Friday, January 31, 2014

Shipwrecks on the Wild Coast

If, like me, you love maps and are fascinated by the turbulent Wild Coast, its pioneer and trading families, and especially by the many shipwrecks which for five centuries have occurred along its shores, look no further than the wonderful map of this area available at

Among the wreck sites marked are:

Ivy 1878
Sao Joao 1552
Sao Bento 1554
Grosvenor 1782
Nossa Senhora de Belem 1635
Forres Bank 1958
Santo Alberto 1593
Africa and Agatha 1853
Hercules 1852
Oceanos 1991

There’s a strong but controversial possibility that in July 1909 the Blue Anchor Liner Waratah may have disappeared between Coffee Bay and Hole in the Wall on this very coast. 

Read more about this intriguing mystery of the sea at and also right here on Mole’s blog pages via the search facility.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Passengers to Natal: Kinfauns Castle 1880

Kinfauns Castle arrived Cape Town May 20 1880

Passengers for Natal:
Lieutenants Pixley and Priskett
Beechman (2)
G. Jorren
Mede (2)
Revs. Brastveldt [Braatvedt?] and Gunderson
Mr and Mrs Wilson
Mrs Brastveldt
Mrs Masters (4)
Misses (5) Fisher
Mrs, Master and Miss Gunderson
Master and Miss Middleton
Mrs, Miss and Master Friedlander

CASTLE LINE OF STEAMERS Natal Witness February 21 1880
(Empire, January 15)

Those gentlemen interested in South Africa who met on board the newly-built steamship, the Kinfauns Castle, at the invitation of the owners, must have felt gratified at the sight which met their view on their arrival at the West India Docks. Seven vessels of the Castle fleet of Messrs. Donald Currie & Co., representing a tonnage of 18,000 and a value of half a million, were lying there, two of them being the splendidly-built and equipped vessels the Grantully Castle and the Kinfauns Castle. The latter, the first steel ocean mail steamer which has been constructed, is a perfectly appointed and majestic vessel, built upon the same lines as the Grantully Castle, the iron ship which lay beside her. The comparison of their performances will therefore be instructive. 

The Kinfauns Castle and Grantully Castle are over 500 to 600 tons larger than any other steamers engaged in the Cape mail service. They each carry 120 first-class passengers, 100 second-class, and 160 third-class, with a cargo of 2,000 tons, and coal enough to take them to the Cape and back to Madeira. They are structurally fitted for cruiser purposes. They have respectively three iron and three steel decks, and the upper deck is of the ordinary strength of a main deck. There are six water-tight and fire-proof bulkheads, and the ship would float with any compartment full of water. The engine-room is divided by fireproof and water-tight compartments from the rest of the ship. Each of these steamers could carry ten heavy guns and steam from England to Japan by the Cape of Good Hope without coaling, either as a cruiser or a transport for carrying troops. The saloon goes through from side to side, and is forty-three feet square. There is a ladies' deck saloon, a smoking cabin, and a spacious promenade. 

Perfect in their appointments, so far as scientific skill and decorative art can make them, these vessels are indeed a valuable addition to the fleet of Cape steamers owned by Messrs. Donald Currie and Co.

The party on board partook of an excellent luncheon, presided over by Mr Donald Currie, C.M.G., supported by Sir Authur Cunynghame, Mr Lord, Q.C., Attorney-General for Griqualand West, Mr John Napier, etc.

The usual toasts were drank, and speeches followed.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Caithness in the Diamond Fields 3

Diamond Digger
The Cape and Natal News of 8 August 1870 concerning members of Slater’s party leaving for the diamond fields gives only the surname Caithness – no forename or title, no mention of ‘Captain’. This could suggest it may not have been George Henry Caithness but his nephew James Ernest Caithness, at that point a fit thirty-year old bachelor and more likely to be setting off for the fields than would a fifty-something mariner such as George Henry.

However, it is certain that Captain Caithness made some trips by steamship from the Cape to England at the height of the diamond rush and that he presented ‘a collection of stones from the diamond diggings’ to the Hartley Institution (the latter became today's Southampton University).

