Grit, Determination and Heroism
The Reverend W.J. Ancient
John Blackburn awakened with a start. "Gunfire?" he wondered. He heard it again.
Then came a pounding on the door. He leapt out of bed in the predawn darkness, pulled on his trousers and flicked the braces over each shoulder. He didn't bother with socks and didn't stop to light a lamp, but felt his way down the stairs in the blackness and opened the door.
"There's a ship on the rocks!" came a small voice out of the gloom.
He looked down. "Eddie? Did you row over here yourself? Who's firing the guns? "
"Yessir. Mr. Ryan is tryin' to wake everybody," the boy replied. "Our house is full of men from the ship, but there's a lot more still aboard. You need to come."
Passing Michael Clancy's home as he crossed Meagher's (pronounced Mar's) Island, Blackburn saw stumbling, soaking-wet men trying to cram their way into the modest house, with more straggling their way along in the snow. A quarter of an hour later, as he came over a rise, he heard his own voice exclaim, "Great Lord above! I never knew there could be a ship that big. And the bodies!"
It was early in the morning of April Fools' Day, 1873 and Blackburn was staring at the 440-foot steamship Atlantic
, heeled over on her side, with her four huge iron masts at a forty-five degree angle pointing out towards the dark sea, her stern submerged and bow jutting out of the water, covered with frantic men awaiting certain death. All the women had already perished, along with their children and husbands, and only single men and one boy from the nearly 1,000 people aboard clung to a precarious existence.
was woefully off course, and had been heading to Halifax to take on coal to ensure a safe arrival at New York. She was the second steamship built for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, an enterprising young British firm better known today as the White Star Line. The Atlantic
would be their first loss, and as Blackburn stared out he could never imagine that worse would come, for the company's greatest catastrophe still lay in the future.
Their luxury liner was aground on Meagher's Island near Lower Prospect, Nova Scotia and was on her way to becoming the worst trans-Atlantic passenger ship disaster of the nineteenth century. The Titanic
would claim the dubious honour for the twentieth century. The Atlantic
almost finished the young company but they survived it; they could not, however, get over the horrific losses of the Titanic
and her sister ship Britannic
, as an ailing White Star Line was taken over by its arch-rival Cunard in the 1920s.
was on her 19th
voyage from Liverpool to New York with about 975 people on board. Constructed of iron, she was 437 feet long, and had 4 iron masts and one funnel to service her 11 boilers. Her captain, James Williams, had decided to put in to Halifax because coal was running short after a stormy crossing and there might not be enough in the bunkers to reach New York if the weather turned nasty again. Fourteen hours after the decision to change course, the Atlantic
struck what today is called Meagher's Island at 3:15 on the morning of April 1, 1873. Within minutes the stern sank and she heeled to port and filled with water, drowning hundreds in their beds almost instantly. With land close by, some tried to swim ashore, but the huge waves and the freezing water were too much for them and almost everybody who tried ended up perishing. Some of the passengers and crew climbed up the masts, but it was the middle of the night in early spring and they were seriously exposed and poorly dressed, many still in their night clothes.
The crew managed to rig a line to a slippery rock between the ship and shore, and some of the passengers succeeded in reaching it. Blackburn and other fishermen from Lower Prospect went to work rescuing them by going out in their rowboats to the rock, fighting against time and the rising tide.
When the men from neighbouring Terence Bay arrived, many of the shipwrecked had been rescued either by jumping from the rigging into the sea near a boat and being pulled aboard, or hanging onto ropes and hauling themselves through the boiling water from the wreck to the rock and then to the shore. It was gruelling and many were lost in the effort. On shore, groups of rescued passengers were standing around shivering. Michael Clancy and his daughter Sarah Jane O'Reilly, Dennis, Kate and Agatha O'Brien, the Ryans and others were doing their best to care for the shocked passengers but there were not enough homes to shelter everyone.
By afternoon, all the living had been rescued or washed off, except a youth and a man and a woman still lashed in the rigging on the mizzenmast, sticking at a sickening angle out over the water towards the horizon. The man was John Firth, the First Officer of the Atlantic
, who had tied the woman to the mast and remained with her since before daylight. He had no choice because he could not swim. Her husband had succeeded in reaching the deck with her and their child and was helping them into the mizzen rigging, when a wave snatched the child. Captain Williams had ordered everyone to get into the fore rigging because that part of the vessel was higher and more sheltered. The young woman was too exhausted to attempt the move. She was dressed only in a thin night-gown and had tried to keep up her spirits by singing hymns but now she had expired from exhaustion and cold. The sea was swirling violently around the ship so that the boats could not venture near enough to rescue them.
