The Mystery of the S.S. Waratah
On July 28 1909 the SS Waratah was sighted by a passing ship off the east coast of South Africa, enroute to London from Sydney. She was carrying 211 passengers and crew, many of them Australian. The ship was never seen again, but no bodies or debris were ever recovered. The location of the wreck of the Waratah remains a complete mystery.
The 9,339 ton steamship had been built in Glasgow the previous year for the Blue Anchor Line. She was a luxurious passenger liner, but also intended as an emigrant ship for the UK-Australia run. Her salon walls were decorated with crimson waratahs, floral emblem of New South Wales. Although not carrying radio or telegraphic equipment, the Waratah boasted many innovative features, including a distillery capable of producing 5,500 gallons of fresh water per day. With eight watertight compartments she was (like the Titanic then under construction in Belfast) considered unsinkable. Her captain, Josiah Ilbery, had served the Blue Anchor Line for over 40 years and was very highly regarded.
On April 27 1909 the ship had left London for her second voyage to Sydney carrying 22 cabin passengers and almost 200 emigrants; the latter housed in dormitories in the hold. The ship experienced no bad weather and the passage was uneventful.
Passengers embarking at Sydney for the return voyage to England included two sisters, recorded only as Leona and Dora Schaumann aged 11 and 10 respectively. Who they were and why they were travelling without their parents is another mystery. The strongest clue to the girls’ identity can be found in international shipping records, which reveal that on May 21 1898, 28 year old Klara O Schaumann arrived in the English port of Liverpool from New York, travelling second class aboard the Cunard Liner Etruria with her three young daughters; Leona, aged 4, Dora, 3 and Chancy, 10 months. By the time of the Waratah disappearance Klara Schaumann’s older daughters would have been 14 and 13 but it should be remembered that early records are not always accurate. The unusual names suggest that these were the two Schaumann children listed as being aboard the doomed Waratah. How they came to be in Australia is unknown.
The little girls boarded the ship in Sydney at the last minute, in the same party as six members of the Bowden family;
Mr Bowden aged 40
Mrs Bowden aged 34
Miss Kathleen Bowden aged 6
Master Harry Bowden aged 11
Mrs Bowden aged 55
Miss G Bowden aged 25
There were conflicting reports about the identity of the Bowdens. One paper suggested that Mr Bowden was a miner; another that the family was involved in the hotel business. No genealogical data on them can be found, and there is no information linking the Bowdens to the Schaumann girls.
In Melbourne, two brawny young Tasmanians joined the ship, bound for London. Alf Clarke was from Wynyard, on the north-west coast of the state. His companion was a twenty four year old, six foot five giant called Patrick John ‘Jack’ Calder, from the small rural community of Cygnet. The pair were champion axemen. Alf had won the World Championship Underhand Cut several years earlier. Stories are still told at Tasmanian wood chopping carnivals about his famous size fourteen boots, and the new pair he had bought in preparation for the trip to England. Both he and Calder were due to compete in exhibition matches to be held later that year at the famous Crystal Palace in Sydenham .
Among the more socially prominent passengers aboard the Waratah was Mrs Agnes Grant Hay, who joined the ship at Adelaide with her daughter Helen. Mrs Hay was the widow of the South Australian businessman and politician Alexander Hay. On 26 February 1909, the family mansion at Victor Harbour had burned to the ground and the trip to London was intended as a distraction from the disastrous fire.
Farm produce was loaded at each Australian port. Oats, tallow, butter, flour and meat (including 8,000 crates of rabbit carcasses) gradually filled the hold. The ship left Adelaide on July 7, docking at Durban on July 25. Thanks to light winds and calm seas most passengers had enjoyed the trip, though English engineer Claude Sawyer was an exception. Despite being an experienced traveller, Sawyer’s nights had been disturbed by terrifying dreams in which a blood stained figure wielding a sword rose from the sea then disappeared beneath towering waves.
