Monday, 25 July 2016


Charles Fontein, urgently scanning the horizon and heady with anxious excitement, stood waving a flag atop a grassy slope. It was 5.10 am 25 July, 1909, and although blustery, conditions were clear. At first Fontein heard a faint buzzing followed by what appeared to be a mosquito slowly making its way to shore from across the expanse of ocean. He feverishly waved his Tricolor and the 'mosquito' responded by materialising into a fragile aircraft determined to reach Dover. After circling twice overhead, the first man to cross the English Channel in an airplane, crash-landed on the grass. Bleriot escaped unscathed and history was written.

Far across the globe in the southern hemisphere, the crisp chill of winter heralded a Sunday filled with anticipation. The Blue Anchor Line flagship Waratah was expected in port a day ahead of schedule. Waratah was an innovative departure from standard combination passenger/cargo steamers utilized in the fleet. She boasted an additional third superstructure deck providing opulent accommodation for well-heeled travellers, an ambitious capacity for 10 000 tons of general cargo and a novel option, demountable dormitories, to accommodate the rapidly growing demand for emigration to Australia. 

Waratah was launched into a world of industrial innovation and evolution. It was not the world of today with a 99% probability of arriving safely at destinations by sea or air. Bleriot had achieved great things, but his flimsy aircraft was a crude prototype which would require much further development before evolving into the passenger aircraft of today. Life in the early 1900's was filled with personal risk whether it be by contracting a fatal bacterial pneumonia (no antibiotics) or the very real personal risk of injury associated with work in factories. Those who boarded ships to traverse the great oceans between continents did not delude themselves that these ships were infallible. But they boarded nonetheless and placed their faith in masters and crews. Beyond this, it was in the hands of the Almighty. 

Waratah was flawed, the subject of my many posts. She demanded great care with regard to cargo stowage and adequate ballasting in order to achieve appropriate GM stability. Waratah was not alone in 1909. Steamers were increasing in size to meet the burgeoning demand for passenger and cargo transport. Waratah's design pushed the envelope of technical advance. Her owners, the Lunds, had already established a much needed lucrative trade between the UK and Australia and these men were not afraid to test innovation in the interests of progress and profit, the very essence of the free market system. The Lunds intentions were not to deploy dangerous steamers but rather to set the bar ever higher. Bleriot had no guarantee that his flimsy aircraft would make it safely across the Channel but it did not stop him from taking off and heading out to sea.

Most passengers on Waratah found her comfortable and steady, a privilege to be part of the innovative march of progress. Waratah made port at Durban during the course of Sunday, 25 July, amid palpable excitement and envy of those who could afford to travel between the continents in lofty comfort. Captain Ilbery submitted a report that no damage had been sustained on the voyage across and during the following 24 hours 2 000 tons of coal were loaded; 240 tons of cargo discharged; 29 passengers disembarked; 53 remained on board; 39 boarded bringing a total of 92, including 22 children. 211 souls, the balance made up by 119 crew, were due to depart into the annals of unsolved maritime mysteries. 

Mr Claude Sawyer disembarked Waratah at Durban believing that she was not stable. He was a man who did not wish to gamble on the odds and ignore his own intuitive misgivings, but he was the exception. He could not convince passengers such as Mrs Hay and her daughter Dolly to join him. They were loyal to Captain Ilbery and the service offered by the Blue Anchor Line. What's more Mrs Hay only had good things to say about Waratah. By 8.15 pm, 26 July, Waratah was ready to depart Durban and in the collective words of port officials: 

Waratah was upright, stable and in fine condition. 

In 1909 this was as good as it got. 

Once Waratah steamed into the Indian Ocean, heading southwest, her fate was sealed. We do not know what became of this flagship and her 211 souls and can only speculate. It could have related to inherent flaws or simply been an unfortunate chain of events. What we do know is that she disappeared without a trace and the ensuing Inquiry, almost 1 1/2 years later, came to the conclusion that she had foundered in a storm of 'exceptional violence' - 28 July.

The Inquiry was considered by many to be a whitewash. But if one considers the period, and a complete lack of physical evidence supporting the cause of the loss, we are obliged to look at the tragedy from a balanced perspective. Steamers were flawed and not yet perfected. If the Inquiry had come to the conclusion that Waratah was fundamentally unseaworthy it would have set a precedent affecting many steamers in service. Limitations were a reality and shipping safety, a work in progress.

The Inquiry did serve one important purpose by drawing attention to the issues surrounding the loss of the Waratah - crucial lessons to be learned. Wireless installations on ships and coastal land bases were legislated and the important issues and complexities of GM stability brought to the attention of both the shipping community and public at large. Ships would improve and more importantly, become safer. Culpability would have dampened the entrepreneurial spirit, driving a spoke into the essential principals of progress and free enterprise

Would Bleriot have been brought before a Court for taking off in an aircraft which clearly had safety limitations? Of course not. He was recognized for his achievement and the price to be paid for taking brave incremental steps and flying the banner of progress, ultimately benefiting mankind.

The mystery lives on as does the memory of all those tragically lost at sea. 

