Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Revisiting the Site of the Sao Joao wreck

Artist's impression of the Sao Joao wreck
Before the anniversary of the loss of the Waratah, my thoughts were with another, much earlier ship, the Sao Joao, the Great Galleon, wrecked in the vicinity of what is now Port Edward an entire century before the arrival of Van Riebeeck at the Cape. (Think about that for a moment.) It was almost exactly a year since my previous visit to this stretch of the coast south of Natal and in the interim it had lost nothing of its mysterious charm.

I sat on a high point looking out over the coastal forest lands below towards the Indian Ocean, on a bright sunny day two shades of deep blue fringed at the land’s edge by white lacy foam. Beneath that foam lurks the malevolent rocky reef on which the Sao Joao foundered. The beach upon which those who survived landed was empty, stark and unfriendly. Those Portuguese mariners were indeed between the devil and the deep blue sea. 

The shells on this beach are pounded to fine fragments by their passage through the rocks; few, perhaps the tiniest, reach the shore whole. Miraculous, then, that porcelain pieces survive at all, having gone through the devil’s cauldron of surf and jagged granite. Yet they continue to be found, five centuries after the ships and the men who sailed them were cast up as offerings to Neptune.

Fernando Pessoa cries:
‘Oh Salty sea, how much of your salt
Are tears of Portugal!’

The litany of Portuguese ships lost along these south eastern shores justifies the poet’s grief: Sao Joao 1552; Sao Bento 1554, Sao Thome 1589, Santo Alberto 1593, Sao Joao Baptista 1622, Sao Goncalo 1630, Nossa Senhore de Belem 1635 and Nossa Senhore de Atalaia do Piheiro 1647.

Approximately 500 souls are believed to have reached the shore after the Sao Joao was wrecked; injuries from the maelstrom through which they fought for life must have been severe. Were they more fortunate than those who drowned? Probably not, because ahead of them lay a walk of hundreds of miles north to Delagoa Bay during which most succumbed to exposure, heat, exhaustion, thirst and starvation. They were subjected to attacks by wild animals and encounters with indigenous tribes. The latter were not always confrontational but they were curious and keen to acquire the strangers’ possessions. Stripped of her clothing, Dona Leonor, the finely-bred Castilian wife of the captain, Manoel de Sousa Sepulvedo, chose death before dishonour, burying herself alive in the sand. Her husband buried their two dead children and, a broken man, walked into the bush never to be seen again.

Why attempt to reach Delagoa Bay? The initial plan was to build a small caravel on the beach to send to Sofala for help, but there were insufficient usable timbers from the wreck for this purpose. Table Bay, equally far off, held memories of d’Almeida and fifty of his men killed by Hottentots in 1510. Delagoa Bay was chosen as a known stopping point for Portuguese ships for water and trade.

They kept as close to the coast as possible, to make use of mussels and other such foods, but the coastal bush frequently forced them inland, as did the need for fresh water. They crossed rivers and estuaries, ran the gauntlet of snakes and beasts, and as they neared the tropics the sun grew hotter.

The account of the boatswain’s mate reveals that it took them three months to reach Delagoa Bay, at a rate of about 4.2 miles per day. Only 22 of the original 500 survived – 8 Portuguese and 14 slaves, the latter presumably being experienced in survival against all odds.

 For more on this topic enter 'sao joao' in blog search facility.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Natal Marriage Index, 1845-1955

Good news for anyone with Natal ancestors: the Natal Marriage Index is now accessible online at Family Search. To read more about this extremely useful and long-awaited facility, go to the Family Search Wiki pages at

An image of your ancestor’s marriage certificate can be viewed and downloaded, free.

These marriage records generally contain the following information
  • Date of marriage
  • Full name of bride and groom
  • Ages of bride and groom
  • Occupation
  • Residence at the time of marriage
  • Name of Judge
  • Names of witnesses

The Index was the work of dedicated volunteers of the Durban Berea South Africa Family History Centre, including project leader Adrian Rowe and star transcriber, Lyn Paul; the latter transcribed over 6,500 names per month.

Example of Marriage Certificate
Click on pic to zoom

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Waratah: R.I.P.

‘That ship will be a coffin for somebody,’ W Sharpe, able seaman, was told when seeking employment on SS Waratah in April 1909. Nothing better offering, he took his chances, shipping on her for a voyage to Australia. Off Ushant he noticed the vessel would roll to leeward, stop, continue the roll and recover. That was unusual in any ship. 

The prediction came true only two months later: Waratah would indeed became a coffin for over 200 souls in July 1909. 

Their memorials are scattered worldwide, showing how their deaths impacted on numerous and diverse families. If you can add a photograph of a relevant memorial inscription – or are a descendant of one of those who travelled on the Waratah - you are welcome to contact me via the blog comment form. Some inscriptions are shown below:

Browne Memorial Inscription at Buckland Filleigh, Devon:

'To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Col Percival Browne CB of Fifehead Magdalen, Dorset, born July 27 1862. Third son of William James Browne of Buckland Filleigh Esq. Lost in the S.S. Waratah July 26 1909.'

