Seabacs link banner shows a silk embroidery and oil painting of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson at full sail. Click on the bell or anywhere on the banner to go to the story of how another schooner designed by the same man who designed the Adventuress met a tragic fate.
Photo of Naval Architect B.B. Crowninshield at the helm of one of his yachts.

The Architect

Bowdoin B. (B.B.) Crowninshield grew up surrounded by ships, sailboats and yacht racing.

His family had a long history on the seas and were some of the most well known of Boston sailing society. His uncle, Jacob Crowninshield, was captain of the ship America and is credited with landing the first elephant ever to set foot on American soil. It was said they bought the elephant for four hundred fifty dollars and sold it for ten thousand.

Jacob was offered the post of Secretary of the Navy. Never taking office due to bad health he remained a congressman until his death in 1808. B.B. Crowninshield’s father, Benjamin W. Crowninshield became Secretary of the Navy in 1815. 

Seawater was in B.B.’s blood. Small wonder, then, that after his brief stint on dry land selling real estate in the west, he was drawn back to the east and his beloved boats.

His boat designing career started out as a draftsman at John R. Purdon, a well known designer of knockabout class of sailboats.

A year-and-a-half later he set up his own design shop and started designing small racing daysailers. These small yachts would bring him fame as a designer so much so that he was asked to design the Americas’ cup contender INDEPENDENCE in 1901.

Photograph of the racing yacht Independence in 1901.

Click the smaller photos to see them in larger size.

Photograph of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson at sea between 1902 and 1907.

Introduction: The Adventuress Designer’s Folly

In doing research for our feature on the Puget Sound-based schooner Adventuress, which launched in 1913, we came across a story about an earlier schooner designed by the same architect, which launched in 1902, that we thought you might find a fascinating and intriguing piece of maritime history.

It is something of a tale of hubris in the era of Titanic and the race to build the biggest and fastest sea-going vessels . . . hubris that combined with greed, bad judgement and bad design in trying compete against the growing number of engine -powered ships with a sailing schooner that had no engine.

And there are ‘degrees of separation’ connections on both sides of the Atlantic to Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Dickens.

You can read more in the flanking columns about the cast of characters who played a role in this tale of folly that results in a maritime disaster and the first-ever major oil-spill from a ship.

This is the tale of the ill-fated 7-masted schooner Thomas W. Lawson.

An oil painting of the Thomas W. Lawson by an unknown artist.
Photo shows black and white portrait of Thomas W. Lawson.

The Stock Manipulator

Thomas W. Lawson was a Boston stock promoter who made his fortune during a boom in copper-mining shares in the late 1800’s. He became known as the ‘Copper King’ and was one of the most controversial financiers of the era.

He told his huge public following which stocks they should buy and sell . . . advice that made him a multimillionaire, but impoverished most of his public. Click on the photos to see them in larger size.

Photo of American Stock manipulator Thomas W. Lawson in his office.

Lawson’s first dealings with yachting architect B.B. Crowninshield came when he commissioned a racing yacht for the 1901 America’s Cup. The Independence was considered the fastest boat, but turned out to be too fragile and was never in the race.

That same year, Lawson invested heavily in a new ‘super’ schooner that was named for him, which would launch the following year.

As an ironic coincidence, he had written a novel titled Friday the Thirteenth in which a broker picks that day to bring down the stock market. Also, the name of the schooner and its namesake are comprised of 13 letters.

When the Thomas W. Lawson later meets its fate off the coast of England, the time difference makes it Friday the 13th in Boston, and Lawson would meet his fate 18 years later dying in poverty.

Click the smaller photos to see them in larger size.

THE 7-MASTED FOLLY

Photo shows painting by Jim Clary of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson in full sail on a stormy sea with dark clouds approaching. Prints are available at fineartamerica.com. Click the banner to go to their website.

THE THOMAS W. LAWSON

Telephone Riches Build Shipyard

A photograph of the Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in Quincy, Massachusetts shows an inset photo of Thomas A. Watson, its Founder. He was a former assistant to Alexander graham Bell who is credited with the invention of the first telephone.

