Port Elizabeth of Yore: The S.S. Western Knight-The Death Shriek of a Ship’s Siren

So far, 1929 had proved to be a disastrous year for shipping on the South African coast. To add a liberal dose of salt to that wound, at 8:30 on a foggy Monday morning, the American freighter, the 5,779-ton SS Western Knight, would be added to that tragic total.

In the impenetrable fog and along this treacherous coastline, the vessel blindly groped its way past Schoenmakerskop, a disaster waiting to happen. Then my grandmother, Elizabeth Daisy McCleland, granny Mac to us, heard the death shriek of a ship’s siren.

Main picture:  Salvage operations underway on the SS Western Knight

As fog descended prior to dawn that morning, Captain Morgan, cursed inaudibly.  A typical sea fog, such a one as has made this coast notorious and dreaded,  had rolled in during the night. Preferring the majestic remnants of a torrid storm from the night before still visible on the horizon, instead Morgan was enveloped in the chilly embrace of a wet suffocating blanket of a fog. With a bracing edge to the autumn air, he pondered where he was. Unable to view the way ahead, he surmised that his vessel was now past Chelsea Point and close to Thunderbolt Reef off Cape Recife where he would swing to port, past the Cape Recife lighthouse, on the home straight to the harbour. Being blinded by the fog, little did he realise where he was. Instead he had just crawled past Schoenies.   

Schoenmaakers Kop. View from Bedford Cafe looking towards Mrs Daisy McCleland’s tearoom in the distance

Granny Mac was clearing the last of weekend’s items in the kitchen. The weekends were Daisy’s busy period and as such literally her “bread and butter”, or in her case, her “tea and scones” for which she was renowned. Having lost her husband to black water fever 4 years previously and her three daughters to marriage, she now had to run the tea room largely by herself. At 47, this was becoming tedious, if not overwhelming. Not that she was afraid of hard work, but a flourishing tearoom which relied upon weekend trade, was hard work. Her 18 year old son, my father, Harry Clifford McCleland, who was an apprentice carpenter with Murray & Steward, had long since left for work in North End by bicycle, when Daisy, as she was affectionately known, heard the death shriek of a ship’s siren. She stood frozen, fearing the worst. Instinct took over as she phoned the harbour to report what she had heard. Her fears were realised when a foreman of a road party called at her house and informed her that a steamer was ashore about two miles off.

Opening of Marine Drive in December 1922. Some of the 150 Model T Fords outside Mrs.Daisy McCleland’s tearoom

A disaster was unavoidable. A multiplicity of factors would each play their role in the impending tragedy: the dense impenetrable fog, erratic soundings of the chart, abnormal currents, and the total absence of any aid to navigation. Instead of being adjacent Cape Recife, the vessel was 1¼ miles west of Chelsea Point between Willows and Schoenmakerskop when she struck a reef 250 metres offshore. Immediately  after striking the rocks, No.3 hold started flooding as well as the engine and boiler rooms. Unable to move and with her method of propulsion rapidly being submerged, she was effectively impaled upon this nondescript reef.   

The crowds gather for tea at Mr. McCleland’s The Hut Tearoom in Schoenmaker’s Kop in December 1922

The residents of Schoenmaker’s heard the repeated bellow of her siren. Then came silence. The wireless flickered agitatedly and at the nearby port men bustled to get the rescue tugs to sea in a rush. As the blinding blanket was dissipated by the warming rays of the sun, it revealed what could not have been a finer morning. Except of course for this tragedy.  The fog suddenly drew off seaward etching the outline of the ship, fast on a reef, against the various hues of sparkling blue water.

The steamer, en route from the United States to Port Elizabeth with five passengers , carried a general cargo including Hudson automobiles, motor car tyres, windmill pump parts, refrigerators, tram rails, fish plates, Linoleum, silk stockings in cases, and gramophone springs (sic) and other items. The S.S. Western Knight, which has made many calls at this port, would never see it again.

