The Last Voyage of the Barque ‘Cuba’. Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, 10th November 1869 the 478 ton USA Barque ‘Cuba’, en route from New York to Dublin with a cargo of wheat, was battling a north-westerly gale of force 8 to 9 in the Irish Sea. The Master and part owner was Captain Arthur Prince from Thomaston, Maine, USA. He was accompanied by his wife Victoria Margaret Prince and their children Jennie Case Prince, aged 3, and Arthur Victor Prince, aged 6. The vessel’s crew made up the remaining thirteen on board.
The vessel had already been at sea for 54 days battling the Atlantic and had spent the last four trying to get into the safety of Dublin Harbour. However this was not to be and she was being steadily driven across the Irish Sea towards the Welsh coast. With dark skies, raging seas and very limited visibility Captain Prince decided to give up trying for Dublin and to make for the safety of Holyhead’s Harbour of Refuge. However he had not been to the port before. He consulted his charts with the Chief Mate after passing the South and North Stacks but neither of them seemed familiar with the approach to the harbour and possibly knew very little of the breakwater.
The Great Holyhead Breakwater commenced construction in 1845 and in 1869 was nearing completion. It would be formally opened by the Prince of Wales in 1873. The breakwater snaked across Holyhead Bay for one and three-quarters of a mile. Incorporating two bends, it formed a large Harbour of Refuge. It was built on a stone mound comprising 7 million tons of rock quarried from Holyhead Mountain (Mynydd Twr). The greater quantity of stone was deposited on the seaward side of the great wall resulting, at certain states of the tide, an accessible beach of large and slippery boulders. In 1869 the lighthouse was yet to be built but a red navigation light was located at the end to warn shipping and to indicate to ship’s captains when to round the breakwater to enter the harbour. There was no other lights on the breakwater.
The Tragedy. At approximately 6pm a small number of onlookers saw the barque heading for the breakwater and immediately realised that she and those on board were in immediate danger. The ‘Cuba’ struck the breakwater at the first bend. Thomas Jones from Back Bath Street, Waterside, Holyhead was one of those who saw the barque strike. He sent a boy to summon the Coastguard and he and two other men went down to the beach to provide help. At Holyhead Captain Robert Hughes of the schooner ‘Holyhead Trader’ together with John Davies, master of the ‘Grace Phillip’ of Porthdinllaen had also seen the tragedy unfold. They with some other men rowed over to the inner wall of the breakwater and with the use of ropes reached the stricken ship stranded on the outer wall.
They had previously shouted to the crew on board the barque to keep the sails set to steady the vessel but this advice was either not heard or misunderstood and the Captain ordered the mainmast and mizzen mast to be cut away. This caused the ‘Cuba’ to heal over to seaward resulting in powerful waves breaking over the deck washing away the deck cabin and all those on board.
The efforts of the rescuers were rewarded by the saving of five of the crew. They waded into the sea to bring ashore those struggling to reach safety. Unfortunately the ship’s captain, his family and the remaining four crew were washed away and beyond help. The survivors were brought to Captain Rigby’s house at Soldiers’ Point and cared for there. The bodies of those lost were later recovered, some after a few days. Both the Lifeboat and Coastguard had set out to render assistance but could do nothing to help once the vessel had become deluged and the occupants thrown into the water.
The Inquest. During the inquest held soon after the tragedy the surviving crew were questioned about how the vessel came to be stranded. Seaman Samuel McFee had been to Holyhead five years previously. He knew of the breakwater and the red navigation light but assumed that the captain was aware of this and able to enter the harbour safely and did not pass this information to him. He believed that Captain Prince may have become confused by two strong lights at the shore end of the breakwater causing him to adopt a course that led the barque to strike the breakwater.
The Funeral of Captain Prince, his wife (named in the Burial Records as Catherine), and two of the crew took place on Saturday, 13 November at Maeshyfred Cemetery, Holyhead. It was attended by Captain Rigby and the American Consul, Captain R R Jones. The five surviving crew members were the chief mourners. The flag draped hearse was accompanied by many of the town’s seafarers and prominent citizens.The bodies of the remaining crew and the two children were found some days later and were also interred in the cemetery. The two children were then placed at rest with their parents.
