Wednesday, 7 June 2017


The SS Pericles, gross tonnage 10 925, length 500 ft. 5 in., depth 31 ft. 1 in., built by Harland Wolff (Belfast) was launched 21 December, 1907. She was powered by twin quadruple expansion engines giving 14 knots.

31 March, 1910, Pericles en-route Sydney to London, struck an uncharted rock 6 miles south of Cape Leeuwin. Captain Alexander Simpson oversaw the successful evacuation of 238 passengers and 163 crew onto life boats - no loss of life.

The following extracts give us an insight into passenger witness impressions vs. officers' responses to allegations of negligence.

Let us begin with the formal Inquiry conclusions:


The Court of Marine Inquiry at Fremantle.

In the matter of a Formal Inquiry held at Fremantle before E. P. DOWLEY, Esq., and W. A. G. WALTER, Esq. (Magistrates), assisted by Captain LAURIE and Captain F. L. PARKES (Assessors), into the circumstances attending the shipwreck of the steamship "PERICLES."

The Court having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds:

(1) The s.s. "Pericles," while on a voyage from Melbourne to Fremantle, was, on the 31st March, 1910, rounding Cape Leeuwin, when, at about 3.30 p.m., she met with a disaster causing her to founder.

(2) Proper care and vigilance were exercised in the navigation of the vessel by the master and officers, and proper steps were taken to fix her position, and from time to time to verify such position.

(3) The vessel was kept on the course stated in the evidence given by the master.

(4) Such course, as set and steered, was one which, in all the circumstances of the occasion, the master was justified in considering a safe and proper one.

(5) While on such course, as stated in the evidence, the vessel struck a submerged obstruction, which is uncharted, and thereby foundered.






Act. P.M.



Nautical Assessors.

14th April, 1910.

(Issued in London by the Board of Trade on the 10th day of June 1910.)

The Advertiser (Adelaide) Tuesday 5 April, 1910

Perth; April 4

Sensational complaints have been madeby third class passengers against the officersof the Pericles, the allegations of Mr.Charles Ryan including recklessness, badnavigation, lack of boat drill, and inattention to the requirements of the third classpassengers. Mr. Ryan, whose statementswere backed up by a dozen other thirdclass passengers, said:-
"That the ship was miles out of a safe or proper course seems to be recognised and admitted on all lands. The residents of Flinders Bay, where as refugees we spent the night and day until relief reached us, expressed amazement that a course so near the shore was taken by the steamer, and, to use their own words, they 'gave her ten minutes before getting smashed up' and actually went down to the beach to watch the spectacle.
As in the case of the Waratah a number of passengers were very quick to give damning impressions of circumstances surrounding the loss of the Pericles:
 'recklessness; bad navigation; lack of boat drill; inattention to requirements of third class passengers.'
If Mr. Ryan and Co were the only survivors this might have become historical fact. The allegation that people on the beach expected the Pericles to 'getting smashed up' further reinforced this damning witness account.
The local residents assert that it wasBevan Reef which the steamer struck, andit is said that this is a well-known reef andthat no vessels, even small ones, ever comewithin ten miles of it. If this statement betrue it shows reckless disregard on theship's officers' part for the safety of eitherlife or property. This demands a searching and fair enquiry if confidence is to beinspired in the travelling public. Thereshould not be a mere whitewashing, asmany expect. 
Further confirmation of recklessness, this time dependent on 'expert' witnesses onshore. Anyone reading this in isolation of the Inquiry report would have been in no doubt of the crew's negligence.
I shall be very pleased to make a statutory declaration (Illustrates the lengths people will go for their opinions to be aired, whether true or not) or give any evidence that may be necessary, and I am sure there are many others willing to follow my example. That an appalling catastrophe, attended by great loss of life, did not occur, is attributable entirely to the favorable weather conditions and the calmness and courage of the passengers them-selves, the men, women, and children, whopractically took charge of themselves andhelped themselves. I am now referring tothe third class passengers, who vastly out-numbered those in the first class, and wereleft wholly and solely to themselves to look after and manage their own affairs as best they could, not a single order being given.
To show that they acquitted themselvescreditably one need only say they had theirboats swung out filled and ready for lowering long before the crew. As I understandthat the latter had never gone through anyboat drill (suddenly boat drill becomes the all-important factor), their inability to swing out some of the boats will readily be excused. Thesteamer struck at about 3 p.m. and none ofthe boats left the ship till 3.50 p.m., an in-credibly long time to be depending upon asinking ship liable to disappear at anymoment. The boat in which we left theship had only a steward and an apprenticeto assist us. and I am told that severalothers were similarly placed, while severalof the crew, and one of the boats whichkept company with us. was manned apparently entirely by stokers."
Mr. W. Fewster. another third class passenger, in a letter to the press, wrote:
"We had no crew to lower our boats, depending only on third class passengers. I do not say the captain and officers did not do their duty, but it must have been performed in the first class.  When we got our boats launched there was no one who could row, bar one man, named Angel, who deserves every praise. We owe our lives to him and to Mr. File, the third officer, who jumped overboard and swam to our assistance. Had we been left to ourselves we should never have got away." 
Mrs. Fewster has made a statement thatit was impossible to get two of the boatsoff the davits, and they went down withthe ship.
Mr. Ryan's serious allegations are notborne out by the general testimony of the passengers.
Here we have a similar predicament to that of case of the Waratah; some passengers said one thing and others, quite another...

