck at full speed by another paddle steamer, the Ayr, and “sank within three minutes”. More than 70 passengers and crew were drowned. Ayr was badly damaged and rather than risk sinking, the captain immediately returned to port without stopping to pick up survivors.

Two of the victims were Sutherland relatives: George Sutherland’s brother Charles Baillie Sutherland, and a distant cousin, Captain Wemyss Erskine Sutherland.

Charles Baillie Sutherland

Charles Baillie Sutherland, George Mackay Sutherland’s youngest brother, was born in Scotland in 1808 – so was just 17 at the time of his death. Charles’ body was identified by his initials on his clothes:

From Loss of the Comet Steam-Packet3

The “little boy (born on the 13th) ) to be called Ewen Charles after Captain S-‘s 2 brothers” was Evan Charles Sutherland, the eventual heir of the Walker estates, and Charles Baillie was one of the brothers he was named after. The baby was also named after another brother, who had been lost two years earlier:

Ewen Baillie Sutherland

Lieutenant Ewen Baillie Sutherland, R.N. was born at Uppat House in 1800, and he also died at sea, on 2 December 1830. Different newspaper reports claim that he was either killed by falling rigging or drowned:

Perthshire Courier, 16 December 1830.**

Ewen was married to his cousin (daughter of his paternal aunt Katharine) Elizabeth Baillie Mackenzie (born 1803)4 and left two daughters: Catherine, 1, and Evina Baillie – who was less than six weeks old and had not yet been baptised.*

Elizabeth was the sister of “Sir” Alexander Mackenzie (born 1802), the impoverished nephew who the Sutherlands hoped Ann Walker might marry. Alexander Mackenzie had assumed the baronetcies of Tarbat and Royston, claimed to be dormant, but quite possibly actually extinct. It appears that the title of “sir” may not have been official.5  Captain Alexander Mackenzie of the 48th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry died in 1841 and was buried in Calcutta.6

Elizabeth was also first cousin to Ewen’s sister-in-law Georgina Aeneas MacKay Mackenzie (1808-1864), who had married George Mackay Sutherland’s brother James in 1829.

The “other brother”

Anne Lister doesn’t identify Captain Sutherland’s brother who was “probably […] lost in coming home from the West Indies“, but several of the Sutherland siblings were plantation owners in the West Indies, and in the 1830s four of them were living on the island of St. Vincent. Another two brothers had inherited property and enslaved persons from their uncle Robert, who died in 1828.

Robert, who had been in the West Indies since at least 1799, left his St. Vincent estates to three of his nephews: James, George and Ewen Baillie Sutherland. James was already resident there, and sister Roberta, having married into a plantation-owning family, also lived on St. Vincent, along with brothers Duncan and Robert, both of whom would later marry daughters of plantation owners.

See this blog for more details about slavery and Shibden: http://insearchofannwalker.com/the-slave-trade-and-shibden-hall/.

So the brother who was feared lost must have been James, Duncan or Robert: all were resident in St. Vincent in the early 1830s7, and all survived beyond 1835 (we have found no record of a brother who died in 1835). A severe hurricane centred on Barbados struck the West Indies in October 1835, so it’s possible that the unnamed brother was on on a ship that was initially thought to have been lost in the hurricane.

James’s fourth child, Archibald, was born in Scotland on 2 October 1835,5 so it’s likely that he was also back home with his wife Georgina Mackenzie at the time of the hurricane. (Another son had been killed, along with several of Sutherland’s enslaved people, in another hurricane in 18318.)

Robert was in St. Vincent in March 18369 when he married Georgina Cumming, so it’s perhaps unlikely that he would have travelled to Scotland at the end of 1835.

Duncan was in St. Vincent in 1834 but returned to England to marry (on October 8, 1836) West Indies-born Lucy Campbell Hackshaw* (who was his first cousin, daughter of his aunt Harriet Mackay); he may have travelled in 1835 and could have been the brother in question.

Wemyss Erskine Sutherland

Captain Wemyss (pronounced “Weems”) Sutherland was only five weeks married when he and his wife Sarah Georgina, née Duff were drowned in the Comet disaster. This Captain Sutherland, born in 1793, was related to George Mackay Sutherland: his uncle, John Sutherland, 4th of Sciberscross, had married George Mackay Sutherland’s paternal aunt Mary. Sarah Georgina Duff was also George Mackay Sutherland’s fourth cousin:

And yes, Sarah Georgina Duff was related to Anne Lister’s friend and putative love interest Lady Duff Gordon: Sir William Duff Gordon, Lady Duff Gordon’s husband, was Sarah’s fourth half-cousin once removed. He was also another fourth cousin of George Mackay Sutherland.

The last duel in Scotland?

