Tuesday, 23 May 2017


The Northern Miner, 11 May, 1932.

The loss of the liner Waratah is one
of the youngest of ocean mysteries. It 
is only 22 years since the gallant ship
vanished with officers, passengers,
cargo, crew complete, and yet already
she has passed into the realm of legend.
For in her passing she raised such a
problem as is perhaps unequalled in
the history of the sea (writes Pierre
Quiroule In the "Daily Mail").
Consider the features of this un-
paralleled disaster. Here was this ship,
a great ocean liner, the pride and
latest addition of the famous company,
her owners, the most finished product
of the shipbuilders' yards, complete
with wireless installation (incorrect) and 
all the other safety devices which have 
confirmed man's mastery of the sea and
robbed the ocean of its terrors-here
was the ship, this floating mansion
under the command of an experienced
and skilful seaman, disappearing with
out leaving a trace on one of the most
frequented ocean routes in the world.
Not a boat, not a spar, not a body was
found. She had been spoken by one
vessel where she ought to have passed
a score. And from that day to this no
explanation has been forthcoming. It
was a very complete and very mysterious 
The Waratah belonged to the famous 
Blue Anchor line, and was employed 
in the carrying of passengers between 
England and Australia. Her displacement 
was 16,800 tons (incorrect). She was,
classed 100 A1 at Lloyd's, and, in 
addition, had four other inspection 
certificates to prove her seaworthiness.
Her commander was one of the most 
trusted officers in his service. Captain
Ilbery. who man and boy had been in 
the service of the Blue Anchor Company 
for 41 years. Her maiden trip was entirely 
successful, though, on her return to England, 
Captain Ilbery reported that she did not 
seem so stable as her sister ship, the Geelong. 
The matter was reported by the company, to 
the builders, but considered by them a matter 
of trivial importance.

I think it is speculative to assume that the owners and builders considered Waratah's top heaviness tendency during the maiden voyage, to be 'of trivial importance'. This important issue was played down at the Inquiry for obvious reasons but there must have been significant discussions and correspondence (some of which was presented at the Inquiry) relating to Waratah's inherent top heaviness and the builders recommended filling ballast tank 8, to help stabilise Waratah. There might also, very possibly, have been discussions about materially altering Waratah to bring her stability more into line with sister ship Geelong's. This was not done, but Captain Ilbery managed, by manipulating ballast weights, to stabilise Waratah during her last voyage, .
On April 27, 1909, the Waratah left
London end duly arrived at Adelaide
after a most satisfactory journey (not 
according to some on board). On
July 7 she left for England and made
Durban by the 27th (25th). Thence she 
set sail with a crew of 119 officers and
men and 92 passengers. On the 29th
(26th) she was sighted and signalled by 
the Clan Macintyre. No more has been
heard or her from that day to this.
No clue has been discovered of the
fate which overtook her. Of recent
years aerial reconnaissance has been
employed to find her hulk. In vain, it is 
as if the liner Waratah never existed and 
never sailed the sea with her crew of 119 
and her 92 passengers.
Not a rocket was seen, not an SOS
message received (no wireless). Her 
fate which befell her must have been 
very sudden.
Now on July 28 a severe storm raged
on the coast, but it is agreed on all hands 
that a ship of the size of the Waratah ought 
easily to have outridden it. The Clan Macintyre, 
a very much smaller ship, which we have seen
was the last to speak to her, came through 
unscathed. And a ship wrecked by storm would
surely have time to send out a message on 
the ether. Moreover, during the 27th and 28th 
the Clan Macintyre sighted no fewer than 10
vessels, not one of which saw the Waratah.

By 1932 commentators were NOT speculating that the Waratah MUST have turned turtle in the storm of 28 July. The important point is made that far humbler vessels, such as the Clan MacIntyre, survived the storm. There were as many as 10 other steamers during this time frame which also survived and more significantly (apart from the alleged Guelph and Harlow sightings) DID NOT sight Waratah. Why?? In order for the Guelph account to have been true, Waratah must have been sighted by other steamers, including the Clan MacIntyre, for the second time; unless Waratah came about in a wide arc far out at sea beyond the shipping lane, ending up back in the vicinity of Cape Hermes.
The Guelph, indeed, of the Union Castle
line, reports seeing a passenger
liner the the night of the 27th. The cus
tomary signals were exchanged, but
the Guelph's officer could not make
out anything more than the letters
'TAH' at the end of the other's name.
The spot at which the Guelph reported
having sighted the stranger was not
more than 70 miles ahead of the posi
tion at which the Clan Maclntyre
had signalled her in the morning. Now,
the Clan Maclntyre was proceeding
on the same course, but had been
passed by the Waratah which was a
much faster ship. She had spoken the
Guelph earlier in the afternoon. (huh?)
Guelph, Clan Macintyre, Waratah and
the mysterious stranger were all on the
same route, yet the Clan Macintyre
had not passed the Waratah again and
had seen no other vessel which might
have answered to her description.

