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White Wings Vol II. Founding Of The Provinces And Old-Time Shipping. Passenger Ships From 1840 To 1885

Wreck Of The Ship Strathmore

Wreck Of The Ship Strathmore.

In these days of wireless we have no conception of the terrible anxiety people went through in the old days when anything happened to one of the sailing ships. Months and months elapsed before anything was known, and in the interval the relations and friends of those on board went through agonies. A typical case in point where nothing was heard of a ship for about ten months, occurred in 1875-76, when the Strathmore went missing. People had time to almost forget her when a small band of survivors was landed in England, and the tragic story was told.

The Strathmore, Captain Alex. Macdonald, left London on April 17, 1875, for Dunedin with a total of 88 people, including 38 of a crew. In June, when the ship was in the Southern Ocean, the weather was very foggy, and the captain set a course that he thought would take him south of the Crozets. Suddenly at half-past four in the morning on July 1, the ship drove right on a rocky coast, which afterwards proved to be one of the Crozets. Fortunately she ran between two rocks, which held up the fore-end for some time, the stern being under water practically immediately after she struck. There was naturally a poignant scene in the darkness, and Captain Macdonald called out: "Good-bye; it's all over. Save yourselves by the boats at once."

By daylight the whole of the vessel was under water with the exception of the forecastle head. Some of the unfortunate people found a doubtful shelter on top of the deckhouse, and others clambered up the fore-rigging. It was fortunate the ship did hang on to the rocks, even in this precarious position, otherwise the death roll would have been longer than it was.

Captain Macdonald and the first mate were early washed over-board and drowned, and 37 others of the unfortunate people also lost their lives. The second officer, Mr. Peters, who will be remembered in later years in command of the Helen Denny and other vessels that traded to New Zealand, succeeded, with the assistance of others, in getting the gig and the dinghy off the deckhouse and safely launched, and in these as many as could be carried made for the land. The black rocks, one or two 70 feet high, towered in front, and the place looked hopeless, but about a mile away from thepage 106 wreck a tolerable landing place was found. It was late afternoon before the gig returned to the wreck, and five more people were taken off. Many of the shivering people had to spend yet another night on the wreck, not knowing what was going to happen. The weather was the middle of winter, bitterly cold, and as the ship struck when nearly everybody was in bed, many of them had but scanty clothing to protect them against the intense cold.

At daylight the gig returned and eventually all the survivors, forty-nine in number, were got ashore. They had a few blankets and some sailor clothing, but nothing adequate, and many of the people suffered from frost-bite, one man dying. That night the remains of the Strathmore canted over and sank out of sight.

Where the survivors landed was a most desolate spot, rocks everywhere, with nothing in the way of vegetation except some sparse grass and weeds. It was on one of the rocks called "The Twelve Apostles," and the nearest island of any size, which might have been more hospitable, was six miles off—but it might just as well have been sixty, for the shipwrecked people early lost the only two boats they had saved, a storm springing up and smashing them on the rocks. Before these boats were broken up the people managed to save two barrels of gunpowder, one cask of port wine, two cases of rum, one case of brandy, two cases of gin, one case of preserves, one case of boots, and eight tins of sweets. The boots would have been most acceptable, but unfortunately they were women's and almost useless. They also saved a passenger's box, which gave them some blankets, knives, and spoons. The sweet tins came in very useful, as they were used for pots and lamps. There was, fortunately, a good spring of water on the island. Several of those saved had matches, so there was no difficulty about starting a fire, but there was not a great deal of wood about, and even though foraging parties went out they could not rake up more than enough to last about a month. Afterwards they found that bird skins made an excellent fuel, so they were never short of a fire.

The weather was bitterly cold, and one of the survivors died from exhaustion the first day ashore. For the two first nights the people had no shelter whatever, but by the third night they had rigged up a lean-to, made with stones and turf, which held the whole of the party, now numbering forty-eight. Subsequently other shelters were rigged up, and the little community was divided into six messes, each doing its own cooking.

There was only one lady on board the Strathmore, a Mrs. Wordsworth, who was accompanied by her son, both being saved. For these two a separate shelter was made some distance from the others. Mrs. Wordsworth when taken into the boat had on only a nightdress and petticoat. She was treated with special care and attention. Her son gave a graphic account of their life on the island. "The first night," he said, "my mother had a few planks to lie upon, but her legs were nearly broken by the number of people crowding in under the canvas. The two following nights we slept in a sort of open cave, and though covered with frost and with icicles hanging over our heads, we preferred it to our experience of the first night. After this we had a little shanty of our own.

