Friday, 31 January 2014

Anecdote Saturday. HMS Birkenhead

The HMS Birkenhead was an iron, paddle-wheel frigate built in 1845 by Laird, the Scottish shipbuilder who developed the town Birkenhead. She weighed 1400 tons and was powered by twin 564 hp steam engines driving paddles (20 ft in diameter), and averaging 12 knots. She could complete the England to Simon's Town voyage in 37 days, which was fast by the standards of the day. Originally she was fitted with masts for sails rigged as a brig. Initially called the Vulcan and used as a frigate she was then converted to a troop ship in 1848.

When converted to a troop ship, a forecastle and poop deck were added (for accommodation) and a third mast fitted. This changed her sail plan to barquentine. The Birkenhead was not commissioned as a frigate for two reasons:

The Royal Navy's warships were using screw propellers rather than the less efficient paddles.

The Admiralty believed that cannon shot against an iron hull would create jagged holes, difficult to plug.

The Birkenhead was one of the first iron-hulled ships with a total of 12 watertight compartments. The Admiralty made one adjustment to the design moving the paddle shafts several feet forward thus creating stability problems requiring careful stowage. She had a round stern and a bow with the figurehead of Vulcan holding a hammer in one hand.

In December 1851, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, the Birkenhead departed Cork in Ireland for Simon's Town. She left Simon's Town on 25 February after loading 350 tons of coal and provisions. Her manifest included 20 women and children, 138 crew, 480 army officers and drafted men, to assist in the Frontier War, Eastern Cape. At Gansbaai, 140 km from Cape Town she was wrecked on rocks. As in the case of the Titanic many years later she was not equipped with sufficient lifeboats forcing soldiers to stand aside while women and children boarded - this gave rise to the 'women and children first' protocol at sea. Of the 643 on board only 193 survived.

Captain Salmond had set a course, hugging the coast (to avoid the counter Agullas Current) within 3 miles of the shore. Sea conditions were reported to be calm and the night clear. Thomas M Hemy wrote in 1892:

"Shortly before 02:00 on 26 February, while Birkenhead was travelling at a speed of 8 knots (15 km/h), the leadsman made soundings of 12 fathoms (22 m). Before he could take another sounding, she struck an uncharted rock at 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″E Coordinates: 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″E with 2 fathoms (3.7 m) of water beneath her bows and 11 fathoms (20 m) at her stern."

"The rock lies near Danger Point (today near Gansbaai, Western Cape). Barely submerged, it is clearly visible in rough seas, but it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions."

"Captain Salmond rushed on deck and ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision and the ship struck again, buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads."

"Shortly, the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded, and over 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths."

"The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps; sixty were directed to this task, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, and the rest were assembled on the poop deck in order to raise the forward part of the ship."

"The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter, which lay alongside. Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches, leaving only three boats available. The two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them."

"The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers. As a survivor later recounted: "Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice."

Charles Dixon wrote in 1901:

"Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking."

"Just before she sank, Salmond called out that "all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats". Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore."

"The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure or were taken by sharks."

"I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land."

"Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats."

Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, wrote to his father, 1 March 1852:

"The next morning, the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters, and after saving the occupants of the second boat made her way to the scene of the disaster."

"Arriving in the afternoon, she found 40 people still clinging to the rigging. It was reported that of the approximately 643 people aboard, only 193 were saved. Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment was the most senior army officer to survive; he was awarded a brevet majority for his actions during the ordeal, dated 26 February 1852."

"The number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in The Times. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 soldiers (all ranks), 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian,[18] but these numbers cannot be substantiated, as muster rolls and books were lost with the ship."

"Of the horses, eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea."

Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment gave witness testimony at the hearing:

"The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service."
"Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion."

As a direct result of the disaster Danger Point lighthhouse was erected near Gansbaai. A Court of Inquiry was convened 8 May 1852 at Portsmouth. None of the senior naval officers on board the Birkenhead had survived contributing to the Court's decision that no one was to blame.

A memorial in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh pays tribute:

"In memory of Lieut.-Colonel Alexander Seton, Ensign Alex. C. Russell, and forty-eight N.C.O.s and men of the 74th Highlanders who were drowned at the wreck of H.M.S. 'Birkenhead' on the 26th February 1852, off Point Danger, Cape of Good Hope, after all the women and children on board had been safely landed in the ship's boats."

Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia officially recognised those lost and rev Dohne held a memorial service in their memory. Queen Victoria was responsible for the Birkenhead monument at the Chelsea Royal Hospital. Prints of the painting by Thomas Hemy 'The Wreck of the Birkenhead' were made available to the public. South Africa issued a gold coin in 1977, 'Heroes of the Birkenhead Medallion'. And finally, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

"Soldier an' Sailor Too"

"To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too
The phrase also appears in Robert A. Heinlein's 1956 Double Star:
I knew I was sunk-but, damn it, if you are caught by the Birkenhead Drill, the least you owe yourself is to stand at attention while the ship goes down.
And in David Weber's 1991 novel Mutineers' Moon:
And if he was caught in the Birkenhead Drill, he could at least try to do his best till the ship went down."

The story of the Birkenhead lives with us today, vivid in the words of survivor accounts.

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!

Thursday, 30 January 2014



"Her non-arrival, however, emphasises very strongly the necessity for all ocean steamers being fitted with wireless telegraph installations."

"The system is making some headway in the British mercantile marine, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that its general adoption must not be left to the slow process of voluntary action."

"Ship owners have no more justification for neglecting such a valuable safeguard than they would have for neglecting to furnish an adequate number of boats and lifebelts, the loss of the Republic and the saving of all on board, owing to the assistance summoned by wireless.was a lesson that produced some good results, and should have produced more."

"Its immediate effect was to secure the passage through the United States House of Representatives of a Bill requiring every ocean steamer above a certain size,and travelling more than 100 miles from the port of clearance, to carry a wireless installation and operator, and the measure is expected to be passed by the Senate in a month or two."

"Canada followed the example, with a Bill on almost the same lines, and it is said that the French Government contemplate a similar step."

"Public opinion will yet force the British and colonial Governments to do something in the same direction. The value of wireless on board steamers is of course greatly increased if the countries to which they trade possess land installations, and it is gratifying to see that Natal is already moving to supply her coasts with wireless stations."

If Waratah had carried wireless this would not have helped very much along the South African coast where wireless stations were yet to be installed. Not many steamers plying this coast would have carried wireless so there would have been little chance of successfully transmitting a message of distress.

"Their value is well recognised in Australia and New Zealand, but so far we have not yet got beyond the stage of talking about doing something, and a long and wearisome and profitless stage it is."

"Perhaps if a little pressure on the Government were applied by the Chambers of Commerce, Harbour Boards, and similar bodies, something practical might be done."

Even though the British Parliament debated the necessity for wireless on steamers subsequent to the loss of the Waratah, this press reporter and others were in no doubt.

The author placed wireless in the same category of importance as the lifeboats and lifebelts.

An important point is raised:

It was all very well for steamers to be fitted with a Marconi set, but this would amount to nothing if the relevant land mass did not have wireless installations. It is encouraging to read that Natal wasted no time with this initiative. Even though the loss of the Waratah was tragic for all concerned, her mysterious disappearance and the impact this had on the Board of Trade's lengthy Inquiry with an outcome devoid of answers, was to have one positive effect: it hastened the passing of international legislation regarding the necessity of wireless on ocean going vessels. This was further enhanced by the establishment of land wireless installations along all important international coastal routes and this in turn was driven by the impetus to improve wireless communication through research and development.

Radio Towers 1910

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Waratah - 'commanded by one of the most experienced sea captains afloat'.

 Press, Volume LXV, Issue 13507, 21 August 1909, Page 8


"More than three weeks have passed since the Waratah left Durban for the run to Capetown, her next port of call on the homeward voyage, and except for the boat that sighted her when she was one day out, she has not since been seen or heard of."

"With all the experience we have had in the last few years of vessels breaking down in mid-ocean, and drifting about for weeks—from the Waikato and Perthshire to the Bawea, to take only three of the most famous cases —it is too soon to give up hope that the Waratah may yet reach harbour."

"She is practically a new vessel — this is only her second homeward trip— she is a fine sea boat, thoroughly well built and well-found, fitted with powerful engines and twin screws, divided into seven watertight compartments, and she is commanded by one of the most experienced sea captains afloat."

"Captain Ilbery's career is, indeed, a striking one, if only for its uneventfulness. He has been for over fifty years with his present employers, for the last thirty-six years as commander, a position he has held in no fewer than thirteen successive new steamers."

"With one exception he has made more trips to and from Australia than any commander afloat, and in the whole of his long career he has never had an accident worth mentioning. Bad seamanship may therefore be eliminated from the possible causes of disaster to the Waratah."

"Nautical experts, among the grounds for hope, point out that if she bad been wrecked something would have been found by this time; it seems reasonable to assume, as they argue, that a big vessel like the Waratah does not disappear without leaving some wreckage."

"The idea that she has collided with another vessel is dismissed for the reason that vessels bound to Cape Town keep away from the coast, to pick up the current, while those bound from Cape Town eastwards keep close to the coast."

"If the vessel had caught fire it is believed that at least one or two of the boats would have reached land or would have been picked up."

