Maritime Cork: The story of the mutiny on board the Leicester Castle

Maritime Cork: The story of the mutiny on board the Leicester Castle
The Leicester Castle arrived into Cork in 1902 having survived a mutiny on board. Pic: State Library of Australia.

The full-rigged ship, Leicester Castle, arrived in Cork Harbour on December 5, 1902 with a cargo of grain, en route to Liverpool from San Francisco.

The pilot cutter went out to guide her into port and discovered that the ship’s Master, Captain R.D. Peattie, a Scotsman, had survived a mutiny, was on deck still in command and had four bullets in his body!

When Captain Peattie landed at Queenstown, as Cobh was then named, he was described as “a marvel, having survived being shot four times, with bullets lodged in his chest.” 

He reported to the Royal Irish Constabulary that three men who joined his ship’s crew at San Francisco had shot up his ship, killed one of his officers and he had been shot and battered about the head.

The mutineers were identified as 27-year-old W.A.Hobbs and Ernest Spears and James Turner, both 21. All three were American and had been signed onto the crew which was short-handed when leaving San Francisco.

“They were shipped at a time when sailors were scarce and we had to take what men were offered, without regard to previous checks of character,” according to the Captain. During the voyage, they had kept themselves away from the rest of the crew.

The 2,000-ton Leicester Castle was known in the shipping world as an able and happy ship and passage-maker under Captain Beattie, so what had happened shocked the maritime world at the time. 

The story that unfolded was that the vessel was 300 nautical miles north of the Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean when, at night, Hobbs stole a gun from the cabin of Second Officer Nixon. At that time weapons were carried by officers aboard ship for protection of their vessel. Sears entered the sleeping Captain’s cabin, telling him there was an emergency on deck where a crewman had been injured. 

When Captain Peattie got out of bed to investigate, Hobbs also entered the cabin, with the gun. The Captain grappled with him and was shot, then battered about the head.

Alerted by the gunshots and shouting, Nixon arrived and was shot dead with his own weapon. As the Mate of the vessel and other crew arrived on the scene, Hobbs and Sears ran from the saloon and, in the darkness, towards the bow of the ship.

“A scene from hell,” was how the Captain’s cabin, lit only by a swinging lamp, was described to the police. Nixon was dying in the companionway, the Captain lay in his own blood, surrounded by broken furniture, the deck and bulkheads of the panelled saloon spattered in blood.

The Mate and crew decided to wait for daylight before going forward to find the mutineers. There was a hiatus for a while in the darkness, the ship with sail up ghosting along in a light wind and on a flat sea. Then shouting was heard from the starboard side and the three mutineers were seen on a raft they had apparently previously made and stocked with water and supplies. 

The three had got away from the ship and, from the raft, shouted abusive language, cursing about ‘limejuice ships’ (taken as an apparent reference to British-owned vessels) and shouting ‘hurrah for the American flag.’ They were never seen again.

Peattie declined suggestions that the ship should put into Valparaiso for medical attention. “I was in a very bad state, with bullets in my body and my scalp terribly broken and bleeding profusely,” he told the RIC in Cobh. Able Seaman Brennan, who had been an ambulanceman in the Boer War, attended to his wounds, the ship rounded Cape Horn and headed towards Ireland.

After reporting the mutiny, the Leicester Castle left Cork Harbour, resuming her journey to Liverpool and delivered her cargo of grain. Captain Peattie had completed his job.

The story disappeared, like the mutineers, from the news headlines.

Investigations never revealed why it happened. One theory was that the three mutineers were escaping from America for some other reason and thought they could reach Pitcairn Island, where the mutineers from the Bounty had gone and so acted when they heard the ship was nearing the islands.

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