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

Burning Of The William Brown

Burning Of The William Brown.

A thrilling story of the sea is that of the burning of the ship William Brown off the Western Isles. Fortunately there was only one life lost, but if it had not been for the timely arrival of a passing brig the toll must have been much heavier, and one can readily conceive the fate of the William Brown being added to the long list of "mysteries of the sea." A fine vessel of between 400 and 500 tons, she, together with her cargo, was valued at some £30,000. Her commander, Captain Barclay, was a particularly fine sailor, and during the terrible ordeal he acted up to the best traditions of the British mercantile marine. I have been fortunate in happening upon two excellent accounts of the tragedy, one being the story told by Mr. P. Thomson, and the other by Mr. Thomas Hirst. Mr. Thomson's narrative appeared in a contemporary Scotch paper, and I am indebted for a copy of it to Mr. M. G. Thomson, of Dunedin, a grandson. Mrs. Hirst's story was told in a letter she wrote to her children, and for a copy of that I am indebted to Miss Lucy Devenish, of New Plymouth, a grand-daughter of this fine old pioneer lady.

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There were nine passengers on the William Brown, and the crew brought the total on board to twenty-three souls. In addition to Mr. Thomson and family, and Mr. and Mrs. Hirst, there were also on board Mr. and Mrs. Muckleston, who, like the Hirsts, were afterwards well-known residents of New Plymouth.

The Hirsts had emigrated to New Zealand, and were Home on a trip to visit some of their relations who lived in Yorkshire. People who believe in occult influences will be interested in a rather peculiar incident connected with this family. Mrs. Hirst had an elder sister named Margaret, between the two there being a strong bond of sympathy. Margaret for Some reason or other took a strong dislike to the William Brown, and did all she could to persuade Mr. Hirst not to take passage by her, but he was anxious to get back to New Zealand, and did not listen to the protest of his sister-in-law. One morning after the William Brown had sailed Margaret came down to breakfast depressed and anxious. Pressed for the reason she said she had had a strange vision or dream. She thought she saw the door open, and Mrs. Hirst enter with outstretched arms, saying, "Here we are, Margaret,; and we've lost everything." A few weeks later the identical door opened and Mrs. Hirst entered, her hands outspread, and she used the very words Margaret had heard in her dream.

It was on September 5, 1861, that the William Brown sailed from London for Nelson, but owing to bad weather and other causes she put in at Plymouth and did not sail from that port until the 17th. Across the Bay of Biscay dreadful weather was experienced, but all went well until October 2, when just after tea one of the sailors put his head down the hatch, and asked in an excited voice for any buckets or pans, as a fire had broken out in the forehold. "I felt as though my blood had ceased running for a moment, and grew quite chilled," wrote Mr. Thomson, "but to hand up our slop-pans, throw on my coat, and rush forward to see what was the extent of the danger, was the work of an instant. I found that smoke was issuing from out of the bulkhead which divides the forecastle from the hold, and also through the deck at the foremast."

After going back to reassure the rest of the passengers, who were all on deck in a state of alarm, Mr. Thomson went below to collect his papers and a few other things, but even then smoke was entering the cabin. Going on deck again he helped the crew to fight the fire. Holes were cut in the deck, and water was poured down, and it was thought that they were getting the fire under. Just at this stage occurred the only fatality that marked this exciting fire. The captain had sent the steward down into the cabin to get up some provisions, the sextant, and charts, for fear they would have to take to the boats. The man made one trip, and then went below a second time. When the captain called, the steward did not answer, and, fearing a mishap, the captain rushed into the cabin, where he found the poor fellow in a state of collapse, overcome by the smoke. The captain and Mr. Hirst got the man on deck and every effort was made to restore animation, but life was extinct.

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All this time the fire was gaining in intensity, and Mr. Thomson, who had a rifle and cartridges, began firing shots in the hope that some vessel would see the flashes. Further desperate efforts were made by the crew, with the help of the male passengers, to fight the fire, but at last came the order to clear away the long boat, and then the passengers knew that the worst had happened. As the boat had been used as a pen for sheep it was in a very dirty state, but it was soon cleared out and with much difficulty launched. The gale that had been blowing had calmed down very much, but still there was a bad sea running, and more than once it was thought the boat would be swamped, or crushed against the side of the burning ship.

