During the short break between lockdowns at the end of summer 2020, NAS member Duncan Ross managed to head out into the dark waters of Liverpool Bay and visit a wrecksite that had been on his radar for many years.


 Introduction and background

Above: Location of the Lelia (Image: Duncan Ross)


Many archaeological sites capture the imagination well-before the chance to visit them becomes possible. For me, the wreck site of the paddle steamer Lelia was one such example. RMS Titanic is another but I feel that visit may have to wait quite a bit longer!

I’d always been vaguely aware of Liverpool’s controversial connection with the Confederate States in the American Civil War, but knew little of the full story. Hearing of the existence of the Lelia shipwreck in around 2016, I was quickly entranced. Here was a literal ‘chunk’ of world history on my doorstep (or sea floor-step). I would go on to spend lots of time in Liverpool Central Library scouring through books that documented the city’s involvement in the American conflict. During my enquiries, it became clear that British cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow provided much in the way of shipping to aid the Confederate cause. The reason for Liverpool’s involvement? – the lucrative cotton trade. Liverpool merchants, shipowners, and in consequence the manufacturing trade in Lancashire, suffered greatly due to the blockading of southern American ports by the Union States Navy. Cotton was big business in the UK and half the world’s textiles were processed and manufactured here, so much so, that Lancashire at the time, was known as the ‘workshop of the world.’

In a news story below titled ‘Our Cotton Supply’ the financial repercussions of the cessation of cotton supplies from the southern American states (and the motivations for circumventing it) are all too clear. During the American Civil War, India became the chief supplier of cotton to the UK, but the quality was markedly inferior to that of American produce.


Above: For nearly double the cost, the UK was paying for ‘Half the quantity and for less than half the quality’ that the American south had provided in 1860.  West Middlesex Herald, February 18th, 1865 (one month after Lelia’s sinking) (Newspapers.com)

Throughout my investigations I also became aware of the significant naval element of the American Civil War. Up until this point, when I thought of the 19th century conflict, I imagined the blues and greys standing in gentlemanly formation and exchanging point-blank volleys of lead musket balls at each other in places called Gettysburg and Williamsburg. I would soon understand the weighty role played by naval vessels of both sides on the high seas, in river battles and in sieges of forts and towns. I discovered the ‘Ironclads’ such as the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, oddly-shaped and crude contraptions that paved the way for the warships of the future. I also read about the H.L. Hunley - the ill-fated Confederate submarine that sank numerous times with all of her many crews perishing, including her inventor. I also became aware of the CSS Alabama (the most famous and successful Confederate commerce raider which captured or destroyed 65 Union ships). Built in Birkenhead, the Alabama’s phantom-like reputation finally came to an end off Cherbourg, France in June of 1864 when it went head-to-head with the newer, and much better-designed, USS Keersage. Although not the formidable ship she once was, the CSS Alabama was seen as a prize scalp and would have been a heavy blow to the morale of the Confederacy. Her wreck now lies in 56 metres of water. Two men who died on the Lelia – Thomas C. Cuddy, and fireman Peter Laverty - both served on the CSS Alabama.


Basic facts of PS Lelia

The Lelia was one of many blockade runners built along the Mersey River in the early 1860s. The Board of Trade report into the sinking described the vessel as:

‘A paddlewheel steamer built of steel by Messrs. W. C. Miller and Sons, of Liverpool, in 1864, of the burden of 640 tons gross, and 431 tons registered. She was schooner-rigged and clincher-built, with one deck and a half-raised poop. She had engines of 300-horse power; her length was 252ft., her breadth was 30ft., and her depth 12.6ft.’

She sat low in the water, was dull in colour, and was fast; perfect for her intended naval role – racing in (with supplies) and out (with cotton) of the Union-blockaded Confederate American ports. In the words of wreck-discoverer Chris Michael, she was a ‘stealth bomber’ of her time. The Lelia represents one of the earliest uses of steel in shipbuilding. Chris has written a well-researched book on the Lelia specifically, which covers the history and sinking of the vessel in much more detail.

On January 14th 1864, the Lelia set sail from Rock Ferry, Merseyside. She was heading for Bermuda where she would shed all pretence of being a neutral vessel and go to work proper. Apart from her brief, but pleasing, sea trials, it was her maiden voyage. It would turn out to be her last.


