Port Elizabeth of Yore: 1888 – Another Disastrous Storm

The Rocket Brigade in Action

During the age of sail vicious storms were always potentially disastrous for ships as the fierce gusting winds could drive ships onto the coast fatally wrecking them. In the case of Algoa Bay, it was renowned for treacherous south-easters during the latter half of the year. To assist in the rescue operations, the local regiment, Prince Alfred’s Guards, established a separate unit known as the Rocket Brigade.

This blog deals with the rescue operations during this unprecedented storm

Main picture:  The PAG’s Rocket Brigade in action during the 1888 gale

First signs of distress

It was on the 30th August 1888 that the worst disaster since 1869 would strike Algoa Bay. Already on Wednesday the 29th, the strength of the impending south-easter could be felt growing noticeably in strength. By midnight after a fitful and pensive evening attempting to sleep before the pending storm broke, the sailors in the 11 vessels at anchor in the Bay, braced themselves for a violent storm and made preparations to ride it out. Within less than three hours, a gale was blowing and by 3:30am the 172-ton Danish brig, the Dorthea captained by Capt. Christiansen, was showing signs of distress and began to drift. To alert the shorebound rescue services, they lit their distress lights.

To call out the Rocket Brigade, the Port Office fired off some rockets. It is not known whether the Dorthea slipped her anchor or whether it was dragged along but the Dorthea unhurriedly made her way to the shore and within half an hour was grounded on the expansive sandy North End beach only a mile from the recently constructed North End station on the Midlands Railway Line. Being lightly laden, the ship was riding high. Huge waves washed over her, driving her ever forward to within 30 yards from the beach. It was then as she teetered with her keel stuck fast in the sand that she keeled right over onto her side.

The Rocket Brigade swung into action immediately. Using a line fired across to the Dorthea and a boat, all the crew of the Dorthea were brought safely to the shore.

Tragedy strikes

The fury of the gale was not yet abating, as it had not yet spent its strength nor reached a crescendo. By 5 a.m. the Hill Lighthouse which had become operational in 1861 was registering a wind speed of 53 miles per hour [85 kph]. By 9 a.m. after a steady increase in velocity all morning, the lighthouse recorded a wind speed of 66 miles per hour [106 kph]. Conditions were now menacing and extremely dangerous. Lighters and other small vessels were snapping their moorings and were thrown hither and thither on the angry sullen waters not content to merely frighten but to destroy. Even the larger vessels were taking strain as they were buffeted like champagne corks in a shaken effervescent drink.

 At 8:30 a.m. tragedy struck. As a ship’s crew attempted to reach the tug John Paterson in a small boat, it lurched, and their tiny craft capsized. All the men were unceremoniously flung into the sea. The tugs Koodoo and John Paterson immediately set to work in an attempt to rescue all the frightened sailors. Their frantic efforts bore fruit as the vessels managed to rescue all except one. In his eagerness to be picked up, he released the oar which he was using as a floatation device. Without the oar, he attempted to swim to the Koodoo while the mountainous sea lurched and tugged and swirled, preventing the luckless sailor from attaining his goal of reaching the waiting tug. Despite his best endeavours, he could not reach the sanctuary of the Koodoo and hence drowned.

Boschetto flounders in 1888

In rapid succession

Being at its zenith, tragedies would now compound as even the stoutest of anchor chains would be sorely tested, and many found wanting.

The next act in this watery pantomime was that of the 657-ton Dutch barque incongruously named Drie Emmas [Three Buckets] bearing coal from Cardiff. At first it was a gentle ballet glisser in which the dancer merely gracefully glides across the floor. Her captain. R. Nicholas kept her steady and straight in order to prevent any incipient pirouette whether of an en dehors variety when the ballerina turns outwards or the en dedans – turning inwards as both could have fatal consequences under these circumstances.

The Drie Emmas drifted rapidly shorewards, grounding at about 9:40 a.m. some 200 yards nearer the railway station than the Dorthea. At this juncture the gale was reaching the peak of its fury. Her crew were in a dangerous predicament as one vessel after another lost their moorings and participated in the mad dash to the sandy littoral.