The Western Knight in the process of disintegrating

Immediate communication was established by the ship with the authorities and at about 9.30 the tug Sir William Macintosh was despatched to the scene of the mishap. By now the bracing edge to the autumn air had relaxed its grip. Even from the ship, was the distinctive smell of the coastal fynbos, noticeable but Captain Morgan was unaware of the smell for he had weightier issues on his mind than this unusual aroma . First was the safety of the passengers. Both passengers and crew were never in any real danger and their removal to the tugs presented no difficulties. But it was the fact that the ship herself was a total loss that was distressing. All that was necessary to ascertain was whether any of the valuable cargo could be salvaged. To all aboard the ship, it is now very apparent that the ship was a wreck, but the fate of the cargo was another matter altogether. Being so close inshore, salvage was highly probable.

The Tug Talana at the North Jetty

In the meantime a party of officials from the Harbour made their way out to the  wreck by road, and an attempt was made to establish commun-ication by semaphore, but evidently, owing to the unsuitability of the background, those on board were unable to read the signals. It was eventually decided to return to town and communicate with the steamer by means of radio. This was done. At 10 o’clock the Western Knight sent an urgent message asking for tugs up to four in number, to proceed immediately to the ship, evidently with a view to attempting to tow her off. A subsequent message asked for the tugs to be rushed through as quickly as possible. Accordingly, the Lady Elizabeth was sent off at about 11.30 and on arrival found the Ulundi and the Sir William Macintosh standing by. At 2.20 p.m. the William Messina also put in an appearance, but the situation was so hopeless that no attempt could be made to haul the ship off the reef. At 2.20 p.m. the Lady Elizabeth received orders to return to town to pick up the Port Captain and the Lloyd’s Surveyor.

Surprisingly, after the initial shock, the crash did not have much visible effect upon the passengers. So relaxed were they that when the captain of one of the tugs came on board,  it was to find them reclining imperturbably in deck chairs on the bridge. The party consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Dingwall and their two daughters and a Mr. Fawcett of Cape Town, and when the necessary arrangements were made, they coolly swung down the rope ladder over the ship’s side into the whaleboat which conveyed them to the Sir William Macintosh. They were subsequently transshipped to the Ulundi, which arrived in port during the afternoon.

Inspection by Port Authorities

Perhaps the most eventful phase of the wreck was the trip made by the Surveyors in the afternoon. After making a trip by car to Schoenmaker’s Kop, the Port captain, Captain Watkins, Captain Clift, Mr. Richardson, Lloyd’s Surveyor, and Mr. Ted Searle, decided that it would be advisable to get aboard the ship as soon as possible so as to ascertain the extent of the damage.

Instructions were therefore issued to the Lady Elizabeth to return to port at once, and the party returned to town by motorcar. On arrival at the North Jetty it was found that the breeze was freshening, and at first it was doubtful whether the trip could be made before dark.

Eventually the services of the Talana were enlisted, and Captain Watkins and his companions went aboard, and the tug steamed out of port in the direction from which the Lady Elizabeth would appear. It was not long before her smoke was sighted, and eventually she was signalled to heave to. Their party then transshipped within sight of Cape Recife lighthouse, and with the breeze blowing slightly, the Lady Elizabeth turned on her heels while the Talana returned to port. The voyage was anything but a comfortable one. A fairly heavy sea prevailed, and the tug ploughed stoutly through the trough. The Ulundi, followed closely by the William Messina, passed the Lady Elizabeth on their return to Algoa Bay. The latter had in tow one the Western Knight’s lifeboats, while the Ulundi had on board a portion of the shipwrecked crew, as well as the five passengers.

It was in the vicinity of five o’clock that the tug approached the scene of the wreck. A brilliant sun was shining in spite of the choppy sea and those on board were easily able to make out the stranded steamer, which was silhouetted against the coastline through the haze.

A little distance off the Sir William Macintosh had anchored and the Lady Elizabeth drew up close to her and also cast anchor. It was necessary that the trip across to the Western Knight be made by whaleboat, which rowed out from the ship’s side and approached the tug. The party of officials took their places and assisted in rowing the boat back to the ship. Although the sea was choppy outside, under the lee of the vessel the situation was decidedly improved, and in a short while the party had boarded the stricken American steamer.

The ship had listed to starboard and was rocking ever so lightly as the swell coaxed her stern. Although the greater part of the crew had left the ship, the first, second and third officers, as well as the chief wireless operator and the purser, boatswain, cadet, oiler and two AB’s had decided to remain with the skipper, and when the shore party came aboard a hurried meal was in progress. Cases served as tables and the viands comprised bread with tinned and potted foodstuffs.

Clambering aboard the SS Western Knight, the newcomers were greeted cheerfully. The skipper, Captain Morgan, faked a brave smile but it was rather wan.  With a sardine sandwich in his hand, his casual composure while leaning over the bridge, belied his anguished racing mind.

Skipper Morgan related how the fog had lasted for the greater portion of the night, and from what the Port and Lloyd’s Officials could be gathered, Captain Morgan’s soundings were quite in order up to the time of the impact. The first intimation of this danger – the sound of breakers on the nearby shore – coincided with the scraping as the forepart of the ship slid over the reef and rapidly became impaled amidships. “I have been several times before and the coast never tricked me like that,” Morgan remarked,  sadly in recounting what happened. “This is the first time I have had to leave a ship.” Being under the impression that the vessel was off Cape Recife, one can imagine their surprise when the ship struck the reef.  

Suffering from the strain of the past few hours, and possibly a hint of guilt intertwined, Capt. Morgan refused to abandon ship. What would change his mind in this matter would be the issuing of definite instructions to abandon ship as well as being informed that the position was hopeless and that the ship could not be saved. It was Capt. Clift of the American Bureau of Shipping who delivered the verdict. To dispel any futile hopes to the contrary, he issued an unequivocal verdict that the vessel was a total loss.

To him It seemed that “the Western Knight struck a submerged reef amidships, and by the afternoon in nearly all the tanks the water was up to sea level, while the engine room and stokehold were also at sea level. All the tanks were open to the sea while one of the holds was also at sea level. The movement of the steamer could be distinctly felt as she swung to the swell, and the slight jar every now and then testified to the fact that she was on a pivot.

According to an article in the Eastern Province Herald on the 9th April 1929, “At first Captain Morgan suggested that he should remain on board the steamer for the night; but he was dissuaded from this intention by Capt. Clift and the other officers, who explained the nature of the weather when it set in in a  dirty mood. “It will take a lot of knocking about to make me unable to live in her” replied the skipper; but he eventually agreed to leave the Western Knight, but insisted he was not abandoning ship. Preparations were then made for the departure, and doors and corridors were secured in different parts of the ship. A number of packages containing the belongings of the remaining officers and men were loaded into the  Western Knight’s lifeboat, while the skipper and the surveyors took their seats in the whaleboat. It was a glorious sunset as the two boats pulled slowly from the steamers side, leaving her to spend a lonely, bitter night in the teeth of the south west wind and swell.

There were wistful expressions on the faces of the officers of the Western Knight as they gazed at the work of some tragic humourist who had chalked upon the vessel’s side “Goodbye – Good Luck.” It was close upon seven o’clock when the Lady Elizabeth put about on her return to Algoa Bay. The weather was still moderately heavy, and it was long after nine before she landed her passengers at the North Jetty. The officers and men are being accommodated at the Seamen’s Institute.

For the inhabitants of Schoenies, it had been a day of excitement and animated chatter. As not many people in the village at that time owned cars, it was a case of using Shank’s Pony or miss the spectacle. For most it was a case of walking the 2kms along Marine Drive to the wreck. As Mondays were a slow day in the tearoom, curiosity probably got the better of Daisy. In all likelihood, she would have joined the throng who were drawn by a magnet to the site of the wreck. My father first had to cycle home from a building site in Port Elizabeth late that afternoon. By the time that he would have arrived at the wreck, the sun was probably gilding in the sky in the west but the outline of the Western Knight  would still have been visible from the rugged, rocky shore. As he cycled back home, the first whispers of the bitterly cold south west wind would have been felt. If Capt. Morgan had not abandoned ship as requested, he would certainly have spent an extremely uncomfortable night on board as the waves crashed against the impaled vessel. Furthermore,  the jarring scrap of metal against impervious rock would hamper all attempts at sleeping.

Denouement

Unprotected, the wreck was ripe for the picking and the scavengers would pick her clean. The steamer had well over 3,000 tons of cargo on board, 2,000 tons of which were bound for Port Elizabeth. The cargo included motorcars, which were intended for exhibition at a Show that week.

Salvage operations

The wreck became the scene of a famous feat of salvage by a young Hollander, Captain Heindrich Friedrich van Delden. By his friends and family he was always called “Deric” and this must have been prophetic, as in his many feats of salvage he made use of derricks. He became an officer in the Dutch navy but, tired of waiting for ‘dead men’s shoes’, he came out to South Africa to seek his fortune, first as a contractor in the gold mines, then farming in Rhodesia and afterwards with a stevedoring firm in Port Elizabeth. He had a remarkable mathematical and mechanical turn of mind; his idea of enjoyment was working out problems in differential calculus. When he heard of the wreck, he went out to survey the scene and a plan for salvaging the cargo immediately suggested itself to his mind. He managed to interest some local businessmen, among whom were the Mangold brothers and Mr Fred Holland. A syndicate was formed and they managed to get the contract for the salvage.

Using a rocket-firing apparatus, he managed to get a line on board and by this means got a huge cable to the wreck. He then blasted the rocks on the shore so that the sheer-legs of the derrick he erected could be securely embedded. Attempts to get off some of the cargo by tug and lighter had not been successful because of the heavy seas, but now the salvage went ahead. Loads of up to 5 000 lbs were swung ashore and soon there were objects of every shape and size piled up on the beach. A fence had to be erected to prevent pilfering and temporary huts set up for the labourers, and workshops to clean and recondition the goods. Much of the cargo consisted of motor car and tractor parts, other metal goods and motor tyres, the whole being valued at about £500, 000. The syndicate made a substantial profit.

The salvagers managed to get practically everything out, even after the ship broke in three through the heavy pounding of the sea.

According to Deene Collopy, this was Deric van Delden first salvage in South Africa. Sadly he tragically lost his life a few years later in a onboard accident whilst attempting to refloat the Ellerman liner City of Lincoln that was aground off Quoin point. Although his tragic passing occured whilst carry out his refloat plan, his replacement continued with his original plan and the vessel was successfully refloated and towed to Cape town

 Sources

The Bay of Lost Cargoes: The Shipwrecks of Algoa Bay and St. Francis Bay on the East Coast of South Africa (2005, Xpress Print and Copy, Port Elizabeth)

Impaled on a reef near Schoenmakers.  American liner comes to grief in dense fog. Passengers and Crew rescued by Port Tugs. Western Knight likely to become a Total Wreck. (Eastern Province Herald 9th April 1929)

NOTES:

Additional information on the salvage operation was obtained from an article ‘Ship Ashore’ in Looking Back, the Journal of the Historical Societyof Port Elizabeth, Volume 18 No 3, September 1978, pages 104-5. The sentence in the final paragraph is from Looking Back, Volume 18 No 4, December 1978, page 124.

On a personal note, Richard Tominson remembers meeting a man in the 1990s who owned an antique car in excellent condition which, he told him, was part or the cargo rescued from the Western Knight. (Richard Tomlinson)

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