Passenger Ship Disasters - Part 9

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P&O's Oceana was sunk in a collision in 1912, with the loss of 14 lives


This series of articles provides a listing of all major passenger ships that have been lost in service. For comparison, there are also articles covering some the most significant losses of smaller passenger vessels and ferries. The articles also provide commentary on some of the most significant incidents.

For practical and technical reasons, the Articles are presented in the following parts: -

  • Part 1. Definitions and the Development of International Passenger Ship Regulations
  • Part 2. Fire
  • Part 3. Collision,
  • Part 4. Other Navigational Error
  • Part 5. Structural Failure and Foundered
  • Part 6. Hostilities – World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War
  • Part 7. Hostilities – World War 2
  • Part 8. Ship Safety Analysis – Passenger vessels over 10,000 GRT
  • Part 9. Some smaller passenger vessel losses
  • Part 10. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in European Waters
  • Part 11. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in USA, Canada & Australasia
  • Part 12. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in South East Asia & Africa

This article examines some of the passenger vessels below 10,000 GRT that have been lost at sea in peacetime.

Smaller Passenger Vessels[edit]

The earlier parts of these articles set out to provide a comprehensive record of all passenger vessels above 10,000 GRT that have been lost. Excluding the effects of hostilities the world passenger ship fleet has suffered a total of 116 ship losses in the 125 years since the first ship over 10,000 GRT entered service. Of these 43 ships were lost to fire while in port (at a cost of 5 lives) and 73 at sea for all reasons (7,301 lives). This vessel size was selected for the earlier articles for practical reasons, plus the fact that during the period since the introduction of the first SOLAS regulations in 1914, 10,000 GRT became about the minimum acceptable size for ocean liner construction. Before 1888 however all passenger ships were smaller than this limit and from available records, it is clear that from the introduction of ocean going steamships a considerable number of these smaller ships perished.

At the present day, many ferries are over 10,000 GRT and these vessels feature prominently in the lists of larger passenger ships lost over the past 40 years. Even more of the smaller ferries have been lost however, especially those being operated in the national waters of developing countries. Some of these disasters are covered in Part 10, Part 11 and Part 12.

Sailing Ships[edit]

Sailing ships have been lost at sea since the beginnings of civilisation. Early records are of course not available, but even in the nineteenth century records are vague. The famous Aberdeen shipowner George Thompson owned at least 65 sailing ships between 1826 and 1906, including the great clippers Thermopylae and Miltiades. Many were sold on for further trading, yet the final fate of 11 of these ships is unknown. Only 13 of the ships that had been part of his fleet are known to have been broken up, while 41 were lost as a result of shipwrecks, collision, fire and stranding, including 5 that left port and were never seen again. Travel by sailing ship was undoubtedly a risky undertaking.

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Photo 1: A Jack Spurling painting of George Thompson’s great clipper Militiades

Transatlantic Passenger Steamers[edit]

One of the few comprehensive sources of historic maritime information is N R P Bonsor’s monumental 5 volume work “North Atlantic Seaway”, which provides fleet details for every shipping company that has operated steam or motor powered transatlantic passenger ships. Although this only covers one trade, it provides this sample of the hazards faced by smaller passenger vessels during the nineteenth and early twentieth century: -


As is well known, the first steam assisted transatlantic crossing was made by the paddle-steamer Savannah in 1819. Other pioneering voyages followed, but it was not until 1835, that the British & American Steam Navigation Company became the first North Atlantic steamship line to have its shares successfully floated to the public and in March 1838 it became the first company to start a transatlantic service, using the chartered 703 ton ship Sirius. This vessel was joined by the company’s new built British Queen (1,862 tons) in 1839 and the even larger President (2,366 tons) in 1840.

As built, both British Queen and President were fitted with improved paddle wheels, where the floats were arranged in a cycloidal curve, so that each board entered the water vertically, thereby greatly reducing its shock loading. Unfortunately this concept was covered by a patent issued to a Mr W Galloway, who obtained an injunction against the company. Subsequent attempts to reach an amicable settlement failed and the floats of both steamers had to be altered. Following this modification, President left New York on 11 March 1841 with 136 passengers and crew and was never heard of again.

The modified British Queen sailed from Liverpool a few days after President left New York. During the first six days of the voyage she lost, one by one, all the floats from her port paddle wheel. The crew managed to remove half the floats from the starboard paddle wheel and transfer them to the port wheel. The ship had just resumed her voyage when she ran into a hurricane. Considerable damage was done to the ship, which was forced to put into Halifax for repairs, before eventually reaching New York on 4 April. It is highly likely that the same combination of paddle wheel failure and the hurricane caused President to founder and earn the sad distinction of being the first transatlantic steamship casualty. In total 176 passenger vessels below 10,000 GRT were lost on transatlantic voyages between 1841 and 1926. Of these 23 went missing without trace, 12 were known to founder and 8 were abandoned. These 43 vessels represent almost 25% of all small transatlantic vessel losses.

With the loss of President, the British & American Steam Navigation Company was unable to continue in business and the British Queen was sold to the Belgian Government, to start the first non-British North Atlantic steamship service. In a December 1841 statement to shareholders, the British & American Steam Navigation Company disclosed that on her nine voyages British Queen had carried a total of 1,714 passengers and generated an average direct profit of £1,257 per voyage. President carried 414 passengers on her three voyages and generated an average £1,350 direct profit. These direct profit figures exclude interest charges, depreciation, insurance and management charges, which in aggregate turned the direct voyage profits into a substantial loss, forcing the company into liquidation. It was virtually impossible for any North Atlantic steamship line to remain in business without a Government subsidy.


Prompted by the activities of the early transatlantic pioneers, in November 1839 the British Admiralty issued invitations to tender for the conveyance of mails from Britain to North America. The Nova Scotian entrepreneur Samuel Cunard received a copy of the tender documents in Halifax after the closing date; but with the news that the Admiralty had rejected all of the proposals it had received. Although none of Cunard’s Halifax associates were interested in the project, he embarked for Falmouth in January 1839 on a Government sailing packet. Soon after his arrival in London, Cunard submitted a provisional tender that resulted in the Admiralty indicating that they were prepared to enter into negotiations.

