The Mystery of the S.S. Waratah


S.S. Waratah
S.S. Waratah

On July 27 1909 the S.S. 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, S.S. 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.

Captain of the ill-fated S.S Waratah

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 on May 29  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 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. ∗See footnote

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 .

Jack Calder, champion Axeman who died aboard the S.S. Waratah
Jack Calder, champion Axeman

Among the more socially prominent passengers aboard the S.S. 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.

The S.S. Waratah being loaded at the port of Adelaide.
The Waratah being loaded at the port of Adelaide.

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 ship 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

Jack Calder

Another letter writer was Laura ‘Evelyn’ Lascelles from a prominent family in Geelong. Enroute to an exciting stay in London, Evelyn celebrated her 20th birthday on board. Recently her chatty letter turned up in a garage sale.


On July 27, as she made her way between Durban and Cape Town, S.S. Waratah overtook and communicated with the cargo steamer Clan McIntyre. 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 S.S. 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 S.S. 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. 

Lloyds Lutine Bell tolls, as it did for the S.S. Waratah.
The bell at Lloyds tolls for the loss of a ship.


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 S.S. 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 S.S, 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 S,S. 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 S.S. 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 S.S. 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.



Here is an account of the SS Waratah on YOUTUBE


Please feel free to leave a comment in the box below.  I love hearing from readers!  Don’t forget to scroll down and complete the little anti-spam sum before pressing ‘SUBMIT’

  1. WOW!! What an incredible story, and so terribly sad. I couldn’t stop reading. Excellent work, Pauline.

  2. Thanks Pauline, a wonderfully poignant story, even HWHFB very moved. I wonder why they carried no wireless or morse equipment on such an otherwise luxury ship; also was the communication between Waratah and Clan McKintyr 8 achieved through flags?
    The threads of this story run so deep even to the connection of the champion woodmen!
    I hope your own beautiful Waratahs are thriving in spite of your unseasonable weather and will continue to do so!

  3. Hi Pauline,
    we have found a postcard from my great grandfather Christopher Robinson who sailed on the Waratah to Sydney where he disembarked before going to visit NZ. He returned to England where he died there. Thanks for your research, it is very interesting & adds to my great grandfather’s story. Regards, Barbara Good

    • Pauline

      Hi Barbara
      How interesting, and how special to have your great-grandfather’s postcard. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article.Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a message.

  4. What a joy to come across your article and touching personal details. With your permission I would like to reference your findings re the Schaumann sisters etc. I have erroneously assumed that the little girl in the red dressing gown could only have been Helen Turner from Durban. Thank you for making my day

    • Pauline

      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for your generous comments, and do feel free to reference any of my findings. I only wish I could have discovered why the sisters were travelling alone. It was such a strange, tragic story wasn’t it?

      • Thank you, Pauline. Yes, tragic sums it all up. The two little girls caught up in a catastrophic situation without family does not bear thinking. Take care, regards, Andrew

  5. Hi Pauline,

    I am a great grandson of Elizabeth (Bessie) Jemima Starke who died on the Waratah with one of her daughters. The English court decided that the Aunt predeceased and Bessie’s children and grandchildren benefited from her estate. My father received a significant sum when he reached 21 years in 1942.
    Her son Sir Hayden Starke later became a High Court judge. I am a descendant of his brother George.
    Bessie’s life story was quite tragic and perhaps worhy of an article in itself.
    Regards, Ken Starke

  6. Pauline,
    Yes she was 28 with 4 infants when her husband Dr Anthony George Hayden Starke died aged 37 in 1877. She had lost 2 young babies in Inglewood where her husband was the chief Medical Officer at the hospital.
    She worked as a postmistress at various post offices around Ballarat, Gippsland and for some years at Clifton Hill.
    She raised the 4 children without re marrying. By 1909 she was retired and living with her very successful barrister son Hayden and one daughter. He became engaged to be married and thought it prudent to send his mother for a visit to England (she had left aged 2) while his new wife settled in.
    And so to the Waratah. She had been booked on another ship but a close friend knew the captain of the Waratah and a late change was made.
    Her mother Bessie Mattingley was the other hero of my family having started the first primary school in N Melbourne at the age of 46 (having then10 children of her own) in the 1850s and it became the largest school in Melb in a few years.
    It survives as the Errol St School.
    The Mattingleys were from Reading and Dr Starke from Honiton in Devon.
    Cheers Ken Starke

    • Pauline

      Thanks so much for the information Ken. What a special woman, and what a poignant story about how she ended up on the Waratah. Do you have a photo of her?

      • Yes, I will email it to you. She was a very elegant young woman.
        Cheers Ken Starke

        • Pauline

          That would be great Ken. I would like to do a separate story if that’s OK. My email address is [email protected]. If there’s anything else you think of that I could include just add it to your email. Best, Pauline.

  7. Hi Pauline,

    For those who might be interested, there will be a final search made for the wreck of the Waratah:



    • Pauline

      Oh, that’s interesting, Andrew. I will add the link to the story. Many thanks.

  8. Thank you for allowing us an insight into such a tragic story.
    Its strange that i would like both the ship to be found to bring closure to the descendants & for it not to be found so the lives so tragically lost to rest where they fell.

    • Pauline

      I understand there is to be another search, Nola. Like you, my sentiments are rather conflicted. Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a message.

  9. Great article. Enjoyed reading about my past family history.

    • Pauline

      Hi Aimee, thanks for your message. I would love to know more about your family’s connection with the Waratah.

  10. Hi Pauline,

    My name is Peter Somerset Marks! My Great Aunt, Lillian Owen nee Somerset,b 1882 in Brisbane d 1926 in Southport, was the widow of Charles Owen, Chief Officer on the SS Waratah. She was the younger sister of my grandmother, Dora Marks nee Somerset.

    Lillian had emigrated from Australia to South Africa in 1904 with her parents and three of her eight siblings. Her mother had died in January 1905 in Johannesburg, and she had departed Capetown bound for England in late December 1906 on board the ‘Miltiades.’ Lillie must have been many years Charles’ junior. They married almost immediately she arrived in England. They married sometime in January 1907 at the Church of St John the Baptist, Leytonstone, Essex, England.

    Lillie and Charles had a daughter, Lillian Audrey Enid Owen, who was born on 6 April, 1908 in Leytonstone, Essex, England. On 3 March 1910, Judge Roberts of the Swansea County Court compensated both Lillie and Audrey for the loss of their husband and father (182 pounds for Lilliw and 90 pounds for Audrey). On 6 April, 1910 Lillie and Audrey sailed for Australia. They settled just outside Rockhampton with Lillie’s widowed father, Henry St John Somerset. In about 1915 they moved to Southport, QLD. Lillie died an untimely death in 1926 and Audrey married Herbert Lloyd Salisbury Baxendale in October 1926. They spent many years in Canada and also in the UK. Audrey died in 1998 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Christopher Guy Beaufort Salisbury Griffin, Audrey’s grandson still lives in British Columbia.

    If you have any further details about Charles Owen and his early life and career I should be grateful. I especially would appreciate knowing how Lillian met Charles.

    Yes, the story of the loss of the SS Waratah is exceptionally tragic.

    Thanking you,

    Peter Somerset Marks

    • Pauline

      Hi Peter, how interesting. I only wish I could help, but I don’t really have any more information. If I ever come across anything I will be sure to let you know. Yes, such a tragedy….and a great mystery.

  11. Loved the story, sad but intriguing. My heart goes out to those little girls, how sad that it remains unknown as to why they were apparently alone on the ship. I wouldn’t have thought that was a normal situation. I wondered if they were connected to one of the crew?
    It was also interesting reading other’s comments… you never know who is reading the stories you write. Nice to know that you have been able to shed some light on their relatives’ stories, as well them being able to add to your research.

    • Pauline

      Hi Chris, yes…the response to this story has been wonderful. I always hope that something may come to light regarding the little girls. Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment.

  12. Pauline you have done some marvellous research. Thank you. i was particularly pleased to read about the Bowdens. Great sleuthing. Annabelle Cotton asks why the Waratah didn’t carry radio transmitters of any sort. Firstly they were a relatively new invention, secondly there were very few receiving stations established to pick up any signals so it was considered an unnecessary luxury.

    David Vernon

    • Pauline

      Thanks so much David. I’d almost given up solving that mystery.

  13. Hi,
    My great-uncle’s granddaughter Alice Maud Dunn (nee Reay) and great-granddaughters Isabella Dunn and Dorothy Dunn were lost on the SS “Waratah”. I would welcome any information you may discover about them.
    Ryan Dudley

    • Pauline

      I certainly will, Ryan. Do you have any photos of them?

      • Sadly not. Just an old piece of paper that mentions it. Also mentioned on John Dunn’s death certificate.

  14. I see a few comments are trickling through. My great Grandfather George Richardson got off at Durban. Subsequently he wrote back to the family about the disappearance. He was the chief engineer at the Geelong Harbour Trust at the time and was in South Africa sourcing dredging equipment. My mother told me he did not like the way the ship rolled and disembarked early although there is nothing in his letter that say this.

    Interestingly the dredging equipment he sourced did not make to Australia (the main dredge). It capsized and sank too.

  15. The Argus, Melbourne, 19 April, 1910.


    George Samuel Richardson, chief
    mechanical engineer of the Geelong
    Harbour Trust, states that he travelled
    from Adelaide to Durban on the Waratah
    on her last voyage.

    Her machinery was in excellent condition.
    Her build and condition were excellent.
    Her equipment and boats were in splendid
    order. She rolled slowly, with a distinct
    pause at the extremity of the roll.

    In the Indian Ocean he noticed that when she
    pitched there was a slow recovery, especially
    from the forward dip.

    One morning he said to the captain, “I don’t
    like the behaviour of this ship of yours any
    too well. She recovers too slowly for me.”

    Captain Ilbery replied, “Yes; she is a little bit
    that way, but you must remember that there
    are many thousands of tons of dead weight
    to shift. When this once gets into motion it
    takes some power to stop it; and when
    stopped it also lakes a considerable force
    to start it in the opposite direction.”

  16. Joseph Edward Burgess, or Joe, as he was better known, was born on 10 January 1870 in Chelmondiston, England. He migrated to South Australia as a seaman on the ship Newbury in 1889, where he married and had a family. From 1908 he spent several years managing a ruby mine in Burma, leaving his family in Adelaide.

    In July 1909 Joe’s youngest brother from England, 25 year old Lance Burgess (Lancelot Alfred Burgess, born 10 January 1884 in Chelmondiston) visited Adelaide but, being away in Burma, Joe missed seeing him. The brothers were most disappointed that they were unable to catch up. Lance had followed the Burgess family’s seafaring traditions and was a crewman (‘general servant’) on a new luxury passenger steamship, the SS Waratah. He had previously served in the Royal Navy on the ships Vivid, Sirius, and Blenheim.

    About one quarter of the Waratah crew were listed as ‘general servant’, just like Lance. which is typical of a ship that was a passenger liner. The ship was on its maiden voyage from England to Australia. Having called at Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, it sailed for South Africa on the return voyage to England. The Waratah disappeared in mysterious circumstances on 27th/28th July 1909 off the east coast of Africa and has never been found since. All 211 passengers and crew aboard, including Lance Burgess, were presumed lost at sea. The Waratah remains one of the great sea mysteries.

  17. Hi Pauline,
    This is particularly poignant for me as Capt. Ilbery was my husband’s half 1st cousin 3 x removed.. Ilbery’s mother was Eliza Vachell Foley whose father was Lieut-Commander Edward Kingston Foley. Many descendants were given the full name of Edward Kingston Foley. Eliza’s mother died young, so hubby descends from the third wife. By an amazing coincidence my daug has emigrated to Australia and met her future husband by the wharf where Ilbery sailed from…Woolloomooloo…as her grandmother in aw lives in one of the roads leading down to it.
    What is really tragic was that this was supposed to be Ilbery’s last voyage.

  18. Trying to research my great grandmothers companion. They lived in Durban. Uncle Dick as he was known to us died in 1958. We understood his family died on the SS Waratah. Would like to know more.

    • Pauline

      Hi Jenny, I would need to at least know Uncle Dick’s surname to do any research about his family.

  19. The link in the footnote labeled “THE SS WARATAH AND THE CURSE OF THE EMPIRE HOTEL” does not work.

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.