Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Woodchoppers and the Solicitor: Lost at Sea 1


A series of guest blogposts by S J L Patterson in commemoration of the SS Waratah July 1909.

Jack Calder
In Tasmania, a light drizzle had been falling as the two men prepared their equipment to spend another day in the ancient and magnificent forests of Tasmania.  As strong, young men, several years of wielding the axe had honed their craft and strengthened their bodies to become champion woodchoppers in Australia. Shortly, they would be sailing to London and their ship, the SS Waratah, was already in Australian waters and working her way around the coast.


Alf Clarke
Early Australia was a land of hardship and manual labour, with any gains being hard-won from relentless hours of physical effort - building a homestead, erecting fencing, raising cattle or clearing the densely-forested land to plant crops. This daily physical effort raised strong men and competitions were to centre on their skills such as horsemanship and woodchopping. The latter had fast become an entertaining sport and after the first championships had taken place at Latrobe in north-west Tasmania, in November 1891,Tasmania had led with world champion axemen. Top placing in the Australian Championships were critical to Alf Clarke and Jack Calder and, both men being highly skilled, they had been successful with Alf Clarke acquiring the 1905 Australian Championship title, whilst Jack Calder was the Tasmanian State Champion. This success had led to both men being invited under Royal engagement to an exhibition for British Royalty in London, to compete against Canadian woodchoppers. Their preparations were being made to take Australian logs with them for embarkation in Melbourne and Alf Clarke, a big man, had ordered a new pair of size 14 boots especially for the occasion.

Meanwhile, the Waratah slipped away from Sydney’s Central Wharf at Millers Point, at noon on Saturday 26 June 1909, after loading her cargo and embarking 38 passengers. Captain Josiah Edward Ilbery would have felt a twinge of sadness on that cloudy day with showers as he had his last view of the Macquarie and Hornsby Lighthouses, constructed from local sandstone, hewn from the area today known as ‘The Rocks’ on Sydney Harbour. This was his final command as Commodore of the Blue Anchor Line and he was due to retire when this voyage ended in London. The ship would soon pass through The Heads and into the open ocean, visiting Melbourne and Adelaide, followed by her Indian Ocean crossing to Durban, South Africa


SS Waratah
The Waratah was an imposing vessel and her extra promenade deck gave her a somewhat top-heavy appearance, which distinguished her from the rest of the ships of the Blue Anchor Line. On a number of occasions, because she was so high, there had been berthing problems due to the area exposed to strong winds, which had caused her hawsers holding her to the wharf to snap like cotton strands.


One year before, on 5 November 1908, she had set off on her maiden voyage from London, England, to Australia, boasting 100 first class cabins, 8 staterooms, a luxurious 'music lounge' complete with a minstrel's gallery and a saloon with panels depicting her namesake flower. As well as these luxurious quarters, the Waratah had room for 300 Third Class passengers to serve the strong emigrant trade from Europe to Australia.


Having completed her maiden voyage without mishap, her return to England did raise some discussions between the owners and the builders about her stowage and the possibility of it being responsible for some instability on that voyage. Little did they know that these discussions would hold important ramifications in the future, when the inquiry into her loss would again raise the issue of stowage and reports of her instability. The disappearance of the SS Waratah remains as inexplicable and mysterious today, as it did 103 years ago. People all over the world have deliberated and written about this ship. How was it possible for a modern liner of her time, travelling close to shore on a well-used coast, to disappear without trace? Yet she did just that, posing an intriguing mystery, as well as the tragedy of a ship vanishing with all hands. 


Port Melbourne Railway Pier was off in the distance at 4.00pm on Thursday 1 July as the Waratah crossed Port Philip Bay bound for Adelaide. Passengers Alf Clarke and Jack Calder were settled into their Third Class berths and mixed feelings had confronted them as Alf had said goodbye to his wife Eva and four year old daughter Rosina and Jack Calder bid farewell to his family. Yet, for these two young men, this was their first adventure outside Australia. The thrill of the unknown and the new world they were about to explore, was exhilarating. Alf and Jack keep their fitness by training daily on the deck, boxing and skipping and keeping passengers well entertained.


As the Waratah steamed on her uneventful passage to Port Adelaide, Mr. John Ebsworth, a Melbourne Solicitor, Freemason and father of six, had bade farewell to his wife, Sarah Jane on 6th July 1909 and taken the Adelaide Railway Express to Port Adelaide to board the Waratah that was anchored at Ocean Steamers Wharf. He had been delayed by legal matters when the Waratah took on her passengers in Melbourne but he was now on his way to London via South Africa.  
Agnes Grant Gosse Hay
At the same time Agnes Grant Gosse Hay, widow of the highly respected businessman and Member of Parliament, Alexander Hay, originally from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, would be boarding the Waratah after having travelled up to Adelaide from Victor Harbour. Accompanying Agnes was her daughter Helen (Dolly) Gosse and companion Miss M Hesketh-Jones


'Dolly' Gosse






















The weather report issued for South Australia at 9pm on 6 July 1909 was, ‘Cloudy, generally with rain and squally winds between NW and SW, strong on the coast and rough sea.’ Captain Ilbery had taken on 6 new crew members in Adelaide and as the 14 new passengers embarked, including John Ebsworth and Agnes Gosse Hay’s party, destiny was closing in on them.  



SS Waratah 1909

To be continued ...

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