The Sinking of the Ellan Vannin

Content Warning: Some of the selected newspaper articles contain descriptions of death that may be distressing

“For the people of the Isle of Man, the Ellan Vannin disaster was almost equal to that of the sinking of the Titanic – 35 people just vanished that night”.

James Douglas

At 1:13am in the morning of the 3 December 1909, the Steam Packet vessel Ellan Vannin set off from Ramsey harbour. It was a routine crossing and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There was a crew of 21 and a cargo of sheep, mail sacks and furniture. Fifteen passengers also boarded the ship, including visitors returning home and Manx people setting off on their travels further afield.

Nicknamed ‘Lil Daisy’, the Ellan Vannin was the oldest vessel in the Steam Packet fleet, with a reputation for being tough and indomitable. Built in 1860, the Ellan Vannin was converted from a paddle steamer called Mona’s Isle into a twin-screw steamer and renamed in 1883. She was the oldest vessel in the Steam Packet fleet, with a reputation for being tough and indomitable. In December 1909 she had recently been joined by Captain James Teare, a veteran with eighteen years’ experience with the Steam Packet.

Halfway into the journey, the Ellan Vannin hit bad weather, with typhoon-strength gales and waves over seven metres high. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but at around 6.45am the ship ran into trouble and disappeared. There were no survivors.


“Oh, Ellan Vannin, we are grieving sore,/ Lost Ellan Vannin, for the souls you bore,/ Through that dark crossing to an unseen shore.”

Poem by "Cushag", 1910

News of the disaster filtered through to Ramsey slowly. Telegrams arrived in the afternoon stating that the ship had not docked in Liverpool as planned. The crew of the Formby lightship reported seeing dead sheep and a large quantity of turnips floating by, and picked up a mailbag containing letters from Ramsey. A lifeboat, with the cover still attached, was washed ashore at New Brighton.

Confirmation of the wreck came on Friday evening, bringing grief and shock. The bereaved had to face the torturous process of identification as bodies washed up on the Lancashire and Merseyside coast in the following weeks. Some of the victims were never found.

There was also disagreement over how the wreck had occurred. A message in a bottle, supposedly from crewman E. Burke and found near Southport, stated that the ship had collided with an “unknown steamer”, but was widely agreed to be a hoax. In March 1910, the inquest decided that the ship had run aground on a sandbar before being broken in two by the waves.

The Liverpool authorities blew up the wreck in March 1910. As the island grieved, donations for Ellan Vannin fund supported the bereaved for the next fifty years. In 2009 a service was held, unveiling a memorial to the crew and passengers who died on Ramsey’s North Quay.

And although the Steam Packet has often reused the same names for its ships, no other vessel has been named Ellan Vannin.

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