"So by a process of elimination the men who know the trade and the coast arrive at the conclusion that the Waratah's engines must have broken down that in the heavy weather she experienced on leaving Durban she lost her rudder, and they believe that she will yet make her appearance."

"The Waikato drifted for more than fourteen weeks, and was picked up safe and sound at last. With that incident in our minds there is no reason why we should give up hope for the Waratah's safety."

It is clear from this commentary that experienced seamen could not believe that a steamer such as the Waratah could founder without a trace. This set the tone for the mystery and speculation which is yet to be resolved.

to be continued...

the rudder of the SS Republic

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Waratah - did NOT explode.

"Saw Steamer Blow Up"

"British Sea Captain's Report may Account for Long Missing Waratah
Manila - September 20, 1909"

"The British steamer Harlow, Capt Bruce, from Newport News June 14, for Port Natal and Manila, reports that on July 27, while 180 miles from Durban, passed a steamer afire."

"The vessel in question, whose name it was impossible to make out, was shortly afterwards destroyed by an explosion."

"It is supposed that this steamer was the missing British steamer Waratah, which with 300 persons on board, has not been heard from since July 26."

The New York Times
published: September 21, 1909

This newspaper cutting demonstrates how misleading some reports of the time were. It is a short report and even though it was published in the renowned New York Times, it has a number of factual errors. The first is the Harlow did not pass a steamer on fire. It would be an act of extreme cruelty and negligence for a Captain of a vessel to pass another vessel on fire without coming to that vessel's assistance. The true fact is Captain Bruce and his crew saw a large steamer coming up astern more than 10 miles distant, making a great deal of smoke, which suggested that the steamer might have been on fire.

The second error; the steamer in question was destroyed by an explosion. The true fact is the large steamer was observed gaining on the Harlow when two flashes of light were seen in the direction of the steamer (persisting as red glows in the sky, lasting for two minutes) followed by the disappearance of the steamer's running lights and all visible evidence of the steamer in question. No explosions were heard, which if there had been an explosion would not have been the case given the distance between the vessels by the last moments was less than 4 miles.

The third error; the number of people on board the Waratah was not 300. The true fact; there were 211 souls on board.

The fourth error; the Waratah was last seen on 26 July, 1909. The true fact; there was a documented and confirmed exchange between the Waratah and the Clan MacIntyre on 27 July (between 6 and 9:30 am).

It's no wonder that much of this misleading reporting remains fixed in the public mind.


the Morro Castle on fire

Monday, 27 January 2014

Waratah - legislation introduced.

the radio room of the Titanic (1912)

Marconi began his wireless experiments on the Isle of Wight in 1897. His first base for the experiment equipment was the Royal Needles Hotel, Alum Bay and the venture succeeded when Marconi was able to communicate with two ferries and then eventually with Madeira House in Bournemouth. In 1897 Marconi registered his company as the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company and in 1900, it was formalised as Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company. By 1998, it was known as Marconi Electronic Systems Limited. In 1898 Marconi set up his first factory in Hall St, Chelmsford.

Marconi's aim at the outset was to assist vessels at sea with a life saving aid. This breakthrough came in 1899 when a wireless message was received by the East Goodwin lightship which was equipped with the Marconi set. The lightship had been struck by the steamship R.F. Matthews in fog and the message sent requested a lifeboat. In a previous post I mentioned the S.S. Republic which in 1909 sent a mayday message via wireless prompting the rescue of 1700 passengers. The wireless operator, Binns, received a medal and gold watch presented by Marconi himself.

One of the most significant factors in the disappearance without a trace of the Waratah was the absence of a Marconi wireless. Apart from light signal exchanges, flags by day, there was no means for Captain Ilbery to communicate his position and the nature of the Waratah's distress to Port authorities, lighthouse stations or other ships in the shipping lane. The loss of the Waratah caused a seismic shock throughout Australian society. Australia was not equipped for this form of maritime communication. Without delay, the Commonwealth made available 10 000 pounds in the establishment of pioneer radio stations at Penannt Hills, Sydney and Applecross, Perth. These initiatives allowed ships to communicate with one another and ships to communicate with shore. As a direct result of the loss of the Waratah, the Australian Navigation Act legislated that all vessels in Australian waters carrying 50 passengers or more had to have the Marconi wireless.

Technology in wireless communication improved over coming years and the Australian Amalgamated Wireless of Australia Ltd (AWA) played a pivotal role in this research and development, and on behalf of the Commonwealth extended this influence well into the Pacific by the advent of the Second World War.

The Waratah was due for fitting of the Marconi set on return to England after calling at Cape Town.
But this was not to be.

