Friday, 24 April 2015

The SS Arctic Disaster 1854

In my recent blog about the loss of the steamer SS Utopia in Gibraltar harbour in 1891 I commented on the fact that for almost a century insufficient provision of lifeboats a major factor in marine tragedies. Only the Titanic loss in 1912 was to evoke a sufficient measure of outrage for the problem to be finally addressed, even if the rules are not always enforced today. The spectacular loss of the SS Arctic in 1854, some 60 years before the Titanic was one of the maritime disasters that should have led to much earlier reform – and to the saving of countless lives. But it didn’t.

SS Arctic as seen in a contemporary illustration
In her time the Arctic, and her three almost identical sisters, represented the pinnacle of comfort, speed and modernity on the North Atlantic routes between Britain and North America. She belonged to the American “Collins Line” and carried both mail and passengers in direct competition with the prestigious British “Cunard Line”, a company which survives, and thrives, up to the present day. The company’s owner, Edward Collins (1802-1878) had grown his shipping company over three decades and the building, with government subsidies, and in American shipyards, of the Arctic, Pacific, Baltic and Atlantic allowed maintenance of a reliable regular-sailing schedule.

The Arctic entered service in 1850 and at 2856 tons and 284 feet length was the largest vessel operating in the North Atlantic, being twice as large as the rival Cunard vessels. Paddle-driven, her two 1000 hp engines gave her a maximum speed of over 12 knots and allowed her to make Atlantic passages in ten days or less. Speed was however expensive and her engines were coal-hungry, thus threatening  the economics of the venture. A further complication was that her wooden hull was strained by the installed power and needed regular repairs. For the time her accommodation was luxurious and included steam heating, running water, bathing provisions and even a hair-dressing salon.

The Collins vs. Cunard Rivalry - contemporary cartoon
For four years the Arctic operated without major problems, establishing new standards of speed, comfort and reliability. In September 1854 however she left Liverpool for New York with 233 passengers, of whom 150 were first-class. Among them was Edward Collins’ own wife, with their son and daughter. Her crew amounted to 135 – not excessive in view of the fact that she could operate under sail as well as steam. The ocean passage went well until September 27th, when she reached a point some sixty miles south-east of Cape Race, Newfoundland, where she encountered a dense fog. Blinded, she collided with a much smaller vessel which crossed her bows, the French steamer Vesta, which herself had almost 200 on board, including 147 passengers.

The Vesta was initially perceived to be sinking and many, both crew and passengers, rushed her boats with the idea of getting across to the Arctic. One boat sank immediately and another was swept under the Vesta’s counter, so that all 13 on board were lost, but it was soon realised that the ship was not as badly damaged as had appeared initially. The bows had been crushed but the forward bulkhead was holding. The captain lightened the ship by her head, shored up the bulkhead and set off for St. John’s, Newfoundland, which was reached without further loss.

The seriousness of the damage to the Arctic, initially under-estimated, was now becoming apparent. Three holes had been smashed in below the waterline and it was apparent that she was flooding so fast that the engines would be soon extinguished. Her captain, James Luce, headed her for Cape Race but within four hours of the collision the water reached the furnaces, stopping the engines. Sinking was now imminent.

Duc de Gramont -
Women and Children Last
Arctic carried six lifeboats only, capable of taking 180 persons, half of those on board. These boats were launched on Captain Luce’s orders but discipline broke down and there was no observance of “women and children first”. Members of the crew and able-bodied male passengers rushed to take most of the places. Antoine Agénor, Duc de Gramont (1819-1880), en-route to the United States to take up his appointment as French Ambassador, jumped into one of the last lifeboats. (This action doesn’t seem to have been held against him afterwards and he was later to reach high ministerial rank in the French government). The remaining passengers had to make do with makeshift rafts or went down with the ship.  

The statement made by Captain Luce soon after the disaster describes the chaos. Part reads “I resolved to get the boats ready, and as many ladies and children placed in them as possible; but no sooner had the attempt been made than the firemen and others rushed into them in spite of opposition. Seeing this state of things I ordered the boats astern to be kept in readiness until order could be restored; when, to my dismay, I saw them cut the ropes in the bow, and soon disappear astern in the fog. Another boat was broken down by persons rushing at the davits, and many were precipitated into the sea and drowned. This occurred while I had been engaged in getting the starboard guard boat ready, and placed the second officer in charge, when the same fearful scene as with the first boat was being enacted—men leaping from the top of the rail twenty feet, pushing and maiming those who were in the boat.”