[Photos by Gail Dixon-Smith]

Brass plaque at Buckland Filleigh 

Click on pic to zoom

Ebsworth Memorial Inscription at Bridgnorth, Shropshire:

‘Also of John, eldest son of the above, who was lost on the Waratah July 1909 aged 52 years: Until the Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away’

Memorial Plaque, Trinity College Chapel, Parkville Victoria, Australia, to Howard Cecil Fulford, Surgeon of S.S. Waratah:

This tablet is dedicated as a tribute of affection and sorrow by his college comrades to the memory of Howard Cecil Fulford a resident student of this college from 1900 to 1905. He won high distinctions throughout his university course graduated with first class honours in medicine and was appointed resident physician of the Melbourne Hospital in 1906. He was a keen and public-spirited sportman and was thrice stroke of the college eight. He left Australia for England on July 1st 1909 as surgeon of the S. S. "Waratah" which on some unknown date after 26th July was lost in the Indian Ocean with all on board.
"Be ye therefore ready for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh."

Centenary Memorial Plaque, Queenscliffe Maritime Museum, Victoria, Australia

P&O was asked to make the above donation because the direct result of the loss of Waratah and the press publicity with searches and Court Inquiry, was that the Blue Anchor Line lost its reputation. P&O took over the fleet and dropped the Blue Anchor name, although the blue anchor painted onto the funnels was retained until 1912 and Lund’s flag continued to be flown at the foremast until 1914.

[Photo courtesy of Queenscliffe Maritime Museum]

The following announcement refers to Able Seaman T Newman of the Waratah: from The Times 18 December 1909: NEWMAN Lost in the SS Waratah, Thomas, eldest son of the late Richard & Mary Newman, formerly of Devon, England, late of the Civil Service, Tasmania, grandson of the late John Feneran of Kinsale, Ireland, and nephew of the late Revd. T H Newman, M.A. Cantab.


Harris Archibald Gibbs was an apprentice on the SS Waratah which was lost with all hands off the east coast of South Africa on 27th/28th July 1909. He was born in Bognor late 1890/early 1891 and his parents were Harris Hornsby Gibbs (born in Littlehampton) and his wife Ella (née Plucknett). 


Comment from a blog reader finally sums it all up:

The truly sad thing in all of this is lack of closure for families/descendants of victims and for those who wished to make ship travel safer (learning from mistakes). The truly marvellous thing is we have a mystery that is as solid and unbreakable today as it was 100 years ago.

UPDATE Sept 2013: 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Waratah Storm 27 July 1909

Disaster Strikes

On the 27th July 1909, at 7.30 pm, the SS Harlow was steaming north-east for Durban under the command of Captain John Bryce, when he saw a large steamer coming up astern of his ship at about 10 miles away when off Cape Hermes. At that time, flashes of light were seen astern and suddenly the steamer’s lights were no longer visible.  Might this have been the Waratah on her way back to Durban, having come about due to the bad weather? Had she broached in the large swells and the flashes caused by the ship rolling and the boiler fires exploding out of the funnel? However, if this was not the case, the Waratah might still have been heading for Cape Town.
The Waratah was lost at sea with all hands!
All over the world, debate and argument, theories and a search for proof has persisted for the past 104 years to understand and locate the SS Waratah, but no substantiation of what really happened that fateful night has emerged.
On her final port departure from Durban Harbour on Monday 26th July at 8.00 pm, she turned south past the Durban Bluff, headed for Cape Town. Captain Ilbery and his crew knew a heavy southerly storm was blowing up from the Cape and they would soon be confronted by enormous seas. This stretch of the South African coastline was notorious and treacherous, because it took ships close to the Continental Shelf, which generated gigantic swells, especially with strong winds opposing the south-running coastal current.
The Waratah had not been well-received by many passengers on the earlier Adelaide to Durban run, when moderate seas manifested her top-heavy promenade deck design being the cause of her insecure righting motion and large cracks opening up between the structural joints on the superstructure. Would Captain Ilbery and his more senior officers have felt apprehensive in anticipation of this wild storm ahead of them?
As they progressively headed into stronger winds, at around 6.30am on 27th July the following morning, Waratah‘s last communication from Latitude 31.36 degrees South and Longitude 29.58 degrees East, positioned her due East of Cape Hermes near Port St. Johns, where abnormal waves are at their worst. Had she later tried to come about and broached, or had she continued a further 100 kilometers down the coast to a position due east of the Mbhashe (Bashee) River mouth (near the Xhora River mouth) where it is widely speculated that the Waratah disappeared?
As with many sea tragedies, there is a twist in the tale. One of Lund’s Masters, Captain Pidgeon had joined W. Lund’s service as a boy of just 15 years of age on the Catalina. He was given his first command before he was 30 and had remained in Lund’s service for 21 years. As fate would have it, before the Waratah left London for the last time, Captain Pidgeon almost had the misfortune to be in command of her on that fateful voyage.  Captain Ilbery had been ill and the company looked for another Master to relieve him for the voyage. Captain Pidgeon, who had been Captain Ilbery’s Chief Officer on the Narrung and Wakool when they were new ships, was the only Master available and held himself ready to take command. However, Captain Ilbery recovered and took command of his ship before she sailed.
Fifty years after the loss of the Waratah, in 1959, Captain S.A. Pidgeon, RNR, penned his account of what may have led to the loss of the Waratah, which provided an insight that centered on the ship in Durban

