No.67 A Concatenation of Events

Last week I wrote about multiple wreck events in which two ships happened to come ashore at the same place at different times, so to continue this ‘multiple wrecking’ mini-series within the blog, I’d like to focus on crews who have been doubly shipwrecked in a short space of time.

In May 1940 Hervé Cras, a ship’s doctor aboard the French destroyer Jaguar, survived the S-boat attack which sank her at Dunkirk. He finally made it out of Dunkirk aboard the Emile Deschamps and later recalled how the Jaguar‘s survivors stood up to salute their ship as they steamed out of Dunkirk, but were barked at to sit down again, because the vessel was dangerously overloaded. The Emile Deschamps picked her way carefully to Kent, but was mined close to safety off the North Foreland, the very last vessel of the Dunkirk evacuation to be lost in English waters. Once more Cras survived to tell the tale – literally: he became a leading naval historian, including a book on Dunkirk itself. (1)

On 3 January 1891 the Caroline Robert de Massy foundered off Dungeness while bound from the Black Sea port of Batumi for Antwerp with oil, following a collision with the Raithwaite Hall. The crew were saved, as were the seven crew of the vessel Ferdinand van der Taelen of Antwerp, returning home on the de Massy instead of their own ship, sunk in the Mediterranean on 23 November 1891, homeward-bound from Nikolaiev with grain. (2) All on board were taken up by the Raithwaite Hall and landed at Dover, the Ferdinand‘s crew presumably awaiting the next passing ship for Antwerp. It must have taken them at least three ships to get home, possibly four, if they were picked up by another ship in the original incident before being transferred to the de Massy, as the next available vessel bound for Antwerp.

Similarly, one of the survivors of the Earl of Dalkeith packet off Boulmer in November 1807 turned out to have also been rescued from the wrecking of the Leith packet off the Humber just a few months earlier.

On a related note seamen usually (not always . . . !) exerted themselves to save the crews of other vessels in distress, since they were painfully aware that another time they would themselves be in need of help. So it proved for the crew of the Anne Henrietta: on Christmas Eve 1768 they saved the crew of the William and John: their courage was rewarded within a few weeks, when they were themselves picked up by a passing fishing smack after their ship went down off Norfolk.

This post prepares the ground for October’s edition of the War Diary, looking at a notable wreck of late October 1914.


(1) under the pen name of Jacques Mordal, Dunkerque, 1968, Paris: Editions France Empire

(2) erroneously reported in the original source as Friedrich van der Taelen


No.40: Mahratta I

Jute, Jam and Journalism

Following my call in a recent edition for ‘challenges’ I was asked to investigate what wrecks we might have in the jute trade for Dundee. So here’s the answer: Dundee was famous not only for jute, but for jam (well, marmalade!) and journalism, including those august publications, the Beano and the Dandy. So here are some jute ships which got into a jam, and I shall quote some journalism!

We have seven wrecks that were bound from Calcutta to Dundee with a cargo explicitly described as jute, or including jute, exactly half of our jute wrecks, as other consignments were bound for London and Liverpool. Some may have discharged their other cargoes from the East Indies in London, before sailing on to Dundee with the jute, as the Mahratta was intended to do (I shall talk more about her in a minute). Our earliest jute wreck, the clipper James Baines, was being unloaded in the Huskisson Dock in Liverpool in 1858 when she caught fire, a fate echoed by our last known jute wreck, the Falcon, in 1926. There was a certain inevitability about it: her cargo was jute and matches, a combustible combination if ever there was one.

The time span of the wrecks bound for Dundee with jute parallels that of the heyday of the jute trade, from the late 19th century to the early 1920s, by which time the industry was already in decline. The earliest Dundee-bound wreck was in 1884 on the coast of Northumberland, followed by the Bay of Panama, driven ashore in a snowstorm in 1891 along with three other ships nearby.

The most famous was the Mahratta I, which struck the Goodwin Sands in 1909, her fame heightened by the fact that her namesake, the Mahratta II, struck a mile to the north-east in 1939. Mahratta I shows a wide range of human response to shipwreck: she had a number of passengers on board, some of whom were phlegmatic, and some not. One woman refused to leave the ship until she absolutely had to, when the ship was beginning to break up, objecting to the Customs intending to enforce the quarantining of her pet dog even under the circumstances.