Another boat was hanging by one tackle but Luce related that “a rush was made for her also, and some fifteen got in, and cut the tackle, and were soon out of sight. I found that not a seaman was left on board, or carpenter, and we were without any tools to assist us in building a raft, as our only hope. The only officer left was Mr. Dorian, the third mate, who aided me, with the assistance of many of the passengers, who deserve great praise for their coolness and energy in doing all in their power up to the very latest moment before the ship sank … we had succeeded in getting the fore and main yard and two top gallant yards overboard, and such other small spars and materials as we could collect, when I was fully convinced that the ship must go down in a very short time, and not a moment was to be lost in getting the spars lashed together to form a raft, to do which it became necessary to get the lifeboat – our only remaining boat – into the water. This being accomplished, I saw Mr. Dorian, the chief officer of the boat, taking care to keep the oars on board to prevent them from leaving the ship, hoping still to get most of the women and children in this boat at last. They had made considerable progress in collecting the spars, when an alarm was given that the ship was sinking, and the boat was shoved off without oars or anything to help themselves with, and when the ship sank the boat had got clear”.

Contemporary artist's impression of the Arctic sinking - note rafts in water
Two of the six lifeboats that left Arctic safely reached Newfoundland safely, and another was picked by a passing steamer which also rescued the few survivors on the rafts. Among these was Captain Luce, who had regained the surface after initially going down with the ship, though he lost hold of his own small son whom he held in his arms. After enduring appalling privations Luce and a few other survivors were rescued after clinging to pieces of wreckage for two days.  One of these survivors was a Frenchman lost by the Vesta. The other three boats disappeared without trace.

Another contemporary impression of the disaster
All the women and children on board the Arctic perished and the 85 survivors consisted of 61 of the crew and 24 male passengers.  Edward Collins’ own wife and children died, as did six members of the Brown family, whose bank, Brown Brothers, had helped to finance the Collins Line. Scandalous as the circumstances were, no official enquiry was ever held into the disaster – had it been, the lesson about the shortage of lifeboats would, once more, have been apparent. Nobody was held accountable.

The Collins Line disasters were not at an end. Less than two years later, in January 1856, the Arctic’s sister Paciifc left Liverpool with 45 passengers and 141 crew. She was never seen again and no trace of her was ever found. Various theories were put forward as to the cause of her loss and over the years various messages in bottles purported to have been thrown into the sea by desperate passengers in her final hours. All appear to have been cruel hoaxes.

The SS Pacific - lost without trace
The Collins Line limped on for another two years and was finally declared bankrupt in 1858.It was a sad end to what could have been a noble endeavour had more attention been paid to the  to the value  of human life. There was nothing high-tech about lifeboats. The ship-owners just had to care enough to pay for them.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Nelson at the Nile, 1798

Bonaparte's fury at the defeat!
Nelson’s stunning victory at Aboukir, off the Nile Delta, in August 1798 was to raise his reputation to a European level. In this battle Nelson brought his force of fifteen ships, of which thirteen were ships-of-the line, close inshore to attack the moored French fleet of thirteen ships of the line and four frigates which had escorted General Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion army to Egypt. The victory was a stunning one, from which only four French vessels escaped. It brought to an end Bonaparte’s ambitions to create a new empire in Egypt and Palestine as it isolated his army there without hope of re-supply. Bonaparte himself deserted his army and managed to escape to France to build his personal career.

"Nelson after the Nile" by Alexander Davidson
Nelson was however lucky to survive the battle. By this stage he had already lost one eye and one arm and he was now to receive a severe wound which left the skin of his forehead hanging down over his face. Captain Edward Berry, commanding HMSVanguard, Nelson’s  flagship, caught him in his arms and, like all around, including Nelson himself, thought that the wound was fatal. On being carried into the surgeon’s cockpit, already littered with wounded, Nelson refused immediate attention with the words, “I will take my turn with my brave fellows!” Convinced that he was dying, he sent for the chaplain, but when the surgeon came to examine and dress the wound, it appeared that it was not mortal. Nelson came back on deck in time to see the most spectacular event of the battle, the explosion of the French flagship, L’Orient.