   ‘The Waratah had taken on a certain amount of frozen mutton to be discharged in Durban and whenever we had a cargo for Durban, it was the custom in Lund’s ships to stow it in the square of No. 1 hold, sometimes right from deck level, to the bottom of the hold. Any cargo for London was stowed in the wings and at both ends. After the Durban cargo left the ship, the remaining slippery cargo of frozen carcasses had to be well shored-up, to prevent them from sliding everywhere. We usually lowered big skids into the empty space and at both ends. These were kept in place by heavy beams, 6 x 6, which were placed across the empty space left by the Durban cargo and were jammed by wedges, which were placed and hammered home by carpenter and crew.
    If this operation was faithfully performed, the remaining cargo was quite secure and could not move into the empty space in the centre, no matter how great the pitching and rolling of the ship. Captain Ilbery trusted his executive officers implicitly and left daily inspection at sea to the Chief Officer, Surgeon and Purser, who did the rounds together.
     The Chief Officer of the Waratah had been my Chief in Warrigal and was a very fine seaman.  The Chief Officers in Lund’s ships were always entirely responsible for placing the skids in No. 1 hold and seeing that they were securely in position.  If they were forgotten, or if they were not made completely fast, the result in a tender ship like the Waratah would be disastrous.
     It seems quite possible that the skids were forgotten on this occasion, or that the work was not adequately supervised.  The weather was not good as the Waratah sailed, and on those coasts, there are seas and cross-seas which are a menace to a labouring ship.
     It would all have happened in a matter of seconds. The Waratah, caught in a heavy roll, would pause at the end of it.  If a cross-sea dumped a huge wave on her forehatch, smashing it in, thousands of tons of water would rush down into the lower hold and find its level in the side of the ship, held in the roll. With the cargo insecurely held back, thousands of carcasses would break loose from the wings and join the mass of water, adding to the enormous weight.  Another huge sea, breaking aboard, would finish the ship and she would roll right over, never having had a chance to right herself.’

We can only imagine what thoughts might have swirled around in Captain Pidgeon’s head when he was informed of the loss of the Waratah and the close circumstances that nearly led to his command.  Might he have acted differently in the face of the weather and the condition of the ship?  Might he have done something different that was possibly overlooked on that fateful voyage?

Speculation will persist. Questions will continue to be asked. Doubts will always be raised, but one of the most evocative questions remains: why did a number of Senior Officers, Engineers and the Chief Steward, hastily take out life insurance policies before the Waratah left Australian waters? Was it premonition, or were they genuinely concerned about the Waratah’s sea worthiness during their outbound voyage?

Most haunting of all, is how the passengers and crew would have faced their terrifying imminent doom. They would have been hurled about the ship as she hit the wave and rolled and we can only hope that their demise was quick, with perhaps no time to realise what was happening, before the thousands of tons of water poured in to drag them helplessly into the depths of the Continental Shelf

May those unfortunate souls forever rest in peace.

Guest post by
Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson

Waratah Flower

Down on the vale of Death, with dismal cries,
The fated victims shuddering roll their eyes
In wild despair; while yet another stroke
With deep convulsion, rends the solid oak:
Till like the mine, in whose infernal cell
The lurking demons of destruction dwell,
At length asunder torn, her frame divides;
And crashing spreads in ruin o'er the tides. 

William Falconer

Friday, July 26, 2013

Waratah: The S.S. Waratah and Her Commander

An account of a new Australian steamer and her first passage.

(By A.G.H.)

S.S. Waratah at Adelaide

The idea of naming the steamships of the Blue Anchor line with names peculiar to Australia originated with the pioneer captain of that line, and although in the very earliest of the vessels the idea was not adopted, yet it soon became apparent to the owners that the suggestion was a wise and graceful one. We have now a list of steamers trading between England and the antipodes whose names, when mentioned, immediately remind the hearer of the different States in the great Australian continent. The latest addition to Messrs. Lund’s Blue Anchor line has been named after the gorgeous waratah, of New South Wales, a magnificent scarlet blossom indigenous to that State.

