The Mystery of the Marlborough
Tragic loss by fire of the Cospatrick.
by Anthony G. Flude ©2002.
There were many tragedies and losses in the old sailing days, when a voyage across the world from England to New Zealand was a great adventure for some. Others, not so fortunate, experienced a terrifying journey, the ship running into violent storms when the passengers were battened below decks for their own safety, or the nightmare of dodging large icebergs in the frozen waters of the Southern Ocean under reduced sail.
The "Marlborough" was a beautiful ship which had made fourteen successful passages with immigrants from London to New Zealand during the period of 1876 to 1890. Under Captain Anderson from 1876 until 1883, she carried a crew of twenty-nine, returning to London with cargo's of frozen meat and wool. Launched in Glascow in 1876, she was subsequently sold to the Shaw, Saville & Albion Company.
Captain Herd took over command of the vessel in 1884 and was on the vessel at the time of her voyage back to London from Lyttleton in 1890, when she totally disappeared without trace.
The vessel left New Zealand waters on the 11th January and two days later was hailed by a passing vessel. From that time onwards she was never heard of again. No news of her came and so after many months had passed by, Lyoyds shipping in London posted her as "missing", presumed sunk by icebergs after rounding Cape Horn. This coastline was notorious for violent storms and freezing conditions.
Over twenty years later, in the year 1919, a strange newspaper report appeared in the Glascow Evening Post stating that the Marlborough had been found with the skeletons of her crew still onboard.
"It was stated that the crew of a passing ship in 1891, saw men, whom they believed to be British seamen, signalling off one of the islands near Cape Horn but it was not possible to get near them owing to the bad weather."
Why the incident was never reported at that time seems strange, but corroborates the story told by a British vessel homeward bound from Lytleton, New Zealand.
This new report from London, stated that the sad truth of the vessel's fate was quite dramatic! Having related how his vessel had safely rounded Cape Horn, South America, the Captain outlined the details of the following incident.
"We were off the rocky coves near Punta Arenus, keeping near the land for shelter. The coves were deep and silent and the sailing was difficult and dangerous...with jagged rocks on the landward side. The stillness was uncanny and it was a weirdly wild evening with the sun low and setting over the horizon.
As we rounded a point, there before us, just a mile across the water, stood a sailing vessel with the barest shreds of canvas fluttering in the light breeze."
The crew signalled and the vessel was hoveto. No answer came from the ship across the water. There was no movement aboard and not a living soul appeared to be around. With their eyeglasses they could see that the masts and spars were green with decay and that the vessel lay between rocks where she was held fast as if lying in a cradle.
The report continued:
"At last we came up alongside her creaking hull. There was no sign of life on board. The mate and a number of the crew decided to board her.
The sight that met their gaze was unbelievable. Below the wheel lay the skeleton of a man. Treading warily on the rotting decks, which cracked and broke in places as they walked, they encountered three more skeletons. In the messroom were the remains of ten more bodies and six others were found, one alone, possibly the captain, on the bridge........there were mouldy, dank smelling books in the cabin and a rusty sabre sword......"
The first mate was sent forward to examine the still faint letters on the bow of the derelict vessel. After much trouble he read aloud "Marlborough-Glascow." It was the missing ship.
As though striking a chord in others who heard about this amazing report, an American from Seattle, named Captain Burley, recalled to mind a happening which he had personally experienced, telling the story to one of the skippers of the Shaw Saville liners later in the same year. In it he was able to give a good description of the wreck that they saw.
The skipper listened as Captain Burley recalled that in his youth and early days at sea, he was aboard a ship that had been wrecked off Staten Island, near Cape Horn, and that he and the only other survivor had set off to look for a whaling station, thought to be on the island.
While they were searching, they came across a large ship with painted ports, wedged in a cove, which bore the name "Marlborough". Lying nearby were the skeletons of twenty men and heaps of shellfish which told how they had tried in vain to fight off starvation.
