Friday 26 August 2016

The Wreck of the Rothsay Castle 1831

A number of articles on this blog site have dealt with 19th Century shipping disasters. There is a horrible fascination about them, since they illustrate how the management of civilian shipping was often so lackadaisical and how command, control and management techniques did not keep pace with newly introduced steam-technology. It is remarkable that through the century the Royal Navy, a strictly disciplined organisation which consisted at any one time of hundreds of ships, lost far fewer vessels on a proportional basis than the merchant and fishing fleets. Major disasters which took hundreds of lives were relatively commonplace – the death toll being too often increased by absence of the most basic safety provisions such as life boat provisions – and huge numbers of small trading or fishing craft were lost annually, often without trace.

Mona's Isle of 1830 - paddle steamer on Liverpool - Isle of Man packet service
Rothsay Castle would have looked generally similar and in August 1831
was to encounter weather like that shown here
A disaster in 1831, in the infancy of steam-propulsion at sea, illustrates many of these shortcomings. It evoked horror and outrage at the time, and yet the obvious lessons to be drawn from it were not learned and not implemented for decades to come. The paddle-steamer Rothsay Castle, built in 1816, was one of the earliest steamers to venture regularly into the open sea, though her initial service had been on the sheltered waters of Scotland’s River Clyde. Thereafter she was to operate out of Liverpool and along the coast of North Wales as an excursion vessel. She had an impressively unspectacular career for fifteen years and might indeed have been seen as proof of the suitability of steam power to open sea service. Ninety-three feet long, and of a mere seventy-five tons burthen, she seems nevertheless to have routinely carried well over a hundred passengers on such holiday excursions – which must have seemed the same type of novelty in the 1820s and early 1830s as mass air-travel did in the 1950s.

A Victorian account of the disaster that overcame the Rothsay Castle is full of fascinating incidental detail, and the following draws upon it. On 7th August, 1831 she left Liverpool in mid-morning with a crew of fifteen officers, seamen and musicians, the latter to provide a festive atmosphere. The fact that the number of passengers was uncertain – estimates varied from 110 to 120 – attests to the fact that no real control existed as to loading. Given the size of the vessel the conditions must have been cramped in the extreme. The Victorian author noted sombrely that the majority of the passengers consisted of holiday and family parties, en route to Beaumaris in North Wales and “chiefly from country places”. He noted with solemn exactitude that “in one of these companies, who came on a journey of pleasure from Bury, the hand of death committed a merciless devastation. It consisted of twenty-six persons; in the morning, joyous with health and hilarity, they set out upon the waves, and when the shades of that evening approached, every soul but two saw his last of suns go down.”

The horror and terror of shipwreck
as envisaged by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Given the loading of the vessel it is surprising that she ever set sail. A severe storm had raged earlier, and a strong wind was still blowing from the north-west leaving the waters outside the harbour rough. By the time the steamer arrived off the “Floating-Light” buoy, some fifteen miles from Liverpool, many of the passengers were in a state of alarm – and one imagines that sea-sickness must have added to the misery, given that many of them were unlikely to have been at sea before.. One of the survivors stated he had confronted the captain, named Atkinson, who was eating his dinner and requested him to put back to port. Atkinson replied that “I think there is a great deal of fear on board, and very little danger. If we were to turn back with passengers, it would never do—we should have no profit.” To another passenger he said angrily that “I’m not one of those that turn back.” He remained in his cabin for the next two hours and refused further entreaties to turn back.

