The Orion was an iron paddlesteamer of 899 gross tons. Built at Cartsdyke, Greenock and launched in December 1846 from the yard of Caird & Co. (Yard No.14), with dimensions of 210.0′ x 27.1′ x 18.0’.
In January 1839 the outer lighthouse on the South Pier at Portpatrick was damaged in a storm and it was decided that, as the inner light was still in operation and clearly visible from the sea, the outer light should not be repaired. The decision seemed perfectly reasonable at the time but nobody could have anticipated its tragic consequences.
Eleven years later, on 17th June, 1850 the J & G Burns steamer Orion left Liverpool for Glasgow on a calm, clear sunny afternoon under the command of Captain Henderson. She was fully laden and most of her one hundred and ten passengers strolled around the decks or chatted cheerfully in the sunshine as she moved out into the Mersey and reached full steaming speed. By the early hours of the following morning most of her passengers were below decks asleep as she reached the Scottish coast. Captain Henderson slowed his ship, carefully feeling his way through a thick sea mist which had reduced visibility to less than two hundred yards. He spotted Portpatrick Light off his starboard bow but wrongly identified it as the damaged outer light. It was in fact the inner light. This error resulted in the Orion steaming much closer to the shore than the captain had intended. She struck a submerged rock just north of the entrance to Portpatrick harbour and began to sink immediately. The rock had torn a hole in the ship’s watertight compartments and smashed a bulkhead – she was doomed.
The passengers who had been asleep in their cabins as the Orion struck rushed, panic stricken, onto the decks of the sinking ship, most still in their nightclothes, and screamed for help into the darkness. Three of the ship’s lifeboats were launched but before the first one could leave for the shore it was swamped by the rush of more than twenty desperate passengers. The boat overturned plunging the occupants into the sea leaving the horrified people aboard the Orion to watch helplessly as they all gradually sank beneath the dark surface and drowned. The other two boats managed to take ten people each safely to the shore. There was much controversy later as it seems that most of her crew and even the captain himself did little to help the evacuation of the passengers preferring instead to try to save their own lives. Meanwhile, a number of boats had been launched from the shore and were heading for the Orion to assist in the rescue. The confusion aboard ship was compounded further when the rising seawater reached the boilers and a huge explosion ripped through the dying ship. Tragically, before the rescuers could reach the wreck, the Orion lurched to starboard, flinging many of the passengers on deck into the sea, and then quickly sank by the bow. The suction of the huge ship sinking beneath the waves pulled down many of the people struggling in the sea and huge rolling waves swamped many more. The boats from Portpatrick picked their way between the wreckage and the floating bodies to save as many of the passengers and crew as they could. Some of the survivors managed to swim the short distance to the shore where they were greeted by the many locals who had gathered to assist. The exact death toll was never established but it is certain that at least sixty people lost their lives in one of the worst accidents to occur in the long history of Clyde shipping.
The wreck, which lay in around forty feet of water, was sold at auction, as she lay, on 24th July, 1850 to be followed by the sale of her fittings, including her bell and ship’s furniture, on the 26th. She was extensively salvaged over the ensuing months and years.
The Wreck Today
The wreck of the Orion is reported to be 80 metres north west of the west end of Portpatrick’s north pier in approximate position 54° 50.495’N, 05° 07.455’W. The depth is around 10 metres. The wreckage here is very broken with only a few girders to be found. There have been a number of wrecks in this area over the years so it is impossible to be certain that the wreckage in this position is the Orion.