Rovers of the sea

A great distance separates the Pacific coast of South America with the more modest expanse of Dublin Bay yet it connects the lives, and the deaths of two former football teammates who died within months of each other more than 100 years ago.

I came across the premature demise of these two Shamrock Rovers players while doing some research on an upcoming piece focusing on the development of the great rivalry between Bohemian F.C. and Shamrock Rovers when I started looking at the earliest recorded meeting between the two sides over 100 years ago in January 1915. As often happens with such investigations I got sidetracked down a different path and onto a tragic tangent of the lives and deaths of James Sims and William Skinner in 1914-15.

William was born in 1880 and grew up in Thomas Street in Ringsend, a street which has since disappeared and which is now roughly occupied by the Ringsend Library. He was son to Laurence, a Dublin born labourer and Lizzie a housewife originally from Co. Wexford. Lizzie gave birth to 14 children during her lifetime but sadly just six of them would survive beyond childhood.

William was listed as a labourer in the 1901 census but just two years later when he was getting married to Catherine (Kate) McDonnell, who also grew up on Thomas Street, he listed his profession as a “sailor on a Man of War”. William had obviously joined the Royal Navy by this stage. When we next encounter William it is in the 1911 Census and he is back in civilian life working as a Hailing Man in Dublin Port and had moved just north of the River Liffey to Russell Avenue in East Wall. He had also become a father to two children; Laurence, born in 1907 and Mary born in 1909. By 1913 the family had moved once more this time to St. Joseph’s Square in Clontarf. This perhaps shows improving fortunes for the family, moving from a smaller, single-storey cottage, to a two storey, terrace in Clontarf.

1914 would be a year of significant change both globally and locally. July saw the outbreak of the First World War. More locally Shamrock Rovers reformed at a meeting in Sam Beatty’s barber shop in Bridge Street, Ringsend, some eight years after they had folded and withdrawn from the Leinster Senior and Junior League due to difficulties securing both a home ground and sufficient player numbers.

In 1914 William and his younger brother James would be listed as Rovers players, William was described as “a very useful forward” while James was mentioned as “a reliable forward with an accurate and speedy shot”. However, 1914 would also see William return to the Royal Navy. He immediately re-enlisted once war was declared.

William’s war was not going to be a long one, at 34 at the time of enlistment and with his previous experience in mind he was already somewhat of a veteran.  He was posted aboard the HMS Good Hope. In August 1914 the Good Hope was ordered to reinforce the 4th Cruiser Squadron and became the flagship of Rear Admiral Christopher Cradock. In  October the British learned from intercepted radio messages that the Germans planned to attack shipping on the trade routes along the west coast of South America.  Cradock’s small squadron was sent to prevent this from happening. On the 1st November 1914 the German Vice Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee, commander of the East Asia Squadron, identified the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, (part of the British Squadron under Cradock) at the Chilean port of Coronel and pursued the ship in order to engage it. The ensuing encounter was one of the first major naval battles of the War and became known as the Battle of Coronel.

The German squadron of armoured cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg engaged Cradock’s squadron with the Good Hope as the flagship after its pursuit of the HMS Glasgow. The Scharnhorst hit the Good Hope with one of its early salvos causing severe damage. Cradock’s ship was at a disadvantage to the Germans in terms of the range of their guns so his only hope was to charge at the German squadron to get them in range by charging down their flagship. The Germans concentrated their fire on the Good Hope and at close to 8pm that night, with much of the ship aflame, their forward ammunition magazine exploded. The force of the blast severed the ship in two and sank in the darkness. The Good Hope (along with the HMS Monmouth) was sunk with all hands in the chill waters of the ironically named Pacific Ocean. It was the first defeat the British Royal Navy had suffered in combat in more than a hundred years. A total of 919 officers and enlisted men lost their lives including Able Seaman William Skinner from Ringsend.

A year later William’s younger brother James joined the Army Service Corps as a driver. He had been certified as a “Chauffeur” by the Irish Automobile Club and saw action in Egypt and Greece, ended up contracting Malaria, surviving, and being sent to London to work as a driver at the munitions docks at Woolwich before being eventually discharged in 1919.