A chance meeting in 1874  between Thomas A. Watson, who was working as an electrical engineer in Boston, and Alexander Graham Bell, who was then a Professor at Boston University, eventually resulted in the invention of the telephone in 1876.

After working as Bell’s assistant and earning 10% of the royalties, Watson resigned from the Bell Telephone Company in 1881 at the age of 27, and after a failed attempt at farming, set up the Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in 1883 in Braintree, MA.

By 1901, when it moved to Quincy, MA, successful bids for building naval destroyers made it one of the largest shipyards in the United States – later bought by Bethlehem Steel Corporation.

Fore River would be the shipyard to build the Thomas W. Lawson over the course of a year.

Click to enlarge the photos at the top of each column.

‘Kilroy Was Here’ Born Here

Photo of the crane structure during the building of the Thomas W. Lawson.

On June 25, 1901, the Fore River Ship and Engine Company was contracted to build the Thomas W. Lawson, designed by B.B. Crowninshield for a syndicate consisting of Lawson, and brothers John and Arthur Crowley of the Coastwise Transportation Company of Boston at a cost of $250,000 (about $400,000 in today’s currency). It would be the largest schooner and pure sailing ship in the world and the only one with seven masts.

Apart from the tragic lore of the Thomas W. Lawson, the shipyard would also become famous as the origin of the ‘Kilroy was here’ folklore phrase that was traced to Fore River inspector James J. Kilroy during the Second World War.

Photo by Luis Rubio of an engraving on the World War Two Memorial in Washington D.C. of the folklore graffiti 'Kilroy was here'  that shows a bald-headed man with a long nose and his two hands appearing on the top edge of a line.

Rigging Unprecedented Masts

Photograph from the MIT Museum Collection shows the rigging being attached to the Thomas W. Lawson schooner as the original Captain Arthur R. Crowley watches.

The Thomas W. Lawson was 475 ft (145 m) overall, 395 feet (120.4 m) on deck.

The ship consisted of a steel hull with high bulwarks and a double cellular bottom four feet deep and used 1,000 tons of water ballast.

On the main deck were two deckhouses around mast no. 5 and behind mast no. 6, as well as six main hatches to access the holds between the masts.

Two huge steam winches were built in under the forecastle and behind mast no. 6. on the main deck. Smaller electrically driven winches were installed beside each mast.

A man believed to be Arthur Crowley is seen in the photo above inspecting the installation of the schooner’s rigging. Click on it to enlarge the photo.

The Lawson’s design and purpose was an, ultimately, unsuccessful bid to keep sailing ships competitive with the burgeoning steamship freight transport trade.

The Largest Pure Sailing Vessel

Photograph showing the schooner Thomas W. Lawson being built at Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in 1902. This angle shows all the scaffolding around the schooner.

The schooner contained seven masts of equal height (193 feet (58.8 m)) which carried 25 sails (seven gaff sails, seven gaff topsails, six topmast staysails and five jib sails (fore staysail, jib, flying jib, jib topsail, balloon jib) encompassing 43,000 square feet (4,000 m²)) of canvas.

The naming of her masts was always a subject for some discussion (see external link “The Masts of the Thomas W. Lawson”). In the original sail plan and during construction named (fore to aft): ‘no. 1 to no. 7’, no. 7 being replaced by “spanker mast” later on.

The names of the masts changed then to: ‘fore, main, mizzen, spanker, jigger, driver, and pusher’ at launch and to: ‘forecastle, fore, main, mizzen, jigger, and spanker’ after launch. Later on a lot of different naming systems were formed, e.g. ‘fore, main, mizzen, rusher, driver, jigger, and spanker’ or ‘fore, main, mizzen, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, and no. 7’.

The Captain’s Quarters

Photo of the Captain's quarters aboard the Thomas W. Lawson showing wooden panelling and leather chairs as well as a bed.

The Thomas W. Lawson was a very unique vessel.  She had two continuous decks, poop and forecastle decks, a large superstructure on the poop deck, including the Captain’s stateroom with fine leather furniture and electric lights, the officers’ mess and rooms, card room, and a separate rudder house.

