Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Waratah - a guest post by Mole (Mole's Genealogy Blog).

When the Board of Trade Inquiry was held in London, it was nearly eighteen months after the loss of the Waratah. It had been problematic to gather evidence, in the absence of any survivors of that final voyage from Durban to eternity, and also because many witnesses who could be called upon were either seamen or for other reasons were in Australia, South Africa or elsewhere.

Despite the delay, there was great public interest in the Waratah's disappearance and in the Inquiry.  The court took two months to collect information and to make an attempt to dispel the conflicting rumours which had undoubtedly brought distress to the families and friends of those lost at sea.

However, the Inquiry closed with the pivotal questions still unanswered: where, when, how and why did the Waratah go down?  It seemed impossible to provide a theory which would fit the evidence of all witnesses and the facts as examined by the Court.

One hundred and four years later nothing has changed.  We are left with the sequence of events as far as is known, with wild surmise filling in the gaps.

It is supremely evident that the Waratah foundered at sea during a disaster that was swift and terrible.  Even if sufficient accessible lifeboats were available, it seems there was no time or attempt to launch these; certainly no traces of boats were found, nor of other wreckage nor proven instances of bodies.  Possible sightings of various phenomena - such as smoke and lights seen from the Harlow - may or may not have been associated with the Waratah.

That she was a stable ship which had been carefully constructed to pass rigorous inspection and to cope with the normal risks of the sea, is a reasonable assumption.  Yet she sank.  If this was not due to any defects in her construction, there may have been some unforeseen incident; damage to her steering gear, a shift of cargo during heavy seas and gale force winds, or negligence in battening the hatches causing ingress of water into the holds.  We will probably never know.

The Court of Inquiry gave its finding on 23 February 1911.  Its conclusions were:

'The ship was lost in a gale of exceptional violence, the first great storm she had encountered, and the vessel capsized.
The ship was supplied with proper and sufficient boats and life appliances, in good order and ready for use.
The Court if of the opinion that the cargo was properly stowed, that she had sufficient stability as laden, was in proper trim for the voyage, was in good condition as regarded structure, and...was in a seaworthy condition.
There is not sufficient evidence before the Court to show that all proper precautions, such as battening hatches, securing ports, coaling doors, etc, had been taken.'

The Court was far from pleased that, on return of the Waratah from her maiden voyage, no report on her behaviour at sea had been made by her captain - nor had any such report been requested of him.  Captain Ilbery had stated that the Waratah was not as stable as the Geelong, and there had been correspondence between the owners and the builders on this point. Inevitably this led to conclusions unfavourable to the owners.

Doubts have been raised on the matter of the lifeboats as well as other points made in the Court's verdict. So, how are we to regard the Inquiry?  Was it any more water-tight than the Waratah had proved to be?


1 comment:


Thank you for a superb contribution, Mole. Archive newspaper cuttings (1909)suggest that the Harlow crew witnessed the demise of the Waratah, roughly 8 pm, 27 July, 9 miles from Cape Hermes, off Port St. Johns, close to shore. She lies in an estimated 36 m of water.