Ships stranded on the North End Beach by the gale of 1888

The next vessel in the queue was the 340-ton iron barque Wolseley which had sailed from Cape Town of the 18th August under Captain Sigman with a cargo of wheat, iron, oats and other merchandise. Shortly after 10 a.m. it could be seen rapidly bearing down on the stationery Drie Emmas. With their hearts in their hands, the breathless crowds on the shore watched expectantly for the Belgian barque to be hit amidships by the stern of the iron ship and smash it to smithereens. As the crowd averted their gaze at the very  last instance, the Wolseley slewed round and struck the Drie Emmas in the stern, which stove in at the same moment that the British vessel’s mast crashed down to the loud rendition of the wood and rigging orchestra.

Enormous sullen green waves washed the Wolseley another 30 to 40 yards along the coast before it settled and proceeded to rapidly self-destruct. The main mast went the way of the foremast as the crew of approximately a dozen  took refuge in the mizzen-mast while the ship commenced to break its back. With the storm venting its fury, enormous seas swept over her decks.

The German brig ‘Dorthea’ wrecked in 1988

All the efforts of the Rocket Brigade were focused on the Wolseley in an attempt to save her crew, whilst her captain who was ashore, was apoplectic of what might happen to the crew which included his two sons. Frustrated by the erratic behaviour of their rockets in the gusts of wind, the PAG battled to get a line across to the stricken vessel. Several rockets flew about 30 yards towards the ship, then dipped down, ricocheting off the water and were lost in the sea. One, striking the water, rose to a great height and then came down like a projectile from a cannon, burying itself in the ground well behind the launching point. Fortunately the heavy iron tube did not land amongst the throngs of people on the beach.

Abandoning the rocket attempts in the meantime, the rescuers brought into action the trusty Mansby apparatus, a small mortar firing a hollow projectile with a rope attached. Yet once again their best endeavours culminated in failure as the mortar fell short of its target or else the rope parted from the tube. By now, the crew of the Wolseley were in an extremely dire situation. Even up in the rigging, they were swamped by the waves which reached them even at this height. At last a rocket sailed straight and true over the cross-tree of the mizzen-mast just above the heads of the drenched and exhausted men but success eluded the men as the line got tangled in the wreckage and could not be pulled on board.

At last the line was freed. Yet for some inexplicable reason the crew failed to haul it in. One of them was seen to jump or fall off the rigging apparently with a line tied around his waist. In an attempt to rescue this hapless sailor, men of the Rocket Brigade ran into the sea to pull him in. Another brave soul, ventured into the huge breakers on horseback which almost cost him his life. It was all in vain as the rocket line broke and he was not seen again.

Despite being there since before dawn, the rescuers persisted. Yet another line was fired across the Wolseley but once again the crew failed to take advantage of it by hauling it aboard with its attached endless rope. Fate once again ensured that the line got tangled and broke. This must surely have made them despondent but somehow during the afternoon, when hopes had almost faded, a line was somehow got across to the iron barque from the Drie Emmas and by means of a basket the crew transferred to the Dutch vessel.

By 2.30 p.m., however, disaster was widespread. No fewer than seven vessels were ashore and the raging seas were strewing the beach with wreckage for hundreds of yards, whilst an enormous crowd stood watching almost helplessly.

For some hours the elements seemed to concentrate on the victims they had already claimed. The few surviving ships out in the bay seemed likely to ride out the storm. But it was not to be. It was already getting dark and the Wolseley was breaking up completely. Almost within a stone’s throw of one another, along the North End Beach, heavy seas were breaking over the remains of the Dorthea, the Drie Emmas, the 347-ton barque Jane Harvey, newly laden with wool and skins for London, the German brigantine Natal, which Captain H. O. Breggen had sailed from New York with general cargo for Port Elizabeth, and the 198-ton barquentine Elizabeth Stevens which had left Cape Town on August 17 with 3,400 bags of wheat.

At about 6 o’clock the Norwegian barque Andreas Rus, with cables parted, joined the gathering of wrecks in the ships’ graveyard not far from the railway station. By 10 p.m. only three ships remained afloat out in the bay, and the overworked Rocket Brigade could barely keep count of those which needed their help. During the night the storm continued and the 711-ton Italian barque C. Boschetto, laden with teak shipped from Rangoon for Greenwich, went ashore.