The Marconi factory in Hall St, Chelmsford

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Waratah - John McMillan finishes..


"The vessel was supplied with
proper and sufficient boats and life
appliances, in good order and ready
for use."

"Upon the evidence, the Court is
of 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 so far as
the evidence went, was in a sea-
worthy 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."

Certainly no court of inquiry
within the range of living memory
could have been called upon to conduct
an investigation with less encouraging data."

"Theory after theory had been
tested. Objections could be found
to them all."

"Conflicting opinions came from ex
passengers concerning the Waratah's

"One person stated that after leaving
Sydney on June 28 he noticed an excessive roll
and a sustained list to starboard."

"Sometimes the "righting"
movement was made with a violent
jerk, and one morning he judged, from
the level of the water in his bath,
that the ship had rolled over to an
angle of about 45 degrees."

"Also she was "Sluggish" in her pitching. When
she lifted to a sea and then lowered
her bows into the succeeding trough,
she drove at times through the following oncoming sea
instead of rising to it."

"Against the statements of this passenger,
however, it was declared by
others, including former members of
the ship's company, that the Waratah
was as staunch and seaworthy as any
vessel in which they had sailed."

"Such were the circumstances of one
of the most remarkable problems in
the saga of the sea."

"A court might deliver a finding,
but it would be an astute court indeed
which could trace the events,
exactly and in detail, leading to a disappearance
as complete as though she
had never existed of a ship of 9.339
tons, carrying some two hundred
souls, not in a lonely waste of empty
ocean, but in a busy sea lane, where
there were other vessels within easy
steaming distance of her position
when she was last sighted."

Mr McMillan reminds us that the Waratah had a tendency to 'drive through oncoming sea instead of rising to it'. He also mentioned the Court's summation including no proof that the fore hatch was securely battened before the Waratah departed Durban. The combination of these two factors would have had a catastrophic effect (massive water inundation) causing the Waratah to founder very quickly. However, it does seem unlikely that the meticulous commodore Captain Ilbery would have put to sea with fore hatch inadequately secured. The hatch in the forward well measured 30 feet 4 inches by 19 feet 6 inches, and that in the after well 19 feet 6 inches by 26 feet. Both were fitted with hatch covers of 3-inch pine supported by transverse beams formed of 1-inch plate and four angles. The hatch coamings were 3 feet high. There is a possibility that a very large wave breaking over the fore deck may have been of such force and violence as to breach the coamings and smash in the 3 inch pine cover, which after all was wood and not as thick as one would imagine. This would account for an unexpectedly rapid disaster, not allowing the crew time to achieve launch of lifeboats. Against such a theory, in my opinion, are the following:

No remnants of the Waratah (save a deck chair allegedly washed up at Coffee Bay) were ever discovered. This would be unlikely if the fore hatch had smashed in releasing general cargo into the surrounding ocean.

After all as Mr McMillan wrote, it was a busy sea lane and highly unlikely that the Waratah was not sighted again after departing the Clan MacIntyre - unless of course she sank unexpectedly shortly thereafter. Whatever was wrong on board, it was of a sub-acute nature, I believe, gradually deteriorating and prompting Captain Ilbery to turn around.  She battled on until the two distress flares were fired off Cape Hermes at about 8 pm 27 July. Captain Bruce, as we recall, witnessed flashes of light from the direction of a large steamer coming up astern, causing persistent red glows observed reflecting in his map room aboard the Harlow, lasting up to two minutes. No other explanation apart from distress flares can account for this description and no other large steamers were in the shipping lane heading to Durban at that location. The seas were rough, but the gale only came into force on the 28 July. Rough seas in the evening would in all probability have accounted for an absence of traces of the Waratah after she sank - movables battened down on the decks or stowed below.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Anecdote Saturday - Titanic

The Titanic was built by Harland and Wolff, Belfast, Ireland over a period of three years. She was the largest floating object in 1912, 883 ft in length, and weighing 46,328 gross tons. Titanic was owned by the White Star Line, Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, based in England, but which in turn was owned by the International Mercantile Marine Company, an American corporation.

The Titanic boasted nine decks, luxurious appointments and towered 175 ft from keel to the top of her four funnels. Her three anchors weighed 31 tons. Power came from twin quadruple expansion reciprocating engines (similar to those of the Waratah, but larger) driving twin screws and an additional low pressure turbine engine (deploying steam from the other two engines) driving a central third screw. Total power output was in the region of 51 000 bhp, and the steam engines were fed by 29 boilers and 159 furnaces. 16 watertight compartments with remotely activated watertight doors, created an impression that she was 'unsinkable'. She could cruise at 22.5 knots and had a passenger carrying capacity of 2603, with a crew component of 1181. Infamously she was equipped with only 20 lifeboats (total passenger capacity 1,178). 15 April 1912, on her maiden voyage from South Hampton to New York City, carrying 2224 passengers and crew, the Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank. This resulted in the deaths of 1500 people.

The commodore, Edward Smith, was an English naval reserve officer born in  Hanley, Staffordshire, England, 1850. He was called upon to take first command of the lead ship in a new class of ocean liners (1911), the Olympic – the largest vessel in the world at that time. As the Olympic was docking in New York after her maiden voyage, one of the twelve tugs assisting her got caught in Olympic's backwash and spun around. The tug became trapped under the Olympic's stern but eventually was freed. September 20, 1911, also under the command of Captain Smith, the Olympic collided with the HMS Hawke, a warship which lost her prow in the accident. The Olympic was blamed for the incident. Was Captain Smith reckless?

The Titanic struck an iceberg, 375 miles south of Newfoundland at 11:40 pm. This collision caused hull plates to buckle inwards on her starboard side, opening relatively small rents across five of her sixteen watertight compartments. Subsequent research has revealed that the Titanic's double hull and rivets were constructed from steel high in sulphur making it brittle in cold conditions. The small rents spread in a zipper-like effect as rivets snapped and seams opened up in the hull. I believe a similar sequence of events could have occurred on the Waratah - hull plate and rivet damage after grounding at Adelaide Port before departing Australia for Durban on her second voyage (possibly also the Kangaroo Island grounding during her maiden voyage), resulting in weakened rivets and plates, pounded by a rough winter sea off the Wild Coast. Striking a reef would have created a scenario similar to that of the Titanic. By 2:20 AM, the Titanic broke apart and sank, with well over one thousand people still on board. The 'women and children first' policy and limitations of the existing lifeboats are well known. The Cunard liner RMS Carpathia was first on the scene to rescue 705 survivors.

Public inquiries resulted in improvements in maritime safety. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was established as a direct result. Wireless regulations were passed to avoid missteps in wireless communication. The wealthy and emigrants alike lost their lives and in the case of the emigrants, all that they possessed. Outpourings of public support resulted in funds being set up to assist those in need.

Frederick Fleet who was in the crows nest and spotted the iceberg 500 yards away in the path of the Titanic, was saved in a lifeboat. He worked at sea until 1936 and died in 1965 after taking his own life. Thomas Andrews the designer of the Titanic was on board to observe her performance at sea. After assessing the damage he calculated that she would sink within 2 hours. He went down with the ship, honourably choosing to slip down into the icy depths with his creation. The Managing Director of White Star Lines, Mr J. Bruce Ismay survived the sinking of the Titanic. There was rumour that he encouraged Captain Bruce to steam full speed through the ice fields. However, there seems to be evidence that the Titanic had a smouldering coal fire in her bunkers and the solution was to work the pile down as fast as possible (shovelling it into the furnaces) to get to the burning coal. This could explain the Titanic's rapid progress. Mr Ismay got away on a collapsible boat and claimed that there were no other passengers waiting to board the boat. There were some survivors who claimed that they saw him shoving passengers out of the way to get on board. He lived with this stigma and died from a stroke at the age of 74.

An eight man band led by Wallace Bartley played on despite certain death. Although some witnesses claimed they played until the Titanic went under (unlikely considering her angle of descent) there is no doubt that they alleviated panic and continued to play until it was no longer possible.

The Band Members were:

Brailey, Theodore - Pianist
Bricoux, Roger - Cellist
Clarke, J. Fred C. Bass - Violist
Hartley, Wallace Henry - Band leader
Hume, John (Jock) Law - First violinist
Krins, George - Violist
Taylor, Percy, C. - Cellist
Woodward, J. W. - Cellist

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!

this post is number 104
the Waratah sank 104 years ago.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Waratah - John McMillan continued...

"What ship?" asked Clan MaCintyre.

"Waratah for London."

"Clan Macintyre for London. What
weather did you have from Australia?"

"Strong south-westerly to southerly
winds across."

"Thanks," returned Clan Macintyre.

"Good-bye. Pleasant passage."

"Thanks. Same to you. Good-bye."

"Later that day the Clan MaCintyre
was pitching in a heavy head sea with
a strong gale from the south-west
which, however, moderated in the evening,
when the wind shifted into the

"But the weather on the
27th was the precursor of something
even worse. On the 28th the wind
blew with hurricane force and when
ships which, had left Durban after the
Waratah and set a similar course arrived
at Cape Town they were unable
to give any news of her."

