Gene Surfing

Adventures in Family History

The Wreck of the Constance

Farmer BullshotThe steamship Constance was owned by the Bristol Steam Navigation Company and had a short but eventful working live before being wrecked near Plymouth in 1888

This story concerns my great grand-uncle George Sidney who was the chief engineer on the Constance in 1879.

George was born 1844 in “The Dings”, an area of one up-one down, workers housing in Bristol, essentially for those working on the railways. [1]

His father, also George and my great-grandfather, was recorded as an Engineer in the 1871 census and George the younger was a Marine Engineer so we can be fairly sure that it was the younger George who was on the Constance.

The older George had a little run in with the law in 1862 when he was accused of stealing a quantity of brass worth 10s from his employer.

His employer decided not to press charges as George was “of good character” and of “a respectable family” and had worked for him for only 4 months but with a six years reference.

Despite this George was sentenced to six weeks in prison.

We can be sure from these dates that this event did not involve George the younger as he would have been too young.


In 1878 George Sidney, of Totterdown, won third prize in the Hotwells Industrial Exhibition for a model of “three-inch cylinder high-pressure engine”.

 The Constance 1879

The Constance was built in Glasgow and launched in 1871 and seems to have led a quiet life as a coastal steamer travelling from Bristol along the south coast to the continent and back.

But there were two significant events in 1879 when George was engineer, the first a tragic accident and the second involved tobacco smuggling.

The Leading Light

On 12th May 1879 the Constance was in collision with the Leading light, a pilot cutter anchored near the mouth of the river Avon

The enquiry showed that the crew of the Constance were probably to blame for this accident, in which a member of the [two man] crew on the Leading Light was killed.

We think then that this collision was due either to the want of a good look-out on board the “Constance,” which prevented their seeing the cutter until they were close upon her, or to the master of the steamer having laid his vessel on a course to pass so close to the cutter that a slight alteration of her position would involve the risk of a collision. We do not indeed blame the master for having steered a course from the mouth of the Bristol river which would, as he said, take him down between the current which was still running up midchannel, and the eddy on the south shore. It was, no doubt, the usual course at that time of tide, and there could be no reason why he should not take it, even though it was a short cut, provided that he could do so without risk to himself or others. What we blame him for is, for not keeping a good lookout, or for going too near this cutter. It was not a mere error of judgment, it was navigating his ship without “proper and seamanlike care”; and, notwithstanding the high character which this master bears, and the long time which he has been on board this vessel as master, we think that we should not be doing our duty unless we suspended his certificate.

George gave evidence only in regard to the instructions he received through the telegraph in the engine room.

A full record of the enquiry is available.


In July 1879 customs inspectors boarded the Constance to search for smuggled tobacco.

Earlier the ship’s steward had been detained by a vigilant policeman carrying 5lb of tobacco and brandy.

Three searches discovered nothing as it had been well hidden behind machinery, but eventually 128lb of tobacco was recovered worth £6 8s with the unpaid  duty worth £27 14s 8d

George and other members of the engineering crew were arrested and charged with smuggling.

The Trial

At the trial the crew maintained that they knew nothing of the tobacco and that, as they did not sleep near the engine room when docked, anyone could have stored the tobacco while they were in Rotterdam or Antwerp.

One defence was that a number of the crew had recently been dismissed and it was suggested that one of them tipped-off the customs inspector where to find the tobacco having not been able to recover it for themselves.

But Mr. Frederick Wills (tobacco manufacturer) said that the tobacco was probably only about a week old and other witnesses said that the engine room spelled like the the Wills tobacco warehouse so was unlikely that the crew did not know what was going on.

The hiding place also required some engineering knowledge – the accused fireman maintained that he did not have such knowledge.

However the crew, including George and the fireman were all fined £100

It seems that George left the Constance shortly after the trial and tried something else – being recorded as a civil engineer in 1881 – before eventually returning to sea in 1882.

But he was not actually at home for the 1881 census and it was his wife Mary that is shown as “wife of civil engineer”. Perhaps he was at sea and the civil bit was a mistake?

The Douro

In 1882 George, then serving on the Douro as chief engineer, was a witness in a case bought by a passenger on the “Chepstow” who claimed that his clothes were ruined by a discharge from a waste steam pipe. He was awarded costs of £3 and told to donate his ruined clothes to the sufferers of the flood.

Ship: Douro; Official number: 78459. W H Thomas; rank/rating, Master; age, 39

This 1891 register [available in the national archives] shows:

George Sidney; rank/rating, Engineer; age, 47; place of birth, Bristol; previous ship, same.

It also shows:

Joseph Sidney; rank/rating, Fireman; age, 24; place of birth, Bristol; previous ship, same

This is George’s eldest son, his younger son George being a carpenter.

The Wreck

The wreck of the Constance was in 1888 near Plymouth.

George was now serving on the Duoro [not the RMS Duoro that sank in 1882 or the one sunk by a submarine in 1915] so was not on board.

The findings of the enquiry were that the owners of the Constance has failed to maintain the vessel.

As well as a missing compass the telegraph to the engine room did not work correctly and these issues led to the ship running aground in thick fog on the Shagstone Rock with the loss of three lives.

George was lucky to have abandoned this particular ship.

Chris Sidney 2014

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