The lower parts of her seven masts were of steel while the upper parts were of pine.

The Officers’ Saloon

Photo of Saloon aboard the Thomas W. Lawson with wood panelling and leather chairs.

The schooner had a double cellular bottom, that was 4 feet deep that held 1,000 tons of water ballast plus a trimming tank at each end of the vessel.  Could this have been the first double-hull tanker?

In an article on November 7, 1901, the San Francisco Call newspaper speculated that , “the big vessel’s name will be Roosevelt, and a sister ship now on the stocks will be called Prosperity.”

The Christening

Photo looks over the head of invited guests as the bow of the Thomas W. Lawson is christened.

In his novel, Leviathan’s Master: The Wreck of the World’s Largest Sailing Ship, author David M. Quinn writes this fusion of fact and fiction from the perspective of Captain George W. Dow, who succeeds the original Captain Arthur Crowley.

It describes July 10, 1902 as “sunny, hot and muggy.  . . .  [Thomas A.] Watson’s daughter, Helen, “slapped the bow of the giant schooner with a bottle of champagne”.

Launch of the Thomas W. Lawson

Photo of the launching of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson as it hits the water.

Twenty thousand spectators were on hand to witness the launch of the Lawson. As  David M. Quinn writes, “Down the skids the great ship went , colors hung and pennants flying. The crowd was cheering and a band was playing. Lordy, that vessel was immense – a beautiful sight!”

However, it wasn’t long before the shortcomings of the vessel spread into public knowledge from the inner sanctum of the shipyard.

The Floating Bathtub

Photo of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson post-launch.

Painted white, at first, and later black, the Lawson was often criticized by marine writers (and some seamen).  She was considered difficult to maneuver and sluggish (comparisons to a “bath tub” and a “beached whale” were made).

The great steel-hulled vessel proved problematic in the ports she was intended to operate in due to the amount of water she displaced. She tended to yaw and needed a strong wind to be held on course and almost capsized in Sabine, Texas.

Photo of the T.W. Lawson almost capsizing in Sabine, Texas.

As Thomas Stephen Hall writes in his book, The T.W. Lawson: The Fate of the World’s Only Seven-masted Schooner, “The T.W. Lawson started out looking like a steel version of a conventional wooden coastal schooner”, but, ‘any hope of the Lawson retaining the beauty of a traditional clipper or wooden schooner was dashed when planned beak head carvings and handrails were dropped.’

“By the end, it more closely resembled the steel hulls of a modern oil tanker.

Crowninshield’s final design focused primarily on cargo capacity and utility rather than classic lines and aesthetics . . . appalling traditionalists who viewed the ship as one ugly sailing barge” with too deep a draft for most shallow coastal ports.

Even B.B. Crowninshield later admitted that “her length-to-breadth ratio at 360′-to-50′ was out of keeping with her rig, especially since she was steel and not wood.”

The First ‘Supertanker’

Photo of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson at full sail on its way to be delivered.

Originally built for the Pacific trade, the schooner was used as a collier along the east coast of the United States..

A year later in 1903 as coal prices plummeted, the Crowleys withdrew her from the coal trade. They had the topmasts, gaff booms and all other wooden spars removed and had chartered her out as a sea-going barge for the transportation of case oil.

In 1906, she was retrofitted for sail at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company for use as a bulk oil carrier using the lower steel masts to vent oil gasses from the holds. Her capacity was 60,000 barrels.

Under a 5-year charter to Sun Oil Company, she was the world’s first pure sailing tanker, carrying bulk oil from Texas to the eastern seaboard.

The next assignment of the Thomas W. Lawson, to transport kerosene (also known as paraffin oil) across the Atlantic, would be her last.

Black and white photo shows view of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson in dry dock with its deep draft and a large stern overhang.

The First Oil Spill

Photograph shows the wreck of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson off the coast of England in 1907. The vessel is almost completely submerged.

