One evening in July 1909, passengers aboard the steamship S.S. Waratah waved goodbye from the decks to family and friends lining Durban’s pier amid shouts of “Bon Voyage!”
“Take her to sea!” ordered Captain Joshua Ilbery, watching from the foredeck. A tug then steered the vessel safely out of the South African port into deep water. This would be the last time the 211 passengers and crew of the S.S. Waratah would be seen alive.
The disappearance of the S.S. Waratah is as bizarre and mysterious as it is tragic. But it seems the Waratah was doomed from the beginning. The experienced captain had an uneasy feeling, the name of the ship itself appears cursed, a passenger jumped ship in Durban following a prophetic dream and a distinguished captain would later testify that shortly after being the last to see the Waratah afloat, he witnessed a ghostly omen – the Flying Dutchman – sailing in the direction of the doomed steamship.
S.S. Waratah … the Titanic of the Southern Ocean
Blue Anchor Line’s newest edition to its fleet of 20 vessels, the luxury passenger and cargo steamship S.S. Waratah, sailed on its maiden voyage from London to Australia on 5 November 1908 under the command of Captain Joshua Ilbery, a 69-year-old master of the sea with 30 years nautical experience.
At 150 metres long and weighing 9,339 tons, the Waratah boasted eight state rooms, 100 first class cabins, saloon and a luxurious music lounge. With its role in bringing emigrants to Australia from the Mother Country, the cargo holds could be converted into large dormitories capable of housing 700 steerage passengers. She had lifeboats for 921.
When not carrying the expectations of those looking for a new life down under, the Waratah could carry 15,000 tons of cargo and coal in her separate watertight compartments … similar to those built into the unsinkable Titanic.
She would soon share another fateful connection.
The Waratah curse
Adelaide’s Advertiser, on 16 December 1908, explained the naming of Blue Anchor line’s flagship steamer.
“The idea of naming the steamships of the Blue Anchor line with names peculiar to Australia originated with the pioneer captain of that line … We have now a list of steamers trading between England and the antipodes whose names, when mentioned, immediately remind the hearer of the different States in the great Australian continent.
“The latest addition … has been named after the gorgeous waratah, of New South Wales, a magnificent scarlet blossom indigenous to that State.”
What they failed to mention was the sad history of vessels that had previously taken the name of that “magnificent scarlet blossom”.
In 1848, a sailing ship named Waratah bound for Sydney sank off Ushant, 13 lives were lost.
Then, in 1887 not one but two ships, each named Waratah, sank off Sydney within months of each other.
Following a cyclone in 1889, the newly-built Waratah from the port of Freemantle, sank off Cape Preston in the Pilbara, with the loss of all crew.
And just five years later, yet another Waratah was lost in northern Australia.
Perhaps Blue Anchor should have looked at the log of lost ships before christening their new flagship steamer.
The Waratah’s passengers and crew
“Although mainly British, there was an international flavour to the ship’s crew of 119. In the complement of firemen, trimmers, greasers, cooks, stewards and able seamen were five Germans, five Swedes and one Frenchman. The youngest crewman was 16-year-old cabin boy Fred Trott. There were only two stewardesses on board: 40-year-old Emma Swan and 35-year-old Sarah Whitehorn,” reported the Daily Observer.
“At Durban, the Turner family, with five children ages three to 14 and a nursemaid, joined the growing passenger list. David Turner was a landing agent for Scottish railways.
“The human manifest also included Dr. J.T. Carrick, the famous biologist who discovered gold in the Orange Free State; Neil Walter Black, a young man from Victoria who was planning to propose to a lady he had been courting; Nora Connolly, the widow of a coal miner who was returning to Dublin with her daughter and $5,000 in savings; Alf Clarke, a world champion wood chopper [from Tasmania]; Ernest Page, a travelling showman and hypnotist; and Charles Taylor, a renowned miner from Sydney heading to Europe with his wife and two children.”
Jumping ship following a prophetic dream
One passenger, however, Claude Sawyer, a seasoned ocean traveller, had some reservations about the seaworthiness of the Waratah. And following a vivid prophetic dream, he scampered down the gangplank with suitcases in hand as soon as the ship docked at the port of Durban.
The Daily Observer recounted Sawyer’s dream.
“One night at sea, he dreamt of standing on the ship’s boat deck staring into the sea. Suddenly, a knight on a horse rose out of the waves swinging a medieval sword. A bloodstained sheet was fluttering behind him. The apparition screamed out ‘Waratah! Waratah!’ then faded. Sawyer woke up screaming in his berth. He couldn’t sleep after that but resolved to get off the ship at the next stop.
“The following day, he related the nightmare to Alexandra Hay, a lady from Coventry, England, who was making the crossing with her daughter. While she was shocked by the story, Mrs. Hay was not going to change ships. Convinced that the Waratah was doomed, Sawyer next pleaded with his bunkmate, John Ebsworth, a solicitor on his way to London to defend a client, to get off the liner with him at Durban. While he agreed it was perhaps a portent, Ebsworth suggested he discuss the premonition with Father Fadle. The South African priest scoffed at Sawyer’s claims.
“Sawyer repeated his concerns to Ilbery, however, the captain saw no merit in them or this strange dream. The master went so far as to file a report with the port customs office declaring that ‘my steamship Waratah has sustained no damage from any cause whatever since leaving her last port’.”
Waratah vanishes without trace
After leaving Durban, the Waratah headed south along the Transkei coast for Cape Town. With the sky clear and the headwinds increasing, Ilbery anticipated reaching Cape Town in four days.
