Torrens (clipper ship)

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Torrens (ship, 1875) - NMM P6434.jpg
United Kingdom
Name: Torrens
Owner: H. R. Angel
Operator: Elder, Smith and Co.
Builder: James Laing, Sunderland
Cost: £27,257
Launched: 1875
Out of service: 1906
Fate: Broken up in Genoa, 1910
General characteristics
Tons burthen: 1276 tons
Length: 222 ft (68 m)
Beam: 38 ft (12 m)
Draught: 21 ft 6 in (6.55 m)
Sail plan: Clipper
Notes: Passenger ship; 1st and 2nd class cabins only

Torrens (1875 – 1910) was a clipper designed to carry passengers and cargo between London and Port Adelaide, South Australia. She was the fastest ship to sail on that route, and the last sailing ship on which Joseph Conrad would serve before embarking on his writing career.

Ship history[edit]

She was built by James Laing of Sunderland,[1] largely to the specifications of Captain Henry Robert Angel (1829 – June 1923). She was jointly owned by Captain H.R. Angel and the Elder Line, but Captain Angel was her principal owner. She was of composite construction (i.e. steel-framed) with teak planking; 222 feet (68 m) long, a beam of 38 feet (12 m) and depth 21.5 feet (6.6 m), registered as 1,276 long tons (1,296 t). She was "heavily sparred and carried a main sky sail yard, and for many years she was the only vessel with studding sail booms running in the Australian trade".[2] The Captain's elder daughter, (Emily) Flores Angel (1856–1948), performed the traditional breaking of the bottle at the launching ceremony.

It is likely that the vessel was named in honour of Colonel Robert Torrens, a principal exponent of the economic benefits of nineteenth-century colonial trade.


The Torrens was clearly aimed at the upper end of the market – accommodation was first and second class passengers only. Apart from the crew, she carried "a surgeon, a stewardess and a good cow".[3] The outward journey to Adelaide was via the Cape of Good Hope; Captain H. R. Angel customarily entered Port Adelaide via the Backstairs Passage rather than through Investigator Strait, and on the return voyage she stopped at Cape Town and St. Helena and Ascension.

She carried any number of notable passengers, but one in particular deserves a mention: Rev. C. W. Evan, first minister of Stow Memorial Church, died on board 22 August 1876, just as she was nearing London. His wife had recently died, he was in poor health and returning to England in the hopes of a recovery.

Her first 15 years[edit]

She was managed by Elder, Smith & Co. and skippered by Capt. H. R. Angel who, as Commodore of the fleet, flew a version of the company flag with a red crescent and two stars on a white field rather than white on red. Captain Angel had previously commanded the Glen Osmond and the Collingrove on the same route for Elders. His time with the Torrens was a remarkably happy one: fifteen voyages to Adelaide without serious incident; her fastest time from Plymouth to Port Adelaide was 65 days and the slowest 85, with an average of 74 – far better than any other ship of the period.[1]

Later years[edit]

The Torrens, showing damage after hitting an iceberg

In 1890 Captain Angel decided to retire from active sea life and handed her command to Captain W. H. Cope. From this moment, the ship's fortune changed. She lost her foremast and main topmast in 1891, and while being refitting in Pernambuco a fire broke out on board. Henry Robert Angel's son, Captain Falkland Angel took her command over in 1896. On the evening of 11 January 1899 she struck an iceberg some 40 km south west of the Crozet Islands and limped into Adelaide dismasted, with her bow stoved in.[2] Neither Captain Cope nor Captain Falkland Angel achieved shorter voyages than Captain H. R. Angel's average of 74 days.[1]

The figurehead[edit]

When the Torrens hit the iceberg and lost her foretopmast, jib-boom and bowsprit, she also lost her figurehead, modelled on Captain Angel's daughter, Flores, and carved by Joseph Melvin.[4] In 1973, two ANARE expeditioners discovered a headless figurehead at Sellick Bay, on the mid-west coast of Macquarie Island. There has been some speculation that this damaged figurehead of a woman may have belonged to the Torrens. Although Macquarie Island is a considerable distance from the site of the collision at the Crozets, it is conceivable that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current could have carried it that distance, or that the figurehead even made two or more circumflotations of Antarctica.[5]

Literary connections[edit]

Joseph Conrad was Chief Officer of the Torrens from November 1891 to June 1893[6] under Captain Cope.[7] It was on one of his two outward voyages to Australia that he showed one W. H. Jacques the draft manuscript of his first novel, Almayer's Folly. In March 1893, on the return Port Adelaide-to-Cape Town leg, Conrad struck up a friendship with Edward Lancelot Sanderson and the future Nobel literary laureate John Galsworthy. Galsworthy had sailed to the antipodes[8][9] with the intention of meeting Robert Louis Stevenson, but by chance met Conrad instead![10]

Conrad wrote of the Torrens:[11][12][13]

"A ship of brilliant qualities – the way the ship had of letting big seas slip under her did one's heart good to watch. It resembled so much an exhibition of intelligent grace and unerring skill that it could fascinate even the least seamanlike of our passengers."