Aboard were several individuals of note, including Thomas Miller (son and future-heir of shipbuilder William C. Miller), the experienced CSN Commander Arthur Sinclair, who would take over as skipper on reaching Bermuda. Also aboard was the aforementioned Thomas C. Cuddy, former CSN gunner on the infamous Alabama. All three men died in the tragedy. In fact, out of 59 souls onboard (some officially listed, some not), only 12 would return to Liverpool on January 16th after what was surely a horrifying ordeal, the rest having perished in one of the worst maritime disasters in the area. Compounding the tragedy further, the Liverpool No.1 lifeboat capsized during a rescue attempt, leaving 7 out of 11 men dead. None of the men were wearing lifebelts. The episode was understandably big news.

Above: The disaster makes a full-page story. Illustrated London News, January 28th, 1865. (Newspapers.com)

The Sinking

Several reasons contributed to the sinking of the Lelia and the major loss of life, but the deciding factor in the end seems to sway towards bad weather, and ultimately the choice to sail in such conditions. No warning flag was flying in Liverpool, but the barometer readings were very low showing that a storm system was in the area. Other sturdier ships had not ventured out due to this information. The underlying motives for Captain Thomas Buxton Skinner making that fateful choice are thought to be either pressure from the financial backers and shipbuilders – with the war heavily tipping towards a Union victory, there was a chance that hostilities would end and payment would not be made for the vessel.  The fact that so many experienced officers were on board is even put forward as a suggested cause - perhaps an atmosphere of over-confidence or complacency pervaded. Some blame, I feel, also has to be apportioned to sheer bad luck. No one could have known the weather would deteriorate so drastically. Once the Lelia started to take on water the game was quickly lost. A literal ‘perfect storm’ of problems ensued and snowballed out of control. Abandoning ship was fraught with unnecessary complications which gravely complicated the matter further. The following factors dragged events to the point of disaster, but any of them could have been fairly unproblematic in favourable conditions.

  • The way in which the anchors were stowed meant that the hatches on the hurricane deck could not be put on. This led to water coming on deck.
  • Due to the carpenter being inebriated, the lifeboat rowlocks and sluice gate valve key were given to the wrong person and could not be located at the pertinent time.
  • The carpenter also failed to knock out a plate in the bulwarks to let water out.
  • Water was entering through the hawse pipes and the blocking fitments could not be found.
  • The shallow draft of the ship was inadequate for the weather conditions.
  • The engines were too powerful for a boat of her build.
  • The amount of people on board was above regulation.
  • With no effective method of steering the lifeboats, or presence of rowlocks for oars, the occupants were basically at the mercy of hurricane-force winds and waves. One of the full lifeboats is thought to have been crushed under the sponson (the cover around paddlewheel).

Above: A contemporary depiction of the Lelia struggling through the violent waters of Liverpool Bay.

Illustrated London News, January 28th, 1865. (Newspapers.com)


Discovery and investigations

Discoverer Chris Michael knew of the Lelia’s existence in Liverpool Bay, and using old sea charts, contemporary reports of the sinking, Kingfisher fasteners (the name given to reported snags by fishing vessels) and taking into account the position of the northwest lightship in 1865 (different than it is today), he came up with an approximate location. Chris set out with his magnetometer and quickly found a substantial ferrous target that he assumed could only be the Lelia. And he was dead right. What had been reported by other vessels as probable submerged shipping containers, turned out to be one of the most important maritime discoveries in Liverpool Bay. During his self-funded expeditions, Chris spent an estimated twenty-five hours exploring the wreck, on one occasion finding definitive proof of the Lelia’s identity – the ships bell – a diver’s dream. With all of the research he’d already done he was in little doubt anyway. ‘Once I saw the paddlewheel - I knew that the wreck was the Lelia.

Above: The Lelia’s bell. ‘Once I saw the paddlewheel - I knew that the wreck was the Lelia. The bell was just icing (and some) on the cake.’ (Image: Chris Michael)


The bell was just icing (and some) on the cake.’ Tantalisingly, during his diving investigations, Chris found the top of the staircase and wooden bannister that would have led down to the state room, but the passage was completely blocked with sand and silt. Excavating such an area would take enormous cost, time and resources. The television series Wreck Detectives joined Chris for a dive in 1996, and an episode was filmed.

In 2016 Historic England commissioned Wessex Archaeology to conduct a survey and investigation into the wreck of the Lelia to gauge whether or not the site should be granted some level of legal protection. As a result, in 2019 the site was designated as a scheduled monument on the basis of her historical value. On their website, Historic England estimate that approximately 2 metres of the amidships section could be buried, offering potential for preserved cargo of historic interest. Historic England also estimate the site to be 50 metres in length, although the Lelia must have been around 80 metres long originally, so a significant portion of her hull must be completely buried under the seabed.

