NEWCASTLE Councillor Willie Clarke (Sinn Féin) has welcomed Down District Council’s backing of his motion to commemorate the 1843 Newcastle fishing disaster.
Councillor Willie Clarke said: “I am delighted Down District Council supported the motion requesting council to organise a commemoration to recognise the loss of 73 fishermen who tragically died in the greatest disaster to impact our coastal communities. 12 were lost also from Annalong.
“This great loss has never received the recognition it deserves. There has never been commemorative plaque to honour these brave souls.
”16 Fishing skiffs with crews of around six men rowed to their fishing grounds in the Irish Sea on Friday 13 January 1843. The weather conditions were good and that morning they went further out than normal, some seven miles into the channel. Suddenly a snow storm arose quickly when the wind direction changed and the sea became very rough. Many of the boats were swamped as they had already taken aboard a good catch of fish which added to the extreme danger that they faced. Desperately the men men tried to row back to safety through hurricane conditions.
“As the alarm onshore was raised, in Newcastle boats were launched to go to their assistance and these 12 brave men died in vain. Only two boats survived the storm getting back to port, the Victoria and the Brothers. 73 men perished, 46 were from the King Street area of Newcastle. One skiff had managed to get shelter in Killough harbour. This tragic event left the small tight knit fishing community with two thirds of its men-folk wiped out.
“The disaster left 27 widows, with 14 being heads of families and around 118 children were left fatherless. The watch house at the harbour was used as a temporary morgue, and even to this day, there is a great attachment to this building from local people in the harbour area.”
Councillor Willie Clarke added that a public meeting was called in Newcastle convened by the Rev. J Moore and a subscription had been called for. Local gentry, clergy and the business community contributed and in total a sum of £1016, 12 shillings and 10 and a half pence was raised, a third of which went t0 the Kilkeel fishing community to assist their losses
The cottages, known as Widow’s Row, were built for the widows and their dependents. The coastal community in King Street faced great hardship even before the disaster and slid into serious poverty afterwards, and this was made worse as the years of the Irish Famine approached around 1846-7.
In Ireland there were 5 fishermen killed in the storm, 17 in Scotland, and 154 in England. It was one of the worst fishing disasters in memory.
He said: “I grew up there in Fisherman’s Row as a child. I learned that it took seven years before the Row was finally completed for the benefit of the families and they were finally housed in the 12 cottages.
“But if the disaster was not a big enough blow for the widows and families, they were all evicted in August 1855 and this caused huge anger within the harbour community. The reason for the evictions are reported to be that one of the women acted had immorally and kept an improper house, but to evict all the tenants was quite an extreme action.”
Councillor Willie Clarke added: “I believe there has been an injustice done to the memory of the 73 men who lost their lives in the Newcastle fishing disaster of 1843. This needs to be set right. Council has the responsibility now to help honour these men in a fitting tribute.
“To my knowledge there has never been a recognition of this great loss. I believe the Council Chairperson should unveil a commemorative plaque and the event should incorporate, local faith groups, the rescue services and Fishermen’s Mission, relatives of those who lost their lives in the disaster and local people from the area. A opportunity needs to be created to allow the families and everyone else to tell the story of this event at Newcastle harbour which took place so long ago.”