Fremantle, April 4.
The principal topic discussed at Fremantle today in connection with the disaster to the Pericles was the complaints of third class passengers in regard to theirtreatment at the wreck. Enquiries elicitedfrom a majority of the passengers an indignant denial of the allegations by the thirdclass passengers. While Captain Simpsonand the other officers were preparing topay off a portion of the crew, Mr. File, thethird officer, was deputed to reply to theallegations on behalf of his fellow officers.Mr. File, who, in common with the others,felt the reflection which had been cast uponthem and the crew, said the allegationswere not in accordance with fact.
The captain and crew of the Waratah, due to fate, were never given an opportunity to air their side of the story.

"This passenger," Mr. File continued,"refers to the distance we were from theshore. Against that we have our own bearings and so on, but beyond that we have the statement of the lighthouse-keeper atthe Leeuwin, who saw the whole occurrence, and who informed us we were a long way out of the danger zone."
In this case lighthouse keepers were able to corroborate crew's side of the story.   

His assertion that some of the peoplethere came down to see us get wrecked,and that they could see that we weresteering into danger, is as absurd as I believe it to be untrue. Certainly therewere some people down there to see us gopast, but they told us they were only onthe spot casually, and had no idea that avessel could strike a rock in the positionthe Pericles was in. It is ridiculous tosay no ships, even small ones, could comewithin ten miles of where the Periclesfoundered. At that rate small coasters andother ships could not get into Flinders Baywith their cargoes. However, it is idle todiscuss the question of the course steeredby the Pericles, as the whole matter willbe dealt with later on.
Perspective reestablished. This illustrates how easily stories became embroidered and strayed from the truth.

"Regarding the treatment of the passengers, I can only pay the statements madeby Mr. Ryan are absolutely untrue. Thesafety of the passengers was the first consideration, and no distinction was madebetween first and third class passengers."
"The action of the chief steward in itselfshows how they were cared for. Instead ofgetting his money, some £120, whichwas within easy reach, he proffered lifebelts, and helped the passengers to putthem on. There was no distinction madebetween passengers from the time of thedisaster until now. As for the third classpassengers, so far as I am aware not oneput a hand on the boats to swing themout. They stood looking on. (this makes far more sense). These people seem to complain of having been asked to do some work in an emergency when every man had to do his best to save lives. Mr. Ryan talks about no officers being in some of the boats, but admits that an apprentice and other members of the ship's company were there. Perhaps the best answer to that is that every boat was beached in safety. Surely no one would contend that they want an officer or an engineer and a crew of seamen to takethem ashore when it was a matter of suchmoment for the crew to get not one, but14 boats into the water. In each boatsome responsible member of the ship'scompany was placed in charge. The officers,were in duty bound to superintend thelaunching of the boats, trusting in luck toget a boat after the passengers were accommodated. Not until we had searchedthe ship for anybody who might have been missed, and while the ship was actuallysinking, could we get into the boats."
This account appears far more plausible and the Inquiry conclusion made no mention of dereliction of duty on the part of crew. But, again, due to the fact that all were saved, the true facts saw light in the public domain.

