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SS Waratah

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SS Waratah

SS Waratah, 1909
Name: SS Waratah
Owner: W., F. W. and A. E. Lund
Operator: Blue Anchor Line
Port of registry:  United Kingdom
Route: London, England, to Adelaide, Australia, via Durban, South Africa
Builder: Barclay, Curle & Co., Whiteinch, Scotland
Launched: 12 September 1908
Completed: October 1908
Maiden voyage: 5 November 1908
Fate: Disappeared without trace off south Durban, July 1909
Status: Missing, presumed sunk.
General characteristics
Tonnage: 16,000 GT
Length: 465 ft (141.7 m)
Beam: 59.2 ft (18.0 m)
Installed power: 5x steel boilers
Propulsion: 2x 4-cylinder triple expansion reciprocating steam engines
Speed: Approximately 13.5 kn (25.0 km/h; 15.5 mph) service speed.
Capacity: 432 passenger cabin berths, plus over 600 spaces in dormitories in the holds
Crew: 154 crew
Notes: Waratah cost £13,900 to build, and had lifeboat/raft space for 921 people

The SS Waratah was a 500-foot (150 m) long steamship that operated between Europe and Australia in the early 1900s. In July 1909, the ship, en route from Durban to Cape Town, disappeared with 211 passengers and crew aboard. To this day, no trace of the ship has been found.


  • Background 1
  • Features 2
  • Career 3
  • Search efforts 4
  • Inquiry 5
  • Other theories 6
    • Freak wave 6.1
    • Whirlpool 6.2
    • Explosion 6.3
    • Paranormal 6.4
    • Methane upwelling 6.5
  • Aftermath 7
  • Memorials 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


The Waratah was a steamer, built by Barclay Curle & Co in Whiteinch, Glasgow (Scotland), and destined to be the flagship of the Blue Anchor Line. It was named Waratah after the emblem flower of New South Wales, Australia, which appears to have been an unlucky name: one ship of that name had been lost off the island of Ushant in the English Channel in 1848, one in 1887 on a voyage to Sydney, another south of Sydney, and one in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1897.[1]


The ship was designed to serve as a passenger and cargo liner to Australia, and was launched on 12 September 1908 by Mrs J. W. Taverner, wife of the Agent-General of Victoria. It had 100 first class cabins, eight state rooms and a salon whose panels depicted its namesake flower, as well as a luxurious music lounge complete with a minstrel's gallery. As well as these luxurious quarters, Waratah was intended to serve the strong emigrant trade from Europe to Australia. On the outward journey her cargo holds would be converted into large dormitories capable of holding almost 700 steerage passengers. On the return journey she would be laden with goods, mainly foodstuffs. She was fitted out for carrying refrigerated cargo, could carry food and stores for a year at sea, and had an on-board desalination plant that could produce 5,500 gallons (25,000 litres) of fresh water a day. She did not carry a radio, which was not unusual for the time.[2]


On 5 November 1908, the Waratah began her maiden voyage from London, with 689 passengers in third-class accommodation and 67 first-class passengers.[3] Her captain was Joshua E. Ilbery, a master with 30 years nautical experience. The subsequent inquiry into her sinking raised some disputed reports of instability on this voyage. On the ship's return to England there had been some discussion about stowage between the owners and the builders.

On 27 April 1909, the Waratah set out on her second trip to Australia. This was uneventful, and on 1 July 1909 she set out from Melbourne on the return journey. She was bound for the South African ports of Durban and Cape Town and was then to return to London. The Waratah reached Durban, where one passenger, Claude Sawyer, an engineer and experienced sea traveller, left the ship and sent the following cable to his wife in London: "Thought Waratah top-heavy, landed Durban".

The Waratah left Durban on 26 July with 211 passengers and crew. On 27 July she passed the steamer Clan McIntyre. That ship's crew said that all seemed well and that the Waratah was making easy going of the rising seas and winds and quickly pulled ahead of their ship before disappearing over the horizon to the southwest. Later that day, the weather deteriorated quickly (as is common in that area). A wind gusting to 50 knots (90 km/h) combined against the tide and ocean swell to build waves up to 30 feet (9 m). That evening the Union-Castle Liner Guelph, heading north to Durban from the Cape of Good Hope, passed a ship and exchanged signals by lamp, but because of the bad weather and poor visibility was able to identify only the last three letters of her name as "T-A-H."

The same evening, a ship called the Harlow saw a large steamer coming up astern of her, working hard in the heavy seas and making a great deal of smoke, enough to make her captain wonder if the steamer was on fire. When darkness fell, the crew of the Harlow could see the steamer's running lights approaching, but still 10–12 miles behind them, when there were suddenly two bright flashes from the vicinity of the steamer and the lights vanished. The mate of the Harlow thought the flashes were brush fires on the shore (a common phenomenon in the area at that time of year). The captain agreed and did not even enter the events in the log – only when he learnt of the disappearance of the Waratah did he think the events significant.[4] Reportedly the Harlow was 180 miles from Durban.[5][6]

The Waratah was expected to reach Cape Town on 29 July 1909, but never reached its destination. No trace of the ship has been found.

