Coppin, William (1805–95), sailor, shipbuilder, and inventor, was born 9 October 1805 in Kinsale, Co. Cork; no details of his parents are known. From his childhood he displayed a strong affinity to the sea, and at the age of 15 was involved in the rescue of six customs men from a capsized revenue cutter on the River Shannon. After leaving school he traveled to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, to work with a relative who owned the shipbuilding firm John W. Smith. In 1826 Coppin built a boat capable of running on frozen rivers, based on a native design. He built his first ship, the Kathleen (1829), before travelling to the West Indies to study navigation and earn his master mariner's certificate. In the West Indies he became acquainted with some businessmen from Derry, who commissioned his next boat, the Edward Reid, in which he returned to Ireland in 1831, making the voyage in just nineteen days. He settled in Derry and captained several vessels on the Derry–Liverpool route, before establishing his own shipyard (1837). This venture proved very successful, and by the mid nineteenth century employed over 500 men. Coppin became a prominent and respected local figure; the Londonderry corporation held a dinner in his honour in 1839, and a year later awarded him a silver service.
In 1839 Coppin built the City of Derry, which featured many of his own inventions, and attained a record speed of 104 days from Liverpool to Madras. His most ambitious construction was the Great Northern (1842), one of the first ships to use an Archimedean screw propeller. The Great Northern was exhibited in London in 1843. His shipyard was devastated by a fire in 1846; thereafter he worked mainly in salvage, and raised more than 140 ships. He maintained his interest in nautical innovation, and lodged several patents between 1857 and 1886. In 1873 he sold the foundry and shipyard and moved to 14 Sackville St., Derry, where he continued to invent. In 1880 he launched a triple-hulled ship, the Tripod Express, and in 1886 patented an effective fishing apparatus that used artificial light. He died 17 April 1895 at his home in Sackville St., Derry, and was buried in St Augustine's burying ground.
Coppin and his wife Dora (d. 1866) had two sons and four daughters. Their third child, Louisa Coppin (1845–9), ‘Little Weesy ’, was born on 7 September 1845 at Ivy House, 34 Strand Road, Derry. Louisa died from gastric fever on 27 May 1849, but reputedly appeared to her family five months later as ‘a ball of bluish light’ and prophesied the as-yet-undiscovered location of Sir John Franklin's 1845 polar expedition to chart the North-west Passage. Despite successive search parties from 1848 onwards, the expedition's fate was unknown, and there was enormous public interest in the fate of Franklin and his crew. Coppin, who claimed to have experienced paranormal premonitions on other occasions, communicated Louisa's advice to Lady Franklin in May 1850. While the authorities were highly sceptical, Lady Franklin seems to have been more impressed, and according to the Derry Journal (29 March 1889) some 430 Liverpool merchants and bankers petitioned the admiralty to search where Louisa had indicated. A subsequent search, the 1859 expedition in the Fox, discovered the remains of Franklin's disastrous expedition on King William Island, as supposedly predicted by Louisa.
The story of Louisa's apparition was later published in J. Henry Skewes's sensational and embellished narrative, Sir John Franklin: the true secret of the discovery of his fate (1889), but Francis Leopold McClintock (qv), captain of the Fox, and relatives of Lady Franklin (d. 1875), strenuously denied that paranormal advice had influenced their search. There is no known documentary evidence of Lady Franklin's relationship with the Coppins, and it has been speculated that any such materials were destroyed by Lady Franklin's relatives. The legend of ‘Little Weesy’ continues to fascinate, however, and is the subject of Liam Browne's novel The emigrant's farewell (2006).