Miss Havisham’s wedding feast – a real-life tragedy

Tragedies at sea, in this case on the SS West Cumberland, took their toll on loved ones at home.

Charles Dickens described the room, in Great Expectations, where poor Miss Havisham’s wedding feast sits on the table, mouldering and crumbling from the day she was jilted at the altar by the swindling Compeyson:

‘The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together.’

It came to mind when I stumbled on a tragedy that broke a young Cumbrian woman’s heart, in 1890. Though in her case, her fiancé was no rogue, but rather a ‘promising young man,’ and it was his death that left her alone with her wedding cake and dress on what should have been a joyous day.

On June 11, 1890, the SS West Cumberland, of Maryport, sank after being in collision with the barque Minero, about 60 miles north of Cape Finisterre.

The SS West Cumberland was on her way from Cathagena to Mostyn, on the River Mersey.

The Minero rescued the mate and four of the crew, and turned round for Cardiff. The SS West Cumberland’s captain and 12 of the crew were rescued by the steamer Mounts Bay, which was heading for London.

The only casualty was the Cumberland’s second engineer, W Albert Thornber, who drowned.

Poor Albert was actually a good swimmer, well known in is home town of Whitehaven and the surrounding district for his swimming feats. Sadly, all the competition prizes he’d won did him no good in the waters of the Atlantic.

The death notice in the Cumberland Pacquet reads: William Albert Thornber… was fatally injured and went down with the SS West Cumberland in the Bay of Biscay, aged 26 years.

Albert was the son of Mark Thornber, a draper (employed by Mr Taggart, of Ling-street Whitehaven) and his wife Sarah Highmore. In 1881, the census shows the family living at 20 Tangier Street. Albert (born Workington) is 16 and listed as an apprentice draper – if only he’d stayed in that trade.

The West Cumberland, built in 1879 by Messrs Joseph L Thompson and Son of Sunderland, was owned by Hine Brothers of Maryport.

The Cumbrians on board

Other Cumbrians on board were listed as George Brown, of Hilton-terrace, Whitehaven, the first mate; the second mate, Mr Wallis, son of WG Wallis of Maryport, and; the chief engineer, Mr Miller, also of Maryport. Among the rest of the crew, one of the firemen, Hugh Flynn, was from Carter-lane Whitehaven.

Bereaved just before her big day

But back to poor Albert. He was due to have been married, on June 19, to Miss Wilson, daughter of Mrs Wilson of the Queen’s Arms, Bransty (Whitehaven).

Sadly, I couldn’t find them in Bransty in 1881 or 1891 (the only Wilsons were a blacksmith and his family, no Queen’s Arms, either).

One report says the wedding garments, wedding cake and everything else for the marriage were ready when the telegram arrived with the terrible news.

Of course, there is no suggestion she left the wedding feast on a table for the rest of her life. Nor that she wore her wedding dress every day, either.

But the ‘popular’ image of Miss Havisham does perhaps make it easier to imagine the real-life grief of the young woman. For she had to look at the cake and dress, knowing her true love had lost his life while she had still been happily preparing for their big day.

The SS West Cumberland

You can see more on the SS West Cumberland here though the cutting saying ‘no loss of life’ is sadly wrong.

The ship had been subject of a previous drama, in February 1885, when third engineer Frank Shaw was killed after a night out drinking while the vessel was taking in cargo in Benisol, Algeria.

William Wright, boatswain, and Antonio Padomo, seaman, were brought before the Maryport bench, charged with murder. Shaw had been found dead on the sands, with two large wounds to his head. It seemed he’d either fallen or been knocked into a stone wall, which had blood on it. The court decided there was no case against Wright, and it had no jurisdiction of Padomo (being Spanish), so both were discharged.

First published Jan 2018