Tayleur: White Star Line's first maiden voyage disaster


Senan Molony

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It is the White Star Line’s first maiden voyage disaster - but it remains all but unknown.

Textbooks like “Falling Star”, the history of mishaps to the great steamship company that owned Titanic fail to mention the signal catastrophe that befell the Tayleur, a charter vessel of Pilkington and Wilson’s White Star Line.

While en route from Liverpool to Melbourne with emigrants for the goldfields of Australia the Tayleur was wrecked on the “nose” of Lambay Island, off Dublin, Ireland, on January 21, 1854. Hundreds died, perhaps as many as four hundred.

The Tayleur was about the size of the Cutty Sark and, like Titanic, the largest sailing ship of her size. She reportedly carried 660 passengers and crew when she was towed down the Mersey by tug for her maiden voyage.

But a storm soon arose and the inexperienced crew could not handle the ship - a problem made worse by new ropes swelling on contact with seaspray and being unable to pass through their pulleys. A sail that should have taken fifteen minutes to reef took instead an hour and a half.

The official inquiry - a brisk matter of two days of oral hearings - found that the crew was inexperienced and inadequate, but in the main blamed maladjusted compasses. It also appears there was trouble with the semi-mechanical steering gear.

The Tayleur found herself hopelessly in the wrong place and her captain failed to take soundings. She was driven straight across the Irish Sea and impelled to her doom. The ship ran ashore at 11.45pm and the boats couldn't be launched because of the storm. A passenger scrambled ashore with a line, saving untold lives.

About 100 victims of White Star Line's first maiden voyage disaster now lie buried on Lambay, off Dublin. Pathetically, among the cargo was a consignment of tombstones - which divers, who discovered the wreck in 1957, can now see strewn namelessly on the sea bed.

The kedge anchor is on display in a nearby seaside town and other items are on display in Dublin's civic and maritime museums. The following dramatic accounts have been culled from newspapers of the period - 58 years before Titanic...

(They appeared in an article on the Tayleur I wrote for the Irish Titanic Historical Society's publication, the White Star Journal, in 1998.)

THE LATE APPALLING SHIPWRECK

Dublin, Tueday morning

The full extent of the fearful calamity was but imperfectly ascertained until yesterday afternoon... in the gloomy annals of nautical disasters, the recent one will probably take the foremost place, not merely on account of the great sacrifice of human life, but from the circumstance by which the catastrophe was attended.
The following ample details are furnished by the Freeman's Journal of this morning (January 24, 1854):-

The Tayleur left the Mersey having on board about 660 souls. The ship made fair weather of it for some hours until she got off Holyhead, when the wind headed her, and she struggled against an adverse gale during the whole of Friday and Friday night. The captain, despairing of getting down-channel against such a gale, determined to try the course north about, and accordingly the ship's head was got round, and she stood on amid thick and heavy weather from daylight on Saturday morning. Owing to the dense fog and perhaps some error in reckoning, the ship was found at about 10 o'clock within sight of land, and in half an hour after, the lookout man at the bows cried 'Breakers on the starboard bow!' The ship's course was altered, but in less than 20 minutes after, she struck with fearful violence on a reef of rocks on the east side of Lambay Island.
The terrible consequences of this catastrophe will be best gathered from the subjoined accounts. In short, out of the entire number on board this ill-fated vessel (660, including the crew), only 282 individuals have been rescued, many of whm are severely maimed and injured. The shore of the creek where the ship lies wrecked and the shore adjoining were strewn with corpses, some of which we regret to add are said to have been stripped naked by some miscreants. The ship lies in about two fathoms of water.