"Naturally some had already left for theshore when we left the Pericles, but someof us swam over to a boat which appearedin need of an officer owing to their behaviour in the sea."
"Mr. Ryan is all at sea in his referenceto the boat drill (ha ha). He criticises the slowness of the ship's crew in getting the boatsout, and attributes this to the supposedcircumstance that the men have not beenexercised in boat drill. In both respects heis entirely inaccurate. In the first place,Captain Simpson has always been strictin regard to boat drill, which has beengone through every Sunday while we havebeen at sea. Naturally while we are coasting around Australia our routine is somewhat disorganised, and very often we areentering port or are in port on Sundays,so that the weekly drill has to be dispensed with. I should say, however, that we have boat drill on an average twice while we are in Australian waters. It must, moreover, be remembered that we are a little more than three or four weeks coming and going to the Australian coast."
This comment illustrates intention to conduct routine boat drills, but boat drills were not compulsory. 

"It speaks well for the so-called incapablecrew when it is remembered that they usedall the boats, numbering 14, filled themwith passengers and crew, and were awayfrom the ship in 25 minutes. If Mr. Ryanor anyone else wants anything quickerthan this I would like to see it done. Letme give you an instance of the work ofour crew in this regard. Two days beforewe got to Teneriffe on this voyage out afirst class passenger, who was apparentlysuffering from a temporary mental derangement, jumped over the stern into thewater. We were proceeding at a speed of14 knots. It was blowing, and a big searunning. It was quite three minutes before we got word of the occurrence on thebridge. We stopped and turned thePericles round, and had two boats in thewater and away inside nine minutes. Wehad the man in one of the boats, and hewas on board again, within 15 minutes. Letme tell these people they will go a longway before they get quicker work thanthat, and work like that is not done unlessmen know their work. It is pleasing tonote that Mr. Ryan and the fellow passengers he refers to in his allegations hopethe enquiry into the wreck will not bea 'whitewashing affair. Speaking for theofficers I can only say we hope it won't bea whitewashing affair. We have our reputations at stake, and apart from thatLloyd's would hardly pay half a millionof money without a proper enquiry."
The officer's comments are both important and relevant to the case of the Waratah. Passengers who did not witness boat drills, assumed that the crew would be incompetent in times of crisis. This was false and such false assumptions were made in reference to the Waratah.
It is interesting to note suggestions that the Inquiry might be a 'whitewash'. Implications are clear that in the public eye 'whitewashes' were possible and did occur. A similar term has been used to describe the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. I believe public expectation sometimes exceeded the limitations confronting Courts of Inquiry.  It also suggests that undue influence or blatantly untrue witness accounts might not have been unique - distorting facts and making the Judge's job almost impossible. Mr. Ryan was quite prepared to make a statement under oath describing circumstances which were patently untrue. Any number of Waratah witnesses might have done the same..... 