As I sit on the promenade deck of the Waratah in the great dividing line between the two hemispheres, on this my seventeenth passage between England and Australia, the reality is borne in upon the mind of the advantage of size in the matter of transit through the ocean. Here we are steaming along in the large new Blue Anchor liner, with a head wind, and yet practically little or no motion is experienced. The reason of the steadiness is not only due to the 10, 000 tons burthen of the Waratah, but also to her construction. When I first saw the new steamer at Tilbury, the idea was that she would prove a great roller, owing to the height of her many decks above the water-level. The lowest of these, for first-class passengers, is one deck higher than the spar deck on the P. & O. steamers, and the promenade deck, which also has extensive cabin accommodation, is he same height as the boat deck on most of the ocean steamers. The Waratah’s boat deck towers above these, and the bridge looks unusually high. The funnel seems an enormous size round, but we are told that it is not so large in diameter as the Geelong’s, and considerably lower, it being constructed in a modern and improved style that does not require such great size. The apparent top-heaviness of the Waratah appears to have no effect on the easy passage of the steamer through the water, as it is counteracted by her breadth of beam. Having travelled three times in the Geelong one naturally compares the two steamers, and the conclusion arrived at is that the lofty build of the Waratah does not cause any access of motion, but that this is if anything less in her than in the Geelong.

With regard to the interior plan of Messrs. W. Lund & Son’s new liner it differs in many respects from the older vessel, and in some of these differences the advantage is with the older steamer – at least in the opinion of the writer. The first-class cabins are not quite so large as those of the Geelong, and I understand that the smaller steamers of the Blue Anchor line have even larger rooms than this last named steamer. Another difference in the plan of the Waratah is that no single cabin in the first-class has a porthole close to the water, owing to the fact that a gangway runs all round outside the cabins. This last mentioned difference causes less fresh air from the sea to come directly into them. In other respects the Waratah keeps up the record of the Blue Anchor line, and this fact is more noticeable as so many old faces are to be seen on board the new steamer. 

The aged quartermaster, who boasts of his 79 summers, but who looks so hale and fit that it is difficult to believe that he has lived so long, is one of them. Then there is the purser, whose face is so familiar to those who have travelled in the Geelong, and who is most obliging to all. 

It has been my privilege to travel four times across the ocean with the commander of the Waratah, and on each occasion I have been more struck than before with his unique personality, and with the extreme suitableness of that personality for the position that he is called upon to occupy. Simple and unpretentious in manner, he yet has a dignity about him that would at once forbid a liberty, and all who serve under him do so with the utmost respect, and, in most cases, with great love and veneration. Who that has heard Captain Ilbery read the Church of England service, which he does every Sunday morning when there is no clergyman among the passengers, will forget the impressive manner in which the service is conducted, and the observant listener will not fail to notice that only one who enters into and participates in the petitions could present them in the tone of genuine devotion in which they are uttered.

The Lutine Bell, Lloyd's of London: rung when a ship is lost.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Waratah: Passengers from Australia

On Business and Pleasure Bent

We can look at these names and can pass over them…. or … linger on names that have been lying in the dusty past for over one hundred years, so let us take a step back in time.

Sense their excitement as they boarded the ship, all with similar future plans, business dealings and sporting ambitions. Some passengers were immigrating, or simply returning to their land of birth. Imagine their anticipation of reunions, private arrangements and romance. A poignant situation involving a brief account of regular people who would soon be thrown together in an unthinkable tragedy on 27th July 1909, off the Transkei Coast of Southern Africa, to become one of the greatest sea mysteries of all time.

After the loss of the Waratah, on Thursday 9 December 1909, the Sydney Morning Herald published this list of some of the passengers’ plans, hopes and dreams:

Bound for London

Mrs Allen, the wife of Captain A Allen, who held the position of Chief Officer of the Cargo Steamer Karori, belonging to the Union SS Company of New Zealand, employed in the produce trade between Devonport and other Tasmanian ports and Sydney. Mrs Allen, who resided at No 95 Campbell Street North Sydney, took an infant with her and was bound on a pleasure trip.
Miss Rose Allen, a little girl of 6 years of age, was the daughter of Captain A Allen of the Karori, by his first marriage and was accompanying her stepmother on the voyage.
Mr Niel Black, a well-known pastoralist of Noorat in the western district of Victoria, on his way to propose to a young lady in England and bring her back to his beautifully refurbished home.
Mr and Mrs Bowden and Mrs and the Misses Bowden and L D Schauman, all members of the same party, boarded the vessel at Sydney at the last moment; they had been engaged in Sydney in the hotel business.
Lieutenant Colonel Percival John Browne CB, who joined the Waratah at Adelaide, commanded the Dorset Yeomanry.   Born in the year 1862 he was the son of the late Mr W J Browne of Buckland Filleigh North Devon. In 1892 he married Bernarda Gracia, daughter of the late Mr T E Lees of Woodfield Oldham, Lancashire. Lieutenant Colonel Browne commanded the 7th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry during the South African campaign and was twice mentioned in despatches. For his services he was created a Companion of the Bath In 1900. Lieutenant Colonel Browne was the Master of the Blackmore Vale Foxhounds and his address was Fifehead Magdalen, Gillingham, Dorset, England.
Messrs Calder, Clark and Page, who were booked from Melbourne in the Third Class and well-known in connection with wood chopping contests, were proceeding to England with the intention of giving exhibitions of wood chopping. 
Mr Page, in whose hands were the arrangements for the tour, was confident when the steamer left Melbourne, of the success of the speculation, as both Calder and Clarke were champion axemen. Calder, a Tasmanian, presented a striking appearance when standing with his axe in his hand beside the block which he was to cut through. He was 6ft 5in of height and broad in proportion with a fine head and shoulders. He appeared on two occasions at Fitzgerald’s circus building when he took part in the wood chopping carnivals organised by Mr E Erskine Scott and won several prizes. 
Mr William Cumming booked through Cooks Travel at Sydney.
Mr John Ebsworth was a prominent solicitor practising in Melbourne and was the holder of a Master Mariner's Certificate. Prior to engaging in the practice of law, he occupied the positions of Second and Chief Officer of Steamers trading between London and Australia for seven or eight years, and on account of his seafaring experience, his services were greatly sought for in the Marine Court of Victoria. Mr Ebsworth was a prominent Mason and was the son of Mr John Ebsworth, solicitor of London.
Mrs Govett, a resident of the western district, Victoria, and for some time before sailing, had been residing with Mrs Orr at Maclay Street, Potts Point.
Miss Henderson, a maid in the service of Mrs Smart of the Hotel Australia.
Mr J M S Hunter of Glasgow, returning to London from a visit to his son, was interested in pastoral pursuits in this State. 
Miss Lascelles of Geelong, the daughter of Mr Lascelles of the firm of Dennys, Lascelles and Company and one of the Geelong Harbour Trust Commissioners.
Mrs Starke and Miss Starke were the mother and sister of Mr H E Starke, barrister of Melbourne, who had been admitted to the New South Wales Bar on November 2nd. Mr Starke for whom much sympathy was felt, appeared in Sydney shortly after the event in the patents case.
Mr G H Tlckell, whose name appeared in the list of Third Class passengers from Melbourne, was the son of Captain Tickell, Victorian State Naval Commandant. Young Tickell, an only son, was in reality attached to the engineering staff of the Waratah and making the trip for the purpose of gaining practical experience in marine engineering.  
Mr J T Wilson and Miss Wilson, who also joined at Melbourne, resided at Malvern Road, Malvern.
Mrs and Miss Wilson, saloon passengers from Melbourne, the wife and daughter of the manager of the Royal Bank Victoria.

Calder the axeman

Bound for Cape Town

Mrs Harvey, Master Harvey and Silas Miller from Gisborne, New Zealand, who had joined the Waratah at Sydney for Cape Town.
Miss K Lees, a niece of Lieutenant Colonel Browne and was travelling with him. Miss Lees had been on a visit to Australia and was returning by the Waratah.
Miss L Cooke, Miss Lees lady’s maid returning to Cape Town with her.
Mr Charles Taylor and his wife and two small children returning to Kimberley, South Africa, from Australia. Mr Taylor lately worked in De Beers Mine at Kimberley and was an active member of the local North of England Association.

Let us also remember all those unmentioned passengers, the Captain and crew of the SS Waratah and the Durban passengers soon to board this ill-fated ship, which would vanish without trace on that fateful night of 27 July 1909.

Guest post by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson
July 2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Waratah: the Turner family

This model of the S.S. Waratah was commissioned by Turners Shipping, Durban, whose founder David Turner was lost with the vessel. His family were also on board - Mrs Turner and their five children aged between 14 and 3; their destination was London. The Turners were among the approximately 40 passengers who embarked at Durban. Including the passengers from Australia and the Waratah's crew, there were 211 souls on board. The ship sailed from Durban at 8 p.m. on Monday 26 July 1909..

The model stands in the boardroom of Turners Shipping and is just over a metre in length. The portrait shown behind the model is of David Turner. 

Photograph supplied by kind permission of the Turner Group.

Click on pic to zoom.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Waratah: The Captain's Table

SS Waratah
The Captain's Table
Dinner - 7 July 1909

The weather report issued for South Australia had been overcast skies with rain, squally winds between NW and SW, but strong along the coast and rough seas.

That Wednesday, in a ghostly drizzle as the tug guided the SS Waratah from the wharf, no-one on board would have had the slightest notion of their impending doom that awaited them further into their voyage. But for now, this night, under the glow of low lighting whilst passengers enjoyed the orchestra and elegant flow of ballroom dancing, would be a time for gaiety, private conversations in hushed tones and romantic interludes.

The SS Waratah had a lavishly decorated and handsomely appointed dining room and being invited to the Captain’s Table involved a high degree of formality.  Sure-footed stewards passed between the tables, serving deliciously-prepared meals with the finest wines, brandies and ports which were welcomed by the guests.

As was the tradition and standard practice for the senior officers on the ship, each would host a table of their own in the ship’s main dining room.  Tonight, Chief Officer Owen and Ship’s Surgeon, Dr Howard Fulford, would entertain selected guests, whilst Chief Engineer George William Hodder would join the distinguished guests at the Captain’s Table.

