Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Tragedy of HMS Thunderbolt

Not all vessels lost in Algoa Bay up till 1847 were as a result of high winds and rough seas. HMS Thunderbolt was one of those exceptions. This is the saga of that catastrophe and how this treacherous reef off Cape Recife obtained its name.

Main picture: HMS Thunderbolt en route to beaching at the mouth of the Baakens River

The HMS Thunderbolt was one of the first of the British Navy’s new steam powered vessels.  Designed by Sir William Symonds, the wooden-hulled, paddle-driven 1st Class sloop, was the first steam-powered warship to be stationed at the Cape. She carried six guns, two larger and two smaller 42-pounders and two 68-pounders. Almost at her destination where she would relieve troops of the 90th Regiment, who had been fighting in the Seventh Frontier War, and would then return them to the Cape. Commander Boyle, too, wanted to be back as soon as possible.

The morning of Wednesday, 3rd February 1847 dawned balmy, with clear blue skies, no wind and calm flat seas. Aboard the sloop-rigged HMS Thunderbolt, heading eastwards close inshore towards Cape Recife, everything appeared shipshape. Commander Alexander Boyle and her master Mr. James Dundas Milne kept a watchful eye on proceedings as the land slipped by to the north. All being well, they hoped to round the cape and drop anchor in the Bay long before sunset.

Thunderbolt Reef

The details of the events which now unfolded are captured in the minutes of the proceedings of his Court Martial which was held in Plymouth aboard HMS Victory. Confidently sailing without a care in the world as he had rounded this cape seven times previously but thinking of shortly weighing anchor off the landing beach which stretched from the mouth of the Baakens River to the rocks north of Jetty Street. His bearings were towards the buoy bobbing over the submerged Dispatch or Roman rock. Except that it was missing, either sunk or washed away. Still, Boyle admitted to the Court Martial, in his certainty as to his bearings, he neither needed nor consulted the charts but instead ordered the taking of regular soundings from both paddle boxes.

In evidence put before Rear Admiral Hyde-Parker, they stated that they approached the headland in an east by south by half southerly direction at a speed of approximately nine knots when a loud crashing and grinding sound emanated from below. According to Boyle, the HMS Thunderbolt had struck an uncharted reef. In a letter to his superior, Admiral Dacres, stated that at 2:30 pm “the ship struck twice with considerable violence but did not hang a moment and immediately deepened her waters”.

Being only a few kilometres from their destination, Boyle’s conviction was that they should make a run for it, which they did. Springing into action, the men pumped frantically to keep the water level down and eventually the paddle-steamer was beached at the mouth of the Baakens River. With alacrity the crew set about removing all the stores, only completing this arduous exercise at mid-night.

Work commenced on pumping the water from the crippled ship. Most damage was sustained in the area of the coal-boxes, making an early assessment very difficult. By 2am on Saturday 6th  February, the water was gushing through all the rear cabins. As the tides rose and fell, so did ship rise up and fall. To facilitate the vessel freeing itself even the canons were removed but the lightened ship simply lifted and bumped harder.

The only option that remained was pumping. By Tuesday 9th February, Boyle reported that there were 12 pumps working with the assistance of 80 men from the 90th Regiment, 100 from the 7th Dragoon Guards and 50 volunteers from merchant ships in the Bay. By Friday 12th, 18 pumps were at work trying to lower the water level  so that the boilers could be lit. It was envisaged that the steam power could be used to keep the pumps going instead of manpower.

Port Elizabeth, 1853

Slowly but surely sufficient water was removed to enable one boiler to be lit. Abject failure ensued as not enough steam was raised to get the engines working. Like a hobbled pony the men kept pumping but to no avail. The men kept pumping continuously for 19 hours non-stop until ultimately Boyle was compelled to order the men to cease working. Sufficient water had been removed to permit a closer inspection. This revealed a five-metre gash in the hull. Boyle’s intention had been to refloat the ship in the open roadstead where repairs could take place sufficient to enable her to limp to Cape Town where more substantial and permanent repairs could be undertaken. Three carpenters were dispatched to inspect the damage. To Boyle’s dismay, all three suggested that the ship be left exactly where she was lying.

Even though Boyle had been quite optimistic about the odds of repairing the damage, on the 21st February 1847 he abandoned the ship and everything removable was taken off. Another violent south-easter came up and broke the ship’s back. A week later on the 28th February, the HMS Thunderbolt was declared a total loss. At the subsequent Court Martial, Boyle and his sailing master were charged for “negligently not trusting charts and instructions furnished for their guidance” and “did negligently trust to their own eyes while rounding Cape Recife”. The pair was found guilty and discharged from the navy, but the Rear Admiral hoped that they would be “most favourably considered of the Lord Commissioners”. No blame could be attached to any other officer or crew aboard.

Two months later the ship was auctioned. A local entrepreneur, John Owen Smith, offered £102 which was the winning bid. J.O. Smith’s intention was to remove all the copper and iron spikes and sell the timber to builders. Smith was requested to remove the wreck, nicknamed “Smith’s Folly”,  from the beach as it was the so-called landing area which goods were landed from surfboats and dispatched to the vessels at anchor using the reverse process.

Map of where the Thunderbolt was run aground

For this procedure, Smith selected the explosives route. He placed an iron cask, containing 190kg of dynamite, which in turn was placed in waterproof wooden barrel, under the wreck. Smith threaded this fuse through an iron tube to the surface of the water. The fuse was lit, and the men rapidly rowed out of harm’s way. Thinking that there was a misfire, the boat crew decided to row back to the ship. From his vantage point, Smith could discern the fuse, still burning, and frantically indicated to the men to return to the shore. Just in time the crew turned around, barely making it back when the gunpowder ignited. The subsequent blast shook every window in Port Elizabeth as parts of the HMS Thunderbolt rained down onto the adjacent beach and sea. The front of the HMS Thunderbolt was blasted into the air with a 30-metre column of water. Smith was unable to take complete delivery of his purchase as the boilers and engine plant lay in the surf for many years.

There it stayed slowly rotting away for at least 45 years, because in October 1893 what remained was reported to be lying alongside the hulk of the Jorawur which was wrecked in 1887. An offer was then made to remove both wrecks by using dynamite. What transpired as a result of the offer, is not recorded.

From that day onward, the reef became known as Thunderbolt Reef, and over the years it continued to be a distressing reality as the site of a number of shipwrecks, the latest being the Kapodistrias in 1986.


Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)

Paddle-Steamer gives its name to Bay reef on which it foundered by Ivor Markman in The Herald dated Friday, 2nd January 2009

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