Then came the difficult task of getting the passengers off. First came the children, then the women, and then the men, and last the crew. It was a fearful job. A line was passed round the body of each passenger, who was then lowered into the little boat, which was tossing wildly alongside. "A great deal of water came aboard," says Mr. Thomson, "and the passengers were wet up to the middle. Once the boat was nearly down; as the ship rolled, it caught the side of the boat and nearly forced it under, till the water rushed in. I thought all was over, and instinctively began to throw off my topcoat, which was ballasted with over a hundred rounds of ball cartridge, but it rose again immediately, and was with difficulty veered astern, and fastened to the ship with a long rope.

"By this time the flames had broken out through the deck, and all round the forecastle hatch was a mass of flame. The foremast began to shake, and the captain ordered the longboat's painter to be cut, so that the boat might be clear of the ship before it fell, which it shortly did, bringing down with it the main topgallant mast, etc. This was at 11.15 p.m. So here we were, adrift in a leaky boat, over 200 miles from the nearest land, with a very heavy cross sea running which took the utmost skill and attention of the captain and crew to guard against.

"We kept as near the burning ship as we could, as if any ship was near it would bear down on the flames, and we could thus be more readily saved. At 1 a.m. the mainmast fell, and the ship drifted slowly before the wind, while we were rapidly going to leeward and the wind and the sea was getting worse. Shortly after this one of the crew said he saw a vessel's lights coming near us."

The poor people could not believe it at first, but the joyful news was true, and they could distinguish the sails of a brig near the burning wreck. The stranger sailed round, and at one time was so close to the drifting boat that the shipwrecked people tried to attract his attention by shouting. Then Mr. Thomson tried his rifle, but it was so wet that he could not fire it off. The brig hove-to near the burning ship, and Captain Barclay sent off his second mate and four sailors in the gig, which was being towed behind the longboat, with instructions to try and reach the brig, and tell them of the plight of the longboat, which the sailors were unable to navigate in the sea that was running. Fortunately the gig reached the brig all right, coming up to her at about 3 a.m. In the meantime thepage break
The Handsome Ship Rodney.

The Handsome Ship Rodney.

(See page 184.)

Wreck Of The Ship Strathmore.

Wreck Of The Ship Strathmore.

(See page 105.)

page 113 longboat was drifting all the time to leeward, and the men left in her could do nothing more than keep her head to the wind and sea.

Everyone prayed for daylight, and when it came there was no sign of the brig, but a little later they saw her bearing down on them, making a zig-zag course in the direction it was thought the boat would drift. Soon she was alongside, and willing hands soon got them on board the brig, which proved to be the Hedvig Charlotta, of Stockholm, Captain F. A. Hallengrien, bound from St. Ubes to Rio with salt.

The people of the brig could not do enough for the unfortunate passengers and crew of the William Brown, and Captain Hallengrien put in to Madeira to land them so that they could get back to England. It was Sunday, October 6, four days after the fire, that they were landed at Funchal. They landed in a poor plight, one wanting shoes, another a coat, a third a cap, and so on; "a beautiful set of scarecrows," Mr. Thomson called them. They got a very cool reception from the British Consul, and were all billeted on one Portuguese family—two beds for twenty-three people! It was a poor sort of reception, but things improved later on, and, anyhow, they were thankful to be alive.

The next thing was to get back to England. The captain, the mates, and two cabin passengers took passage to Lisbon in the Portuguese mail boat, but the rest of the shipwrecked people had to wait until October 18 for the English mail steamer. Before these people left Madeira their first bad impressions of the Consul and the British residents were quite changed, Mr. Thomson saying that the greatest kindness was shown them, and everything was done to ease the calamity as much as possible by gifts of clothes and other necessities.

Mr. Thomson eventually left London again in the ship Matoaka on November 14, 1861, and arrived at Lyttelton on February 11, 1862.

"We had terrible weather through the Bay of Biscay," wrote Mrs. Hirst. "Such gales, and the wind mostly against us. On the second of October the wind changed in our favour, but there was a fearful sea running. We sat rather long at our tea. The captain was cheerful and hopeful, and after tea he went on deck, my husband going with him. In a few minutes later one of the sailors came and said there was smoke coming from the hold. The captain and mates went forward. My husband came and told me, and I put on my shawl and bonnet, and went up on deck. The men came to get buckets, or anything to hold water. Some of the children had gone to bed, but we got them up and dressed them on the poop, and brought their blankets up.