Comfortably seated at the table this evening with Captain Ilbery were,

     Mrs Agnes Grant (Gosse) Hay and her daughter Helen (Dolly) Gosse Hay
     Lieutenant Colonel Percival John Browne and his niece Miss K Lees
   Solicitor John Ebsworth
  Mr Claude Sawyer
 George Richardson, Superintendent of the Geelong Harbour Trust and Miss Lascelles whose father was a Geelong Harbour Trust Commissioner
Niel Walter Black

For these passengers to have been included in this exclusive coterie was an honour and conversation would centre on the most recent passengers boarding that day and their homes left behind to travel to England for both business and pleasure.  All very normal and entertaining for the occasion, but there was the underlying unease amongst other passengers of the Waratah’s design with her high promenade deck, instability due to the design and slow righting movements of the ship. 

20 days to disaster and no-one was any the wiser…

Captain J E Ilbery

Mrs Agnes Grant (Gosse) Hay

Helen (Dolly) Gosse Hay

John Ebsworth, Solicitor

Claude Sawyer

Chief Engineer George William Hodder

Guest post by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson
July 2013

Acknowledgements to Peter Ilbery and Family
Hay Family
Ebsworth Family 
Jean Gaisford for the photograph of Chief Engineer Hodder and given by kind permission of Roberta Baker nee Barnes, daughter of Roberta Hodder and granddaughter of George William Hodder; Jean Gaisford for the photograph of Helen Gosse Hay 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Waratah Passengers who disembarked, Crew and Inquiry

Passengers who disembarked Waratah at Durban:

Crew of the Waratah

Waratah's crew

The Court of Inquiry

Transcribed from South Africa Magazine, 25 February 1911 (by Ellen Stanton)





Judgment was delivered on Wednesday by the Court which inquired into the loss of the Waratah, and which was presided over by Mr. J. Dickinson, one of the Metropolitan stipendiaries. The Court found that the ship was lost in the gale of July 28, 1909, which was of exceptional violence for those waters, and was the first great storm she had encountered. They were led to this conclusion by the facts that she overhauled the Clan Macintyre, which afterwards experienced the gale, was last seen heading in a direction which would take her into a position where she would feel the full force of the storm, and was never afterwards sighted by the Clan Macintyre. Had she been only disabled it is almost certain that she would have been so sighted, and, if not, would have been picked up by one of the many ships subsequently on the lookout for her. In the total absence of direct evidence, and with only conflicting evidence of an indirect character, the Court could not say what particular form was taken by the catastrophe, but the fact that no wreckage had been found, in spite of the most careful and exhaustive search, indicated that it must have been sudden. On the whole they inclined to the opinion that she capsized, but what particular chain of circumstances brought about this result must remain undetermined. The Court did not desire to travel outside the scope of its functions as a tribunal inquiring into a specific casualty; but, in view of the great prominence which the question of stability had assumed, felt it not out of place to suggest whether it might not be possible, with the help of a committee of experts appointed for that purpose, to arrive at some conclusions concerning the minimum stability requirements of different types of vessel consistent with safety at sea. A careful investigation by such a committee, including as it would necessarily do, examination of stability curves of many vessels in all trades, might show the feasibility of recommending minimum curves for different types of vessel for general adoption. If so, rules for the stowage of cargo for a particular ship could be formulated by the builder for the guidance of the shipowner, with greater precision than now possible. The Court was fully aware of the complexity of the subject and of the difficulties of making rules sufficiently elastic to meet the requirements of varying types of ships.


The Court found:--
1. The vessel had three Lord Kelvin compasses. So far as the Court could learn they were in good order and sufficient for safe navigation.
2. When the vessel left Durban on July 26, 1909, (a) she was supplied with proper and sufficient boats and life-saving appliances, in good order and ready for use; (b) she was manned considerably in excess of Board of Trade requirements, but in the opinion of the Court an early opportunity might be taken of reconsidering whether those requirements are sufficient in the case of large ships carrying passengers; (c) the Court was of opinion that the cargo was properly stowed; and (d) on the basis of the calculations made by the expert witnesses, with the results of which the Court was in general agreement, she had sufficient stability as laden. She was in proper trim for the voyage she was about to undertake. She was in good condition as regards structure, and so far as the evidence went in a seaworthy condition; but there was not sufficient evidence before the Court to show that all proper precautions, such as battening hatches, securing ports, coaling doors, &c., had been taken.
3. The cost of the ship to her owners was, in round figures, £154,000, and the insurances were—on hull and machinery, £135,000; on disbursements, £15,000.
4. So far as the Court had been able to ascertain, the Waratah, after having been spoken by the Clan Macintyre, was not seen or spoken by any other vessel.
5. The cause of the Waratah not having been heard of after being sighted by the Clan Macintyre on July 27, 1909, was her loss during the gale of July 28. The precise manner of her loss could not be determined upon the evidence available.