By midnight, there seemed a slight lull in the wind. The hulk Tweed· and the Dutch barque Burgermeester Scharer still lay out in the roadstead, but nine good ships were ashore. With the wind veering to south-west, rain came down in a deluge. The lifeboat managed to take off the crew of the Natal, and the Andreas Rus was thrown so high by mountainous seas that at low tide those on board were able to scramble to safety on ropes. Five men from the Drie Emmas got to safety in a ship’s boat, but the rest were still aboard. The crew of the Elizabeth Stevens were rescued by tug as she began to break up, and with the Rocket Brigade working unceasingly, the men from the Jane Harvey were rescued by line in the early morning.

By daybreak on August 31, the Rocket Brigade, worn out but indomitable, was trying to rescue the crews of the C. Boschetto, the 544-ton barque Lada and all those still on the Drie Emmas. One man had already been got off the C. Boschetto by life tackle when the ship’s hauling line was entangled in some wreckage and broke. With intermittent rain and a strong wind still hampering operations, the Rocket teams re-established communication with the C. Boschetto. Heavy surf and floating wreckage were rendering their work more dangerous by the minute, but all through the day on August 31 and far into the night rescue operations continued.

A second life was lost when a man was swept out of a lifeboat alongside the Drie Emmas, a ship’s officer had a rib broken and another man fractured a leg, but by good fortune the weather began to improve. In the darkness the men on the lifelines carried on by limelight and early on the morning of September 1 the last of the crews of the Drie Emmas and Wolseley, who had been in danger longer than anyone else, were taken off in a lifeboat. As they tried to make for the shore, the lifeboat was swamped, but she remained upright and drifted onto the beach without capsizing. The crew of the Lada were still aboard, unable to launch their own boat because of the mass of wreckage surrounding them.

Lifelines from the Rocket Brigade were increasingly fouling broken masts, spars and rigging, but somehow the men – after two days and two nights of almost ceaseless effort – managed to keep on till the very last of the threatened sailors was ashore. Two lives had been lost but through the efforts of the Rocket Brigade and other courageous helpers in the lifeboat and tugs, no fewer than 55 men had been saved.

Additional information – merely for a deeper understanding

Presentation of medals

Port Elizabeth Telegraph 16th May 1889.



Last evening in the Town Hall medals and other decorations were presented to certain persons who distinguished themselves by acts of daring in rescuing life during the

occurrence of the casualties to several ships in Algoa Bay on August 30th 1888. The medals were of sterling silver and of elaborate workmanship. Two of the decorations – those of D. Doiat and A. Seymour – were Maltese Crosses and exquisitely manufactured. The reason is, we believe, the risk and venture was somewhat greater in the case of the recipients in question.

The Chair was taken at 8 o’clock by H. W. Pearson Esq., Mayor. On the platform were Messrs. C. Blaine, Jas. Brister, W. Hume, – Fitchat (C.C. and R. M. of Worcester), D. M. Brown, J. Searle, and J. Forbes.

The Mayor commenced the proceedings by observing that some twelve months had elapsed since the casualties took place; but the lapse of time was necessary in order to have the medals completed. It was thought desirable to have a public meeting as a demonstration in honour of those who risked their lives on the occasion. About £70 or £80 had been distributed on the occasion as gifts; but there were those who refused money, and to these the medals were to be given: The services of all were great, and a lively recollection still exists of their efforts. Mr. Forbes, the Police, and others would be gratefully remembered. The first that would be distributed were the two Maltese Crosses as special distinctions, and Mr. Hume and Mr. Blaine would distribute them.

The following is an abstract of the services of the respective recipients of the honours:

Mr. Hector Gordon – Broke his arm while lending assistance to a boat’s crew to get off to the wrecks.
Henry Buckingham – Was in command of the James Searle and took the crew off the Jane Harvey.
W. Merrick – Was coxswain of the boat which brought six of the crew of the Drei Emmas safely to shore.
Philip Bee – was one of the crew of the boat of which Merrick was the coxswain.
W. Lyons – Went into the water on horseback to save a sailor coming through the surf on a rope to the shore, both men were very much exhausted.
George Searle – Rendered great service in procuring men to man the lifeboat, and in getting them off.
Antony Seymour and David Doiat – These men were in charge of the crew organised by Mr. C. Blaine, and rendered valuable assistance in landing the crew from the C. Boschetto and Jane Harvey.
W. Bramble – While on the way to render assistance to the Jane Harvey, was washed out of the lifeboat by a terrific sea but was eventually rescued by the crew of the said boat.
Abraham Williams – Was instrumental in throwing a line to the Jane Harvey after the rockets were exhausted, and by this means, saved several of the crew of the vessel.

