March 1, 1854 was just another departure date for the Inman Line's SS City of Glasgow. She sailed from Liverpool bound for Philadelphia just like she had for the last four years. For the 480 on board, including 293 emigrants, the City of Glasgow was the vessel that would take them into the Atlantic and on to their final reward.
The City of Glasgow was built by Tod & McGregor in Glasgow in 1850. She was built on "spec" and was operated by Tod & McGregor for her first four voyages. She was also the first ocean going passenger ship built by Tod utilizing a screw propeller. David Tod had built a screw powered yacht named Vesta for William Inman in 1848 and at first was not interested in building screw ships preferring paddle steamers but, perhaps being impressed with the performance of the Vesta, Tod decided to build the new ship with screw propulsion.
The City of Glasgow was also the first Atlantic steamship that was designed to carry emigrants. Up to this time the big trans-Atlantic steamship companies did not have a "steerage" class because it was thought unprofitable and even unsafe to carry large numbers of emigrants in their ships. It must be noted that the trans-Atlantic steamship companies were built for one thing, and it wasn't passengers, it was the mail. It was timely delivery of the mail and the lucrative contracts that it brought with them that built the great "North Atlantic Seaway". The ships were, from the outset, designed to specifications that had to conform to the mail delivery schedule as per the contract, and nothing else.
Passengers were just an afterthought and emigrants not thought of at all. William Inman was among those who were apprehensive about carrying emigrants. He later stated that it was the fear that a fire would be started by someone below decks and destroy the ship. He was thinking about the Ocean Monarch disaster of August 1848 in which between 200 and 400 people died when the ship caught fire and sank off Great Ormes Head near Liverpool. It is thought an emigrant started the fire while cooking food for dinner.
The firm of Tod & McGregor built the ship rapidly and to their own design. Since they built it on their own account they had no owner to argue with about the ships characteristic or design, they could built her as they wanted to. She is described as looking quite attractive with a clipper bow, rounded stern and three masts rigged for sail (should the engines fail). Iron hulled she was 237' long with a beam of 34' and was registered at 1,609 tons. The passenger accommodations were 52 in first class, 58 in second and 400 in steerage. After Inman bought the ship in 1850 these were changed to 130 cabin and 400 third.
Her maiden voyage was made on April 15, 1850 from Glasgow to New York and her operation was watched closely by Inman. Since the ship performed well Inman arranged to buy the ship in partnership with the Richardson Brothers, his employer at the time. The Richardson Brothers were linen exporters from Liverpool and had for some time been operating sailing packets taking their merchandise from England to New York and Philadelphia. William Inman was in charge of this part of the business. The fact that they held no mail contract may have played a large roll in the decision to carry emigrant traffic and the Irish potato famine was providing vast amounts of humanity fleeing to the new world.
Inman was opposed to this as stated before but, John Richardson, the senior partner insisted. Of course his opinion was final and Inman relented. However to reassure himself he booked passage for himself and his wife on the City of Glasgow for a voyage to Philadelphia. Along with 400 emigrants they arrived safely in Philadelphia and Inman had, by now, changed his mind.
The miserable experience of crossing the Atlantic in a sailing packet, which took up to five weeks, was reduced to two with the advent of the screw ship and emigrants filled the ships of the Inman line, between 300 and 400 every voyage. The food and accommodations were better but, not great by any means. The people in steerage, who were not accustomed to much to begin with, often got what they expected. They were given the cheapest food possible and did not require much attention from the ship's staff. They could be put in small rooms filled with bunks and therefore took up much less space than those in first or second class. It was these people who made the Inman line a success.
The City of Glasgow carried thousands of Irish emigrants to America in the four years she operated on the north Atlantic and was to all accounts a popular ship. But after leaving Liverpool on March 1, 1854 she was never seen again. To this day what really happened to her is unknown. In those days there was no way to communicate between Europe and America (the trans-Atlantic cable was not laid until 1866). So the only way for the ship's owners to know if a ship had arrived was to receive a report from another ship. In early April, over five weeks after she sailed, there was no word of her. The Liverpool office of the Richardson Brothers even released a statement that they were not concerned about the ship and that she had provisions for up to seventy days if they were used prudently. They believed, or at least they said, they thought she was locked in the ice somewhere off Newfoundland. The statement ended with "We ourselves feel no anxiety for her safety." Surely however, they did.
It was not unheard of for a ship in those days to have to dock somewhere in the Azores or Nova Scotia with mechanical problems and have no way to communicate their plight. But even under those conditions other ships were alerted and delivered the news when they arrived. No such word was ever received about the City of Glasgow. In late April the Baldaur arrived at Queenstown with a report that they had, on April 21, seen a paddle ship in distress in mid ocean. By the time they could get to the ship she had vanished and there was only debris in the water. The sighting, was most likely not the City of Glasgow since she was not a sidewheeler but, at a distance the yellow deckhouse "could" have been mistaken for a paddle box.
For weeks reports continued to arrive at the office of William Inman. Some reported survivors landing on the African coast while others surmised that Pirates had done away with the ship. None turned out to be true. One of the last reports came from the Mary Morris, a bark from Glasgow. They had found a iron hull floating derelict some 250 miles west of Ireland. The ship had been burned out and positive identification was not possible. The figurehead was removed and brought back to port. On inspection it was determined that the ship was not the City of Glasgow.
In May William Inman finally admitted that the ship was lost with all on board. It was the first loss of the line and one of the worst disasters on the north Atlantic to date. However since she just vanished there was not as much press coverage. Since there was nobody left to tell the tale, unlike the loss of the Arctic in which fewer lives were lost but, those who did survive told stories of horror, kept the press enticed for far longer.
The loss of 480 lives was not the greatest disaster on the century but it was one of the worst.
© 2006 Michael W. Pocock