Friday, 30 August 2013

Waratah - overdue

The Waratah was expected to arrive in Cape Town by 29 July, 1909, but as the days went by with no sight or word of the liner, uncertainty evolved into dread as it became apparent to all that the steamer was missing, either adrfit or had foundered.

Crew of  the Union Castle liner Guelph alleged that they had seen what appeared to be a large steamer 27 July, heading in the direction of Cape Town about 8 km out, off Hood Point, East London (latitude 33º 21' S., longitude 27º 54' E.). This they assumed to be the Waratah and although conditions (heavy seas and a 90 km per hour gale) made it difficult for Morse code interpretation, the Chief Officer believed that the last three letters received from the steamer spelled 'TAH'.Thus it was assumed that the Waratah was still on course for Cape Town 9.51 pm 27 JulyThis assumption could not, however, explain why the 465 ft steamer Waratah had not been sighted by other vessels in the shipping lane since departing the Clan Macintyre at 9.30 am, more than 12 hours previously and why she was 8 hours behind schedule and not displaying signals of distress. I shall return to this intriguing account in later posts.

In the coming days and weeks once it had been absorbed that the Waratah was lost, first thoughts turned to hope she might be adrift in the Southern Ocean.The navy deployed three of her destroyers HMS Pandora, HMS Forte and HMS Hermes in an attempt to locate the missing liner, but all to no avail.  

Cruel rumours emerged that she had been seen slowly making her way to Port. This only served up false hope on the platter already overcrowded with desperation.

Conflicting reports that 'the floating bodies' sighted were nothing more than whale remnants added to distress and confusion.  

'Shipping News The Times 3 March 1910'

'The Waratah: A Reuter telegram from Cape Town says that a quantity of wreckage has lately been washed ashore at intervals in the neighbourhood of Mossel Bay.  A most significant object is a cushion marked ‘W’, while a hatchway, which was found 3 weeks ago, has been sent to the builders of the missing liner Waratah with a view to identification.'

These items were never officially confirmed as being linked with the Waratah.

In September 1909, the Blue Anchor Line chartered the Sabine to comb the Wild Coast, zig-zagging more than 14 000 miles without discovering even so much as an item from Waratah. Out of desperation to quench the aching need to know and speed up insurance payouts, relatives of the passengers chartered the SS Wakefield in 1910, which again yielded nothing in a search, which included the Crozets, spanning a period of three months.

Insured by Lloyd's of London, failure to arrive at Cape Town was first classified as 'overdue' (rather than 'disappeared'). This appeared in notices warning various underwriters that the entire vessel or parts thereof may have been lost, and that they should prepare themselves to pay. Lloyd's advertised the missing Waratah as a 'vessel for inquiry', signalling that the insurer wished to actively seek information on Waratah. Masters seeing this notice, would have had the opportunity to report sightings of the Waratah struggling off course in heavy seas, drifting or even anchored in a remote bay.

But this was not to be and in mid December of 1909, Lloyd's classified Waratah as missing.  
Missing was clearly interpreted by all who read the notice as the Waratah 'had gone to a watery grave'. 
If some remnants of the vessel were discovered eg lifeboat, then the vessel would be moved from the missing column to that of 'lost with all hands' column. But again, this was not to be as no officially confirmed objects from the Waratah were discovered.  

Lloyd's (and underwriters) would have had to pay immediately for the lost vessel and cargo, but in the case of passengers and the remote possibility that the Waratah was still adrift and souls alive, delays in payouts for loss of life dragged into 1910, adding to the distress of loved ones / dependents.

As it turned out, the Waratah was under-insured and this was simply the precursor to the Blue Anchor Line's slide into liquidation, forced to sell her other ships to P&O Line in 1910. In July of 1910 the Times carried a report that a Mrs Harriet M. Skailes was awarded 300 pounds in her claim for damages. Her husband,purser Skailes, was lost along with the other 210 souls on board the Waratah. It should be noted that 300 pounds amounted to just over the purser's annual salary.

                                          Coffee Bay, glorious on a summer's day,
                                          deadly off shore in a winter storm.

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!


Graham Clayton said...

Was Harriet Skailes the only person to receive damages for the loss of a relative on the Waratah?

andrew van rensburg said...

Hi Graham:

Harriet Skailes' case was the only one which appeared in the press, so it does seem that she was the only one to challenge the 'payout'. The Lunds had to pay about 12 000 pounds, relating to crew, if my memory serves me correctly. Mrs. Skailes' claim related to whether her husband qualified for Workmen's Compensation or not. The judge found in her favour and awarded her a larger figure than was originally contemplated. The crew also took out private life insurance policies the details of which did not appear in period newspapers. Andrew