The medals bore on the obverse the Municipal Coat of Arms, and on the reverse the recipient’s name and the Scroll “For Saving Life, 1888.” The Maltese Crosses bore the inscription of the recipient’s name and the words ” For Rescuing Life in Algoa Bay, August 1888.”

Article from the Eastern Province Herald dated Friday 31st August 1888

Furious South-Easter in Algoa Bay

Eight Vessels Ashore – A Day of Disaster and Excitement  

Yesterday was in truth a day of almost unparalleled disaster and excitement in Algoa Bay. When darkness fell on Wednesday evening over Port Elizabeth, there were eleven sailing vessels riding at anchor in the Bay, and by six o’clock on the evening of the following day eight of these vessels were helplessly ashore, all of them being stranded within a distance of about half-a-mile.

Probably the total value of the eight vessels ashore, with their cargoes would at least a is comparatively little, only two men have been drowned, so far as is known at present. But the stranding of eight vessels in one day is a fearful destruction of property, and it has happily not been equalled in the Bay since 1869. On the 19th September of that year, a south-easterly gale, it is said, than the one which blew yesterday, wrought destruction in a wholesale manner in Algoa Bay, and out of thirteen vessels at anchor, no less than eleven were stranded.

There were several lives lost on that occasion, and old residents state that the beach was literally strewn with wreckage. There had been so little interruption in the working of the cargo boats in the Bay for a long time previously yesterday’s gale, that the necessity for a breakwater at Port Elizabeth might have been very well questioned. In point of fact we believe, that during a whole twelve months, proceeding this gale, he boats in the Bay had only been prevented from working, on about four occasions. The apparent ease and certainly the safety with which the four steamers in port rode through the gale, show that if the Bay is not safe for sailing vessels during a heavy south-easterly gale, steamships can at any rate trade here at all times of the year without any serious risk of making too close an acquaintance with the shore. It became pretty evident before dusk on Wednesday that some nasty weather might be expected.

The wind veered round to the south-east early in the day, if we recollect rightly, and gradually increased in force. Late in the evening, the wind had developed into a gale, and during the night some very heavy gusts swept across the Bay and set windows rattling and a few slates flying in Port Elizabeth. At 8.30am rockets were fired from the Port Office as a signal the services of the Brigade were required, for it seemed that the German brig Dorthea had a few minutes previously shown distress lights and had commenced to drift. She rounded at 4 am on the North beach, about a mile from the Railway Station. Fortunately for the safety of the crew she was lightly laden, and was able to get within perhaps twenty or thirty yards of the dry sands.  There she heeled over right on to her side, and remained firmly in that position the crew being got ashore without much difficulty by aid of the rocket apparatus and a boat.  The weight of the vessel, combined with the force of the waves rashed in the bulwarks of the side on which she was lying, but otherwise, beyond a torn sail, she did not look much the worst for the disaster.  Her decks, which, owing to the position in which she was lying, were fully exposed to the view of persons on shore, showed little disarrangement, and the effect of this orderly appearance of her decks was rendered more pronounced by the circumstances that the vessel had apparently just been re-painted, a paint of a bright green colour having been largely used. No other vessel followed the Dorthea ashore until about nine o’clock. The gale was, however, steadily increasing in violence, and the Dorthea was within a few hours to have an extraordinary number of companions in distress. At five o’ clock in the morning the wind, as registered at the Hill Lighthouse, was going at the rate at about 53 miles an hour: At nine o’clock this rate had increased to 66½ miles per hour. The first instance of loss of life occurred at about half past eight when a boat’s crew attempted to proceed to the tug John Paterson.