This misinformation illustrates the importance of cross-referencing reports in newspapers. The Guelph was en-route to Durban from Cape Town. The crew of the Clan MacIntyre could not have spoken the Guelph late afternoon, 27 July!!
When the Blue Anchor liner was
several days overdue at Capetown the
authorities became anxious. News was
solicited from every ship In the neigh-
bourhood but none was forthcoming.
And in spite of a subsequent search,
lasting many months and carried out
by two specially commissioned vessels, 
no clues were ever found.

No mention of the Harlow account. No one wanted any business with a ship's crew who had allegedly witnessed the Waratah blowing up into smithereens.
The third officer of the steamer Tot
tenham reported that he had seen
bodies floating In the water off East
London on August 11. He went so far
as to describe one in detail - a girl in
a red cloak and black stockings. Captain 
Cox commanding the Tottenham
denied the story. He stated that the
alleged bodies were really sunflsh, 
and that the corpse of the girl was in
reality a roll of paper with red binding.

'A roll of paper with red binding' must surely be the epitome of clutching at straws!!
Curious was the story of Mr. Sawyer who 
sailed in the Waratah from Sydney to Durban. 
When he was three days out from the latter 
port, Mr Sawyer was confronted with a terrifying 
vision. In his bed an apparition appeared to him 
of a man clad in a flowing robe, and carrying in 
his right hand a sword which he slowly moved
between himself and the terrified Mr. Sawyer. 
Three times in the space of three hours did the 
grisly spectre appear. It was altogether too much
for Mr. Sawyer. At Durban he left the ship, though 
his passage was booked to Capetown. Mr. Sawyer 
had noticed a heavy list when the vessel left Sydney, 
and had been greatly worried over this and much 
other evidence did the commissioners listen to 
who sat at the Court of inquiry in December,
1910. But they broke up without coming to
any satisfactory conclusion; and as for the 
Waratah, no more has been heard of her to
this day.

An interesting take on the Waratah mystery, with misinformation that morphed into fact as the decades passed.

Monday, 22 May 2017


The Mercury, Hobart, 10 February, 1900.

A serious outbreak of fire occurred on
board the steamer Kallatlna, lying at
South Grafton, early on the morning of
the 6th inst. The fire broke out in one of
the state cabins and before it was detected
it had completely destroyed the cabin, and
was spreading across the saloon to the
cabins on the opposite side of the vessel,
when it was noticed by Captain Magee,
the smoke penetrating to his cabin on the
main deck. He quickly aroused the crew,
but it was only after hard work that they
got the upper band of the flames. Had
the fire remained undetected another half
hour the probabilities are that the vessel
would have been burnt to the water's
edge. A good deal of the cabin fittings,
bedding, etc., was destroyed.

An uncommon source of fire, but destructive nonetheless.

Saturday, 20 May 2017


Chronicle, Adelaide, 14 November, 1929.

CAPE TOWN. November 7.
The Dutch cargo steamer Sumatra
returned to the docks to-day after a
night at sea with her cargo of wool
on fire. Smoke was discovered at 11
o'clock last night. The ventilators were
plugged and water was played on the
hatch. Fire engines awaited the arrival 
of the vessel at the docks. When the 
cargo was discharged the covering
of the propeller shaft was found to be

Interesting to note that the ventilators were plugged, reducing draught.


The Brisbane Courier, 8 June, 1910.