On the 19th of November, 1907 at a Pennsylvania refinery, the Thomas W. Lawson was loaded with 2.25 million gallons of light kerosene oil to take advantage of the strong demand for liquid fuels in London, England.

Because of the Lawson’s history of near-capsizings and poor pay, it was known as an unlucky boat, making it difficult to find a crew – even more-so after Captain Arthur Crowley quit her command under variously rumored circumstances.

When new Captain George Dow sailed down the Delaware River to the Atlantic ocean – after the schooner yet, again, ran aground – it was with a largely foreign and  inexperienced crew of 18 men from the U.S., Germany and Scandinavia.

The 3,000 mile trip to London should have taken about 15 days under fair weather and a normal cruising speed of 8 to 9 knots. Three days out, in fair weather, the Lawson was seen to be in great shape by a Belgian passenger liner near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

She wouldn’t be seen again for 22 days.

Later, it would be learned from the schooner’s engineer, Edward Rowe, that the Lawson ran into a series of three gales, gusting over 90 miles-per-hour, that ripped all but six of the ship’s sails and splintering all but three of her life rafts.

The worst was yet to come on December 13, 1907 as the ship approached the English Channel.

As Thomas Stephen Hall writes, “the crew of the Lawson saw what appeared to be a ship in the distance off  its starboard bow, to the southeast.

As the snow and fog cleared, however, Captain Dow began to recognize the structure not as a ship’s mast, but as the notorious Bishop’s Rock Lighthouse off the Isles of Scilly.

And he was on the wrong side.”

Only Two Survivors

Photo shows Thomas W. Lawson Lifebelt in the Valhalla Museum in Tresco Abbey Gardens, Isles of Scilly.

The Bishop Rock lighthouse is the westernmost lighthouse in Europe. Lawson Captain Dow anchored between the Nundeeps shallows and Gunner’s Rock, north-west of the island of Annet, to ride out an impending gale, refusing several requests of St. Agnes and St. Mary’s lifeboat crews to abandon the ship.

Captain Dow trusting in his anchors only accepted the Trinity House pilot Billy “Cook” Hicks from St. Agnes lifeboat who came aboard at 5 p.m. on Friday the 13th. Both lifeboats of St. Agnes and St. Mary’s had to return to their stations because of an unconscious crewman on the former and a broken mast on the latter. They cabled to Falmouth, Cornwall for a tug which couldn’t put to sea, unable to face the storm.

During the night around 1:15 a.m. the storm increased, her port anchor chain broke, and half an hour later the starboard anchor chain snapped close the hawsepipe. Left to the mercy of the raging seas the pounding schooner was smashed starboardside on against Shag Rock near Annet by tremendously heavy seas after having grounded on the dangerous underwater rocks.

All seven masts broke off and fell into the sea with all of the seamen who had climbed the rigging for safety, on their captain’s command.

The stern section broke apart behind mast no. 6, drifting from the capsizing and sinking ship. In the morning light the ship’s upturned keel could be seen near the reef from which the wreck slid off into deeper water later on.

Some 16 of the 18 crew and the Scillonian pilot Wm. “Cook” Hicks who was already on board having climbed up the spanker rigging for safety were lost.

Captain George W. Dow and engineer Edward L. Rowe from Boston were the only survivors, probably because they managed to get on deck from the rigging and jumped into the sea before the ship capsized, washing up on a rock in the Hellweathers.

Both men were rescued from the rocks that lay to the south of the wrecking site hours later by the pilot’s son, in the six-oared gig Slippen, looking for his father.

Despite wearing their lifebelts, the other seamen died in the thick oil layer, the smashing seas, and the schooner’s rigging that had drowned so many of the crew, including the pilot.

Four bodies were found later – those of Mark Stenton from Brooklyn, cabin boy, of two seamen from Germany and Scandinavia, and that of a man from Nova Scotia or Maine. Furthermore, some bodies without heads, legs or arms were also found which could not be identified.

They were all buried in a mass grave in St Agnes cemetery.

