Thursday, 1 June 2017


The Advertiser (Adelaide) Monday 9 August, 1909

Captain Ilbery, of the Waratah, is thecommodore of the Blue Anchor line ofsteamers, and is one of the best known andmost popular mariners engaged in, the Australian trade. For over half a century,with the exception of a few years spent inthe China trade and those occupied bysuperintending shipbuilding in the old country, he has voyaged between Great Britainand the Commonwealth. He first visitedAustralia as an apprentice, and his careersince then has been one series of successes.At the time of his first visit, which was in1857, he was on the Joshua, a regular traderbetween London and Sydney, and in herCaptain Ilbery served his time. Four years'later he was transferred to the Nourmahal.another well-known vessel in Sydney, andremained on her until he assumed command
in 1868. In that year Captain Ilbery joineda tea clipper belonging to Mr. W. Lund,called the Mikado, trading to the East. In1870 Mr. Lund had built especially to theChina trade the Seripas, and Captain Ilberywas made master of the vessel. Mr. Lundlaunched his first steamer in 1880, and Captain Ilbery, who had previously made twoor three voyages in another steamer, wasplaced in charge. Mr. Lund's' new venturewas the Delcomyn, and she was the pioneerof the fine fleet of steamers which fornearly 30 years have been running to andfrom Australia as the Blue Anchor line.Since that time Captain Ilbery has had command of nearly all the steamers of the company, some of the most notable being theNarrung, Wilcannia, Commonwealth, Geelong, and when last year the magnificent10.000-ton Waratah was launched he tookcharge of her. Captain Ilbery enjoyed thecomplete confidence of his employers, andis a splendid specimen of the "ancient mariner'' class. Throughout the ports of theCommonwealth his personal friends arenumbered by the hundred. He thoroughlyenjoys a yarn of the sailing ship days, and,can tell no tale of shipwreck or disaster, ashis career has been one of smooth sailingthroughout.

Captain Josiah Edward Ilbery had an extraordinary career at sea. This extract is a fitting tribute to a great man. 
It is all too easy in the modern era to point a finger at Captain Ilbery's performance at the helm of the flagship Waratah. What better scapegoat can there be than a master who perished under mysterious circumstances together with all on board?
After all, the Waratah had a very dodgy maiden voyage - top heavy, emigrant over-crowding, fire due to insulation deficiencies, no stability curves on board etc..
As if things could not get worse, by the final voyage passengers were being flung onto the deck, and Captain Ilbery, despite 50 years' experience at sea, decided to load '300 tons' of coal onto the spar deck of a top heavy steamer at Durban!!
Let's go back to the beginning. 
Waratah was to be a departure from the standard cargo/passenger steamers built for the Blue Anchor Line. The early days, drawing up sketches of the new triple deck steamer with inter-changeable spar deck utilisation, must have felt exciting and adventurous. The Lunds had proven success with dual purpose decks on their troop ship Narrung during the Boer War - store ship/horse transport.
But as the new flagship took shape at Barclay, Curle and Co, I would imagine reservations began to emerge regarding top heaviness of the ambitious steamer. Captain Ilbery was responsible for overseeing the build and must have come to realise at some point that the Waratah was flawed and would present significant challenges at sea. I base this assumption on the evidence that Captain Ilbery 'was called away' just before the heeling experiments were conducted. There can be no plausible explanation for the master of Waratah absenting himself at the last minute from such an important milestone - he did notwish to witness the new flagship fail her tests.
Was Captain Ilbery ultimately responsible forWaratah's design limitations? Of course not!He was not a naval architect and would have relied heavily on those with the expertise tocreate and produce a seaworthy vessel.
One can only imagine discussions going on behind the scenes between Captain Ilbery and the owners as the Waratah's limitations came to fruition. What were their options? Scrap her and right-off costs? Reduce her to a marginally larger version of the Geelong by removing the boat deck, or at least lower the navigation deck and reduce size of her funnel? The latter would cause a certain amount of embarrassment and the former was not an option for a profit-driven shipping line.
Captain Ilbery was due to retire, but expected to take charge  of and 'test' the new flagship. The departure scheduled for 5 November, 1908, was rushed and troubles were about to escalate with no formal stability curves and stowage plan on board when Captain Ilbery departed London with 400 emigrants in excess of what was legally allowed on a ship the size of Waratah.
Was Captain Ilbery responsible for departing London under such appalling circumstances? 
No, I do not believe he was. Captain Ilbery was an employee of the Blue Anchor Line first and foremost, required to carry out his duties as per the demands of his employers, the Lunds. He was to retire shortly and no doubt did not wish to rock the boat. He was very experienced and probably believed he could figure out how best to manage the new top heavy flagship.
On his return from the maiden voyage I have no doubt Captain Ilbery addressed important issues with the Lunds and sought advice from the builders. The Waratah was inherently top heavy and corrective solutions were required. Structural changes could have been made at this point, but I don't believe this was an option. Increased dead weight, lowest down (including ballast water), was the only way forward, including the adjustment of coal stowage - substituting the reserve coal bunkers with cargo. But in order to achieve this, the Waratah needed to be relatively overloaded. Were adjustments made to the load line at this stage to accommodate that which needed to be done?
Captain Ilbery was obliged to depart London on the second voyage with 3456 tons of coal, which included reserve bunkers, continuing the Waratah's top heavy troubles. One wonders if 'ill health' which almost saw Captain Pidgeon taking command, was an attempt to call his bluff with the owners - bringing them to their senses? I don't believe that Captain Ilbery, being the man he was, would have allowed Captain Pidgeon to take command of the flawed flagship, and thus his fate was sealed.
But by the last voyage inbound, Captain Ilbery had taken charge of the GM, creating a stable steamer with limited coal in the 'tween deck reserve bunkers and what I believe was almost 9000 tons of cargo, including 1000 to 1300 tons of stabilising lead concentrates. The Waratah's GM improved significantly, in fact so much so, that the recovery 'jerk' caused passengers to fall on deck.
Ironically by the time the Waratah departed Durban for the last time, she was GM stable (1.5 ft.) and the 'jerk' was no doubt cured by reducing the GM from 1.9 ft. to 1.5 ft. by loading about 300 tons of coal on the spar deck. Captain Ilbery was experienced and certainly not unhinged. There was good reason for coal being on the spar deck.
Circumstances after departing Durban enter the realm of speculation, but whatever form the disaster took, I believe Captain Ilbery and officers did their best to deal with and avert the crisis, in no way responsible for the loss of the Waratah and her souls. 
Did Captain Ilbery ever, in his long career, have his licence suspended due to an accident at sea?
The Lunds on the other hand.....................

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