Port Elizabeth is renowned for its shipwrecks. The most calamitous ones were as a consequence of south-easterly gales in Algoa Bay. They are a poignant reminder that in the face of on-shore winds, sailing vessels in the roadstead and at the mercy of the elements, frequently lost their anchors and were driven ashore. An additional problem was that some ships were in poor condition with rusted cables and other defects.
The most disastrous gale in South African maritime history was the gale of 1902 resulting in the destruction of 21 ships, numerous lighters and other small craft and the loss of 60 lives. The curve of the Bay towards North End is often referred to as the “bight”, an old English word. The North End bight was a notorious graveyard for wrecked ships. And 1902 was no different.
Main picture: On the morning of 2nd September 1902, North End beach was strewn with ships
Prologue to disaster
In an age of sail, ships were largely at the mercy of the weather. Gusting winds could drive sailing ships onto the beach and rocks despite the valiant efforts of brave crewmen. Exacerbating the situation was that the majority of the population of that era lacked swimming skills. Compounding that was the disregard for safety equipment aboard ships such as lifevests and lifeboats. Only luck could save crew and passengers faced with mountainous, raging seas and freezing water.
In his masterful book, Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail, Colin Urquhart, eloquently provides the backdrop to this calamity.
From his vantage point perched in the lighthouse, beside a pyramidal monument to Elizabeth Donkin, lighthouse keeper Conrad Carl Hansen peered out through the rain-spattered window. From his lofty perch on the hill, a sweeping view of the Bay lay below him. On the left in the foreground were the houses known as Donkin Row. Further down was the gas works and below it was the North End Beach with its bight clearly visible. Riding at anchor at sea was a polyglot array of 13 steamers, 36 sailing ships, several tugs, over two dozen lighters and miscellaneous other small craft.
It was Sunday 31st August 1902, the season when blustery south-easters were anticipated. A wintry sun had failed in its struggle to penetrate the heavily overcast, rain-drenched skies. A cold easterly wind had sprung up before dawn that morning. It was now that Hansen sensed, not in the form of a premonition or foreboding of disaster, but in the sense that the weather was “definitely getting up.” If the weather continued to deteriorate and the wind strengthen, this would foreshadow his hoisting a warning flag on the flagstaff outside alerting ships to “wear anchors”, baton down the hatches and prepare to ride out the imminent storm.
What Hansen could not have foreseen was that “a most fearful disaster” was about to befall Algoa Bay, forever to be known as The Great Gale of 1902.
Being a highly religious people, we can safety presume that the residents of Port Elizabeth were oblivious to the deteriorating weather conditions as they made their way to one of the plethora of churches in the town. Whereas in the early morning they were not overly concerned with the patchy rain, later when it began to rain in earnest, they must have scuttled back to their residences. As darkness fell, the weather fired a warning shot of terrors to come by ratcheting up the wind speed until it was gusting at over 100 kph. This shot fell on Hansen’s deaf ears. He did not respond by hoisting a storm warning signal. It took Captain Clift to get the show on the road by ordering Hansen to do so. In addition, he ordered all tug boat skippers to place their vessels on standby. Meanwhile out at sea, the sea captain’s responses were not as dilatory as Hansen’s. Instead most, as a precaution, laid out an extra anchor or two after checking all the cables. Aboard the steamers, stokers worked overtime to keep up steam in readiness for a rapid departure.
A Night of High Drama
In an era prior to the advent of incandescent lights, most townsfolk would slink off to bed within a few hours after the sun sank in the western horizon. On this blustery night, the residents probably sought the comfort of their warm beds earlier than usual. First to interrupt their sleep was the hurricane force wind which tore at everything not properly secured and toppled dying trees. Then shortly before midnight, they were awakened yet again, this time by a booming cannon shot. Most residents understood the significance of this shot. It had been fired to summon the lifeboat crew after the first blue distress signal was seen streaking across the dark, forbidding sky. It was also the signal for the curious residents of the town to congregate on the beach to witness the unfolding night of high drama.
