Wednesday, 11 January 2017


Mr. Hoehling concludes his excellent section on Waratah by exploring some further revelations long after Waratah and her souls were gone to a watery grave.

1939: timbers thought to have originated from Waratah washed up at the mouth of the Bashee River. This is fascinating but without any confirmatory evidence to support the claim. It is important to remember that significant upwellings from the Agulhas Current occur off the Xora and Bashee, which might, as a very long shot, explain why timbers came ashore at this location. Did it take so long for these timbers to be released from the sunken wreck?

1950's: an Air Force pilot spotted what he thought looked like a large ship lying on her side on a reef. Mr. Heohling gives the location as Bashee River / Cape Hermes. This probably relates to Roos who was thought to have confirmed Joe Conquer's eye witness account off the Xora. Emlyn Brown comprehensively dispelled this notion with a thorough search which did not reveal the wreck of the Waratah in this vicinity.

1954: Frank Price came forward with an interesting story:

He related the story of a 'boer' by the name of Jan Pretorius who was illegally prospecting for diamonds along the banks of the Bashee River during the last week of July, 1909. Pretorius witnessed a large steamer rolling heavily close to shore in stormy conditions. Being so close to shore he believed the steamer ran onto rocks or a shoal and sank. Pretorius withheld this information because he did not want to be arrested for diamond prospecting in that location. He confided what he had seen to his friend Frank Price, whom he swore to secrecy until after his death.

1915: Young Staunton sent a message to his parents that he had survived the sinking of the Waratah:

The Register (Adelaide) Thursday 19 August, 1915
LONDON, August 17. 
Leinster newspapers state that in response to missing friends advertisement an Irish soldier named Staunton has written home from France declaring that he is the sole survivor of the Waratah. He promises, later, to furnish his parents with a full account of his adventures.
Unfortunately Staunton was killed on the Front without ever getting a chance to elaborate on his 'adventures'.

Mr. Heohling refers to Eric Rosenthal's (Schooners and Skyscrapers - 1963) theory that Waratah struck floating dynamite:

"It has been stated by a visitor that there
is a possibility that the Waratah may have
had the misfortune to strike some floating

"Mr. Shepherd stated that a few
weeks ago half a hundredweight of dynamite
was jettisoned from a vessel, and was
subsequently observed floating in the ocean
along the Durban coast."

''I had an experience once," he said,

"with floating dynamite, when a few pounds of it was
caught in the propeller of a vessel, and exploded, tearing a hole in the hull and doing
damage to the extent of £1,500."

"If the Waratah struck the jettisoned dynamite,
which floats for weeks before sinking, with
her propeller, it might account for her being posted as missing."

Mr. Heohling leaves us with this tantalizing vision:

Or is she in a shallow grave so close to, say, the African coast that even a scuba diver could explore the mysterious caverns that “sea change” has wrought upon her saloons?

Mr. Hoehling's Lost at Sea: The Truth Behind Eight of History's Most Mysterious Ship Disasters (Kindle Locations 1152-1153). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition, is absolutely superb and anyone with an interest in mysterious ships should download and enjoy. 


I have examined the Inquiry transcript in great detail through the course of this blog. Mr. Hoehling draws attention to the essence of this much-awaited official investigation into the loss of Waratah. The Court convened in December of 1910, and after two months' deliberations, a conclusion was reached in February, 1910.

“lost in the gale of July 28, 1909, which was of exceptional violence for those waters and was the first great storm she had encountered…the precise manner of her loss could not be determined upon the evidence available.”

“on the whole inclined to the opinion that she capsized,” while the “particular chain of circumstances” remained a mystery.

"must have been sudden” - deduced by absence of confirmed wreckage.

Mr. Hoehling then makes a cryptic and intriguing remark:

She “should” be lying somewhere off the Bashee River in perhaps six thousand feet of water—more than a mile deep, many times below diving range.

I find this puzzling. Waratah was last claimed to be seen by the crew of the Clan MacIntyre, steaming swiftly and in good condition 10 to 12 miles off the Bashee River, heading southwest. I presume the assumption is based on some unpredictable event such as a rogue wave engulfing the flagship shortly after she was lost sight of by the Clan MacIntyre. I can think of no other explanation for this mysterious comment.

