Carrick man seeks modern location of Victorian ‘Oyster Bank’

Brian Smyth. INCT 30-001-PSB
Brian Smyth. INCT 30-001-PSB

The sad tale of a man who drowned in Belfast Lough some 136 years ago has been uncovered by a Carrick resident.

A joiner from Belfast, Matthew died in a sailing accident during the Carrickfergus regatta on August 25, 1879.

Although the Smyth family had been aware of the manner of their ancestor’s death, they lacked any details of how the tragic accident had occurred, Brian told the Times.

It was only after years of painstaking research in Belfast Central Library’s newspaper archives that the story emerged.

An account from the Belfast Newsletter on August 26, 1879 noted that six boats took part in the race in the Lough.

“They all went well, favoured by a stiff breeze until the last boat but one - The Comfort - had rounded the buoy at the Oyster Bank, where she was struck by a sudden squall. She immediately heeled over and sank, leaving her five occupants in the water,” the article added.

Coming to the stricken vessel’s aid was another boat taking part in the race, the Rob Roy. “[They] succeeded in dragging on board two of the Comfort’s crew named John Anderson and William Wallace.

“By the time these had been taken on board, the Rob Roy was some distance from the scene of the occurrence, and all efforts to beat up to the other men who were still in the water entirely failed.”

After the Rob Roy had returned to shore and reported the matter, a separate rescue party departed.

On reaching the spot where the Comfort had sank, they came across one of the men, Robert Russell, clinging to the mast. The bodies of Matthew and another man, John Niblock, could not be found.

However, a follow up report in the Newsletter on September 8 indicated that the remains of 55-year-old Mr Shanks were pulled from the water some 13 days after the accident.

During an inquest at George Busby’s public house in Eden, it was noted that a young boy named Samuel Millar had spotted the body floating in the sea near Boneybefore. It was retrieved and positively identified by Mr Shanks’s daughter, Margaret.

But despite Brian’s efforts, the exact location of his great-great-grandfather’s death remains a mystery to the Castlerocklands man.

“I have asked around, but I don’t know where Oyster Bank refers to in modern day terms,” he said.

round but I don’t know where Oyster Bank refers to in modern day terms,” he said.