SS London (1864)
Money, Wigram & Co's auxiliary ship, London. 2500 tons. Built 1864. Foundered in the Bay of Biscay with about 230 souls, 11 January 1866 .Image from the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
|Owner:||Money Wigram & Sons|
|Operator:||Money Wigram & Sons|
|Builder:||Money Wigram & Sons, Blackwall Yard|
|Launched:||20 July 1864|
|Out of service:||11 January 1866|
|Fate:||Sank, 11 January 1866|
|Tonnage:||1,652 gross register tons (GRT)|
|Length:||276.6 ft (84.3 m)|
|Beam:||35.9 ft (10.9 m)|
|Draught:||24.1 ft (7.3 m)|
|Installed power:||200 nhp|
|Propulsion:||Compound engines by Humphrys and Tennant of Deptford|
|Speed:||9 knots (17 km/h; 10 mph)|
SS London was a British steamship which sank in the Bay of Biscay on 11 January 1866. The ship was travelling from Gravesend in England to Melbourne, Australia, when she began taking in water on 10 January. With a total of 239 persons plus a great deal of cargo on board, making the ship overloaded and unseaworthy, only 19 survivors were able to escape the foundering ship by lifeboat, leaving a death toll of 220.
From 23 September 1864 she undertook sea trials and on 23 October 1864 started her first voyage to Melbourne via Portsmouth and Plymouth. During the voyage a boat crew was sent to locate a man overboard, but this boatcrew was lost, and later rescued by the Henry Tabar. The London arrived in Cape Town on 5 December 1864 and set sail again on 7 December. She arrived in Melbourne on 2 January 1865.
On 4 February 1865 she left Melbourne for the return trip to London with 260 passengers and 90,000 ounces (2,600 kg) of gold, and she arrived back in Gravesend on 26 April 1865.
A second trip to Melbourne started at the end of May 1865, and she arrived on 4 August. She departed on 9 September 1865 for the return trip with 160 passengers and 85,440 ounces (2,422 kg) of gold. She arrived back in London in November 1865.
The sinking of the SS London
The final voyage of the SS London began on 13 December 1865, when the ship left Gravesend in Kent bound for Melbourne, under a Captain Martin, an experienced Australian navigator. The ship was due to take on passengers from Plymouth, but was caught in heavy weather, and the captain decided to take refuge at Spithead near Portsmouth. The London eventually docked in Plymouth where passengers embarked, setting sail for Australia on 6 January 1866.
By a story later highly publicised, when she was en route down the Thames, a seaman seeing her pass Purfleet said, "It'll be her last voyage…she is too low down in the water, she'll never rise to a stiff sea." This proved all too accurate.
The SS London left Plymouth on her third voyage to Melbourne on 6 January 1866 carrying 263 passengers and crew, including six stowaways. On the third day out while crossing the Bay of Biscay in heavy seas the cargo shifted and her scuppers choked, forcing the vessel lower in the water where she was swept by tremendous seas. Water poured down the hatches extinguishing her fires and forcing the captain to turn about and return to Plymouth. In so doing he headed into the eye of a storm. On 10 January, after a considerable buffeting over several days, a sea carried away bodily the port life boat; then in at noon another sea carried away the jib-boom, followed by the fore topmost and main royalmast with all spars and gear. On 11 January, a huge sea crashed on deck, smashing the engine hatch, an avalanche of water entering the engine room putting the fires out. On 12 January, the London her channels were nearly level with the sea.. The boats had been swamped as soon as launched, and at the last moment the only successful effort was made, the port cutter getting away with nineteen souls on board, but only three being passengers. When the boat was a hundred yards off, the London went down, stern first. As she sank, all those on deck were driven forward by the overpowering rush of air from below, her bows rose high till her keel was visible and then she was ‘swallowed up, for ever, in a whirlpool of confounding waters’. Helpless as she was in the raging seas the London took with her two hundred and forty-four persons. The nineteen people who got away in her cutter were the only ones saved. They were picked up next day by the barque Marianople and landed at Falmouth.
Causes of the sinking
Three main factors were attributed to the sinking of the SS London by the subsequent enquiry by the Board of Trade. Firstly the decision by Captain Martin to return to Plymouth, as it is believed the ship had passed the worst of the weather conditions and by turning back the London re-entered the storm. Secondly the ship was overloaded with 345 tons of railway iron. The final factor is seen as 50 tons of coal which was stored above deck, which after the decks were washed by waves blocked the scupper holes, which prevented drainage of the seawater.
Diamonds Lost in the Disaster
In his Booklet "Governor Phillip in Retirement" (Edited George Mackaness, Review Publications Pty Ltd. Dubbo NSW Australia 1962) Frederick Chapman, whose mother two brothers and a sister died in the wreck wrote as follows: "In December  my mother opened out to my amazed eyes such a mass of diamonds as I had never seen before. This was the property which "Aunt Powell" had left or given to her niece my Great-Aunt Fanny, who at the age of ninety-one had given them to my mother, the wife of her nearest heir. Less than a month later (11th January 1866) the disastrous foundering of the S.S. London carried this collection to the depths of the Bay of Biscay. In that disaster perished my mother, my eldest and youngest brothers, my only sister, and many of our friends."
The disaster of the London aroused increased attention in Britain to the dangerous condition of the coffin ships, overloaded by unscrupulous ship owners, and the publicity had a major role in Samuel Plimsoll's campaign to reform shipping so as to prevent further such disasters. The disaster helped stimulate Parliament to establish the famous Plimsoll line, although it took many years.
- John Debenham, son of William Debenham, founder of Debenham and Freebody's department stores
- Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, Irish stage actor
- James and Elizabeth Bevan, parents of the first Wales rugby union captain James Bevan
- John Woolley, first principal of the University of Sydney, Australia
- Rev. Daniel James Draper & his wife, Methodist Missionary
- Catherine (Kitty) Chapman and three children, Henry Brewer Chapman born 10 April 1841, Catherine Ann born 18 October 1850 and Walter born 12 July 1852, the wife and three children of Henry Samuel Chapman, first puisne Judge in New Zealand, former Attorney General of Van Diemens Land, Attorney General of Victoria, Member of the Victorian Parliament and responsible for the introduction of the secret ballot.
- "Shipwrecks on the Australia - UK Run". Encyclopedia of Australian Shipwrecks and Other Maritime Incidents. Oceans Enterprises. 2006.
- McGonagall, William. "The Wreck of the Steamer 'London' while on her way to Australia".
- "Two outstanding books". Bookworm on the net. Blogspot.com.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to SS London (1864).|
- S.S. London - founded in the English Channel newspaper excerpts of the sinking and McGonagall's poem at ancestry.com
- Lawrence, William J. (1893). The life of Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, tragedian. Belfast: W. & G. Baird. The last chapter describes the ship's final voyage in some detail
- Review of The Plimsoll Sensation in Bookworm on the Net, July 2, 2006