Search efforts

Initially, it was believed that the Waratah was still adrift. The Royal Navy deployed cruisers HMS Pandora and HMS Forte (and later HMS Hermes) to search for the Waratah. The Hermes, near the area of the last sighting of the Waratah, encountered waves so large and strong that she strained her hull and had to be placed in dry dock on her return to port.[7] On 10 August 1909, a cable from South Africa reached Australia, reading "Blue Anchor vessel sighted a considerable distance out. Slowly making for Durban. Could be the Waratah". The Chair of the House of Representatives in the Australian Parliament halted proceedings to read out the cable, saying: "Mr. Speaker has just informed me that he has news on reliable authority that the SS Waratah has been sighted making slowly towards Durban." [8] In Adelaide, the town bells were rung, but the ship in question was not the Waratah.

On 13 August 1909 the steamship Insizwa reported seeing bodies off the "Bashow" (Mbashe) River.[9] The "Tottenham" also allegedly saw remains off the "Bashee" River[10]

In September 1909, the Blue Anchor Line chartered the Union Castle ship Sabine to search for the Waratah. The search of the Sabine covered 14,000 miles, but yielded no result.

  • 1910: relatives of the Waratah passengers chartered the Wakefield and conducted a search for three months, which again proved unsuccessful. The official enquiry into the fate of the Waratah was held at London in December 1910. Among others, Claude Sawyer, the engineer who had thought the ship top-heavy and thus landed at Durban, gave testimony on that occasion.
  • 1925: Lt. D. J. Roos of the South African Air Force, reported that he had spotted a wreck while he was flying over the Transkei coast. It was his opinion that this was the wreck of the Waratah.
  • 1939: Pieces of cork and timber possibly from the Waratah are washed up near East London, South Africa.[11]
  • 1977: a wreck was located off the Xora River Mouth. Several investigations into this wreck, in particular under the leadership of Emlyn Brown took place. It is however widely believed today that the wreck off the Xora River Mouth was that of one of many ships which had fallen victim to German U Boats during the Second World War. It has proven particularly difficult to explain why the Waratah should be found so far to the north of her estimated position. Further attempts to locate the Waratah took place in 1991, 1995 and 1997.
  • 1999: reports reached the newspapers that the Waratah had been found 10 km off the eastern coast of South Africa (Addley). A sonar scan conducted by Emlyn Brown's team had indeed located a wreck whose outline seemed to match that of the Waratah. In 2001, however, a closer inspection revealed differences between the Waratah and the wreck. It appears that the team had in fact found the Nailsea Meadow, a ship that had been sunk in the Second World War.
  • 2004: Emlyn Brown, who had by now spent 22 years looking for the Waratah, declared that he was giving up the search: "I've exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where to look".


The Board of Trade inquiry into the disappearance quickly came to focus on the supposed instability of the Waratah.[12] Evidence was greatly hampered by the lack of any survivors from the ship's final voyage (other than the small number, including Claude Sawyer, who had disembarked in Durban). Most evidence came from passengers and crew from Waratah's maiden voyage, her builders and those who had handled her in port.

The expert witnesses all agreed that the Waratah was designed and built properly and sailed in good condition.[13] She had passed numerous inspections, including those by her builders, her owners, the Board of Trade and two by Lloyd's of London, who gave her the classification "+100 A1" – their top rating,[14] granted only to ships Lloyds had inspected and assessed throughout the design, construction, fitting out and sea trials, on top of the two valuations and inspections Lloyds had made of the completed Waratah.

Many witnesses testified that the ship had a very long roll (a reluctance to right herself after leaning into a swell). One passenger on her maiden voyage said that when in the Southern Ocean she developed a list to starboard to such an extent that water would not run out of the baths, and she held this list for several hours before rolling upright. This passenger, physicist Professor William Bragg, concluded that the ship's metacentre was just below her centre of gravity. When slowly rolled over towards one side, she reached a point of equilibrium and would stay leaning over until a shift in the sea or wind pushed her upright.[15]

Other passengers and crew members commented on her lack of stability, and those responsible for handling the ship in port said she was so unstable when unladen that she could not be moved without ballast.[16] But for every witness of this opinion, another could be found who said the opposite. Both former passengers and crew members (ranking from stokers to a deck officer) said the Waratah was perfectly stable, with a comfortable, easy roll.[17] Many said they felt she was especially stable. The ship's builders produced calculations to prove that even with a load of coal on her deck (that several witnesses claim she was carrying when she left Durban) she was not top heavy.[13]