Fremantle, April 4.
The preliminary enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the wreck of the Pericles will be held to-morrow by the chiefharbormaster (Captain Irvine), and will beconducted in camera. In accordance withthe usual procedure, Captain Irvine willtake evidence from witnesses and formulatehis report and recommendations, which willbe handed to the Colonial Secretary (Mr.Connolly), who will, if he finds it necessary, present a charge against CaptainSimpson and his officers. This charge willbe investigated by the Court of MarineEnquiry, which will be presided over bythe resident magistrate, who will be assisted by two nautical assessors. Theseproceedings will be held in open court.
April 4.
Much sympathy is felt for the distressedpassengers, who lost all they possessed inthe Pericles, and many movements havebeen started to assist them. A meeting ofPerth ladies, convened by the Mayoress(Mrs. Vincent), was held this morning, anda centre formed to receive clothing andrelief contributions. Mr. Pratt, M.L.C, ofVictoria, donated £50; Mr. Black architect of Cape Town, 50 guineas; and Mr.McNeil, manager of Millar's Karri andJarrah Company, 50 guineas.
Perth, April 4.
A movement to present Captain Simpsonand his officers with an address in appreciation of their labors on behalf of the passengers after the disaster was mooted andpromptly took shape. The presentationwas made in the saloon of the Monaro onSaturday night by Mr. Pratt. M.L.O., ofVictoria, one of the Pericles' passengers.  Captain Simpson was obviously deeplytouched by the spirit which had suggestedthe tribute. The signatories testified theirappreciation of the marked ability CaptainSimpson and the officers showed in thecircumstances, and the prompt measures taken to land the passengers from the vessel during a trying period, when but fortheir efforts a catastrophe would surelyhave occurred. The promptness with whichthe boats were lowered and the passengers transferred thereto and landed in safety, was a further justification of the high esteem in which the captain and officershad been held by thousands of the travelling public. They trusted the enquiry would prove the captain a skillful navigator and worthy of the great confidence hitherto reposed in him.
Perth, April 4.
In the unusually calm sea prevailing offCape Leeuwin the precise position of thesunken steamer was disclosed in an unexpected manner on Sunday. Over the surface of the water and drifting in the cur-rent could be seen a greasy scum, whichwhen traced was found to be thickest at aspot ¡n the direction that the Pericles waslast seen. A watch was kept, and withthe aid of powerful glasses it was noticedthat at intervals this oil came up sometimes in only small quantities, and at others inquite a volume. There can be no doubtthat the grease comes from the wreckedvessel, and the spot where it rises is whereshe lies. Probably the scum is oil from theengine-room, freed by the action of thecurrents beneath. So far nothing in theshape of wreckage has been found.
It is very interesting to note that no wreckage from the Pericles came ashore, despite the close distance of 6 miles. There is a modern day expectation that wreckage from the Waratah should have been discovered onshore, which is clearly not the case.

Fremantle, April 4._
Having traversed the route to Australiaaround the Leeuwin eight times each yearfor some considerable time past, Commander Preston, of the P. & 0. liner Mongolia, which called at Fremantle to-day on the voyage to London is in a position to make an authoritative statement in regardto the navigation of the waters of thesouth-western part of Australia. Whenspoken to by a representative of "The Advertiser" yesterday Commander Prestonsaid it was more than probable that he hadnavigated his vessel over almost the identical course taken by the Pericles. "I regard the waters round the Leeuwin," hesaid, "as one of the best charted parts ofthe Australian coast, and have never hadthe slightest hesitation in navigating it.The greatest known danger off the Leeuwinare the south-west breakers, and beyondall is supposed to be safe water. Any-thing from six miles outward would be aperfectly safe course to traverse, and infine weather I have taken my ship past theLeeuwin about seven miles distant fromthe land. The average draught the Mongolia draws on the run round the coast isabout 26 ft.(depth 35 ft.). Personally I think it very likely that the Pericles struck a pinnacleof rock which other vessels have had thegood fortune to escape. Many instances areknown in different parts of the world whereships have passed and repassed over aknown fairway, and yet in the end a shiphas struck a submerged rock without theslightest warning."
An explosion might very well have accounted for the disappearance of the large steamer's (astern of the Harlow) lights, but an uncharted pinnacle of rock is also a possibility, or more specifically taking a knock off the St John Reef, Bluff Point.

                     PERICLES       WARATAH
gross tons      10 925               9 339.07
length             500 ft. 5 in.         465 ft.
beam              62 ft. 3 in.            59.45 ft.
depth              31 ft. i in.             38.5 ft.
power          twin quadruple        same
speed              14 knots            13.5 knots
cost              217 000 (pounds)  139 900
insurance     717 000 (pounds)   375 000 

By comparison Waratah was 'built on the cheap'.


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