Reverend William Ancient, the Anglican clergyman at Terence Bay arrived on the scene in the early afternoon, having been busy helping with the survivors and organizing those on the mainland. It looked like the rescue was over and there were no more survivors aboard, but he saw Firth and his two companions in their lonely perch out over the water, and asked why they had not been rescued.
When he got the reply that it was too rough and impossible to get in below the mizzenmast, which was sticking out of the water from a submerged part of the ship, he replied, "Give me a boat and some men; put me on board and I will get them." At first the fishermen refused because they said it would be certain death for all. The clergyman persisted, arguing that he knew exactly what to do because of his training in the Royal Navy and that he could rescue the three. He persuaded a crew, consisting of Patrick Duggan, Samuel White, James Power, John Blackburn and Joseph Slaunwhite to take him out.
When they got to the outer side of the wreck, the crew had second thoughts about attempting to put Ancient on board. The bow of the ship was out of the water while her stern was submerged and there was a lot of debris being cast around as great seas washed over the hull; the little boat was in danger of being swamped or stuck by a piece of wreckage if they ventured too close.
While they were discussing the situation, the young man jumped. They managed to pick him up and wrapped a coat around him. Ancient decided to try getting aboard in the forward part of the ship. Being still above water, it provided some shelter from the waves that were making the area around the mizzenmast so dangerous. He made it aboard and cut a rope from the rigging. By fastening it around his waist and tying it at intervals to make a lifeline, he slowly made his way aft towards Firth and the woman. When he got within hailing distance, Firth shouted that the woman was no longer alive.
Having only one person to rescue made the task ahead easier, but by no means simple. "You are an officer, are you not?" Ancient shouted back.
"Then you know how to make a bowline?"
Ancient took a turn around a davit and threw the other end of the rope up to Firth. "Now put your confidence in men and the Lord and move when I tell you," Ancient shouted. Firth got the rope tied around himself and gingerly started to climb down the ratlines. As he got lower, a tremendous wave broke over him and washed him overboard, but the rope held them both. When the next sea came Ancient hauled the sailor back on board.
Firth yelled, "O Lord, I have broken my shins! I have broken my shins!"
"Never mind your shins, Man!" called Ancient. "It is your life we are after," and he dragged the officer along the lifeline he had made. Again and again both men were buried in the great seas that came sweeping over, and only his early training as a naval seaman enabled Ancient to perform the return journey. Finally, he reached the sheltered bow and lowered Firth into the waiting boat.
The only child to survive of the many that embarked on the ill-fated Atlantic
was John Hindley. He was emigrating from England with his parents and older brother to join two married sisters in New Jersey. He had been awakened by the great noise and got up to see what was happening. The ship suddenly tipped over but he followed some men into an upper berth in the upper steerage compartment and managed to stay above the rapidly rising water. The men broke open a porthole and someone pushed the boy out and yelled at him to climb up and hang onto the ropes.
Although there were at least 138 women on board the Atlantic
not one was saved. Hardly any of them succeeded in even reaching the deck. Some were in the lifeboats that capsized and others were swept overboard with their children because they did not have the strength to hang onto the rails or the rigging. James Bateman of London had succeeded in getting his wife into the rigging, but there she died from exposure.
The next day, the Federal Government steamer Lady Head
carrying Customs officials, the Cunard steamer Delta
with newspaper reporters, and the steam tug Goliath
were sent from Halifax to bring the survivors to the city. The steamers anchored offshore while the Goliath
with lifeboats in tow went in to pick up the shipwrecked men. Most of the passengers on the Atlantic
had been from all over Europe emigrating to the United States and soon they were on board—dressed in borrowed clothes from the locals, who had very little themselves to provide. Many without shoes and stockings had their feet tied up with wisps of straw and old pieces of cloth. They were so bruised and sore from their ordeal that they were scarcely able to stand. One man had both legs broken.
On April 3rd the tug Hoover
left Halifax towing the schooner Amateur
, loaded with 200 coffins and lumber for building more. Aboard the Hoover
were some who had come to Halifax to identify dead relatives. Lying in rows on the rocks were 152 bodies recovered from the sea—men in heavy seaman's clothes , women in dresses torn to rags in the waves, children covered with sailcloth. Those identified by Captain Williams or Third Officer Cornelius Brady were placed in coffins and taken to Halifax on the tug. The other bodies were examined by the magistrates, and those unidentified or unclaimed were placed in coffins in long trenches for burial. Cunard's Halifax office, which was acting as agent for the White Star Line, sent down extra picks and shovels, along with gravediggers to help the men of Lower Prospect and Terence Bay. An ox-team slowly wound its way up from the water with its load of rough pine coffins.