The Dive

I had been out diving in Liverpool Bay many times from Chris’s boat the Marlin, but the opportunity to dive the Lelia had always eluded me; tides and other issues scuppering the plan. It was not until late 2020, that I finally got my chance to visit the wreck site, and I really was ready for the trip. On a mild September morning, we set off from Brunswick Dock, Liverpool - rather fittingly close to the spot where the PS Lelia was laid down and built in 1864. By that point, my interest and knowledge of the Lelia had reached critical mass. The book Lelia had shown me the faces of the people involved, and, through newspaper and archive research I understood the mostly-human errors that lead to her demise on that stormy winter day in 1865. Visits to Confederate and Union-linked locations in Liverpool (Previously unknown to me) lent the story a vivid richness. The Lelia’s sinking would certainly make the basis of a great work of fiction – book or film.

Chugging our way past the mighty Three Graces on the Liverpool waterfront, my gremlin of negativity whispered to me that something was surely going to go wrong and that the dive would not go ahead. Apart from a gentle swell that left us all feeling a bit queasy, the day went amazingly well.

Above: Chris Michael’s illustration of the Lelia. I have taken the liberty of adding two divers for a sense of scale.

Image courtesy of Chris Michael from his book Lelia.

After an exploration dive on a previously unknown shallow wreck at West Hoyle Bank (more on this in the future), my buddy Graeme and I kitted up and headed down to the Lelia. The diving conditions were fairly typical of Liverpool Bay, and visibility was minimal. Although it was a beautiful sunny day, darkness closed in after only a few metres’ descent and my world became unnervingly confined. Passing one hand over the other on the shot line and pulling down to the obscured seabed was the only remit. In Chris Michael’s book Wrecks of Liverpool Bay, he describes the water of Liverpool Bay as ‘looking like tea’. On the day of our dive, it was as though the teabag had been left in to stew for quite some time! I found the Lelia when my knees landed on one of her boilers with a thud. Somewhere in my mind I was holding out for the shipwreck to come into dramatic view as I approached, but this was far from the reality. I was immediately struck by the unforgiving nature of the sea that took the Lelia on that fateful night in 1865.

Above: The ghostly silhouette of the one surviving paddlewheel at around 18 metres depth. Visibility can be challenging. Cameraman Graeme Parker illuminates the background with his powerful spotlights. (Image: Duncan Ross)

Wessex Archaeology's Dive Trail Guide for the Lelia can be downloaded here.

Having absolutely no idea where we were on the wreck, we fumbled about and soon found ourselves rather-unsettlingly in an overhead environment. Rusted metal arched over and around me and the sharp sting of anxiety gripped as I realised how easy it was to get lost. Graeme luckily retraced our steps and took us back out of the chamber.

In conditions such as this it is vital to stay close to your dive buddy. To split up for a couple of seconds could mean ending up on your own, or worse, lost. The margin for error is reduced dramatically when solo diving and it is generally necessary to end the dive and ascend if separated for more than a minute. Luckily, Graeme, who I dived with on this occasion, has an uber-powerful set of spotlights on his camera which turn him into an ethereal glowing orb about 5-metres in diameter - fairly easy to find even in the most challenging visibility.

With the communication aid of a whirly finger, I somehow conveyed to Graeme that I would like to see the paddlewheel, but with no sense of bow or stern or port or starboard, it was impossible to know which direction to go in. It was actually at this point that I really appreciated the size of the Lelia. Chris had told us she was big, but somehow it didn’t register. If I’d really thought about her dimensions (252ft long – around 80m) it would have prepared me more for its vastness. It is an enormous ship that would take many dives to cover in any kind of completeness.

In search of the paddlewheel, we struck out in no particular direction in the pitch dark; my gremlin of negativity telling me that we had no hope of finding it, but luck was on our side and we somehow located it. Graeme’s search for sea life led him around the opposite side of the wheel providing me with the opportunity for some fantastic silhouette footage. Aquatic life is abundant and many species have made this historic shipwreck their home. A huge fishing net is snagged and draped over the paddlewheel - the snagging was more than likely reported by the fishermen when it happened, hinting at the possibility of a wreck being there. The sheer size of the paddlewheel is mindboggling. Each spoke - from central hub to wheel - is around 6-feet long and it is possible to swim between them, although I did not on this occasion. An enormous spindle runs from the centre of the wheel to one of the huge oscillating engines – its bulk leaving no doubt about the power it provided a century-and-a-half ago. The dive on the Lelia, although pretty-awful in terms of visibility, was without doubt one of the most anticipated and best in my life. When does anyone get to dive a wreck from the American Civil War? Not often. We spent nearly all of our bottom-time in the area of the paddlewheel, taking photos and videoing.