“so far as the court had been able to ascertain…[she] was not seen or spoken by any other vessel.” once she was lost sight of by the Clan MacIntyre. The Court disregarded the accounts of both the crew of the Guelph and Harlow. These two confounding accounts were diametrically opposed to each other and as such, rather than validating, dispelled the veracity of each other's account. There were problems with both accounts ranging from indistinct signals, "TAH", to bush fires and explosions. The very matrix of the mystery was embedded in these two conflicting accounts, with no attempt made on the part of the Court to establish if one of the accounts was true or not, by exclusion. No attempts were made by the authorities to drag the coordinates recommended by Captain Bruce of the Harlow. One does wonder why?

“disabled,” she “would have been found.” - a fair enough conclusion given the extent of searches and number of vessels instructed to be on the look out for the 'drifting Waratah'. 

"regards structure, and so far as the evidence went in a seaworthy condition; but there was not sufficient evidence before the Court to show that all proper precautions such as battening hatches, securing ports, coaling doors, etc. had been taken…the cargo was properly stowed.”

It seems rather unlikely that the highly experienced Captain J. E. Ilbery and his fine officers would have allowed Waratah to depart Durban, 26 July, without the above listed precautions having been attended to. This factor does have bearing on Waratah being subjected to a storm of 'exceptional violence', but in my opinion, Waratah was never subjected to this storm and foundered due to other factors, unrelated to seaworthiness - namely the consequences of a fire on board.

The Court attributed their most famous witness, Claude Gustav Sawyer, with “considerable prescience,” which ventured unabashedly into the realm of psychic powers. This would not hold up in any Court duty bound to establish hard, cold facts. The Court conceded (and I agree) that Sawyer imagined a persistent “list” during her final voyage (perhaps without being said, his health condition lent itself to a distortion of reality). And that  Waratah's “behavior” was no “different from that of other ships of similar size and type in like conditions of sea”. This statement could be taking things a bit far, but in general I agree, Waratah was no longer unstable during her final voyage. 

Two naval officers attested to Waratah's “slow majestic roll.” which, apart from affirming Waratah's stability, introduced a much-needed element of respect for the much-maligned steamer. There had been so much Waratah-bashing, it was time to put things into perspective.

Captain Bruce's theory of Waratah's bunkers firing and causing an explosion was disregarded, for good reason, and the bush fire theory, introduced by none other than Lund himself, accepted into evidence. There can be nothing so ridiculous as this lame analogy giving a mistaken impression of a large steamer in distress, which had been travelling at 13.5 knots for the past two hours. 

Bizarrely the Court came to the conclusion that both witness accounts of bodies afloat were untrue and what they in fact saw was “offal” from the whaling station at Durban. Clearly, by this stage, the Court was anxious to steer the outcome into the 'storm of exceptional violence' and a perils of the sea 'act of God' finale. All parties exonerated.

The Court did admonish F.W. Lund, acting on behalf of the owners, for withholding vital information. They put it in a round about way:

“No special report…was made by Captain Ilbery as to her behavior on her maiden voyage,” although such was “forthcoming from a number of persons.” Documentation produced: “in no one of them is the ship’s behavior at sea touched upon. Trivial matters, such as a cow or a little dog being on board were mentioned, emigrants’ . “In view of the fact that the Waratah was a new departure for this line and that her specification was being used as the basis of the specification of another new ship the Court was quite unable to understand how silence could have been preserved on such an important and interesting subject as the stability and behavior at sea.”

F.W. Lund had overdone his 'protection' of the inherently top heavy steamer, which contrary to intention, drew negative attention, suggesting a 'cover-up'. It was unnecessary. Captain Ilbery had finally conquered Waratah's stability issues by her final voyage and there was no good reason not to have come clean at this juncture of proceedings. The ploy back-fired spectacularly: 

“almost compelled to draw an inference unfavorable to the owners as regards their knowledge of the ship’s behavior on her maiden voyage.”

Further criticism by the Court came in the form of lack of fire drills (common deficiency on steamers of the era) and initial short-comings of the lifeboats which were made seaworthy by the second voyage.

One good thing emerged from the messy Inquiry and it related directly to the innovation of new steamers with upper decks stretching ever higher above the waterline:

“minimum stability requirements of different types of vessel.”, which also suggested that there were short-comings in the field of marine architecture and The Board of Trade's approval of such steamers. In my opinion, this was simply progress in action, the learning curve of making ships safer and more seaworthy.

Judge Dickinson's final words on the subject very importantly brought the technical side of the Inquiry back down to earth:

 “express its regret for the loss of life and its sympathy with the relatives and friends of those lost.”

This was a human tragedy, first and foremost.