In 2008 a memorial seat was blessed by the Reverend Guy Scott in the churchyard of St Agnes, the nearest inhabitable island to the wreck and the home of the pilot, Billy “Cook” Hicks. The seat, made of granite from a St Breward quarry, faces the mass, unmarked grave of many of the Lawson dead.

One of the anchors is now built into the outside wall of Bleak House, Broadstairs, the former home of Charles Dickens, and can be seen with picture of the scooner.

The photo below shows the wreck of Thomas W. Lawson with Bishop Rock Lighthouse off in the distance. And below it, you can find an account of the wreck as it appeared in The Western Weekly News followed by some links to the various sources used for this story.

Photo shows blue-tinted photo of the sinking of the Thomas W. Lawson in 1907.

DISASTER AT SCILLY

THE WESTERN WEEKLY NEWS, 21ST December, 1907

American Sailing Ship Lost

Seventeen Men Drowned

Wrecked at Scilly

‘The Western Morning News’

Sea Tragedies

Largest sailing ship lost off Isles of Scilly 

St. Agnes pilot goes down with ship

Survivors’ Sufferings

The wreck of a huge American sailing ship at the Isles of Scilly, involving the loss of many lives early Saturday morning (Dec. 14), augments the dreadful toll the seas have claimed.

The story of how the largest sailing ship in the World was cut in twain among the rocks reveals a harrowing story of fate of those who went down with the Thomas W. Lawson, and of the three men who survived her until Sunday, when one of those failed to escape death.

The doomed vessel was seven-masted and schooner, and the biggest sailing ship afloat. She belonged to Boston, Mass., U.S.A. and was built five years ago of steel, and was constructed especially to save labor in crew. She only carried a captain and crew of seventeen, Captain George W. Dow of Boston was her master, and she sailed from Philadelphia on November 20th last.

The ship was valued at 400,000 dollars, and her cargo was worth approximately 200,000 dollars. The cargo consisted of oil, and it was computed that in bulk there were about 60,000 barrels. Her net tonnage was about 5,000 tons.

From the start the vessel had a bad passage. In the words of the captain, it was blowing something wicked last Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday week. She ran into a southerly gale and fared badly. Half the sails were blown away and a lifeboat and life raft lost, only a 20 ft. boat remaining. The whole of the deck fittings were smashed, including hatches and the cabin door, whilst the ship herself was badly strained.

The Thomas W. Lawson weathered that storm, only to meet as violent a one. On Friday last she made the Isles of Scilly, and the captain found he was too far to the leeward by a mile. There was no room to wear ship, and there was not sail enough to tack. The ship was, therefore, brought to and anchored.

Her position was dangerous. She was in waters teeming with rocks and submerged ledges, between Nun Deeps and Gummers’ Ledge and in Broad Sound. This is inside Bishop Rock Lighthouse, which was first reported on the ship as a passing schooner. The Thomas W. Lawson, with two anchors out, faced the fury of a fierce northwest gale. Accompanying the gale were mountainous seas, and the ship could not have been in a worse position.

She had been sighted from St. Agnes and St. Mary’s Islands, and realizing her extreme danger, the St. Agnes lifeboat was launched. The keepers on the lighthouse also saw her and fired signals. St. Mary’s lifeboat was being manned and launched at 4:25 by order of Mr. E. J. Bluett, Hon. Secretary of the local branch of the lifeboat institution. Both lifeboats had trying experiences as seas continuously broke over them.

The St. Agnes boat was launched about four o’clock and reached the ship shortly after five. The captain was asked if he wanted assistance, and replied in the negative. Knowing the danger in which the vessel stood, the lifeboat men again asked, and got alongside.

Captain Dow then requested the services of a pilot. One of the lifeboat crew, William Cook Hicks a well-known Trinity pilot went aboard, but all that could be done was to wait for moderation of weather. The lifeboat stood by the ship. St. Mary’s lifeboat afterwards arrived, and in attempting to get alongside, got under the quarter of the vessel and carried away her mast. She returned to St. Mary’s to repair the damage and to send telegrams to Falmouth for tugs. The reply from Falmouth was that the tugs left at 10:20 on Friday night.

The tugs never arrived, evidently finding the gale too fierce to face.

The St. Agnes boat had to leave the ship in order to take ashore one of their crew who had suffered from exposure. It was feared he was dead, but restoration was brought about when he was taken ashore. Hicks, the pilot on board, was informed, and told that should anything untoward happen he was to burn flare.

Neither of the lifeboats went back. A sharp lookout was kept from various points. At 2:30 on Saturday morning the ship’s lights disappeared. As the gale had heightened, it was thought at St. Agnes that the lights had been accidentally extinguished. Little did the watchers realize that the Thomas Lawson had gone to her doom, and that of the nineteen souls aboard, including one of their own mates, only three were at that time struggling from death to tell the tale of the tragic fate of the ship.

How the Ship met it’s Fate

The Thomas Lawson broke an anchor, unable to stand the hurricane, and, dragging the other, crashed into the rocks. The officers and pilot were in the mizzen-rigging lashed between two and three o’clock, and the remainder were scattered in different parts of the ship, the chief on the forecastle head. The ship struck broadside on, smashing in the starboard side, and causing rigging to sag until the seven masts began to sway with the motion of the vessel as she was buffeted by huge seas. It was a desperate and awful time. The engineer, Edward Rowe of Boston, was by the side of the pilot, and when the huge craft trembled from end to end as she was hurled against the rocks, he asked Hicks if there was a chance of getting ashore. Hicks knew every inch of that treacherous part, and replied, “No”. But strangely enough, that engineer is one of the survivors. Hicks, to the regret of all Scillonians, is missing, and is undoubtedly dead. The end of the ship came swiftly. She only struck once more, and then came destruction.Masts and rigging crashed into the sea, and the stem was cut right off. The cargo was freed, and thousands of gallons of oil poured out onto the sea. Every man had a life belt, but nearly all were either dragged down in the rigging, dashed against rocks, or perished in the horrible floating masses of oil.

The Survivors’ Terrible Plight

Out of the vortex came Captain Dow, Rowe, the engineer, and George Allen of Battersea. They had terrible hardships to pass through before finding a refuge on the rocks. Terrible privations followed in full exposure to the awful weather. For many hours those on the islands were still watching, ignorant of what had happened.

Daybreak revealed no ship, but the almost overwhelming stench of oil told its own story.

The lifeboat was not launched, the weather being too fearfully rough, and it was not thought advisable even to try to get her out at St. Agnes. The grownup son of pilot Hicks pleaded for an endeavor to launch the lifeboat when the lights of the ship disappeared.

At daybreak, a crew volunteered to go out with a gig, and eight young St. Agnes men, including pilot Hicks’ son, heroically launched it. They landed on the uninhabited island of Annet, and then heard the faint shouting for help. A search revealed the sailor, Allen, suffering from exposure and internal injuries, trying to get shelter beneath a rock. He had been weathering the storm on the same shore as three of his mates, but they were dead. He saw them at daybreak, and evidently there was life in them then. He urged his rescuers to go to them as he was all right. Allen was borne to St. Agnes Island and placed under the roof of a hospitable farmer, Mr. Israel Hicks.

Communication was set up with St. Mary’s, and St. Mary’s lifeboat took Dr. Brushfield to St. Agnes, and he attended the injured man. The doctor did not regard his recovery with any hopes. Allen was then apparently the sole survivor, and he had been taken from an island two miles from where the vessel had anchored and was left by lifeboats. Allen had been on the island about five hours, and was the last man washed off the vessel. The islanders almost gave up hope that any other man could be living on the rocks in the vicinity.

The Captain Rescued

The same crew, however, made another brave row to Annet Island, leaving St. Agnes about 2:30 Saturday afternoon, and they were rewarded by finding a man safe and well.

On their way they saw the engineer on a rock at Helwethers Carn. They threw him a rope, and with its aid, he got through the surf and into the boat. Rowe then told them that the captain was on the rocks there helpless. How he got there, he did not know, but he discovered him in the night and dragged him up into comparative safety.