"It began to rain, and we went down again into the cabin, but it was full of smoke and we were obliged to go up once more. I got my pocket with my purse in, and my husband got his portmanteau with his papers and money in. It rained a little, and we covered ourselves with blankets. The scene forward was an confusion. The captain came aft and told us to keep up as hepage 114 thought they were getting the fire under. The steward got up a bag of biscuits a cask of water, the captain's desk and sextant. We did not know the steward had gone down again for the chart. The captain called 'Steward!' but there was no answer, and he rushed into the cabin and shouted 'Help!' My husband ran down, and in an instant they brought up the lifeless body of the poor steward. We did what we could to restore animation, but he was quite gone. The captain was obliged to leave him to us, while he went into the cabin to get his chart, my husband calling to him all the time to make certain that he was not overcome by the smoke. The captain succeeded and brought it to me to take charge of. They then closed the cabin so that no air could get in. The captain again came aft and said there was no hope of getting the fire under. He called the men to launch the boats. The women and children sat perfectly quiet and nothing was heard but the voice of prayer, the little boys kneeling on deck, with hands clasped and their faces turned upwards. The words of our Saviour came to my mind, 'Fear not; only believe.'

"The flames had now burst forth with great fury. It was supposed that it was oil and turpentine that was burning. The captain feared that the foremast would burn through. Getting into the longboat, the mate and four of the crew took with them the biscuit and water. We then threw in the blankets, and the women and children were lowered. I was the last of the women. I put my legs over the side and they then tied two ropes round me. There was a roaring sea, and the boat dashed about fearfully. Twice I was lowered, and the third time I landed safely in the bottom of the boat. Then the men passengers were lowered, but the sailors and the captain remained on the ship.

"As the boat dashed against the ship's side we thought every minute she would be stove in, or that the mast would fall over on her. At last we got clear of the ship and dropped astern, being still made fast to the ship by a long rope. All this happened within about four hours from the fire being first discovered. We saw them lower the captain's gig and he was the last man to leave the ship. When they came up to us the captain got into our boat, to which the gig was fastened, and with an axe he cut away the rope by which we were made fast to the ship. I was sitting in the middle of the boat, and the water was up to my waist. The captain would have me move to the end, where the other women were, and as he lifted me up said, "Oh, she has been sitting in the water and never spoke.' The captain said the fire would be seen twenty miles off, and that our only chance of being picked up was to remain near the ship. They then cut the rope and we drifted away. It was a great relief, although we feared the result.

"We still kept near the ship, the waves every moment appearing ready to swallow us up. Towards midnight the wind increased, and we had a cross sea. The men worked with all their might to keep the boat head on to the sea, and she was continually working round broadside on, and then there was nothing for it but she would ship a heavy sea, and we feared she would be swamped. Three oars werepage 115 lost by the men, who worked for dear life. About one o'clock we thought we saw a light, and every eye was strained. In a short time, oh, what a rapturous sight! A green and a red light were visible, and a ship was evidently bearing down upon the burning vessel. Alas, however, we were drifting fast away. By this time the foremast had gone and the vessel was one burning mass from stem to stern.

"Mr. Thomson bad his rifle, but the sea had washed over it and it would not fire. We had a lantern and a few matches, but they would not light. The men shouted with all their might, but oh, how faint it seemed! There was nothing but to pray and wait for daylight. The captain's gig was then cut adrift and some men were sent in her to try and get to the ship. It was with heavy hearts that we saw the poor little boat bounce away on the top of the waves, looking no bigger than a cockle shell. We soon lost sight of her. With thankful hearts we saw the first streak of daylight, and then we took one of the oars, and fastened two red handkerchiefs to it for a signal. We had lost sight of the ship for some time, but as daylight increased we again saw her bearing down upon us.

"None but those who have been similarly situated can form any idea of what our feelings were. She was soon near us, and we were very glad to see Mr. Smith (the second mate) and the men of the gig all safe on board. They threw us a rope, which was soon made fast to our boat, and we were quickly safe on board, the captain coming last."