On the advice the secretary of the East India Company, Cunard entered into an arrangement with Robert Napier of Glasgow, to design and quote for the construction of three ships based upon the Admiralty outline specification. His preparations completed, on 4 May 1839 Cunard entered into a seven year contract for a fortnightly mail service, at a price to the Admiralty of £55,000 per year. In the meanwhile however, Napier undertook a series of steamship voyages between Glasgow and Belfast, to study the behaviour of the vessels employed on that route and came to the devastating conclusion that a reliable transatlantic service would require an additional ship and they would need to be significantly bigger and more powerful than had been anticipated. The dismayed Cunard accepted Napier’s conclusions, but was unable to afford the additional capital cost. To overcome this problem, Napier introduced Cunard to the Glasgow shipowners James Donaldson, George Burns and David MacIver. The four men reached an agreement to form the British & North America Royal Mail Steam Packet Company to operate the service; although it was always popularly known as Cunard Line. Samuel Cunard persuaded the Admiralty to accept the necessary changes to the contract and to extend the service from Halifax to Boston for a revised subsidy of £60,000 per annum. This figure was later changed to £1,000 per voyage.

The small Burns Line steamer Unicorn sailed from Liverpool on 16 May 1840 to work as a feeder ship to Quebec, while the first transatlantic steamer, Britannia, undertook the first mail sailing on 4 July 1840. She was followed by her sisters Acadia, Caledonia and Columbia. The quartet immediately established a reputation for regularity and dependability, which was remarkable considering the small size of the ships: -

  • Length (overall) – 230 feet
  • Length (between figurehead and taffrail) – 207 feet
  • Beam (hull) – 34 feet 6 inches
  • Beam (over paddle boxes) – 56 feet
  • Machinery – 2 cylinder side lever; 440 NHP = 8.5 knots
  • Bunkers – 640 tons
  • Passengers – 115 cabin class
  • Crew – 89
  • Cargo & Mail – 225 tons

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Photo 2: A Stephen J Card painting of Britannia in 1840; hove-to awaiting the arrival of a Boston Pilot

To provide a present day comparison; the pioneer Cunard transatlantic mail ships were smaller than the preserved excursion steamer Waverley: -

  • Length (overall) – 239 feet 11 inches
  • Beam (hull) – 30 feet 3 inches
  • Beam (over paddle boxes) – 57 feet 3 inches
  • Machinery – 3 cylinder, diagonal, triple expansion; 2,100 IHP = 14 knots service speed
  • Passengers (day) – 925

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Photo 3: Waverley is slightly larger than the first Cunard transatlantic mail steamers

Although the Cunard Line service was an outstanding success, its running costs turned out to be far in excess of its revenue and subsidy. In the spring of 1841 Cunard, Burns and MacIver supplied detail accounts to the Admiralty, explaining their inability to continue operations. After an intensive audit of the company’s accounts, the Admiralty agreed to increase the subsidy to £81,000 per year, on condition that Cunard provided a reserve steamer. In 1847 the service was expanded to weekly sailings during 8 months of the year and fortnightly during the winter; the route being to Halifax, then alternately to Boston and New York. The subsidy to support this service was increased to £156,000 per annum. Using the Retail Price Index to measure inflation the subsidy would be worth £10.5 million today. Calculated on an average earnings basis, the annual subsidy would be £113 million. Not surprisingly it was some years before Cunard faced serious competition on the transatlantic.

Cunard's reputation for safety was one of the significant factors in the firm's early success. Cunard's orders to his masters were, "Your ship is loaded, take her; speed is nothing, follow your own road, deliver her safe, bring her back safe - safety is all that is required.” Charles MacIver's constant inspections were a major additional reason for the firm's safety discipline.

One of Cunard’s very few accidents was the wrecking of Columbia on Seal Island, near Cape Sable, in dense fog on 2 July 1843. No lives were lost and both the cargo and mails were saved, but the ship could not be re-floated.


Shipwreck was the most common cause (55%) of transatlantic voyage losses of vessels under 10,000 GRT; largely due to the primitive navigational aids available in the nineteenth century. Fortunately there was no loss of life in most shipwrecks. Tragically this was not the case in the wreck of the Skandinavien-Amerika Linien steamer Norge, which caused the greatest number of fatalities in any loss of a transatlantic passenger vessel under 10,000 GRT and is the worst disaster in Danish shipping history.

Skandinavien-Amerika Linien was established in 1898, when the major Danish shipping group DFDS took over Dampskibs-Selskabet Thingvalla, which had been running a passenger and cargo service from Copenhagen to New York since 1880. Norge was acquired as part of the Thingvalla fleet. She was originally built in 1881 by Alexander Stephen’s, Glasgow as Pieter de Coninck for the Belgian transatlantic operator Engels Line and was bought by Thingvalla in 1889. Although only 3,310 GRT she was fitted to carry 5 first, 15 second and 900 Third Class passengers. This was later reduced to about 800 passengers.

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Photo 4: Skandinavien-Amerika Linien’s transatlantic steamer Norge

The last voyage of Norge began in Stetin, calling at Copenhagen, Kristiania (Oslo) and Kristiansand to embark passengers. When Norge left Kristiansand for New York on 25 June 1904, she is thought to be carrying some 727 passengers, including 223 children, plus 68 crew. Children under one years of age were not officially counted and between 1 and 12 were regarded as half a person in passenger totals. Norge was inspected by the port authorities before she left Kristiansand. She was fitted with 8 lifeboats with a design capacity for 252 persons, plus one 25 person liferaft, 843 lifejackets and 10 lifebouys. No lifeboat drill was carried out; no instructions were given on the correct way to fit lifejackets; no children’s lifejackets were carried.

The normal route from Kristiansand to the North Atlantic was through the Pentland Firth and north of Rockall. As the weather was calm, with good visibility, Captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel, elected to take Norge south of Rockall. Although the southerly route was considered more hazardous, because of stronger and unpredictable currents, Captain Gundel had used it many times, as it postponed his ship’s entry into the Gulf Stream, with its often confused seas and restricted visibility.

