Friday 29 April 2016

The Loss by Fire of the RMS Amazon 1852

Ships are still lost at sea in our own time, frequently as a result of regulations and standards being ignored rather than standards being established in the first place to ensure safe operation. When reading of seafaring in the 19th Century, and the vast numbers of maritime disasters, one is struck by the fact that not only had standards not been established, but that little thought went into recognising inevitable hazards and to identifying measures to mitigate or eliminate them. The most glaring example refers to provision of adequate numbers of lifeboats – a straightforward and obvious measure, the absence of which resulted in heavy loss of life for decades until the Titanic disaster in 1912 finally made action unavoidable. Similar shortcomings applied as regards protection against fire, an especially serious concern when steam-engines were installed in wooden ships. In addition, one is struck, when reading about Victorian-era, by what frequently amounted to an all but wilful blindness to signs of danger. This latter was to be a factor in one of the most horrific of passenger-trade tragedies, the loss by fire of the Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Amazon, in 1852.

The horror of fire at sea, conveyed by the Victorian painter James Francis Danby (1816-1875)
Constructed in 1850-51, the Amazon, at 2256-tons and 300-feet long, and her four sisters were among the largest wooden-hulled steamers ever built, for by this time iron construction was becoming commonplace. Intended for the mail service between Britain and the West Indies, the 800-horsepower Amazon was paddle-driven and capable, under steam, of a maximum of fifteen knots, though her usual cruising speed would have been closer to eleven. As with almost all steamers of the time she also carried a sailing rig, in her case of three-masted barque configuration. Her crew of 112 reflected the need to operate under sail as well as to feed the furnaces and tend the engine. There was accommodation for 50 passengers.

Commanded by a Captain Symonds, the Amazon left Southampton on her maiden voyage to the West Indies on 2nd January 1852.  According to accounts by survivors of the subsequent tragedy, alarm was felt immediately by many passengers as regards risk of fire. The two engines installed appeared to be overheating and the captain and engineer stopped them several times to allow them to cool. A Mr. Neilson was too worried by this to go below decks and another, a Mr. Glennie, attested that may of the crew were no less concerned. Despite this, Captain Symonds was not prepared to return to Southampton.

The impressive-looking RMS Amazon, as seen before departure on her maiden voyage

Thirty-six hours into her voyage the Amazon ran into a heavy headwind in the Bay of Biscay and soon after midnight fire was seen erupting from just abaft the foremast. The watch-officer sent the quartermaster to rouse the captain, who was sleeping, and as he did alerted the passengers, apparently in a way that encouraged alarm. Even before the captain reached the bridge – which ran across between the paddle-boxes – the fourth engineer, a heroic man names Stone, attempted to go below to stop the engines but was driven back by heat and smoke. Efforts were in progress to drag a fire-hose forward when the blaze reached the oil and tallow store, worsening the inferno. Terrified passengers were now crowding on deck to be confronted with a wall of flame that spanned the deck and was as high as the paddle-boxes, isolating the officers, who were aft, with most of the crew, who were on the forecastle. The only way past the flames was to creep up the curved surface of eh paddle-boxes and slide down the other side, a manoeuvre so dangerous that few attempted it.

By this stage panic was already manifesting itself among passengers and crew alike. An account of the tragedy in an 1877 publication leaves little to the imagination: “It would be needless to tell here of the screams and shrieks of the terrified passenger, mixed with the cried of the animals on board; of the wild anguish with which they saw before them only the choice of deaths, and both almost equally dreadful – the raging flames or the raging sea; and of these fearful moments when all self-control, all presence of mind, appeared to be lost, and no authority was recognised, no command obeyed.”

Every effort was made to prevent the flames extending aft. The Amazon carried nine boats and, remarkably for this period, had in theory sufficient accommodation in them for passengers and crew, but they could not be safely lowered as the unreachable engines were still running and driving the vessel forward at some thirteen knots. The captain hoped that the ship’s movement would finally be arrested by exhaustion of the contents of the boilers but it transpired that when fire was first detected one of the engineers, fearing a boiler explosion, had opened the feed line from the water cistern to maintain a continuous feed. As the ship’s headlong charge continued Captain Symonds ordered all boats to be kept fast until he should order lowering. By the time he did, when the spread of the flames was clearly unstoppable, the forward life-boats were already on fire. According to the 1877 source: “When this was discovered, al order and discipline seemed to disappear immediately, and instead of fortitude and resolution, a selfish desire for preservation entered almost every breast.”

The Amazon ablaze - contemporary illustration. Note boat hanging from davit.