(Although it is generally accepted that the Torrens was Conrad's last ship, he did serve for a few weeks in 1893–1894 on the Adowa as second mate.)


In 1906 the Torrens was sold for £1,500 (she cost £27,257 to build)[14] to an Italian shipping line, but after running her ashore, she was sent to the shipbreakers. They were however so taken by her aesthetic appearance that they refused to break her up, and repaired her instead. But it was not long before she again ran aground. She was finally broken up at Genoa in 1910.[15]

After retiring from active sea life, Captain H.R. Angel set up a factory for smelting ores in Stratford, London. He retired to South Devon and was to live to 93, dying in Las Palmas after injuring himself in a fall on board the Highland Piper. The steamer was taking him to his favourite holiday spot. According to one story, the ship had struck heavy weather and he had refused to go below decks. His eldest son, Captain Falkland Angel was able to be at his bedside before he died, probably of pneumonia.[2]

H. R. Angel's brother, Richard Angel, was also a sea captain of some note, commanding the Verulam and Beltana. Although clearly a strong captain and capable seaman, he was intemperate in habits, and was suspended for two years after he ran the Beltana aground on Kangaroo Island in 1871, failed to report the damage, and falsified the log. He later found work as mate of the Tongoy, whose captain was murdered at Semaphore.[16]

In art and commerce[edit]

  • A Polish postage stamp issued in 1957 depicted Joseph Conrad and the Torrens.
  • A. Simpson and Company produced a brass fire-screen depicting the Torrens under sail.
  • The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia holds an oil painting On the Deck of the Ship Torrens by Jack L. Gray.
  • Montague Dawson made a painting of the Torrens at sea.
  • A large scale model of the Torrens is on display in the Sunderland Art Gallery and Museum, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, U.K. which is where it was built.
  • The Captain Cook Bicentennial "Sea Festival Dollar" issued by British Columbia in 1978 has a depiction of the Clipper Torrens on the reverse.
  • The Torrens is referenced in the video game Alien: Isolation as the name of the spacecraft on which the story begins, in keeping with the tradition of the naming of the Narcissus and Sulaco from the Alien films, themselves named after subjects of Conrad's life and works.

Some other clippers on the England to South Australia run[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Lubbock, Basil The Colonial Clippers Kessinger Books, New York 1991 ISBN 1-4179-6416-2 pp.157–162;
    Lubbock, Basil (1921) The Colonial Clippers 34 MB PDF
  2. ^ a b c "A Fine Old Clipper Ship". The Advertiser. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 15 June 1923. p. 11. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
  3. ^ "Advertising". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 15 February 1893. p. 1. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
  4. ^ "The clipper ship Torrens". Sunderland Echo. 16 April 2008. Retrieved 26 June 2012.
  5. ^ Roberts, Glyn. "Captain Angel's Daughter?" (PDF). The Shipwreck Watch. 14.
  6. ^ "Joseph Conrad: A Chronology of His Life and Work (1857-1924)". 10 December 2000. Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  7. ^ "Sailing Ships: Torrens (1875)" (in Swedish). 25 April 1997. Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  8. ^ "Arrivals December 31 (Oruba)". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 2 January 1893. p. 4. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
  9. ^ "Clearances January 5 (Birksgate)". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 6 January 1893. p. 4. Retrieved 9 February 2012.
  10. ^ "VQR » Joseph Conrad: Ten Years After". Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  11. ^ J. W. Smith, T. S. Holden, Where ships are born: Sunderland 1346–1946, 1946, p. 14.
  12. ^ The Conradian: the journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (UK), Volumes 32–33, The Society, 2007, p. 134.
  13. ^ "The clipper ship Torrens". Sunderland Echo. 16 April 2008. Retrieved 30 December 2011.
  14. ^ "Out Among the People". The Advertiser. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 17 September 1946. p. 8. Retrieved 8 February 2012.
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Notes and Queries". The Register. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 28 June 1927. p. 13. Retrieved 10 February 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bowden-Smith, Edward Cyril Land Ho! The Last of Her Race and The Convoy Simpkin Marshall Ltd, London 1931.
(The Convoy tells of the author's experiences at sea during World War I; Land Ho! ... is devoted to the Torrens)
facsimile edition by Kessinger Books, New York 1991 ISBN 1-4179-6416-2