The inquiry was unable to make any conclusions from this mixed and contradictory evidence. It did not blame the Blue Anchor Line, but did make several negative comments in regard to the company's practices in determining the performance and seaworthiness of its new ships.[18] Correspondence between Captain Ilbery and the line's managers show he commented on numerous details about the ship's fixtures, fittings, cabins, public rooms, ventilation and other areas, but failed to make any mention at the basic level of the Waratah's seaworthiness and handling. Equally, the company never asked Captain Ilbery about these areas.[19] This led many to speculate that Ilbery had concerns about the Waratah and its stability, but deliberately kept such doubts quiet. However, it is also possible that neither he nor the Blue Anchor Line felt it necessary to cover such areas, because the Waratah was heavily based on a previous (and highly successful) Blue Anchor ship, the Geelong, and so the Waratah's handling was assumed to be the same.

It is certainly true that many passenger ships of the period were made slightly top-heavy. This produced a long, comfortable but unstable roll, which many passengers preferred to a short, jarring but stable roll. Many trans-Atlantic liners were designed this way, and after a few voyages those operating them learnt how to load, ballast and handle them correctly and the ships completed decades of trouble-free service. It may have been the Waratah's misfortune to encounter an unusually heavy storm or freak wave on only her second voyage, before she could be trimmed correctly. This slightly top-heavy design could also account for the strongly opposed opinions of witnesses about whether or not the ship felt stable. An inexperienced or uninformed person on the ship might conclude that the long, slow, soft roll of the ship felt comfortable and safe, whilst someone with more seagoing experience or a knowledge of ship design would have felt that the same motion was unstable. In regards to the witnesses claiming the Waratah's instability in port when unladen, this may have been true. However, virtually all ocean-going ships (which are, after all, designed to carry a large weight of cargo) need to be ballasted to some extent when moved unladen, so the Waratah was certainly not unique in this respect. The witnesses would have been well aware of this – that they still came forward to attest that they regarded the Waratah as dangerously unstable in these conditions does suggest that the ship was exceptional in some respect.

The Waratah was also a mixed-use ship. Passenger liners, with a small cargo volume relative to their gross tonnage had fairly constant and predictable ballasting requirements. A ship like the Waratah would carry a wide range of cargoes, and even different cargoes on the same voyage, making the matter of ballasting both more complex and more crucial.[20] When she disappeared, the Waratah was carrying a cargo of 1,000 tons of lead concentrate, which may have suddenly shifted, causing the ship to capsize.[21]

The inquiry concluded that the three ships reporting potential sightings of the Waratah on the evening of 26 July could not all have seen her given the distance between them and the time of the sightings, unless the Waratah had reached Mbashe River and exchanged signals with the Clan MacIntyre but then turned around and headed back to Durban, to be sighted by the Harlow.

Other theories

Freak wave

The most popular theory advanced to explain the disappearance of the Waratah is an encounter with a freak wave, also known as a rogue wave, in the ocean off the South African coast.[22] Such waves are known to be common in that area of the ocean. It is most likely that the Waratah, with what seems to be marginal stability and already ploughing through a severe storm, was hit by a giant wave. This either rolled the ship over outright or stove-in her cargo hatches, filling the holds with water and pulling the ship down almost instantly. If the ship capsized or rolled over completely, any buoyant debris would be trapped under the wreck, explaining the lack of any bodies or wreckage in the area. This theory was given credibility through a paper by Professor Mallory of the University of Cape Town (1973) which suggested that waves of up to 20 metres in height did occur between Richards Bay and Cape Agulhas. This theory also stands up if the Waratah is assumed to have been stable and seaworthy – several ships around the Cape of Good Hope have been severely damaged and nearly sunk by freak waves flooding their holds. Throughout the world ships such as the Melanie Schulte (a German ship lost in the Atlantic) [23] and the MV Derbyshire (a British bulk carrier sunk in the Pacific) have suddenly broken up and sunk within minutes in extreme weather.

Some have also suggested that instead of sinking, the ship was incapacitated by a freak wave and, having lost her rudder and without any means of contacting land, was swept southwards towards Antarctica to either be lost in the open ocean or foundering on Antarctica itself. No evidence except the absence of the wreck supports this theory, however.


