Saturday, 24 January 2015

Waratah - Winston Churchill and wireless telegraphy

HC Deb 24 February 1909 vol 1 c847

'Mr. Field: asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he will take into consideration the advisability of introducing a Bill to have wireless telegraphy provided on all passenger vessels, and as far as possible on all classes of ships?

Mr. Churchill: yes, Sir. The question whether legislation is necessary on this subject will be considered'.

It is the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill's death. Very few are aware that he was president of the Board of Trade at the time the Waratah was lost. The date of this short exchange is prior to the Waratah foundering off the Wild Coast. The Waratah was not equipped with Marconi's wireless and it remains in the realm of conjecture whether such a communication device would have assisted Captain Ilbery. 

But perhaps more importantly, vital information could have been relayed from the doomed liner which would have solved the mystery and not only alleviated the stress of relatives and families of those on board, but also avoided a lengthy Inquiry which in effect came up empty-handed after considerable time and expense. Such information could have been revealing in the context of what caused the problem and what could be done to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again.

After the loss of the Waratah Churchill and parliament continued to debate the necessity of such legislation despite the case of the SS Republic which demonstrated that wireless communication played a significant role in successful rescue operations.

Many Commonwealth countries and the United States adopted legislation requiring that wireless be fitted to passenger vessels after the loss of the Waratah. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Waratah - Colonel Percival John Browne.

A brass inscription in a north aisle of the St. Mary and the Holy Trinity at Buckland Filleigh, Devonshire pays respect to Colonel Percival John Browne, C.B. of Fifehead Magdalen, Dorset, with the words 'lost in the S.S. Waratah'. A similar tribute to Colonel Browne appears in the nave of the Abbey Church of St. Mary the virgin at Sherborne, Dorset. The memorial was erected by fellow officers and troopers of the Dorset Queen's Own Yeomanry which Colonel Browne commanded 1902 - 1908.

Colonel Browne was born in South Australia 1863. Accompanied by his niece Gracia Katherine Lees, the couple departed the Browne family's sheep farm at Mount Gambier and boarded the Waratah bound for London, from where Colonel Browne intended to return to his father's estate at Buckland House, Buckland Filleigh, Devon.

The following link on Moles Genealogy Blog kindly shares images of plaque and chapel:

                                                  Buckland House


Saturday, 20 December 2014

Waratah - Officer Phillips (Clan MacIntyre) and the 'Flying Dutchman'.

Officer Phillips of the Clan MacIntyre gave a detailed account of the Waratah sighting at the Inquiry. He described the Waratah pulling ahead of the Clan MacIntyre, crossing her bow from starboard to port, heading out to sea in a more southerly direction, the Waratah apparently upright and steaming well at the time. What Phillips omitted from his account related to the time period shortly after the Waratah disappeared into the mist and vast tract of ocean. He claimed that he saw, in broad daylight, a sailing vessel with high bow and stern illogically sailing against the growing southwesterly wind. Phillips was convinced this was the Flying Dutchman, an ominous portent of disaster to follow. He resorted to a number of cups of strong cocoa to steady his nerves.

In 'A voyage to Botany Bay' (1795) George Barrington wrote:

 I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions and doom, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-of-war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.[1]

It appears that Phillips was the only man on board the Clan MacIntyre to witness this 'vision', and one wonders if he was swept up in Waratah hysteria of the time, making his contribution to the mood of mysterious disaster. It does raise an important question relating to Phillip's credibility as a reliable witness. After all, S.P. Lamont of the Clan MacIntyre, gave a very different description of the Waratah as she pulled ahead 'listing and pitching like a yacht'.

Although the 'Waratah Storm' approaching from the south had not yet struck, there are two possibilities explaining why Captain Ilbery passed the Clan MacIntyre, heading further out to sea. One could have related to a bunker fire which was progressive and forced Ilbery to consider coming about in a wide arc further out at sea. Or he could have, through many years of experience at sea and a falling barometer, anticipated a storm of significant ferocity. In light of this he would have made a sensible decision to distance his ship from the turbulent margin of the Continental Shelf heading out to sea where the wave lengths are longer, placing less strain in the hull of the Waratah.

But as you the reader know by now, I am of the firm belief that Captain Ilbery headed out to sea, ultimately coming about and heading back to Durban, effectively killing two birds with one stone; avoiding the approaching storm and making for the nearest port to sort out the bunker fire/s.


                                              The Flying Dutchman

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

'Waratah Revisited' the book - available on Amazon.

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December 2014, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Waratah - sub bottom sonar profiling.

It is clear from the circumstantial evidence laid out in this blog, the Waratah foundered close to shore off Port St Johns. The Umzimvubu River deposits tons of silt into the bay and in all probability the wreck of the Waratah lies buried beneath layers of sediment.

