Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Voice from the Waratah: James Conn

Despite the time which has elapsed since the strange disappearance of the SS Waratah in July 1909, her story continues to reverberate through memories, hearsay and public as well as private written records.

Not many Waratah enthusiasts are privileged to own letters written by someone who actually sailed on the Lund liner on that fateful voyage. One such fortunate person is Marilyn Greaves, whose great uncle James Conn was a greaser and fireman on the Waratah. 

Thanks are due to Marilyn and her family for permitting me to reproduce one of Conn's letters here and to Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson for making this contact possible.

This letter carries an additional importance in that it refers to the incident which occurred off Kangaroo Island, about which there has been much controversy among historians.

James (Jim) Conn's letter to his sister Annie in London.

S.S. Waratah Port Adelaide, South Australia
January 19th 1909 

I waited until today to see if a letter from you would arrive…. So I will drop you a few farewell lines while I am in Australia and hope to hear from you by tomorrow or next day. I am writing this now in case I have not time later on and if a letter from you does turn up I will answer it from Cape Town when we call there.

I must tell you that last Saturday night at 12.20 a.m. the Waratah was as nearly wrecked as ever she will be – the officer on the Bridge mistook his course and was within an ace of piling her up on a reef, it was only the quickness in reversing the engines that saved her. Even as it was, she touched the ground, but not hard enough to do any damage. The night was very dark, but the sea was not rough and I think we could have managed to get ashore is she had broken up. It caused quite a commotion for a time, but the majority of the passengers were asleep and knew nothing about it. When I came up on deck from the engine room after we had her under way again, there was land and rocks all round us, so we were lucky to get off as we did. It was Kangaroo Island where it happened.

Since I started writing this letter I have heard that we are not leaving here before Friday morning, but I can’t say how true it is. You will see however by the paper when we do sail….

We have not many passengers on board and what few there are is mostly for Durban, but we may pick up a few from there and Cape Town for London. 

Signed …. Your sailor brother Jim.

Note: James (Jim) always signed his letter ‘your sailor brother Jim’ but the last letter he ever wrote  he signed, your sailor brother Jim, a few personal lines and then, Goodbye and Good Luck. Spine chilling in the light of what was to befall the ship. ... 

In another letter to Annie dated 16 June 1909 SS Waratah Sydney, Jim says:

We do have some trouble in berthing the Waratah at Port Melbourne and again here and in fact in every port we touched. She is so high that the wind has great power with her. She can snap big hawsers like cotton strands.

Crew of SS Waratah. James (Jim)  Conn -
4th crewman from the RH side of the second back row 



Extraordinary account of great significance. It seems the Waratah's hull was subjected more than once to unreasonable forces. It is always sobering to read accounts written by those unaware of the disaster that lay before them. Thank you, and to Suzanne, for sharing this poignant account. Andrew

Emmy said...

I would like to hear directly from those who have family stories to tell on the Waratah. I am writing my book on my search for the Waratah
and high resolution scanned images of family members that served on the ill-fated ship.

A new search for the ship is in the planning stages.

Emlyn Brown