The full rigged ship Annie Jane was built in Quebec and launched in May 1853. She measured 179.0′ x 32.0′ and weighed 1294 gross tons. Her owner was Tomas Holderness of Liverpool.
The new ship had completed her maiden voyage from Canada to Liverpool and set off on her return voyage to Montreal, Quebec on 23rd August 1853 with around 400 passengers, most of them emigrants heading for a new life in America, and cargo including railroad iron and barrels of beef and pork. A good number of the passengers were Scottish carpenters and other artisans who were under contract to work at a public building project in Canada. There also were about a dozen men, women and children cabin passengers. The ship was commanded by Captain William Mason and had a crew of 45 men.
Captain Mason steered a northerly route that took the Annie Jane through the North Channel intending to sail along the west coast of Scotland before turning west and heading across the Atlantic. However when north west of Rathlin they encountered a severe storm which left the ship damaged and unmanageable. After a petition from the passengers the captain reluctantly agreed to turn back and after an uncomfortable voyage down the west coast of Ireland the ship arrived back at Liverpool on 31st August. After repairs, and with most of the passengers back on board (some passengers chose not to return to the ship fearing the seaworthiness of the vessel) the ship left Liverpool again on Thursday 8th September. By this time the actual number of people aboard was unclear. The official record stated that there were 385 emigrants, 8 cabin passengers and a crew of 41 men aboard but eye witness accounts later stated that there were between 400 and 500 people on board the ship as she set sail.
Initially the voyage went well but, on 12th September, the weather deteriorated and, at around 11:30 pm, in a strong south west gale, the foremast head snapped and the ship was disabled once again. For two days they drifted at the mercy of the wind and seas. The bow and bowsprit had been damaged as the foremast came down and the decks were continually awash as waves crashed over the ship. Eventually the weather abated but the ship was in real distress and unable to set sail effectively to navigate in the open ocean. On Thursday 15th September the passengers again petitioned the captain to turn back. The captain initially refused but, with the weather turning again and his ship unmanageable, he finally decided to head for Londonderry for repairs. By this time they were well into the Atlantic some 200 miles west of St Kilda as the storm continued to pound the ship. Further damage to masts and yards left the ship more or less to he mercy of the weather but, remarkably, on 28th September, St Kilda was sighted off the port bow and soon after, the welcome sight of the Hebridean mainland came into view. By 6:30 pm the light at Barra Head was spotted and hopes were high that they could reach safety. However, just as they thought they were safe, the weather turned again and a strong gale sprung up driving the disabled ship towards the shore.
The captain planned to run his ship ashore to escape the reef of rocks that formed at the south entrance to the bay. However, without adequate sail, and with the gale blowing from the wrong direction, the brig was unmanageable. The vessel was carried by the storm onto the reef where it went aground bows first, broke apart, and was soon destroyed by huge swell driving into the bay.
During those critical final minutes, before the Annie Jane hit the reef, the ship’s crew and many of the male passengers were standing on the poopdeck, clinging to the ropes and rigging as it became clear that the vessel was being blown to its destruction. After the ship hit the rocks with a great crunch, many of the wives and some of the children left their berths below deck to join the men on the deck. They gathered around the lifeboat davits preparing to try to escape the wreck and reach the island, which could be seen in the distance. At that point a massive wave swept the ship and struck with such force that it carried away nearly everyone standing on that deck and ripped the lifeboats from their davits. It was estimated that at least 100 people were swept into the sea to drown by that single wave. The few survivors left on the deck were secured by ropes or clinging to some of the attached fixtures of the ship.
Meanwhile the passengers still below deck, who learned of the calamity that had just occurred, were afraid to leave the wreck for fear the same fate awaited them. As they trembled in fear in the darkness below, the ship was taking such a terrible beating from the onslaught of the waves, the cargo of railway iron soon beat a hole through the wooden hull, weakening the wreck. A second monstrous wave struck the stranded ship collapsing the central portion of the deck, including what was left of the main and mizenmasts, crushing men, women and children huddled below. The few survivors by this time were taking refuge on the poop deck, which was raised high over the main deck. Seven other men secured themselves on the topgallant forecastle. These people miraculously survived because the ship was quickly broken apart, with the poop deck and forecastle swept away intact, acting like rafts, and were swept to the close to the shore. Both groups staggered ashore at about 4 p.m. in the afternoon, some 15 hours after the ship went on the rocks.
When the final count was made, there were 101 survivors. These included the captain, 28 members of the crew, 12 women and one child. Residents of the island gave the survivors shelter. Barrels of beef and pork that washed ashore from the wreck were used to help provide meals. The bodies from the wreck continued to wash ashore for days afterward. The islands of Barra and Vatersay are predominately rock bound, with few trees, so it was impossible for the people to make coffins and provide proper burials. Large pits were dug along the shore and the bodies were simply placed in them for mass burial. Only the first mate, a man named Bell, and a French Canadian priest, who were among the victims, were given coffins. These were roughly made from pieces of wood from the wreck.
A memorial was erected some years after the wrecking to commemorate the tragedy. Its sits atop the dunes overlooking West Bay, Vatersay where the survivors, the victims, and the remains of the Annie Jane eventually came ashore.