The Tragedy of the 'Ocean Monarch'

03 March 2017

Cultural Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

On Thursday 24 August 1848, the Ocean Monarch entered the open seas, leaving Liverpool for Boston, Massachusetts with almost 400 souls aboard. Six miles from the Welsh coast, perhaps 25 miles out of Liverpool, the wooden steam-powered barque caught fire. Attempts to control the conflagration quickly failed, and passengers panicked - some throwing themselves overboard clutching their children. Unable to approach the coast, Captain Murdoch dropped both anchors. A distress flag was raised, and flares were fired into the air to attract further help. Chaos reigned, and amidst the noise and mass of people crowded onto the decks, only two lifeboats could be launched. Anything which might pass as a floatation aid was thrown over the side for the passengers; Captain Murdoch himself was forced to jump into the sea when a burning mast fell towards him.




Several ships came to the rescue. The yacht Queen of the Ocean launched a small boat which picked up survivors until the yacht could carry no more. The Affonso - a frigate of the Brazilian navy which had been built in Liverpool and was under test nearby - also joined the rescue efforts, along with two further vessels, the packet New World and the railway steamer Prince of Wales.




218 of the 398 souls aboard the Ocean Monarch survived - however, this leaves a staggering 180 lives lost, along with cattle intended to be slaughtered for food en route, luggage, and goods including a rocking horse purchased by the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.




Unsurprisingly, the incident attracted much comment in the press, and concern at the Land and Emigration Board in London.




In a moving letter written for the attention of Colonial Secretary Lord Grey (the son of 'Grey of the Reform Act’), the civil servant Charles Alexander Wood lamented that this ‘most distressing occurrence’ had ‘attracted so much public attention’. Promising that the Emigration Officer for Liverpool would afford the coroner’s enquiry into the disaster ‘every information in his power’, Wood continued that the ship was ‘quite new, and one of the finest and most complete passenger ships both as to dimensions and fittings, that has ever left the Port of Liverpool’.




          Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK




The loss of such a new and well-appointed vessel was a great shock - and it elicited a generous response from the people of Liverpool, who collected funds to distribute to the survivors. At a time of economic difficulty and political turmoil throughout Europe (1848 is remembered as the ‘Year of Revolution’), Wood was gratified that ‘all classes’ of people had ‘most laudably’ cooperated in collecting donations. The Land and Emigration Board itself donated the sizeable sum of £200 (almost £20,000 today) to the collection.



              Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK


                Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK







Curiously, a namesake vessel - which carried migrants to Australia a decade later - was delayed on its return to Britain, requiring significant repairs en route after sustaining damage at sea.



               Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK



The Ocean Monarch’s doomed voyage is a stark reminder that whilst millions sailed to the new world in search of a better life, many did not complete their journeys – shipwreck, disease and injury forming just a few of the risks they faced.


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About the Author

Matt Brand

Matt Brand

I joined Adam Matthew Digital in the autumn of 2016. My main academic interests are British politics and diplomacy during the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in relation to refugees and asylum.