No special report, as Mr. F. M. Lund assured the Court, was made by Captain Ilbery as to her behaviour on her maiden voyage. In view of the fact that the Waratah was a new departure for this line, and that her specification was being used as the basis of the specification of another new ship, the Court was quite unable to understand how silence could have been preserved on such an important and interesting subject as her stability and behaviour at sea. Mr. Lund endeavoured to explain away his strong letters by saying that at the time he wrote them his firm and the builders were in conflict over a question of demurrage, the vessel having been delivered after the contract date. He said that his complaints about the ship were mere “bluff” intended to facilitate the forcing of a settlement of the monetary claim.


The Waratah left London on her second voyage on April 27, 1909. She was again surveyed and reported satisfactory by Captain Clarke. It was not known what cargo she carried outward. The bunker coal when leaving consisted of 3455 tons, none of which was in the spardeck space. The Court had carefully collated all the documents, and acknowledged its great indebtedness to Mr. Larcombe, the Board of Trade Surveyor, who was called as a witness. From the manifests, it appeared that, making reasonable allowance for measurement cargo, about 6500 tons of cargo were placed in the ship in Australia. The largest items were 976 tons of leady concentrates shipped at Adelaide, and heavy consignments of wheat, oats, flour, tallow, wool, and skins, taken at the three Australian ports. About 240 tons of this total were consigned to Durban and Beira, and were discharged at Durban. No cargo was shipped at that port. The Waratah left Durban on July 26, 1909. She exchanged signals with the Clan Macintyre at 6 a.m. next day. The Court attached value to the description of the great storm which occurred on July 28 contained in the affidavit of Mr. G. P. Phillips, chief officer of the Clan Macintyre. Reports of the supposed sighting of the Waratah after she left Durban came from three other ships, in addition to the Guelph.


On the second voyage outward two incidents should be recorded. The first was related by Pinel, carpenter’s mate on the Waratah, who had been nine years in the Navy. There was, he said a big roll crossing the Bight, and he thought two or three times she was never going to come back. The second incident was spoken to by Mr. Mason, an engineer with a first-class certificate and 33 years’ sea experience. Coming out of Melbourne, bound for Sydney, when there was a breeze the ship heeled heavily and did not recover herself properly. He made strong remarks to the chief officer. Mr. Mason was corroborated by Dr. Thomas, then surgeon on the Waratah. On the other hand there was considerable evidence that she behaved well on this voyage. The ship was in a distinctly light condition, her draught when crossing the Bight being about 25 ft. mean, and coming out of Melbourne 21 ft. 5 ins. Mean. The results arrived at by the owners’ experts were in substantial agreement with the figures of Mr. Larcombe, the Board of Trade Surveyor, based on the same documents. Upon these figures the metacentric height of the ship appeared to have been, when leaving Durban, about 1.5 ft. In this condition the vessel had a maximum righting lever of 3.15 ft., at an angle of 55 degs., and a range of stability of 90 degs. The bases of these calculations were not free from ambiguity and possible sources of error, but the Court thought no serious error had been made.


After dealing with the metacentric heights of the vessel on leaving some of the ports, the Court said it was not easy to reconcile these metacentric heights with the positive testimony of some of the witnesses, as, for example, the tenderness on entering Adelaide spoken to by McDiarmid, whose deposition showed signs of careful observation. There was, however, a fair amount of evidence to show that the ship was upright when leaving each of the Australian ports. Mr. Sawyer’s evidence showed considerable prescience, but while the Court was convinced that this gentleman was doing his best to assist them, there were only three points which required detailed examination. He said the ship started from the wharf at Melbourne with a list to port. Outside the roads it changed to starboard, and later on returned to port. The initial list could not have been very appreciable, because Mr. Dew, the pilot, noticed “no sign of a list while at the pier or while going down the bay.” The effect of a strong south-east wind on a ship coming out of the bay would be to list her to starboard. When she had proceeded further she would have the wind aft, and the initial list, if existing, would again become evident. The weather conditions seemed adequately to explain Mr. Sawyer’s observations. As to the behaviour off Cape Leeuwin, the Court had the letter of Mr. Ebsworth written to his wife and his description in his diary at the time. Mr. Richardson also dealt with the point. He described the rolling as a slow majestic roll with a distinct pause at the extremity. Mr. Sawyer was probably describing the same action. Mr. Sawyer’s complaint was that she did not rise forward as she encountered successive waves; but there was nothing in the construction, trim, or loading which would make her behaviour in this particular different from that of other ships of similar size and type in like conditions of sea. Two qualified people deposed as to theWaratah’s condition when leaving Durban, Mr. John Rainnie, the port captain, and the master of the tug Richard King, which towed her from the Wharf to outside the bar. Mr. Rainnie’s statement that she had no list when leaving the wharf, and that none was created by the tug pulling upon her, was important, and the evidence of the tugmaster was conclusive. The master and chief officer of the Clan Macintyre stated that she had no list and was proceeding steadily.


