I first came across this amazing story in an old copy of the ‘Illustrated London News’ of 1876.
In these days of instant worldwide communications we have no conception of the terrible anxiety people went through in the past when anything happened to one of the sailing ships.
Months could elapse before anything was known, and in the interval the relations and friends of those on board went through agonies. A case in point where nothing was heard of a ship for about ten months occurred in 1875-76, when a locally built ship the “Strathmore” went missing.
The archipelago of Crozet with 300 days of rain per year, these islands are an area of raging winds, coldness and rains: no tree can resist their combined actions. So it should not be a surprise that shipwrecks were a source of dwellers on these forlorn islands – with the ships’ crews sometimes being stranded for as long as two years before being rescued.
Known wrecks were those of the British sealer Princess of Wales in 1821, and the French Tamaris in 1887. The resourceful crew of the Tamaris turned a Giant Petrel into a “messenger pigeon” by tying a note to its leg. Sadly, though the note was actually retrieved seven months later in Freemantle, the crew was lost without a trace. Shipwrecks became so common that the British Royal Navy sent a ship to the island every two to three years to search for survivors.
People had time to almost forget her when a small band of survivors landed in England, and the tragic story was told.
This new ship, named the “Strathmore”, was built in Dundee and captained by Alex. MacDonald. It left London in 1875 for Dunedin in New Zealand with a total of 88 people, including 38 of a crew.
Richard Wilson, one of the First Class passengers who survived recorded in his diary - Saturday, April 17, 1875 - “Sailed this day from London in the good ship ‘Strathmore’, built this year by Messrs Brown and Simpson, of Dundee, for the East India trade, 1485 tons registered; had on board 3,800 tons burden general cargo, including 20 tons of gunpowder, which they loaded at Gravesend when they anchored at the powder ground the next day.”
On April 19 they weighed anchor at half-past 11 and on April 21 Richard noted “The tug’ left us”. Then on May 23 they crossed the Equator with the usual ceremonies in honour of Neptune.
He continued: “June 20 - foggy weather; report says we are about 83 miles from the Crozet group of islands: towards night shortened sail, stayed on deck until midnight, it was then very dark and foggy with a drizzling rain.”
Robert records that on July 1 – “Aroused from a sound sleep about a’ quarter to four this morning by the cry of “breakers right ahead!” Hurriedly dressed as quickly as possible and went on deck; all was darkness and confusion, and heard the captain say, ‘There is no hope, we are all lost, we are all lost!’ above all the breakers roared, with a noise like thunder.”
The second officer, Tom Peters (from Arbroath) is remembered in later years in command of the “Helen Denny” that traded to New Zealand, who succeeded, with the assistance of others, in getting the dinghy off the deckhouse and safely launched, and took as many people as could be carried safely to the land.
The island’s black rocks towered in front of them, and the place looked hopeless, but about a mile away from the wreck a passable landing place was found. Many of the shivering people had to spend yet another night on the wreck, not knowing what was going to happen to them.
By January, 1876 was more than half gone, and still there was no sign of rescue, “until, on the 21st of that month, an American whaler noticed the signals and stood in for the island. The survivors could hardly speak for joy when they saw her lower two boats, and their feelings can’t be imagined when they realised that at last rescue was at hand. The whaler proved to be the “Young Phoenix”, and despite the loss of their fishing catch, her captain agreed to take the 44 survivors off the island.
Thanks to W. Cooper of Hamilton who received the notes and a list of the survivors from Mrs Peters, of Arbroath, Scotland, widow of Captain T. B. Peters, who was second mate of the Strathmore when she was wrecked, we know a little of what became of our local hero.
This tale is a real insight into how dangerous sea travel was in days of yore and how landlocked “Strathmore” is a dangerous name to give a ship.