Again this story did not come to light until many years after the captain saw the wreck and heard of the newspaper article. He had not reported what he had seen as there were no survivors, but his story is likely to be close to the truth and was almost certainly the same ship.
Although her disappearance was not so dramatic as the Marlborough, another vessel sailing from New Zealand to London was lost two months later and possibly under similar circumstances.
The barque and well-known immigrant ship Dunedin, left Oamaru for her return passage to London with a crew of thirty-four and a cargo of wool and frozen meat in March, 1890. She never reached her destination.
Seen once, before reaching Cape Horn, it was believed that she foundered in a storm off the rocky coast of the Cape or was sunk by the many icebergs encountered in this vicinity.
THE BURNING OF THE BARQUE "Cospatrick"
British Emigrants Perish in Fire Horror.
ONE of the worst disasters in the history of sail, struck a crowded immigrant ship bound for Auckland, New Zealand, in the year 1874.
The well known shipping firm of Shaw, Saville and Company, began a regular service of sailing vessels between New Zealand and England in the year 1860, when fifteen sailing ships a year plied the route, the passage taking between four and five months. This period of time was shortened in later years as the iron steamships, Crusader, Helen Denny and the Margaret Galbraith came into service.
In the year 1873, the Shaw Saville company bought the barque Cospatrick and sent her, laden with cut kauri timber, on a second voyage under their flag, to the Port of London. Here, the vessel loaded with a mixed cargo and took on board a group of 460 immigrant passengers bound for Auckland, New Zealand.
The Cospatrick sailed from the river Thames dockyards, under the command of Captain Elmslie, on the 11th September, 1874.
Making good sailing time, the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, was sighted on the 19th November when the vessel was making headway in light north-westerly winds.
Henry Macdonald, the ships second mate, went below after keeping his watch and was alerted by a strong smell of smoke. Going back on deck to raise the alarm, he found that fire had broken out in the bosun's store, where oakum, tar, paint and ropes were stored. Acrid smoke began to pour out of the fore peak. The crew were immediately called to rig the fire engine, while the Captain turned the ships head before the wind to take the smoke and flames forward and try to contain the fire.
In the confusion that followed in fighting the blaze, the ship drifted back to her previous course, allowing the flames and suffocating smoke to be fanned back towards the vessel's stern. In less than an hour and a half, the hull, masts, yards and sails were alight and burning fiercely.
Meanwhile, panic had spread rapidly among the passengers, who rushed to get into the lifeboats, one of which was capsized before it could be launched, pitching the passengers into the sea below. The longboat was gone, aflame from end to end, while to add to the panic, the main and mizzen masts crashed in flames onto the crowded immigrants gathered on the stern.
Two lifeboats managed to get away containing about forty passengers each, but they found they had no oars or sail, both lost overboard in the confusion. The boats were forced to drift in the vicinity of the ship, watching the stricken remaining passengers jumping overboard into the sea through the dense smoke only to disappear beneath the waves. Captain Elmslie was the last to be seen from the boats, gasping in the sea, trying to keep himself and his wife afloat while hanging onto a blackened spar.
Charred and smoking, burned to the waterline, the Cospatrick slowly sank beneath the waves before their eyes, leaving the blackened survivers aboard the lifeboats, many still in their nightclothes, without food or water, to drift helplessly on the often stormy seas off Cape Hope.
Two days later a strong wind sprang up and the two lifeboats became separated from each other. As the days wore on, thirst claimed some of the men and women, others went mad and threw themselves overboard. After ten days adrift in the burning sun and without water, many of the survivors had died. A foreign ship was sighted and came close by but did not see them.
Finally the British ship Sceptre, bound for Dundee from Calcutta, spotted the lifeboat drifting aimlessly in the swell. A boat was sent to investigate, when they found the remaining three survivors and brought them on board.
The second mate and two able seamen were later landed at the island of St. Helena, where, after regaining their health, they were to obtain final passage back to Auckland to tell their story. There was no news of the second lifeboat and its passengers and all were presumed lost.