By Ian Cooper first published as part of his series RECORDS OF A BYGONE AGE in The Stronsay Limpet and kindly republished here with permission.
There is quite an intriguing story behind the stranding and loss of the 215 ton Canadian three-masted barque Agil almost 150 years ago and the events which followed.
The Agil was built in Norway in 1808 and, after being driven ashore in Charlottetown Harbour in Prince Edward Island in October 1876, she was condemned and sold. In May of the following year, she was repaired and restored to the registry, nearly seventy years after she was built, she would have been quite an old lady in ship terms.
On the 28th September 1877, the Agil left Copenhagen under ballast with a crew of eight bound for Charlottetown, the home of her owners. She proceeded uneventfully on her voyage until the 3rd October, when she encountered a gale from the NNW which caused her to labour and to make some water. By first reports, she put into Kirkwall Bay but, instead of remaining there in comparative safety, she left immediately, and stood off to the eastward. Shortly after that a pilot offered assistance but was rejected and the vessel was kept sailing about amongst the islands some time until she ran ashore on the Little Green Holm.
She lay there in comparative safety and the crew were able to sleep aboard her but the next day a gale blew up from the west and the Agil broke her moorings, drifting across the Stronsay Firth to Rothiesholm Head on Stronsay where she quickly became a total wreck. Before she had become a complete loss however, the ship had been inspected by representatives of the Board of Trade who had discovered that a number of holes had recently been bored beneath the waterline of the vessel and they expressed their concerns that this had contributed to her loss.
These concerns were to lead to a Board of Trade Inquiry in Aberdeen into her loss the following month where her Canadian Captain, 60 year old Henry Bennet, was called to account and charged:
“that he is responsible for the loss of the ship Agil, which occurred by his wrongful act or default in refraining from taking any measures whatever for the safety of said vessel after he found that she was in a dangerous condition.”.
The evidence of the Captain was heard, describing firstly how he had mistaken the Stronsay Firth for the Pentland Firth and that, being unsure of his location, could find no safe harbour in the vicinity, nor anywhere that his ship could safely be beached. He then went on to say that, with five feet of water in the hold and the pumps choked, he was forced to run the ship ashore for the safety of the vessel and crew. When questioned regarding the holes found in the hull of the ship, he explained how he had bored these holes below the waterline from the outside of the hull as the ship lay ashore on her beam ends, with the intention that the water in the ship could drain out. He denied that he had been offered the services of a pilot or any offer of assistance when ashore on the Green Holm. Members of the ship’s crew were also called as witnesses and there was apparently some contradictions and confusion among them as to how events had unfolded. Strong doubt was soon to be cast on whether the ship was, in fact, in an unsafe condition and in grave danger of foundering as described by the Captain!
Evidence obtained from a number of other witnesses seemed to contradict much of what the captain and crew had related. The captain of the large passenger steamer St Nicholas related that they had passed within two ship’s lengths of the Agil as she went through the Stronsay Firth and was adamant that she was sailing well, with no evidence of her being waterlogged. The captain of another ship, the sloop Catherine, gave evidence that his ship had passed close by the Agil and was hailed by her for details of their location. The Agil subsequently followed her down the String into Kirkwall Bay where she tacked a couple of times before heading off east and back into the Stronsay Firth. He and the captain of another ship in the bay at the time stated that there was no reason why the Agil couldn’t have anchored safely in the bay or requested the services of a pilot to guide her to Kirkwall Harbour. A local fisherman then reported that they had seen the Agil ashore on the Green Holm that evening and had offered assistance which was declined. He had returned the next day with the local Lloyd’s agent where they found the crew and all their possessions ashore on the Holm, where they had erected a tent to stay the night and they appeared to be amusing themselves on the island. They also observed some chafing on the port side of the ship and a hole on the starboard quarter but once again, when assistance was declined.
A number of those witnesses also passed comment that, if the ship had been in imminent danger, there were numerous bays and inlets where the ship could safely have been beached for repair. A shipwright and a shipbuilder from Stromness then gave evidence, recounting how they had been asked by the Receiver of Wrecks to accompany him to Stronsay to examine a vessel, the Agil, which was previously stranded on the little Green Holm but had drifted across the Stronsay Firth to take shore again on Rothiesholm Head in Stronsay. This they did on the 16th of October and stated that they had found eight holes of various diameters and depths in the hull of the ship below water level, one of which was bored right through the hull. They both agreed that these holes had been made at a recent date from inside the ship’s hull and it would not have been possible to bore any of these from the outside of the hull as described by Captain Bennet. They had also examined the ship’s two pumps and found them both to be working satisfactorily. They also reported that, after being battered by a gale the day before as she lay on the Stronsay shore, the ship was by then in poor condition and had become a complete wreck soon after their examination.
The inquiry went on for several days and concern was expressed by the Sheriff at the unsatisfactory way the captain and most of the crew gave their evidence. He also noted that the Ship’s Log:
“was disgracefully kept, in many particulars defective, and even bore the trace of having been tampered with before being laid on the table of the Court.”
Any tampering with a ship’s log would, in itself, have been a serious crime.
In giving his judgment, the Sheriff then went on to state that, if the evidence given by Captain Bennet was to be believed, then he:
“knew that his pumps were choked, and that water was gaining upon him; that in these circumstances, especially as he was unacquainted with the islands and had no detailed chart, neglected to use every endeavour to discover how he could most expeditiously place his ship in a place of safety, where she could be examined, and, if possible, repaired; that it had been shown in evidence that he had neglected or failed to avail himself of any such means, notwithstanding that had been offered assistance by fishing boats, and had opportunities of procuring assistance or information from at least two vessels; that he had not anchored in Kirkwall Bay when he ought to have done, or beached his vessel on any of the numerous smooth, safe, and sandy beaches amongst the islands, which he might and could easily have done if he had wished to save the vessel; and that after tacking and beating for several hours, and rejecting offers of assistance and neglecting opportunities of beaching the ship safely, he deliberately ran the vessel ashore on a rocky uninhabited island, from which she subsequently drifted to another island, and became wreck.”
The decision of the inquiry was that Captain Bennet should be stripped of his Master’s licence and, due to the serious nature of the case, criminal proceedings should be instigated against him.
Soon after the conclusion of the inquiry, on 29th November of that year, Bennet was apprehended by the police and subsequently brought before the Sheriff where he was formally charged with:
“having wilfully, wickedly, and feloniously destroyed a ship or vessel, the property of another”,
an extremely serious charge which was still a capital crime at that time, and he was committed to prison pending further investigation.
On 28th January the following year (1878) Bennet was released on bail of £60 until a trial date could be set. Although there is little doubt that the ship was deliberately run ashore in as inappropriate a spot as it was possible to find, it appears that it would be extremely difficult to prove without doubt that this was a deliberate act of sabotage by the captain. Consequently, in February of that year, the Crown Authorities, after reviewing the evidence, instructed the Procurator Fiscal not to proceed with the case thus bringing to an end a tale of which the full story will never be known.