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Photo 5: Rockall

The night of 27/28 June 1904 was sparklingly clear, with a full moon. Captain Gundel decided to sail closer than usual to Rockall, as he calculated Norge would pass the rock about breakfast-time and it would provide an interesting spectacle for his passengers. Fatally he navigated entirely by dead-reckoning and failed to verify his estimated position by star sights. The full moon was his undoing, for it greatly strengthened the tidal currents in the area and disturbed the accuracy of the primitive magnetic compass designs available at the time.

In the early hours of 28 June the sky clouded over and fog banks began to form. Captain Gundel realised that a close-pass of Rockall was too hazardous in these conditions, but he was now too late to obtain a star sight. He decided to turn his ship due south to obtain more sea-room, not knowing that in reality Norge was at that time some 23 nautical miles north of his estimated position and north of Rockall. After steaming south to establish what he regarded as a margin of safety, Captain Gundel turned Norge back onto a westerly heading – steering directly towards the Rockall perils.

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Photo 6: Rockall

Rockall is the eroded core of an extinct volcano. The remains of the mountain lie at various depths beneath the surface and are known as the Rockall Bank. A reef runs close to the surface for about five miles from the visible part of Rockall. Norge ran onto St Helen’s Reef at full speed, while most of her passengers were still in their bunks. Captain Gundel’s final major contribution to the tragedy was to instinctively order Full Astern, before checking the damage his ship had sustained. Norge came off the reef and began to rapidly sink. Captain Gundel gave orders to abandon ship.

The passengers were awakened by the horror of the noise of their ship running onto the reef; followed by the noise of her been torn off again; then the cries of “Abandon Ship”. When the confused passengers emerged on deck they were handed lifejackets (without instructions how to fit them) only to find that most were useless, as the fastening ropes had perished. At the same time Captain Gundel was bellowing “Women and children first” from the bridge.

Perhaps unsurprisingly panic swept through the ship and the officers lost control of the situation. A near riot ensued with fighting to board the lifeboats. Once launched, many of the often overloaded lifeboats rowed as quickly as possible away from the wreck, to avoid being swamped by swimmers trying to board.

Those passengers who were fortunate enough to obtain a place in a lifeboat found that their problems were far from over. Many of the lifeboats had serious leaks, requiring continuous hand bailing to remain afloat. The fresh water tanks were empty in some of the boats and ship’s biscuits stores were well below requirements. Norge sank as they rowed clear. Astonishingly Captain Gundel, who went down with the ship, surfaced and was picked up by a lifeboat.

Initially some of the lifeboats remained together and shared their limited supplies, but eventually they all separated. When the Norge sank on 28 June 1904 she was carrying 8 lifeboats: -

  • Boat 1 (designed for 48 persons) was found on 3 July and 71 persons rescued.
  • Boat 2 (48 person boat) was seen to fill with water when launched and was never found.
  • Boat 3 (28 person boat) was found on 29 June and 28 persons rescued.
  • Boat 4 (28 person boat) was found on 5 July and 19 persons rescued.
  • Boat 5 (27 person boat) was found on 4 July and 17 persons rescued.
  • Boat 6 (27 person boat) was never found.
  • Boat 7 (23 person boat) was very overloaded and foundered when launched.
  • Boat 8 (23 person boat) was found on 3 July and 35 persons rescued.

The ship’s 25 person liferaft was launched but was never found.

It is believed that between 620 and 625 persons perished in the shipwreck of Norge. The confusion in the number of fatalities being caused by the treatment of child numbers in official tallies. In Denmark, Captain Gundel and DFDS were subject to a Court of Navigation enquiry and were also prosecuted by the Danish Justice Department. To continuing Norwegian anger, the Judge in the Court of Navigation decided that all proceedings would be conducted in private, with press, public and other interested parties excluded. The Norwegian authorities were only permitted to submit written questions and not allowed to cross-question Captain Gundel. The same Judge presided over the Justice Department prosecution. All parties were acquitted.


William Mackenzie and Donald Mann were two Canadian railway construction contractors, who joined forces to buy and sell branch lines in the prairie provinces during the 1880s and 1890s. After much wheeling and dealing they established the Canadian Northern Railway in 1899, with the ambition to establish a second Canadian transcontinental railway. This was finally achieved in 1915, with considerable Canadian government encouragement, but in the process the company incurred so much debt that it was not financially viable. The undertaking was nationalised in 1918 and became Canadian National Railways.

The Canadian Northern Railway also established a complex and often short-lived group of transatlantic emigrant carrying shipping companies. One of these was the British registered Uranium Steamship Company Limited of 1909, whose rather odd name was derived from the name of an existing steamer, which was transferred within the CNR group to the company. She was the only ship the company ever owned, but it chartered other ships from within the group, to establish a bottom of the market emigrant service from Rotterdam to Halifax and New York. One of these ships was the little twin-screw steamer Volturno owned by Canadian Northern Steamships.

Canadian Northern Steamships had contemplated renaming Volturno as Royal Sovereign to match their large, luxurious Canadian service express liners Royal Edward and Royal George, but apparently decided that Volturno would devalue their image. She was originally built by Fairfield, Glasgow in 1906 for the Naples company Navigazione Italo-Americano, was 3,581 GRT, twin screw, 14 knots with accommodation for 1,200 passengers.

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Photo 7: Volturno, owned by Canadian Northern Steamships, but chartered to a fellow group company, Uranium SS Co.

Volturno sailed from Rotterdam on 2 October 1913 with 560 passengers and 93 crew on board, plus a cargo of oil and chemicals in drums, rags and burlap. At about 06:00 on 9 October 1913, Volturno caught fire in a gale in the North Atlantic. The crew attempted to fight the fire for about two hours (with the loss of 4 lives), but because of the severity of the fire Captain Francis Inch ordered his wireless operator to send out SOS signals. Eleven ships heeded the calls, arriving throughout the day and into the next. In the meantime, several of Volturno's lifeboats, with women and children aboard were launched with tragic results; all the boats either capsized, or were smashed by the hull of the heaving ship, leaving no one alive from these first boats.