Captain Noble states that...the lookout cried out 'Breakers on the starboard bow.' It was then blowing heavily and a high sea running. The helm was put hard a-starboard, the sheets of the head sails let go, and every means taken to bring the ship round on a course free from the threatened danger. It was then impossible to see a cable's length from the vessel, and in about 20 minutes more she struck with great violence upon a reef of rocks running out from a creek right to the eastward bluff of Lambay island. The shock was tremendous, shaking the vessel from stem to stern. She rose on the next wave, and drove in rather broadside on; and when she struck again, still heavier, the sea made a clean breach over her amidships, setting everything on deck afloat. After three or more shocks the ship began to sink by the stern., and the passengers rushed up the hatchways screaming and imploring help. The ship's quarter drifted on towards one side of the creek, and one of the cook's assistants (a black man), two Lascars, and three seamen contrived to jump across on shore and thus saved their lives.
A rope and a spar were afterwards got across, and by this means a number of lives were rescued , chiefly through the activities and devoted gallantry of two or three young men, passengers, whose exertions in saving the lives of their fellow sufferers deserve the highest praise.
Those who attempted to escape by the bows of the vessel, all, or nearly, met a miserable fate. The moment they fell into the water, the waves caught them and dashed them violently against the rocks, and the survivors on shore could perceive the unfortunate creatures, with their heads bruised and cut open, struggling amidst the waves, and one by one sinking under them.

The surgeon of the doomed ship, Dr Cunningham, was remarkable for his efforts in endeavouring to save, first the lives of his own wife and child, and also the lives of his fellow passengers; and it is one of the most melancholy features of this disastrous occurrence, that this intrepid man lost his life in the attempt to save the lives of others. When the vessel struck, amid the dire confusion and dismay that prevailed, Surgeon Cunningham was everywhere seen trying to restore confidence and courage among the passengers and endeavouring to preserve order and coolness.
He was next seen crossing the perilous means of escape with his little child on one arm, supporting the infant still more securely by holding its dress in his mouth. The ship heaved on the surge of the sea, the rope swerved, and he was swept from his hold, and his child was torn from him by the force of the sea and perished. He himself sank twice, but at last made good his grip on a projecting point of rock. While in this precarious position, a drowning woman swept by him - he grasped her, and was observed to raise her up, and hold her above the water. He put her hair back from her eyes and seemed to encourage her; but a heavy wave tore her from his grasp, and she perished. Mr Cunningham then seized hold of a rope ladder hanging over the side of the ship, by which he hauled himself on board, hand over hand, and soon after appeared, carrying his wife for the purpose of rescuing her. He nearly succeeded in getting her across the spar by means of the rope, when another heavy wave rushed on and swept off this devoted man and his wife, who were both swept out in the under tow, and drowned in sight of the survivors. The captain states that on mustering the number than had been saved, they proceeded in a body towards the coast-guard station, were they endeavoured to obtain whatever accommodation they could get. On intelligence reaching the mainland of the sad occurrence, and of the destitute condition of the survivors, a quantity of provisions, consisting of four carcasses of mutton and some gallons of spirits, were set by orders of Sir Roger Palmer for the relief of the sufferers. Subsequently Lord Talbot de Malahide sent down his steward and a body of assistants with provisions and clothing.

______

The Wreck of the Tayleur

"I made a visit last week to Lambay Island, the scene of the wreck of the unfortunate Tayleur...
On the opposite side of the island, a mile and a half distant from where I landed, and where the unfortunate Tayleur struck, the coast presents a different appearance, the rocks rising perpendicularly from the sea to a height of nearly 200 feet; and, when looking down from the summit to the base, the angry waves are seen lashing over those angry rocks on which the ship struck.
My first visit was to the graveyard of a small Popish chapel, where I was told, all the bodies which had been recovered were lying. On reaching this place a truly melancholy spectacle presented itself - the naked and mutilated remains of 76 human beings, in almost every stage of decomposition, lay before me. A few men were busily employed digging several large holes, into which all the bodies when coffined, were to be placed. Some of the bodies were already coffined preparatory to burial. I visited this spot, if possible, to identify my friends, but I found it utterly impossible to do so. Had they been there, a brother could not have recognised a brother, nor a husband his own wife, the remains had been so much mutilated, many bodies without heads, and few being altogether perfect. Out of 76 bodies which were lying stretched out on the grass, there were only six of those women. The bodies when brought ashore were with but few exceptions, and these very trivial, quite naked. It was at first supposed that the bodies had been stripped by those persons living on the island, but this was not the case; there can be no doubt that the stripping was effected by the bodies being dashed against the sharp pointed rocks.
Everything which was upon the persons of those who perished has been lost. I hoped to be able to recover, if not the bodies, at least some of the valuable property which my friends had along with them, but all money and other valuable property has been lost - only one box has been found, and it is as yet unclaimed.
Those employed on the island in recovering the yet missing bodies, amounting to upwards of 250, have little hope of recovering any more.
I saw seven in a small creek, which were so jammed in the crevices of the rocks that all means to extricate them had failed. It is probably that many bodies, particularly those of women, are yet in the cabins of the ship, having been unable at the time of the wreck to leave their berths, owing to sickness or other causes.
The verdict of the coroner at the late inquest has given much satisfaction reflecting as it does on the conduct of the owners of the ship in allowing her to proceed to sea with an inefficient crew, a badly-adjusted compass, and a rudder which the ship would not obey. But it appears to me, Sir, that the verdict ought to reflect as much on the Board of Trade as it does on the owners of the ship, inasmuch as it is unquestionably the duty of the board to inspect every ship which leaves our ports, and pronounce whether it is fit for the voyage.