The HMS Good Hope (source wikipedia)

Much closer to home is the story is that of James Sims, highlighted in the photo above. Born in 1892 in Ringsend, James became a star midfielder with Rovers after their re-emergence in 1914. He was the centre-half in the side that had defeated Derry Swifts 1-0 in the final of the Irish Junior Cup in April of 1915. Sims was not part of that first Rovers side that took on Bohemians in the first of those great derby games (Bohs won 3-1 by the way) in January 1915, but he appeared regularly in team line-ups from February of that year onward.

In August of 1915 at a meeting of the Leinster Senior League Shamrock Rovers were elected to the top division, unlike the situation in 1906 the revived Rovers were better equipped this time to fulfill their fixtures. They played a warm-up match against neighbours Shelbourne on August 28th, James Sims started that game at centre half. Their first Senior League fixture was a game against Strandville on September 18th followed by a League match against Bohemians the week after. Just eight days before the League kicked off James Sims was dead.

Like many men in Ringsend at the time, given its close proximity to the city docks James “Sailor” Sims made his living as a hobbler and occasional fisherman. Hobblers were intrepid, entrepreneurial sailors who set off in groups of between 3 and 6 men in lightweight skiffs or hobbling boats. The purpose of these boats was twofold, to lead cargo vessels into Dublin Port and to be the boat that unloaded the incoming vessels onto the quays.

“Hobbling” was a very competitive business, the small, lightweight boats could be out for hours or even days in attempts to get a ship coming into port. When a ship was spotted it was a rush between the different hobbling boats to get to it first and agree a price with the ship for their services. Hobbling was also dangerous work, as well as the usual dangers of being at sea, the small lightweight boats were trying to load large cargo at sea from winches and cranes, a mistake could mean a severed limb or a capsized boat.

At five in the morning on the 10th of September 1915 James Sims was in a hobble boat with John Lawless (who owned the boat) and John Lynch about 2 and a half miles beyond Poolbeg Lighthouse when they spotted a steamer coming into port. It was the Huanchaco, named after a Peruvian town, which plied a route from the west coast of South America, including the port of Coronel. It would likely have traveled much the same route as William Skinner’s final journey many times.

The exact details of what happened next to James Sims and his friends is not completely clear. It seems that the 390-foot Huanchaco, either refused their hobble, or were in discussions about a fee when the small skiff got caught in the backwash of the far larger ship. The result was that the smaller vessel got dragged behind the Huanchaco and into its huge propeller. The reports are thankfully more restrained that much modern reportage but the smaller boat was cut in two, Lynch and Lawless were able to jump into the sea and then scramble back onto what was left of their craft before being rescued by a Michael Tallon in one of the pilot boats and brought to the safety of Dun Laoghaire harbour. James Sims however,was struck by the propeller and killed outright. He met his gruesome end at just 23 years old.

Shamrock Rovers were due to play Orwell F.C. the following day but the game was called off as a mark of respect. At a specially convened meeting Shamrock Rovers issued a notice of condolence with the Sims family and there was a large, well-attended funeral for James in the Ringsend area.

Just two days after James had been killed the Huanchaco was involved in another accident leaving Dublin Port. The Huanchaco under the command of Captain Pierce crashed into the Irish Steam Packet company steamer the Lady Martin badly damaging its starboard bow. Two incidents in the space of three days seems to suggest either extreme bad luck or shows just how dangerous shipping could by at the time even away from the heat of battle.

In 1934 the practice of “hobbling” was finally prohibited although the modernisation of the port also played a part. The main catalyst for this decision was the death of three young men from Dun Laoghaire; brothers Henry and Richard Shortall and their friend John Hughes, all drowned when their boat capsized when they were attempting to hobble a boat into port. A decision that came some 20 years too late for James Sims.

These weren’t the only tragedies to affect Rovers at the time, the Great War dominated the decade, and as I’ve highlighted at other clubs like Bohemians and Shelbourne, claimed its fair share of young sportsmen. In Rovers case one of their early heroes from their beginnings at the turn of the century was full-back James Keogh. Like many he joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers but never made it back from the battlefields of France.

These men left families and friends behind, they also never got to see the club they re-founded go on to enjoy success as Rovers progressed within ten years from Junior football to League and Cup champions.


For more on life in Dublin Port check out “The Dublin Docker” by Aileen O’Carroll and Don Burnett. Also a thank you to Rovers historian Robert Goggins for proof reading this piece.


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