Sunday, 2 March 2014

Waratah - 'body of a little girl' confirmed.

"Nothing to Report"

"When the Tottenham arrived off the Cape of Good Hope the sea became fearfully high and the master deemed it advisable to turn back and go to Simon's Bay. On arriving there a boat put off from H.M.S. Forte with an officer aboard to make inquiries whether the Tottenham had seen anything of the Waratah, and reply was given by the chief officer that there was nothing to report."

"The second officer, signalling with a Morse lamp, inquired of the warship if she had any further news of the Waratah, and was informed that the steamers Director and Insizwa, which had left Durban about the same time as the Tottenham, had reported seeing bodies floating off East London, and that the Forte had orders to proceed to the vicinity and ascertain what these bodies were."

"It will be remembered that the Forte afterwards reported that she had seen some large fish floating, and that it was surmised that these were what the captains of the Director and Insizwa had seen. Concerning this, however, Mr. Day says:--"The chief and second officers of the Tottenham stated to me and others on board the ship that they saw the body, of a little girl, and could stake their lives that it was that of a girl 10 of 12 years of age, and not fish."

"Mr. Day adds that the second engineer also stated that he saw the body of a woman and the trunk of another body close to the ship. The seas were running mountains high when the Tottenham was proceeding on her voyage, and the conclusion come to aboard the ship was that the Waratah took a head sea, and before she had time to recover took another, which stove in the fore hatch and caused her to founder."

This is a further opinion on the forehatch stoving in, causing the Waratah to founder (quickly). The wooden forehatch was clearly a weak link and one that seafarers of the time believed had potential to be the final, massive portal of entry for stormy seas.

"Speaking from memory as to dates, having, unfortunately, left his notebook on the Tottenham, Mr. Day says the Tottenham arrived at Durban about midnight on Saturday, August 7, and anchored in the roadstead, signalling her arrival to the lighthouse."

"The Insizwa was also anchored in the roadstead, and at about 1 a.m. Mr. Day, who was then on watch, received a signal from her, asking if he knew anything about the missing Waratah. Mr. Day replied in the negative, stating that the Tottenham had just come from Port Pirie (Adelaide). Owing to the rough state of the weather the Tottenham remained in port till the Tuesday morning at 8 o'clock when she left for Antwerp, with instructions to keep a diligent look-out for the Waratah."

"The sea at the time was very high. When off East London the incidents already described took place. Mr. Day says he pointed out to the officers an albatross sitting on something, and the steamer was brought round to make an examination, which fully convinced him that the object on which the bird as perched was the trunk of a body, with the arms and legs missing."


"Mr. Day says that strict injunctions were given on the Tottenham to say nothing of the affair, and that he overheard the apprentice, by request, give an account of what he had seen to a gentleman whom he believed to be the agent of the Tottenham."

"The apprentice was then advised to say nothing of the affair, as it might cause friction."

"Let me remark," added Mr. Day, "lest people think I might bear prejudice against anyone, that such suggestions, if they are made, are absolutely incorrect. I deny any prejudice, and any statement I have made here I am prepared to make on oath. My reason for making this statement now is that, while I was on the vessel, orders were given to keep the thing quiet, and now I am off the vessel I am free to speak my mind as regard to what I saw and what others on the ship told me they saw. I have clean discharges from and credentials from all ships on which I have served."

This report seems very convincing. In the case of the Waratah, the sea did give up her dead. The Tottenham's master was confronted with a dilemma. A body of a child had been spotted and in fairness he brought his vessel round to investigate.  The sea conditions were rough which by the standards of the day would have made the retrieval of bodies difficult, and perhaps even dangerous. There was nothing that could be done for the lost souls, apart from returning bodies for identification and proper burial. A further dimension: insurance on steamers did not include retrieving bodies. If the Tottenham had run into problems (shifting cargo) her master faced the risk of loss with no insurance cover.

For families and friends of those lost with the Waratah, such reports must have been horrifying.
The fact that crew were coerced into 'keeping quiet' was a very bad decision. It was bound to come out sooner or later casting a dark shadow over the moral integrity of the master of the Tottenham.
The bodies were discovered in August off East London which would not help in the least to establish where the Waratah had gone down. Bodies afloat would drift southeastward with the Agulhas Current.

Reports such as this 'stuck in the throat' of anyone associated with the loss of the Waratah and the 'little girl in a red dressing gown' abandoned on the high seas, captures the essence of this terrible tragedy. Children are to be cared for and protected. It must have been all the more horrifying for parents aboard the Waratah knowing they could do nothing.

I have chosen to believe the Waratah went down off Cape Hermes at about 8pm 27 July. Naive as it might be, the hope is that the children were tucked up in bed and did not suffer unnecessarily. However, this little girl was in a red dressing gown. It seems she was awakened, put on her red dressing gown possibly to board a lifeboat, the last vestige of hope. We shall never know who she was and what her life might have been.

bodies from the Titanic

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