Wednesday, July 26, 2017

108 years ago: SS Waratah Anniversary

108 years ago

Monday, 26th July 1909, 8.00 pm

SS Waratah – departing from ‘C’ Shed, Durban, South Africa
Destination - Cape Town
Route - London via Las Palmas and Plymouth 
Commander – J E Ilbery

On her departure from Durban Harbour on Monday, 26th July, at 8.00 pm, SS Waratah put to sea for the last time.  As she turned south past Durban Bluff, headed for Cape Town, the scene was now set, for one of the greatest, tragic sea mysteries of all time, to be played out.  Little did anyone imagine that she was destined to vanish within the next 24 hours!

Captain Ilbery and his crew knew a heavy southerly storm was blowing up from the Cape and they would soon be confronted by enormous seas. This stretch of the South African coastline is notorious and treacherous, taking merchant ships close to the very edge of the Continental Shelf, which generates gigantic swells, especially when very strong winds blowing from the south-west, oppose the 3 knot south-running coastal current.

The following morning of 27th July had the ship progressively heading into stronger winds. Waratah‘s last communication from Latitude 31.36 degrees South and Longitude 29.58 degrees East, positioned her due east of Cape Hermes, near the town of Port St. Johns.  Down this coast, abnormal waves are at their worst. Facing this hazard, the question remains - had she tried to come about to return to Durban and broached, or had she continued further down the coast, to be lost with all hands?

During the passage from Adelaide, (Australia) to Durban, the Waratah had not been well-received by many passengers when moderate to rough seas had manifested in her top-heavy promenade deck being the cause of her insecure righting motion.  Would Captain Ilbery and his senior officers have felt apprehensive in anticipation of this wild storm ahead of them?  
Did that underlying unease amongst some of the crew and passengers start to increase now, as they recalled the recent Adelaide passage and the disagreeable way in which the Waratah had rolled, remaining on her sides for a long time before recovering?  Little did any of them imagine that they were sailing directly to their deaths!

Where and when, exactly, did Waratah meet her demise?  

Most haunting of all is how the passengers and crew would have faced their terrifying imminent doom.  They would have been hurled about the ship as she hit the enormous waves and possibly rolled over completely. Perhaps she was engulfed by an enormous rogue wave as she drove down into a trough.  We can only hope that their demise was quick, with perhaps no time to realise what was happening, before the thousands of tons of icy water poured over the ship to drag them helplessly into the depths of the Indian Ocean’s Continental Shelf.

Now, many years later, in looking back at all the possible outcomes and the human tragedy that occurred, speculation persists, questions continue to be asked with doubts raised and searches will continue.  We have been left to draw our own conclusions on what actually happened to the SS Waratah that night and where she, her Captain and the passengers and crew might rest in their ocean grave.

Psalm 107:23-31
 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
 These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders of the deep.

SS Waratah: by Seth Wade

This guest post was written by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson - thank you Sue for your passionate interest and on-going research into the Waratah! 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

SS Waratah – Wednesday 7th July 1909 ...108 years ago

From Ocean Steamers Wharf for the Indian Ocean crossing to Durban, South Africa.

The weather report issued for South Australia at 9 pm on 6 July 1909 was, ‘Cloudy, generally with rain and squally winds between NW and SW, strong on the coast and rough sea.’  Captain Ilbery had taken on 6 new crew members in Adelaide and as the 14 new passengers embarked their fate was sealed and destiny was closing in on them.

That Wednesday, in a ghostly drizzle as the tug guided the SS Waratah from the wharf, no-one on board would have had the slightest notion of the impending doom that awaited them much further into their voyage.

Winter had come to the Southern Hemisphere, storms at sea were now commonplace for shipping in these lower latitudes and much heavy weather was expected.  It had already been noted by some passengers that soon after leaving Adelaide the weather had become rough, as forecast, and it seemed that the Waratah rolled in a very disagreeable way, remaining for a long time on her side before recovering. While she was recovering and the deck became horizontal, she often gave a decided jerk.

As the voyage continued, an underlying unease grew amongst some passengers regarding the Waratah’s design, with her high promenade deck, instability due to the design and slow righting movements of the ship.