Mr. Hoehling sums up by asking the crucial question: why did so many far humbler vessels survive the 'storm of exceptional violence' and Waratah not? And therein lies the crux of the matter. 

Barclay Curle and Co, the builders of the Waratah emerged from the Inquiry unscathed and continued to produce steamers for international service. Mr. Hoehling attributes this 'success' to their lawyer Butler Aspinall. I believe this is in part true, but also, the builders issued the owners with specific instructions and cautions on how to ensure Waratah's seaworthiness at sea. Waratah departed London on her maiden voyage without this vital information in the form of stability curves - not the builders' fault. The owners had played a significant role in laying out the specification requirements of Waratah and the builders obliged by building the inherently top heavy steamer. Who's fault was it at the end of the day when the Board of Trade approved Waratah for operation on the high seas, with a top rating?

The Blue Anchor Line, on the other hand, did not survive the Waratah disaster and after declaring insolvency, early 1910, sold off remaining steamers to the P&O Line. But the Lunds had established a profitable service to Australia via South Africa, which was to be adopted and enhanced by the P&O. At the end of the day the Lunds suffered for the loss of the Waratah - but nothing on the scale of those left behind without bread-winning spouses lost at sea.

Waratah - early days and in light condition - optimistically with awning deployed.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017


Mr. Hoehling refers to no less than 5 hoax bottle messages having been picked up on the coast of Australia alone, purporting to have been last words from the doomed Waratah. Examples of such:

The Advertiser (Adelaide) Saturday 5 February, 1910.

Melbourne, February 4.
While walking along the beach two miles
from Prospect Reserve, Sale, this after-
noon Mr. J. W. MacLachlan. M.L.A.,
picked up a bottle containing the following 
message, which is undated:-

''Thrown overboard while the steamer Waratah is
sinking fast. Latitude 48 east (the "eight" is not very clear), 
longitude L 30 south.- J. Milburn."
The bottle was a large-sized beer bottle,
and the message is written on thin white
writing paper. It was folded once, and
the edges were torn and discolored. The
message was written in lead pencil, and the
writing is fine and clear. The locality indicated 
by this message would place the missing ship 
about 600 miles south-west of Victoria. The 
lists of those on board which have been 
published from time to time do not disclose 
the name J. Milburn. There was a W. Milburn 
on board, but he landed at Durban.

A Capetown message says that thenotorious disappearance of thesteamer  Waratah and herpassengers; and crew some years ago off the South African coast;has been recalled by the picking up ofa bottle in Table Bay. The bottle hadapparently been a long time in thewater and was stopped up  by a pieceof lead beaten into the mouth. Inside was a piece of paper on whichwas written in pencil:
"Send help, starving, Waratah, Island in Antarctic." 
It is generally believed to be a hoax.

Captain E. Hillman, master of theisland mail steamer Malaita, hasbrought to Sydney a bottle and a pencil note marked "We are lost; there is no hope. G. W. E., S.S. Waratah."
The bottle (says the "Evening News'") was picked up by some natives on the south-east end of the Island of Tanna, in the New Hebrides, and Captain Hillman, after making various inquiries, is inclined to the belief that the bottle message is not a hoax. It is now close on four years since the Waratah disappeared with all hands between Durban and Capetown.