Sawyer interpreted the nightmares as a premonition and decided to leave the ship in Durban, despite having paid his passage through to London. However, conscious that such fears may appear foolish he expressed another, less fanciful concern about the Waratah in a cable to his wife; ‘Thought Waratah top-heavy’, landed Durban.’. A week later Sawyer resumed his journey to London in another ship. His vision of the swordsman would later prompt Arthur Conan Doyle to hold a séance in an attempt to contact the sprits of the Waratah’s passengers and crew.
Those passengers who were continuing their journey aboard the Waratah took the opportunity to write home. On August 23, after the ship disappeared, the Daily Telegraph published a report from the New South Wales port of Newcastle; ‘The acting postmaster at Newcastle, Mr W. Harris, has advised the Deputy Postmaster-General that a mail was received from Durban by the steamer Magdala which arrived here yesterday, dated July 27th. The mail, he states, contains letters and many picture postcards from passengers on the missing steamer Waratah to persons in Australia and elsewhere.
One of those letters was from young Jack Calder who had written to a friend in Tasmania. It was full of excitement and anticipation, but in retrospect it was also very poignant;
You will be surprised to hear of me being this far away from Tasmania, and still going to pull up, I hope, in the greatest city in the world, London. I have with me, for a mate, champion axeman, Alf Clark. We are under an engagement to give exhibitions of chopping. We are taking Australian logs with us. We sailed by the S.S. Waratah, Lund’s Blue Anchor Line. She is 10,000 tons. We left Melbourne on July 1, had a few days in Adelaide, and set out for Africa on the 7th. We had only one really rough day, that was coming through the Great Australian Bight and around Cape Leeuwin. But the Waratah being such a grand sea boat we did not feel it much. I was never a bit seasick and feel better than ever I did in my life. With kind regards to self and all Tasmanian friends
Yours as B4
On July 27, as she made her way between Durban and Cape Town, the Waratah overtook and communicated with the cargo steamer Clan MacIntyre. The following exchange took place;
Clan McIntyre – ‘What ship is that?’
Waratah – ‘Waratah for London’
Clan McIntyre – ‘Clan McIntyre for London. What weather have you had?’
Waratah – ‘Strong South-West and Southerly winds across.’
Clan McIntyre – ‘Thanks. Goodbye and pleasant voyage.’
Waratah – ‘Thanks, same to you. Goodbye.’
The much slower Clan McIntyre reached Cape Town undamaged after weathering a severe storm but the 450 foot Waratah had vanished.
The ship was carrying enough provisions to last twelve months, and without any sign of debris there were no immediate fears for her safety. When a search did begin it was extensive, involving many vessels. The Sabine, chartered by the Blue Anchor Line, covered 14,000 miles in a systematic 88 day hunt, but found no trace of the Waratah. However, in early August several crew members aboard SS Tottenham claimed to have spotted the body of a little girl. A young apprentice reported she was wearing a red dressing gown. The second mate gave a similar, but more detailed description. He said she was dressed in a red cape and black stockings and appeared to be about 10 or 12 years of age. Could this have been the body of one of the Schaumann sisters? The Tottenham’s chief engineer argued that it was simply a roll of paper in red wrapping. The matter was never resolved, as by the time the Tottenham turned about the object had disappeared.