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"The food we chiefly lived on was albatross, of which the young gave more eating than the old, being larger and heavier. Another bird we used was one which we at first thought was a 'mollyhawk,' but we afterwards discovered they were what the sailors call 'stink-pots.' They were very large birds with strong beaks. I remember getting a bite from one which hurt through a Wellington boot, trousers, and drawers. We caught these birds by chasing them into rough places, where they found it difficult to rise, and we then killed them with clubs. Our favourite vegetable was a sort of moss with long spreading roots, and we were often so hungry that we ate dirt and all. Owing to the season of the year the nights were very long, fifteen hours, which we tried to pass in sleep. Our dreams were generally of food in some shape, but there was always a feeling in the background that spoiled these dream feasts.

"When my mother got ashore she was wet through, starving, and cold. One of the sailors took the shirt off his back and gave it to her; and she also had a pair of men's trousers, a pair of men's drawers, a pair of stockings, an overcoat, and other odds and ends, all given her by the sailors. The coarse, rank flesh of the seabirds disagreed with her, and she suffered much from low fever and a dreadful bowel complaint. She was reduced to a perfect skeleton, and was so weak that I had to turn her over in the night when she wanted a change of position. Although she had been very subject to rheumatism she was never troubled with it while on the island, in spite of her great privations. Our clothes were seldom quite dry, and we often had to lie down in absolute slush, with the rain beating on our faces, but none of us took cold, owing, I suppose, to the ammonia in the guano-covered soil.

"Nearly all of us suffered from diarrhoea, and similar trouble, and the wine and spirits were invaluable. A small salt cellar of wine, or spirits and water, was served out nightly until finished, except a bottle of wine and a bottle of rum, which were buried for the use of the sick.

"Two dishes I prepared for my mother were brains of birds, fried, and the heart and liver minced with moss. We had no salt, and flavoured our dishes with gunpowder and sea water.

"When the wood we had collected for firewood was all finished, except a few sticks we kept for the purpose of cleaning the birds we used for food, we tried to keep the fire going with turf, but it merely smouldered slowly. Luckily someone threw a skin on the fire one day, and we were surprised and delighted to find that it burned readily. That, of course, solved the fuel problem. To save our matches we kept a sort of lamp going, feeding it with oil made from the fat we scraped off the bird skins.

"We seldom could clean ourselves, the dirt being too fast on to permit of cold water taking it off. However, we had a method of cleaning our faces by rubbing them with the bird skins, afterwards rubbing them with the feathers.

"At one time we were very hard up for food, having only two birds left. We were very weak and low-spirited. One day some of the party went to the other side of the island where we were wrecked, and there they saw a number of large mud-nests, with a great lotpage 108 of beautiful white birds, 'mollyhawks.' They were so tame that they flocked down at our feet. We killed about a hundred, and had such a feast off the tails! The appendage was cut off close to the back, the long feathers pulled out, and the tail being grilled for a time in the fire, was considered a great delicacy. Another real delicacy came at this time—the mutton birds and birds of a similar kind. Later on we got some eggs."

Mrs. Wordsworth and her son afterwards resided for some years in England, and later came out to Taranaki to live.

It is interesting to know that there are several of Mrs. Wordsworth's descendants in New Zealand. Two of the daughters of her son, Mr. Charles Francis Wordsworth, who wrote the account from which the above extracts are taken, are living in Auckland, two more live in Taranaki, and a son is in the British consulate in Hankow.

It was weary work waiting and waiting for a ship, and some of the poor people doubted whether they would ever be rescued. All the party took turns in watching the signals that were arranged as soon as the shelters were up. A mast was set up on the highest rock on the island, and a blanket hoisted as a signal of distress. During their weary watch the people on the islands had the agony of seeing four vessels pass, but none of them took any notice of the signals, though one of them was within two miles of the island and must certainly have seen that there was someone ashore.

This supposition was afterwards found to be correct. Some of the passengers by a vessel called the White Eagle, upon arrival at Auckland, declared that they saw signals on the island when passing, and that they reported the matter to the ship's officers, who, however, "pooh-poohed" the idea.

The signals were also seen by another vessel, but this was not known to the watchers, so they were saved that much disappointment. Mr. Henry A. King, who now lives at 122, Fox Street, Gisborne, was a passenger by the barque Helen Denny, which left London in June, 1875, bound for Napier. The night after they were due to pass to the south of the Crozets the mate said he was sure he had seen a fire on the islands during the night. When Mr. King suggested that possibly there had been a wreck and there were some survivors on the shore, the mate said: "Oh, no; whalers often go there." When the Helen Denny reached Napier the people ashore asked if anything had been seen of the Strathmore, then long overdue. Mr. King never associated the lights seen by the mate with the missing vessel, but months afterwards, when he heard the story of the wreck, he knew it must have been the fires lit by the Strathmore's survivors.

By December the number of people on the island was reduced to 44, and there were no further deaths.

