The visit of the Channel Fleet to Lough Swilly, 1861

The Channel Fleet was the Royal Navy’s contingent of warships tasked with defending the English Channel against alien aggressors from the end of the 17th century until its disbandment in 1909.

By the start of the 19th century its main task was to prevent incursions by the French navy but following the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars and a thawing in relations between Britain and France the raison d’être for the Channel Fleet diminished.

However during the mid 19th century the Channel Fleet still represented a significant naval deterrent, with one eye still on France. During this period the Fleet visited ports around Britain and Ireland, attracting huge public interest such was the scale of what was effectively a Naval Circus.

At the end of July 1861 the Channel Fleet had planned a visit to Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. First stop on the trip was Lough Swilly. The “Londonderry Sentinel” painted an excellent colour piece of the visit, as reprinted in The Times of Monday, July 29 1861.

No sight could be more beautiful. Crowds collected from many points to witness the magnificent spectacle. These seven wooden walls of old England now displayed their graceful lines, their beautiful symmetry, and gayest bunting to the admiration of hundreds, while the waters of the Lough, as if proud of their freight, reflected their spire-like masts, their thousand flags and streamers, and their stately outlines in the glassy waves beneath. Now the ships are off Dunree Fort, on which the red cross of England unfurls its folds to the wind. As each man-of-war passes a salute is fired, and in the intervals the martial strains of the well-trained bands on board each vessel are borne to the shore. The scene was of the most thrilling description, and its interest was not lessened by the fact that this exhibition of the ‘pride, pomp, and circumstance’ of the maritime greatness of our country was unattended by the more direful accompaniments of ‘glorious war.’

At half-past 4 the fleet were off Buncrana, having arrived in the following order:-

The Revenge, 91 guns, 800-horse power, Captain Charles Fellows, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Smart, senior Admiral of the fleet.

The Edgar, 91 guns, 600-horse power, Captain Mends, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Erskine(white), second in command.

The Conqueror, 101 guns, 200-horse power, Captain Southby, C.B., and Aide-de-Camp to the Queen.

The Aboukir, 91 guns, 403-horse power, Captain Shadwell, C.B.

The Hero, 91 guns, 600-horse power, Captain Ryder.

The Trafalgar, 90 guns, 500-horse power, Captain Dixon.

The Centurion, 80 guns, 400-horse power, Captain Rogers, C.B.

The Porpoise gunboat, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander John Brasier Creagh, Knight of the Legion of Honour.

As night set in the shores of tough Swilly were brilliantly lit up with bonfires. The glare brought out the ships into fine relief, affording a spectacle easy to be enjoyed, but difficult to describe. All the inhabitants of Buncrana likewise illuminated their dwellings, and on every side great enthusiasm was witnessed. It was most gratifying to see the cordial reception given by the people of Ennishowen to the fleet, and both officers and men feel much pleased and complimented at the reception they have met with. Perhaps in no other place since they have left Spithead have they received such a hearty welcome, and the short experience had of the members of the fleet gives reason to believe that it will be richly deserved.

Some idea may be formed of the might and majesty of England’s navy, from the fact that these seven vessels carry 636 guns, with crews amounting in number to 6,250 men, being more than the entire population of Strabane.  The entire horse-power is nominally 4,200, but is equal to double these figures. Three vessels properly belonging to this portion of the fleet are absent on other service – namely, the Donegal the, Diadem, and the Emerald.

This spectacle will produce a profound and lasting impression on the peasantry of Donegal, and the fame of it will spread throughout all the mountains and glens of the west.

The visit however was cut short which left the good burghers of Derry feeling short changed as reported in The Times just two days later on Wednesday, July 31.

The sudden recall of the Channel Fleet has surprised everybody, and been a sad disappointment to many. The Mayor of Derry had invited the officers to a public dinner in the Corporation-hall, and the people of Belfast were looking with eager expectation to the appearance of the fleet in their own Lough, when the last of the ships was observed to weigh anchor on Monday morning, and sail for Plymouth. So unexpected was this movement and so hasty that about 200 of the men were left behind, with a steam tender to pick them up and convey them to their departing ships. Conjecture is busy as to the cause. Was Government afraid that the crews would fraternize with the Tenant-right men of Donegal, or did they apprehend a French invasion of England?