Above: Tompot blenny on the wreck. (Image: Graeme Parker)

A secret?

For all the clandestine intentions of the agents, builders and financial backers of the Lelia - and the other blockade runners and commerce raiders that were manufactured in Liverpool and Birkenhead - the international (and local) newspaper reports of the sinking leave no doubt as to what the Lelia’s function was to be, had she progressed to her intended destination.

Above: An 1865 newspaper account leaves little doubt as to the Lelia’s purpose. The extract is from a Welsh newspaper, suggesting that the Liverpool-Confederate connection was well understood further afield. The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette, January 20th, 1865. (Newspapers.com)

Demonstrating the city’s Confederate support in rather spectacular fashion, in late 1864 a five-day fundraising event was actually staged in St. Georges Hall, Lime Street. It was billed as both The Grand Southern Bazaar and The Sothern Bazaar for Wounded Confederate Soldiers. The event was very successful and contemporary reports reveal an unashamedly robust support by the wealthy merchant class of Liverpool for the cause. Intervening Union powers apparently stopped the raised money being used for its intended reason.

The Aftermath of the Sinking

Yesterday three boats belonging to the ill-fated vessel were picked up near the mouth of the river, and brought to the Canning Pier. Portions of the wreck, consisting of cabin fittings, &c (sic) have also been washed up at the north docks.

Liverpool Mercury, January 16th 1865

New signalling system

Tough lessons are of course learnt after every disaster. It is scant compensation, but where victims and their families pay the price, those who remain hopefully gain the benefit of rectified mistakes. It was agreed that the anguish of the loved-ones waiting for news about the sinking could have been allayed just a little if signals could have been sent from the northwest lightship. This way, casualties could have been quickly confirmed and the agonising pain of ‘not knowing’ avoided somewhat. A Lieutenant Ruffin, formerly connected with the Confederate army, had a patented signalling system that had already been used in the USA with favourable results. When trying to promote the adoption of the apparatus in Liverpool, the tragedy of the Lelia (which only occurred two weeks before) was mentioned in the presentation. Whether the proposed system was ever introduced, is unknown to me at present.


Heroic Acts

In terrible weather conditions, Liverpool Lifeboat No.1 was towed out by the tug Blazer to assist the survivors that were clinging to the northwest lightship, but this attempt ended in tragedy as she was turned over by a powerful wave. None of the men were wearing their cork lifebelts and just over half of the eleven-man crew was lost. It was actually regulation to wear lifebelts and there were penalties handed out for disobedience, however, most lifeboatmen were of the opinion that they were more of a hazard than an aid. A silver medal was awarded to Mr. Thomas Gallon, engineer on the Blazer who, through the ‘skill and energy displayed’ saved the master of the lifeboat Thomas Hudson. The Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society also awarded the crew of the Blazer £2 5s for saving two lifeboatmen.


Bodies ashore

Gruesome discoveries were made up and down the coast until at least the end of June 1865 when lifeboatman Bernard Murphy was finally washed up in New Brighton. The body of the most prominent passenger turned up in early June when the remains of CSN Commander Arthur Sinclair were found 10 miles out from Fleetwood by a fisherman in his nets. Although the details of all of the discoveries are rather gory, they do provide, in some cases, the closest thing to a picture of the individuals that one could find. In order to identify bodies, in newspapers it was necessary to describe a victim’s size, features, apparel and belongings in as much detail as possible. Then perhaps a relative or acquaintance may come forward.

Below is a small list of reports from local papers.

BODY FOUND. – On Tuesday last, John Silcock, a Hoylake fisherman, when about 4 miles to the north-east of the Bell Buoy, caught in his nets the body of a man, which he afterwards towed to Hoylake. The deceased appeared to have been about 33 years of age. He was five feet ten inches high, dark complexion, dressed in light blue flannel trousers, purple-netted jacket, red flannel and striped cotton shirts, elastic-side boots, with knitted draws. In his pocket there was a tobacco pouch, besides a small frame, but the likeness was obliterated by the action of the water. The deceased is supposed to have been one of the crew of the unfortunate steamer Lelia. At the inquest held on the body on Wednesday, a verdict of “Found drowned” was returned.