The Court found an explanation of the large amount of adverse comment upon the Waratah’s behaviour during her career in her undoubted tenderness throughout her first voyage and while loading. In such a condition quite observable lists could be produced by moderate wind pressures, relatively small alterations of water ballast, the consumption of fresh water, or non-symmetrical working out of coal. Regarding the cause of the vessel’s loss, one suggestion, based upon the statement of the master of the Harlow, Captain Bruce, was that her bunker coal had heated and she had blown up. Such an occurrence was possible, but several circumstances told against the probability. The chief officer of the Harlow said that what Captain Bruce took for a steamer’s lights was the flare of a distant bush fire, several of which were visible at different heights, some on the hills and some low down towards the shore. He added, and the Court agreed, that had a steamer been fire, she would have sent up rockets and signals of distress.


These came from two ships, and related to August 11. The master of the Insiswa said that when ten miles off the Bashee River he sighted four objects floating beneath the surface which looked suspiciously like human bodies. The sea was too heavy to lower a boat. Two of his officers saw the objects; one was inclined to agree with him, the other declined to express an opinion. Certain officers of the steamshipTottenham stated that when she was 30 or 35 miles south of East London they saw some human bodies in the water. This was reported to the master, who at once put back, and from what he saw he was disposed to consider that what was taken for human remains was nothing more than dead sunfish or whale offal. There is a whaling station at Durban, where much offal is sent adrift. The Court was inclined to the master’s explanation.


The search established the moral certainty that the Waratah did not break down and drift, or that if she did, she succumbed at some point to the heavy weather which was frequently met by the Sabine. It was the carefully-considered opinion of the Court that it must now be regarded as a certainty, so far as certainty can be attained in human affairs, that no person survives of those who left Durban in the Waratah. Conflicting evidence was given as to the boats. The Court did not accept the loose accounts by some of the Colonial deponents of the boats’ rotten and useless state, but it seemed they were not in a satisfactory, seaworthy condition on the first voyage. The boats appeared to have been put into good condition before the second voyage, or they would not have been passed by Captain Clarke, as in fact they were. The fire gear on this ship was all new, and presumably in good condition. But no fire drill ever seemed to have been carried out. The Court was aware that fire drill was held on most large passenger ships, and strongly urged on the owners of others where it is not adopted the necessity of accustoming the crew to the use of fire gear. The Court desired to express its regret for the loss of life and its sympathy with the relatives and friends of those lost. It had been particularly trying to wait from week to week and from month to month in the hope that something would be heard, but the Court trusted that this very full inquiry would set at rest the minds of those concerned. There was no reasonable doubt that, whatever the cause, all the passengers and company of the Waratah met their deaths at sea soon after she left Durban. The Court regarded it as the kindest course to emphasise this view in the strongest manner.


Many people will have wondered that such a wide variety of opinions should have been forthcoming respecting the characteristics of theWaratah with regard to her construction and seagoing qualities. The moment is opportune to explain the precise value of some of the terms used and points raised during the inquiry. Stability may be taken to mean the ability of the vessel to remain in an approximately vertical position in spite of the violent buffeting of wind and waves. “Recovery powers” describes the ability of a ship to return quickly to a normal position after having been heeled over by a gust of wind or an extra heavy wave. What the average reader wishes to know is to what extent a vessel can safely heel—in other words, what is the limit of her recovering power. This, however, is a point that cannot be settled on general lines, since the stability of ships depends not only upon individual design, but upon the character of the cargo of each vessel, and the method in which it is loaded. As the Daily Graphic remarks in this connection, if the cargo is to be one of human beings, the problem before the designer is comparatively simple, for he has only to allow such a margin of safety that with all the passengers sheltering from a gale on the lee side at the highest portion of the ship above the water line—that is to say, under the worst possible conditions the vessel shall still be stable. A vessel must have the combination of great recovering power and comfortable riding, but, unfortunately, these are two opposed virtues, for if a vessel has the maximum recovering power that can possibly be provided, she will ride uneasily, owing to the rapidity and jerkiness with which she will endeavour to return to her normal position. An appearance of top-heaviness, such as characterizes many a modern boat, does not necessarily indicate that the vessel is of faulty and dangerous design. That appearance is caused solely by the desire of passengers to live during their short stay on the boat as high above the water line as their means permit, and this natural tendency ahs brought about a type of vessel having a series of super-imposed decks, a style of construction which must necessarily lend an air of instability to the boat in the eyes of the uninitiated. The real fact of the matter, however, is that it is as easy to provide for a wide range of stability in a vessel having many decks as in a boat having but one. This is simply a question of design, and, indeed, the tall sides or high freeboard of the liner make it the safest of all vessels, so that the “top-heavy” appearance may be a virtue instead of the fault that it seems at first sight. It is a simple law that for a vessel to float with stability the metacentre must be above the centre of gravity, and upon the precise relation of the positions of these two points to each other and to the ship itself the stability and comfort of the vessel depend. The height of the one point above the other directly determines the power of the vessel to return to the vertical, and the safest and most comfortable ship is that in which this relation has been most accurately estimated for average requirements.


Freak wave

Heavy seas