Wreck exploration is fiercely expensive and the waters off Port St Johns are notoriously 'unstable'. The current is swift and powerful making dives very difficult except under the most ideal of circumstances.  The same applies to sending down ROV's. Visibility is poor due to swirling silt and particulate matter.

But despite the challenges and cost, the wreck of the Waratah might yet be found in this vicinity.
She remains one of maritime's most alluring mysteries and has left generations of descendants of those who perished without closure. Discovering the wreck would bring the mystery to an end but possibly comfort to the families. It is a terrible thing not knowing.

In the modern era, sufficient motivation, financial backing and use of Sub Bottom Sonar Profiling, should establish the resting place of the Waratah off Port St Johns once and for all. Bitter disappointment resulted from previous attempts to locate the wreck. It will take courage and substantial backing to explore the waters off the Wild Coast once again.

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Waratah - Harlow summary.

In this blog I have studied the witness account of Captain Bruce (CB), SS Harlow and concluded the Waratah foundered off Port St Johns (Cape Hermes), 27 July, 1909. But the question remains; why did the Harlow not go to the aid of the Waratah?

Let's review the facts:

- The Waratah was the only large steamer which could have been astern of the Harlow, gaining on her steadily between 5.30 and 7.50 pm, 27 July. There were no other listed steamers of that size and speed in that location, at that time.

- CB made his judgement based on the steamer's twin masthead lights - smaller vessels had one.

- He estimated the steamer was making 13 knots (the Waratah's listed speed) relative to the Harlow's 9 knots.

- CB assumed the Waratah had come about and was attempting to return to Durban, and based this assumption on his observation she was producing smoke in excess of that which could be expected from her single funnel. He concluded the Waratah was on fire.

- But the fire was not of a serious enough nature to prevent the Waratah maintaining a steady course, making 13 knots.

- The volume of smoke associated with the Waratah, being blown by the prevailing wind towards the Harlow, was consistently associated with the approaching steamer, and did not originate from land.

- Bushfires onshore did however contribute to general smoke and light. Smoke produced from coal is dark (almost black) compared with the lighter shade of dispersed smoke-haze produced by bushfires.

- The description of the steamer's lights is highly specific - twin masthead lights and a port side red light - which excludes light from bushfires which create 'lines' of light on land, not out at sea and don't have port side lights.

- The Waratah was initially further out to sea relative to the Harlow, steadily closing towards the coastline (port side light visible but not the green starboard light).

- The Waratah had turned around out at sea and was making her way on a heading which would ultimately 'hug the coast' - as one marine expert of the time said 'in case Captain Ilbery needed to beach the Waratah'. Additionally, a course closer to shore would be faster, making use of the winter 'sardine' current and avoiding the counter Agulhas Current.

- The crew of the Harlow observed two flashes of light from the direction of the Waratah, the descriptions of which match distress flares.

- Explosions were NOT heard despite the prevailing wind blowing from the Waratah to the Harlow, less than 10 miles astern.

- Shortly after the flashes, the consistent dense volume of smoke which had accompanied the Waratah for two hours, started to clear. Once the smoke had dissipated, the lights of the Waratah ('which had been shining brightly') were no longer visible despite the continuous bushfires onshore.

- The smoke and steamer lights had been consistent markers of the approaching Waratah over a period of two hours and the factors by which CB estimated the Waratah's speed. This was not a once off momentary sighting dispelling the notion of mirages, hallucinations and bushfire flares.

- Something catastrophic had occurred and the Waratah disappeared within a matter of minutes. The time was 8 pm, 27 July, 1909.

- It was dark out at sea and in all probability overcast, taking into account the time of year and the approaching cold front from the south. CB was confronted with a dilemma. If he came about, attempting to locate the Waratah, he would be faced with difficulties establishing her last exact position.

- The Harlow was not fitted with a searchlight.

- Although a cold front storm was developing far further south, the winter seas off Port St Johns are rough, which would make rescue efforts difficult.

- His search would further have been hampered by smoke from shore drifting over that segment of sea, compromising navigation and therein lay his next problem.

- The last position of the Waratah was estimated to be less than a mile offshore. There are a number of submerged reefs and rocks off Cape Hermes and Port St Johns, which would present a threat to the Harlow. CB no doubt considered the possibility the Waratah had struck one of these reefs, hence her rapid disappearance. Even if he was able to find the location where the Waratah sank, there was a significant probability the Harlow would strike the very same reef and founder. Maps of coastal regions, circa 1909 (even off the coast of the UK) did not have all reefs / rocks well demarcated and highlighted.

- The coal fire on the Waratah may not have yet reached a critical stage, but the carbon monoxide levels may have been sufficient to cause some disorientation and confusion among passengers and crew. Captain Ilbery's navigational judgement may have been impaired over and above the limitations imposed by darkness, disorientating smoke drifting from shore and a necessity to 'hug the coast'. Under these circumstances he may have misjudged the Waratah's proximity to reefs.

