Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Shipwrecked Mariner and the Spanish Ladies 1873

Sturges Bourne Bell was born in Port Natal on 17 July 1852 to Captain William Bell and his wife Mary Ann nee CaithnessApart from his birth and baptism, records concerning Sturges were scarce.

However, an unusual pair of forenames can be an advantage when tracing an ancestor - especially in that mine of information, contemporary newspapers. So it proved in the case of Sturges Bourne Bell.*

Apparently he stayed with family tradition and became a mariner. In 1873 he turns up as crew member on the collier Beckton sailing from Cardiff to Malta, when on the night of 28 November this screw steamer struck a sunken reef in heavy fog about three miles off the coast of Spain. There was a strong gale whipping up the sea and within minutes it was evident that the ship would soon break up.

The crew launched a lifeboat but it was immediately swamped, with the loss of eleven men. An attempt to launch the jolly-boat also failed. Several seamen including the mate leapt into the waves or were washed off the vessel. Only the captain and Bell were left on deck. Bell managed to get a lifebelt to the captain, who could not swim, but the captain was swept away and Bell then decided to try and make for land, stripping off all his clothing except his shirt.

As he swam he called out for any possible survivors in the water and was answered by the mate, the two men swimming together for some distance. When the mate’s strength began to fail, Bell found him a plank and the mate clung to this but was unable to continue, asking Bell to go and see his wife and five children to tell them how he’d died. Later the mate’s body was washed up, still clasping the plank. The bodies of seven other seamen and that of the ship’s cook followed.

Bell reached the shore alive, though severely bruised and cut from his passage through the reef. He might have bled to death if he hadn’t torn his shirt into strips and bandaged himself as best he could. After four hours in the sea he lay exhausted and helpless on the beach until eventually found by two young women and assisted to the nearest village. The local inhabitants tended his wounds and Bell afterwards spoke warmly of their kindness. When he was sufficiently recovered they sent him on to Corunna where the packet Onward took him on board. Bell was duly landed at Plymouth, the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society offering him a temporary refuge at the Sailor’s Home.

It had been a dramatic wreck, with over 20 lives lost, Bell being the sole survivor. He seems to have acquitted himself well and his actions in assisting others showed some heroism. Accounts were published in several British newspapers, identifying him as Sturges Bourne Bell, aged 20, from Port Natal. He is variously described in the reports as Ordinary Seaman and Able Seaman.

Crew members listed: Central Press 17 Dec 1873

According to one news column, when Bell left Plymouth he headed for London but at that point he drops out of sight. It hasn’t yet been established whether his family in Natal ever saw him again or heard about the shipwreck and his miraculous escape from the deep.

As Sturges Bourne Bell sailed away from the shores of Spain, perhaps he whistled the old Navy refrain:

‘Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
For we've received orders for to sail for old England,
 But we hope in a short time to see you again.’

Spanish ladies: Raquel and Manuela by Sir William Russell Flint

Lloyd's Register entry 1873/74 for the Beckton; here her captain's name
is given as Howley; she was built in Newcastle in 1869, and sailed between
London and Mediterranean ports; it is noted that she was wrecked.

* For more on the origin of his forenames:

Tom Sheldon 

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