(Letter to the Liverpool Courier, February 8, 1854)

___________________


The Wakefield Journal (February 6, 1854) published the narrative of one of the passengers, Mr Edward Tew, Junior, son of a banker in that town. Mr Tew says -

"Just as I came on deck a lady came up to me and asked if I could swim. I told her I could. (She was the same lady who afterwards offered £3000 for her life). She said she would keep near me; she, however, went away. I had been actively engaged from the time we first saw land. I had no time to be frightened. I was one of the few who kept my senses to the last. I went to the larboard side of the vessel, that is to say, the side furtherest from the shore. I sat down for about half a minute and made up my mind to swim a rather different direction in order to avoid the dead bodies. I then dropped quietly down a chain into the water, and had not swam above a couple of yards when I saw a boy about ten years old clinging to a piece of wood. I immediately made to him; he was crying, and told me his mother was drowned. He said it was no use my tying to save him, for he should be drowned. However, I was determined to try and accordingly took him by the collar and placed him on the top of a large spar, and made him take hold of a piece of iron which was standing out. I still had hold of his collar with my right hand, and kept the broken pieces of wood and spars off with my left hand. It was then I experienced difficulties which required almost superhuman efforts to overcome.
A heavy sea was rolling over us every moment, large spars threatening to crush us, and almost perpendicular rocks, as black as death, staring us in the face. Well, I was determined not to have our heads dashed against the rocks, as had been the fate of so many of my fellow passengers. As we neared the rocks, the boy was washed off the spar, but I still had hold of him. I put out my hand to save our heads and received a cut in the hand, but I felt the land and told the boy we were saved. But not so, for we were washed back out again. I made to land a second time and was washed back again. I tried a third time and was treated in the same way. I was making towards the rock a fourth time, determined to save the lad or die with him, when a spar struck him on the right side of his head - the side I had no control over - and entered his skull; it knocked me under at the same time, but I rose again, and a rope was thrown to me, which I twisted around my arm 20 times at least, and with the assistance of a sailor clambered up the rock. I just got there in time to see the whole ship go down. I found the captain had arrived before me. He had swam ashore, and the two passengers who had assisted him out of the water were both washed back into the sea again and drowned. The captain said he could feel the dead bodies with his feet as he swam. Several other people were washed back into the sea in the attempt to save life. One Frenchman saved a child in the following manner:- he had undressed to his shirt, intending to swim, but seeing so many die in the attempt, he chose rather to try the rope, but just as he was getting on to the rope, he saw a child sprawling upon the deck. He snatched it up, took hold of its back with his teeth, and carried it safely to shore. The child is unowned. I believe I was the last man who left the ship, and the last who arrived safely on shore. There were only two persons who saved themselves by swimming besides myself, the captain and a passenger sailor.
I found we were cast upon Lambay Island, about three miles from Rush, and 13 from Dublin. Here you would see some limping with their legs sprained; one man had a broken arm, another man had only a shirt on, and another had only got a pair of trousers, while others were without shoes or stockings. It was here that I heard the most heart-rending tales. One man had lost six sisters, four brothers, and a mother; a German had lost a whole family. Another man told me he had lost his brother, his brother's wife, her three sisters, and four children; others had lost their wives and children. The loss of property was immense, and no one seemed to have insured. One man told me he had about £750 worth of goods on board; they were not insured, but he had insured his life for £1,000. The night was dreadful; we were almost starving; many of us were nearly naked and wet through. We had straw given us to lie down upon. In this state we passed the night, The next day was as bad as the day before. When we went to the wreck we found bodies piled over each other, all naked, and mangled in such a manner that no one could tell who they were. I helped some of the sailors down the rocks by a rope which was fastened around my waist. I then sat down and tied my feet against a projecting piece of rock. In this way I could have supported a bullock, and of course the rope could not slip from my hold. I was obliged to remain in this way for an hour, everyone declining to take my post, but one man was good enough to cover my feet with sods to keep the cold off. There was only one lady brought up the cliff; she was naked but all her stays, and had two diamond rings on her fingers. I was told about two hours after that some inhuman monster cut her finger off for the rings."