The destruction of L'Orient by Thomas Luny
Nelson was to receive tokens of recognition of his victory not just from Britain but from her allies. A Victorian-era  book listed the awards made for his services in the Mediterranean in the 1798-99 period:

·         From King George III, a peerage of Great Britain and a gold medal;
·         From Parliament, for his own life and two next heirs, a pension per annum of £2,000;
·         From the Parliament of Ireland, a pension per annum of £1,000;
·         From the East India Company, £10,000;
·         From the Turkey Company, “a piece of plate of great value”;
·         From the City of London,” a magnificent sword”;
·         From the Ottoman Sultan: a diamond aigrette and rich pelisse valued at £3,000.
·         From the Sultan’s mother, a rose brooch set with diamonds, valued at £1,000;
·         From the Emperor of Russia, a box set with diamonds, valued at £2,500;
·         From the King of the Two Sicilies, a sword “richly ornamented with diamonds”, valued at £5,000;
·         From the King of Sardinia, a box set with diamonds, valued at £1,200.

In addition to these, all accompanied by complimentary addresses or letters, Nelson received presents from the Island of Zante, the city of Palermo, and private individuals.
The most remarkable – and useful – gift of all came however from Captain Benjamin Hallowell of HMS Swiftsure.  After the Nile battle he had the extraordinary idea of getting  an “elegantly-furnished” coffin constructed by his carpenter from L’Orient’s mainmast as a present  for Nelson. He appears to have valued it highly and he kept it upright in his cabin on Vanguard for several months. It was into this coffin that Nelson’s body was transferred after it arrived back in Britain after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It now lies inside Nelson’s marble sarcophagus in the crypt of St. Paul’s cathedral.

At Nelson's funeral in 1805
Seamen from HMS Victory take the flag off the coffin and tear it apart as souvenirs

Friday, 17 April 2015

The “Great Siege” of Gibraltar – and Heated Shot

Accounts of naval operations against shore fortifications in the “Age of Fighting Sail” make frequent references to the use of “heated shot” – cannon balls warmed to white heat in furnaces before firing. When used against wooden ships such shot was capable of setting their targets ablaze. For obvious reasons the ability of sailing vessels to respond in kind was all but impossible and heated shot remained the perquisite of shore batteries, many of which equipped with specially built furnaces. Each glowing ball was carried to the gun by two men, having between them a strong iron frame. The gun was loaded with a powder charge in the usual way, but with two heavy wads, one dry and the other slightly damped, to separate the powder and the ball. The chance of the wadding taking fire must always have been present and the consequences of this would have been deadly. Loading guns in this way must have been a nerve-racking business.
Gibraltar before the siege - seen from across the isthmus from Spanish territory (John Mace)
Heated shot was to play a decisive role in the “Great Siege” of Gibraltar (1779-1783). Gibraltar had been captured by Britain in 1704 (Click here for an earlier blog about this) and in the intervening years “The Rock” was heavily fortified, batteries and tunnels being hewn out of the rock itself. Its availability as a naval base in the Anglo-French wars of the mid-18th Century was of major strategic value to Britain, lying, as it did, on the entrance to the Mediterranean. It was not surprising therefore that during the American War of Independence (1775-83) its capture was an objective of the greatest importance for Britain’s enemies. France had joined the conflict in 1778 and Spain was to do likewise in the following year. Plans were immediately put afoot to seize Gibraltar. Spanish troops constructed siege-lines across the mile-wide isthmus connecting Gibraltar to the Spanish mainland and a close-blockade was initiated by Spanish vessels operating out of Algeciras, across the bay from The Rock. A more powerful Spanish naval force – eleven line-of-battle ships and two frigates – was based at Cadiz, some 60 miles to the west so as to intercept British reinforcements.