Rev. Ancient read the service before a large common grave near the ocean below his church while the villagers and a few visitors from Halifax gathered by. The Protestants were buried in the little cemetery at Terence Bay while the Roman Catholics were interred at Lower Prospect. The Canadian Parliament voted $3,000 to pay expenses pertaining to the burial of bodies from the wreck and for rewarding those involved.
William Johnson Ancient, the man responsible for John Firth's redemption, was a native of Lincolnshire, England, who had joined the Royal Navy, serving on HMS Mars from 1859 to 1863, and was posted to Halifax as a scripture reader. Later he studied for the Anglican ministry and was ordained a deacon in 1867 by Bishop Hibbert Binney and sent as a missionary by the Colonial and Continental Church Society to Harrietsfield and Terence Bay and Lower Prospect. It was a poor and scattered parish, but Mr. Ancient was a seaman who understood the fishermen and sailors who largely composed his parish and was respected by them for his personal bravery and reliability. Fog, reefs and waves did not intimidate him as he travelled the rocky coast in a small boat visiting families in remote coves or walking for miles along narrow muddy trails to bring God's word to those in the forest.
In 1868 when Ancient had come to the "Terns Bay Mission" as it was called, he found the church building half-completed. His congregation came up with twenty dollars and promised more in the fall should the fishery be successful. With an additional forty dollars from friends in Halifax, he bought a stove and other supplies to finish the little church. School was held in a "small place about fourteen feet by twelve, situated under a hayloft, with an average attendance of thirty to forty children." Mr. Ancient and J. R. Miller, the School Inspector for Halifax County, called a meeting of the parents, who raised forty-two dollars and promised to donate their labour towards putting up a new school building.
Ancient ministered to around 200 church members scattered throughout five communities—Terence Bay, Lower Prospect, Harrietsfield, Brookside, and Sambro. He organized a choir and subscribed to magazines such as "Sunday At Home", and "Our Own Fireside," which he allowed church members to borrow. He was ordained a priest in 1872. In a report to his missionary society, he described the sorts of challenges he faced with his calling: "Yesterday I had a wedding and a funeral at Sambro and did not get back until this morning, owing to the strong N.W. wind. I fear I took a bad cold at the grave as I feel very poorly today—cold chills, headache and blistered hands from rowing. I have been across the Bay three times this week and feel anything but in good condition for writing."
Ancient's bravery in rescuing Firth from the rigging caught the imagination of the world. The Chicago Relief Committee sent a magnificent watch to the clergyman (displayed at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax) and a sum of money to be distributed to the rescuers. They also remembered some of the young women who had been so kind to the shipwrecked passengers as they sent a gold locket and chain and twenty pounds sterling to Mrs. Sarah Jane O'Reilly and a gold locket and chain and ten pounds sterling each to the Misses Agatha and Kate O'Brien. Funds were raised in Boston and eighty dollars sent to be distributed among deserving families of Lower Prospect who had rendered service to shipwrecked passengers.
W. B. Christian of Prospect (who had recovered the body and property of W. H. Merritt ) was presented by the dead man's relatives with a silver medal made by J. B. Bennett of Halifax. Michael Clancy, who lived on the small island that the Atlantic
struck and was indispensable in saving lives and property, never put in a claim for recompense. When J. B. Morrow, of the firm of S. Cunard and company, was in England in 1874 he obtained a sum of two hundred dollars for Mr. Clancy from the White Star Line.
On October 8th, 1873 when Lieutenant-Governor Sir Adams Archibald presented Mr. Ancient with a gold watch and a check for five hundred dollars for his gallant conduct, Mr. Ancient himself praised the bravery, endurance and humanity of the men of Lower Prospect in their efforts to save life and added that he was simply doing his duty.
Ancient filled a number of positions within the Nova Scotia church, including assistant curate at Trinity Church in Halifax and secretary - treasurer of the Anglican Diocese of Nova Scotia. From about 1880 to 1890 he ministered in Hants County at Rawdon, Lakelands and Uniacke Mines. In 1890 he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Kings College in Halifax.
This beloved clergyman died at his home on Smith Street in Halifax on July 20, 1908 at the age of seventy - four. He left a widow and three married daughters.