SS London (1864)

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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.
United Kingdom
Name: SS London
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
General characteristics
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)
Capacity: 317 passengers
Crew: 90

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 239 persons aboard. The ship was overloaded with cargo, and thus unseaworthy, and only 19 survivors were able to escape the foundering ship by lifeboat, leaving a death toll of 220.


London was built in Blackwall Yard by Money Wigrams and Sons and launched on the River Thames on 20 July 1864, and had a 1652 ton register.[citation needed]

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 boat crew was lost, and later rescued by the Henry Tabar. London arrived in Cape Town on 5 December 1864 and set sail again on 7 December, arriving in Melbourne on 2 January 1865.

On 4 February 1865, she left Melbourne for the return trip to London with 260 passengers and 2,799.3 kg of gold, and 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 2,657.5 kg of gold, arriving back in London in November of that year.


The London going down

The final voyage of the London began on 13 December 1865, when the ship left Gravesend in Kent bound for Melbourne, under a Captain Martin, an experienced Australian navigator. A story later highly publicised after the loss states that when the ship 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."[1] This proved all too accurate.

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. The ship then restarted the journey to Australia on 6 January 1866. There were 263 passengers and crew aboard, 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 once more 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 the port life boat; then at noon another wave carried away the jib-boom, followed by the fore topmost and main royalmast with all spars and gear. On 11 January a huge wave crashed on deck, smashing the engine hatch which resulted in water entering the engine room putting the fires out. By the 12 January her channels were nearly level with the sea and a decision was made to abandon ship. The life boats were swamped as soon as launched, with only one craft staying afloat. Nineteen people escaped on the life boat, only three of whom were passengers. When the boat was a hundred yards away from the ship, 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". The London took with her two hundred and forty-four persons. It was reported that the last thing heard from the doomed ship was the hymn "Rock of Ages".[2] 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.[3]

The Wreck of the Steamer 'London' while on her way to Australia is a poem by Scottish poet William McGonagall,[4] one of his many poems based on disasters of the time.


1866 pamphlet describing the disaster

Three main factors were attributed to the sinking of London by the subsequent inquiry 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; and finally, the 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.[citation needed]

Diamonds lost[edit]

In his monograph "Governor Phillip in Retirement" Frederick Chapman, whose mother, two brothers, and a sister died in the wreck, wrote as follows:

In December [1865] 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.[5]


The loss of the London 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.[6]

Notable deaths[edit]

Memorial to Arthur Corfe Angel in Exeter Cathedral


  1. ^ Jones, Nicolette (2013). The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea. London: Hachette UK. p. 7. ISBN 9781405530439.
  2. ^ Stead, William Thomas (1900). Hymns that have Helped. New York: Doubleday & McClure Co. p. 141.
  3. ^ "Shipwrecks on the Australia - UK Run". Encyclopedia of Australian Shipwrecks and Other Maritime Incidents. Oceans Enterprises. 2006.
  4. ^ McGonagall, William. "The Wreck of the Steamer 'London' while on her way to Australia".
  5. ^ Chapman, Frederick (1962). Mackaness, George (ed.). Governor Phillip in Retirement. Dubbo NSW: Review Publications Pty Ltd.
  6. ^ Jones, Nicolette (2007). The Plimsoll Sensation: The great campaign to save lives at sea. London: Abacus. ISBN 978-0349117201.
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ Jobson, F.J. (1866). The shipwrecked minister and his drowning charge. London.
  9. ^ [2]

Further reading[edit]