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The Gibson Family Shipwreck Photographs, A Treacherous Tradition

A French trawler called the Jeanne Gougy, a French trawler, ran aground at Land's End on November 3, 1962. It was en route from France to fishing grounds on the southern Irish coast. Twelve men were lost, including the skipper were lost.

The Isles of Scilly, off the coast of the English county of Cornwall are some of the most treacherous waters in the Atlantic. For hundreds of years, the ships wrecked on their shores were lost to the sea and to history. Until John Gibson, a seaman-turned-photographer brought his camera to the rocky cliffs and photographed each shipwreck, rescue attempts, and more, and transmitted the news throughout the country. Photographing the wrecks became a family tradition that would last more than 100 years and produced some of the most captivating photographs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

John Gibson, born in 1827 on the Isle of Scilly, was a seaman by trade. Historians are unsure how Gibson purchased his first camera, as photography was typically reserved for the wealthy in society, but by 1860 he had established a photography studio in Penzance. In 1865, he returned to the Isles of Scilly and employed his two sons‑Alexander and Herbert as apprentices. Over the next 130 years, four generations of the Gibson family would go on to photograph over 200 shipwrecks.

The Minnehaha was shipwrecked in 1874. It struck Peninnis Head rocks while traveling from Peru to Dublin. The ship sank quickly and some of the men drowned in their berths, ten died in total. 

The Gibsons were pioneers of photojournalism, photographing their first shipwreck in 1869, the same year that the first telegraph arrived on the Isles of Scilly. The telegraph was rapidly changing the way the world received its news and the Gibsons became the local news correspondents. With John as the photographer and his son Alexander as the telegraphist, they were able to transmit the identity of the ship, the number of deaths, and other important facts around the world in record time. 

At this time in photographic history, photographing on location required a portable darkroom like a wagon or handcart, glass plates, a heavy large format camera, chemistry and other equipment. Transporting the cumbersome equipment was made more difficult by the harsh weather conditions as ships rarely crashed during pleasant weather. Through the storms, high winds, and churning seas, the Gibsons traveled by pony or rowboat to reach the ship before nightfall, or it sank, whichever came first.

After Alexander’s death, his son James continued the tradition throughout the twentieth century and began using film to keep up with the demands of the profession. After his death in 1985, his son Frank carried the tradition until his own death in 2012. England’s National Maritime Museum acquired the Gibson family archive in a 2013 auction at Sotheby’s for £100,000. The collection includes 1,360 glass and film negatives of over 200 shipwrecks.

James Gibson at work.

The Bay of Panama was wrecked in March 1898 under Nare Head during a blizzard. The ship was carrying a cargo of Jute, used to make hessian cloth, from Calcutta in India. Eighteen of the people on board died and 19 were rescued.

The Cita, a 300 foot German merchant ship, pierced its hull and ran aground while traveling from Southampton to Belfast in March 1997. The crew were rescued by the RNLI hours after and the wrecked ship remained on the rocks for days before sliding into deeper water.

The Glenbervie crashed into the rocks at Lowland Point near Coverack, Cornwall in January 1902. The ship was carrying a consignment of pianos and high quality spirits when it lost its way in a storm. All 16 crewmen were rescued by lifeboat.

The Cromdale, a British-built iron sailing barque, ran into Lizard Point during a thick fog. The ship was carrying nitrates on its voyage from Chile to Cornwall. The crew survived, but the wreck was broken up by the sea within a week.

City of Cardiff, a British steamer, was traveling from France, to Wales when it wrecked in Mill Bay near Land's End in 1912. All of the crew were rescued.

A rescued crew member from the City of Cardiff.

The Mildred was sailing from Newport to London when a dense fog caused it to hit the rocks at Gurnards Head at midnight on the April 6, 1912. Captain Larcombe and his crew rowed safely into St. Ives.

The Cviet which ran aground near Porthleven in 1884

The Hansy, a sailing ship from Norway, wrecked in 1911 on the eastern side of the Lizard in Cornwall. Three men were rescued by lifeboat and all of the rest of the passengers escaped onto the rocks.