The first ship to arrive was the Cunarder Carmania and her Captain J. C. Barr took command of the rescue effort. Barr had the other vessels slowly circle the burning ship. Throughout the night of 10/11 October, Carmania kept one of her searchlights on Volturno, with another sweeping the ring of rescue ships to help them avoid collisions.

The rescue ships launched lifeboats of their own to try and take passengers off the stricken Volturno, but the poor weather, high seas and a reluctance of Volturno's passengers to jump into the frigid waters hampered rescue efforts. Volturno’s crew, assisted by some of the male passengers, were unable to extinguish the fire, but were at least able to keep it from spreading to the aft cargo holds; over which the others on board were gathered. Shortly before dawn, a large explosion—probably of her boilers—rocked Volturno. This led the rescuers to feel that the ship, which had not been in imminent danger of sinking up to this point, might founder at any time. In the early morning of 11 October, the tanker Narragansett turned on her pumps and sprayed lubricating oil on the sea, to help calm the surface. The combination of the oil and the lessening of the storm allowed many more lifeboats to be sent to Volturno's aid and rescue all who were still on board.

With all boats recovered by 09:00, the rescue ships all resumed their original courses. In all, 521 passengers and crew members were rescued by ten of the eleven ships. The death toll was 136, mainly women and children from the early lifeboat launchings.

The use on the newly introduced Marconi radio to summon help and the participation of a number of major transatlantic liners in the rescue, generated a considerable international interest that has continued until today. See More importantly the tragedy occurred just before the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea met in 1914, in response to the Titanic disaster. As a result the 1914 Convention also began to give some consideration to fire hazards, which has become a major concern in all subsequent Conventions.

Volturno was the last small transatlantic passenger ship to be lost with casualties.

Transatlantic Casualty Statistics[edit]

Peacetime Transatlantic Passenger Ship Losses

Year Ships under 10,000 GRT Ships over 10,000 GRT Total
  Ships Deaths Ships Deaths Ships Deaths
1841-1860 20 2,168 0 0 20 2,168
1861-1880 63 2,499 0 0 63 2,499
1881-1900 70 2,988 0 0 70 2,988
1901-1920 20 835 6 2,521 26 3,356
1921-1940 3 0 1 0 4 0
1941-1960 0 0 2 52 2 52
Total 176 8,490 9 2,573 185 11,063

Causes of Transatlantic Passenger Ship Losses

Cause Ships under 10,000 GRT Ships over 10,000 GRT Total
  Ships Deaths Ships Deaths Ships Deaths
Missing 23 2,040 0 0 23 2,040
Abandoned 8 22 0 0 8 22
Foundered 12 242 0 0 12 242
Wrecked 96 2,564 5 0 101 2,564
Collision 23 2,968 3 1,070 26 4,038
Fire 12 607 0 0 12 607
Iceberg 2 47 1 1,503 3 1,550
Total 176 8,490 9 2,573 185 11,063


  1. The above figures cover all passenger ships lost during a peacetime North Atlantic voyage. They exclude ships lost in harbour through fire or other causes.
  2. The figures also exclude the considerable number of passenger sailing ships lost during transatlantic voyages.
  3. The significant number of ships that disappeared without trace should be noted. These tragedies ceased after the universal introduction of Marconi radio on passenger vessels.
  4. It should also be noted that Titanic was one of only three transatlantic ships known to have be sunk after colliding with an iceberg. One of the earlier ships suffered 47 casualties and the other sank without loss of life.
  5. Casualties were low in the earliest small ship losses because of the small number of passengers carried.

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Photo 8: Fabre Line's Braga was built by Russell and Co., Glasgow in 1907 as Unione Austriaca's Laura. After WW1, she was handed over to France and sold to Fabre Line in 1920 for their transatlantic service from Beirut to New York. At this time she measured 6,125 GRT; was 415 feet long with a beam of 50 feet. She was a twin-screw, two triple-expansion steam engines providing a service speed of 15 knots. She had accommodation for 130 cabin class and 1,350 third class passengers. On 16 November 1926 she was wrecked without loss of life on Aspro Island, Cyprus, on the final leg of an eastbound voyage. Her shipwreck was the last peacetime loss of a transatlantic liner smaller than 10,000 GRT.

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Photo 9: Leonidas Goulandris founded the General Steam Navigation Co of Greece in 1938, which soon became known as the Greek Line. After WW2 the company re-opened its Piraeus to New York trade, but soon began to concentrate on a service from Germany, UK and France to Canada. The 1920 built Dutch liner Johan de Witt was bought by Greek Line in 1948 and rebuilt for transatlantic service as Neptunia; first from Piraeus, but from 1951 she was transferred to Northern Europe. By this time she was 10,519 GRT and had accommodation for 39 first and 748 tourist class passengers. On 2 November 1957 Neptunia was badly damaged when she struck Daunt’s Rock while entering Cobh. The ship was beached and evacuated without loss of life. She was abandoned to the underwriters and sold to be broken up; thus becoming the last transatlantic liner to be lost.

Some small ships lost by pioneer shipping companies[edit]

The author is not aware of data sources providing comprehensive information on small passenger ship losses in areas away from the North Atlantic, but the number of tragedies that are recorded is so great as to require separate analysis. The following details provide examples, covering some of the pioneer British shipping companies operating outside the North Atlantic trades. In some cases the number of deaths is not known, especially for ships lost in the early part of the nineteenth century. The figures are for passenger ships below 10,000 GRT lost from the formation of the company (date in brackets) up to the outbreak of the First World War.

  • P&O (1835) – 31 Ships – 451 known deaths
  • RMSP (1840) – 23 Ships – 396 known deaths
  • PSNC (1840) – 34 Ships – 222 known deaths, but total much higher
  • Elder Dempster (1852) – 29 ships – 231 known deaths
  • Union (1857) Castle (1873) – 13 ships – 508 known deaths
  • British India (1862) – 28 ships – 1,336 known deaths.