However, none of the passengers would ever have imagined that this ship would vanish so completely without trace on that fateful night of 27 July 1909………

Acknowledgement to Susanne-Jo Leff Patterson

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Waratah begins her fateful voyage 108 years ago

108 years ago yesterday, 1 July at 4 pm Australian time, cargo loaded and passengers from Melbourne embarked, SS Waratah crosses Port Philip Bay, bound for Adelaide. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Souvenir Saturday: Finley Gibson 1841 - 1924

Finley (or Finlay) Gibson, 1841 - 1924, was entitled to the Afghan Campaign Medal, seen above,  as he served in that conflict. My great grandfather, he was in the 15th Hussars from attestation at the age of 18 years in 1859 to his discharge at the age of nearly 40 in 1880. His papers indicate that he intended residing at Stevenston in Ayrshire, though he was a Londoner by birth (birthplace St George's,  Borough, East London, England)
The reason would become clear. I discovered that living in that Scottish village was his  widowed sister, Margaret McIntyre, with her children. Finley and his brother, William, also a soldier, both made their home with Margaret for a while. Finley married Annie Bell in Stevenston in May 1881 and started his own family. By 1911 he was Foreman of the Dynamite Factory at Ardeer, known locally as the 'dinnamit'. Several of his children worked in the factory - a dangerous environment as explosions could, and did, occur. 

Annie Bell married Finley Gibson in 1881

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Wreck of the Annabella at Durban 1856

The Annabella, 200 tons, was a British-built barque wrecked on Annabella Bank - named after the ship - on 21 January 1856 at Durban. No lives were lost. 

Her story emphasises the difficulties encountered by ships entering the harbour and having to wait until conditions of wind and weather, and particularly the depth of water over the Bar, were suitable for a safe landing. 

As Port Captain, William Bell was involved in assisting at many such wrecks and their aftermath, reporting on causes of the incidents and sitting at the inquiries held.

By the late 19th c tugs were used to help vessels in and out of the harbour. Also there were various attempts made by marine engineers to improve access to the Bay by dredging, building piers and other schemes, not all of them successful. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Souvenir Saturday - Port Office and Lighthouse staff 1878: including Gadsden and Bell

Is Your Ancestor listed here in 1878?

The Natal Almanac and Yearly Directory is a mine of information on the Port and Town of Durban in the late 19th c. This entry tell us that T (Thomas) Gadsden was Lighthouse Keeper with a salary of 125 pounds per annum. His brother-in-law Douglas William Bell was Assistant Keeper at 100 pounds. At the time, the Port Captain was Alexander Airth. (Captain William Bell had died in 1869.) Gadsden was married to Captain Bell's daughter Eliza Ann.

Customs and Excise staff are also listed, as well as those in the Engineer's Office. 

Is your ancestor listed?

Durban Point and Bay in the 1870s, with the Berea dimly 
outlined in the distance. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cape Shipping 1829 including Conch under Cobern

The schooner Conch was making regular sailings carrying colonial produce and passengers between Algoa Bay and Table Bay, and other ports, before William Bell took over her command. Here she is under another master, Cobern, variously given as 'J' and 'T' but probably the same person. Extract from SACA 31 Dec 1829.

Ships in Algoa Bay in the 1820s, by Thomas Baines

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Souvenir Saturday: Durban Docks ca 1887

Durban Docks circa 1887. Extremity of Point Wharf showing original Wharf Shed A erected in 1881 (with curved roof) and the Sheers erected at the end of the main wharf, the total length of which, at this period, did not exceed 1500 feet.In the left foreground is a craft known as the "Anchor Boat" used for laying moorings about the Bay.  The funnel of one of the paddle tugs (probably "Forerunner") can be seen in front of the ship in full sail.  To the right of "A" Shed is the Customs House.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Captain William Bell of the Conch: death of his daughter in 1844

From the South African Commercial Advertiser 27 April 1844: the death, on 23 April, of Ellen Selwyn Sophia Still, aged 1 year and 8 months, daughter of Captain William Douglas Bell 'of the schooner Conch'. It must have been a low point for Bell and his family. At this juncture, after his heroic part in the action at Port Natal in 1842, Bell had returned to the relatively quiet life of a coastal mariner, commanding the Conch, and based at Algoa Bay, making regular sailings to and from Table Bay and other ports. 