Unfamiliarity with the handling-equipment of the remaining boats now played its role – a sad indication of inadequate crew-training before departure. They were suspended from davits in the usual way but their keels were held in protruding cradles to prevent them swinging but the crew seemed unaware of this. Due to this at least three boats were flipped over as they were lifted and they dumped their occupants into the sea. The captain assisted in lowering the boats and when no more could be done went back to the wheel, took it from the steersman, and apparently perished at his post.  The remaining boats did get away, the first to do so carrying sixteen people, including the Mr. Neilson previously referred to. It rescued a further five from a dinghy that had also got away – it was almost swamped and the occupants were bailing with boots – but the now empty dinghy drove into the stern of the lifeboat and wrecker her rudder.

The gale continued another three hours and all that could be done in the lifeboat was to keep her head to the wind by her oars and save her from swamping. The blazing Amazon was visible in the distance, her masts toppling over in succession as the flames ate them away. A sailing vessel now appeared, heading out from the French coast, and passed within four hundred yards of the lifeboat, which hailed her. An answer was made by signal but she made no attempt to assist and continued on her course. Around dawn an explosion was seen to engulf the Amazon. The funnels toppled over and then she herself disappeared. The lifeboat pulled for the French coast and in mid-morning was picked up by a British brig, the Marsden, which landed the survivors in France.

Burning ship by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) - it conveys how the Amazon must have looked

The Amazon’s pinnace had also got way although on launching its occupants had been tipped into the sea. A few managed to clamber back on to the ship though a lady clutching an eighteen-month old child, a Mrs. M’Lennan, managed to keep hold of the boat until it was righted. It finally got away with sixteen occupants, including the Mr. Glennie mentioned earlier. An ex-Royal Navy seaman called Berryman (“a fine fellow”) trailed a portion of a spar as a sea anchor to hold the over-loaded boat’s head to. the wind and later, when the sea had calmed, hoisted Mrs. M’Lennan’s shawl between two boat-hooks as a sail. Mr. Glennie noted as he saw the Amazon drew away that “a large hole was burnt out of her side immediately abaft the (port) paddlebox, part of which was also burnt. The hole was nearly down to the water’s edge and through it I could see the machinery.” The pinnace survived into the morning, a leak that threatened to swamp her being stopped by Stone, the heroic engineer, and it steered for the French coast. “the men plying their oars lustily, and Mrs. M’Lennan, as she lay in the sternsheets, cheering them to their work.” Later in the day another vessel was sighted and the lady’s shawl was again put to good use for signalling. It proved to be a galiot, a small Dutch trading vessel called the Gertruda, which picked up the pinnace’s occupants and set her course towards Brest to land them. On the way more survivors were picked up from another boat.

A Dutch galiot
The disaster had occurred on January 4th and it was not until the 15th of the month that it emerged that another thirteen persons had also been saved. They had been rescued by another Dutch vessel, the Hellechina, en route to Leghorn, which transferred them to a British revenue-cutter which took them to Plymouth. These survivors’ experiences were no less horrific than those of the others. The boat had been lowered safely from the Amazon, though a stewardess had fallen out and been drowned in in the process. Command was adopted by a Royal Navy officer, a Lieutenant Grylls, who had been a passenger on the Amazon and who had been active helping fight the fire previously. The boat was however leaking badly – “Fox, a stoker, stopped the hole by taking off his drawers and cramming them into it, keeping them in position for three or four hours by the pressure of his own body; and when seized by violent cramps was relieved by Durdney and Wall.”  Another ship passed between them and the burning Amazon, though without seeing them – though it must have seen the Amazon. One wonders if it was not the same vessel that had acknowledged the lifeboat’s signal but had carried on regardless. Gryll’s boat lacked oars and attempts were made to paddle her with the bottom boards. In the course of the morning it passed over the area where the Amazon had gone down, strewn as it was with wreckage, but with no sign of bodies. Later in the day rescue came in the shape of the Hellechina.

Of the 162 people on the Amazon only 58 survived. The loss was regarded as a national tragedy with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert heading an appeal for support of widows and orphans. A subsequent enquiry was inconclusive as regards the origin of the fire. Though blame was placed by some on the engine bearings running hot – and indeed insufficient testing had been done prior to committing to the maiden voyage – this seems to have been unlikely since the engines continued to operate without seizing until the ship consumed herself. A further consideration was that the crew was freshly raised, knew little of each other and had not exercised together.  The rapid spread of the fire was attributed to the use of much “Danzig Pine” in the construction, a timber known to be particularly inflammable. The single most significant contributory factor was most likely however to be the haste in which the ship had been rushed into service without adequate shakedown of crew and machinery.
The iron-hulled RMS Atrato by William Frederick Mitchell (1845-1918)
And one lesson was most certainly learned. The next Royal Mail ship commissioned, the Atrato, was constructed of iron.

Britannia’s Spartan

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. Click here for further details – for UK and for US & Rest of World

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