Sarah Georgina’s mother was Sarah Louise Forbes, over whom a duel – possibly the last in Scotland – was fought. According to an account of the incident9Miss Forbes of Culloden, a famous beauty, was the belle of the ball“, the ball being held on 1 May 1798 in Inverness, Scotland. A dispute arose over who had the right to the last dance with Miss Forbes, culminating in one officer striking another. The injured officer challenged his assailant to a duel, where he was killed. The victor was charged with murder and acquitted on the grounds that he had made every effort to apologise and so avoid the (illegal) duel.
(N.B. The account of the incident was published in 1922, some 124 years after it happened.)

Military service

Wemyss Erskine and George Mackay Sutherland served together in the 93rd. Regiment of Foot, the Sutherland Highlanders, so they almost certainly knew each other. George was promoted to lieutenant on Wemyss’ promotion to captain and transfer to a different regiment:

Meath & Louth Advertiser, 27 October 1824.**

Burial

Wemyss and Sarah were buried at St Andrew’s by the Green, Glasgow, where their grave bears this poignant inscription. Feelings were obviously still very raw:

HERE LIE BURIED THE MORTAL REMAINS OF CAPT. WEMYSS ERSKINE SUTHERLAND,
AND OF SARAH DUFF, HIS WIFE, A MOST AMIABLE, HANDSOME, AND WORTHY YOUNG
COUPLE, WHO, ARDENTLY ATTACHED FOR YEARS, HAD ONLY BEEN UNITED A FEW
SHORT WEEKS BEFORE THEY WERE UNFORTUNATELY DROWNED IN THE CLYDE, ON THE
XXI OCTOBER, MDCCCXXV., WHEN THE COMET STEAM BOAT WAS RUN DOWN, AND ITS
PASSENGERS INHUMANELY LEFT TO PERISH BY THE AYR. THIS HUMBLE MONUMENT,
IN RECORD OF THE MOST MOURNFUL EVENT, IS ERECTED BY LIEUT. COLONEL SUTHER-
LAND, V. REGIMENT, AND HUGH ROBERT DUFF, ESQ., OF MUIRTOWN, THEIR AFFEC-
TIONATE BROTHER AND FATHER.

Sources:

  1. Anne Lister’s diary, 22 October 1835. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale Ref. SH:7/ML/E/18/0117. Transcription by Francesca Raia.
  2. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS_Comet
  3. Loss of the Comet Steam-packet, Near Gourock, on the Morning of Friday, October 21, 1825. Published 1825 by J & J Gray, Edinburgh.
  4. History Of The Mackenzies, by Alexander Mackenzie, 1879. http://www.fullbooks.com/History-Of-The-Mackenzies11.html
  5. Mackenzie of Achiltibuie: freepages.rootsweb.com/~coigach/genealogy/zzzaltimack.htm
  6. List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Bengal, edited by C. R. Wilson, 1896.
  7. An Historical Account of the Island of Saint Vincent, by Charles Shephard, 1831.
  8. Letter to Captain G M Sutherland from St Vincent giving account of hurricane, loss of his [James Sutherland’s] baby son, damage to property, etc. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale Ref. CN:9/4.
  9. Ancestry family tree. This date has not been verified.
  10. Glengarry’s Way and Other Studies, by William Roughead, 1922.

Other references:

* Ancestry, https://www.ancestry.co.uk (paid subscription).
** The British Newspaper Archive, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk (paid subscription).

Slavery and Shibden Hall, by Diane Halford: insearchofannwalker.com/the-slave-trade-and-shibden-hall

With thanks to

Diane Halford
Francesca Raia
Deb Woolson

In Search of Ann Walker’s research into Ann’s life is ongoing, therefore new discoveries may change the way we chronicle her life in the future.

How to cite this article:
Martin Walker (2023) ”The Sinking of the Comet” : In Search Of Ann Walker [Accessed *add date*]

Martin Walker

#AnneListerCodeBreaker, cyclist, Japanophile, former Tokyo resident (that's a while since) now back in the UK & living in Oxford. Before Gentleman Jack I never imagined I'd be interested in genealogy, historical research, or the lives of two remarkable women. Just happy to be here, really.

One Comment

  • JOAN LEGGETT

    Most ineterested to read. I am descended from G.S. Sutherland’s brother Robert 1805-83 and also from their sister Roberta (Mrs Alexandr McLeod) – Robert’s son Robert 1841-87 maried the grandaughter of Roberta (Roberta Browne) in St Vincent. Two comments – (1 ) I have written a small book “Scotland’s Peultimate Duel – after a bet at the 1824 St Leger”. The last duel in Scotland occurred a few years later. (2) I suggest G.S. Sutherland’s brother presumed to have been lost on a voyage home in 1835 could have been Hugh MacKay Sutherland 1803-60. He was “at sea” for many years and in a letter from him to his brother in1838 described being shipwrecked off eastern America in 1837. He married and became a Naturalised Amercan in 1847 and died in Maryland in 1860.