Elingamite 1902

Elingamite 1902

ELINGAMITE, steamer: A wreck, which was succeeded by one of the most pathetic incidents in the lengthy history of New Zealand shipping disasters, occurred on the morning of November 9, 1902, when the Elingamite struck on West Island, one of the Three Kings Group, and sank within 20 minutes, with the loss of 45 lives.

The steamer left Sydney on November 5, bound for Auckland, on a course calculated to take the vessel well clear of the island on which she was wrecked. At 9 a.m. on November 9 a dense fog was encountered. The engines were slowed to half speed, and the lookout and fog signals were strictly attended to, until the ship struck on what was at first supposed to be the middle island of the Three Kings. Land was sighted while there still remained time to avert the disaster, but for some unaccountable reason the order for stopping the steamer, or its execution, was delayed until it was too late. The steamer carried six lifeboats and two rafts, and these were launched without delay. The only untoward incident in launching the boats was an alleged tendency by some Australian passengers to rush .the boats, and the cutting of a boat’s falls. The master of the ill-fated vessel stood by his ship until washed overboard. He was afterwards picked up by a lifeboat, and then proceeded to rescue several women and children who were in the water.

One of the lifeboats, carrying 45 people, collided with part of the wreck, and a plank was stove in, leaving a large hole through which the water rushed freely. Four men contributed their shirts and stopped the breach as well as possible, and the leakage was slackened sufficiently to enable the boat to be kept afloat by constant bailing. On making land at the Kings the boat was smashed to pieces through coming in contact with a reef, but all on board succeeded in getting ashore. There was no shelter, and the nights spent there were bitterly cold. The women, children and men huddled together in a vain attempt to keep warm.

The chief officer’s boat, No. 2 lifeboat, was the last to leave the wreck. Some person in a hurry had cut the falls, and consequently it could not be launched, but it floated clear. As the Elingamile sank this boat cruised round and picked up survivors. The chief officer plunged into the water from the flying-bridge, and was hauled on to some wreckage by the captain and second officer. Another boat made a landing on one of the Three Kings, chosen by Captain Reid, a passenger. The cliffs behind the ledge where the landing was made were 700 feet high. Two of the crew tried to scale these with the object of lighting a fire to attract attention, but failed.

When the Elingamite went down one of the rafts was floating about with two people on it. Six more, all men, were subsequently picked up, and the raft drifted away from the wreck. It drifted up against the other raft, and three of the latter’s passengers were transferred, leaving 16 on the large raft. There was no food or water on the smaller raft, but the larger one carried a keg of water. The chief stewardess was on the larger raft-the other 15 were all men. The two rafts were soon parted in the fog. However, the fog lifted, and the larger one was again sighted, also the purser’s boat. The purser gave instructions for the rafts to keep together, while he went to search for a landing. The rafts kept together as long as possible, intending to make fast to each other during the night. The rocks were again sighted, and a second attempt was made to reach them. The smaller raft succeeded in coming up to them through the darkness. A bay was seen ahead of them on the side of the Great King, and after a hard pull they reached the rocks and landed. All were very exhausted, as they had had no food or water since breakfast. Next morning some water was found trickling from a rock. In preparation for a second night these survivors made huts from tea-tree and brush, while some searched further for water. Good water was found about a mile away, but some dangerous climbing was necessary to reach it. During the night they took turns at keeping watch and replenishing the fire to attract passing vessels. Next morning they were joined by the occupants of the purser’s boat.

The first intimation of the disaster was the receipt of a telegram despatched by the second officer of the Elingamite from Houhora, where No. 2 lifeboat, in charge of the chief officer, Mr. L. Berkett, had arrived at 12.30 p.m. on November 10. Houhora is on the East Coast, about 240 miles north of Auckland. This boat contained 37 passengers and 15 members of the crew, and the body of a female passenger who had died from exposure. Such a large number, 52, in one boat was accounted for by the fact that in addition to its own complement, No. 2 lifeboat carried that of No. 6. This boat, in charge of the fourth engineer, Mr. J. Morrison, had capsized through striking wreckage alongside the steamer, and those in it were fortunate in being rescued by No. 2 boat.