The Cape and Natal News gives an idea of the freight carried by steamers, mentioning the Northam on which Captain Caithness was a passenger in 1872:

‘Diamonds were Trumps at the Cape’ and the same newspaper published some verses – enthusiastic if short on literary merit - by ‘a young Colonist’, entitled ‘Off to the Diamond Diggings’, giving a fair idea of the prevailing mood.

The South African press was full of stories about the diamond fields, who was on their way there, what the conditions were like en route and who had had spectacular finds. There wasn’t quite as much information on the many spectacular failures. 

Suddenly there was a dearth of ‘enterprising young men’ in the settled areas of the Colony: they were all off to the fields, wagons laden with stores and equipment, to rough it in tent-towns on the bare veld. 

Even men who were not so young hoped to make their fortunes, as the report below reveals:

During the year 1870 there poured into the country a stream of fortune-seekers which would be equalled only when gold was found on the Witwatersrand twenty years later.

It was the remarkable discoveries of diamonds and gold which put South Africa on the map and changed the course of its history. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Tom Sheldon

Research Resource:

Africana Library Kimberley
Holdings include: early travel and missionaries, Kimberley chronological, Directories and Voters’ Lists, geological and archaeological. Local newspapers from 1870, when diamonds were discovered, until present. 15 000 Photographs depicting the Diamond Fields and its people, mining and the Siege of Kimberley. 760 collections of Manuscripts, dealing with Siege of Kimberley diaries, discovery of diamonds etc. Ephemera: pamphlets, programs, invitation cards, medals, coins etc. South African and Kimberley maps.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Caithness in the Diamond Fields 2

The Diamond Fields At The Cape

The Hampshire Advertiser, on the alert for any news involving ‘Southamptonians’ and their relatives, reported on 29 Oct 1873 as follows:

Donations to the Museum: The Library and Museum Committee reported that Captain Caithness 'had sent a collection of stones from the diamond diggings' at the Cape.

These offerings are likely to have been uncut stones, as the museum (the Hartley Institution) had an interest in geology. What is less certain is whether Captain Caithness acquired the stones at the diggings himself or came by them indirectly.

Sorting Diamonds
It’s probable that the Captain mentioned was George Henry Caithness, whose career is gradually unfolding as more references emerge.

Shipping companies were involved in a rush of their own, making money on the back of the diamond frenzy. Demand for transport to the Cape was unprecedented and new competitors entered the market. 

For example, Messrs G H Payne and Co of London sent two chartered steamers the Westenhope and Beethoven, intended to be the start of a regular Cape line and advertised in the press with the magic words ‘Direct to the Diamond Fields’:

Unfortunately, the 'magnificent' Westenhope, after delivering passengers at Port Elizabeth for the diamond fields, was totally wrecked at Seal Island.

In May 1867 (the year of the Eureka Diamond discovery) Captain and Mrs Caithness were passengers from the Cape to Southampton on the Union Co. steamship, Cambrian. That this may have been a regular trip for the Caithness couple is indicated by another report dated 21 September 1872 listing them as passengers on the Northam, again to Southampton from the Cape:

The Northam’s cargo manifest included over 2 000 pounds in specie, an unstated amount of gold from the Marabastadt fields, ostrich feathers (highly fashionable), ivory – and ‘nine packages of diamonds.’ Numerous vessels departing the Cape at the height of the diamond frenzy would have carried similar items.

Captain George Henry Caithness was then in his mid-fifties. This seems a little late in life for active pursuit of diamonds in the fields. It’s tempting to imagine that James Ernest Caithness, then a young man of about thirty, might have spent some time at the diggings, passing on some of his finds to his uncle, Captain Caithness, perhaps to sell stones at good London prices during the latter’s trips overseas.

James Ernest’s precise whereabouts during the years after his father’s death in 1860 and James’s marriage in London in 1877 remain conjectural. If he was in South Africa for the start of the diamond rush around 1869/70 he could well have tried his luck at the Cape diggings. 

It may be significant that after his marriage he joined the Calcutta branch of Cooke and Kelvey, who were pearl and diamond merchants, jewellers, gold and silversmiths, watch and clock-makers.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Caithness in the Diamond Fields

Star of South Africa: 47.69 carat
pear-shaped diamond
Diamond fever hit the Cape Colony with the discovery in 1867 of the Eureka diamond, the first found at Hopetown on the edge of the Great Karoo, followed in 1868 by the Star of South Africa, a massive rock which sold for 11 000 pounds – an incredible fortune at the time. 