Eventually the search was scaled down. The S.S. Waratah was officially listed as missing by Lloyds of London in December 1909. Back in Australia, relatives refused to give up. In February 1910 public subscription funded a new, three month search by the SS Wakefield. Once again, no trace of debris could be found. Family and friends would suffer the agony of never knowing the fate of their loved ones. Inevitably there were stories of deckchairs marked SS Waratah being washed up and of messages in bottles. All such reports were revealed as cruel hoaxes
Several months after the ship’s disappearance, the novelist and master mariner Joseph Conrad was asked to write an article on the subject for London’s Daily Mail. The piece was published on September 18 1909, under the title The Silence of the Sea. Although Conrad reluctantly concluded that the Waratah had foundered, he commented; ‘But he who remembers the tales passing from lips to lips in the world of great waters, tales of ships lost and found again, all these tales belonging to the tradition of the wonders of the sea, will never say die. Never. At first in hope, afterwards perhaps because man’s grave silence is the only dignified answer upon the cruel mysteries of the sea. ‘
It was December 1910 before an inquiry into the missing ship opened in London. There were conflicting reports regarding the Waratah’s’ stability. Some previous passengers testified that the ship handled perfectly well, while others stated that she was unusually slow to recover from rolls. A seaman called Nicholas testified that he had left the ship in Sydney because the Chief Officer was ‘…’afraid of the vessel’s instability, and frequently predicted that she would yet prove somebody’s coffin’.
An alternative theory advanced for the ship’s disappearance was that a detonator had fallen into coal during mining and was inadvertently shovelled into the Waratah’s furnace at sea, causing a catastrophic explosion. Another suggestion was that the vessel had been sucked under by a giant whirlpool.
The court of inquiry concluded that the ship had capsized during a storm of exceptional violence, sinking so quickly that any debris was trapped below the wreck. Concerns were expressed about the Waratah’s stability and though not directly blamed for the tragedy, the Blue Anchor Line suffered a complete loss of public confidence. They sold their remaining fleet to the P. & O. Company in 1910.
It was not until crew members were officially listed as dead that their dependents could claim compensation. Similarly, there were long delays in the winding up of the estates of the missing. Mrs Agnes Hay’s will could not be found and in December 1910 Letters of Administration were granted. It was presumed that her will had either gone down with the Waratah or had burned in the house fire at Victor Harbor.
The fact that no-one could determine exactly when the ship sank caused legal difficulties for another family. Among the first class passenger who had embarked at Melbourne was a Mrs Starke, mother of the prominent Victorian barrister Mr Hayden Starke. Mrs Starke’s 90 year old aunt, Miss Maria Mattingley died in London on the very day the Waratah was last seen. Technically, if the ship had foundered just one minute after Miss Mattingley died, Mrs Starke’s children stood to inherit some £26,000 under the old lady’s will. One minute before, and the estate would go to another relative in England. Frustratingly, the outcome of the ensuing court-case held in 1913 is another mystery.
Touching tributes to the young axeman Alf Clark and Jack Calder later appeared in the Tasmanian press. It seems odd that the loss of so many members of the Bowden family did not prompt similar public comment. One tragic explanation is that there was simply no-one left to mourn them.
There have been many attempts to locate the wreck of the Waratah, the most comprehensive being a twenty year search by the South African marine explorer, Emlyn Brown. Despite the use of highly sophisticated equipment, Brown was forced to admit defeat in 2004; ‘I’ve exhausted all options. I now have no idea where to look.’
One recent and disturbing theory for Brown’s failure is that the Waratah did not sink immediately but lost her rudder in the storm and drifted south, finally perishing in the icy wastes of the South Pole. According to a report in an English newspaper decades earlier (Nottingham Evening Post April 8 1937) a powerful current may have dragged the ship along; ‘The Aghulles [Agulhas] current, flowing from the African coast to the South Pole is probably responsible for the total absence of wreckage in the case of many ships lost in African waters. Outstanding in this connection is the mysterious disappearance of the liner Waratah in 1910 [sic] One can only hope that such a terrible end was not the fate of the Waratah’s passengers and crew, particularly for two frightened little girls, Leona and Dora Schaumann, who were denied the comforting presence of their parents.
In 1910 Alfred Styan Dendy published a poem about the disaster titled The Loss of the S.S. Waratah. It included the following lines;
Full burst the storm with staggering force;
Slow speeding; all heeding.
Hardly she keeps her proper course;
Seas churning; foam spurning.
O Southern swell! Oh Southern swell!
Sad tragedies lurk in your kelp and shell.
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