The iron steamship Austria was launched from the Howden yard of H S Edwards and Sons (Yard No 5) on 30th April, 1884. She measured 257.0′ x 34.0′ x 18.0′ and her tonnage was 1663 gross tons, 1083 net tons. She was built for Mr G W Ward, Newcastle and owned by his company Ward and Holzapfel. Her career was destined to be a very short one.
Ailsa Craig, like many small islands lying within major shipping fairways, has claimed its fair share of shipwrecks over the centuries. Most of these casualties have been the direct result of poor visibility, a situation which was partially alleviated by the completion of the lighthouse and foghorn in 1886. The need for the lighthouse on the island was highlighted barely two years prior to its completion when the cargo steamer Austria ran ashore there on Wednesday 15th October, 1884 and later became a total loss.
The Austria had left Fuime in the Adriatic on 28th September with a crew of twenty one, a stowaway and about 1800 tons of general cargo. Just after midnight on 15th October she was abeam of Corsewall Lighthouse, heading north for Glasgow. Her master, Captain Helig, who was in charge of the watch, set a course north east true and retired below, leaving the deck in the charge of the second mate, James Morris.
The Austria continued on this course for the next two hours when, suddenly, the bow lookout reported land dead ahead. The helm was put “hard-a-starboard” and the engine room telegraphed to reverse full speed but, before either could take effect, she ran aground, seriously damaging her hull plating and holing her bow ballast tanks.
Captain Helig appeared on deck in an extremely disturbed state and gave orders for the lifeboats to be launched. However, the crew remained aboard as the sea was relatively calm and they were in no immediate danger. Around 7pm, the tide having risen, Captain Helig decided to try and back his vessel off the island but the chief engineer refused to obey his order, stating that the vessel would probably founder if she was moved from her present position. After a violent argument between the senior officers and a consultation with the rest of the crew the first officer, Mr. Henry, took command of the Austria as Captain Helig was thought to be drunk and incapable of performing his duty.
Shortly after daybreak a tug arrived on the scene which took Mr. Henry to Ardrossan where he made arrangements for salvage. Two tugs with lighters were dispatched to “the Craig” the following day and succeeded in salvaging a portion of her cargo of flour and rape seed which was sold for £863. Salvage of her cargo and fittings by the Glasgow Salvage Association continued over the next few weeks and realised another £1491. The wreck itself was eventually sold at auction in Girvan on 4th December for £191, a sad end to a vessel that had only been launched earlier that same year at a cost of £35,000.
At a subsequent enquiry, Captain Helig and second officer James Morris were jointly found responsible for the loss of the Austria. Captain Helig was severely censured for having laid a course from Corsewall Point which, at best, would have taken the Austria half a mile west of Ailsa Craig. James Morris was criticised for not keeping a proper lookout, especially after stating in his own evidence that his vision had been impaired by smoke from the funnel blowing across the bridge. Both men had their master’s certificates suspended for six months. Captain Helig was charged with drunkeness in command of the vessel but this was never fully proven, although in evidence various crew members stated that a good deal of alcohol had been consumed that night.