The finding of the bottle on the Island of Tanna set Captain Hillman thinking, and he got his charts out of the rack for the purpose of tracing its progress after being thrown overboard. He is quite satisfied that the bottle could have come from the ill-fated steamer. The track from the South African coast is clearly defined. The current sets that way - as was proved by the buoy which drifted to New Zealand. The bottle missed the land there, and was carried a distance of between 1,400 and 1,500 miles from Auckland to where it was found on the Island of Tanna. It was carried in north-north-westerly direction.
"It is interesting to notice, too,"says Captain Hillman, "that the steamer Pilbarra, when she broke down a few years back, drifted in the same direction towards the Island of Erromanga, which is only about forty miles from where the bottle was found on Tanna.This proves the direction of the current, and that place on Erromango at where the Pilbarra brought up is now shown onthe latest charts as Pilbarra Point.
"Then, again,'' continued the captain, "A raft was thrown overboard from the Pilbarra at the time she was drifting, and it was carried by the same current 1,650 miles further N.N.W., until it landed in the Fly River, Papua, not far from the spot where the famous missionary, Dr. Chalmers, was murdered. All this shows how that bottle could be brought up from New Zealand, and the buoy found at Manakau is evidence enough that those things driftedacross the Southern Ocean."
The bottle was one of Marchant's, of Melbourne, with a screw top, and when the natives came across it barnacles covered all that portion where, the name of the firm and other letters had been blown onto the bottle. Mr. Carruthers, the local trader, was informed, but the natives knocked the barnacles off and cleaned it out. The screw-top was a novelty to them, and they used the bottle for drinking purposes and for carrying water. The traces of the barnacles, however, remain, and the top of the indiarubber screw shows signs of wear and tear. Mr. Carruthers, secured the bottle, and gave it to Captain Hillman.
The paper note is rather well preserved, and this is explained by the way the bottle was screwed down. It was quite watertight. The bottle could not have been on the beach very long, and, according to Captain Hillman, must have been carried ashore about the end of the south-east (prevailing) weather.
The bottle and the note were taken to Messrs. Gilchrist, Watt, and Sanderson, Sydney, agents for the. Waratah, and a scrutiny of the names or initials was made. '"G.W.E." was not found, but "G.E." and letters transposed which would make "G.W.E." were in evidence.
It would seem that there is no reason for supposing that the Tanna bottle is not genuine.
The drift from Durban to Aucklandby the great circle track would be about 6,000 miles, and from there on to Tanna about another 1,000 miles.'
It is said that Waratah only carried Schweppes bottles. But who knows... 

"Mystery of the Waratah", The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.), Tuesday 26 May 1914, page 3


(From Buenos Ayres "Herald.")

"It is so long since the Blue Anchor liner, s.s. Waratah, 10,000 tons, disappeared from human ken that even those who were closely interested in that drama of the ocean have given up all hope of knowing the truth until the sea gives up its dead."

"Now comes the intelligence from Cape Town to Buenos Ayres by a recently-arrived ship of the discovery of a bottle containing a message of despair from one of the passengers on the ill-fated vessel. If the authenticity of the epistle can be established, it forever dispels all doubts about the Waratah's end."

"The bottle with its weird message from the deep has been had been cast up upon the beach of Bird Island (located some 100m off the shore of Lambert's Bay), which lies between Durban and Cape Town, and is charted almost directly in the course the Waratah would have steered after passing the Port Elizabeth light."

"The message bears a signature similar to that of one of the passengers known to have been on the liner. It is brief and dramatic in its hopelessness. Securely corked and carefully sealed in a bottle, it bears the ship's name, and reads:--

"Ship in great danger. Rolling badly. Will probably roll right over. Captain is going to heave her to (bringing the vessel to a complete stop)."

"Later. If anything happens, will whoever finds this communicate with my wife, 4, Redcliffe-street, South Kensington, London."

(Signed) John N. Hughes.

"The writing on the paper is plainly legible, large, and denotes great mental excitement. An indelible pencil was used, and the lack of punctuation would suggest that it was written hurriedly. Evidence of the finding of the bottle and its contents is given by four reputable local residents, and has caused considerable excitement in the coast ports."

"It is now just on four years and seven months since the Waratah left Durban for Cape Town en route to England. She was returning after her maiden trip to Australia with a full passenger list. Two days out she was spoken by the Clan Mcintyre, with whom she exchanged greetings. Since then no tidings of her have ever been heard, and the general presumption is that she "turned turtle" on September 28 in a gale which raged on the African coast about that date."


(From our Special Correspondent.)
London, January 16, 1914.

"What satisfaction any human being in possession of his senses can find in manufacturing messages purporting to be from people in dire peril of their lives at sea, and setting such messages adrift in bottles or cans is beyond the comprehension of the average man or woman."

"But there are creatures in every civilised land who appear to get some pleasure out of this silly pastime. The loss of the ill-fated Lund liner Waratah has produced quite a crop of these bogus bottled messages from the dead."

"The latest to be noted by the papers came by cable from the Cape. It was stated that a bottle containing a message from a passenger on the Waratah had been picked up off Bird Island. The message, dated September 6, 1909, was to the effect that the ship was rolling so badly that she was in imminent danger of capsizing, and that the captain was going to heave to, and the finder of the bottle was requested to send the message to the writer's wife, Mrs. John N. Hughes, at 4, Redcliffe-street, South Kensington, London."

"Whether there was, or was not, any such person as John B. Hughes in board the Waratah on her fatal voyage is not known for certain, but the fact that no person of the name of Hughes has lived at 4, Redcliffe-street, during the past 12 years has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt."

