Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Wrecking of the Troopship Charlotte

Ship Charlotte

Over the 19th and 20th September 1854, the residents of Port Elizabeth had front row seats as the three masted wooden transport ship, the Charlotte struck rocks at the bottom of Jetty Street during a gale and was wrecked at North End.

Main picture: The Charlotte being battered by the wind and the waves

Report in the Times Newspaper

WRECK OF THE CHARLOTTE TROOPSHIP

Another fearful catastrophe at sea to a transport ship with detachments of the 27th Regiment on board, bound to Calcutta, from Queenstown, was made known yesterday at Lloyd’s, through private accounts received at the Jerusalem Coffee-house, which, it will be seen, was accompanied with lamentable loss of human life. The unfortunate vessel was the British ship Charlotte, of London owned by Mr Mews, timber-merchant, of Rotherhithe, 585 tons burden, and classed in Lloyd’s register as Al for 13 years, having been built in 1844.

Manby Mortar

“Algoa Bay, Wednesday, Sept. 20.

“The last 24 hours have presented a scene the parallel to which has never been witnessed in Port E1izabeth. At a quarter past 5 p.m. yesterday the British ship Charlotte, Captain Affleck commander, lying in the bay, made signal that she had parted an anchor, and wanted another. She was from Queenstown, with detachments of the 27th Regiment for Calcutta, and put into the bay two days previous for fresh supplies and water. The officers of the regiment on board were Captain Stapylton, Captain Warner, Lieutenant Maguire, Ensign White, Dr. Kidd, 163 rank and file, 14 women, and 26 children. Her wants were being supplied by the tank-boat, but had not been completed before a heavy sea broke into the bay, with moderate southerly wind, which increased towards noon, and being more to the S.E., a signal was made from the Port Office for the Charlotte to strike her top gallant masts and yards, and to be prepared for a gale, which was attended to immediately. The wind freshened considerably, but not to such an extent as to cause any anxiety for the safety of the shipping, although the heavy sea rolling in, stopped all communication with the shore. On her signalizing that she had parted her anchor, the harbour-master replied no assistance could be sent to her. In about an hour afterwards she parted from her second anchor, and she was observed drifting to the northward, but, getting all sail on, made an attempt to beat out of the bay, and she stood out to the eastward, apparently making good way; but, having no fore topsail bent (her topgallantmasts being struck), it was impossible to stay her.

Drawing of the Manby Apparatus in use

Drawing of the Manby Apparatus in use

In this emergency she beat down towards the bight, and, although but dimly visible, it was too evident she was losing ground. At 8 o’clock the vessel stood towards the shipping, and again attempted to wear; the wind, however, by this time had fallen light, and, drifting, she went ashore on the rocks exactly opposite the flagstaff at the end of the Jetty Street. As soon as possible, tar-barrels were collected and lighted, to inspire confidence, and assist in directing operations. Manby’s apparatus was directly brought down, and under the direction of Lieutenant Simpson, of Her Majesty’s steamer Hydra, a rope was thrown several times over the vessel, but from some misunderstanding or want of rope the communication was lost. In the meantime the ship was fast settling down on the dangerous reef on which she struck, and it was evident she would speedily become a wreck.

The lifeboat was then prepared, and, a crew being collected, it was pulled through the breakers, and made its way, under the charge of Captain Salmond, to the wreck. On coming alongside it was found that everyone on board was completely paralyzed, or overcome by the calamity. Three separate times the lifeboat pu11ed alongside, but there was no one in a position even to cast a line to it, till at length the boat was driven back and stove amid the dangerous reefs which line the beach, its crew barely escaping with their lives. A moment of terrible anxiety ensued. It was evident to all assembled that the noble vessel was fast breaking up; the masts had gone, and the sea was making a complete breach over her. By the glare of the watch fires the hull of the wreck could just be observed, and its deck crowded with groups of people – some half-dressed, and holding forth in their arms infants and children, screaming to the crowds of people collected on the rock, and imploring their help to save them. The agonizing cries of the poor creatures announced that the ship was going to pieces. A great number threw themselves overboard; some were fortunate enough to reach the shore, but the majority were drowned. At about 1 o’clock the poop and stern parted from the vessel, and was carried close in shore. A spar from the mizenmast projected over on to the rock, by which several succeeded in saving themselves by slipping down into the arms of the people. One account states that all collected on the poop were saved. A great number of soldiers and sailors were clinging to the fore part of the wreck. In less than half an hour afterwards that portion of it turned completely over, and every soul, that was on it perished. At daylight not a vestige of the ill-fated vessel was to be seen where she was wrecked. A mass of broken masts and timber, entangled in ropes and torn sails, strewed the beach. Immediately search was then made for the bodies of those who had perished. During the morning 23 were found, a portion of whom were interred in the churchyard before dark, followed by all the troops in the garrison and a great number of the inhabitants. All the children who were on board, excepting one, were drowned. Most of the women also perished. On the survivors being mastered it was ascertained that out of l68 rank and file about 118 were saved.”

Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus going off to a Stranded Vessel

Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus going off to a Stranded Vessel

The following is a list of those known to be saved, and it is feared it includes the whole:-
Cabin Passengers.- Mrs. Short, M’Cabe, Steward, Thomson, and Gillan; Captains Stapylton and Warner, Lieutenant Maguire, Ensign White, and Dr. Kidd.
Soldiers.- Brown (2), Smith, Welch, Hinds, Flood, Donelly, Cout, Collivan, Fitzgibbon, Linch, Forster, Quiggly, Carr (2), Moran, Dailly, Foy, Somers (2), Barde, M’Cabe, Collings, Lege, Bollard, Thompson, Robertson (2), M’Koy, Woods, Brown, Brady (3), Wayland, Donohue, Dolling, Patrick M’Kenna, Carson, William Carr, Allridge, Smith, Hobbs, M’Inroe, Clarke, O’Neal, Bagot, Burk (2), Couly, Millar, Cassady, Marrow, Kingan, M’Brien, M’Quare, Elliot(3), Kenny, Lindsay, William Thomson, J. Rielly (2), Steward, J. O’Hara, Gillan, Short, Matthew Bushfield, Grant, R. Smith, Welsh, Barton, Fitzsammonds, Gilbeece, Dempsey, Dyer, Ellis, Fair, Fleeney, Ferguson, Henderson, Kelly, Kernon, Lawlor, Lee, Lennon, Lythe, M’Manus, M’Sorley, Madan, Murrey, O’Hara, Shelton, Sparks, Taylor, Walker, and Ward.

Of the crew, which consisted of 24, only Captain Affleck, his son, the first mate, ship’s batcher, cook, steward, and two others were saved.

The total drowned is thus stated: – Rank and file, 62; women, 11; children, 26; crew, 18. Total, 117.

The Charlotte was fully insured at Lloyd’s. She had a general cargo on board.

[Note: the dateline of this report is obviously incorrect – the tragedy took place in the night of 20/21 September, and the report – with its reference to “the last 24 hours” – must have been written on the 21st]

Early morning in Algoa Bay

 

Official report from the Deputy-Collector of Customs

CAPE TOWN, SEPT. 27.

The following is the official report from the Deputy-Collector of Customs to the Collector of Customs in Cape Town: –

“Custom house, Port Elizabeth, Sept 22.

“Sir,- I regret to have to inform you of the wreck, at this port, of the ship Charlotte, of London, 586 tons, Robert Dickson Affleck master, which put in here for water. It took place under the following circumstances: –

 

“At 4 p.m. of the 20th the wind was blowing from the eastward, the vessel riding with two anchors; she parted one chain and signalled for immediate assistance, but no assistance could be rendered in consequence of the surf; at half past 5 she parted her second chain, made sail, attempted to beat out; as, however, it was thought she could not get out, but would most likely go ashore on the beach near the Swartkop’s River, having canted with her head in that direction, the lifeboat was taken out there by Port Captain Bennett. At 7 p.m. she was observed, on the other tack standing towards the shipping; however, when nearly opposite the site of the old jetty, she struck the ground and drifted ashore broadside on. Some delay took place in launching the lifeboat, which had to be brought back into town, – it was manned, and Captains Bennett and Salmond went off in it, and they succeeded in getting through the surf and alongside the vessel, but, could, not get a line from her, in consequence of the confusion on board, caused by the seas breaking over her, and, after approaching her three times, the lifeboat was driven ashore on the rocks and nearly smashed to pieces; the crew were washed out, and Captains Bennett and Salmond were dragged ashore almost drowned. Manby’s apparatus for throwing lines on board was successfully used by Lieutenant Simpson, R.N., the line being twice thrown on board, but was not made use of by those on board, as from some cause or other no hawser or other strong line was attached to it.

Stranded-627

“After rolling about, broadside on, for some hours, the surf breaking violently over her, at 2 a.m. of the 21st she broke up with a tremendous crash; shortly afterwards the after-part of the poop and after-part of the ship washed closer in with nearly 60 people on it, who were nearly all saved. Towards daylight there was very little to be seen of her.

“The inhabitants of this place did everything in their power for the safety of the passengers (and many nearly lost their lives in rescuing them from a watery grave) and for their comfort after landing.

“The place where the vessel came ashore is one mass of sharp rocks, which will account for the serious loss of life which has taken place in connexion with this wreck, which is said to be the worst that has occurred at this port.

“Three of the officers landed the day previous to the wreck, and remained ashore.

“Captain Warren and Dr. Kidd were the only officers on board at the time of the wreck; the latter was washed ashore, and owes his life in a great measure to a life-belt which he had about him, not being able to swim.

“Captain Warren and the master of the vessel were a1most the last people taken off the front of the wreck which drifted ashore.

“I enclose a list of the passengers who were on board, – those saved and lost, – by which you will perceive that 99 were lost.

“The crew consisted of 21 men, besides the master; 10 are saved, among whom is the chief officer.

“The boatswain and carpenter are among those lost.

“There are only 20 bodies washed ashore as yet.

“The officers and crew have lost all their baggage, and very little cargo has been washed up.