It was the small British schooner Gabrielle which had discharged the distress signal. The wind was by now topping 130 kph. Clift took immediate action by ordering the tug H.B. Christian to render assistance. The tiny tug managed to pass a tow to the distressed schooner. But in the ragging sea, the Gabrielle was forced to relinquish the tow. At approximately 1:30am, the dim apparition of an object began to take shape in the feeble light of the Hill light. It was drifting towards the beach. Finally, the form took the shape of a ship, followed by other ghostly forms, each in turn which sharpened into that of ships.
This disaster is recorded in the Eastern Province Herald of Tuesday 2nd September 1902 as follows:
“Never before in its history has this port suffered under such overwhelming disaster as we record today. On Sunday morning some 38 craft rode at anchor under the leaden sky. Heavy rains had fallen, and the wind gradually rose until, as the shadows of evening hid the shipping from view, a fresh gale was blowing in from the south-east, which, as the midnight hour was reached, had developed in to a hurricane. As the turmoil of wind and wave continued, so the toll of ships mounted, until 18 vessels were aground, with a raging sea adding a high toll of human lives.”
A gale force south easterly wind came up during the evening and night of Sunday 31 August 1902 when some 38 ships were riding at anchor in Algoa Bay. Huge waves battered the ships and several of them began to drift onto the bight of the bay.
The first distress signals sounded were gunshots which were heard just before midnight.
The local rescue team, consisting mainly of a rocket brigade, went to the shoreline to see what they could do. In spite of their efforts the wind made it almost impossible to get lines to the distressed ships.
Four local men, Frank Gregory, A. I. McEwan, E. Hayler and John Mannie went out to attempt to get a line across, but all were drowned in the attempt. Mothers and children were among those who succumbed in the raging seas.
By the time the storm abated on the Tuesday there were perhaps 38 people known to have died and about 300 rescued. From that day funerals became a daily occurrence as more bodies were washed ashore. The victims were buried in Port Elizabeth’s South End Cemetery, where there is also a monument recalling the tragedy. On the monument are recorded the names of all the ships, those victims whose names are known, and the names of the local men who made the rescue attempt.
The disaster remains the largest marine disaster ever to hit South Africa – though there have been others with greater loss of life, never before or since have so many ships come to grief simultaneously on the treacherous South African coastline.
High Drama & Palpable Relief
JJ Redgrave, well-known Port Elizabeth historian, recorded this tragedy as follows:
Finally came the last terrible disaster of September 1902. One Sunday morning, some thirty-eight craft rode at anchor ‘neath a leaden sky. Heavy rain had fallen, and the wind gradually rose until, as the shadows of evening hid the shipping from view, a fresh gale was blowing in from the south-east, which later developed into a hurricane. Towards midnight, blue lights from ships in distress streaked across the black sky, followed by the hoarse sound of detonators arousing the sleeping citizens to the fact that urgent help was needed on the beaches, but such was the force of the gale that assistance was well-nigh impossible. No small craft could survive in such sea!
Before dawn, five vessels had crashed up on the shore, and as the cold grey morning broke, several more met their doom. Huge waves swept over the ships from stem to stern and burst in terrible cascades over the foundering wrecks, and the North End beach from the Gas Works to the ancient wreck of the Jarawar was one panorama of shattered shipping. Huge four masted ships and stately barques shared in the dreadful chaos.
One of the most pitiful sights was that of some seven or eight men and the Captain’s wife who were seen clinging to the bowsprit of one of the wrecks which was exposed to the full fury of the sea. One of the men was observed to slip down a dangling rope and drop into the sea. He struck out bravely for the beach, but a mountain of foam bore him on its crest to be seen for a moment and then lost to sight forever. Later another threw himself into the vortex of foam, only to be dashed to death against the floating timber. There came a crash and the hull of the ship went into two, and they were swept from their fancies security where they had clung for endless hours with that pertinacity of purpose which the grim battle for life creates. Those ashore stood aghast with chill suspense and hearts full of fear as they watched helpless the awful struggle in which the cruel sea claimed its victims one by one until none was left.