That people had not forgotten his courageous act in taking British troops into land at Natal under enemy fire had been evidenced by one particular letter which appeared in the local press in November 1843. This and other efforts by the public on Bell's behalf eventually led to an offer by the colonial government of a post as 'Harbour Master' at Natal. But the course would not be plain-sailing. 

This child, born shortly after Bell's return to Algoa Bay in July 1842, had been given the middle name of Selwyn - after Major Selwyn who had played an important part in events at Natal in June of that year. Sadly Ellen was to die very young. A Bell daughter born subsequently in May 1846 would be named Ellen Harriet. By that date the Bells had their eldest daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth Pamela, b 1839, and their first son, Douglas William, b 1841.

St George's Cathedral Cape Town Cape Colony 1800s:
watercolour by Thomas Bowler

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Bell of the Conch - a lesser-known photograph ca 1850s, with telescope

This is not the widely-known photograph of Bell taken some years later but it is taken
on the same spot, with the same anchor, and he is wearing the 'uniform' though not with epaulettes on the shoulders as shown in the famous photo. The picture probably dates to the 1850s. He is holding the Dollond brass telescope, still in the possession of one of his descendants. Bell was never in the Royal Navy and the nautical jacket he wears may have been made to his own design. 

The Dollond Telescope belonging to Bell and bearing the maker's name,
and 'London', and 'Day and Night'. This instrument was in Bell's possession throughout his life.
(Photo by Caz Collins, Bell descendant)

John Dollond FRS (10 June 1706 – 30 November 1761) was an English optician, known for his successful optics business and his patenting and commercialization of achromatic doublets (for telescoeps)In 1752 he joined his eldest son, Peter Dollond (1730–1820), who in 1750 had started in business as a maker of optical instruments; this business is now Dollond and Aitchison. His reputation grew rapidly, and in 1761 he was appointed optician to the king.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Cape Shipping 19 November 1828 including Cobern commanding Conch

Conch is noted as then under command of 'J' (should be 'T') Cobern, agent J Smith (later to be William Bell's agent). The schooner had been on a regular run to Mossel Bay and was arriving back in Table Bay on 19 November with a cargo of colonial produce. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Souvenir Saturday: The Great Gale, Algoa Bay 30 August 1888

The Great Gale, Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth 1888: ship founders while people look on.

After the Great Gale - Algoa Bay 30 August 1888

During a south-east gale, nine vessels were wrecked on the North End beach. The ships were: 'Andreas Riis', 'Dorthea' [sic], 'Wolseley', 'Drei Emmas', 'Elizabeth Stevens', 'Jane Harvey', 'Lada', 'Natal', and 'C. Boschetto'. The Rocket Brigade, life-boat and crews of other ships assisted and only one drowning was recorded.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Cape Shipping May 1830 Conch under Cobern, Flamingo under Scorey

This report shows the Conch arriving at Table Bay under command of Cobern - with the Captain's wife on board as passenger, from Algoa Bay on 15 May. The date of departure from Algoa Bay is given as 29 May which must be an error unless the Conch was into time travel.
The Flamingo date of departure is also dubious, unless like Cobern he was travelling backwards. Interestingly the latter vessel is commanded by Scorey - who would later become a relative, by marriage, of Captain Bell. There was an intriguing group of Cape mariners operating in coastal waters at this period, all linked either by agent or by personal ties and of course acquainted with one another. A small world which Bell would soon join.
                             Table Bay and shipping: Thomas Bowler (South African Sketches)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cape shipping: mention of Conch to Knysna, Drumore steerage passengers etc

Apparently a routine visit of the Conch to the small port of Knysna was deemed worthy of mention in the shipping columns - no captain is given, but it would have been too early for Bell so perhaps Humble or Bosworth was in command. Interesting to note that the ship Drumore, which had departed Falmouth on 4 August, brought 32 men and women and 18 children, none of them named (as was usually the case for steerage) - you can lose a lot of ancestors like that ...  These steerage passengers were likely on their way to New South Wales, not remaining in South Africa. A chance to track their progress via the Cape is lost to descendants because of the lack of identification. 