From then on everyone from far and wide headed for the ‘fields’: the rush was on. It wouldn’t be long before the Cape Government Railways would be founded (1872) and a main line run between the Kimberley diamond fields to Cape Town, directly through Hopetown. 

To begin with, though, getting to Hopetown was a hard 15-hour slog on sandy roads from Port Elizabeth, transporting all the accoutrements required for the diggings. For many, the possibilities of a lucrative trade on the fields outweighed the chances of finding a valuable stone.

The Caithness surname emerges, as it so frequently seems to do, right in the middle of the action. A report from The Port Elizabeth Telegraph was relayed via the Cape and Natal News of 8 August 1870:

The excitement regarding the diamond fields has not lost any of its intensity … This morning Mr Joel Meyers left for the South African El Dorado. He intends opening a trading establishment and takes with him a well assorted stock of such goods as are likely to be most in request at the diggings. Messrs Leslie, Innes and Berry, who accompany him, intend to try their luck with the pick and spade. The Humansdorp party are now here and they also leave today …

The report continues with mention of a Mr E Slater among whose party would be a Caithness:

This tantalising Caithness reference gives scope for digging of a different kind. Who was this and how does he tie up with the Caithness who emerges in 1879 in the Zulu Country? 

To be continued … 

Tom Sheldon

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Passengers departing from Natal: Anglian 1880

Natal Mercury 19 May 1880:

Anglian, URMS of Southampton, 2200 t., OWEN, for Cape and Intermediate ports. 
Cargo general. 

For England: 
Mr. and Mrs. BAYNES 
Messrs. BERNARD 
John BROWN and two sons 
Maj. Gen. GORDON 
Mr. and Mrs. A. A. SMITH and Master SMITH 
Mr. and Mrs. J. LANGLEY and 5 children 
Messrs J. D. and G. S. BALANCE 
Mr. and Mrs. Jas RANDLES and child 
Mr. G. C. H. GOOD 
Messrs. A. WEBSTER 
Mr. COVENTRY and two brothers 
For Port Alfred: 
Mr. J. LYON 
For Port Elizabeth: 
JOEVNONG (illegible) 
For Capetown: 
Mr. BELL (of Bell's Circus) 
For East London: 
Mr. OWEN and wife 
For Mossel Bay: 

E. BAYNTON, agent.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Caithness in the Zulu Country 1879

The Hampshire Advertiser of 5 March 1879 reported thus on the preparations being made in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, should the inhabitants of that city be ‘required to go into Laager’ i.e. for their defence against a possible attack by the Zulu army.

Details are given about the various buildings selected to house people and stores, and mention of the signal to be given for people to assemble at these designated places bringing with them sufficient food supplies to last a week. This doom and gloom was hardly reassuring for ‘Southamptonians who have relatives and friends at Pietermaritzburg’ but remember that the disastrous battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Isandlwana: The Aftermath

A 20 000-strong Zulu force had swooped down on and decimated part of Lord Chelmsford’s main British column encamped under the lee of a strangely-shaped mountain in the heart of Zulu territory. 

Court House, Durban ca 1870
Natal’s population had been on tenterhooks since then. Buildings such as the Court House in Durban had been loopholed (gaps made in the exterior walls for the firing of guns) in case of attack.

From a family historian’s point of view, by far the most intriguing portion of the report is the final sentence:

We understand that there is a person named Caithness, a native of Totton, who, together with his family, has been located right in the centre of the Zulu country for some years, and has lived happily among them hitherto, but how they will fare now there is ‘war to the knife’ remains to be seen.

Who could this person be? 

Mary Ann Bell nee Caithness was still living in Durban, Natal, at this date, though her husband Captain William Bell had been dead for a decade. However, the report suggests that the individual is male, and Mary Ann’s progeny were, of course, Bells not Caithnesses.

James Ramsay Caithness the mariner brother of Mary Ann had died in 1860, and he had been Cape-based. What of his children? Could any of them be the Caithness who had been living ‘in the Zulu Country’?