__________________

Mr Michael Reidy was then examined as follows: “I am from Scariff in the county of Galway. I lived at home without followng any particular occupation until I took a passage in the Tayleur for Australia. I went on board the vesel on Monday the 16th and sailed on the following Thursday. At about 4 o'clock on the Friday morning, I was lying in my berth with my clothes on, when a passenger named Holland told me that there was great confusion on board and that if any accident occurred I would have the best chance of saving myself by being on deck. When I got on deck I observed the greatest confusion and very few hands on deck, and I observed one of the sails on the mainmast torn, and all the sails flapping about. I saw no exertions made aloft to reef them or take them in, Two sailors were hauling a rope near the mainmast and I went to assist them. I did so because I saw there was great necessity. Captain Noble came up in the meantime and asked one of the sailors what they were doing. The man told him, and he seemed satisfied. I was then assisting in hauling the rope. The captain went four or five yards along the deck when the man he had addressed followed him and complained of two men he had found lashed on the cradle asleep. The captain said if he caught them asleep they would recollect it. I remarked to the captain that the passengers felt greatly disappointed at the crew; the more so on account of their having had confidence in him that he would not have gone to sea with such hands. The captain said, 'I knew no more what they were than you did. They engaged themselves in Liverpool as good and efficient men, and I had no opportunity of knowing what they were until now, when I find that they are not efficient, and indifferent as they are, they have gone down and hid themselves among the passengers and can't be found.' I said the opinion on board was that the crew did not number more than 25 men, and he said there were from 60 to 65, including stewards. I remained nearly an hour on deck, and then went below.
Lieutenant Prior, the Government Emigration Agent at Liverpool, here gave the following information relative to the crew: - there were 71 names on the ship's articles, of whom 57 composed the crew. There were a number of stewards not received as crew. There were the captain, three mates, a boatswain and his mate, a carpenter, a ship's steward, a ship's cook, 26 able seamen, 11 ordinary seamen, 6 apprentices, 2 passengers' cooks, and two passengers' stewards, and a person who had been seven years at sea. There were twelve foreigners among the crew - viz, six Italians, one from Elsinore, three Chinese, and two from Bombay, who were passenger cook and steward. All of these men understood English perfectly well, except two of the Chinese. The vessel measured 1,797 tons new measurement, and had about three men to each 100 tons which is considered sufficient. The apprentices were from 17 to 19 year of age and four of them had been to sea before.

(Times, January 30, 1854)
* Elsinore means Denmark.

___________________

The following statement by the pilot, who took the Tayleur out to sea, is of considerable importance as showing the state of the compasses when she took her departure: -

