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Latitude 50° 19.046 N
Longitude 004° 07.583 W
Depth 9m
Accuracy 5m, scattered
Location Description Shagstone
Seabed type Rock, sand
Burial extent Partial
Site energy Mid energy
Exposure Submerged
Integrity Scattered
Craft type Steam cargo ship
Date built 1871
Date of loss 1888
Manner of loss Wrecked
Outcome Abandoned
Construction Iron
Propulsion Steam / Sail
Nationality United Kingdom
Departure port Antwerp, Belgium
Destination port Plymouth
Hull length 63m
Hull beam 9.2m
Hull draft 5.2m
Hull displacement 879 tons
Armament none.
Built A & J Inglis, Glasgow
Master Henry Farquhar Holt
Owners Bristol Steam Navigation Company

Constance

The Constance was a screw steam cargo ship, registered in Bristol, that went ashore on the Shagstone while on a voyage from Antwerp to Plymouth on 20 January 1888.

The Constance was launched on 9th December 1871, built of iron by A & J Inglis at the Pointhouse shipyard in Glasgow for Malcolms and Co., Glasgow, yard number 91 and official number 63866.  A & J Inglis, Ltd. was founded by Anthony and John Inglis before being sold to Harland and Wolff in 1919, finally closing in 1962.  Inglis built over 500 ships including Clyde steamers, paddle steamers and small ocean liners and small warships.  Notable ships built by Inglis include the paddle steamer Waverley and the Norman Court, a clipper wrecked on Anglesey that became a well known dive site in the area.  

Constance had a length of 208 ft 3 tenths (63m), breadth 30 ft 3.5 tenths (9.2m) and a depth of hold of 17 ft 1 tenth (5.2m), 879 gross tons and 563 net tons.  The Constance had a single deck, a poop deck, two masts that were schooner rigged, a round stern and straight stem, a top gallant forecastle for the lookout, 4 cemented bulkheads and a partial double bottom.  Constance was fitted with two compound direct acting engines with a combined power of 98 h.p. that was built by Inglis, the ship’s builders.  In 1873 the Constance was sold to the Bristol Steam Navigation Company for £16000 and was used for shipping cargoes between Dutch ports, Antwerp and Bristol and would stop at Plymouth on each voyage.

Captain Henry Farquhar Holt had been the master of the Constance since March 1887 and the master of a number of other vessels in the Bristol Steam Navigation Company fleet for 7 years.  The Constance had a crew of fifteen including the captain, the chief officer James Callaway, the second officer was William Baker, the chief engineer Thomas Rees, along with a second engineer, four able seamen, four firemen to work the boilers, a carpenter and a steward.

The company that ran the ship had not looked after her well.  Of her three original navigation compasses only two remained and neither had been calibrated in some time.  The original complement of the ship had been 20 but this had been reduced to just 15 some years before her loss.  The engine room telegraph was faulty so orders from the bridge often had to be checked by sending up a messenger to find out what was required, the captain had requested a new telegraph but as this would be expensive the ship superintendent refused and didn’t even repair the existing one.  All of these factors were to contribute to her loss on the Shagstone rock on the east side of Plymouth Sound.

On 16th January 1888 the Constance was at Antwerp in Belgium taking on 550 tons of general cargo; hides, spelter (zinc or zinc alloy), cases of wine glasses and casks of oil.  The cargo also included 13 tons of iron girders in the hold and 3 tons of girders on deck, a mass of magnetic iron only 20 ft (6m) from the main steering compass.   Constance left Antwerp on 19th bound for Plymouth then Bristol in moderate conditions, cold and frosty but with fog banks reducing the visibility.  Despite the conditions the patent log was not deployed on the voyage as the captain was under the impression that he could estimate distance travelled simply by knowing the engine speed.

The Constance had encountered thick fog off the Isle of Wight but the master still maintained full speed.  The watch on deck included the helmsman, Wild, the lookout on the forecastle, Seavill, and the carpenter on the bridge who was there with the master.  On passing Prawle Point the vessel proceeded north-west at slow speed until the light on Plymouth’s Breakwater was seen on the starboard bow.  At 03:00 the ship’s course was changed to north by west and at 03:15 the vessel stopped to take soundings whereupon they found that the ship was in 9 fathoms (18m) depth.  The captain sent the chief officer forward to ready the anchor with the help of the two men on watch and two from the watch below, so at this critical time there was no lookout on the ship other than the master.

Shortly after, the master thought he saw the Breakwater Light bearing north-east so immediately stopped the crew readying the anchor and rang down to the engine room for ‘ahead slow’, but due to the faulty engine room telegraph this was misread as ‘full speed ahead’!  The ship charged forwards for a few minutes until the chief officer on the foredeck saw the Shagstone close to the port bow, he called out “put the helm a-port” but it was too late and the Constance crashed into the inside of the Shagstone bows on, tearing out her bottom plates. 

At the time of the wrecking it was dark and foggy but the sea was moderate with a ground swell breaking on the rocks.  The captain ordered the crew to launch the lifeboats but remained on the bridge hoping that the ship would slide off the rocks.  Unknown to the captain, the crew had already started to launch the boats but with the ship taking a heavy list to starboard the port lifeboat was abandoned and they concentrated on launching the starboard.  As the crew struggled to launch the starboard boat, because it was stuck in its chocks, the ship took a violent lurch and four crew fell overboard; the second officer, fireman Rees, quartermaster Seavill and able seamen Wild.  The chief officer had been thrown on deck and was stunned, but on recovering his wits found the second officer and Rees hanging on to the lifeboat fall with the other two in the water.  The second officer climbed the rope and saved himself while the other three perished with no attempt to save them.

By 04:00 the stern of the ship had settled in the water and the ground swell was breaking over her weather side.  The remaining crew and master abandoned ship and arrived at Millbay Pier in Plymouth at 07:00 on 21st with just the clothes they stood up in, the remaining crew were well apart from seaman Joseph Stevens who was taken to hospital with a broken leg.  Shortly after, the master returned to the Constance in a steam tug and found she had broken in two and was a total loss.

The captain gave a statement to the Receiver of Wreck but omitted to mention some of the details referred to in statements from other members of the crew.  When questioned, the captain put this down to him being upset about the loss of his ship.  The subsequent enquiry in February 1888 found that the master and the chief officer, James Callaway,  were at fault so the master had his license suspended for six months and the chief officer had his master and first mate certificates suspended for the same length of time.  The Bristol Steam Navigation Company also had to pay £100 costs to the Board of Trade.

Divers attempted to salvage the cargo from the broken up hull but were unable to recover much so the wreck was abandoned where she lay.

Diving the Constance

The remains of the Constance are very broken, lying just south east of the Shagstone in 5-10 metres of water. What remains is concreted into the rocks on the south side of the Shagstone with one anchor and some machinery lying in a cleft of rocks on the north side. The site has a sandy bottom with kelp-covered rock outcrops, it has good scenery and its depth makes it a good second dive or wreck dive for novices.  The remains of the steam ship Nepaul can also be found in the same area.

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