"Even now my thoughts travel back
to the reactions of the Sydney public;
to the theories and imaginings of
"the man in the street"; to the negative Press reports
from the first stirring
of uneasiness to the final flickering of
the last glimmer of hope and
the abandoning of the searches after
thousands of miles of sea had been

"The Board of Trade inquiry was
held in London, and it occupied two

"That it did not open until December 16, 1910,
nearly eighteen months after the disaster,
is explained by the difficulty of producing evidence owing
to the absence of survivors."

"Many of the witnesses were ex-members of
the ship's company, others went from
Australia or South Africa."

"The Court delivered its finding on
February 23, 1911, and its main conclusions were:

"The ship was lost in a gale of exceptional violence,
the first great storm she had encountered, and the
vessel capsized."

to be continued.....

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Waratah - an eye witness John McMillan wrote..

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954)  Previous issue Saturday 21 June 1947

"The Waratah Mystery Is Still Unsolved"

"Of all the strange disappearances
of ships at sea none has left
a deeper and more lasting impression
than that of the Waratah."

"Through her story runs a vein of
intangibility; an indefinable thread
of mystery."

"One day in June, 1909, I stood
with my parents on the balcony of
our Randwick home watching a new
steamer whose launching and fitting
out had been completed only the year
before. She was steaming past Coogee,
bound south."

"We who watched realised as little
as those who had seen her leave her
berth at Miller's Point that this was
the beginning of a voyage which was
to end long before it could be completed;
to end abruptly in strange and
terrible tragedy."

"The Waratah was a twin-screw passenger
and cargo steamer built on the
Clyde by Barclay Curle and Co. for
Lund's Blue Anchor Line."

"She was completed in October, 1908, and,
save for the absence of radio was up-
to-date in her equipment and classified
"100 Al" after inspection by the
Board of Trade and Lloyds."

"Commanded by Captain Ilbery,
commodore of the fleet, she made
her maiden round voyage from London
to Australian ports via the Cape
of Good Hope, and on April 27,1909,
she left London again."

"In late June the Waratah sailed from Sydney homeward
bound for the second time and
called at Melbourne and Adelaide."

"Adelaide was her last Australian port,
and she cleared there on July 7."

"On July 25 she arrived at Durban,
and after coaling she sailed again
on the following day with 92 passengers
and a total loading of a little
over 10,000 tons."

Again a larger figure quoted cf. Inquiry - 6400 tons.

"The last conclusive message to be
read from the Waratah was in
conversation by signal with the Clan
Macintyre, a smaller steamer, which
she overhauled and passed early on
the morning of the 27th."

to be continued....

Coogee Bay - Charles Conder

Monday, 20 January 2014

Waratah - "A voice from the grave".

"A Voice From the Grave."

"W. Gosse, whose mother and sister were
passengers on the Waratah when she was
lost, quoted the following passages from a
letter posted by his mother in Durban:- .

"Nothing can exceed the comfort of this
steamer, both as regards her cabins and
her build, and also the attention of the
captain and all the attendants on board. . ."

"She is certainly a splendid steamer. ."

"We had, as usual, some stiff blows, which came
to a climax when rounding the Leeuwin."

"The captain said he was sure the mail boat
would make much worse weather than we

Mrs Gosse Hay was a frequent passenger on steamships from Australia to England.  She wrote from experience and was in a position to compare the Waratah with other vessels. This letter places Mrs Hay in a rare category where her comments were not influenced 'after the fact'. She had nothing to gain or lose by endorsing the Waratah. The fact that she gave the Waratah an excellent review suggests the negative witness accounts presented at the Board of Trade Inquiry were highly exaggerated.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014


Fears of turning turtle.

"Herbert Mason, an engineer, who went
out to Australia as a passenger on the
Waratah on her second voyage, said that
just after leaving Melbourne, when it blew
a good bit, the ship heeled over heavily,
and did not recover herself as quickly as
she ought to have done."

"It struck him that if she did not recover herself in a
seaway, and another sea came on top of her
she would turn turtle. On one occasion he
said to the first mate:

"She will, make a big hole in the water some of these days,"

and he replied:

"I'm afraid she will."

"She went over from one side to the other so
easily when they were discharging cargo
that they had to put heavy concentrate in
the bottom to keep her upright."

This statement confirms that lead concentrates were used as ballast. This would have been necessary after a long voyage eg. discharging cargo at Adelaide before setting off for Sydney. When the Waratah departed Durban she had a full cargo complement that did not require additional ballast in the form of lead concentrates.

The lead smelter at Port Pirie

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?

Waratah - "A Staunch Ship".

"C. R. C. Lloyd, R. G. Miller, F. C. Saun-
ders, G. S. Richardson, other passengers,
and Morley Johnson, able seaman, made
similar depositions as to the ship being
stable, well fitted, and well found."

"A. G. Hill spoke as to conversations in Sydney
with officers of the Waratah, who spoke
well of her."