These six companies alone suffered the loss of 158 small passenger ships in this period, at a cost of over 3,144 lives. More than 80% of these vessels were wrecked. This provides an insight into the perils of operating a shipping service where charts were vague or unreliable, navigation aids were at best inadequate and port facilities often non-existent. Many of the ships were stranded on the bar of a river, or came to grief when a sudden storm struck an exposed anchorage. Previous articles have highlighted the increased maritime safety brought about by successive SOLAS conventions, but considerable credit should also be given to the work done by hydrographers, port authorities, shipbuilders and the development of ship-borne electronics over the past 150 years. The 158 vessels noted above were lost as follows: -

Some Small Passenger Ship Losses

Cause of the loss of the 158 small passenger ships Ships Deaths
Missing 4 155
Wrecked 130 1,492
Collision 11 177
Fire 7 168
Foundered 4 1,072
Total 158 3,144

It must be emphasised that the actual number of fatalities were higher than given above, as in a number of cases the author has not been able to establish the number of deaths incurred in a ship loss.

Some Notable Small Passenger Ship Losses[edit]


The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s Bokhara was a three masted, single screw steamer of 2,944 GRT; powered by a two cylinder compound steam engine with an output of 2,025 IHP horsepower, providing a maximum speed of 12 knots. The ship's dimensions were: Length: 361 feet 5 inches; Beam: 39 feet; Depth: 29 feet (moulded); draught 21 feet 7 inches. Accommodation was provided for 143 first and 42 second class passengers. She was built in 1873, by P&O’s then favourite shipbuilder, Caird & Co, Greenock.

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Photo 10: The P&O steamer Bokhara

Bokhara was initially employed on P&O’s Far East service and on 21 June 1873 during her maiden voyage, was stranded on an uncharted rock off Hong Kong, but was refloated without difficulty and was docked at Kowloon for repairs. The rock was subsequently charted and named the 'Bokhara Rock'. Following this incident, the local authorities offered a reward of $10 to any Chinese fisherman who could point out an uncharted rock. The Navy also took a hand in improving the survey of the waters adjacent to Hong Kong. In 1880 Bokhara was re-boilered and transferred to the India – Australia service; Bombay – Trieste service and trooping duties, before returning to the Far East.

On Saturday 8th October 1892 Bokhara, under the command of Captain Dawson Sams, left Shanghai with 25 passengers, 123 crew and a cargo of only 150 tons of silk, specie, treasure and 'the mails', bound for Hong Kong, Colombo and Bombay. The ship’s light condition probably contributed to the disaster. Her passengers included the Hong Kong cricket team, returning home from an Interport match against Shanghai. Eleven of the thirteen team members perished. The author is indebted to the detail information provided on the website The vessel was due at Hong Kong on 11th October 1892, a three-day journey of some 845 miles. She sailed from Shanghai in the usual seasonal north-east monsoon conditions with high following seas. The next day, the weather grew worse and by nightfall the barometer fell rapidly and the wind rose, indicating the approach of a typhoon.

Captain Sams gave orders for the hatches to be battened down and other steps taken to meet the oncoming storm. All through 10th October the ship battled the fierce gale, but was steadily driven towards the north-west coast of Formosa (Taiwan). The sails were furled and the Captain ordered the ship to come about and hove-to. The exhausted crew failed in their efforts and Bokhara was trapped, laying beam on to the sea with her engines stopped and she began to undergo a fearful battering.

One by one the lifeboats were wrenched from their davits and deck fittings either smashed, or swept overboard, as Bokhara drifted across the Taiwan Straits. The Captain tried vainly to bring her head around, but she was driven on helplessly. By evening everyone was near giving up hope. In a last ditch effort to abate the heavy seas, Captain Sams ordered oil to be pumped overboard. For a brief while it appeared to have the desired effect, but the oil soon stopped, as a result of blocked pipes. At about 21:30 that night, three monstrous waves broke in succession over Bokhara. The engine room skylights were shattered, the boiler fires were extinguished and the machinery flooded.

Just before midnight land was spotted on the lea beam, not more than a few hundred yards away. While Captain Sams went below to warn the passengers, the crew continued their heroic attempts to secure the machinery spaces and restart the swamped engines, but to no avail. Within minutes, Bokhara struck the reef protecting Sand Island (Pescadores Islands) for the first time. She came off, but on striking the reef a second time, her starboard side was ripped open. In less than two minutes she sank in ten fathoms of water.

One hundred and twenty-five persons were drowned, with only twenty-three reaching the shore alive. Only two of the twenty-five passengers were saved - both members of the Hong Kong cricket team. They were discovered the next day by local fishermen, who took the survivors to Peihou Island, before they were brought to Makung, where they were looked after by the locals. The loss of the little Bokhara was the worst peacetime disaster of P&O Line.


The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company is remembered as the leading British liner company serving the Atlantic coast of South America, but the company’s first route was the mail service from Falmouth (soon replaced by Southampton) to the Caribbean. On Friday 2 January 1852, Amazon, the company’s newest and biggest ship sailed from Southampton on her maiden voyage to the West Indies, under the temporary command of Captain William Symonds, until her permanent Captain was available.

Amazon was built by R & H Green at Blackwall, London. At the time the carriage of British mail by sea was controlled by the Admiralty. To comply with the Admiralty specifications for mail steamers, Amazon was of wooden construction and paddle driven. With a length of 316 feet, a beam of 42 feet (72 feet over the paddle-boxes) and a depth of 26 feet she was the largest English, timber-built ship then built. Two side-lever reciprocating engines, each producing 800 hp at 14 rpm and two paddle wheels, 40 feet 8 inches diameter, provided the ship with a service speed of 11 knots. To meet Admiralty requirements she was designed to mount fourteen 32 pound cannon and two 10 inch pivot-guns. It is believed that four guns were carried on Amazon’s maiden voyage and their munitions contributed to her final demise. If needed, the vessel could carry 360 troops, but she sailed with only 50 civilian passengers, in accommodation that was regarded as sumptuous at the time. In addition to the mails, Amazon also carried £20,000 in specie and coin, plus mercury to the value of £5,000 for use in mining in Mexico.