- It would realistically have taken the Harlow about an hour to come about and cover the distance to where the Waratah was last seen, by which time the likelihood of finding survivors was remote.

- CB realised there was in reality very little he could do to help, without placing his own crew at risk.

- When all was considered, the Harlow continued on her voyage and the fate of the Waratah was consigned to the perils of the seas.

- CB upon his arrival at Durban enquired if any vessels were overdue there. None had been reported.
This must have reinforced his belief that the steamer they witnessed could only have been the Waratah, which had turned around. His belief (which he later related) was confirmed when the Waratah was listed overdue at Cape Town.

- The disappearance of the Blue Anchor Line flagship was to capture the attention of the world, generating distress and hysteria alike. Cruisers were deployed at great expense to scour the coast and extend the search far out into the Indian Ocean. CB was no doubt overwhelmed by a sense of duty to share his witness account which appeared in the press.

- The Inquiry and even more so, the public, were likely to take a dim view of his decision to continue on course, ignoring obvious distress flares and making no attempt to locate the Waratah's last position and rescue any survivors - as remote as that may have been.

- CB and his First Officer carefully considered the best way to share their witness accounts without drawing negative attention to the fact that they had done nothing to assist a vessel in distress.

- CB needed to convey the essence of truth, preventing further expensive and lengthy searches at sea, and allowing families and friends of those lost the dignity of mourning, rather than holding onto false hope the Waratah was still adrift in the Southern Oceans.

- The owners of the Waratah planted a seed of doubt at the Inquiry suggesting bushfires onshore created enough smoke and light over the sea to confuse the crew of the Harlow, thus establishing doubt by conjuring up a 'mirage' of an approaching steamer.

- CB's First Officer 'ran with this ball' at the Inquiry and in the process significantly questioned his Master's judgement.

- I believe CB opted for a massive explosion as a likely cause for the rapid disappearance of the Waratah and went on to say that all souls were likely to have been killed. In one swoop he was released from the moral obligation to have searched for survivors. After all, there had been smoke suggesting a fire and a catastrophic explosion could account for the sudden disappearance of the steamer. But he contradicted himself by clearly stating that he had not heard explosions.

- CB's reliability as a witness was lost.

- If the Waratah had indeed exploded, there WOULD have been scattered debris, which was never discovered.

- The keepers at the Cape Hermes lighthouse did not report the sound of explosions. But why did the keepers not see the flashes? Bushfire smoke probably engulfed the lighthouse at Cape Hermes, significantly limiting the keepers' visual distance out to sea. Coordinates for the last sighting of the Waratah give a position almost 8 nautical miles northeast of the Cape Hermes lighthouse. It is very possible the keepers could not see flashes of light through the smoky haze, at this distance.

- CB, who had demonstrated sound reasoning, establishing a plausible sequence of events and a convincing description of the Waratah, resorted to one blatantly misleading 'suggestion' to save himself and crew from the wrath of the Inquiry and the public. The seeds of doubt had been planted, confusion established, and his witness account much like that from the Guelph, relegated to the realm of the unsubstantiated.

- CB and his First Officer had overshot the mark, accounts which could not to be taken seriously.

- Fate placed the Harlow in the wrong place at the wrong time and dished up a smorgasbord of difficulties, hampering attempts to establish what had become of the Waratah or to rescue survivors.

- When all is said and done, the large steamship consistently gaining astern of the Harlow over the period of two and a half hours never overhauled her.

The Waratah, so near, yet too far

This is the 211th post, every one of them in memory of the brave souls lost with the Waratah.

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

Waratah - should have been sighted by SS Runic.

Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 - 1954) Sunday 15 August 1909


MELBOURNE, Saturday.

'It is safe to say that in no other
instance of ocean disaster has the
tension of anxious agony been greater
than in the case of the missing
steamer Waratah, now three weeks
overdue in 'the three days' run be-
tween Durban and Cape Town.'

'Every day even in Perth, where
the associations with the vessel are
not intimate, the feeling has been in-
tense, and. it can easily be imagined
how the relatives of those on board
in different parts of the world have
awaited each day's cabled news
eagerly grasping at the least scrap
of hope.'

'On Tuesday, for instance, it was
wired that the Union Castle liner
Guelph, had sighted the Waratah
Eastward of East London on the
night of the 27th, but two days
later it was announced that this
report had no foundation in fact.'

'Meanwhile, the White Star liner
Runic arrived at Cape Town from
Durban, and would probably approximate
to the course which would have
been taken by the missing steamer,
but she saw no sign of Waratah, of
any kind.'

The Guelph and Runic, unlike the Harlow, were not in the right place at the right time.

                               SS Runic

My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!