British batteries hewn out of The Rock - which was seamed with tunnels
 British forces – some 5300 troops under Governor-General, General George Eliott, and including Hanoverian and Corsican contingents – had already begun strengthening the defences. This was to make an attack across the isthmus difficult and increased the importance of the naval blockade. General Elliott placed special emphasis on the value of heated shot and ordered building of more furnaces and grates for the purpose. However, strong the Gibraltar defences might have been, the nature of the terrain meant that its ability to provide sufficient food, whether vegetable or animal, was limited in the extreme. By the end of 1779 bread was being made available only to children and the sick, the rest of the garrison being fed with increasingly scarce salt meat, hard-tack biscuits and a little rice. Given this diet, and the shortage of vegetables, it was not surprising that scurvy should make its appearance.

King Carlos III of Spain, come to view the siege
Relief arrived in January 1780 when Admiral George Rodney, after defeating the Spanish Cadiz fleet in the First Battle of Cape St. Vincent, arrived with over 1000 reinforcements and sufficient supplies to allow Gibraltar garrison to continue to hold out, albeit still on short-commons.  The siege continued however through another increasingly hungry year, with indecisive fighting along the landward siege-lines and a few small fast blockade-runners carrying limited supplies from the British base at Minorca.  It was not until April 1781 that a massive British naval force – 29 ships of the line escorting 100 store ships – commanded by Vice Admiral George Darby reached Gibraltar despite Spanish efforts to intercept it. (The analogy with the huge “Operation Pedestal” convoy to relieve Malta in 1942 is very striking). The enemy was unable to prevent Darby carrying Gibraltar’s civilian population to Britain when he withdrew, thus reducing the pressure of “useless mouths” on food supplies.
"The Rock"
In late November 1781, fearing that the enemy land-forces were about to make an attack from the siege lines, General Eliot launched half the British garrison on a pre-emptive strike or "sortie". This succeeded brilliantly, carrying trenches, spiking batteries and destroying supplies. The British attackers then withdrew, having done enough damage to prevent an immediate assault. But the siege still dragged on.

"The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar" by John Trumbull
The climax was to come in September 1782 when combined French-Spanish forces launched a massive attack.  Some 35,000 Spanish and 8000 French troops, supported by heavy artillery, were dedicated to the land assault but the threat from seaward was even more daunting. Eighteen ships-of-the-line, 40 gunboats and 20 bomb ketches were deployed. The most notable innovation was however use of “floating batteries”, mounting 138 heavy cannon, which were towed into position to take Gibraltar’s shore fortifications under fire. Designed by an eminent French engineer, D’Arcon, these batteries were supposed to be impervious to red-hot shot.

Contemporary illustration: View from the Spanish Lines, floating batteries exploding
This confidence was misplaced – the heated shot was about to come into its own. To supplement the usual portable furnaces, which were insufficient to supply the demands of the artillery, Eliot ordered large bonfires to be kindled. On these the cannon-balls were thrown – they were referred to by the gunners as “hot potatoes”. Heated almost to incandescence the shot was transported to the guns in wheelbarrows filled with sand.  

The floating batteries, unable to manoeuvre without assistance, proved to be highly vulnerable. Three took fire and exploded while another seven were so heavily damaged that they had to be withdrawn with high casualties. The Count d’Artois (1757-1836), brother of the doomed French King Louis XVI, and himself fated to reign as Charles X from 1824-1830, had hastened from Paris to observe this “Grand Assault”, in full expectation of a capitulation. He arrived instead in time to see the total destruction of the floating batteries and a large part of the combined fleet. The land attack was repulsed no less successfully.

Siege of Gibraltar by George Carter (note batteries burning)
Recognising that this “Grand Assault” had failed, the French and Spanish continued the siege as before, still in the hope of starving out the desperately poorly supplied British garrison. Measures were meanwhile afoot in Britain to send a large relief force –34 ships-of-the-line and 31 transports laden with  food and ammunition as well as further troop reinforcements – under Admiral Richard Howe. It arrived off Cape St Vincent in early October and the French-Spanish force sent to intercept it was fortuitously scattered by a gale, allowing Howe an easy entry into Gibraltar.
Howes's relief expedition arrives - by Richard Paton (click here for more)
Now strongly reinforced, the Gibraltar garrison held out until the end of hostilities in February 1783 the siege was lifted. With a duration of three years and seven months it was the longest siege in British history and the battle-honour of “Gibraltar” was to one of the most highest prized that any regiment might justly boast of.