Immediately news was received in Auckland of the catastrophe steps were taken to dispatch the Northern Steamship Company’s Clansman, the Union Steam Ship Company’s Omapere, and the auxiliary schooner Greyhound to the scene. In addition the Huddart, Parker Company’s steamer Zealandia, commencing her return passage to Sydney, was diverted, and H.M.S. Penguin was ordered to proceed to the Three Kings. About midday on November 11 the Zealandia found the castaways on various parts of the Three Kings Islands, and embarked 63 passengers and 26 members of the crew. These included all persons from the small raft, 45 from No. I boat, and the remaining 33 people were from lifeboats Nos. 3 and 5, and included the captain. With No. 2 lifeboat safe at Houhora, carrying, in addition to its own complement, that of No. 6 lifeboat, there still remained missing the larger raft and its 16 occupants, another lifeboat, and 37 people. This boat was No. 4 lifeboat, in charge of the third officer, and was smaller than the other boats, having a carrying capacity of from 30 to 35 persons. The actual number in this boat was not known, as, of the 37 persons mentioned, some where known to have been drowned at the time of the wreck.

A most intensive search for the missing raft and boat then began, all vessels in that area being instructed to keep a sharp lookout. On the afternoon of November 14 H.M.S. Penguin returned to Auckland, bringing with her eight survivors from the wreck of the Elingamite who were adrift on the missing raft. The narrative of the finding of the steamer’s raft with eight survivors out of 16 who had sought safety upon it was briefly told by one of the officers of the Penguin. He stated

that on the afternoon of November 13, when the Penguin was about 60 miles north-east of the Three Kings, the bottom boards of a boat and other wreckage were seen in the water. Shortly afterwards one of the men stationed at the masthead called out that a raft was sighted. At 4.07 p.m. the cruiser was alongside the raft, and it was seen that several of its occupants were alive. Only one man was standing, three were kneeling down, and the remainder were crouching in a sitting position. The men on the raft were taken on board the warship in a very feeble condition, and some of them were too dazed to give intelligible answers to questions. Some of them stated that while on the raft they had seen a steamer approach and a boat had been lowered, but it did not pick them up. Others said they had certainly seen a steamer, but did not mention the fact of a boat being lowered. On arrival at Auckland the Penguin lay out in the stream, and only those privileged to board her could witness the pathetic sight of men who had suffered the privations of nearly five days on a partly-submerged raft, without food or water, who had seen half their number die before their eyes, and had given up all hope of being rescued.

Fifteen men and one woman were on that raft when it drifted out under the fatal mist. The woman was the stewardess, Mrs. McGuirk. They were adrift on a mere framework of boards, with two apples among them for food, one oar, one rowlock, and a broken paddle with which to fight against wind and tide, which bore them relentlessly away from the land. One passenger lay, feeble and worn, on a deck chair. Seven other men were lying on pallets in the warship’s chart room. These eight were the survivors of the 16 who had found, as they thought, a haven on the raft. Each showed the marks of terrible suffering. The skin was burnt and blistered on their faces, and their eyes were bloodshot and strained with salt water and long staring over the empty sea for the succour that was so long in coming. Their feet and legs, too tender and raw from exposure to the salt water and sun to bear the weight of their coverings, were visible, and it made people shudder to look at them and realise the agony they must have endured. They could tell, in brief words, how one after another of their comrades died, and how each death lightened the halfsunken raft. The stewardess, the only woman on the raft, died on November 12, and her body was lowered into the sea the following morning. The wonder is that a woman could have lasted so long under such fearful conditions. Some of those who died were not even known by name, some died raving mad, plunging into the sea to end their sufferings. All the horrors of those helpless days of exposure on the open sea will never be really known.

