The Brilliant was one of the earliest steamships in Scotland, being built by James Lang in Dumbarton way back in 1821 – just 9 years after the pioneering Comet – for the Leith & Aberdeen Steam Yacht Company of Leith.
She wasn’t that different from a sailing coaster, with the addition of the steam mechanism. She was fairly small, displacing just 159 tons; being 120 feet long; 20.5 feet in the beam (wide); with an 8 foot draught (depth) and the crew was 10.
She was a successful and reliable vessel in service and plied the east and north coast of Scotland over the next years, variously between Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Leith and the ports and piers along the way. She was joined in service by the Sovereign and Velocity.
The success of the coastal steam packets saw a rapid expansion, speculative ventures and then consolidation of the industry. In 1826, the Brilliant‘s owners merged the rival Aberdeen & Leith Shipping co. to form the A & L Steam Packet Co. By 1837, the Aberdeen & Leith Steam Packet had merged with others to become the Aberdeen, Leith, Clyde & Tay Shipping Co., usually just shortened to the “Leith & Clyde Co.” Under this ownership she is recorded in the fateful year 1839 in Lloyd’s Register.
Because of the poor state of the port of Leith in the 1820s and 30s, Brilliant often sailed instead from the Trinity Chain Pier, which had been built as a speculative scheme to provide a steamship pier less affected by the tides as the old Port of Leith. She could easily be one of the small steam ships in either picture.
An 1843 engraving of an image by W. H. Bartlett shows a pair of steamships, one each coming and going from the Port of Leith. Again, Brilliant could easily be either of them.
By 1839, Brilliant sailed between Aberdeen and Leith thrice a week under her master Captain Cawfield Wade. You could have a cabin for 14/- or go steerage for 7/-. The journey took about 12 hours (although she had managed it against the wind in 10 3/4) and called at intermediate piers along the Fife and Angus coast. The schedule was well maintained, intermediate stops took only 5-10 minutes and were conducted offshore, passengers who wished to join or leave the steamer being rowed out to and from those ports. Once a week she would make a run from Aberdeen to Inverness and back again.
Of Captain Wade we know relatively little. He had been a mate (officer) in the Aberdeen and Leith steamships before being promoted to the Brilliant, which seems to have been his first command. He had married in Aberdeen in 1837 to Lillias Reid, a farmer’s daughter from Alford. We know he had a brother, William Wade, also “a mariner in Aberdeen”, but neither show up in Scottish birth registers, and Wade is an uncommon Scottish name at the time, so they may have been from further away.
On the afternoon of 11th December, 1839, Captain Wade took the Brilliant out of Leith and headed north on what should have been just another one of her thrice-weekly scheduled runs.
She called in along the coast, but weather conditions worsened.
Overnight, Captain Morrison, the Aberdeen harbour master and pilot was awoken by a terrible storm. Brilliant entered into this storm in the early morning.
Struggling through the heavy weather and almost within sight of Aberdeen, disaster struck. Around 6AM she was off Girdle Ness and was suddenly hit by an unexpected wave, Captain Wade at his station on the quarterdeck was swept overboard and disappeared into the clutches of Neptune.
The entrance to Aberdeen harbour had a fearsome reputation in Victorian times and it was well earned. Brilliant, wallowing through the storm without her master was about to become its first steam-powered victim.
The sea was rushing on from the beam as she approached the harbour entrance. Passing through “the bar”, whomever was steering her was not able to keep her clear of the grip of the churning water and she was driven side-on onto the harbour wall, just below the Footdee or “Fittie” light house.
In his haste to abandon ship, the engineer failed to draw the fires from Brilliant‘s three boilers and they quickly ran dry, overheated and set the wooden ship ablaze. The artist J. Faddie captured the remarkable scene that night for us.
Miraculously, all on board were saved – excepting the tragic Captain Wade. Salvage parties were even organised to return to the burning ship and recover most of her cargo. The bow of the ship was fast on pier, allowing the salvage parties in the painting to work in (relative) safety while the stern burnt out. The mainmast was cut down about 10 O Clock in the morning, and an hour later the funnel and mizzen (after) mast collapsed.
By sunset, the Brilliant had burned to her waterline, and the pounding of the seas would make short work of scattering her remains across the nearby seabed and shore. The body of Captain Cawfield Wade would never be found. Wade’s will shows he left an estate of £50 (about £5,000 today), not that big a sum at the time, about a year’s pay for someone in his position. To his Wife he left their household goods worth around £40. To his brother, William, “mariner in Aberdeen”, he left his “suit of coloured clothes“, his best jacket and watch. To a man described as a brother in law, he left his “suit of black clothes“. It is likely one suit of clothes and his watch followed him to his watery grave. These bequests were made on the condition forbidding his “nearest in kin from troubling or molesting” his wife, Lilias.
Lilias appears to have lived out a long life as the “Widow of the Late Captain Wade”, running various lodging houses in Aberdeen. Realistically there was probably little other option open to her beyond remarrying. William Wade is never heard of again, although a woman Martha Wade and a child, William Wade, are in the 1841 Aberdeen census. They may have been a wife and child or sister and nephew. William Wade junior would become a seaman and get a master’s ticket in later life.
Lilias dies at the age of 87 in Old Machar parish in Aberdeen, her last address a respectable granite house in Margaret Street.
The entry into Abderdeen harbour would be treacherous for the Aberdeen steamers. Nine years later in 1848, Brilliant‘s sister – the Velocity – would be wrecked in almost exactly the same spot and circumstances, driven onto the Fittie wall by heavy seas. Again all aboard were saved but the ship and all cargo were demolished within an hour and scattered along the Torry side. In 1853, the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Co.’s, Duke of Sutherland en route from London was wrecked in the harbour entrance, 16 lives were lost.
In 1863 the Leith & Clyde Co.’s Prince Consort would also come a cropper on the harbour entrance. She broke her back but miraculously was salvaged, repaired and returned to service only to be finally wrecked on the Hasman rocks a few miles south of Girdle Ness in 1867; fortuitously with no loss of life.
The Aberdeen, Leith, Clyde & Tay Shipping Co would go on to prosper, becoming the North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company, the “North Company”. connecting the ports of Orkney, Shetland and the north of Scotland with Leith.
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