On the 12th October 1917 the W.M. Barkley, sailing from Dublin to Liverpool with a cargo full of Guinness was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The ship broke in two and sank taking with her five men including the captain.
The Guinness Brewery has had a thriving export trade ever since it first started brewing their world renowned stout at St. James Gate, Dublin in 1759. They would send barrels by barge and boat via the canals to serve all parts of the Ireland and from the River Liffey out across the Irish sea to England from where it was then exported around the globe. Up until the early 20th century they relied on shipping companies to deliver their popular stout but a strike at Dublin Port in 1913 prompted them to buy the first vessel in their very own fleet – the W.M Barkley.
Purchased 1st December 1913, she was a former merchant steamer built in 1898 by Ailsa Shipbuilding Company in Troon, Scotland. The W.M Barkely would the first of nine Guinness boats – eight more ships purchased between 1913 – 1977, the last being The Miranda Guinness which ceased operations in April 1993.
The W.M Barkley’s story is a brief but eventful one. She had only been in service a year when in 1914, at the outbreak of World War 1, the W.M. Barkley along with other Guinness ships were commandeered into service by the British Admiralty. She was initially assigned to transport material for road building in France. However, she proved to be fuel inefficient, needing to stop for coal too often and so was returned to the Guinness company in 1917.
Though she wasn’t back long before tragedy struck.
On the 12th October 1917 the W.M. Barkley set sail from Dublin to Liverpool with a cargo of barrels full of the black stuff and a crew of 13 men. Without warning, 7 miles east of the Kish Lightship, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine UC-75. Within minutes the ship broke in two and sank. She took with her five men including the captain. The rest of the crew huddled for safety on board the open lifeboat, left to face the harsh sea in complete darkness but eventually rescued.
One of the surviving crew members was later interviewed about that night. Thomas McGlue, the ship’s cook/steward, was in the galley making a cup of tea when the torpedo struck. He made his way in darkness up to the deck and managed to get on onto the lifeboat. He recalled the night saying “the Barkley was doing her best to go down but the barrels were fighting their way up through the hatches and that kept us afloat a bit longer, in fact, it’s the reason any of us got out of there.”
Thomas and the other survivors made it aboard the lifeboat and rowed away far enough away from the Barkley so not to get dragged down. All the while the Germans were observing them through binoculars from the conning tower of their submarine. The men hailed the captain requesting to pick them up. He called them alongside and asked the name of the ship and cargo they carried. When he was satisfied the crew were not enemy combatants, the captain told them they were free to go and pointed the direction they should row for.
They survivors attempted to row towards the Kish Lightship but gave up because “it might have been America for all the way we made. We got tired and my hand was hurting. We put out the sea anchor and sat there shouting all night.” They were eventually rescued by a passing ship Donnet Head and were taken back to Dublin port the next morning. They were promptly given a brandy, dry clothes and a warm fire by the Guinness superintendent.
The W.M Barkley now lies on the ocean floor some 26km east of Howth Head in 56 m of water.
In 2011 the INFOMAR Programme surveyed the wreck and took high resolution images of the ship. The detailed image above shows the ship on the seabed and you can clearly see where the ship broke in two.