On the deck of the Penguin was the raft which had carried the people on their terrible voyage. The structure was about 12 feet long by 7 or 8 feet wide, consisting of narrow wooden battens nailed longitudinally between two long, round canvas floats. It did not take much imagination to visualise the condition of 16 people on the frail craft. They must have been half-submerged nearly all the time, and they had no shelter from wind, rain or sun. Every wave must have washed them. Every motion of the ever-moving platform must have buried them. There could have been no rest on its narrow boards, night or day, and add to this days and nights of hunger and thirst, of cold and fatigue, of sickness and hopelessness, and then one can realise something of their sufferings. The raft was picked up 66 miles E. b N. half N. from the scene of the wreck. Of the two apples on the raft one was divided on November 11 and the other on the day following, each apple being cut in 16 pieces.

Despite a thorough and prolonged search nothing was ever seen or heard of the missing lifeboat and its occupants, numbering approximately 30. On her last voyage the Elingamite carried 136 passengers, including a number of qualified motormen on their way to Auckland to drive that city’s new electric tramway cars, and a crew numbering 58-a total complement of 194 persons. Seventeen members of the crew and 28 passengers were lost by drowning and exposure.

The Elingamite, No. 92,865, was a steel, screw steamer of 2,585 tons gross and 1,675 tons net register, built at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1887 by Messrs. Swan and Hunter and her dimensions were : length 310.5 ft., beam 40.8 ft., depth 19.7 ft. She was owned by the Huddart, Parker Company, and commanded by Captain Ernest Bacot Atwood. The Elingamite cost £50,000, and after she reached Australia a further £20,000 had been spent on improvements. At the time of the wreck she was valued at £40,000 and was insured for £27,000. At the time of launching she was a first rate ship of her class, and was placed on the British Admiralty list as a reserve cruiser. For this purpose, should the contingency have arisen, her decks were specially strengthened for the mounting of guns. The steamer carried bullion to the value of £17,320. After three unsuccessful attempts a salvage party succeeded in securing some of the gold.

On January 11, 1907, Captain Willis, who was in charge of the party, reported to Lloyd’s agents at Auckland that £1,500 of the gold had been recovered. On January 12 he reported the recovery of about £1,700, and on the 23rd a further £800 was recovered. The diver, E. G. Harper, employed in the search for the bullion, died of heart failure on January 22 after making three descents. Further attempts were made.

The Court of Inquiry found that the master was guilty of grossly negligent navigation, and that after the wreck he committed a grave error of judgement in allowing No. I boat to leave the ship, and to leave with only half the complement of people the boat was able to carry. The master and first officer were to blame for not having all the boats properly equipped, and the tackle in proper order, and the crew efficiently exercised in boat drill. The rafts were abandoned by the boats. Those in the boats should have stood by the rafts as long as possible. The master and officers should have kept both rafts together until a concerted plan of action was arrived at. While returning the certificates of the first and second officers to them the court was of the opinion that their conduct was not commendable either in handling the boats or in leaving passengers adrift on the rafts. The court ordered the certificate of the master to be suspended for one year, and ordered him to pay £50 towards the cost of the inquiry.

In 1910 communications were received by the Marine Department from the Vice-Admiral of the Australian Naval Station stating that the position of the Three Kings Islands was wrongly charted, sights from H.M.S. Cambrian, which were later confirmed by observations taken on shore by officers from the Cambrian, placing the actual position of Great Island about one mile and a quarter south, and a third of a mile east of the charted position. In consequence of this advice the New Zealand Parliament passed an Act to provide for a re-hearing by the Supreme Court of the matter of the wreck of the Elingamite. The re-hearing took place before the Chief Justice, assisted by Captains R. E. Smith and A. D. Chrisp, and resulted in Captain. Atwood being exonerated from blame. (See plate 46.)

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