Liverpool Mercury, February 10th 1865

DEAD BODY FOUND. – The dead body of a man in a state of decomposition was found on Sunday floating in the Rock Channel of the Mersey, by a boatman named John Martindale, and was taken to the dead-house, where it awaits an inquest. The height of the deceased was 5 feet 9 inches, and he was attired in a blue jacket and trousers, black cloth vest, Crimean shirt, woollen drawers, elastic side boots, and grey woollen stockings. A gold lever watch, made by Blanchard, with a lever guard, was found on his person. He is supposed to have been one of the crew of the Lelia. 

The body of the man found on the shore at New Brighton on Monday night, has been identified as that of Bernard Murphy, of Liverpool. He was one of the crew of the life-boat which was capsized on 15th January last, while proceeding to the wreck of the steamer Lelia.                                                                                             

Cheshire Observer, July 1st 1865

BODIES FOUND. – Yesterday, about one o’clock, the body of a man, in an advanced stage of decomposition, was picked up in the river opposite Egremont, by Thomas Chatterton, mate of the Tranmere steamer Britannia. The body was deposited in the deadhouse, and, from information subsequently elicited, is supposed to be that of Daniel M’Laughlan (sic), aged 27, second cook on board the Lelia. – about the same time another body was found floating in the river near Brombro’ Pool. It was that of a man in a very decomposed state. The body was recovered by four river-boat men…and deposited in the dead-house. The deceased had on dark cloth coat, dark vest without collar, and dark trousers, white shirt, flannel singlet, elastic-side boots, and fancy woollen socks. His height cannot be ascertained, the legs being broken. In his clothes were a small tablet and two pencils. The body appeared as though it had been previously picked up and cast adrift, after being robbed, the trousers pockets having been cut off.

Liverpool Mercury, April 27th 1865


Lelia fund

In the aftermath of the sinking there was even a Lelia fund set up in Liverpool. Donations appear to have been made by individuals and companies at all levels of society. For those families who had lost their main breadwinner, the hand-out, although better than nothing, would have been of little consolation. One of the saddest things about the Lelia tragedy is that the Confederate cause was all but lost by the time the ship set sail. The rebels surrendered in April and the conflict, which had seen the death of over 600,000 American soldiers (more American lives lost than in every other conflict the nation has been involved in combined), was finally over. The Union was restored and slavery was abolished, but at a terrible cost.

 Above: A notice to the families concerned. Liverpool Mercury, January 25th, 1865. (Newspapers.com)

The future

I hope to become much more acquainted with the wreck of the Lelia over the coming years. Who knows what secrets and information she will reveal in time? Investigations are on-going into the location of the Lelia’s starboard-side paddlewheel which is thought to have been torn away (along with the sponson, starboard engine and a boiler) when an anchor was dragged through her by a passing vessel. The historic importance of the Lelia’s design has thankfully earned her the status of Scheduled Monument: divers are allowed to visit but touch nothing. Hopefully the Lelia will remain a wreck site that will continue to enrich us in the present and remind us of a pivotal moment of our shared past. It is fantastic to have such an important and unique piece of history so close to home, and a story that can, in some way, hopefully be incorporated into the Merseyside Maritime Museum one day. Perhaps I can even become more involved in her future and adopt her as part of the NAS Adopt-a-Wreck scheme.  

 Above: The author satisfied after a good day’s diving. (Image: Graeme Parker)

More information

If anybody would like the full version of this article, which includes further research into crew members and other related stories, please feel free to send me an email at [email protected] 

Historic England news feature on the scheduling of the Lelia: https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/paddle-steamer-wreck-granted-heritage-protection/

Wessex Archaeology's May 2021 Facebook post on the Lelia: https://www.facebook.com/wessexarch/posts/3987749421262268?form=MY01SV&OCID=MY01SV 

For information about diving the wreck of the Lelia, it would be best to either contact Chris Michael, or consult one of the books mentioned below.

Further reading and information:

Michael, C. (1994) The Wrecks of Liverpool Bay. Birkenhead: Liverpool Marine Press.

Michael, C. (2008) The Wrecks of Liverpool Bay. Volume 2. Birkenhead: Liverpool Marine Press.

Michael, C. (2004) Lelia. Birkenhead: Liverpool Marine Press.

Hussey, J. (2008) Cruisers, Cotton and Confederates: Liverpool Waterfront in the Days of the Confederacy. Birkenhead: Countyvise Ltd.

Chris Michael’s webpage: Wrecks of Liverpool Bay and Diving (including LELIA)

Video by Graeme Parker taken in 2018- Dive on the wreck of The Lelia, Liverpool Bay, off The Marlin, 7/7/ 2018 on Vimeo