After a rousing send-off, Amazon departed Southampton at 15:00 on 2 January, but by 20:00 she was obliged to hove-to off Portland Bill with overheating shaft bearings. This was a common problem in new machinery at the time, until the bearings had bedded in. Amazon’s engineers hosed down the paddle shafts until they were cool, before repacking them with grease. This procedure had to be repeated twice during 3 January, amid some concern as the weather began to deteriorate, with a rising gale developing.

At 12:45 on 4 January, with the ship about 110 miles south-west of the Scilly Islands, flames erupted onto the deck from the forward stoke hold. At the same time the duty engineer encountered flames coming through the forward boiler casings. He tried to reach the controls to stop the engines but was driven back by the fire. It is thought that the fire started as a result of the boiler insulation being damaged by the engineers’ efforts to cool the shaft bearings. The crew began hosing the deck, but the engineers were unable to start the main-deck water pump and the fire spread to the store room containing oil, grease, tallow and other engineer’s stores. Orders were given to jettison bales of hay stored between the engine-room and the crank gratings for use as fodder for the ship’s livestock. After two trusses had been thrown overboard however, the fire reached the remainder.

The ship was now in a desperate plight, driving forward at about 10 knots into a rising gale, with the fire rapidly consuming her freshly painted new timbers. The fire-fighting efforts were not containing the flames and the ship was clearly doomed. The 50 passengers were assembled right aft. Captain Symonds reluctantly turned the ship about so that the flames were blowing forward away from the passengers, but in doing so trapped most of the crew in the forward part of the ship in an area without lifeboats. Some crew members scrambled aft over the paddle-boxes, but the fire soon blocked this route.

Amazon was still driving forward at a speed of about 9 knots – too fast to safely launch her boats. Nevertheless the passengers were placed in her lifeboats, when a new problem was discovered. The lifeboats were secured in iron cradles and needed to be lifted above these by their two falls before they could be swung out, but there were insufficient crew available to achieve this simultaneously. In the ensuing chaos, some of the boats were lifted partially out of their cradles, only to have their planking stove-in as the boats swung with the movement of the ship. In the end only three lifeboats and a dingy were safely launched.

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Photo 11: A contemporary engraving of the Amazon disaster

At about 05:00 Amazon’s powder magazine exploded and the ship sank. Of the 50 passengers, the Admiralty mail agent, his servant and the 110 crew on board only 58 were saved. The tragedy cost the lives of 36 passengers, the Admiralty staff and 66 crew, including all of Amazon’s officers and her two Midshipmen.


The Scottish partnership of Mackinnon, Mackenzie was formed in 1847, to act as merchants and shipping agents in Bengal. The firm prospered and began chartering ships to bring goods from Glasgow to Calcutta and to carry transhipments on as far as China and Australia. The firm had ambitions to establish steamship services but these were not viable without a subsidy. A mail contract between Rangoon and Calcutta was obtained in 1855 and the Calcutta & Burma Steam Navigation Company was formed the following year to operate the service. The major breakthrough came in 1862, when the Bombay Government granted Mackinnon contracts for a twice monthly mail service between Bombay and Karachi, with a monthly service from Bombay to Basra. A new company, British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd was formed, with a capital of £400,000. The company also absorbed the existing Calcutta & Burma S N Co. The new company successfully expanded into the Dutch East Indies, the Gulf, UK – India and the East African trades. In 1876, British India Associated Steamers was formed to manage all and own some, of the vessels engaged on the non-India services.

The Group also extended some of its services on to Australia, which became much more important in 1881, when Queensland awarded B.I.A.S. a £55,000 per year mail contract to link Queensland to the UK via the Torres Strait. Until then all services had been via the south of Australia, with most settlers and goods being landed at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney and thereby failing to reach Queensland. The new service ensured that Brisbane became the first port of call instead of the last. As there was insufficient Queensland to UK trade, the new service continued on to the traditional southern ports.

The B.I.A.S steamer Quetta was transferred from the London – Madras – Calcutta service in 1883, to become one of the ships operating the new Queensland Royal Mail service. She had been built by William Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton in 1881. She was an iron ship of 3,302 GRT; 380 feet long, 40 feet beam; single screw with a 490 NHP two cylinder inverted compound steam engine providing a service speed of 12 knots. As built she had accommodation for 76 First and 32 Steerage passengers although this was later altered to favour steerage class due to the large number of migrants using the service.

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Photo 12: The B.I.A.S Queensland Royal Mail service steamer Quetta

In February 1890, Quetta was en-route to London via the Torres Strait, on the return leg of her twelfth round voyage on the Queensland Royal Mail service. She had embarked 101 passengers at Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In addition she carried 71 Javanese cane cutters in temporary deckhouses; some with their families; who boarded at Mourilyan to return home to Batavia, after working on North Queensland farms. Including her 121 man crew Quetta had 293 people on board when she entered the Torres Strait.

On the night of 28 February 1890 the ship's master was Captain Sanders, with Captain Keatinge aboard piloting the ship as she turned into the Adolphus Channel, to round Cape York and head for a final Australian call at Thursday Island. The pilot was experienced, the weather fine and visibility good, but at 21:14 the ship struck an uncharted rock in the middle of the channel while travelling at full speed. The rock ripped a hole 4 to 12 feet wide through the ship’s plates from the bow to the engine room amidships and Quetta sank in less than five minutes.

The ship's cutter floated clear of the wreck and capsized, surrounded by a large group of Javanese and lascar seamen. Quartermaster James Oates organised the baling of the cutter and then headed towards the shore. Only one of the ship's lifeboats survived: Number 1 starboard lifeboat controlled by third officer Thomas Babb. It was damaged and largely awash. As it headed toward shore it picked up more survivors, including Captain Sanders. Around midnight the two boats came together and those aboard were placed on the nearest island. Captain Sanders then ordered Pilot Keatinge to take the cutter to search for more survivors. Passing over the wreck site, the cutter found debris and bodies, but no survivors. The cutter reached Somerset, on the Queensland coast at 10:30 on 1 March and ten sunburned, filthy and exhausted men stumbled onto the beach. They'd landed near the home of Frank Jardine, the first white settler at Somerset. From there they telegraphed Thursday Island and asked for help.