Just two months later in late September the Royal Navy was in a position to compensate the towns of Belfast and Derry with a rescheduled visit.

On Thursday, September 19 1861 The Times reported that:

The people of Londonderry have at length been gratified with a visit from the Channel Fleet. The members of the Corporation, with their ladies and friends, paid a visit to the Admiral on Monday. An address was presented, and complimentary speeches were delivered on both sides.

And two days later on Saturday, September 20 :

The Derry Standard says it is impossible to speak in terms of overstrained compliment of the courtesy, urbanity, and kindness of the Admirals and officers of the Channel Fleet during their stay in Lough Foyle to the crowd of visitors of all ranks who during four or five days thronged the ships incessantly from early morning till a late hour at night. It sees much utility in periodical visits of the fleet to the Irish ports, as such a gigantic exhibition of British power would awe the disaffected, stimulate the courage of the loyal, and make the tax-paying public feel that they get substantial value for their money.

Following their visit to Lough Foyle the Channel Fleet set sail for Berehaven in Co. Cork where The Times reported on October 2nd that six ships of the Fleet had berthed following heavy storms the previous week.

There are two graves in Christ Church Lower Fahan cemetery related to the visit of the Channel Fleet to Lough Swilly.

The first is that of 2nd Lt. Royal Marines,  John W. (second name illegible due to a repaired fracture in the headstone), aged 20 of HMS Edgar who drowned in Lough Swilly on July 25, 1861.

HMS Edgar headstone

The second grave is that of : Thomas Elijah Webb, aged 21, Richard Corderoy, aged 16 and Daniel Craib also aged 16, all from HMS Trafalgar who died when a gun capsized in a gale September 20, 1861. This date coincides with the return visit of the Channel Fleet when it visited Derry.

HMS Trafalgar headstone


Burial Records – Christ Church Lower Fahan Church of Ireland

Christ Church Lower Fahan Buncrana

Christ Church Lower Fahan Church of Ireland is located on the main street in Buncrana. Built in 1804 it served as a Garrison church for the large number of British soldiers who were based in the locality prior to partition. Consequently there are a good number of burials of army and naval personnel from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The grave yard is exceptionally well maintained and the vast majority of the headstones are legible. There are a small number of late 18th, early nineteenth graves with breastplate type grave markings. The bulk of these are unfortunately unclear as to the inscribed text.

The Parish Hall is located on the same site and dates to 1856.

Christ Church Lower Fahan is located at N55.134 W-7.456

Christ Church Buncrana x Second-Name

Christ Church Buncrana x Plot

Christ Church Lower Fahan was surveyed on April 26 2014 with a foolow up survey in August 2017.

Burial records – St. Mura’s Fahan

Fahan Cross Slab

St. Mura’s Monastery at Fahan was founded by St. Colmcille in the 6th Century. An ancient slab cross on the site, called the Fahan Cross Slab dates from this time period. The monastic ruins which remain are dated to the end of the 17th Century.

The graveyard is compact but contains a good number of graves dating back as far as the 17th Century. There are several graves dating back to the time that the British Army and Royal Navy were billeted in the greater Buncrana area during the 19th Century.

Among the graves in St. Mura’s is that of Agnes Elizabeth Jones who was the first trained Nursing Superintendent in Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary. A Nightingale Nurse, she died from typhus at the age of 35.

St. Mura’s is located at N55.084 W-7.462

St. Mura’s Fahan Monastery by Second Name

St. Mura’s Fahan Monastery by Plot

Surveyed April 9 2014

Burial records – Linsfort Church of Ireland

Linsfort Church of Ireland

Overlooking Lough Swilly, Linsfort Church of Ireland was built in the 1650’s and was in use until 1972. It is located on the left hand side of the Buncrana to Fort Dunree road, approximately 6,5 km from Buncrana.

The oldest legible headstone dates to 1811 although there are a good number of stone grave markers with no inscriptions.

There is one Commonwealth War Grave in Linsfort.