The Prince Family of Thomaston, Maine, USA. Arthur Prince was born at Thomaston, Maine on 4 May 1830. His father Hezekiah Prince and his grandfather, also Hezekiah, were both very prominent citizens and businessmen of the town. His grandfather built many of the houses and churches in this area of Maine. Both were Customs Collectors of the port. At this time Thomaston (population about 3,000) was a thriving town with many successful businesses, mostly around shipbuilding. The census of 1840 recorded seven millionaires in the USA. Three of these were Sea Captains residing at Thomaston, having made their money from maritime trade and shipbuilding.
Arthur Prince went to sea at the age of 14 as a Cabin Boy. He gained experience and responsibility and became, by all accounts, a very able and sucessful ship’s captain. For a time he left the sea and eventually went into the insurance business. He married Victoria Margaret Harrinton of nearby Rockland in April 1856. A son, Frank Dwight Prince, was born in May 1858. A further son, Arthur Victor Prince, in August 1863 and a daughter, Jennie Case Prince, was born in September 1866. In March 1868 Arthur and Victoria Prince divorced but then remarried in November of the same year at Boston. Arthur was then employed as an Insurance Agent.
In 1869 he returned to the sea and took command of the Cuba, a three-masted barque built at Franklin, Maine in 1866. It is believed that he was part owner of the vessel. In August 1869 the Cuba arrived at New York from Havana, Cuba. Whilst at Havana six of the crew were admitted to hospital suffering from Yellow Fever. Two of them subsequently died. Sadly on the voyage to New York Captain Prince’s eldest son, Frank Dwight Prince, also succumed to the disease, aged 11. The Cuba left New York on 16 September 1869 bound for Dublin with a cargo of wheat, comprising 8,908 bags to the value of £3,000 (worth close to £500k in today’s money).
Two weeks after the tragedy the remains of the Cuba and its cargo was auctioned at Holyhead. William Williams, Builder and Contractor of Tanyrefail, Holyhead succeeded in obtaining the cargo of wheat for the sum of £283. There was doubt expressed at the time whether this would end up as a good deal for William Williams. It is interesting to note that he was the contractor who went on to build the lighthouse at the end of the breakwater. It is this lighthouse that now helps mariners navigate a safe entry into Holyhead’s Harbour of Refuge.
The Heroes. Each of the four Holyhead boatmen who waded into the crashing waves to rescue the Cuba’s crew members were rightly recognised for their bravery by the award of the Royal Humane Society ‘Bronze Medal’ – Thomas Jones, Lewis Thomas, Thomas Roberts and John Roberts. It would be good to know where these medals are now.
The Holyhead Breakwater was built to offer a much needed Harbour of Refuge to the many ships sailing the Irish Sea. Its presence undoutably helped save many mariner’s lives. However in this instance, and also in at least 3 other recorded instances, the breakwater itself became a significant contributor to tragedy.
The wreck of the Cuba and in particular the loss of the Prince family is not a well known story. It appeared through a search in records regarding another subject. The finding of the grave at Maeshyfryd and its simple wording adds much poignancy to the story. The gravestone now lies flat among many unmarked graves. Someone took the trouble to mark their final resting place and by doing so resulted in someone else, so many years later, to ask the question – I wonder what’s the story here?
Contributed by the Editor.
© Holyhead Maritime Museum.
Painting of the Barque ‘St. Andrew’ by William Gay Yorke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The photograph of the breakwater in storm conditions is included with the kind permission of Holyhead photographer, Alan Jones.
Information of the Prince family, including the images of both Hezekiah Princes, is from research completed by Anna Kavalec of Maine, USA.
Information relating to the wreck of the Cuba is from online searches of newpapers.
Excellent article. I believe that Thomas Jones (1840-1890), a seaman of Bath Street, Holyhead was my great, great grandfather. The Roberts family and the Jones family were neighbours and close associates in Waterside down the generations. I didn’t know that Thomas had won the RHS medal as, from my research, the account of the rescue in the North Wales Chronicle (only 10 days after the event) dealt specifically with the details of the rescue. It’s good to add that to my knowledge – thanks. Sadly I have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the medal. Thomas’s daughter Jane Jones later married Lewis Jones (hence my middle name) the second cox on the steam lifeboat the ‘Duke of Northumberland’ who was one of those awarded the RNLI Silver Medal in 1908 for helping with the rescue of the crew of the SS Harold.
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A very interesting read , I had never heard of the tragic loss of the barque Cuba. I have a map of the shipwrecks on the N Wales coast and there is no mention of it.
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Thanks you for sharing this heart-rending story. The loss of children at sea always feels so deeply tragic.
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Thank you for sharing ,very interesting but sad story.
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