Friday 20 January 2017

Guest Blog by Simon Wills - Death on the Ocean Wave in the 19th Century

In January 2015 I wrote a blog about the loss of the steamship London in 1866. It was one of the most appalling maritime disasters – of which there were only too many – in the 19th Century. (Click here to read that article).

Since then a book had been published recently that describes this tragedy in much greater detail.  “The Wreck of the SS London” is by the respected maritime genealogist Simon Wills, who has already written several books about the era (You’ll find links at the end of this article). I’m therefore honoured today to welcome Simon as a guest blogger – his article deals not only with the disgracefully high casualty rates in maritime commerce but traces a fascinating link between one of the survivors – and heroes – of the 1866 London shipwreck and two earlier disasters.

Over to Simon …

Death on the Ocean Wave by Simon Wills

The British merchant fleet was the lifeblood of its Empire in the nineteenth century. It was trade that gave the Empire stability, power and growth, and merchant ships were needed to transport the goods that allowed this to happen. This meant that there was plenty of work for seamen, but life at sea could be a dangerous business since there were few safety regulations.
The SS London going down in 1866
Shipwrecks were common, and the loss of the SS London in 1866 is a good example of a notorious mid-Victorian shipping disaster. One of my earliest connections with this tragedy was finding a slip of paper in an old encyclopedia that carried the autograph of one of the London’s survivors: John King. He was credited with providing great leadership during the ship’s final moments by ensuring that a boat got away with a few survivors. King also took responsibility for steering this boat, even though the tiller was broken and he had to improvise with a makeshift scrap of wood to keep the boat heading into the waves without turning over.
John King's autograph
A remarkable thing about the autographed piece of paper is that John King wrote down the names of two other ships he’d been wrecked in as well: the Alma in 1861 and the Duncan Dunbar in 1865. The Alma was dashed onto jagged rocks off the coast of Australia, where the crew became trapped in their sinking ship. The local lifeboatmen got a rope aboard and King and 23 colleagues had to work their way along it, hand over hand, with the raging sea and sharp rocks beneath them. They only just made it because the Alma was soon torn apart and dispersed over ten miles of beach.
Rescue by lifeline from shore - how John King survived the Alma sinking
John King’s second shipwreck was a famous one. The Duncan Dunbar collided with an atoll at night off the coast of Brazil. The terrified passengers were sure they were going to drown in the darkness, but they made it through the night. The next morning, the crew lowered passengers off the stern in a chair, one by one, and into a boat that took them to an islet. It was baking hot and the islet was covered with vermin, but the 117 survivors hoped to sight a passing ship. They rigged a shelter from the Duncan Dunbar’s sails and managed to get some supplies ashore including, crucially, some drinking water. Eventually the captain took some of his crew to Pernambuco by boat and a steamship came to the rescue of the remaining people ten days later.

The Duncan Dunbar wrecked on the atoll
Having survived both these disasters, John King returned to England and immediately found a job as able seaman on the SS London in December 1865. It was his first steamship, and virtually a new vessel. He was greatly surprised to recognise passenger Alan Sandilands on board, a fellow survivor of the Duncan Dunbar. The rest, of course, is history. The SS London sank in the Bay of Biscay in early January 1866 and King was one of only 19 survivors. The unfortunate Alan Sandilands didn’t make it this time.

John King - three times lucky
The number of ships lost during this period is shocking. Vessels were smashed by storms, ran aground, collided with other ships, got lost, and caught fire. There were also construction defects to contend with, ageing timbers, incompetent officers, neglectful crews, and unscrupulous owners who scrimped on safety. Between 1867 and 1871, official statistics show that there were over 500 ships lost every year on the coast of Great Britain, and an alarming 34 people died in shipwrecks every week. Yet these figures are only part of the story because there are no records for the number of ships lost away from the British coastline in the Atlantic, Pacific, Baltic and so forth – the real figure is much higher.

The survivors of the London were traumatised and, understandably, reluctant to go to sea again. When survivor David Main first tried to set foot on a ship a few weeks later, the events of the London came back to him so intensely that he fainted. Ship’s boy Alfred White was only fourteen when he escaped the London but he turned away from the sea and became a door-to-door salesman, while steward Edward Gardner opened a barber’s shop. Midshipman Walter Edwards did go back to sea, but a few years later his ship the SS Tacna blew up off the coast of South America and that was enough. He changed careers and became a priest.

What about John King? Maybe we should say ‘lucky’ John King, having survived three sea disasters. He and a few other survivors emigrated to Australia where many of them became miners; King died here, in Queensland, in the 1880s.

About Simon Wills...

Simon is a maritime genealogist and history journalist with a special interest in shipwrecks. He is author of the book The Wreck of the SS London (Amberley, 2016) as well as several other works on seafaring in the 19th Century.

Click here to reach Simon’s author page and to learn more about his books.

Click on the cover image to find out more about his latest volume.


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