The siege was recognised as an epic in its own time, as witnessed by the paintings made of it by several distinguished artists. The ultimate accolade was perhaps a “bardic song” about the relief set to music by Mozart and of which only a fragment remains. Unfortunately, Mozart didn’t like the style of the poem and never completed the work!

"The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar" by John Singleton Copley - art on a heroic scale!

To read, in Kindle or Paperback, about adventure and conflict on sea and on land a century later click on the image below:

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Steerage-passenger conditions in the 1880s

In my recent blog about the disaster that overcame the SS Utopia in 1891, which resulted in the deaths of 562 Italian emigrants, I commented briefly on the bewilderment and trepidation with which these unfortunate people must have set out on the voyage in the first place. Added to this however must have been the extreme discomfort – not to mention health hazards – of overcrowding. The 350 foot- long Utopia carried 880 persons at the time of her sinking, 815 of whom were accommodated in “Steerage”.

Steerage in a small ship - probably a small sailing vessel - in the 1840s period
The term “Steerage” referred to a ship’s lower deck, originally that part aft through which steering tackles passed. With time it came to mean either converted cargo spaces, or specially designed accommodation, which provided the lowest cost and lowest class of travel. The great age of European emigration lasted almost a century, up to 1914, and through this time the standards applying in Steeerage improved slowly, but only however to levels which would be considered wholly unacceptable today. The “coffin ships” which carried refugees from the Irish Famine in the 1840s were obviously immeasurably worse than the liners of the 1880s onwards, but conditions were, at their best, still unpleasant, and unhealthy in the extreme.

Steerage in the 1840s or 50s - fugitives perhaps from the Scots Clearances or the Irish Famine
Some impression of what was involved can be deduced from an 1880s publication, The Sea, by Fredrick Whymper. He noted that in 1879 some 118,000 steerage passengers left the port of Liverpool for the United States. This figure was from one port only, the principal British one for emigration, but not the only one in the country from which emigrants departed. Ships were heading to Australia and New Zealand also, a voyage of months rather than weeks, and one which must have been particularly unpleasant in tropical latitudes. Emigrants were also streaming out from Scandinavia, Germany, Central Europe and Italy in this period, and large numbers were also going from Spain and Italy to South America.

German emigrants at Bremerhaven in the 1870s - similar scenes were seen all over Europe
Whymper noted that “the steerage of to-day is comparatively  decent; although it is not yet that which it should be, nor has the progress of improvement kept anything like pace with railway  accommodation of the cheaper kind. Yet one would think it to the interest of owners to make the steerage an endurable place of temporary abode.”

He goes on to describe some of the improvements referred to: "Latterly a considerable amount of attention has been given to the sub-division of the steerage space, so that, when practicable, friends and families may remain together. Married people and single women have now separate quarters. The sleeping accommodations are the weak point. They are simply rough wooden berths, and the passenger has to furnish his own bedding, as well as plate, mug, knife, fork, spoon, and water-can.”

A typical bill of fare is mentioned:

Breakfast: “coffee, fresh bread or biscuit, and butter, or oatmeal porridge and molasses”;

Dinner (apparently at midday): “soup, beef or pork, and potatoes—fish may be substituted for the meat; on Sunday pudding is often added”;

Tea: “tea, biscuit and butter”.

“Three quarts of fresh water” – six pints – were allowed daily. It is not clear if this allowance included provision for washing – one fears that it probably did.

It was also noted that “A passenger who has a few shillings to spend can often obtain a few extras from the steward, and many, of course, take a small stock of the minor luxuries of life on board with him.” No mention was made by Whymper about sanitary arrangements – one hesitates to speculate about what was involved.

Eating in steerage, 1890
A word of advice was also given by Whymper to those “of small means” who were contemplating emigration: “Intermediate (second-class) on board some of the Atlantic steamers to the States and Canada can be commended. For a couple of guineas over the steerage rates, excellent state-rooms, generally with four to six berths in each, furnished with bedding and lavatory arrangements, are provided. The intermediate passenger has a separate general saloon, and the table is well provided with good plain living. As the steerage passenger has to provide so many things for himself, it is almost as cheap to travel second-class.”