James Ernest Caithness
James Edward Caithness (who later preferred to call himself James Ernest) had left home at some juncture during the years following his father’s death. It’s rumoured that he tried sheep farming, perhaps in South Africa, but it is known for certain that in December 1877 James was in London for a key event – his marriage to Eugenie Sarah Henrietta Westmacott. 

Their eldest child was born in 1878 in Calcutta and it seems that James’s career took off in India. By 1895 he was a senior partner in the Calcutta offices of Cooke and Kelvey, pearl and diamond merchants, watch and clock makers etc. There’s no evidence among these facts to support the idea that he might have been in South Africa in 1879.

Muddying the water is the terminology used in the report. What did ‘right in the centre of the Zulu country’ mean precisely? In Zululand, i.e. to the north of the Tugela River, or in the separate region then known as the Colony of Natal? It’s possible that to someone writing for a Hampshire newspaper in 1879 the distinction wasn’t clear. Had the person really been ‘living among the Zulus’ – which conveys an impression of residence in a rural area such as a missionary or trader might have experienced – or had he been part of a community in or nearby one of the main Natal towns such as Pietermaritzburg or Durban?

The emergence of an unexpected Caithness marriage record gives further pause for thought. 

Marriage entry: Emily Mary Ann Caithness and Herbert Lee Carige
 Durban 12 December 1865

On 12 December 1865, Emily Mary Ann Caithness, daughter of James Ramsey Caithness, and Herbert Lee Carige were married at Christ Church in the parish of Addington, Durban, Natal. The original entry shows the first witness’s signature to be James Caithness. If the illegible middle initial is an ‘E’ (and any handwriting experts reading this are invited to give their opinion) this could be James Ernest/Edward, brother of the bride, presumably giving her away in the absence of their deceased father:


James E might have simply made the trip up from the Cape for the occasion and at that stage, as yet unmarried, he doesn’t fit the newspaper description of a man who was living in the Zulu Country ‘together with his family’. Moreover, James could hardly be called ‘a native of Totton’: he had been born in London prior to his father leaving for South Africa and subsequently their home had been in the Cape. 

More digging is required to establish beyond doubt the identity of the Caithness in the Zulu Country.

Tom Sheldon

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mole's Genealogy Blog Top Ten

Most popular posts:

More on Anglo-Boer War Ancestors

19th c German Immigrants in South Africa

Pruning the Family Tree

Passenger Lists as a Primary Source

Your Ancestor in the South African Constabulary

Identifying Uniforms in Photographs

Passengers to Natal 1865

19th c Immigration to South Africa

Caithness at Eling, Marchwood and Totton

Mariners: The First Rung of the Ladder

Passengers to Natal: Lapland and African 1880

Lapland arrival 21 Feb 1880, also the African from Delagoa Bay
Natal Witness Feb 21 1880

The D.C.S. Lapland arrived here this morning at daybreak with the mails of the Kinfauns Castle, and a few passengers. The Fox landed these at 8 o'clock. She brought the following Passengers:

For Natal:
Miss Christian
Mr and Mrs Buxton and 4 children
J Wilson
Mr and Mrs Adams
Mr Hunter
Mr Cowens
Mr Spencer
Miss Spencer
Mr and Mrs Stanford
G Andrews
Mr and Mrs Holdernep
Misses Grenfell
Mr Collyer
Mr and Mrs Brokenshaw, 2 children and native boy
J Thompson

For Mauritius:
Lieut. Hollings, 91st Regiment
Mr and Mrs Edwards

Lapland sailed for Mauritius yesterday.

The African arrived yesterday from Delagoa Bay and the East Coast with the following Passengers. She goes on to the Cape at once.

For Natal:
Two Fugitive Slaves
Mr R Cora
Mrs SC Gutteling and two Indians

For East London:
Mr W Royi
Mr M Tintals

For Algoa Bay:
Abdor Pandie, Brother and servant, and 9 pilgrims.

For Cape Town:
Mr JS de Compas and 27 emigrants*

For England:
Mr McGregor
Mr Henderson

*regrettably not named; the 9 pilgrims are similarly anonymous

Durban harbour entrance channel late 19th c: a tug tows in
a sailing ship; the Point can be seen at right.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Passengers to Natal: the German 1880

Arrival of the German Natal Witness Jan 13 1880 

Cape Town, 9 January
German arrived. Two hundred passengers.
Duart Castle to leave next day.