After spending a night and day without food and water on Little Adolphus Island, the main group of ninety-eight survivors were rescued by the government steamer Albatross, which had been dispatched from Thursday Island together with Merrie England, a 411-ton auxiliary steamer belonging to the New Guinea Government.

Meanwhile, Pilot Keatinge had set out from Somerset, rowing out in a dinghy and flagged down the ship Victoria steaming down the Albany Passage. Not knowing the Albatross and the Merrie England were already on the way, the crew of Victoria picked up Captain Sanders from the beach and set out to look for survivors. Frank Jardine also sent out the Quetta's cutter. Its crew found two survivors, both badly sunburned, on Acoineh Island, plus Purser Gurvan half-dead in the water and a raft packed with Javanese, which it towed to the island, before the cutter returned to Somerset. Eventually the search succeeded in rescuing 160 survivors, the final person to be saved was the 15-year old Emily Lacy, delirious but still mechanically swimming two days after the Quetta sank. The total death toll of 133 is the worst maritime disaster in the history of Queensland.

The Albatross later took soundings and located the rock thought responsible for the disaster, about half a mile from where the Quetta lay. It was added to charts and named Quetta Rock.

Drummond Castle[edit]

Donald Currie was one of the great nineteenth century shipping entrepreneurs. He was born in Greenock in 1825, but the following year was moved to Belfast, where his father bought a hairdressing salon. The family lived in Castle Place, Belfast, where Currie enjoyed such a happy childhood that when he later became a shipowner, he gave his vessels Castle names.

Initially Currie operated high quality sailing ships carrying Cardiff coal to Cape Town, continuing in ballast to Calcutta, then carrying jute to New York, before returning to Cardiff with general cargo. This service enabled Currie to make valuable contacts in South Africa, which led him to establish a steamer service carrying general cargo and private mail in competition with the official mail carrier, Union Steam Ship Company. As a result of Currie’s cultivation of the South African politicians, a joint mail contract was awarded in 1876 and Currie formed Castle Mail Packet Co Ltd.

Drummond Castle was built by John Elder & Co, Govan, in 1881 for the mail service. She was a ship of 3,537 GRT; 365 feet long, 43 feet 6 inches beam; single screw, powered by a 2 cylinder inverted compound steam engine producing 500 nhp, giving a service speed of 12 knots. As built she had accommodation for 120 First, 100 Second and 160 Third Class passengers. In 1888 the ship was re-boilered and a triple-expansion steam engine fitted. With arrival of larger and faster mail ships in 1894, Drummond Castle was transferred to the Intermediate Service from London to the Cape and on to Mauritius.

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Photo 13: The Castle Mail Packet Co’s Intermediate Service liner Drummond Castle

Drummond Castle left Cape Town for London on 28 May 1896, with 143 passengers and 103 crew under command of Captain W. W. Pierce. On the night of 16 June she was off Ushant, within one day's steaming of London. The sea was calm but visibility was poor.

The strong currents converging on the island of Molene, off Ushant, make the locality one of the most dangerous seas in the world and the extent to which the Drummond Castle was pulled eastwards by the tide was apparently not realised by her officers. Between 22:00 and 23:00 the liner was sighted by the steamship Werfa, the first officer of which noted that she was off her normal course and heading for a dangerous coast. The vessels were about a quarter of a mile apart at the time and soon afterwards the Drummond Castle was lost to view. Shortly before 23:00, still steaming at 12 knots, she struck a reef of rocks known as the Pierres Vertes, at the south entrance to the Fronveur Sound. The captain believed the vessel to be driven firmly on the rocks, and although the boats were made ready they were not lowered. The Chief Engineer released steam from the boilers to prevent an explosion, but all efforts to keep the ship afloat failed and she foundered within four minutes of striking.

A total of 243 persons were drowned; 101 crew including Captain Pierce and all the officers, plus 142 passengers. Only three were saved, Mr. Charles Marquandt, a first class passenger, Quartermaster Wood and Seaman Godbolt, all rescued by Breton fishermen.


After some initial setbacks, the young Danish sailmaker Wilhelm Lund established a successful business in London and in 1866 took 8/64ths in the clipper Jeddo, in exchange for the price of her sails. It proved to be a profitable investment and when the partners sold the ship in 1868, Lund was able to build a ship for his own account, which he traded under the name Blue Anchor Line. The new organisation began operations by taking passengers and cargo to Australia, sailing in ballast to China, then returning in the China Clipper races with tea. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1874 Lund decided to concentrate on the Australian trade and by 1880 was a well established shipowner, when he obtained financial backing to build his first steamer, Delcomyn; which although a fast 10 knot vessel, was specifically designed for Australian cargos. The ship was an immediate success and enabled Blue Anchor to a build up a fleet of efficient, workmanlike vessels, gradually introducing refrigerated space and emigrant passenger accommodation into its vessels.

In 1908, Blue Anchor took delivery of its largest and grandest vessel, from Barclay Curle, Whiteinch, Glasgow. Waratah was a ship of 9,339GRT; 465 feet in length, with a beam of 59 feet 5 inches; twin screw powered by two 4 cylinder triple expansion steam engines developing 1,003 NHP, giving her a speed of 14 knots. She was fitted with luxurious accommodation for 100 First Class passengers, plus space for 750 emigrants. She did not carry a radio, but this was still not unusual for the time.

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Photo 14: The Blue Anchor line flagship Waratah

On 5 November 1908, the Waratah began her maiden voyage from London, with 689 emigrant passengers and 67 first class passengers. On the ship's return to England there was some discussion about cargo stowage between the owners and the builders, but no serious problems were raised. 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. Waratah left Durban on 26 July with 92 passengers and 119 crew, passing Clan McIntyre on 27 July. Later that day, the weather deteriorated quickly (as is common in that area). A wind gusting to 50 knots combined against the tide and ocean swell to build waves up to 30 feet. Waratah was expected to reach Cape Town on 29 July 1909, but she never reached her destination and no trace of the ship has ever been found.