Just as the boat was approaching the tug, the latter lurched heavily and struck the boat, and the collision and heavy roller that caused it, combined, threw the boat head over heels-if we might so express it in shore parlance. Anyway, her stem went over her stern. The crew were of course thrown out, and the tugs Koodoo, and the John Paterson, between them, managed to pick them all up with the exception of one man. This unfortunate individual was clinging to an oar but left it to swim to the Koodoo. He sank and was not seen again. The Belgian barque Drei Emmas, about half an hour afterwards, began to drift, but was brought up again for a short time. Then she rapidly drifted on to the beach, were she grounded at 9.40, about two hundred yards nearer the Railway Station than the Dorthea. The gale was at this time at its height, and one vessel after another parted from her anchor and drifted on to the beach, whereby this time an immense crowd of persons had collected. Between

9 o’clock and 2.30 in the afternoon, seven vessels went ashore. Then there was _a cessation of the disaster until about 6 p.m., when the Norwegian barque Andreas Rus was stranded. It was then, of course, getting dark. The following is a list of the vessels which had come ashore up to 10 o’clock last night, and it will be seen there were then left afloat in the Bay only three others, exclusive of four steamers and smaller rafts. We give these vessels in the order in which they came ashore, and we do not include in the list the water­ boat, and the power-hulk, and one or two fishing boats, which however, they can probably be towed, without having sustained any serious damage: –

  1. The German brig Dorthea showed distress lights at 3.20 a.m. Signal rockets calling for the assistance of the Brigade and lifeboat fired from the Port Office at 3.40. She grounded at 4 a.m.
  2. The Belgian barque Drei Emmas parted from her anchor at 9.15 a.m. brought up and again parted and grounded at 9.40.
  3. The British barque Jane Harvey, after dragging about an hour, parted and afterwards grounded at 10 a.m.
  4. The British barque Wolseley parted at 9.45, and at 10.20 struck the Drei Emmas on the stern. The foremast of the Wolseley was shattered immediately on collision, went over the stern of the Drei Emmas was also completely destroyed. The Wolseley at once settled down on the sands about forty yards of the Drei Emmas.
  5. The Swedish schooner Natal dragged for some time and struck the jibboom of the Austrian Barque Lada, breaking it. The Natal then grounded off the end of the sea wall at 11.45 a.m.
  6. The British barque Elizabeth Stevens parted and grounded in the night at 12.20 p.m.
  7. The Austrian barque Lada which had been dragging all the forenoon parted at 2:12p.m·.and grounded at 2.50 p.m. She grounded far out on the sand bar, and forged late the night
  8. The Norwegian barque Andrea Rus parted from her anchors, and after drifting, grounded at about 6 p.m.

The principal interest and excitement during the day was centred on the British barque the Wolseley. This vessel, of about 400 tons, and built of iron arrived in the Bay only on Tuesday, from Cape Town, laden with wheat. She had been drifting a great deal in the early part of the morning, and soon after she came down on the Drei Emmas. The great concourse of spectators on the shore held their breath as they saw her coming, for it looked as if she must strike the Belgian barque amid ships with her stern, and if this had occurred both vessels would most likely have speedily broken up, and a serious loss of life have occurred. Just before reaching the Drei Emmas, however, the Wolseley slewed helplessly around, the result being that she struck the Drei Emmas on the stern, which she smashed. At the same moment the foremast of the Wolseley came crashing down, the mast and yards seemed to break and fall like matchwood, the noise made been heard from shore. The Wolseley proceeded some thirty or forty yards further, where she settled down, and it was soon made very clear that she was fast breaking up. The main mast soon followed the foremast over the side, and then the crew, about a dozen in number, took refuge in the mizzen mast, at the back of the vessel was broken and the waves were breaking in of which there was soon very little left beyond the framework. Of course, the position of the crew, crowed in the rigging of the mizzenmast, had now become a very dangerous one. If the mizzenmast went the way of the other two masts, the crew would in all probability have been drowned to a man. The efforts of the Brigade were therefore turned to saving of these men. Unfortunately the Brigade had for some time very bad luck in firing the rockets. These are apt to be eccentric in their action at any time, and their eccentric flights in the early part of yesterday morning when fired to go over the Wolseley was extra-ordinary and most distressing. Several of them went about thirty yards, and then plunged into the water, where after a few ricochets, they finally buried themselves. One rocket, after ricocheting in the water, emerged at a different angle of flight, rose to a great height into the air, and finally came down like a cannon and shot on to the beach, a few yards behind the spot from where it -ad been fired. It fell well to the left, where there were few people, but as the rocket tube in heavy iron ore, it would have killed anyone it struck as easily as a cannon ball.   Finding that the rocket apparatus was not very effective, a small mortar, from which a hollow iron projectile to which a rope is attached, may be fired, was brought down to the beach, and three or four efforts were made, without success, by this means to get a rope over the Wolseley on which the position of the crew was every minute becoming more perilous. The shots from the mortar were well directed, but they either fell short, or the rope attached to the projectile gave way. The position of affairs at this junction was extremely distressing.  Not more perhaps than a hundred yards from the shore there were a dozen men clinging to the mast of the vessel that was rapidly going to pieces and sinking deeper and deeper into the sand. The waves were now frequently washing with great violence completely over these unfortunate people although they were in the rigging at some height from the dock. And these helpless creatures were being literally bombarded with iron mortar rockets, and heavy projectiles from the mortar, while a great concourse of spectators were gathered on the beach within almost speaking distance of the vessel.