PASSENGERS for Natal per S.S. German: 
Mr, Mrs Sanderford 
C Christie 
W Johnstone 
Kyd Mr, Mrs, five Misses, Master 
Mr Hayor 
Mrs Kelley 
Mr W Kelly 
Mrs, Miss Argo 
Mr, Mrs Hillary 
Mr, Mrs, four Masters Kenwick 
Miss Mackenney 
Miss Jazi 
Misses Whitcar 
Mr, Mrs, three Masters, Miss Young 
Miss Cross 
Mr, Mrs, two Masters Jameson 
Mr, Mrs, Master, Miss Sharp 
Mr Clarke 
Mr, Mrs, three Misses, two Masters Donovan 
Mr, Mrs Smith 
Mr, Mrs, two Master MacLymonts 
Mr Robson 
Mr, Mrs, two Misses, Master Watts

General News

No change in wool. Private sales at best prices by auction. Prospects good.

Attorney-General granted fiat writ of error in trial of Tichborne claimant. Two separate sentences were given on two counts, which were one and same offence.

Floods in Hungary destroyed lives and property. Thousands homeless. Country lake of ice.

Pashaloof sentenced to twelve months' hard labour. Printers of Town Talk fined £600. Froggatt, solicitor, sentenced to seven years.

Severe fighting between Chilians and Peruvians.

Lord Lytton fired at by drunken East Indian.

True Bill returned against men arrested in Ireland.

Parliament to meet 5th February.

Afghan affairs serious. Roberts, after severe fighting for three days, against thirty thousand, evacuated Cabul and retired within Shipar camp, where he is strongly fortified and has five months' provisions. Communication interrupted. Forces push forward. Position supposed to be safe, having seven thousand effectives.

General Gouch has been attacked.

Disturbances arisen at Herat.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Passenger lists: arrivals and departures Natal 1875

Arrivals and Departures Natal Mercury 2 October 1875 
Florence, Adonis, Pelham, Natal, Elizabeth Martin etc.

Sept 27 - Florence, CMS, of Leith, 880 tons, Jones, from Cape Ports. Cargo: general. 
From East London 
Mr R Wilhelm 

From London 

Mr Milner 
Capt and Mrs Hyme 
Masters MHC and H Hyme 
Misses K and J Hyme 
two nurses 
Capt and Mrs Lucas 
Mr and Mrs Welsh 
Mr and Mrs Morgan Evans 
Mr and Mrs Allen 
S Chambers 
T Hayman 
W Freville 
G Harrison 
HP Harrison 
JM Cooke 
H Martin 
Mrs MA Ellis 
M Evans 
W Bruce 
J Wolfe 
R Allcock 
E Groves 
R Culverwell 
S Swales 
V Plank 
W Plank 
Mrs Taunton 
Mrs and Miss Gibson 
Masters CA, WF and CF Gibson 
Miss C Morris 
From Algoa Bay 
Mrs JE Wood 
Mrs Impry 
Mrs Vanderschyff and four children 
T Farrow 
W Woodger 
Mrs Brink 
Mrs Nelson and baby 
six coolies 
Left Cape 22nd Sept.; strong breeze NW with rain, squalls at times, high sea; arrived Mossel Bay, 9 a.m. 23rd Sept., stiff breeze NW, and fair weather; left Mossel Bay 1 p.m. 23rd Sept.; fresh breezes NW and cloudy; arrived at Algoa Bay 9.30 a.m. 24th Sept.; variable winds, and rain at times; left Algoa Bay, 3.45 p.m. 24th Sept.; moderate breezes, passing showers; arrived at East London, 8.45 a.m. 25th Sept.; high winds, NW, and fine weather; left East London 6.30 p.m., 25th Sept.; variable winds and cloudy weather 26th strong winds; arrived at Natal, 9.30 a.m., 27th Sept. 
Black Baxter and Co., agents.

Sept 25 - Annie,of London schooner, 41 tons, C. Smith, from East London, sailed Sept 23. Cargo: forage and spokes. 
S Crowder and Co., agents.