Attention was then diverted to some half-dozen men who crouched beneath the shelter of what was once a vessel. A line from the rocket was fired and the line passed right over the heads of those clinging to the wreck. But time had told, fatigue had so done its work that the unfortunate men had not the strength left to pull in the lifeline. Efforts were made to rouse the despairing victims by shouting words of encouragement across the breakers to a last effort, but it was useless. Only one plunged into the sea and reached the outstretched hand of the first of a number of men who had waded into the waters to form a line at great risk to their own lives.
Then followed dark tragedy. Another man was seen to seize the line and struggle for the shore. Six of the spectators went out on a line to his rescue and were straining to maintain themselves against the backwash of the waves. A wild cry arose from the crowd as it was seen with horror that the line had broken and that the rescuers were now engaged in a life and death struggle from which one emerged victorious; the other five perished in their gallant efforts. In the presence of such tragedy, strong men shook with emotion and the women burst into tears.
Throughout the following morning and evening, body after body was washed ashore, some almost beyond recognition through the injuries received from submerged rocks and floating spars.
Such were the efforts of the last devastating gale that swept the shores of Algoa Bay, but with the erection of the breakwater and the spacious jetties, these terrible south-east gales have been robbed of their terrors and ships now safely berthed, mock at the fiercest hurricane.
Much like catastrophes in the 21st century, the aftermath of a disaster brings recriminations and finger-pointing. Some criticism may be justified yet much of what occurs arises due to the vortex of events which spirals out of control. So it was with the Great Gale of 1902.
Above all else, what makes the various elements of a rescue attempt work effortlessly and in unison is to generate Standard Operating Procedures to cater for all eventualities. Then comes continual practice. In this, many of the rescue services in Port Elizabeth were remiss. The Acting Harbour Manager at the time, William Edward Clift, the lifeboat crews and the Port and Prince Alfred Guards voluntary rocket brigade members would come in for much criticism. These accusations centred on failing to report for duty and for not practicing in bad weather under which circumstances most wreckings occurred.
To make matters worse, all the rivers flowing into the Bay would come down in flood, causing much destruction ashore and turning the sea into coffee-coloured slush. It is not entirely fanciful to visualise the inept, unprepared lifeboat crews in a dystopian whirlwind of contradictory instructions on how to proceed with their rescue efforts. It was cold comfort that the rescue services would take these criticisms to heart and be prepared for the next storm which would occur the following year.
A Bulldog named Rex
One of the wrecked ships was the German owned Hans Wagner, a 938-ton iron barque built in Sunderland in 1877. Captain Müllman was the Master and had on board with him his “affectionate” brindle bulldog Rex, a well-travelled dog indeed. The ship had come to Algoa Bay from Melbourne with a cargo of wheat, Flour and butter and had already discharged its cargo by the time that the gale struck. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Rex survived the great storm by swimming ashore to safety. His master was unable to keep him under the circumstances and Rex was purchased by a local man, Thomas Blaine Dalziel.
The Mayor set up a Relief Fund to aid the survivors and the Port Elizabeth people supported it in every way that they could with donations and by organising concerts and the like. On the Saturday following the gale, a street collection was made for the survivors and Rex was present to assist a worthy cause. “The sailors friend” was very hard to resist and by the end of the day, he had raised £30 8s 7d all on his own.
Dalziel was a commercial traveller for the firm Rolfes, Nebel and Co and lived at “Armadale” in Buckingham Road until 1909. Wherever he went, perhaps Rex went with him. The beached Hans Wagner was repaired and refloated and sailed out of the Bay.