Linsfort Church of Ireland is located at N55.172 W-7.500

Desertegney CoI Linsfort x Name

Desertegney CoI Linsfort x Plot

Surveyed March 11 2014

Burial records – Clonmany Straid

St. Columba’s Straid

St. Columba’s (The Old Church Straid) was built in 1772 with a grant from the Protestant Bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey (1730-1803).

There are many graves in the churchyard at Straid but for the most part they are unhewn and uninscribed and represent the burial of the many Catholics laid to rest there.

There are a small number of graves with legible text, including that of the Doherty family, local landlords who resided in Glen House and were the last patrons of the Church.

There is one Commonwealth War Grave in Straid.

The Church enjoyed a brief revival during the First World War ministering to the needs of the British Army who were billeted at Glenfield Camp. Declining numbers finally took its toll in 1920 when the Church was closed, the roof removed and the furniture auctioned in 1927.

The Old Church at Straid is located at N55.265 W-7.426.

St. Columba’s Straid x Name

St. Columba’s Straid x Plot

Surveyed April 30 2014

A listing of Inishowen school teachers from the 1901 Ireland Census

In the 50 years from the ending of the Great Famine the number of teachers in Inishowen had more or less doubled to 99. The gender balance had well and truly been corrected since 1848 with 44 male (44%) and 55 (55%) female.

The data from 1901 can be downloaded by following the links below :

Inishowen teachers in 1901 census x second name

Inishowen teachers in 1901 census x townland

Ref : 1901 Ireland Census records

Growth in Inishowen school attendance 1839 to 1848

School records are very useful for tracing ancestors. Examining the data on school attendance gives us a picture of societal development. In 1839 the Commissioners for Education reported on pupil, school and teacher statistics.

In that year there were 20 National Schools in the Inishowen Peninsula, attended by 3226 pupils. At a frightening 1:134 teacher:pupil ratio there were just 24 teachers to attend to the educational needs of the school-goers. It appears that one teacher was deemed sufficient to look after the needs of up to roughly 200 pupils as there were just a few examples of schools with more than one teacher and less than this number of pupils.

The school with the greatest number of pupils in Inishowen in 1839 was Cockhill outside the town of Buncrana with 210 students and two teachers.

In that year teaching was very much a male dominated occupation as just 4 of the 24 teachers were female. The gender balance wasn’t just restricted to the teaching profession as the school attendance was very much skewed in the favour of the male population. 69,7% of the school-goers were male.

Wind the clock forward 6 years to 1848 right in the middle of the Great Famine and there had been dramatic changes in the intervening years.

The number of schools had more than doubled to 48 with school attendance now at 5662 up 43%. There had been a 26% improvement in the teacher pupil ratio which now stood at 1:99, still frightening by today’s standards. In 1848 there were three new positions – those of Assistant, Needlework Mistress and Mentor noted in the survey.

The interesting and significant change in the past 6 years was the fact that the gender balance had been corrected. The student population was now split 50:50 with 2848 male and 2814 female pupils. A partial correction was also noted in the teaching population. Of the 57 teachers, 26% or 15 were now female.

A sad reflection was that the largest student population was recorded in the Inishowen Workhouse in Donagh with 357 pupils.

The data tables can be downloaded by following the links below:

Pupils x National School 1839

Pupils x National School 1848

Ref : “The Fifteenth Report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland (For the year 1848)” Printed by Alexander Thom, 87 Abbey Street for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1849


A partial listing of National School teachers in Inishowen, 1848

At the end of 1847 there were a total of 3,825 National Schools in the 32 counties of Ireland attended by a total of 402,632 children. Just one year later the number of schools had grown to 4,109 with a massive 25% increase in the number of pupils to 507,469. This increase was attributed by the Commissioners of Education in their annual report for that year to the food distribution program by the British Relief Association.

On April 1st 1848 a system came into effect whereby teachers’ annual salaries were determined by their grade as determined by the 4 Head Inspectors whose responsibility it was to assess each teacher in the country. Male teachers were assessed during 1848 with the plan of assessing female teachers during 1849.

A percentage of the teachers in Inishowen were assessed in 1848. The details of the salary scales and those assessed are given in the link :

Partial listing of Inishowen National School teachers 1848

Ref : “The Fifteenth Report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland (For the year 1848)” Printed by Alexander Thom, 87 Abbey Street for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1849