Bringing the mail to Fishguard in the late nineteenth century

Royal Mail Coach
Lady Cairns

Two images in the late 19th century photograph album recently lent to Ein Hanes concern postal deliveries to the twin towns, one by road and one by sea.

In the first, a Royal Mail coach stands in the corner of Fishguard Square between the Royal Oak and the Commercial Hotel (known since the 1950s as the Abergwaun Hotel). Royal Mail coaches provided a fast service of postal delivery up until the coming of the railways. They travelled non-stop at high speed, frequently changing horses to rest exhausted ones.

Horns were sounded on the approach to the toll gates so that the gatekeepers would hear them coming and open up to let them through without needing to stop. The mail coaches could also carry a few passengers, inside and out, for a fee. It was the fastest way to get somewhere quickly before there was public transport. The photo shows a couple of uniformed mail men sorting the letters while some children and others have clustered around. (I believe that at this period the post office was situated nearby in StrydFawr/High Street.)

In the other photograph from the album we see a sailing ship with furled sails lying off the coast. A hand-written caption adds the words The Lady Cairns off Fishguard – Mail from America. Without any further explanation we can only surmise that this vessel, perhaps en route elsewhere, dropped off some correspondence from the United States.

A little research revealed that this particular ship met a tragic end not many years later. The following text is taken from the Dublin Port Archive.

It was a cold morning in March 1904. The sun was only rising. The fog was so heavy even the light struggled to shine through. One could smell a storm brewing in the breeze. The waves punched the hull of the barque Mona with violence. She was heading southeast as the mist got hazier and hazier. The deep cries of her fog-horn reverberated around and strayed into the fest. It was almost impossible to guess the Kish Light, barely 12 miles away. Unexpectedly, the crew realized they weren’t alone.
They heard the blasts of another horn coming from their starboard bow. They looked and saw nothing. Only the lookout man noticed an over-canvassed ship (with no lookout of its own) on its port bow. Only half a mile away. The pilot tried to slow the Mona by bracing her sails aback. Alas, it was too late. Both vessels collided and the mysterious ship sunk in the Irish sea in minutes. The cries of the 18 souls of the crew faded into the wind.
The sunk ship was the Lady Cairns, an iron sailing ship built by Harland & Wolff in 1869. She was an old acquaintance of  Dublin docks. Richard Martin (a prominent figure in the history of the docklands) bought her when he first went into the shipowning business. Not only was he a member of the port authority for over three decades, but also part of the Martin family, kings of the timber trade. The Martins sold the Lady Cairns to L.Tullock (Swansea) a few years after Richard passed away. The event greatly stirred public opinion. Its importance was such that James Joyce mentions it in his masterpiece Ulysses. While Bloom is in a bookshop nearby, an elderly lady left the Four Courts, having heard the case.

The outcome of the court case can be found here
And more about the ship and its tragic loss here

The loss of Lady Cairns is one of many nautical tragedies connected with the twin towns (if only indirectly in this case) but the circumstances of the disaster are perhaps more affecting than most, given the failure of the other ship to attempt any rescue of the stricken crew. There may have been local seafaring folk who knew The Lady Cairns or had even sailed on her. The tragedy must surely have been talking point hereabouts.

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