Wednesday, 23 December 2015


I have the privilege of posting an article written by a Waratah expert, 

Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson:

Well after the loss of the Waratah, Captain S.A. Pidgeon, RNR, penned his account and provided an insight which centered on the ship in Durban.  Captain Pidgeon had joined W. Lund’s service as a boy of nearly 15 years of age in the Catalina and remained in Lund’s service for 21 years. He was given his first command before he was 30. 

Before the Waratah left London for the last time, Captain Pidgeon almost had the misfortune to be in command of her on that fateful voyage.  Captain Ilbery had been ill and the company looked for another Master to relieve him for the voyage.  Captain Pidgeon, who had been Captain Ilbery’s Chief Officer on the Narrung and Wakool when they were new ships, was the only Master available and held himself ready to take command.  However, Captain Ilbery recovered and took command of his ship before she sailed.

Fifty years later, in 1959, Captain Pidgeon wrote,

‘The Waratah had taken on a certain amount of frozen mutton to be discharged in Durban and whenever we had a cargo for Durban, it was the custom in Lund’s ships to stow it in the square of No. 1 hold, sometimes right from deck level, to the bottom of the hold. Any cargo for London was stowed in the wings and at both ends.  After the Durban cargo left the ship, the remaining slippery cargo of frozen carcasses had to be well shored-up, to prevent them from sliding everywhere.  We usually lowered big skids into the empty space and at both ends. These were kept in place by heavy beams, 6 x 6, which were placed across the empty space left by the Durban cargo and were jammed by wedges, which were placed and hammered home by carpenter and crew.
If this operation was faithfully performed, the remaining cargo was quite secure and could not move into the empty space in the centre, no matter how great the pitching and rolling of the ship.
Captain Ilbery trusted his executive officers implicitly and left daily inspection at sea to the Chief Officer, Surgeon and Purser, who did the rounds together.
The Chief Officer of the Waratah had been my Chief in Warrigal and was a very fine seaman.
The Chief Officers in Lund’s ships were always entirely responsible for placing the skids in No. 1 hold and seeing that they were securely in position.  If they were forgotten, or if they were not made completely fast, the result in a tender ship like the Waratah would be disastrous.
It seems quite possible that the skids were forgotten on this occasion, or that the work was not adequately supervised. The weather was not good as the Waratah sailed, and on those coasts, there are seas and cross-seas which are a menace to a labouring ship.
It would all have happened in a matter of seconds. The Waratah caught in a heavy roll, would pause at the end of it.  If a cross-sea dumped a huge wave on her forehatch, smashing it in, thousands of tons of water would rush down into the lower hold and find its level in the side of the ship held in the roll. With the cargo insecurely held back, thousands of carcasses would break loose from the wings and join the mass of water, adding to the enormous weight. Another huge sea breaking aboard would finish the ship and she would roll right over, never having had a chance to right herself.
Leaving Durban with the prospect of heavy weather, as they did, it would be unlikely that there would be much wreckage to come adrift. Any there was, would be swept with the current far out to sea and lost to sight forever.’ 1

It is a chilling thought that Captain Pidgeon could have been master of the Waratah during her second voyage. Given the knowledge we have about the Waratah's 'natural' tenderness and stowage issues during the maiden voyage, I cannot help wondering if Captain Ilbery, rather than ill, was reluctant to take command of the Waratah loaded with 3456 tons of coal, which significantly reduced an already compromised GM. Captain Ilbery, 69 years of age, was the commodore of the Blue Anchor Line. He had an impeccable career record, was an experienced and highly respected mariner who knew the route like the proverbial back of his hand. I doubt whether his conscience would have allowed him to hand over the Waratah to another master under circumstances of uncertain GM stability. Perhaps Captain Ilbery 'refused' to take command of the Waratah unless certain conditions were met. If this be the case, the Lunds, who were rather single-minded in achieving personal objectives, would probably have called his bluff and appointed Captain Pidgeon to take command. I do not believe Captain Ilbery would have allowed such a thing. If Captain Ilbery was genuinely ill, again bearing in mind his track record and reputation, I doubt whether he would have allowed another captain to take the helm of the problematic Waratah. If so, I cannot help wondering if this illness impacted negatively on him up until the flagship's disappearance, 27 July? However, I am speculating and all we know is that Captain Pidgeon was earmarked to take command of the Waratah for the second voyage. 

This superb piece is one of the rare glimpses into the reality of the Waratah. Captain Pidgeon had a working knowledge of the flagship (including cargo stowage) which reaches far beyond speculation and the confusing inventory details of cargo on board during her final voyage. From the scanty information gleaned from period newspapers, we are given a rough idea regarding the contents of the 250 tons of cargo destined for Durban.

Flour                          0.01 tons
Machinery                   23    tons  
Dried Fruit                   78   tons
Boxes butter                23   tons
Rabbits                       50    tons
Hares                         10    tons
peas                           30    tons

total                           214   tons

This list (such as it is) suggests that there were 36 tons short of the 250 tons discharged at Durban. A total of 68 tons of mutton carcasses were on board, a portion of which could have made up the balance. It does seem strange that Durban relied on produce readily available in the Natal colony. Perhaps it was cheaper to import from Australia than obtain from local producers? I digress. 

Captain Pidgeon's account gives us an important insight into the manner in which carcasses were secured and the dangers of shifting. My personal feeling is that Captain Ilbery with all his many years of experience, assisted by a respected and accomplished chief officer (Owen), was highly unlikely to have allowed mutton carcasses to be stowed without the measures described. The Waratah had presented so many challenges in her short lifespan that I don't believe her captain and officers took unnecessary risks. As it was the Waratah arrived in Durban well ahead of schedule implying that there was no rush to discharge cargo, secure the remaining mutton carcasses and set off for Cape Town.

Captain Pidgeon outlined an unsettling scenario - water inundating the forehatch. This possibility would most certainly have accounted for the rapid disappearance of the steamer. I believe that the Waratah was overloaded, with a reduced freeboard for her size. Under such circumstances it is not a leap of faith to imagine such volumes of water crashing over the foredeck. 

Finally, Captain Pidgeon made the important comment that wreckage would have been swept out to sea 'and lost to sight forever.' He also reminds us that in anticipation of rough weather, loose objects would have been lashed down or secured reducing the potential for flotsam washing up on shore. 


No comments: