Shipwrecked: how the tragedy of the SS London shocked Victorian society and changed the course of maritime history forever

The Wreck of the SS London.jpg

I was at the Guildhall Library today, to hear the historian and genealogist Simon Wills speak about one of the worst maritime disasters ever recorded: the sinking of the SS London in 1866. Following ten years of research, Simon has published a book upon this subject and he talked to us, very eloquently, about his research findings – some of which I have summarised below.

On 11th January 1866, a British steamship, SS London, sank in the Bay of Biscay en route from England to Australia. 220 lives were lost – and two countries plunged into mourning. With the full impact of what had happened still being absorbed, a media frenzy ensued.

Shipwrecks, so I learned today, were tragically common in the 1860s – the official figure being 10 every week – yes, every week – with a loss of at least 34 lives. Those figures, however, are likely to be a serious underestimate, given that they only reflect the shipwrecks which took place off the coast of Britain. So, why was this particular shipwreck considered so significant? The high death toll, without doubt, was one factor – but there were others, also. To understand them, we need to consider the era, the ship herself and the various persons who played a part in the SS London’s untimely demise.

Launched in 1864, the SS London was a steam ship that looked like a sailing ship: a “hybrid” ship, as they were called back then. Just two years old when she embarked upon her final journey, the SS London, was considered both modern and luxurious. Beautifully decorated inside, she was capable of travelling at up to 11 knots.

Although no plans of the ship remain, we have a good understanding of its design thanks to a model built by one of its few survivors. With a hold at the bottom of the vessel containing cargo, the cabins for second and third class passengers were based on the lower deck and those of the first class passengers above them in the poop. The engine room was located in the middle of the ship; above it, a funnel and engine hatch. The latter was made of glass and its removal would mean the engine room filling with water – this would be significant. A distinguishing feature of the ship was the series of large glass port holes along the poop, designed to let in light. The ship’s hull was made of iron and contained “scuppers”, designed to drain out water. If those scuppers became blocked, the water would have nowhere to go – again, significant.

The ‘London’ had seven lifeboats – more than the legal requirement, but only sufficient to get one third of the passengers off the ship. If you’re thinking that this sounds familiar, you are absolutely right. In a time far less concerned with health & safety than our own, ship owners disliked lifeboats, feeling that they marred the view from the deck and objecting to the expense of replacing them every time they rotted – which was often.
So, what do we know about the people who embarked upon that fateful voyage and how they would have spent their time on board?

Needless to say, life was much nicer if you were a first-class passenger. You had your own cabin, complete with bed and bed linen, access to a steward and the option of choosing exactly what you wanted to eat, every single day. Second class passengers fared reasonably well, although their cabins were smaller and they often had to share them with other, unknown, passengers. Food choices were much more limited and there were restrictions on which areas of the ship you could visit.

As for third class passengers – well, if you’ve seen ‘Titanic’ you’ll already have a pretty good idea of how those paying the cheapest fares were treated. The only part of the ship they were allowed on was the main deck, food was not only restricted choice-wise, but also rationed – and you slept in dormitory-style accommodation.

The information that we hold about the passengers is limited. Mid-Victorian era records don’t tend to be particularly accurate and four different versions of SS London’s passenger list exist. That said, historians have been able to piece together details about some of the passengers from their obituaries. These are helpful in explaining why said passengers were on the ship: the main reason being emigration, with health reasons also playing a part – particularly for those suffering from chest complaints, bronchitis and TB, who had been advised by their doctors to seek out a warmer climate. Some of the passengers were returning to Australia after family or business visits to the UK.

There were even a number of celebrities on board. The eldest son of William Debenham, founder of the Debenhams retail chain was one, as was Gustavus V Brooke, a well-known Shakespearean actor much loved in Australia and on his way there for a farewell tour. Amusingly, this larger-than-life character, described as “dissipated” for his love of gambling, wine and women (remember, this is the Victorians we’re talking about) had been chased on-board by debt collectors and only managed to avoid them by dressing as a sailor and scrubbing the deck while his enemies looked for him.

The crew comprised 91 men and one woman – the latter performing a dual role of stewardess and nurse. Although the oldest member of the crew was 48, the average age of the crew, who numbered seamen, deck officers, stewards, surgeons and cooks, was 24. Sadly, no photos exist of any of the crew members.

The final voyage of the SS London began at London’s East India Docks on 28th December 1865, from where she sailed to Gravesend and then on to Plymouth, arriving one day late on 4th January 1866 due to storms. She departed Plymouth on 6th January, embarking upon a journey to Australia that was expected to take 60-90 days.

The very next day, the weather began to deteriorate and many of the passengers were afflicted with seasickness; life went on fairly normally, however, and a traditional Sunday church service was held. By 8th January, however, the bad weather had turned into a gale – with some serious consequences. Loose coal was strewn across the deck, blocking the scuppers and causing water to come into some of the cabins – when the passengers told the crew, however, they were informed there was no cause for concern. The severity of the gale continued, and the following day a lifeboat was torn away, followed by the jib-boom and the tops of the foremast and mainmast.

By 10th January, every single person on board the ship was afraid for their life. The gale had become yet more violent and was accompanied by the constant sound of water rushing into the vessel. A further two lifeboats were lost, as were some more sails. Finally, the Captain decided to put the ship about – a decision which with hindsight has been criticised, with maritime experts arguing that the ship had passed through the worst of the danger by then and that the Captain steered it back into the eye of the storm.

Several more critical incidents occurred which meant the ship and her passengers were doomed. A huge wave crashed on to the deck, smashing the engine hatch and causing water to flood the engine-room, extinguishing its fires. It also caused a massive hole, which the crew tried, unsuccessfully, to fill with weighted down tarpaulins and mattresses. Both crew and passengers tried desperately to pump the water out of the ship, using giant wheels – but to no avail.

At 5am on 12th January, the ship’s stern was caught by another great wave, which smashed all of the portholes. With more and more water coming into the ship, the Captain decided to launch one of the remaining lifeboats. Horrendously, it sank straightaway.

Fear does strange things to people. By now, the passengers and the three ministers on board the ship had been praying for several days and seemed resigned to their fate, not helped by the Captain having told them there was no hope of survival. One of the few surviving crew members later commented, rather cynically, “Praying paralysed them.”

An attempt was made to launch a second lifeboat, but the sea and the gale were so fierce that none of the female passengers and very few of the others could be persuaded to get into it. In the end, three male passengers and 16 crew members did board it – the only survivors of the shipwreck. They were just 100 feet away from the SS London when she sank, taking 220 men, women and children down with her.

Post-disaster, controversy raged, with arguments in Parliament and the public demanding answers to its many questions. Six months of media coverage followed, as did a public enquiry – described by the papers as a “whitewash”. The Australian press, in particular, was highly critical of the ship’s owners, its captain and the UK government. Had the ship been overloaded with cargo? All passenger ships at that time made much more money from cargo than from passengers, and it was known that the SS London’s hold had been filled to the brim. Did the inexperience of the ship’s captain contribute to the tragedy? Although a respected sailor, he had never encountered weather conditions as severe as these before. Why had so much coal become loose and blocked the scuppers? And what lessons could be learned to prevent further such disasters?

Very likely, you will have read the above and drawn your own conclusions. I did the same, listening to Simon talk, but am keen to learn more and will definitely be reading his book, The Wreck of the SS London – given what an engaging and knowledgeable speaker Simon is, I strongly suggest that you do the same.

SS London pamphlet

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