                                                               Table Bay by Thomas Bowler

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Cape shipping: Conch and W Bell Nov 1837

A snippet from the Grahamstown Journal November 1837 shows W Bell in command of the Conch, and sailing between Table Bay and Algoa Bay, carrying passengers as well as cargo. From this year Bell and Conch were firmly riveted together. It would be five years before the big events of 1842 at Port Natal completely changed Bell's life.

                             Circle of Thomas Bowler, Table Bay Shipping 1835-39

Monday, June 5, 2017

Cape Shipping, Conch and death of Captain Masson 1827

South African Commercial Advertiser 10 March 1827 announces the death of Captain Telemachus Musson 'late of the Schooner Conch' aged 37 years. This was ten years prior to the start of regular sailings of the Conch under Captain William Bell. What happened to young Captain Musson we don't know, but the Conch was busily employed in Cape coastal waters under a variety of masters before Bell took command.

                Table Bay with Shipping (school of Bowler)

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Cape shipping: Conch and Bell 1837

1st mention in South African Commercial Advertiser 1 April 1837 of Bell as captain of Conch. There is an earlier reference in the Cape Government Gazette in January of that year. 

The Schooner Conch 1842 by Thomas Baines. Bell was commanding
the vessel at the time of the insurrection of the Dutch at Port Natal, when the British
garrison was besieged at what is now the Old Fort, Durban. Because the frigate Southampton was of too deep a draught* to enter the channel, the Conch towed boatloads
of troops across the Bar, landing them safely at the Point. The siege was lifted
and the Dutch withdrew on Pietermaritzburg.

The draught of a ship's hull is the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull (keel), with the thickness of the hull included; in the case of not being included the draught outline would be obtained. Draught determines the minimum depth of water a ship can safely navigate. The entrance to Port Natal was blocked by a shifting sandbank, the Bar, over which the depth of water changed according to tides etc. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Conch - a fatal accident with a gun, July 1831

A small quite early snippet re the Conch: [CO53/2  TNA Kew ] 

South African Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1831 

ACCIDENT.  Before the Schooner Conch got under weigh on the 20th ult. in Algoa Bay, a brass gun was fired for the purpose of warning the Passengers to embark, when unfortunately the gun burst, and severely wounded the seaman who fired the gun.  He was immediately taken on shore, and it was found necessary to amputate one of his legs, but he expired on the following day. 

Note: Captain Bell was not in command of Conch on that ghastly occasion.  Thorne, on which Bell was reported to be serving as '2nd officer' in 1831, went aground on 18 May of that year.

220px-Presidentgunexplosion.jpg (220×262):

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Arrivals and Departures Table Bay 1835 including Conch; suicide of Mr White.

Conch,  A Humble Master,  Knysna to Table Bay. In the mention of the brig Fortitude's arrival at Port Elizabeth under J C Wilson, note 'in the steerage Mr White and 2 slaves' - the unfortunate Mr White committed suicide during the passage. 
This report appeared in the Cape press in October 1835. Captain Humble shared a ship agent with Bell i.e. J Smith. George Cato was also one of this stable.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Conch schooner and other Cape shipping October 1834

South African Commercial Advertiser 30 October 1834

Here the Conch is described as a fast-sailer but after another ten years steam was gradually beginning to overtake sail as the favoured method of transport by sea: 

19 Oct 1844 SACA
By this time Captain Bell had been offered a position as Harbour Master at Port Natal, though with the inevitable colonial bureaucracy there would be some delay before he was able to take up the appointment officially, followed by a dispute over his job description and remuneration. Bell, never one to bow the knee, stuck to his guns, returning to the coastal mariner's life until matters at Natal were arranged more appropriately.  Bell and his family (at that stage his wife and 4 children) finally sailed for Natal on the Douglas on 19 January 1850 to start the new phase of their lives. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Schooner Conch for sale 1843

South African Commercial Advertiser 31 May 1843
The same advert remained in the paper until 17 June, the date of the auction.
The next we hear of the Conch is that, under command of Capt Moses,
she came to grief on the bar at Port St Johns when the wind failed on 7 November 1847.
No lives were lost in the wreck.
Capt William Bell had in the interim taken up an appointment at Port Natal.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

Wreck of the brig Thorne 18 May 1831 South African Commercial Advertiser

Transcribed below for easier reading:

On Wednesday last the Brig Thorne sailed out of Table Bay, bound to London, with a cargo of Colonial Produce. When near Robben Island a fog so sudden and dense arose, that the captain could not see beyond the length of the vessel, and she shortly afterwards struck on a rock at the western side of the island. As soon as this distressing accident became known to the Agents, Messrs. Thomson, Watson & Co., they promptly rendered every assistance available: the Northwester, and Messrs. Sinclairs’ and other boats were sent to the vessel.

