They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders of the deep. . . .
SS Waratah at Cape Town on her earlier visit there; she would not be seen at that port again.
2019 marks the 110th anniversary of the mystifying disappearance of the SS Waratah on the Transkei Coast of Southern Africa and this remains one of the most powerfully evocative sea mysteries of all time.
What influential cocktail of events led to her disappearance on that fateful day of 27 July 1909? How was it possible for a modern liner of her time, on a well-used coast, to disappear without trace? A unique drama and tragedy of a ship vanishing so completely provides a compelling unsolved mystery.
The Waratah, on her second voyage out to Australia, left London on 27 April 1909 and reached Sydney without incident, despite concerns voiced by some crew members and passengers on stability and other problems. After berthing in Sydney, she loaded her Australian cargo and provisioned for the return trip to London via the ports of Melbourne and Adelaide.
None on board would ever have imagined that a disaster of catastrophic magnitude was due to unfold. A predetermined, unalterable and tragic event would overtake their lives.
As the SS Waratah, captained by Josiah Ilbery, steamed through The Heads of Sydney Harbour on 26 June 1909, Ilbery, topside crew and passengers looked back as the grey Sydney houses receded in the rainy showers. There was a sadness, yet also the excitement and anticipation of landfall in London after calls at Melbourne, Adelaide, Durban and particularly Cape Town, with its’ magnificent backdrop of panoramic Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak.
On board were two stewardesses, 40 year-old Emma Louisa Swan (Australia) and 35 year-old Sarah E. Whitehorn (UK), linking the Waratah to each country. Little information is known about the two stewardesses, but they were two ordinary women who loved the sea, leading an interesting life of mixing with well-heeled passengers on the flagship of the Blue Anchor Line and under command of the Commodore of the Fleet. One can just imagine the sense of adventure, new experiences and foreign lands awaiting them: all part of their enthusiasm for life and on a new steam ship. They would probably have shared stories about their day with the mix of passengers and at night, they would settle into their quarters weary from their long days. Having a full day of many serving trips, housekeeping and personal service to the first and second-class passengers who did not travel with their own servants, would be demanding whilst countering the heavy rolling of the ship.
After a relatively uneventful passage to Durban, the Waratah disembarked some passengers, one of whom was Mr. Claude Sawyer who claimed that on three occasions on the voyage he had seen a vision of a man with a sword, warning him of impending disaster. This unnerving event convinced him that it was unsafe for him to remain on the ship to complete his passage via Cape Town to London.
General cargo was offloaded, additional coal bunkered and 40 new passengers embarked. Amongst these was Mr. Turner, the founder of the well-known and still-thriving South African business, Turner’s Shipping, travelling with his wife and their five children aged between 3 and 14 years-old. One can just imagine the delight in the children as they walked and skipped up the gangway at the start of their first sea journey and the smiles of pride as their parents shared their excitement. Being First Class passengers, they would have well-appointed cabins and access to the sumptuous dining room and upper promenade deck allowing a 360 degree view across the ocean.
In the early 8.00 pm darkness of 26 July 1909, Captain Ilbery stood alongside the Durban Port Pilot, Captain Lindsay, as he guided the Waratah through the narrow harbour entrance. The view this time was the high silhouette of the Bluff, which slowly faded behind the ship off the starboard quarter. Having waved goodbye to the Pilot, and turning south into the Agulhas Current that sweeps down the coast from Mozambique, the ship was now heading towards a forecasted winter storm and potential, massive swells that are notorious along this coastline, especially with current against the on-coming strong southerly wind. Swells along this Continental Shelf can form up to 30 m high.
27 July 1909 – 6.00 hours - Cape Hermes - Latitude 31.36 degrees South, Longitude 29.58 degrees East. The Waratah overtook the Clan MacIntyre and exchanged signals by Morse signal lamp with the Fourth Mate of the Clan Macintyre. Radio communication was very new and the Waratah was due to be fitted after her arrival in London and unknowingly this was to be the last ever confirmed communication from or with the Waratah.
Some hours later at 21.40 hours, the SS Guelph was 8 miles off Hood Point, Cape Hood Lighthouse, when the Third Officer saw an unidentified ship 5 miles outside of the Guelph.
The weather was not clear enough to make out the vessel’s name, but he reported that she was a passenger vessel and from the Morse lamp exchange was only able to identify the last three letters of her name as T.A.H. The ship could not be positively identified as the Waratah.
Nothing had been heard from Waratah since her position due east of Cape Hermes near Port St. Johns. It was still early days, but concerns had been mounting in Cape Town as news reached them of a great storm up the coast. Rumours abounded and confusion grew. As each day passed and with no good word received, anxiety deepened. Stories drifted in that the Illovo, having left Durban some 50 hours before the SS Waratah, was now 24 hours overdue at Cape Town. On her arrival, many hours later, she reported that they had met such heavy seas that her deck cargo had been completely swept overboard and when she began listing off Danger Point, the Captain had decided to jettison 30 tons of coal.
The SS Waratah never steamed into Cape Town Harbour to embark the passengers waiting to take up their passage on the last leg of the voyage to London, via Las Palmas and Plymouth.
On 9 October 1909, ice-cold fear struck every heart when The Daily Commercial News and Shipping List published:
‘Waratah, 9339, Ilbery, Sydney June 26 to South Africa and London via ports Melbourne July 1, Adelaide 7, Durban 26, missing.’
When reading the names of the 211 passengers and crew, one has an insight into a heart-rending story. Each person had been linked with deep affection to family and friends. Each had started the journey as an everyday event, of regular people going about their everyday lives, with plans of business, sport, romance and private arrangements. None of these eventuated.
The farewells and expectations of safe arrivals were subsequently replaced by the shock and disbelief in reading newspaper headlines reporting the loss, slow communications, misleading information, months of frustration in wanting to know the truth and many more months of waiting to have so many questions yet unanswered.
Thinking of the loss of the Turner family and our two stewardesses exemplifies the tragedy of the ship's loss. One can just imagine the shock, chaos and fear on board as the ship foundered, rolled and sank, taking everyone down into the depths of the Indian Ocean.
Poignant was the Family Notice placed in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Saturday 11 December 1909
Sydney Morning Herald
Swan – Lost at Sea – SS Waratah
Emma Louisa Swan, late of Wendouree, Cowles Road, Mossman - dearly loved only sister of Mrs. R. Kohblanck. Dearly beloved mother of Claude A. Swan.
Acknowledgements for information as well as photo of Waratah at Cape Town to
Captain Stanley Robinson https://stanleyrobinson309.blogspot.com/