"I took the Tayleur to sea on Thursday last, the ship being in the tow of the steam-tug Victory. While the wind was light the steamer continued towing her, but as soon as a breeze sprung up, the steamer was obliged to drop astern, as such were the sailing qualities of the ship that she would have run over the steamer. During the passage down I had a full opportunity to examine the compasses, both below and those upon deck. The ship answered her helm and steered like a fish, and I do not hesitate to state that I believed her to be the fastest ship afloat. When the breeze sprang up and the sails were set, by the steam-tug's capacity which I know to be 10 knots an hour, I found that the ship was leaving her at the rate of three or four miles an hour, thus making the speed of the ship from 13 to 14 knots an hour.
An extraordinary circumstance took place when the steam-tug came up to the ship to take those parties on shore who had gone out to see their friends off, together with those clerks from the office who were on board. An Irishman, a passenger, in the confusion and noise that occurred when this steamer went alongside the ship, thought something was radically wrong , and for self-preservation he jumped on board the tug. It was quite dark at the time the tug left the ship, and when the steamer had receded some distance on her course to Liverpool, someone observed a person standing on the paddle box and said to him 'Come down out of that', to which he replied in amazement, 'Where are we going?' and they told him the steamer was going to Liverpool. He appeared to be dreadfully confused and said he wanted to go to Melbourne. The steamer was then put about with a view to putting him on board the ship, but she was going so fast that we could not catch her, and the man was therefore brought to Liverpool as he stood, leaving his clothes and all he had on board - an accident to him, but one which probably saved his life.
Among the passengers saved were a man named Carley and his wife, whose adventures invest portions of his history with all the interest marking romance in real life. In the year 1841 he was sentenced at the Rutland assizes to transportation for ten years for sheep-slaughtering. At that time he was about to marry a young woman who loved "not wisely, but too well." She was in attendance in the court during his trial, indulging in the anxious hope that the jury would acquit him. The delivery of the sentence was the precursor to a painful scene. She shrieked, threw her arms around the prisoner's neck, and became overpowered with grief. He was however sent out of the country, and she was compelled to make stays for the support of herself and a young child, the paternity of which the convict did not deny. Twelve years passed without the woman receiving any intelligence from Botany Bay. One morning in October last, however, she had been to Morcott on business, and entered a railway carriage for the purpose of returning to Stamford. In the same compartment were several men, one of whom so intently fixed his eyes on her that she was induced to change her position in order to escape the apparent rudeness. The man, however, continued to gaze earnestly upon her, till at last, catching her eye, he exclaimed, "I'm the man!" She recognised the voice of the long-lost Samuel Carley, and after fainting, gave expression to her great joy. In a few days they were married and Carley, who had been a successful gold-digger (having been released from the penal settlement) gave so glowing a description of Australia that he had little difficulty in persuading her to accompany him to the land of gold. They were among the steerage passengers on board the Tayleur, and when the ship struck Carley was one of the few husbands who succeeded in saving his own life and that of his wife.

(The Times, January 26, 1854)

* A Samuel Carley was indeed listed with the survivors, along with one Sarah-Anne Carley, in a separate and detailed newspaper catalogue of the escapees.

ENDS

Additional sources:
Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast, by Edward J. Bourke
Email data from White Star historian Mark A. Baber
White Star, by Roy Anderson.
 
Nov 22, 2000
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Senan, Have you got a copy of H F Starkey's book "Iron Clipper - Tayleur - The White Star Line's First Titanic"? If not, I can send one to you.

Geoff
 

Senan Molony

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Jan 30, 2004
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I ordered that from the publisher but never received it. It's another of those irritating outstanding matters that I have to chase up. Is it any god?
 
Nov 22, 2000
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It's not bad, obviously with the disaster happening so many years ago, it has to be taken from contemporary newspapers as it is most unlikely to find a 170 year old survivor! The sinking itself is told in graphic style but doesn't start until half way through the book. At such a low price though, it's a nice little piece for the collection.

Geoff
 
Apr 11, 2001
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This is a remarkable account-thanks for taking the time to post all the details, Senan. This is all news to me- such a tragedy. Has the wrecksite been photographed and documented? Is there a special memorial or cemetery for those 100 buried near Dublin? Am uncertain about Pilkington and Wilson- these were owners of the line before the Ismay Dynasty-?- or did White Star charter this ship from another line?
 

Mark Baber

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Hello, Shelly---

Pilkington & Wilson was one of three partnerships which used the White Star name before Thomas Ismay acquired it in a liquidation sale in 1867. Established in 1845, P&W was originally a ship brokerage firm; eventually, it began buying ships and chartering others for its own use. Tayleur was in this latter category; she was owned by Charles A. Moore & Co., but chartered to P&W during her maiden voyage.