January, 1876, was more than half gone, and still there was no sign of rescue, "until, on the 21st of that month, an American whaler noticed the signals and stood in for the island. The survivors could hardly speak for joy when they saw her lower two boats, and their feelings call be imagined when they realised that at last rescuepage 109 was at hand. The whaler proved to be the Young Phoenix, and her captain agreed to take the forty-four castaways off the island. It was then getting dark, and after Mrs. Wordsworth and her son and one or two had been taken off, and some bread and pork sent ashore; the whaler stood off, promising to come back for the rest the next morning.

Next day, as early as possible, the rest of the survivors were taken off. Before they left the desolate island where they had spent six weary months, they made crosses which they set up over the graves of their companions who had died, and they also buried an account of the wreck and their hardships.

On board the Young Phoenix the rescued people were treated with the greatest kindness. Hot baths and clean clothes were luxuries they greatly appreciated, and the men experienced the pleasure of a good smoke after having been without tobacco for the whole six months.

As the Young Phoenix was too crowded, the captain transferred twenty of the Strathmore's people to a vessel called the Sierra Morena, which was fallen in with on January 26. The Young Phoenix was bound for Mauritius, to which place she carried her contingent of the saved people, and the Sierra Morena, which was bound for Karachi, India, landed her batch at Point de Galle, Ceylon, as she feared running short of provisions and water. These passengers were later landed at Southampton early in April.

News travelled slowly in those days, and it was not until March, 1876, that word reached London of the fate of the Strathmore.

Thanks to the kindness of Sergeant W. Cooper, of Hamilton, I am able to give a list of the people on board the Strathmore, showing those drowned and those who were saved. Sergeant Cooper received the list from Mrs. Peters, of Arbeath, Scotland, relic of Captain T. B. Peters, who was second mate of the Strathmore when she was wrecked. Mr. Peters later came to New Zealand in command of the Stracathro, when she visited Auckland in 1881. He died later in America. The survivors were:—

Passengers.—Mrs. Wordsworth, Charles F. Wordsworth, Frederick Bently, Spencer Joslin, Hilton Keith, Thomas Henderson, George Crombie, Alfred Walker, Walter Walker (child), William Rooke, George Ward, Joe Ward, George Skidmore, Thos. Standring, James Wright, Robert Wilson, George Mellor, William Wilson, Robert Linnie, E. B. Stanbury.

Crew.—Thos. B. Peters (second mate), John C. Allan (third mate), C. R. Jackson (boatswain), Walter Smith (sailmaker), John Pirie (carpenter), G. F. Buttenshaw, David Wilson, Joe Ducke, John Smith, John Nicol, John Evans, John Warren, J. G. Stainworth, H. Erickson, M. Rioldan, W. Vinning, J. Wilson, J. Wilson, J. Wilson, E. Sharp, W. Husband, J. Frail, J. Leaske, J. Fitzmaurice, C. Tookey, T. Blackmore, H. Turner, F. Carmichael, E. Preaton.

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Those drowned were:—

Passengers.—Mrs. Walker, Miss Henderson, Percy Joslin, Mr. Riddell, Mrs. Riddell, Mr. Mabille, Mrs. Mabille, Mr. Blair, H. C. Sinnock, Mr. E. Goodrich, Mrs. Goodrich, and family of eight, Mr. Silk, Miss Silk, B. W. Bell, H. Dallen, J. Moore, M. Johnson, J. C. Ridge, F. Chilton, J. Dagnam, H. Lewis.

Crew.—Captain Macdonald, William Ramsay (first mate), Peter Jansen, H. Fellows, M. McLean, R. Williss, P. Cogan, J. O. Backstrom, and E. May. There was also a passenger whose name was unknown, but he had been a sergeant in the army.

Mr. Alfred Walker died in Auckland on June 30, 1926, aged 84 years. For many years he was a well-known sharebroker. He was an enthusiastic bowler, being a member of the Carlton Club.

Mr. David Wilson is, we believe, the only survivor of the Strathmore. He is the town clerk at Ormondville, Hawke's Bay. Mr. David Wilson and Mr. Robert Aitkenhead Wilson were sons of Captain Wilson, who commanded the Warrior Queen for several voyages to New Zealand. Mr. R. A. Wilson was a passenger, and Mr. David Wilson an apprentice on the Strathmore. Mr. R. A. Wilson died in Auckland on February 18, 1914. He was for many years manager of Ross and Glendining. He is survived by four sons, Mr. Frank A. Wilson, solicitor, Tauranga; Mr. C. Douglas Wilson, public accountant, Napier; Mr. A. Wilson, town clerk, Otaki; and Mr. R. G. Wilson, architect, Napier. Mr. William Wilson, passenger, and Mr. A. Wilson, one of the crew, belonged to another family.

Another vessel bearing the name Strathmore, a ship of 683 tons, under Captain Mann, sailed from London with 184 passengers on June 29, and arrived at Port Chalmers on October 2, 1856.