Atkinson’s behaviour before dinner appears to have been rational but it changed thereafter, possibly through drinking. He became violent in his manner, and abusive to his crew. When anxiously questioned by the passengers as to the vessel’s progress and the time at which she was likely to reach her destination, he returned dismissive and frequently contradictory answers. He had been previously confident of reaching Beaumaris by seven o’clock but it was midnight before reaching the mouth of the Menai Strait, about five miles from Beaumaris. The tide, which had been running out of the strait, and which had consequently been slowing the Rothsay Castle’s progress, was now turning. As she entered the strait the engine lost power – it appeared that the ship had been taking on water all day and that the bilge pumps were now choked and incapable of coping with the ingress. Water was now sloshing over the coal in the furnace and extinguishing the fires – an occurrence which the engine-room staff did not seem to have though necessary to inform the captain of initially. With power lost, the vessel was being carried by the tide and by the north-west wind towards a shoal known as the “Dutchman’s Bank”. Here the bows ran on to the sand and stuck fast.

Captain Atkinson attempted to use his sails – like all steamers of the time the Rothsay Castle carried  a sailing rig – to get free, though without effect. He then ordered the passengers and crew to run aft – so as to sink the stern slightly and so lift the bows, but this was equally unavailing. The terrified passengers urged Atkinson to hoist lights and distress signals but he vehemently refused to do There was no danger, he claimed, despite the fact that the ship was rapidly filling with water. The weather, “at this awful moment, was boisterous, but perfectly clear. The moon, though slightly overcast, threw considerable light on the surrounding objects. But a strong breeze blew from the north-west, the tide began to set in with great strength, and a heavy sea beat over the bank on which the steam packet was now firmly and immovably fixed.”

The Victorian chronicler left little to the imagination and milked the drama for all its pathos: “We cannot describe the scene which followed. Certain death seemed now to present itself to all on board, and the most affecting scenes were exhibited. The females, in particular, uttered the most piercing shrieks; some locked themselves in each others’ arms, while others, losing all self-command, tore off their caps and bonnets, in the wildness of despair. A Liverpool pilot, who happened to be in the packet, now raised his voice and exclaimed, “It is all over—we are all lost!” At these words there was a universal despairing shriek. The women and children collected in a knot together, and kept embracing each other, keeping up, all the time, the most dismal lamentations. When tired with crying they lay against each other, with their heads reclined, like inanimate bodies. The steward of the vessel and his wife, who was on board, lashed themselves to the mast, determined to spend their last moments in each other’s arms. Several husbands and wives also met their fate locked in each other’s arms; whilst parents clung to their beloved children—several mothers it is said, having perished with their dear little ones firmly clasped in their arms. A party of the passengers, about fifteen or twenty, lowered the boat and crowded into it. It was impossible for any open boat to live in such a sea, even though not overloaded, and she immediately swamped and went to the bottom, with all who had made this last hopeless effort for self-preservation.”

Artist's impression of the final break-up 
The Rothsay Castle was now disintegrating under the pounding of the waves.  “The decks were repeatedly swept by the boiling ocean, and each billow snatched its victims to a watery grave. The unfortunate captain and his mate were among the first that perished. About thirty or forty passengers were standing upon the poop clinging to each other in hopeless agony, and occasionally uttering the most piteous ejaculations. Whilst trembling thus upon the brink of destruction, and expecting every moment to share the fate which had already overtaken so many of their companions in misery, the poop was discovered to give way; another wave rolled on with impetuous fury, and the hinder part of the luckless vessel, with all who sought safety in its frail support, was burst away from its shattered counterpart, and about forty wretched beings hurried through the foaming flood into an eternal world.”

The final break-up occurred some ninety minutes after the ship had first grounded. Hanging on to pieces of wreckage – eight people clung on to the rudder when it was torn free – the survivors now had to cope with the full fury of the waves. The bodies of the victims were washed up on the nearby coast in the coming days. There were only twenty-three survivors plus a dog. That the disaster had been avoidable evoked sufficient outrage that a lifeboat station was set up the following year, followed by a lighthouse five years later. But valuable as these measures were, the root cause of the disaster – the incompetence and wilful carelessness of the captain, and the inadequacy of the operating procedures – seems to have been little addressed. Countless further tragedies, many with significant larger loss of life, were to occur in the decades that followed – and for the same reasons.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s Reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel, which details a murderous war launched by a British-owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers.

This story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam.

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