Thursday, 5 May 2016


There are very few accounts of the Waratah 'experience' before the disaster of July 27, 1909. Looking back in time we are overwhelmed by the extent of dramatic accounts labeling Waratah unseaworthy. Waratah was flawed and I have devoted many posts to this subject, but she was not unique (circa 1909) in terms of limitations, particularly by modern standards. Exaggeration dominated newspaper reports and the Inquiry. Mrs. Agnes Grant Gosse Hay was a wealthy woman who voyaged frequently between Australia and England. She enjoyed first class comforts and could have selected any number of alternative steamers and shipping lines to make her voyages. But she chose the Blue Anchor Line. This is what Mrs. Hay had to say about the flagship:   

Maiden voyage: 

'Here we are steaming along in the large new
Blue Anchor liner, with a head wind, and
yet practically little or no motion is experienced. 
The reason of this steadiness is not only due 
to the 10,000 tons burthen of the Waratah, 
but also to her construction.'

Mrs. Hay was not a fool. She acknowledged the importance of dead weight to enhance steadiness in a steamer with three superstructure decks.

When I first saw the new steamer
at Tilbury, the idea was that she would
prove a great roller, owing to the height of
her many decks above the water-level. The
lowest of these, for first-class passengers,
is one deck higher than the spar deck on
the P. & 0. steamers, and the promenade
deck, which also has extensive cabin 
accommodation, is the same height as the
boat deck on most of the ocean steamers.

Mrs. Hay gives us an important insight into the comfort factor on steamers. She is in fact referring to a reduced GM which created a more comfortable rolling pattern, but importantly, with no reference to dangerous instability. 

The apparent top-heaviness of the Waratah 
appears to have no effect on the easy passage 
of the steamer through the water, as
it is counteracted by her breadth of beam.

A further reference to an essentially acceptable steamer and she was quite right about beam. Geelong's beam was 54.5 ft. (two decks) vs. Waratah's 59.45 ft. (three decks). 

Having travelled three times in the
Geelong one naturally compares the two
steamers, and the conclusion arrived at is
that the lofty build of the Waratah does
not cause any excess of motion, but that
this is if anything less in her than in the

Take a moment to digest these words from an unbiased source. Passengers desired the rolling pattern of steamers with reduced GM. While some passengers were reduced to hysterics and panic by the persistent list, Mrs. Hay remained unmoved and content.

Voyage from Australia to Durban, July, 1909.

"I am sitting on the deck of this finesteamer trying to write a few lines to youto post at Durban. We have had, onthe whole, a fine-weather passage, thoughthrough the Bight, or rather, I shouldsay, across the mouth of it, we had, as usual, some stiff blows, which came to a climax when rounding the Leeuwin. It is very seldom that portion of Australia does not give its final kick, and it gave us a pretty good specimen of what it can do. The captain said he was sure the mail boat would make much worse weather than we did." 
What an extraordinary insight into the mystery. Captain Ilbery referred to the mail boat 'making much worse weather' than Waratah. Despite arguments to the contrary, Captain Ilbery was satisfied with Waratah's overall stability on her final voyage. There were problems but Captain Ilbery had made the best out of a troubled steamer. "Nothing can exceed the comfort of this steamer, both as regards her cabin and build, and also the attention of the captain and all the attendants on board. I have only to hint at a want, and it is at once supplied.'
A reference for the much-maligned steamer does not come any better than this. Mrs. Hay made it clear why she chose to sail on Blue Anchor Line flagships - they provided exactly what first class passengers desired.
"The Waratah is certainly a splendid vessel. I don't want to sleep on shore tomorrow night, but they say the coaling may be very unpleasant.'
Mrs. Hay was so satisfied with Waratah she did not want to 'sleep on shore'. Do not (including myself) forget these words when looking for every small detail of Waratah's short-comings. It is all so very easy to find fault, 


Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew

I see you have been reading my biography of Agnes Grant Hay. There is another photograph of Mrs Hay closer to the time of her death also in my book. This photograph was taken some 30 years before her death - and not terribly flattering I always think.

If you study the Board of Enquiry report you will see that Claude Sawyer repeated a conversation he had with Agnes Hay urging her to get off the ship. This confirmed the oral story I was told by an elderly man who remembered Agnes Hay.

Anthony Laube

andrew van rensburg said...

Hi Anthony,

Thank you very much for your comment and reference to your book. Would you please give me the title of the book. I have obtained all the information relating to Mrs. Hay from period newspaper clippings. With your permission I am sure there are a number of readers who would like to see your photograph of Mrs. Hay. A period newspaper clipping referred to Helen Hay's horrified response to Claude Sawyer urging them to disembark at Durban. How this must have haunted the Gosse-Hay family. Andrew

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew

Yes, the first quotes are from the article Agnes Hay wrote about the Waratah and her captain for the Adelaide Advertiser.

However, the quote from her letter to her son is in both my books about the family: The Hays of Mount Breckan, which I published in 1982, and A Lady at Sea: the adventures of Agnes Grant Hay (2001).

The photograph on your website is a private family photograph which appears on page 47 of my second book. Agnes Hay's son, the novelist William Hay, suffered a nervous breakdown after the loss of his mother and sister with the Waratah.

Elsewhere you talk about the bottle discovered in 1922, and suggest the Waratah was aground on an island in the Antarctic.

Interestingly (chillingly) the wife of the lodgekeeper at the Hays' summer residence at Victor Harbour, dreamed she saw Mrs Hay in a dream, and her mistress was saying, "We're on an island, send help quickly!"

As far as I can see you have not mentioned Conan Doyle attempting to get in touch with the Waratah victims through clairvoyancy.

I grew up in the town, so knew people who remembered these things, and remembered her, and was fortunate to know Hay family members, many now dead.


andrew van rensburg said...

I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your comments, Anthony. Truly fascinating and from what I recall, Agnes' son retired to Tasmania as a result of his 'breakdown'.

I have written a post about Sir A Conan Doyle:

Mrs. Hay's letter from Durban was published by the Advertiser (Adelaide) 29 December, 1909, an extract of which appears in the following post:

You might be interested in the following post which details a seance 'summoning' Captain Ilbery - describing Waratah adrift in the ice packs of the Southern Ocean:

I shall inform those interested in the subject of the Hay family to view your comments, regards, Andrew.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew

Thank you for those links.

I had no idea the letter from Agnes Hay to her son was published in the newspaper. I have compared it with my copy of the original, and it has naturally been edited, removing personal comments including my favourite in which Mrs Hay said there was only one other "chick" on board, apart from herself and her daughter! Interestingly a couple of words were changed in what was published.

William Hay had a holiday in Tasmania as respite after the tragedy, but no, he remained in South Australia, spending the last 20 years of his life in the country not far from the old family home. He died in 1945 after helping fight a bushfire, probably inadvisedly, being then well into his 70s. My mother remembered him quite well.

Anthony Laube

andrew van rensburg said...

Anthony, I continue to thoroughly enjoy your contribution. Thank you so much. Andrew