Rowe himself was badly battered and suffering through swallowing salt water and oil. They took him ashore and went back to rescue the captain. Captain Dow undoubtedly owes his life to Fred Cook Hicks, a son of pilot Hicks who has not been found.

They could not effect a landing, and Hicks thereupon took the rope and swam and scrambled through nearly fifty yards of sea and rock. His difficulties were not then over, as he found the captain helpless with wounds he had received through being tossed about, and with a broken wrist. Hicks securely fastened him with a rope, and managed to get him to the gig. Captain Dow was taken to the same house in which Allen and Rowe were sheltered and was attended, Dr. Brushfield being again taken out by the St. Mary’s lifeboat, and the lifeboat men searched the rocks to try and trace other men of the ship.

On Sunday morning the St. Mary’s lifeboat and numerous gigs from the different islands made an examination of the rocks in the neighborhood, and recovered the headless body, it is believed, of one of the officers, and later the fifth body.

Death of Allen

Allen died on Sunday afternoon, so that the only survivors are the captain and the engineer.

It is understood that the ship is not insured. Captain Robertson, one of Lloyd’s special surveyors, on Sunday morning went from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly on the Western Marine Salvage Co.’s boat, Lady of the Isles, with Captain Anderson, the well-known wreck-salver to inspect the position of the vessel. They visited the scene, and found at high water that it was not visible.

Bodies Recovered

Five bodies have been recovered. Three have been identified, those of Mark Simpson, cabin boy, Brooklyn: George Bolimke, seaman, a German: and Victor Hansell, a Swede. From one of the other bodies the head and arms are missing.

Description of the Vessel

The Thomas W Lawson was one of the most remarkable craft afloat. She had seven masts, and being entirely fore-and-aft rigged, was described as a schooner, carrying only spinnakers, gaff, topsails, and fore staysails.

She was the biggest seven-masted schooner in the world, and had the distinctions of having a larger tonnage and deadweight capacity than any other American-owned ocean-going sailor. Her appearance at sea, when all her sails were set, was extraordinary.

Not long ago she was badly damaged in a gale off the American coast. She eventually made her way to port, and only recently was completely refitted for sea.

A peculiar item in her equipment was a small steam engine she carried to facilitate the handling of her immense sails, thus enabling her to do with a smaller crew than would otherwise have been required. She was built in 1902 by the Fore River Ship and Engineering Company of Quincy, Massachusetts for the Coastwise Transportation Company of Boston, U.S.A., and was of 5,218 gross tonnage, 5,006 underdeck, and 4,914 net tonnage.

Tragic Stories Related at the Inquest

Rescuers Praised

The inquest on the recovered bodies of the wreck of the Thomas W. Lawson was on Monday opened by Mr. W. M. Gluyas, coroner for the islands at the house of Mr. Israel Hicks at St. Agnes in which the captain, the engineer and Allen, who died on Sunday, were sheltered. The Governor of the Isles (Mr. T. A. Dorrien Smith) as well as Mr. E. J. Bluett, hon. secretary of the National Lifeboat Institution: Mr. T. Bradley, divisional coastguard officer: and Mr. Harold Sandrey, representing the American consul.

Lost Pilot’s Son’s Story

Israel Hicks, Trinity boatman, stated that on Friday he and others were out on relief duty at Round Island Lighthouse, and when returning towards evening heard signals fired at Bishop Lighthouse. Then they saw a vessel, which proved to be the Thomas W. Lawson, in Broad Sound.

They attempted to reach her in their gig, but failed on account of the weather. When they reached St. Agnes Island, they found that the lifeboat had been launched. At a quarter-past two on Saturday morning he saw the lights of the vessel riding in the Broad Sound, but later he missed them, and afterwards a strong smell of oil pervaded the air. He concluded the ship had been wrecked.

On Saturday, after a little difficulty, they got a crew together to man a gig to go to see if they could find any men on the rocks or in the sea, alive or dead, as the ship had disappeared.