Passenger List:

Mrs Adamson
Mrs Allen and infant
Miss Rose Allen
Mrs Ashe
Mr Niel Black
Mr T. Blackburn
Mrs Bowden and infant
Master Bowden
Mr Bowden
Miss Bowden
Mrs Bowden
Mr E.A. Bradley
Col. P.J. Browne
Mr P.J. Calder
Miss M. Campbell
Dr J.T. Carrick
Mr A. Clark
Miss P. Connolly
Miss Connolly
Miss L. Cooke
Mr Wm. Coote
Mr Wm. Cumming
Mrs Dawes and child
Mr Donaldson
Mrs Dunn
Miss D. Dunn (7 years old)
Miss B. Dunn (2 years old)
Mr J. Ebsworth
Father Fadle
Mr M.J. Govendo
Mrs Govett
Master Harvey
Mrs Harvey
Mrs J. Harwood
Miss H.G. Hay
Mrs A. Hay
Miss Henderson
Miss M. Hesketh-Jones
Mr R.E. Hugo
Mr J. Hunter
Mrs Ibbett
Mrs Lascelles
Miss K. Lees
Mr R. Lowenthal
Mrs A. Lyon and infant (1)
Mr J. McCausland
Miss Miller
Miss B. Murphy
Mr E.A. Murphy
Mr C.B. Nicholson
Mr P. O'Connor
Mr E.B. Page
Mrs Page
Mrs Petrie
Master Petrie
Mrs A.E. Press
Miss D. Schaumann
Miss L. Schaumann
Mrs Sillery
Miss Starke
Mrs Starke
Mr W. Stocken
Mrs Stocken
Stocken child (5 years old)
Stocken child (2 years old)
Mr J.G. Stokoe
Miss Taylor
Mr Charles Taylor
Mrs Taylor
Miss M. Taylor
Master C.G Taylor
Mr J.F.J. Taylor
Miss Taylor
Mr G.H. Tickell
Mr David Turner
Mrs Turner
Turner child (14 years old)
Turner child (12 years old)
Turner child (7 years old)
Turner child (6 years old)
Turner child (3 years old)
Mrs Wilson
Mrs Wilson
Miss L. Wilson
Miss Wilson (8 years old)
Mr Wright
Mrs Wright
Miss Young

Crew List:

P.R. Alexander - general servant
W.R. Allen - general servant
C. Allen - able seaman
G.W. Ambrose - able seaman
H. Barr- carpenter's mate
C. Baxter - general servant
A. Bellringer - trimmer
W. Belshaw - able seaman 
F. Benson - trimmer
A. Blake - general servant
R. Bocker - fireman and trimmer
P. Bonham - general servant
A. Brown - fireman and trimmer
L. Burgess - general servant
C. Butcher - fireman and trimmer
W.M. Campbell - general servant
J.C. Clark - assistant steward
J. Clarke - fireman and trimmer
N. Clarke - apprentice
W. Comper - greaser and fireman
J. Conn - greaser and fireman
J. Costello - able seaman
T. Coulson - trimmer
A. Cumming - greaser and fireman 
H. Dance - trimmer
A. Dennison - general servant
G. Dixon - trimmer
F. Dorander - fireman and trimmer
W. Edwards - general servant
A.R. Francis - general servant
C. French - fireman and trimmer
H.C. Fulford - surgeon
A. Georgeson - boatswain
H.A. Gibbs - apprentice
S.E. Gorham - pantryman
R.A. Hamelton - refrigerating engineer
J. Hamilton - junior engineer
C. Hammond - general servant
H.W. Harding - general servant
W. Harding -  - able seaman
O.E. Haysom - butcher
H.F. Hemy - second officer
G.W. Hodder - chief engineer
T. Humphreys - senior third engineer
F.T. Hunt - junior engineer
A. Hunter - second engineer
J.E. Ilbery - master
J. Immelmann - fireman and trimmer
T. Ings - general servant
P. Isaacs - general servant
J. Jacobson - fireman and trimmer
J.H. Jamieson - senior fourth engineer
J. Jewers - officer
J. Jones - second baker
J. Kelly - trimmer
K. Lindross - fireman and trimmer
J. Lydiard - fireman and trimmer
A. Martin - able seaman
H. McCrone - trimmer
M. McIlver - able seaman
W. McKierian - trimmer
W. McPhee - general servant
G. Meek - trimmer
P.F. Monaghan - general servant
F. Monk - fifth engineer
A.P. Moore - able seaman
J.P. Morgan - third officer
P. Murray - sculleryman
J. Nelson - fireman and trimmer
T. Newman - able seaman
A. Nicholls - forecabin steward
C. Owen - chief officer
P. Oxford - barman and storekeeper
K. Papinean - pantryman
S. Pearson - donkeyman
A.E. Phillips - baker and confectioner
F. Poland - assistant butcher
W. Rackliff - able seaman
W. Reinsch - fireman and trimmer
R. Robinson - ordinary seaman
W.B. Rogers - general servant
E. Rumbold - general servant
A. Sach - cook
F. Sale - cook
C. Samuelson - fireman and trimmer
A. Sandon - trimmer
E.J. Schafer - boatswain's mate and lamp trimmer
O. Schelier - fireman and trimmer
H. Seiffort - fireman and trimmer
F. Shasal - assistant pantryman
J.Shea - able seaman
P. Skailes - purser and chief steward
H.G. Smith - able seaman
W. Smith - storekeeper and refrigerating greaser
W. Smith - general servant
C.W. Southwell - cook
E. Stace - boatswain's mate
J. Steel - trimmer
B. Steiner - greaser and fireman
E. Sterne - general servant
G. Sudbury - general servant
E. Swan - stewardess
H. Tanner - fireman and trimmer
H. Taylor - trimmer
S. Templeton - chief cook
W. Thomas - general servant
W. Thornton - trimmer
G. Thruston - fourth officer
F. Trott - general servant
C. Turkle - able seaman
W. Waite - able seaman
R. Walker - carpenter
E.J. Walters - general servant
W. Walters - greaser
F.M. Wellington - general servant
W.G. White - general servant
S. Whitehorn - stewardess
A. Woodcock - general servant
G. Wyborn - general servant

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