"The pilot who took the Waratah
from Port Melbourne to Port Phillip
Heads considered her a staunch ship, in
every way fitted for the voyage, and he
saw nothing while on board to alter that

"He saw no sign of list, and neither
did the vessel appear to be tender."

"As Captain Ilbery was an old friend of his he
took particular notice of the vessel and
her behaviour. The captain and officers
spoke cheerfully about the prospects of the
voyage home, and made no complaint about
the vessel."

"G. D. Shaw, able seaman, who also went
out to Sydney in the Waratah on her
second voyage, described her as staunch,
well found, and, so far as he knew, always
on an even keel."

"There was boat drill once a week;
the boats were quite sound
and strong, and there was not any difficulty
about swinging them out or lowering them."

"He did not hear any complaints about their
leaking when put into the water."

"R. T. Richards, a butcher on board the
Waratah, declared that there was nothing
peculiar about her, and that she did not
roll heavily."

"T. J. Berrin, pantry man on
the Waratah on her first round voyage, and
steward on her second outward voyage to
Sydney, agreed with witnesses who had
spoken as to the satisfactory behaviour of
the vessel."

In this report we have a clean sweep in favour of the Waratah even going so far as to describe the life boats easily mobilised and lowered. It is alleged that some officers on the Waratah took out life insurance before she departed Australian waters on her second return voyage to England. It would be interesting to establish if taking out short term life insurance before a lengthy voyage was routine or did it indeed reflect misgivings about the safety of the ship?


Monday, 13 January 2014


"Steady as a Rock."

"Mr. A. L. B. Wade, a passenger on the
Waratah on her maiden voyage from Cape
Town to Sydney, said there was nothing
suspicious about her."

"On occasions she suddenly rolled and lurched without
apparent reason, and then slowly recovered."

"Captain Ilbery told him that this was probably
due to the way in which she was
stowed, and that it was necessary to have
experience of a new vessel in order to
ascertain the best way of stowing her."

"Some time afterwards, when Captain
Ilbery dined with him at his own house, he

"You should be on her now, we
know how to stow her, and she is as steady
"as a rock."

The Waratah may very well have been somewhat unstable on her first voyage due to the explanation given by Captain Ilbery and he acknowledged a 'learning curve' to establish the best method for stowage. If there was going to be a problem relating to stability it should, according to these accounts, have occurred on the Waratah's maiden voyage. However, although rough seas were encountered on the maiden voyage, the seas may not have been as unforgiving as those off the Wild Coast 27 July.

Captain Ilbery however, was very confident in the stability of the Waratah on her second voyage and we must remember that the Waratah was designed for ocean conditions, whatever they might be. It seems unlikely that the Blue Anchor Line would invest, at great cost, in a steamship of questionable reliability. It seems unlikely that a flagship such as the Waratah was not suitable for gale conditions (which we know to be frequent in the winter months) off the South African coast - a route she was destined to follow on a routine basis.

No, I believe that we should give Captain Ilbery the respect he earned as an experienced master and accept his word that the Waratah was a stable vessel for her final voyage. Don't forget that Waratah was under insured which confirms that the owners were not expecting her to turn turtle in a major storm. 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Waratah - bottle messages 'lying concoctions of sensation-mongers'.

article continued from previous post..

"On the resumption of the enquiry last
Monday reference was made to the finding
of bottles containing what purported to be
messages from the Waratah on the Australian coast."

"These messages, said Mr.Laing, K.C.,
for the Board of Trade, had
been fully investigated by the authorities
in Australia, who were convinced that
they were merely "lying concoctions of

It has become abundantly clear that conflicting witness accounts relating to the perceived safety of the Waratah were almost certainly influenced by hysteria surrounding her mysterious loss. But false reports of bottles with messages found on the shores of Australia take the attention-seeking behaviour to scandalous levels. We must never forget that anxious relatives and friends of those lost were holding onto hope no matter how unsubstantiated or remote.

Negative reports such as this and the false announcement that a steamer fitting the description of the Waratah was seen making her way slowly back the Port at Durban, only served one purpose: A moment of indescribable relief followed by an intense and destructive realisation that the Waratah was indeed lost without explanation.

"Then came more evidence from those who had sailed in
the ill-fated ship, and again there was an
amazing conflict of testimony."

"Alexander Reader, an able seaman on
the Waratah on her maiden voyage, said
he has had seventeen years' experience at
sea, and he made the round trip in the

"He found her a good boat, and
he was not alarmed by anything she did
in the way of rolling, pitching, or listing."

"So far as he was aware there was nothing
wrong with the boats, and he never
heard any complaints about them."