Sept 26 - Garmouth, schr, 200 tons, McPherson, from London, sailed July 4. Cargo: general. 
Adler Bros, agents.

Sept 28 - Adonis, SS of Amsterdam, 80 tons, Thompson, from Scottburgh, sailed Sept 27. Cargo: general. 
S Crowder and Co., agents.


Oct 3 - Florence, DCMS, of Leith, 800 tons, Jones, for Cape Town and intermediate ports. Cargo: colonial produce. 
For London 
Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley, KCB, KCMG, and four servants 
Major Brackenbury RA 
Major Butler 
Lord Gifford 
Miss E Bate 
Captain Dickinson 
For East London 
Mr J Holden 
Miss Finchen 
For Algoa Bay 
J Gilligan 
E Shaw 
For Cape Town 
Mrs Phillips 
Mrs E Shaw 
1 gunner RA 
1 private, 1-13th, LI 
Black, Baxter and Co., agents.

Oct 11 - Adonis, SS, of Amsterdam, 80 tons, Thompson, for Scottburgh. Cargo: general. 
Mrs Collingham and three children 
S Crowder and Co., agents.

Oct 14 - Pelham, brigantine, of Natal, 160 tons, Strachan, for Delagoa Bay. Cargo: general. 
Mr R Beningfield 
Mr Dubois 
Mr Schonberg 
100 kafirs 
Beningfield and Son, agents.

Oct 15 - Adonis, of Amsterdam, SS., 80 tons, Thompson, resailed for Scottburgh. Cargo: general. 
S Crowder and Co., agents.

Oct 16 - Sea Gull, schooner, of London, 76 tons, Hines, for East London. Cargo: sugar. 
Harvey, Greenacre and Co., agents.

Oct 16 - Annie, schooner, of London, 41 tons, Smith, for East London. Cargo: general. 
Thomas Crowder 
S Crowder and Co., agents.

Oct 18 - Natal, RMS, of Southampton, 587 tons, JC Gilbert, for Cape Town and intermediate ports. Cargo: general 
For Southampton 
CH Wells 
W B Scott 
B De Waal 
Mr and Mrs Vergottini 
Mrs Hayne, child and servant 
Capt Baker 
Mr A de Terrason 
For Cape Town 
Miss Coates 
Miss Symons 
Mrs Moodie and child 
Mr Farr 
St. Leger 
W Stitzer 
17 Naval invalids 
For Algoa Bay 
Mrs Adlam 
Mr Bomball 
Mr Rigg 
Escombe and Co., agents.

Oct 19 - Elizabeth Martin, CMS, of Leigh, 1503 tons, Duncan, for Cape ports and England. Cargo: general. 
For Algoa Bay 
Mr W Reekie 
Black, Baxter and Co., agents.

Oct 22 - Zulu RMS, of Southampton, 679 tons, H de la Cour Travers, for East Coast ports. Cargo: general. 
For Delagoa Bay 
Brown, Mrs Brown and four children 
Mr Stephen Jackson 
Mr Solomons 
88 kafirs 
For Zanzibar 
Dr Turnbull RN 
For Mozambique 
one kafir 
ten lascars 
Escombe and Co., agents.

Oct 26 - Hannah Nicholson, barque, of Adelaide, 252 tons, Farquhar, for Mauritius. Cargo: flour. 
H and T McCubbin, agents.

Oct 26 - Lady Selborne, 3-masted brigantine, of Plymouth, 209 tons, N. Keen, in ballast, "seeking".

Oct 29 - Kafir, RMS, of Southampton. 900 tons, Garrett, for Cape Town and intermediate ports. Cargo: general. 
For Southampton 
Mr FW Reid 
Mr George Reid 
Mrs Pascoe and two children 
Mr Whiskin 
Mr Stooker 
For Cape Town 
Miss Crossley 
Mr and Mrs Doesell and child 
1 Naval invalid from HMS Encounter 
For Algoa Bay 
Dr Hope 
one kafir 
For East London 
Miss McArthur 
Miss Sweltzer 
Escombe and Co., agents.

Oct 29 - Annie Brown, brigantine, of Adelaide, 166 tons, Gilfillen, for Adelaide. Cargo: general. 
Grant and Fradd, agents.

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