Today in History: Jan 3, 1873 – Sir Francis Shipwreck

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On January 3, 1873, the British steamer ship Sir Francis struck Breaking Ledge, a reef about three quarters of a mile off of Salisbury Beach, and was wrecked.

The Sir Francis was a 1,500 ton iron steamer ship built in Hull, Massachusetts for English merchants in May of 1872. The ship was captained by John Whitney, a veteran ship master who had more than 18 years of experience.

On November 12, 1873, the Sir Francis left port at Liverpool, England, on its second voyage, with a cargo of general merchandise, one passenger and 30 crew members and headed across the North Atlantic to Boston, Massachusetts.

Bad weather soon forced the ship back to Queensboro, England for repairs just a few days into the voyage. The ship left port again on December 9 and headed across the North Atlantic where it encountered storms and bad weather.

A steamer ship circa 1890

On January 3, the ship was just off the coast of Salisbury Beach when it struck Breaking Ledge in a thick fog sometime in the mid afternoon. It immediately began filling with water and Captain Whitney ordered the lifeboats lowered.

The crew, captain and passenger piled into three lifeboats and attempted to reach Salisbury Beach but the rough sea forced them across the Merrimack River where they landed near the lighthouse on Plum Island.

The ship was a complete loss but all aboard the ship were safe. The lighthouse keeper invited them to stay at lighthouse for a few days while the British Consular Agent, William A. Davis, arranged for them to travel to Boston, Mass where they then headed home to England.

The British press, such as the Liverpool Mercury, reported on the accident in the weeks that followed but mistakenly identified the location of the shipwreck as Hampton Beach, possibly due to its close proximity to Breaking Ledge:

“An extra dispatch, dated Boston, January 4, the British steamer Sir Francis, of Warren and Company’s Liverpool and Boston tine, which left Liverpool on the same day as the Texas, went ashore on the afternoon of the 3rd Instant, on Hampton Beach, during a thick fog. Her passengers and crew are reported to be safe. Captain Whiting arrived at Boston on the afternoon of the 4th…and stated that the steamer went ashore about a mile and a quarter from the land, and lay in 1.7 feet of water at high tide…with her cargo on board.”

On January 7, the Daily News of London also reported the ship as “stranded on Hampton Beach, and is full of water.”

The accident tore a hole in the bottom of the ship and most of the cargo in the lower hold, particularly the baking soda and bleaching power, was destroyed by the water.

The underwriters of the ship sent tugboats and other ships to salvage as much of the cargo as it could. The cargo was insured in Boston but the ship itself was insured in England.

The Sir Francis wasn’t the first nor the last ship to be wrecked on Breaking Ledge, which also claimed the Halifax in 1852 and the Marble Bird in 1904 after it struck a sandbar caused by the shifting sands around Breaking Ledge.

Sargent, Carolyn. Salisbury History. Salisbury Historical Society 1991.
Latest Shipping Intelligence.” The Times. No. 27580. London. 7 January 1873. col C, p. 9.
“Latest Shipping Intelligence.” Daily News. No. 8330. London. 7 January 1873.
“Shipping Disasters.” Liverpool Mercury. No. 7801. Liverpool. 21 January 1873.