Initially, it was believed that Waratah was still adrift. The Royal Navy deployed the cruisers HMS Pandora and HMS Forte (and later HMS Hermes) to search for Waratah. 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, but no trace of the missing ship was found. Subsequently searches were undertaken in 1909, 1910, 1925, 1977, 1991, 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2001; all without success.

A Board of Trade inquiry into the disappearance was held in 1910. The expert witnesses all agreed that the Waratah was designed and built properly and sailed in good condition. She had passed numerous inspections, including those by her builders, her owners, the Board of Trade and Lloyds of London; who gave her the classification "+100 A1" - their top rating, granted only to ships which Lloyds had inspected and assessed throughout the design, construction, fitting out and sea trials. In addition Lloyds had made two valuations and inspections of the completed Waratah.

Evidence was greatly hampered by the lack of any survivors from the ship's final voyage, other than the small number who had disembarked in Durban. These included Claude Sawyer, who complained that he was sure the ship was unstable. Most evidence came from passengers and crew from Waratah's maiden voyage, her builders and those who had handled her in port. Many witnesses testified that the ship had a very long roll, with a reluctance to right herself after leaning into a swell. 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 in harbour without ballast.

However, 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. 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. The inquiry was unable to make any conclusions from this mixed and contradictory evidence and did not place any blame on Blue Anchor Line.

Passenger ships of the period were designed to be 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 knowledge of ship design would have felt that the same motion was unstable. Although some witnesses claimed that Waratah's was unstable in port when unladen, virtually all ocean-going ships designed to carry a large weight of cargo, needed to be ballasted to some extent when moved unladen; so Waratah was certainly not unique in this respect.

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 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. When she disappeared, Waratah was carrying amongst her cargo a load of 1,000 tons of lead concentrate. This may have suddenly shifted, causing the ship to capsize The total disappearance of Waratah has led to a variety of theories being advanced for her loss, including a freak wave, a giant whirlpool, methane upswelling, explosion, even paranormal factors.

Waratah's disappearance, the inquiry and the criticism of the Blue Anchor Line, generated much negative publicity. The line's ticket sales dropped severely, which coupled to the huge financial loss incurred because she was underinsured, forced the company to sell its other ships and business to P&O and declare voluntary liquidation in 1910.

Principessa Mafalda[edit]

Principessa Mafalda was the second of an unfortunate pair of sister ships built by Societa Esercizio Bacini, Riva Trigoso, Italy for Lloyd Italiano. Her sister Principessa Jolanda was built to a very advanced stage before she was launched, but her launch weight and stability do not appear to have been correctly assessed. During the launch one of the launch-ways collapsed, the ship rolled and water poured in through a large number of open portholes. She slowly settled, capsized and sank, thankfully without loss of life.

Principessa Mafalda entered into Lloyd Italiano’s Genoa – Naples – Buenos Aires service in 1909. She was a ship of 9,210 GRT; 485 feet 3 inches long, 55 feet 7 inches beam; twin screw, with two quadruple expansion steam engines of 917 nhp each, providing a speed of 16 knots. She had accommodation for 100 first and 1,700 steerage passengers. The ship was laid-up during WW1 and then transferred to Societa di Navigazione Lloyd Italiana and resumed operations on the South American service.

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Photo 15: Principessa Mafalda

On 8 October 1927 Principessa Mafalda left Cape Verde Islands for Rio de Janeiro, with 971 passengers and a crew of 288 on board, under the command of Captain Guli. At 17:10 on 25 October, in calm seas, she distantly passed the Blue Star cargo ship Empirestar near Albolhos Island, off the Brazilian coast. Ten minutes later, Empirestar received a radio distress call from the liner, and turned back to assist. When Empirestar neared Principessa Mafaldi she found a scene of utter chaos and blind panic.

Pincipessa Mafaldi’s port shaft had snapped and the rotating propeller had drawn out the shaft, allowing sea water to flood into the ship. The crew failed to close the ship’s watertight doors, allowing water to enter her machinery spaces and the boilers exploded. Although Captain Guli tried to reassure the passengers, most were emigrants who had never been to sea and they became terrified as the ship began to list and settle by the stern. The crew were overwhelmed as they prepared for the evacuation of the ship.

The Empirestar saw hundreds of Principessa Mafaldi’s passengers fighting to board the lifeboats, while others were leaping into the sea without waiting for the lifejackets and lifebelts being issued by the crew. Empirestar immediately launched all of its lifeboats to rescue people in the sea, but as she did so she saw two of Principessa Mafaldi’s hopelessly overcrowded lifeboats capsize as soon as they entered the water. Six other ships arrived on the scene and launched their lifeboats to assist, using searchlights after nightfall to located survivors.

If the machinery space watertight doors had been promptly closed the ship would have survived. Principessa Mafaldi finally capsized and sank at 21:40 however, four hours and twenty minutes after the start of the tragedy. This could have provided ample time for the safe, orderly evacuation and rescue of all who were on board, but entirely because panic swept the ship, 314 people were drowned, including the Captain and eight officers.

This tragic sinking occurred after the period of small ship losses covered by this article, but it has been included because the author considers that propeller shaft breakage was responsible for the loss of many of the ships that simply disappeared, before the introduction of marine radio.


A complete Bibliography for all of these Articles is given at the end of Part 12.


Many of the photographs used to illustrate these articles are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. Others are from Wikimedia Commons or are in the public domain. The individual photographs used in Part 9 have been provided as follows: -

Frontispiece - Ships Nostalgia - stein

  1. Ships Nostalgia – Jack Spurling painting - stein
  2. Ships Nostalgia – Stephen J Card
  3. Ships nostalgia – Rob.Norrie
  4. DFDS
  5. Wikimedia
  6. Wikimedia
  7. Kathryn Atkin Collection
  8. Ships Nostalgia – linerich
  9. Ships Nostalgia – linerich
  10. Hong Kong Cricket Club
  11. Wikimedia
  12. State Library of Queensland
  13. Clydebuilt Database
  14. Ships Nostalgia – Marconi Sahib
  15. Pedro Caleja - dofundomer

Article written and compiled by Fred Henderson

Passenger Ship Disasters
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