John Pilkington withdrew from P&W at the end of 1856; his partner, Henry T. Wilson then formed a new partnership with his (Wilson's) brother-in-law, James Chambers. This firm, called H.T. Wilson & Chambers, continued the White Star trade name. So, too, did its successor firm, Wilson & Cunningham, formed 9 years later when Chambers withdrew and John Cunningham replaced him.

Wilson & Cunningham went into liquidation and was officially dissolved on 18 January 1868. All of the firm's assets were sold to satisfy creditors. Thomas Ismay didn't buy the "line"; all he acquired in the liquidation was the name White Star, the line's house flag and its good will, for £ 1,000. Wilson and Cunningham really didn't own the same line as Ismay did, but since the Wilson partnerships originated the name, most White Star histories include them in their narratives.

Sources: Anderson's White Star; Oldham's The Ismay Line; Haws' Merchant Fleets; Bonsor's North Atlantic Seaway.

MAB
 
Apr 11, 2001
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Aha- now it all makes sense- wasn't there an Irmrie in there somewhere? And how does Lord Pirrie fit in all of this- an Ismay family connection?
 

Mark Baber

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Hi, Shelly---

Yes, there was an Imrie in there somewhere---two, in fact. Thomas Ismay's first involvement with shipping was as a sixteen year old apprentice to the Liverpool shipbrokerage of Imrie, Tomlinson and Co., at which William Imrie, son of the first named partner, was also an apprentice. After his apprenticeship, Ismay joined another firm in 1856; this was Nelson and Co., which was both a brokerage and a ship owner. That firm soon became known as Nelson, Ismay and Co. and, after Nelson's retirement in 1863, T.H. Ismay and Co.

When Ismay created Oceanic Steam Navigation Co. in 1869 to own White Star's steamers, T.H. Ismay and Co. became the manager of. At the same time, it retained ownership and management of the sailing vessels in the White Star fleet. Ismay was soon joined by William Imrie, his one-time fellow apprentice, and in 1870 the firm name became Ismay, Imrie and Co.

In 1886, ownership of the White Star sailing ships was transferred to a new company, North Western Shipping Co. Ismay and Imrie together owned about half of North Western's shares; Harland and Wolff and William J. Pirrie were among the other other shareholders. Ismay, Imrie and Co. remained the manager of the sailing ships owned by North Western, as well as Oceanic's steam ships. When North Western was dissolved in 1895, it owned only one ship, California, which was sold within a year.

When IMM acquired Oceanic in 1902, it also acquired Ismay, Imrie and Co. Only two of the firm's partners remained with White Star: Bruce Ismay and Harold Sanderson. The others---William Imrie, James Ismay and W.S. Graves---retired. The firm continued in existence, however, and continued to manage Oceanic's steamers until Bruce Ismay's retirement from IMM and White Star in 1913. When Ismay retired, Ismay, Imrie and Co, ceased to exist.

Lord Pirrie was not related to the Ismays except in the business sense. Head of H&W after Sir Edward Harland died in 1895, Pirrie played major roles in the creation of both IMM and the Royal Mail Group, the two largest shipping combines of their day and H&W's two largest customers.

Sources: Anderson's White Star; Oldham's The Ismay Line; Flayhart's The American Line; Green and Moss' A Business of National Importance; Moss and Hume's Shipbuilders to the World.

MAB
 
Apr 11, 2001
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Thanks- that's quite a story- and quite an Ismay dynasty. Do we know if Bruce retired immediately after the 1912 disaster- am trying to remember the name of his family home in Ireland. Is it true that he became an utter recluse?
 
Dec 14, 2004
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I couldn't help but write in to say that my GG Grandfather James Watson survived the Tayleur wreck off Lambay Island in 1854, his version of the events (brief) was reported in his local newspaper, I only recently discovered this and I am astounded that it was really 'the first Titanic' and ran aground on its maiden voyage 60 years prior to Titanic.
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wats PITTENWEEM REGISTER.doc (21.5 k)[/td][/tr][/table]​
I have tried to upload the report of the disaster for you.
 

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