Regardless of class however the experience was likely to be a very unpleasant one indeed, especially in bad weather, when passengers could not go on deck. The imagination recoils from visualising the misery involved – and for many, as in the case of the Utopia disaster, and many others now forgotten, it was to be more terrible still.

Conditions improved only slowly. Writing in 1907, a quarter century after Whymper, the American photographer Arthur Steiglitz described steerage on the prestigious liner Kaiser Wilhelm II; He noted that “200 to 400 sleep in one compartment on bunks, one above the other, with little light and no comforts”. It was not surprising that “in rough weather, when the hatches are down … the stenches become unbearable, and many of the emigrants have to be driven down (off the open deck); for they prefer the bitterness and danger of the storm to the pestilential air below.”  

Kaiser Wilhelm II - Ocean greyhound, luxury hotel and floating slum
For all that the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s First Class opulence catering for Steerage passengers was wretched in the extreme: “The food, which is miserable, is dealt out of huge kettles into the dinner pails provided by the steamship company. When it is distributed, the stronger push and crowd, so that meals are anything but orderly procedures … the unsavory rations are not served, but doled out, with less courtesy than one would find in a charity soup kitchen”.

Steerage accommodation - 1890s
If these conditions applied on the 19,300-ton Kaiser Wilhelm II, which at one time held the “Blue Riband” for the fastest Atlantic crossing, then those endured by the doomed Italian emigrants on the humble SS Utopia can only have been immeasurably worse.

Friday, 10 April 2015

SS Utopia and HMS Anson 1891

In 1866, at the naval battle of Lissa, in the Adriatic, victory was secured by the Austro-Hungarian fleet over its Italian enemy by means of ramming. Though this was a unique event in a fleet-action, and made possible only by factors – such as short effective gun ranges – which were soon obviated by technical progress, naval architects where to be fixated in the decades at followed on designing ram bows into warships of all sizes.

Battle of Lissa; Italian Re d'Italia sinking after ramming by Austro-Hungarian Ferdinand-Max
Ram of HMS Polyphemus
In practice the ram was to prove more dangerous to friends than to enemies and caused four major disasters. Two of these catastrophes, the accidental sinkings of HMS Vanguard in 1875 (click here fordetails) and SMS Grosser Kurfürst in 1878 (click here for details) have been the subjects of blogs on this site. The loss of the battleship HMS Victoria through ramming by HMS Camperdown in 1893 was to be one of the Royal Navy’s greatest peacetime calamities. The fourth major incident of this type was in many ways the most horrific and tragic of all, yet the vessel which struck the mortal blow was at anchor at the time.

SS Utopia was a transatlantic passenger steamer, built in 1874, which saw service for the Anchor Line on Britain to United States and Britain to India routes until 1882. Thereafter she was dedicated to carrying immigrants from Italy to the United States.  Of 2,371 tons and 350 ft length she was capably of a maximum speed of 13 knots. Once in immigrant service her accommodation was converted almost entirely to steerage standard – 900 bunks, as compared with 45 places in first-class and none in second-class. Conditions must have been cramped in the extreme – as was to be seen in dreadful detail in the aftermath of the tragedy which would unfold.

Utopia sailed from Trieste, on what would be her last voyage in February 1891. She took on further passengers at Naples and Genoa and was due to put in Gibraltar prior to her Atlantic crossing. By this stage she had 880 people on board, of which 59 were crew and the remainder passengers, of whom only three were in First Class. Of the 815 steerage passengers there were 85 women and 67 children and there appears to have been three stowaways. As was to be found in the case of the Titanic 21 years later, and as had been the case with numerous previous maritime disasters, the provision of life-saving equipment was criminally inadequate. It was later revealed by Utopia’s captain himself that his ship normally carried seven lifeboats. Together they could accommodate “up to 460 people in moderate weather" but on the night of the catastrophe to come one of these boats was missing.

One wonders at the mood on board this overcrowded ship. Many, if not most, of the passengers had probably never been more than a few miles from their home villages previously.  Poverty would have been a major driver. Their decision to seek a new life in a country they knew little of was little short of heroic and many would have been bewildered by the experience of travel by sea and might also have been worried by fears about an uncertain future.