They left St. Agnes shortly after seven o’clock, and just after landing at Annet found the dead body of a man who was evidently out of the wrecked ship. A quantity of wreckage was strewn about. They divided into parties to search the island.

Some of them heard shouting, and thought it came from others of the crew, but they found the man Allen sheltering beneath the rock. He was calling for help. They assisted him to a boat, and a further search resulted in the finding of two more bodies. They brought Allen to St. Agnes, and he was conscious, though in great pain. Allen told him that his aunt lived at Battersea and that he was returning after five years at sea. He died on Sunday afternoon.

Harold Sandrey produced Samson’s pocketbook containing cards inscribed with his name, and the captain identified him as his steward.

Captain Declined Assistance

Wm. George Mortimer, pilot and coxswain of St. Agnes, stated that on Friday afternoon about 4 o’clock his attention was called to a large vessel in a dangerous position. The lifeboat was launched immediately. It was not then blowing hard, but the seas were fairly rough.

They reached the stern of the vessel and asked if they wanted assistance, but there was then no reply. To another question, assistance was declined. They told the captain he was in a dangerous position, and again asked if he wanted assistance. His reply was, “I am all right.” She had two cables out but only one was holding. The vessel was then a mile and a half from Annet Head. She was not riding heavily on account of her extreme length.

When the captain refused assistance, they decided to go alongside with the intention of trying to persuade the captain to slip the ship and go through Broad Sound. Those on the vessel threw them a rope. The captain asked for a pilot, and Wm. Thomas Hicks, one of the crew, went aboard. As there was too much sea to stay alongside the vessel, they dropped astern where they remained from 5:30 until nine. Several times the pilot came to the stern and shouted to them to know how they were getting on. The ship sent down some bread and coffee.

From American Neptune.

A giant among giants the steel-hulled Thomas W. Lawson was the largest schooner ever built. The schooner also had the distinction of being the only seven-master built. Designed by B.B. Crowninshield, a naval architect better known for his racing yachts, the Lawson was built by the Fore River Shipbuilding Co. of Quincy, Mass. in 1902 at a cost of $240,000. The schooner was named after Boston millionaire stockbroker and yachtsman Thomas W. Lawson.

By all accounts the Thomas W. Lawson was a bad sailor and certainly no yacht. In fact the schooner was such a terrible sailor that someone once commented that the ship handled “like a beached whale.” The schooner carried the remarkable quantity of 43,000 sq. ft. of sail or one acre of sail – more than enough material to make 2,300 dining room tablecloths… and made by the sail making firm E. L. Rowe & Son of Gloucester, MA. Yet even this vast press of canvas was insufficient for driving the ship’s bulky hull through the water and ship was at best a slow sailor.

To handle this large quantity of canvas the Lawson had a crew of only 16, aided by a steam donkey engine that drove the hoisting winches and assisted with the steering.

Designed as a coal ship for moving cargoes of coal along the East Coast, the Thomas W. Lawson was lost on December 13th the same year, off Britain’s Scilly Isles. While riding out a gale, the anchor chain broke and the schooner foundered on Hellweather Reef with the loss of 15 of the of the crew. could deliver 11,000 tons of coal a trip. The schooner however proved so unhandy that it was refitted for use as an oil tanker to haul oil from Texas to the Eastern Seaboard. Chartered as an oil tanker to the Anglo-American Oil Co. in 1907, the

Today the ship lies on the bottom at 49º53’65″ N. 6º23’13″ W. It lies west of Shag Rock, broken in two pieces at a depth of 56 feet (17 meters) and is a popular site for divers although windless conditions are required for diving to the wreck.

A map shows the site of the wreckage of the Thomas W. Lawson off the south east coast of England.
Photo shows a memorial seat that was blessed in 2008 by the Reverend Guy Scott in the churchyard of St Agnes, the nearest inhabitable island to the wreck and the home of the pilot, Billy “Cook” Hicks. The seat, made of granite from a St Breward quarry, faces the mass, unmarked grave of many of the Lawson dead.

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