Waterford to mark centenary of sinking of two merchant ships

SS Formby and SS Coningbeg torpedoed by German submarine, leaving 83 people dead

The centenary of the sinking of two merchant ships by a German submarine during the first World War, which left 83 people dead, is to be commemorated in Co Waterford.

Cllr Jason Murphy, of the Waterford Sinking Disaster Commemoration Committee, said the sinking of the SS Formby and her sister ship, the SS Coningbeg in December 1917 had a profound effect on the people in the county for decades.

"Both ships went down with all hands - 39 on the Formby and 44 on the Coningham and of the 83 people who died, 67 of them were from Waterford which at the time had a population of around 28,000 so it had a huge impact locally," he said.

“If you look at where the people came from - Alphonsus Road, Parliament Street, Roanmore Road - all these streets around the city centre - there wasn’t a person in Waterford who didn’t know someone who lost someone so the tragedy resonated right across the entire city.”


Cllr Murphy, whose granduncle, Thomas Meaney from Browne's Lane, died on the SS Coningbeg, said both ships, owned by the Clyde Shipping Company, operated between Liverpool and Waterford, bringing out cattle and returning with much-needed food.

On December 15th, 1917 the SS Formby, under the command of Capt Charles Minnards, left Liverpool and was some 30km north west of Bardsey Island off Gywnedd in Wales when she was torpedoed by U-62 under the command of Capt Ernst Hashagen.

It was assumed back in Waterford when the SS Formby failed to show up that she had sheltered from bad weather which forced a delay in the sailing of her sister ship, the SS Coningbeg. It was due to leave Liverpool on December 16th but was delayed by a day.

Poignant stories

The SS Coningbeg, under the command of Capt Joseph Lumley managed to make it some 30km south west of Bardsley Island when U-62 struck again, torpedoing the Waterford bound ship.

Cllr Murphy said that one of the most poignant stories concerns Capt Lumley, who went down on the SS Coningbeg, never knowing that his son, William, an engineer on the SS Formby, had died two days earlier.

"We began preparing for the centenary commemorations in January and we appealed for relatives of those who died to contact us and among those who did are Captain Lumley's great grandsons, Mark and David who are coming over from England with eight other members of the Lumley family."

Cllr Murphy has also made contact with the grandnephew of Capt Hashagen, Hans Hashagen who lives in Namibia with his father, also Ernst Hashagen. They are not able to travel for the weekend commemorations which begin on Friday night with a series of lectures, he said.

Author Richard McElwee, who wrote about the tragedy in The Last Voyages of the Waterford Steamers, speaks on Friday night along with maritime historian Des Griffin and Ray McGrath from Gaultier Historical Society.

"Then on Saturday, we have a Mayoral Reception at 11am, followed by an ecumenical service in Christ Church Cathedral at noon to be followed by a wreath-laying at 1pm at the memorial which was unveiled on the 75th anniversary by (former) president Mary Robinson, " Cllr Murphy said.

“The memorial is on the quays, which was where the people of Waterford waited for news of the two ships so it’s in a very appropriate spot - the sinkings were a huge part of Waterford’s folk memory for years and we’re hoping this commemoration will raise awareness of them once again.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times