“The next morning, Waratah was spotted by the freighter Clan McIntyre, which had departed Durban the previous day … After learning through [morse] signals that the liner was the Waratah, the Clan McIntyre asked about the weather they encountered from Australia,” reported the Daily Observer.
“Strong southwesterly and southerly winds across,” responded the Waratah.
“Thanks, goodbye. Pleasant voyage,” was the concluding message from Clan McIntyre.
“Thanks. Same to you. Goodbye,” signed off the Waratah.
The Clan McIntyre kept sight of the Waratah for several hours after passing. The seas were now rolling, producing whitecaps but visibility was improving. The Waratah pulled about 10 miles ahead of the Clan McIntyre, which recorded in her logs that the Waratah “appeared to be perfectly upright and to be in no difficulty, steaming rapidly”.
At 9.20am, the Waratah altered course, crossing from Clan McIntyre’s starboard to port. The Waratah then picked up speed and disappeared from sight into the mist. What happened after that remains a mystery to this day.
The Flying Dutchman, a ghostly omen
The distinguished and respected captain of the Clan McIntyre, C.G. Phillips, would later recount to a board of inquiry into the loss of the Waratah of seeing a ghostly omen after losing sight of the missing steamer.
“Some hours after I had sent the signal to the liner, I was standing on the bridge when I sighted another ship, a sailing vessel. There was something strangely old-fashioned about her rig. I’m not a superstitious man but I know my seafaring lore. The rig of the vessel immediately brought to mind the legend of the Flying Dutchman … the phantom ship held me spellbound. It disappeared in the direction taken by the Waratah, and I had a feeling it was a sign of disaster for the liner.”
Clairvoyants attempt to solve the case
The loss without trace of the Waratah confounded almost everyone. Other ships, including the Sabine, searched the area fruitlessly for any signs of the ship. But none were found. New Zealand’s Grey River Argus on 18 January 1910, however, reported that mediums in South Africa had attempted to use their psychic abilities to determine the ship’s fate.
“Several well-known mediums have received ‘messages’ from the spirit world with reference to the fate of the S.S. Waratah. Replying to a question at a Spiritualistic meeting in Pretoria towards the end of November, Mrs Prior, a prominent medium, said that as far as she was able to say from clairvoyance, the Waratah was still afloat, but that there had been several deaths aboard.
“She also said she had a letter in her possession, written by one of the passengers on board the Waratah, and from psychometry she was not able to trace that the writer had departed from life, but that with the surviving passengers she had disembarked, and they were now living upon a desert island, which lay in quite an opposite direction in which the Sabine had gone in search of the Waratah. The people were in great want and it was feared that unless the Sabine’s course was diverted, it would be too late to render assistance.”
The report finished with the reassuring news that, “people on the other side were at work to bring the ill-fated ones into port”.
Back in Australia, a Lismore clairvoyant also believed that many of the passengers and crew were still alive but in a perilous state. The Northern Star reported in August 1909 that the local medium believed the steamer had lost both propellers during a storm and had sunk but that “the passengers and crew took to the boats. Some were lost by the capsize of the boat. About 150 landed, and were provided for by the natives.”
History now indicates that these messages from the other side were perhaps more wishful thinking than genuine psychic insights.
Despite a thorough search at the time, and subsequent expeditions over the years, the disappearance of the S.S. Waratah without a trace remains unexplained today.
Destiny smiles on would-be passengers
In an uplifting postscript to the Waratah tragedy, several stories later surfaced of would-be passengers who literally missed the boat. One lucky seaman sent the following letter to the Wodonga and Towong Sentinel in May 1937.
“They say a cat has nine lives. I am not a cat, but an ordinary individual who went to sea for a good many years and was blessed with as many lives as any cat. In addition to avoiding wrecks, I have had many other narrow escapes …
“In some cases of wrecks I had a presentiment warning me not to sail in these vessels, and in other cases it was just my changeable nature which made me leave a job. Had it not been for this, I certainly would not be alive today.
“The first steamer concerned was the ill-fated Waratah … I was working at the Empire Hotel in Sydney … and was anxious to come home to England for a trip. The manager of the hotel, a Mr. Bowden, and his wife and other members of his family were travelling as passengers. They secured me a job as an extra steward for the passage home, and I was very enthusiastic about it. But Sydney, with its sunny weather, lovely beaches, Sunday sports, and exceptional hospitality kept me back. I somehow could not leave Sydney, although the manager and his wife offered me extra inducements. I went to the wharf and saw them off, but little did I think I would never see them again.”
A Mr James Hardy, of London had gone one better, however, missing his berth on the doomed ship not once but twice. In London’s Daily Mail he wrote:
“On the morning of June 26, 1909, I took a cab to the docks at Sydney, Australia, to catch the S.S. Waratah, due to sail on her maiden voyage to England. Bounding a corner a wheel came off and my vehicle collapsed. I missed the ship, which sailed with my heavy baggage, but I decided to catch her at Melbourne. The day before the Waratah left Melbourne I received an urgent telegram from a friend informing me he was leaving Sydney that night and he must see me before I sailed. When he arrived next morning his business proved so vital that once again I missed the Waratah.”
The Disappearance of SS Waratah http://unmyst3.blogspot.com/2010/02/disappearance-of-ss-waratah.html
The Lost Ship Waratah http://www.southaustralianhistory.com.au/waratah.htm