He did not mention the claims made by other seamen that the 'stiff' davits made mobilisation of the lifeboats difficult, requiring at least a dozen seamen for the job. Perhaps he did not believe this to be significant in the context of launching life boats at sea. In my opinion this would have been the weak link explaining why no lifeboats from the Waratah were ever discovered.

"William Henry Baker,who signed on
as able seaman in the Waratah for the
second outward voyage to Sydney, but
served in the stoke hold, stated that there
were plenty of, good boats on board,,
but not many men who could man them."

If this is indeed true and not further fear-mongering, this account contributes to the suggestion that there were difficulties associated with mobilising the life boats.

"The ship was not top heavy and the coal
was properly stowed. He neither heard
nor saw anything about the vessel being

This is a further confirmation that although the coal at Durban was loaded via the top deck it was destined for more secure bunkers below.

"She rolled heavily sometimes when
the wind blew strongly, and there was
a slight list at intervals throughout the
voyage, sometimes on one  side and
sometimes on the other, but he did
not consider it a serious matter,
and he did not regard the
rolling as dangerous."

This class of statement reminds me and reinforces the fact that the listing and rolling characteristics of the Waratah were nothing out of the ordinary for steamships of the period.

"He had no misgivings
about the vessel, and he would not have
had any hesitation in continuing on her
for the round voyage."

We close this newspaper cutting on a positive note once again drawing attention to those who vouched for the safety of the Waratah.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Waratah - 'lifeboats rotten, no boat drill carried out'.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1931) (about) Previous issue Monday 20 February 1911




(From our Special Correspondent.)
London, January 20, 1911.

"The Board of Trade enquiry into the
disappearance of the Blue Anchor liner,
Waratah, has occupied eleven full days and
is not yet finished."

"The most remarkable feature
of the enquiry has been the
startling conflict of evidence as to the
Waratah's behaviour at sea during her
first round voyage, and her last outward
trip to Australia."

"It has been impossible
to reconcile the accounts given of the lost
vessel's behaviour by the various witnesses
called and with depositions read."

"One man has averred that her top-heaviness and
liability to "make a hole in the water"
were common gossip on board."

"Another testified that there was no such talk on
board; indeed, if anything was said
about her it was in praise of her as a fine
sea boat."

"One witness, a sailor, declared
that the Waratah was "the worst boat
he had ever been in and utterly unseaworthy,"

"whilst Mrs. Alexander Hay,
who was on board the Waratah when she
disappeared, had nothing but praise for
her. Mrs. Hay was a lady with a very
large experience of ocean travel."

"Another witness declared that the ship's boats
were rotten, and that no proper boat drill
was carried out."

"He was contradicted flatly by a member of the crew, who swore
that the boats were sound and strong, and
that boat drill was carried out once a
week. "

With due respect to the late Captain Ilbery I am inclined to believe the former statement.

"It is only fair to state, however, that
the balance of expert testimony has been
in the Waratah's favour, but, of course,
the disappearance of the ship has given
weight to the testimony of those who have
enunciated the view that she was not a
safe ship."

This newspaper report accurately sums up the confusion and conflicting accounts at the Inquiry. There was clearly a mood of hysteria and sensation-seeking born from the loss of the Waratah. Unfortunately, many of the negative accounts 'stuck' in the public mind. This was undoubtedly a factor contributing to the decline of the Blue Anchor Line. 

  to be continued....

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Waratah - wireless compulsory for all ocean liners.

New Zealand Herald, Volume XLVI, Issue 14134, 9 August 1909, Page 5



Bv Telegraph - Press Association - Copyright.

(Received August 8, 6.47 pm)

London, August 7

"The Waratah took 300 tons of coal on her bridge deck after discharging cargo at Port Natal."

This we now know in all probability to be untrue as the coal was loaded into the spar (not bridge) deck bunkers when, if at all, used. We also know that the 'spar' deck as quoted was a misnomer as the deck in question was below the bridge, promenade and boat decks.

"The cruisers sent out in search of the missing vessel have not returned"

London, August 6

"The owners of the Waratah (Lund's Line) cling to the idea that the steamer is drifting in mid-ocean owing to disabled machinery"

"The uncertainty regarding the fate of the Waratah has provided underwriters with a fresh argument for making wireless apparatus compulsory for all ocean liners."

This indeed was the crux of the matter both in light of establishing what had gone wrong on board the Waratah and secondly in terms of her location when she sank. The issue was raised in parliament and the question put to Winston Churchill who although acknowledging that further investigation into the question was required, could not see the necessity for wireless on steamers. This was a puzzling response considering the great man's vast intellect and I can't help wondering if there was the sticky issue of shipping line culpability to steer around, leaving an exit door open for the Blue Anchor Line.