The Port Captain, also, with his usual vigilance, got on board before any other boat from Cape Town, but as he found the rudder unhung, and the water up to the hold-beams, not the least hope remained of saving the vessel.  The Northwester returned from the wreck on Thursday evening, with a full cargo of beef, hides and skins; and should the weather continue moderate, they expect to save the greater part of the cargo.  Mr. Sinclair superintends the landing of the goods on Robben Island; and we are glad to learn that the Passengers’ baggage was saved.

The master, a young man who succeeded to the command after the recent death of Capt. Johnstone, is plunged into the utmost grief and distress of mind; but from all we can collect, it appears that no blame attaches to him – the heavy fog, and the darkness of the evening, assisted perhaps by the current, being the immediate causes of the misfortune.

The Cape Underwriters may congratulate themselves on their fortunate escape in the present case.  Not a single policy, either on the Thorne or her cargo, was effected at the Cape.  The Insurance of both was done in England and Culcutta, we believe.  The parties insured, however, will thus have to wait about twelve months for the settlement of their several claims, a fact which speaks powerfully in favour of Colonial Underwriting.

Robben Island

Acknowledgement to veteran researcher Sue McKay for all her photography and transcription work, of which I was one grateful recipient.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Titanic 105 Years Anniversary 15 April 1912

RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early morning of 15 April 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City.

I asked for ice, but this is ridiculoussaid John Jacob Astor IV, according to legend ...

1. The RMS Titanic was the world’s largest passenger ship when it entered service, measuring 269 metres (882 feet) in length, and the largest man-made moving object on Earth. The largest passenger vessel is now Harmony of the Seas, at 362.12 metres.
2. The ship burned around 600 tonnes of coal a day – hand shovelled into its furnaces by a team of 176 men. Almost 100 tonnes of ash were ejected into the sea every 24 hours.
3. The ship's interiors were loosely inspired by those at the Ritz Hotel in London. Facilities on board included a gym, pool, Turkish bath, a kennel for first class dogs, and a squash court. It even had its own on board newspaper – the Atlantic Daily Bulletin.
4. There were 20,000 bottles of beer on board, 1,500 bottles of wine and 8,000 cigars – all for the use of first-class passengers.
5. The Grand Staircase on board descended down seven of the ship’s 10 decks and featured oak panelling, bronze cherubs and paintings. Replicas can be found at the Titanic Museum  in Branson, Missouri.
6. The staircase at the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, contains banisters from the Grand Staircase of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. They are presumed to have been identical.
7. Only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsible boats were carried, enough to accommodate 1,178 people. That's only one-third of Titanic's total capacity, but more than legally required.
8. There were 246 injuries and two deaths recorded during the ship’s 26-month construction in Belfast.
9. Twenty horses were required to carry the main anchor.
10. 100,000 people turned up to see the ship’s launch on May 31, 1911.

More at

Ancestry's Titanic Collection consists of:

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, RMS Titanic Fatality Reports, 1912
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, RMS Titanic Graves, 1912
Titanic Survivors, Carpathia Passenger List, 1912
UK, RMS Titanic, Crew Records, 1912
UK, RMS Titanic, Deaths at Sea, 1912
UK, RMS Titanic, Outward Passenger List, 1912

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Souvenir Saturday: Hamilton family in Durban

The Hamilton Trio:
Cathrine (violin), Beth (piano),
and Bill (Cello).

The trio, taught by Miss Valerie Fisher, a well-known music teacher
of Durban, played frequently at concerts, weddings and other
events in Durban during the late 1920s and 1930s. Cath later married
William Bell Gadsden and Beth married Richard Bance. Bill married Ann Millar. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017