Monday, February 28, 2011

The Pigeon House

I was reading the Glasgow Herald of 30 May 1806 the other day - "Why?", I hear you ask. The answer is because I can. You can read nearly every single edition of the Herald all the way back to 1806 for free via the Google News Archive function. I say "nearly every edition" because the late 1990s and early 2000s are Pay-per-View and even before then there seem to be a small random percentage of editions missing. But even so, it's an amazing archive to have access to for free. (Contrast the Scotsman which costs £159.95 for a year's access to their 1817-1950 archive.)

Anyway, in the edition of 30 May 1806, there was a report of the sort of crime you'd expect to see reported in 1806 - a mail coach being held up by highwaymen!

It happened just outside Dublin and the full story is as follows:-

Wednesday last, about a quarter past ten, the long coach which conveys passengers from the Mail coach office, Dawson Street, Dublin, to the packets at the Pidgeon-house, was stopped by ten or more persons armed with blunderbusses, pistols, and swords, at the other side of the Canal bridge, near a Limekiln, at the Low Ground, who robbed all the passengers, about seven or eight in number. 

They first called out to the coach-man to stop; who not immediately obeying their mandate, one of the villains made several cuts at him with a sword, which the driver luckily warded off with his whip. The villains obliged the passengers to come from the carriage, and rifled them as they came out, commanding them to turn their faces to a wall that was near, immediately after plundering them, that they should not have an opportunity of observing their persons. Lord Cahir, and Mr George Latouche were two of the passengers; from his Lordship they took about £400 and it is said 70 guineas from Mr. L. They robbed the other passengers of money, and also off some light packages from them; a small box which contained some of their articles, was found yesterday at the Commons of Kilmainham, to which place it is supposed they retired after the robbery, by going up the Circular-road, to divide the spoil. One of the persons in the Long Coach, we understand, they somewhat maltreated, because he did not readily submit to their depredations. The villains, we are informed, had rather a better appearance than might be expected of such offenders.

Hah! So blackguards and scoundrels they may have been but at least they were gentlemen highwaymen!

But as well as the report of a real life highway robbery, what piqued my interest was the coach's destination - "the packets, at the Pidgeon-house".

This means the coach was taking passengers from the centre of Dublin to the terminal for "the packets" - in effect the ferry service to Great Britain in the days before steamships. This was at a spot called the Pigeon House half way out along The Great South Wall which is the southern arm of the two great breakwaters enclosing the mouth of Dublin harbour on the River Liffey to protect it from the shifting sand banks of Dublin Bay.

It was called the Pigeon House because it was at this spot that, in the 1760s, John Pidgeon started selling refreshments to passengers waiting for the packets from a storehouse used in connection with the construction of the Great South Wall he was the caretaker of. In 1793, a hotel for packet travellers was built on the spot and this building still exists despite the site having been converted to a military fort and then a power station.

In the picture below, the former Pigeon House Hotel is the Georgian building on the left. The power station is now called Poolbeg but the road out to it from Dublin is still called Pigeon House Road.
But highwaymen on the way to the Pigeon House were probably less of a risk than "the packets" themselves as another story from the Glasgow Herald in 1806 graphically illustrates.

The edition of 26 September includes "interesting particulars" of the loss of the King George Packet from Parkgate (on the west coast of the Wirral on the estuary of the River Dee in Cheshire, a port long since silted up) to Dublin on a sandbank just an hour and a half into her journey.

The report suggests that running aground on the sandbank was an event which, if not exactly routine, was one about which "no apprehensions were then entertained" and it was just a case of waiting for the tide to refloat the ship. The problems seem to have stemmed from a change of wind direction which blew the ship onto its own anchor as it began to refloat and punctured its hull causing it to flood.

As the tide came in, she filled rapidly with water; the night was dark, with rain. Her passengers, mostly Irish harvest-men, about one hundred in number, who were going home with pittances of their labours to their families, were under hatches. The pumps were soon choaked, and the water came fast on the Irishmen in the hold, that they drew their large harvest pocket knives, and with a desperation that a dread of death alone inspires, slew one another to make their way upon deck.

The story goes on to report how the captain and "an Irish gentleman" abandoned ship in the ship's boat but thought better of it and went back on board. Others remained in the boat whereupon:-

One of the sailors in the boat, seeing a poor Irish sailor boy clinging to the side of the vessel, pulled him by the hair of the head into the boat, cut the rope that fastened it to the vessel, and the tide drove them away. At this time great numbers ran screaming up the mast; a woman with her child fastened to her back, was at the top mast head; the mast broke, the vessel being on her side, and they were all precipitated into the waves! Only five men and the poor Irish sailor boy have escaped; the remainder, one hundred and twenty five in number, among whom were seven cabin passngers, perished!

The "cabin passengers" were the gentry, exactly the sort of people who would have been on the coach to the Pigeon House held up by the highwaymen and it's all worth giving a thought to next time you board Stena Line's complimentary bus service from Dublin city centre to Dublin Port (on the north side of the Liffey almost directly opposite the Pigeon House) to get on a superferry to Holyhead.

Photo credit Peter Griffin


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