"The present occupant of No. 4 has lived there for three years. Prior to that the house stood empty for two years, after having been occupied by Lady Fitzgerald for about seven years, and Mr. Cox, who stayed at the house during the whole period of Lady Fitzgerald's tenancy, states most positively that no one of the name of Hughes was known there at that time."

"Moreover, a member of the firm of Messrs. Rogers, the agents who have the letting of the property, states that the firm have no record at ll of any person of the name of Hughes having an connection with the house."

"The tenant of No. 6 stated that she had a vague recollection of a Mme. Hughes in business some years ago in the West-End as a dressmaker, who lived at 2, Redcliffe street, but enquiries at that number disclose the fact that the present tenant came there several years before the loss of the Waratah, and had never heard of Mrs. Hughes, and the previous tenant of No. 2 certainly did not bear that name."

"Enquiries at other houses in the street and from local tradesmen also failed to produce any facts in support of Mrs. Hughes' residence in Redcliffe-street. Moreover, in spite of the wide publicity given to the Cape Town story, no person has come forward to claim relationship with John N. Hughes, so doubts as to the genuineness of the message may be reasonably entertained by the most credulous persons."

"The rest of us will probably decide offhand that the message is a bogus one, and allow ourselves to entertain for a few minutes a desire to kick the person responsible for it."


1. Local 'natives' attempted to sell a lifebuoy from the Waratah to a 'white' trader, claiming that it was found at the mouth of the Bashee River. Date unknown (probably August / September, 1909) 

2. 15 September, 1909, a fisherman at Swartvlei, near George, discovered a portion of a steam pipe covering. It was free of barnacles and weeds, suggesting that it had not been in the water for too long. 

3. November, 1909, charred wreckage was discovered at Port Alfred. There were no reports of missing (burning) steamers, during this time frame, apart from the Waratah. 

4. Basket and frame of deck chair, Poenskop beach, December 1909:

"I have just returned from a delightful holiday spent
with friends on the Transkei coast, about 120 miles
from East London. Whilst there I learnt that a few
months after the disappearance of the Waratah, the
frame of a deck chair and a basket with a border
of the colour known to have been in use on the ill-
fated vessel were washed up on the beach where
we bathed."

There is a possibility that the 120 miles could refer to an obscure land route to Coffee Bay.

5. January, 1910 - a lifebuoy discovered near Fremantle, Western Australia. The letters 'W.A.H.' made out. ( A lifebuoy, by virtue of its function, has the advantage of speed with prevailing currents. 

6. A large, white lifeboat, partially submerged and covered in marine growth, sighted on January 2, 1910, by the ship Tomoana, and again by the Thistleroy, January 23, 1910, further out, roughly off the Agulhas Bank, heading in southerly direction.

7. 3 March, 1910 - a cushion marked with the letter 'W' and a hatchway, discovered at Mossel Bay.

8. 25 March, 1910 - a twin-screw steamer's notice board discovered between Flinder's Bay jetty and Cape Leeuwin LIghthouse.

9. "A deck chair bearing a passenger's name, and 'SS Waratah' was picked up on the foreshore at Coffee Bay on Thursday, November 3, 1910."

10. 19 December, 1911 - section of a lifeboat discovered on the shores of Kangaroo Island - it consisted of a top streak of a boat, of teak, with portions attached of two lower streaks of Baltic pine. The boat was copper-fastened, painted white, with a moulding under the top streak. Portion of name visible; 'S.S. W.' and an 'A'. The wreckage was covered with barnacles. 

11. 28 December, 1911 - a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy from the Waratah discovered on the west coast of New-Zealand.  

12. Scantling seen, but not investigated by the crew of the Sabine, during a 3 month search of the Indian Ocean, late, 1909. Could this have been yet a further object from the lost Waratah? 

13. July, 1939, baulks of sea-worm timber were discovered at the Kei Mouth, claimed by experts to be wreckage from Waratah.

14. And, oh yes, the tile from Waratah which I was accused of having picked up from 'builders' rubble' as a 'yarn'. Laughable! 

This list illustrates a significant number of objects from a ship which allegedly disappeared without a trace. Yes, some of the items could have fallen overboard without signifying a foundering steamer, but not in all cases. The various items of flotsam and wreckage (if genuine) appear to have started a journey from a location northeast of Coffee Bay. The prevailing Agulhas Current carried the items of variable weight and buoyancy southwest, tracking a course along the South African coast until the current retroflected off the Agulhas Bank, heading south until merging with the general Antarctic Circumpolar Current heading east, back to Australia and New Zealand.