The captain was on the beach nearly demented, for his two boys were, we believe, were among those in deadly peril on the vessel. At last a line was carried by one of the rockets and placed very nicely across the cross-tree of the mizzen mast just over the heads of the men in their rigging. But rescue was apparently as far away as ever, for the line got fouled in some wreckage, and could not be drawn on board. It was ultimately got free, but then the crew appeared to be powerless, from some cause or other, to haul in. The waves were, as we have said, breaking over them every few minutes with great force, and perhaps they had really not the power to haul in the line, numbed as they must have been by the cold, and being unable, from their position, to get any purchase power on the rope. It was at this juncture that the second life during the day was lost. 0ne of the crew either jumped off or fell off the vessel, and the spectators fervently hoped he would be able to reach the beach.

He appeared to have a rope round his waist, and the idea prevalent among the spectators was that he intended to reach the shore by means of the rocket line. This line was hauled in as quickly as possible. Men ran so far as they could into the sea as to be able to catch hold of the man if he came near them, and one individual very gallantly went into the water on horseback. His horse got knocked over, however, by a wave, and both horse and rider had to swim for their lives. For the brave fellow who left the Wolseley never came near those who were anxiously looking out on the beach to rescue him, and as the rocket line broke at the same time, through the strain put on it, the presumption is, that he was carried away by the current and drowned. Another line was subsequently fired across the Wolseley, but again the crew .in the rigging appeared to be powerless to haul it on board, with the endless line attached, and finally this second line became fouled and broke on being hauled in by the Brigade. Happily, in the course of the afternoon communication, was established a rope between the people on the Wolseley and the Drei Emmas, which was near and by means of a basket the crew of the Wolseley, were transferred to the Belgian barque. Attempts were made later in the evening to rescue the people from the Drei Emmas by means of the rocket apparatus, but up to the time of writing, these efforts have failed, owing to the ropes getting fouled in the wreckage. During the afternoon and evening the wind moderated, and it may be reasonable and at the time we write that no other vessels will be ashore. It rained heavy at intervals during the whole day.

The vessels lie on the beach in the following order, commencing from the North End, and proceeding towards the Railway Station: –

1. Andrea Rus 2. Dorthea 3. Wolseley 4. Drei Emmas 5. Elizabeth Stevens 6. Jane Harvey 7. Lada 8. Natal

Prince Alfred’s Guard 1856-1966 by Neil Orpen (1967, Cape and Transvaal Printers, Cape Town)
The Bay of Lost Cargoes: The Shipwrecks of Algoa Bay and St. Francis Bay on the East Coast of South Africa by Warren Morris(2005, Xpress Print and Copy, Port Elizabeth)
Furious South-Easter in Algoa Bay (31st August1888, Eastern Province Herald, Port Elizabeth)
Presentation of Medals – For Acts of Bravery in the Gale of August 1888 (16th May 1888, Port Elizabeth Telegraph)

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