A fire broke out early last evening on
the steamer Australic which is at present
berthed it Birt and Co's Wharf South
Brisbane. The South Brisbane Fire 
Brgade received the alarm shortly after 9
o clock, and turned out in full force
under Superintendent Cumming. They
were soon followed by a reel from the
Central Fire Brigade, under Superintendent 
Hinton, and later the 'steamer' was also 
despatched from the Central Fire Station. 
Mr Ellis (manager for Birt and Co), who are 
local agents for the vessel and Captain 
Colonna (acting Lloyd's surveyor in Brisbane) 
were communicated with, and arrived later. 
The firemen found a rather formidable blaze
in the after part of the ship, in the
'tween decks, where there was a cargo
consisting of 943 bags of copra loaded
at Sydney, and a quantity of hides and
sheepskins. It was in the copra that
the fire had broken out. The cause of
the outbreak is not definitely known, but
it is surmised that it was due to spontaneous 
combustion The combined brigades speedily 
set about their work, and before long had the 
water from several lengths of hose connected
with the Stanley street mains, playing
into the hold. Meanwhile men were sent 
down in pairs, protected by smoke
helmets, and were relieved about every
10 minutes. In this way the fire was more 
definitely located and more easily combated. 
To those on the deck the extent of the outbreak 
was not apparent, except from the thick volumes 
of mingled smoke and steam which came from 
the hold. The "divers" however stated that
the fire appeared to be solely in the extreme 
aft end of the vessel, and that it was not very 
extensive. Nevertheless, they recognized that 
the fight would be a severe one. At an early 
hour this morning the flames still had a good 
hold of the cargo but it was believed that they 
were being slowly but surely overcome. From 
what could be gathered last night, at the fore 
end of the vessel there is a quantity of general 
cargo and something over 100 bales of wool 
which have been loaded in Brisbane. The vessel
is loading general cargo and about 3000 bales 
of wool for Europe, and this is still to be stowed 
in the fore part of the ship.
This outbreak is similar to the one which 
occurred at South Brisbane several
years ago, when a cargo of copra in the
Bielefeld caught fire. In that case the
outbreak was extinguished after many
hour's work, the hold being eventually
The Australic is a Swedish-Australian
liner, of 4010 registered tonnage. She is
a steel-screw steamer, her dimensions being :- 
Length, 380ft.; breadth, 49ft.; and depth. 25ft. 
She was built in 1907 by Hawthorn, Leslie, and 
Co., Ltd., Newcastle, England. Capt. A. K. W. 
Holdtgren is in command. The vessel is at
present trading between Gothenburg, in
Sweden, and Australian ports, and during 
the past few weeks has been loading
and discharging cargoes at Southern ports.

Copra in jute bags is a risky cargo prone to spontaneous combustion. 

copra derived from coconuts

Friday, 19 May 2017


South Australian Chronicle, 19 July, 1890.
Details of the burning of the steamer
Paoching and the Ioss of 32 lives, including
the master of the vessel, Captain Place,
were received in Sydney last week by
the steamer Taiyuan, from Hongkong.
The fire broke out at sea, the vessel
being on a voyage from Shanghai to
Hankow. The steamer Ngankin, which was
one of the first to reach the burning vessel,
reports that at 6 a.m. on May 29, while near
the Centaur Shoal, those on board observed
dense masses of smoke ahead about five miles
off, and as they approached closer they found
the smoke proceeded from a steamer on fire. 
In less than 10 minutes the fire had gained 
such a hold that the vessel was a mass of 
flames right fore and aft. As the Ngankin came 
closer the vessel was found to be the Paoching. 
This vessel left Shanghai the same morning at 1
o'clock for Hankow. It could be seen from the
deck of the Ngankin that people were clinging
round her, hanging to the sides by ropes. As
the ropes burnt through the unfortunate people
fell into the water and were drowned. The 
Ngankin was anchored and in five minutes four
of her boats were in the water pulling towards 
the burning ship, the sides of which were very 
hot. The crews found people floating in the 
water, and they picked up Mr. Christiansen, 
the first officer, the second officer, and 21
natives, some of whom were suffering from
burns. In the meantime the Taiwo came along
and picked up some natives. The Sual saved
31, according to the compradore's account. 
Chinese gunboat, the Chepai, came up and
anchored and her commander lowered two
floats, one of which went to the wreck but
found no one to save, though there were a
number of dead bodies floating about. When
the steamers left the wreck the whole of the
deck was burnt, but the masts, funnel, and 
capstan were standing. The chief engineer, 
Mr. Dalgarno, was in the water when rescued
holding onto the cable, as was also the mate.
Mr. Wilson, the second engineer was drowned,
as was also the master, Captain Place. 

An enquiry into the burning of the vessel was 
held at Shanghai. The court found that proper
steps had been taken by the officers to save the
lives of the passengers and crew, but desired
especially to direct the attention of the Board
of Trade to the fact that they considered the
appliances for extinguishing fire and the
number and capacity of the boats, considering
the number of people carried, were quite
inadequate; that the regulations, if any, for
stowing dangerous cargo did not appear to
have been known to the officers responsible;
and the crew had never been exercised at fire
stations; and that if they had been so organised 
the fire-engine might have been worked before 
the engine room was inaccessible through

This harrowing account illustrates a number of points which could correlate with the account presented by Captain Bruce of the Harlow. The 'masses' of smoke were seen 5 miles distant by the crew of the Ngankin. Captain Bruce reported that the large steamer gaining astern produced 'masses' of smoke seen at least 10 miles distant. Contrary to practices at sea, Captain Bruce did not slow down or turn back to investigate the steamer on fire. We shall never know why, but the consequences of this action led to tales of bush fires mimicking steamers and explosions destroying all on board. If it were not for the vessels listed in the report, there would have been no survivors. Bodies in the water reminds me of the two, separate accounts of steamers sighting distinct bodies in the sea in the vicinity of both Bashee and Great Fish rivers, confirming that Waratah went down at a position northeast of the Bashee River - NOT southwest. Although the Inquiry came to the conclusion that there was adequate fire-fighting equipment on Waratah, the same cannot be said for fire drills:


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