HMS Anson - her pointed ram is invisible below the watrerline
On the afternoon of March 17th 1891 the Utopia reached Gibraltar. Captain John McKeague was familiar with this anchorage and he headed his ship towards her usual mooring in the inner harbour. Light was failing and only too late did McKeague realise that two Royal Navy Battleships, HMS Anson and HMS Rodney were already there. At this time these two ships of the “Admiral Class” were among the most modern in the Royal Navy, each of 10,600 tons on a 330 ft. length and with four 13.5 inch guns as their main armament. More significant on the present occasion was that both had viciously-pointed rams extending below water level from their bows. A large armoured cruiser present, HMS Immortalité, was similarly equipped. The Swedish corvette Freja was also at anchor.

At this remove in time it is hard to understand how the Utopia could enter a confined anchorage in darkness without a pilot, and how the presence of three very large ships there, and a smaller corvette, had not been noted previously. In a later deposition Captain McKeague stated that he was briefly dazzled by the Anson '​s searchlight. Only when he was became accustomed to the glare did he "suddenly discover that the inside anchorage was full of ships". He claimed that he thought that Anson was "further off than she really was" and he tried to steer in ahead of her bow. The manoeuvre was an unwise one and wind and currently swept the Utopia along the Anson’s bow. Acting like a giant can-opener the ram tore a 16 foot gash below the Utopia’s waterline. Flooding began and engine power was lost immediately.

The sinking of the SS Utopia - sketch by eyewitness Miss Georgina Smith
McKeague now ordered lifeboats to be launched but, as they were, the Utopia suddenly listed 70 degrees to port, sinking the boats, inadequate as they were. Many were now clinging to the ship’s starboard side but hundreds more were trapped below. The ship sank 20 minutes after the collision, leaving her masts protruding as a pathetic last refuge.

Contemporary illustration - HMS Anson's rescue efforts
Darkness, atrocious weather and a strong current were major obstacles to the rescue efforts immediately initiated by the four warships and other vessels present. According to one report  "rescuers, blinded by the wind and rain, saw nothing but a confused, struggling mass of human beings entangled with wreckage." Illuminated by searchlights, rescue efforts continued for several hour, during which two seamen from HMS Immortalité, James Cotton and George Hales (they deserve to be remembered) lost their lives. Of the 880 persons on the Utopia 562 died. Among those saved was Captain McKeague.

Contemporary artist's impression - guesses hazarded at ships other than Utopia
Divers subsequently found that the Utopia’s interior was “closely packed with the bodies ... who had become wedged into an almost solid mass" and that "the bodies of many of the drowned were found so firmly clasped together that it was difficult to separate them." The horror these men faced hardly bears thinking off, especially as there were women and children among the dead. One wonders how many of the survivors did indeed reach their Promised Land of the United States, if they found happiness there and if any of their descendants might read this article.

Even after 12 decades these images move ; and on the right: "Asleep?","No, Sir - Dead"
The Utopia’s ability to cause havoc was not yet an end. Though warning lights were placed on her protruding mastheads another steamer, the SS Primula, collided with her and was badly damaged, fortunately without further loss of life. The Utopia was afterwards raised and scrapped.

Significant though the Anson’s ram bow was as factor in the accident, more important still was Captain McKeague’s recklessness.  The most criminal aspect of the entire disaster was however the provision of an inadequate number of lifeboats, and the fact that a passenger ship could ever be allowed to leave port in such a state. When one reads of maritime tragedies of the 19th Century one is struck by how often this inadequacy was a common feature. It was to take the Titanic disaster in 1912 to get this scandal finally eradicated but it should not have needed a catastrophe of that magnitude to secure reform. The lesson had been taught for the best part of a century – but it was not learned, and thousands of innocents, like the immigrants on the misnamed Utopia, paid the price.


Friday, 3 April 2015

Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 4

Richard Paton (1717 – 1791)

In the previous parts of this occasional series I commented on the fact that so many of the artists of the 18th Century who left us the paintings that have formed our mental images of warfare in that era, far from being studio-bound, had direct experience of life at sea. One such man was Richard Paton (1717-1791). He did not have the benefit of apprenticeship with an established painter  – unlike, for example,  Thomas Luny, who was featured in Part 3. Paton’s achievement is all the more impressive since he appears to have been largely self-taught.

