Shipwrecks

Vicar of Bray (1841-1880)

The wreck of Vicar of Bray is historically significant because it is said to be the sole surviving example of a fleet of ships which supplied San Francisco during the California Gold Rush of 1849.

She was built in Whitehaven, a Georgian town in Cumbria on the north west coast of England, by local shipbuilder Robert Hardy and named after a well known religious satirical song from the 18th Century.  One of 18 vessels he constructed over a 27-year period, she was launched on April 22nd 1841 and was 97 feet long, made of English oak and west African hardwoods.  Her survey report stated that she was “as good as can be made”.

Her first master was Captain Seymour, who was also said to have been the “owner”.  A three-masted barque, she was registered in Liverpool and first sailed from there to Rio de Janeiro in July 1841.

Key Facts:

Three-masted barque

Sole-surviving Gold Rush ship

Size: 282 tons, 87 ft
Launched: Whitehaven, 22nd April 1841
Fate: Declared a “hulk”

A year later she was logged as entering London docks with what is thought to be a cargo of copper ore.  It’s assumed that she shuttled between the UK and South America until February 1849, when she arrived in Cowes, Isle of Wight, from Argentina.  Her next voyage took her from Gravesend in Kent to Valparaiso in Chile, from where she sailed for San Francisco under the command of Captain Duggan.  On board was a cargo of Mercury and some passengers – said to be “miners”.  At the time, the Vicar of Bray was being advertised as offering a regular packet service to San Francisco with “excellent accommodation”.

Reproduced with permission of the National Maritime Historical Society

The voyage took eight months and when she arrived in San Francisco on November 3rd, 1849 Captain Duggan was faced with what became known as “gold rush fever” – ships’ crews abandoning their posts in search of riches beyond their wildest dreams.  As she docked, there were already some 741 abandoned ships in and around the harbour.  Even though there was a penalty at the time of 12 years in jail for “jumping ship”, the Vicar’s crew did just that, leaving Duggan to pay exorbitant wages to a replacement crew, in order to return to England.   She is said to be one of 242 ships that arrived in San Francisco at that time.  Those who could not find new crews were hauled ashore to serve as Gold Rush hotels or warehouses.

In 1859, Vicar of Bray had a refit and was lengthened by almost 25 feet to 121.5 feet and re-registered in London.  She began a new “career”, journeying between London, Lima in Peru and Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia.  This came to a brutal end in 1870, whilst on her way from south Wales with a cargo of machinery and 436 tons of coal to Valparaiso, she was one of a number of ships badly damaged in a storm and forced into Port Stanley for repairs.  Her sails and lifeboats were gone and there was damage to her bulwarks and stanchions.

After returning to the UK for another refit, Vicar of Bray was bought by the Falkland Islands Company and started a regular route between London and the Falklands.  Her final voyage ended on October 23rd, 1880, when a decision was made to “hulk” her at Goose Green.

For many years, her hull was used to support a jetty head, but this created instability and her condition deteriorated.  In 1979, a plan was hatched to transport her to the San Francisco Maritime Museum, but this was abandoned.  In 2000, the Falkland Islands Government issued a £2 Vicar of Bray commemorative coin and a postage stamp showing the vessel in full sail.  More recently, her timbers collapsed, meaning nothing is left of the wreck above water.

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