Both at the time of the disappearance and since, several people have suggested that the Waratah was caught in a whirlpool created by a combination of winds, currents and a deep ocean trench, several of which are known to be off the southeast coast of Africa. This would explain the lack of wreckage, but there is no firm evidence that a whirlpool of sufficient strength to almost instantly suck down a 450-foot-long (140 m) ocean liner could be created as suggested.[24]


Given the evidence from the officers of the Harlow (see above), it has been speculated that the Waratah was destroyed by a sudden explosion in one of her coal bunkers. Coal dust can certainly self-combust and in the right proportions of air be explosive. However, no single bunker explosion would cause a ship the size of the Waratah to sink instantly, without anyone being able to launch a lifeboat or raft, and without leaving any wreckage.[25]


Several supernatural theories were also put forward to explain the disappearance of the Waratah. Claude Sawyer reported to the London inquiry that he had seen on three occasions the vision of a man "with a long sword in a peculiar dress. He was holding the sword in his right hand and it was covered in blood." This vision was one of the reasons why he decided not to continue the voyage on the Waratah.[26]

Methane upwelling

In recent years, incidents involving seabed methane upwellings have shown that it is quite possible for structures fully capable of floating on water, to readily sink in water whose density has been reduced by volumes of methane gas in bubble form. Methane is a product of the decomposition of dead living matter; on the seabed, at low temperatures and high pressures, the methane becomes a hydrated form, with a waxy layer which prevents the methane escaping, allowing it to accumulate. Undersea geological events can break the waxy layer, allowing huge volumes of the gas to escape, bubbling up to the surface. A Soviet oil rig was found to have finished up sixty feet below the seabed after one of these episodes.


The Waratah's disappearance, the inquiry and the criticism of the Blue Anchor Line generated much negative publicity. The line's ticket sales dropped severely, and coupled with the huge financial loss taken in the construction of the Waratah (which like many ships of the time, was under-insured), forced the company to sell its other ships to its main competitor P&O and declare voluntary liquidation in 1910.[27]


A memorial to Thomas Newman, a victim of the sinking, in Higher Cemetery, Exeter

There is a plaque in the Parish Church at Buckland Filleigh, Devon, England, commemorating Col. Percival John Browne. He was returning to England on the Waratah, from his sheep farm in Mount Gambier, South Australia. His family home was Buckland House.

A plaque to the memory of Howard Cecil Fulford, the ship's surgeon, was erected in the chapel by his fellow students at Trinity College (University of Melbourne).

In the Parish Church of St. Wilfrid, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, England, is a plaque: "The church gates were given in memory of Harris Archibald Gibbs who was drowned at sea in the SS Waratah".

In the main church in Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales, is a plate "in happy memory of John Purton Morgan, 3rd Officer SS Waratah lost at sea 1909".

A memorial in Higher Cemetery, Exeter, Devon, commemorates Thomas Newman "drowned in SS Waratah 27th July 1909".

A centenary plaque was unveiled at the Queenscliffe Maritime Museum, Victoria, Australia, on 27 July 2009.



  1. ^ Harris (1989), p. 117
  2. ^ Harris (1989), p. 118
  3. ^ Harris (1989), p. 119
  4. ^ Harris (1989), pp. 122, 138
  5. ^ daily review., 25 September 1909, Image 1
  6. ^ The Pensacola journal., 28 November 1909, Section 1, Page 3, Image 3
  7. ^ Harris (1989), p. 125
  8. ^ Hansard, House of Representatives p2228 10 August 1909
  9. ^ The Paducah evening sun., 13 August 1909, Image 1
  10. ^ [1]
  11. ^ Fairplay Weekly Shipping Journal, Volume 150 1939 .p.70
  12. ^ Harris (1989), p. 129
  13. ^ a b Harris (1989), p. 130
  14. ^ Harris (1989), pp. 118, 130
  15. ^ Harris (1989), p. 131
  16. ^ Harris (1989), pp. 130, 140
  17. ^ Harris (1989), p. 133
  18. ^ Harris (1989), p. 141
  19. ^ Harris (1989), pp. 139–141
  20. ^ Harris (1989), p. 146
  21. ^ Harris (1989)
  22. ^
  23. ^ Harris (1989), p. 149
  24. ^ Harris (1989), pp. 147–49
  25. ^ Harris (1989), p. 48
  26. ^ Harris (1989), p. 120
  27. ^ Blue Anchor Line


Further reading

  • "The Loss of the Waratah", The Times, 23 February 1911 p. 24
  • Esther Addley, "Sea yields our Titanic's Resting Place", The Weekend Australian, 17 July 1999
  • Sue Blane, "The Week in Quotes", Financial Times, 6 May 2004
  • Alan Laing, "Shipwreck expert abandons hunt for Clyde liner", The Herald, 4 May 2004
  • Tom Martin, "Almost a century after she vanished, scientists could now be on the verge of solving riddle of SS Waratah's last voyage", Sunday Express, 25 April 2004

External links

  • S/S Waratah on the wrecksite
  • NUMA on Waratah
  • Crew listWaratah
  • Passenger listWaratah
  • December 1910 inquiry into loss of Waratah .pp.101-105
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