On this day in history….11th January 1866

On this day in history : 11th January 1866 – SS London, a British steamship, sinks in the Bay of Biscay…. At least 220 lives are lost….

Although a steamship SS London looked more like a sailing ship – a ‘hybrid’ ship, as they were known…. The London was just 2-years-old, having been built at the Blackwall Yard and then launched on the River Thames on the 20th of July 1884…. She was considered to be modern, luxurious – and had a top-speed of 11 knots…. She also boasted 7 lifeboats – more than the legal requirement for a ship of her size at the time…. Tragically, these lifeboats were to be of little use….

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SS London – Image from the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland – Public domain

SS London’s final voyage began on the 28th of December 1865…. She left London’s East India Docks, under the command of Captain Martin – an experienced Australian navigator – and sailed to Gravesend in Kent…. From here she went on to Plymouth, arriving on the 4th of January 1866 – a day late, as due to storms she had taken refuge near to Portsmouth…. On the 6th of January she finally set sail for Melbourne, a voyage expected to take between 60 to 90 days….

On board were some 239 passengers and crew, including 6 stowaways…. Out of the 92 crew all were men with the exception of 1 woman, who acted as part nurse / part stewardess…. The average age of the crew members was just 24….

The 3rd class passengers would have been herded together, sleeping in dormitory-type accommodation…. At the opposite end of the scale 1st class passengers enjoyed the luxury of having their own cabins…. Among the passengers were several celebrities and dignitaries – including Gustavus V Brooke, a well-known Shakespearean actor of the time and very popular in Australia…. Also on board was the eldest son of William Debenham – founder of the chain of department stores….

By the second day the weather had started to deteriorate and by the 8th of January it had turned into a howling gale…. The following day it was so severe that a lifeboat was torn away, followed by the jib-boom and then the tops of the mainmast and foremast…. By the 10th of January people were in fear for their lives; 2 more lifeboats had been lost, along with more sails…. It was at this point that the captain decided to turn back – and he steered towards the eye of the storm…. A decision that was later to be criticised, as they had already come through the worst of the storm….

A huge wave crashed on to the deck, the engine hatch was smashed and water flooded the engine room, putting the fires out…. A massive hole appeared which the crew attempted to plug with mattresses and tarpaulins…. Both crew and passengers frantically tried to pump out the water….

At 5am on the 12th of January another huge wave crashed into the stern, smashing all the portholes…. The captain decided it was time to abandon ship and a lifeboat was launched…. However, it promptly sank, as all the lifeboats had been swamped….

By now the passengers were giving up hope….and had all but resigned themselves to their fate…. Many had spent time with the 3 ministers on board the ship, praying and trying to find some comfort…. Matters were not helped by the attitude of the captain, who repeatedly told them there was no hope….

Another lifeboat was successfully launched – but by now spirits were so crushed that nobody, especially the women, would attempt to get into it…. In the end it was 16 crew members and 3 male passengers who took the places in the boat…. Ironically, they were the only ones to survive – and were rescued the following day….

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The London going down – Frederick Whymper – From page 293 of the 1887 book ‘The Sea : its stirring story of adventure, peril & heroism’ – Public domain

SS London went down taking at least 220 men, women and children with her…. The successfully launched lifeboat was just 100ft away – and so the 19 onboard had little choice but to witness the sinking…. It is said as the doomed ship sank beneath the waves the last thing to be heard from her was the sound of singing – the popular hymn of the time ‘Rock of Ages’….

Following the sinking of SS London there was much controversy…. The public were furious and arguments raged in Parliament…. A public inquiry was held and concluded 3 main factors contributed to London’s fate…. The captain’s decision to turn back into the storm to return to Plymouth being the first…. Secondly, the ship was over-laden – she was carrying 345 tons of railway iron…. Finally, 50 tons of coal carried on the upper deck had blocked the scupper holes, which then prevented the drainage of seawater….

In the weeks and months to follow several bottles containing messages washed up on the French shores of the Bay of Biscay, containing farewell letters from some of those lost on SS London….

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power....
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1866 pamphlet describing the disaster – H.Pearce (publisher) – Houghton Library – Public domain

On this day in history….10th November 1847

On this day in history : 10th November 1847 – A passenger ship is wrecked off the coast of Southern Ireland, killing 92 out of the 110 onboard – it prompts the construction of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse….img_4503

The ‘Stephen Whitney’, a 1,034 ton ship, was built in New York around 1840; it was a fully rigged, wooden vessel and was part of Robert Kermit’s Red Star Line…. It had been named after an investor in Kermit’s Company, Stephen Whitney, one of the wealthiest merchants in New York City….

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Stephen Whitney – Magazine of American History, 1890 – Google Books – Public domain

The ship left New York on the 18th of October bound for Liverpool, with a stop scheduled for Cork…. As well as the 76 passengers onboard it also carried a cargo which included 10,000 bushels of corn, 600 boxes of cheese, 1,000 barrels of flour, 1,000 bales of raw cotton and 20 boxes of clocks…. The voyage across the Atlantic was uneventful but it was as they approached the Irish coast on Wednesday the 10th of November that the weather became hazy making visibility difficult – and then it turned to thick fog…. Captain Charles W. Popham, originally from Cork, mistook Crookhaven Lighthouse for one at the Old Head of Kinsale – which is situated a little further around the coast to the east….

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Rock Island and Crookhaven Lighthouse

Around 10pm the ship struck the western tip of West Calf Island (between Cape Clear and Skull in Co. Cork) and ran aground…. Within ten minutes the ship had completely broken up….92 out of the 110 passengers and crew onboard perished…. The maritime community had long complained about the positioning of the main lighthouse on Cape Clear – the loss of the Stephen Whitney prompted the replacement of the lighthouse with one on the Fastnet Rock….

Construction of the first lighthouse began in 1853 and it went into operation on the 1st of January 1854…. Built from cast iron with an inner lining of brick, at a cost of £17,390, it was designed by George Halpin…. The tower was 19.43m high with an 8.43m high lantern housing on top – making a total structure of approx. 28m high…. The oil burning lamp put out 38 kilocandelas of light; the average modern lighthouse puts out 1,300 kilocandelas as a comparison….

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Fastnet Rock Lighthouse C.1900 – National Library of Ireland on The Commons – no restrictions

It didn’t take long for it to be realised that the structure was too weak…. In high winds the tower would shake – to the extent that crockery would sometimes fly off of tables…. Various attempts were made to strengthen it – such as putting a cast around the lower section and filling it with stone….

In 1891 it was decided that it was time to replace it…. The new lighthouse was designed by William Douglass and constructed from stone, as cast iron was now deemed unsatisfactory – although the lower half of the original lighthouse was left standing and was used as an oil store….

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The second Lighthouse – the base of the previous (used as an oil store) can be seen to the right, on top of the Rock – Image : Anthony Patterson from Cork, Ireland CC BY 2.0

Construction began in 1897 and the new lighthouse entered service on the 27th of June 1904; it had cost £90,000 to build…. The tower stands some 45m high and at the base is 16m in diameter…. The original paraffin lamp was replaced by electric on the 10th of May 1969 – and at the end of March 1989 it was converted to an automatically operated lighthouse….The lamp has power of 2,500 kilocandelas and can be seen from a distance of 27 nautical miles….

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Image : Odd Wellies via Flickr

On the 16th of October 2017 downgraded Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland; a gust of 191 kph was recorded at the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse…. Had it not of been automated, I wonder if the crockery would have stayed on the tables….