Wednesday, 16 March 2016




SS Volturno was an ocean liner that burned and sank in the North Atlantic in October 1913. She was a Royal Line ship under charter to the Uranium Line at the time of the fire. After the ship issued SOS signals, eleven ships came to her aid and, in heavy seas and gale winds, rescued 520 passengers and crewmen. About 130 people—most of them women and children in lifeboats launched unsuccessfully prior to the arrival of the rescue ships—died in the incident. Volturno had been built by Fairfield in Govan and was completed in November 1906.

Tonnage:3602 gross tons[1]
Length:340 ft (100 m)
Beam:43 ft (13 m)
  • Steam triple expansion engines
  • two propellors
Speed:14 knots (26 km/h)
  • Passengers:
  • 24 first class
  • 1,000 third class

The Mercury (Hobart) Thursday 16 October, 1913.

Herr Badke, a German, relates that
smoking in the steerage was prohibited.
A Russian emigrant was smoking a
cigarette, when a steward appeared on
the scene, and the Russian dropped his
cigarette through a hole in the floor,
the lighted cigarette falling amongst the
emigrants' baggage. Herr Badke said
he afterwards lifted a trap-door, and
found the compartment on fire, and
raised an alarm.

Captain Inch says he then discovered
that the bunker was ablaze. He closed
the watertight doors, and poured water
into the No. 2 hold, but the fire continued to gain.
Captain Inch proceeds:-"The Carmania arrived 
at this time. The life rafts drifted past us, as they 
were out of reach. By dusk the other steamers
arrived, and futilely attempted to reach
us. The saloon and chart house were
now in flames, and all parts of the vessel 
before the funnel were blazing fiercely. 
Just before midnight the explosion
occurred, and wrecked the wireless
aerial plant. The fire worked through
the women's steerage to the after end
of the ship, but this was kept from the
knowledge of the passengers who were
quiet throughout the night. The chief
engineer, the Marconi operators, the
sailors, and myself, spent the night in
making small rafts in case the fire burned 
through the deck before daylight.
At 5 o'clock in the morning the boats
from the liners were alongside, and the
passengers loaded in an orderly manner
and without panic. The women wept
when they found help alongside. I then
searched the ship, but found no one on
board, and then decided to abandon her,
as the No. 3 hatch was alight.
Captain Inch states that the chief
officer discovered the fire in the No. I
hold.- The fire burnt through the
hatches, set the forecastle mid deck 
fittings in flames, and gained rapidly,
reaching the height of the foremast.
The night watch below was imprisoned,
and burnt to death, while the explosions
wrecked the saloon and the hospital
amidships, and damaged the steering

For someone like myself who believes Waratah was on fire and Captain Ilbery attempting to return to
Durban, this account is shocking and almost unbelievable in a number of respects, but it supports the
Harlow theory. If it was indeed a cigarette which caused the fire it flies in the face of searching for
explosive materials on board Waratah as a source of catastrophic fire. 

Procedure was followed, the hold was closed off and water poured into the compartment. The words
'but the fire continued to gain' send a chill down my spine. Note that the fore section of the Volturno
was ablaze by dusk, engulfing the saloon and chart house. One would imagine that all should have
been lost by this stage, but instead the fire raged on and at midnight (at least 6 hours later!) an
explosion (flashes of light) destroyed the wireless aerial plant. One would think that this had to be the
end, but no, the fire worked its way aft, through the women's steerage. As if by some miracle
passengers were still alive by dawn the next day and readied for boarding life boats. The captain then
inspected the steamer and found hatch number 3 on fire. During this appalling exercise in survival,
flames reached the height of the foremast. 

I have struggled with the notion that if Captain Bruce did indeed see Waratah afire, astern, at a
significant distance, and over the course of at least 2 hours, how was it possible that all on board had
not suffocated or been incinerated by this stage? The ghastly account of the Volturno and the image
below affirm that an inferno could continue for many hours, the steamer remaining functional, afloat
and souls unscathed. It explains why Captain Ilbery did not simply gave up the fight and make every
effort to beach and land his passengers. From the Volturno account, if a similar situation was playing
out on Waratah, there was enough time to get back to Durban, all things considered, including the
catastrophe which could have ensued trying to beach Waratah along the Wild Coast. 

The image below almost seems like a miracle. The Volturno is both intact, recognizable and afloat, the
next day !!


Stuart Flood said...

more than 1000 even if they are steerage seems a high figure for a 3000 to 4000 tonn ship even in that period. The most compariable figues I can find for a similar ship of roughly the same time period is S.S Waikare (USSCoNZ)buit Wm Denny & brothers Dumbarton 1897 Gross tonnage 3070.88. Passenger accomidation 270 in two classes with one triple expansion engine.Wrecked in Dusky sound January 4 1910. Or the S.S Moeraki 1902 Same company for both builders and operator as above Gross tonnage 4392.1 tonns passenger accomidation for 333 in two clsses. Twin triple expansion engines. Both of these ships seem small to modern standards even for ferry services (modern Cook Strait ferrys are around 10-20,000 tonns.) yet these were Trans Tasman Liners. The point I am trying to make is that the Voltuno must have been crowded or overloaded even if she was primarily fitted out for the immigrant trade.

andrew van rensburg said...

Thank you for yet another thought-provoking comment, Stuart. I agree with you and my impression is that it was an era of making a quick buck in the emigration business. Shipowners were unscrupulous and although limitations were set in legislation, the implementation of such was sorely lacking. Waratah departed London with about 400 emigrants over the maximum on her maiden voyage, proving that shipowners could get away with it. There seems to have been little regard for human safety and life. I believe that profit was directly linked with cramming as many humans possible onto vessels which did not meet the regulations. It is interesting that most disasters at sea related to collisions, running into obstacles and fires on board. Few were directly related to unseaworthiness, which is extraordinary. I wonder if a modern ship on fire, such as the Volturno was, could last as long before going down - and with such minimal loss of life. Overcrowding and overloading was the order of the day, but those workhorse steel steamers were tough as nails. Andrew