One member of the Wood’s family of Port Elizabeth, and cousin of mine, recorded his family’s connection to this tragedy as follows:
My grandfather salvaged a number of yardarms and other things from these beached sailing ships. They used to lie around our house. When my father built his house at Schoenies about three houses away from Granny Mac’s [Mrs Daisy McCleland] tearoom, he erected one of the yards as a flagpole. My mother [Kathleen Wood] sold the house to his brother Clarrie who had lived there all his married life. When he built the house in Walmer in around 1928, he erected another yard-arm as flag pole there, and always flew the flag of the nations of his captain friends who were in port. As it was only taken down in the mid 60’s, you probably saw it when you and your mom and dad came to the house. Another article Harry salvaged is a British maritime 2-inch telescope in mandatory brass and leather sheath circa 1850.
It was at Clarrie’s wooden house at Schoenmakerskop that we stored our ocean going canoe under a Norfolk pine in the 1960s.
List of ships beached
Oakworth – a British cargo sailing vessel of 1242 grt was on route from Port Pirie with a cargo of grain;
Emmanuel – was a German sailing barque of 1147 tons under the command of Captain Tuitzer on route from Port Pirie with a cargo of grain;
Coriolanus – was a German sailing barque of 978 tons. under the command of Captain Gotting on route from Wallaroo with a cargo of wheat;
Hans Wagner – was a German iron barque of 938 tons under the command of Captain Millman was on route from Melbourne with a cargo of grain;
Agostino Rombo – was an Italian sailing barque of 827 grt, en route from Buenos Aires with a cargo of forage under the command of Captain Vassho (Captain Vassho is listed on the Memorial SE cemetery at Port Elizabeth);
Waimea – Norwegian ownded ship was carrying a cargo of wood, with loss of Captain Oredorp and 7 crew on passage from Fremantle (Captain Oredorp is listed on the Memorial to the dead in the SE Cementary of Port Elizabeth);
Arnold – was a German iron sailing barque of 854 grt under the command of Captain Ahlars and carrying a general cargo
Sayre – a British cargo sailing barque of 735 grt was on route from New York with a general cargo ;
Nautilus – was a German sailing barque of 745 grt that dragged her anchor in the great storm of the 1st September 1902 and was wrecked at North End Beach, Algoa Bay. She was under the command of Captain Assing and on route from Adelaide with a cargo of wheat. Captain Assing and 11 crew lost. Their deaths are listed on the Memorial SE Cemetery, Port Elizabeth.
Content – was a Swedish sailing barque of 547 grt. under the command of Captain Gustafsen. She was on route from Rangoon with a cargo of rice when she was wrecked on North End Beach, Algoa Bay on the 1st September 1902.
Iris – a transport schooner of 522 tons;
Kimara – I have been unable to find out anything about this ship;
Hermanos – was a Norwegian sailing barque of 498 tons under the command of Captain Gunderson which was on route from Banbury with a cargo of wood;
Thekla – was a German sailing 3 masted schooner of 350 grt on route from Mauritius with a cargo of sugar;
Constant – was a Norwegian sailing barque of 292 grt that was wrecked at North End Beach, Algoa Bay on the 1st September 1902 under the command of Captain Jacobsen when on roure from Rio de Janeiro with a cargo of coffee.
Clara – was a British Steam tug of 139grt;
Gabrielle – was a British sailing schooner of 78 tons on route from St. Johns with a cargo of wood;
Scotia – was a British cargo steamer of the Clan Line;
Countess of Carnarvon – was a wooden British steam tug of 38 tons;
Cavaliere Michele Russo – was an Italian ship of 1,529 tons on route from Newcastle, Australia with a cargo of Grain. 17 crew members died;
Inchcape Rock – was British full-rigged ship under the command of Captain Ferguson on route from Portland, Oregon.
Eastern Province Herald 2nd September 1902
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by JJ Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917 – A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)
A Bulldog named Rex by Margaret Harradine