Sadly, after going aground on the Goodwins, the chief engineer committed suicide in his cabin, the sole casualty of this wreck, in which a 90-strong crew, the majority lascar sailors from India, and all the passengers, were saved. Likewise all the salvors, about 100 local boatmen pressed into saving as much of the cargo as possible, were themselves saved. As the salvage proceeded, the ship began to break up, and only 289 bales of jute were taken out of the wreck, out of a cargo of 10,000 tons that also included tea, coffee, rice, iron, gum, and rubber. Much of the jute is said to remain on board what is now a well scattered wreck.

One of the engineers provided a rational but vivid description of the ship’s disintegration, as reported in the Times of 12 April 1909:

‘The vessel was in charge of a Trinity pilot when she struck. Efforts were made to get her off under her own steam, but these failed, and tug services were accepted. Within a short time of the stranding water entered the liner and the main shaft was badly bent. The ship strained severely, and there was a continual grinding and snapping as plates sheered and buckled and heavy iron rivets broke away by dozens. The crew were put to work assisting the boatmen in salving the tea and throwing the jute overboard in order to lighten the vessel, but only about 200 tons had been got out when the Mahratta broke in two. Before this we had been working over our knees in water in the engine room. The ship parted with great suddenness at about 8 o’clock. The noise was like a cannon shot, followed by rending and tearing. The liner broke amidships, across the bunkers and the saloon. There was a great rush for the boats immediately by the labourers who had been assisting to jettison the cargo. One man was so scared that he caught hold of me round the body, and I had a difficulty to get clear from him.’

I hope that’s a good answer to the question, and please do keep coming with more!

No.36 The Charlwood and the Duke of Buccleuch

Through A Glass Darkly

Tomorrow marks the 112th anniversary of the wreck of the Charlwood, an English barque which was struck amidships and cut virtually in two to founder off the Eddystone while en route from Antwerp for Valparaiso, Chile, with what was described in contemporary sources as a ‘general cargo.’

In an age which was increasingly dominated by steam, iron barques such as the Charlwood were able to hold their own on an ultra long-distance route from Europe to the Pacific coast of Chile where Valparaiso lies, negotiating Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. They had one great advantage over the steamers – no need to put in for bunker coal in vast, empty oceans. It might be thought that there would be access to coal at calling points en route on the Atlantic coasts of South America, but there was a difficulty getting coal from the hinterland of South America to the ports – this is put into context by the fact that 10 out of the 14 wrecks recorded as lost in English waters with the destination of Valparaiso had a cargo of coal from the coalfields of Durham, the Welsh valleys, or the Ruhr. Coal was generally a popular import from Europe for various South American ports in the 19th and early 20th centuries. [Indeed, the Zoodochos mentioned in Wreck of the Week 29 was exporting coal to Buenos Aires.]

No wonder, then, that the cargo of the Charlwood was described as ‘general’. Yet she is a popular dive and her cargo is regularly seen to comprise glassware, including numerous wine and sherry glasses and decanters – so much so that she rejoices in the alternative sobriquet of the ‘Glass Wreck’. Her cargo suggests a demand for prestige goods from Europe and an appropriate destination in a country now one of the world’s largest wine exporters.

She has an almost contemporary parallel: only two years previously, in 1889, the Duke of Buccleuch also sank after a collision amidships with a significant cargo of glass- and chinaware, again on a long-distance route from Antwerp, this time to Calcutta. The Times, reporting on the incident, revealed that her ‘general cargo’ included iron nails and hardware. She is unusual in that her cargo, bound for a key outpost of the British Empire, originated in a non-British port – although she was, of course, a British ship. It was not until 1953 – after Indian independence – that another wreck in English waters bound to Calcutta began her voyage outside Britain, and this time it was a Swedish vessel.

Wrecks such as these are tangible evidence of the ebb and flow of international trade throughout time.

On another note: Does anyone have any ‘information challenges’ they would like to send me for inclusion in a future WOTW? Keep them coming!