“A sale of the wreck took place to-day. The cargo consisted of 100 tons of iron, 70 tons of steel, 100 bales of cotton mule twist, and about 100 cases of goods.

“The ship’s papers, with the exception of the register, were all lost.

“I have, &c.,

“W. S. FIELD, Sub-Collector.

“Shipped at Cork 163 soldiers, 5 officers, 16 women, 26 children. Total 210.
“Lost.- 62 soldiers, ll women, 26 children. Total 99.
“Saved.- 101 soldiers, 5 officers, 5 women. Total 111.

“The following ate the names of some of those of the crew who are saved: – Robert Dickson Affleck, captain; William Affleck, captain’s son; Wm. Lofty, chief mate; Wm. Watson, steward; John Quigly, seaman; Thomas Miller, seaman; Thomas Jenkins, butcher.

“Immediate search was made for the bodies of those who had perished, and during the morning 23 were recovered, a portion of whom were conveyed to their last resting place before dark, followed by the troops in garrison, and a great number of the inhabitants. Every thing that humanity could suggest was done for the survivors, and a sum of nearly 400 l has been subscribed for their relief. The following is a list of those known to be saved, and, it is feared, includes the whole: –

“Mesdames Short, M’Cabe, Steward, Thomson, and Gillan.
“Captains Stapleton and Warren, Lieutenant M’Quire, Ensign White, and Dr. Kidd.
“Brown (2), Smith, Welch, Hinds, Flood, Donelly, Cout, Collivan, Fitzgibbon, Linch, Forster, Surgeon Kidd, Quigley (seaman), Carr (2), Moran, Daily, Foy, Somers (2), Berde, M’Cabe, Collings, Lege, Bollard, Thomson, Robertson (2), M’Koy, Woods, Brown, Brady (3), Wayland, Donohue, Dolling, Patrick M’Kenna, Carson, William Carr, Allridge, Smith, Hobbs, M’Inroe, Clarke, O’Neal, Bagot, Burke (2), Conly, Miller, Cassidy, Morrow, Kinghan, M’Brien, M’Quare, Elliott (3), Kenny, Lindsay, W Thomson, J. Reilly (2), Steward, J. O’Hara, Gillan Short, Matthew Bushfield, Grant, R. Smith, Welch, Barton, Buchanan, Dempsy, Dyer, Elliss, Fair, Feeney, Forguson, Fitzsimmond, Gilleece, Henderson, Kelly, Kernon, Lawlor, Lee, Lennon, Lyttle, M’Manus, M’Sorley, Maddan, Murray, O’Hara, Shelton, Sparks, Taylor, Walker, and Ward.”

Lawrence Green’s version of Events

They talked of the wreck of the Charlotte, a troopship bound from Cork to Calcutta under sail. She was no Birkenhead for everybody on board seemed to have been panic-stricken. The Charlotte carried one hundred and sixty-three officers and men of the Twenty-seventh Regiment, eleven women and twenty-six children and a full crew. She put into Port Elizabeth for provisions and water and while at anchor there, a south-east gale blew up. Almost everybody in the town went down to the foot of Jetty Street to watch the drama. “Above the fury of the wind and sea, we could hear the cries of women and children,” recalled Mr Winter. “They saw the danger even before the ship parted from her anchor.” The captain of the Charlotte got a little sail on her and tried to beat out of the bay, but it was hopeless. The troopship crawled along just outside the breakers, parallel with the shore. Off North End beach, the mate jumped overboard and was drowned in the surf. Survivors declared that the mate had tried to persuade the captain to beach the ship on the sand. When the captain refused, the mate said that he was going to give himself a sporting chance of reaching the shore, and went to his death. The Charlotte struck the rockiest part of the foreshore, and broke in half. The harbour master sent a rocket line across but no one in the Charlotte touched it. Then he sent a lifeboat at great risk. “A panic at this time seized the crew and troops,” reported the harbour master. “In defiance of various hails from the shore, they jumped overboard. I launched the boat in a fearful surf and several times pulled alongside. The boat filled and was driven onto the rocks after several men had been washed overboard.” Mr Winter said that the Charlotte broke up rapidly but the stern came so close to the shore, that a number of people were saved. At daybreak, hardly a fragment of the troopship was to be seen at the place where she had struck. Sixty soldiers, eleven women and all the children were drowned, and the total death toll was one hundred and fifteen. Port Elizabeth regarded the Charlotte disaster as a mystery. As a rule people facing death are stirred to action but nearly all on board the Charlotte seemed to be paralysed by fear.

By the way, this wreck which was described to me by eye-witnesses, occurred as far back as 1854. Captain Salmond, who tried to organise the rescue, was awarded a gold medal and this has been persevered in the Port Elizabeth library.

In Memoriam

In 1914, the Royal Inniskilling Fisilliers (27th Regiment) erected a tablet to their memory in St. Mary’s Church

Source

Harbours of Memory by Lawrence G. Green (1969, Howard Timmins, Cape Town)

Report in the Times and the Official Report: http://www.pdavis.nl/Charlotte.php


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