The Schooner ‘Starling’

Written by S. Ablott
First Published
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Starling was a schooner of 112 tons and 76 feet long, launched in August of 1859 for Joseph Wood of Goole. By 1885 she belonged to Joe William Craven of 37 North Street, Goole and was re-rigged as a ketch. She worked in the UK coastal trade carrying various cargos.

The Last Voyage of the Starling

On the 14th of October in 1889 the Starling set sail out of Hull for Gravesend laden with 189 tons of coal. She was captained by Robert Ellison, accompanied by three crewmen, William Parsons the mate, William Henderson deckhand and a cook.

On the evening of the 18th they had reached the Sunk Light (about 10 miles south east of Felixstowe). As the sun set Ellison ordered the side lights to be lit. It was a dark night, but clear and there was a strong south-south easterly breeze blowing. The vessel had it's mainsail, standing jib, stay foresail and mizzen up.

Steamer Spotted

At about quarter past nine they were somewhere between the Ship Wash and Sunk Lights on a South West by West bearing. Ellison was at the wheel when he spotted a white masthead light above a red side light about 3 or 4 miles off one point on his starboard bow, indicating the port side of a steamer ahead. Ellison called out to the mate William Parsons who was on lookout forward Are the side lights alright?
Yes, burning brightly.

As some time passed the steamer grew closer, still ahead. Ellison again enquired whether the lights were alright and was told that the green one had gone out, so gave the order to have it re-trimmed. Parsons went into the galley to fetch out the riding light and held it above the starboard rail while deckhand Henderson re-trimmed the sidelight and replaced the screen.

SS Stelling

Model of the SS Stelling
A Model of the SS Stelling

At 17:00 on the 18th of October the 215 foot iron steamship Stelling left Chatham for the Tyne in ballast commanded by George Bell Taylor. As well as having two inverted direct-acting compound surface condensing engines, the ship was schooner rigged with two masts. At around 21:00 they had reached the Gunfleet Light and Taylor ordered the mate to set the trysails in order to steady the ship. Taylor took charge of the bridge while the mate went forward and called the man off look-out to help set the sails, which was apparently the custom on-board this ship.

The Last Moments of The Starling

Satisfied that the side light were burning brightly and they were visible to the steamer, the Starling sailed on. The steamer however drew ever closer to the sailing ship, until about one point off the port bow when suddenly it's green light became visible, as if turning to port toward them. They tried to hail the steamer, but it seemed there was no time and nothing that could be done to avoid collision. Ellison called out Every man for him self!

About 10 to 15 minutes after the order was given, the crewmen on the SS stelling were still setting the trysails. It was 21:40 and captain Taylor was walking to the bridge having just given the order to alter course to North-East by East. He spotted a light ahead, at first thinking it was a bright light, but after looking using the glasses, saw it was a red light. He called out Port, hard-a-port. and telegraphed the engines to be stopped and reversed. At that moment, they struck the Starling on the port bow, going completely over the smaller wooden ship and throwing the men on deck into the dark water. The crew of the Steamer threw lines overboard toward pieces of debris or where cries for help were heard. As soon at the ship stopped making way the jolly boat was launched and a search began.

It took them about three quarters of an hour to find captain Ellison and the cook who were picked up by the boat in an exhausted state. The search continued for about another half an hour, but the mate William Parsons and the deckhand William Henderson, could not be found. Ellison believed that they had gone down with the wreck. The two survivors were taken on-board the ship and well looked after until they were eventually landed in the Tyne.

The Inquiry

The Town Hall in Hull
The Town Hall in Hull

A formal investigation into the collision was held by the Board of Trade at Hull Town Hall in November. The Court found the master of the SS Stelling, George Bell Taylor, in default, deciding that the collision was caused by the want of sufficient look-out on-board his ship. The practice of taking the man off look-out duty to help with the sails was considered to be unjustifiable. The ship was stopped and reversed too late to avoid collision. However, everything was done by the Stelling's crew to save life after the accident.

The court considered that the master of the Starling, Robert Ellison did everything he could under the circumstances to avoid collision. Making every effort to ensure his lights were burning brightly so the vessel was visible and keeping a proper look-out, complying with the regulations for avoiding collision and that the Starling was navigated with proper and seamanlike care. Ellison was not in default.

As a result of the inquiry George Bell Taylor of the SS Stelling had his Master's certificate suspended for three months.

Vessel Details for Starling

Official Number:27589
Code Flags:PRWFCode flag - PapaCode flag - RomeoCode flag - WhiskeyCode flag - Foxtrot
Vessel Name:Starling
  • Joseph Wood of Goole 1880
  • Joe William Craven 1885
  • J Wood 1861
  • A Wood 1870
  • J Bew 1889
  • Robert Ellison
  • Goole
Notes:Originaly a schooner, later rerigged as a ketch.
Construction:Iron bolts. Some repairs 1869.
Trade:Goole coaster.
Fate:Lost in collision with SS Stelling 18th October 1889.


  1. Lloyd's Register of Ships.
  2. The Mercantile Navy Lists.
  3. Board of Trade Wreck Report for Starling and Stelling - 1889

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Creative Commons. Background Photograph by Bruno Girin. Used with modifications under license.