Friday, 27 March 2015


When Captain Ilbery took command of the Waratah he was initially confronted with challenges relating to the cargo loading plan and water ballast. The resulting tendency to top heaviness matched passenger impressions of the new flagship. It was embarrassing for a master who had dutifully and loyally commanded most of the Blue Anchor Line flagships, including the preceding Geelong. The Waratah was to be his last charge before retiring. It had got off to a very bad start.

But being experienced and knowledgeable, Captain Ilbery together with recommendations from Barclay Curle & Co, the builders, ironed out the stability issues and established a method of loading and water ballasting that created a stable steamer. But damage to the Waratah's reputation had been done, and Captain Ilbery devoted much energy (derived from anecdotal reports) to putting the record straight. He was unambiguous when claiming that the Waratah was a very stable steamer and 'steady as a rock'.

Although Captain Ilbery was duty bound to over load the Waratah in terms of cargo, he appreciated that the dead weight assisted metacentric stability to an above average degree.

This brings us to a very important statement made by Captain Ilbery on arrival at Durban after the crossing from Australia:

'Port Natal, July 26, 1909

To the Collector of Customs.  Port

Dear Sir,

"I hereby declare to the best of my knowledge and belief that my vessel, the SS Waratah, has sustained no damage from any cause whatever since leaving the last port, Adelaide, and I have nothing special to report."

Yours faithfully,

(signed) J.E. Ilbery,

Master, SS Waratah.'

On the surface of this report, it seems as though Captain Ilbery was entirely satisfied with the condition of the Waratah and clearly dispelled any speculation that she had experienced problems on the voyage over from Adelaide. But we know two pieces of information were omitted from this report:

The Waratah took the ground alongside the wharf at Port Adelaide. Clearly Captain Ilbery was in no position to declare that the Waratah 'has sustained no damage from any cause whatever'. But he covered himself by wording the declaration carefully, including the crucial word 'since leaving the last port'. His report is truthful, because it does not include the period of time at Port Adelaide.

Why, did Captain Ilbery do this? I believe he was sensitive and defensive about the Waratah and did not want to enhance rumours that she was an unstable, unsafe steamer. He was also pragmatic taking into account that many steamers took the ground in ports (when the tide went out), without resulting in significant damage. He obviously had reservations about the very heavy Waratah being grounded in port, but elected not to share these misgivings, perhaps because it would achieve nothing and fuel apprehension.

But there was one problem, although relatively small, which did occur on the crossing from Australia. A copper pipe integral to the steam-transfer system fractured. It was a small section and easily / cheaply replaced in Durban. Such an almost insignificant problem would hardly merit mention in his report. However, the section of copper pipe was found to be defective, implying that the full extent of copper piping in the Waratah's steam transfer system, was prone to fracture and complications. Fractures within the high pressure and heated steam transfer system could have had catastrophic results. 

Why then did Captain Ilbery not disclose the issue regarding the flawed copper pipe? I believe that it related to a number of factors:

- he was defensive about his last flagship
- he was loyal to the Blue Anchor Line
- he did not wish to alarm maritime colleagues and the public
- he would (probably) address the issue of copper pipes on his return to London
- it was his last voyage as commander for the Blue Anchor Line
- but most importantly, the copper pipe flaw was integral and in no way directly related to the passage over from Australia.

The following extract from Mole's Genealogy Blog, Anniversary Reminder, suggests that damage was in fact sustained during the voyage from Adelaide to Durban:

A poignant letter written by a crew member on 26 July, from the SS Waratah in Durban, was received by his sister in London.  
'Just a line to let you know we arrived here safely after a pretty rough voyage from Adelaide. For 13 days after leaving that place we had heavy seas and weather and a lot of the deck fittings were broken and carried away by heavy seas that swept over the vessel. The last five days however have been fine and we got here yesterday midday (Sunday) and we leave the Cape Saturday next, on 31st  July for London, where we will arrive on August 21st although we are not due until the 23rd.' 
Deck fittings would not constitute significant structural damage which is why I assume that it was not included 
in Captain Ilbery's declaration at port.

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