Paton: The Capture of Port Louis, Cuba, 1748

Sir Charles Knowles
Paton seems to have been born in London, though nothing is known of his antecedents. He grew up in poverty and according to one source Paton was noticed by Admiral Sir Charles Knowles when he was begging at Tower Hill. The story has an almost “too good to be true” it but Knowles was a somewhat atypical officer, with strong interests and achievements in science and engineering, so it may not be wholly unbelievable.  Knowles (1704-1777) would have been a captain in this period (he gained “post” rank in 1737). He was a fascinating figure, who not only saw very extensive service in the Royal Navy in the wars of the 1740s, 50s and 60s, but who also later served in the Imperial Russian Navy from 1777-1774. The latter occurred at a particularly significant time as the Russian Navy, still a relatively new force, was of crucial importance in the 1768-74 war with the Ottoman Empire which resulted in Russia’s acquisition of the Crimea, the Southern Ukraine and part of the North Caucasus.

Battle of Barfleur 1692 - for Paton, a historical piece
As Knowles' protégée Paton was employed as assistant painter on ship on Knowles’ own ship. This may seem a humble beginning for a successful artist but this was however a t period when ships were still highly gilded and decorated. He seems to have stayed at sea, gaining knowledge in both painting and seamanship – the latter being crucial for the realism of his later paintings. Paton was to come ashore in 1742 to work at the Excise Office, but presumably honing his skills as an artist at the same time.

Paton: The Battle of Cape Pasaro, 1718

Capture of French ships Prudent and Bienfiasant at Louisburg, 1758
(Paton seems to have favoured subjects that allowed him to show ships ablaze)
 Paton’s first exhibition at the Society of Artists was in 1758. The period was an ideal one for naval artists to flourish in. The Seven Years War – essentially the First World War, due to its geographic spread – had started two years previously and in its course the Royal Navy was to be the prime factor in consolidating Britain’s position as global power.   1759 was to be “The Year of Victories” – which included Admiral Hawkes’s smashing of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay – and national pride and confidence reached hitherto unequalled levels.  A painter capable of bringing to life not just contemporary battles, but others which had occurred over the previous decades, was likely to find a ready market for his work, not only as regards the original paintings, but reproduced as engravings for a much wider distribution.  Paton’s work was notable for conveying the drama of action, including depictions of battles by night, shooting of cannon and the effect of bombardments. His mastery of cloudscapes as a background to the action was considered especially effective.His depiction of the sea itself, especially during rough weather, was however much less impressive.

Paton: Battle of Quiberon Bay, 1759
Another depiction by Paton of the Quibieron Bay victory - complete with French warship ablaze!
Despite his lack of formal training Paton was accepted by the Royal Academy and he was to exhibit there between 1762 and 1780. Critics were to claim that his work was "uneven in quality, possibly reflecting his lack of proper training” but one suspects that there was more than a tinge of envy in this evaluation.  Paton was to continue a successful career for the rest of his life, a new impetus being given by the battles of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). 

Paton: Admiral Howe's approach to Gibraltar 1782
One of the key events of the period was “The Great Siege” of Gibraltar, and one of Paton’s most impressive later works showed the relief of the beleaguered fortress by Admiral Sir Richard Howe’s fleet in 1782. One of Paton’s most widely known works from this period was a depiction of the epic battle in 1779 off Flamborough Head between the Royal Navy’s HMS Serapis and the American Bonhomme Richard, captained by John Paul Jones. The original was to find a home in the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and an engraving made from it was to have very wide circulation in Britain. (It is notable that Jones was afterwards to follow Paton’s original patron, Sir Charles Knowles, into Russian service, albeit at a later date).

A coloured engraving of Paton's painting of the Serapis vs. Bonhomme Richard battle
Though such prints were crude they were immensely popular, and decorated many a humble home

Paton’s paintings remain a delight to all fascinated by the Age of Fighting Sail – and, if legend is for once correct, then it is pleasing to think of us owing his entire oeuvre to a Royal Naval officer taking pity on a beggar boy.