LOOK BACK: Southampton steamer sank but no lives were lost

TOO late came the call.

“There’s something on the starboard bow,” the lookout shouted.

But his call was not immediately heard and Captain Lainson asked him to repeat it.

When he did, Lainson knew what the “something” was – the warning beacon on a treacherous rock. He had missed the guiding harbour light and the Caledonia was off course.

“Half speed,” he yelled to his engine room.

But almost at once the Southampton steamer smashed into the notorious Oyster Rock off Jersey and began filling with water.

Every crewman acted in the finest traditions of the merchant service. With rigid discipline, they ensured lifeboats were first filled with women passengers and no life was lost.

Lainson was universally acknowledged as the last to abandon ship, jumping over the rear of the ferry as she gracelessly sank, and letter after letter of praise were delivered to the local press in tribute.

“Will you kindly insert in your early issue the sincere thanks of the undersigning to the captain and crew of the SS Caldeonia for the coolness and bravery they displayed after the ship struck this morning in the few moments which were available to save the lives of their passengers by means of their own boats, and to the crew for the promptitude they showed in carrying out their strict orders of the captain who was the last to leave the ship,” wrote one passenger on behalf of nine others.

“Not knowing the addresses of the other passengers, we feel it our duty to send what is enclosed.”

Guernsey resident Mrs Webster also lauded Captain Lainson.

“From the moment we left Southampton during the retention by the fog in Southampton Water, and also of Sark. Considering the dangerous character of the whole journey, in weather so dense, I have to record his skill and caution were unvarying, and I have rarely had the pleasure of travelling with a captain at once so equal to his duties and so considerate to his passengers.”

A T Hoskins was just as fulsome, describing how calm and collected the crew were in ensuring all the passengers were safely escorted in lifeboats.

But he also gave an insight into the sinking, describing how a roman candle had to be used to announce their approach to the harbour because the usual rocket signals were ineffective through the damp.

“A short time afterwards a man on the lookout shouted ‘something on the starboard bow’. The captain, who was not on the bridge, not quite catching what was said, the man again called out ‘something on the starboard bow’. The vessel then struck on a rock with a terrible crash and the forepart immediately began to fill.

“All hands were were at once ordered to lower the boats, the first of which took the ladies and some of the other passengers, everyone being calm and collected and no consternation or confusion taking place.

“During this time Captain Lainson stood by the gangway, in order to see the female passengers were first placed in the boats. The vessel began to keel over and sank just after the last boat had left. The captain was the last to leave, saving himself by jumping over the starboard side of the stern into the sea and being picked up by a fishing boat.”

Hero to the passengers without question – but not in the eyes of the Board of Trade who deemed him responsible for the sinking of the ship which had left Southampton on February 18, 1881, with a crew of 23 hands, a general cargo and mail as well as 18 passengers for Guernsey and Jersey.

But she was to founder at a notorious site for shipwrecks close to St Helier.

Built five years earlier, the 355 ton screw steamer, originally known as the Hogarth and owned by the London and South West Railway Company, was in fine condition – unlike those she soon encountered in the Southampton Water where she ran into fog. Once that had cleared, she made good progress to reach Sark and then Guernsey where she remained overnight because of the tide.

The weather was again fine when she left for Jersey but once more she was enveloped by fog.

Sadly as she approached St Helier, she struck Oyster Rock opposite Elizabeth Castle and water surged in. Lifeboats had scarcely pulled away when she slipped off the rocks and sank.

At high water only parts of the mast and funnel could be seen but as news of the disaster spread, hundreds converged on the best vantage spots and as the tide fell, they could take in the upper part of the hull and watched a diver go down to secure the mail and assorted luggage.

The following day, the owner’s Southampton-based marine superintendent arrived at the scene in company with several other divers to recover remaining cargo and endeavour to raise the stricken vessel which had 30 feet of her bottom torn away and her boilers ripped out of place.

In time, that proved impossible.

Her demise led to speculation about the Caledonia’s speed in the circumstances and leaders in the press about the railway company lack of equipping their ships with water tight compartments, focusing much of the attention on the fact that the Southampton-Jersey run was known to be dangerous, and they had lost four ships in the previous 10 years.

On March 31, the Board of trade conducted an inquiry into the loss of the Caledonia. It was chaired by H C Rothery, the Wreck Commissioner, who was assisted by Captain Anderson and Captain Comyn as assessors.

They heard how Lainson opted because of the tide to bring the ship into port via the western channel. On nearing the harbour, the white light at the end of Victoria Pier was seen about 3/4 of a point to point on the port bow but as the breakwater came into view, he feared she was too far on his port bow and ordered the helm to be starboarded, then hard-starboarded and then steadied.

But throughout the Caledonia was fatally kept at full speed.

It was only just after the helm had been steadied that the lookout alerted the danger.

Lainson told the court he had entered the port St Helier 170 times, using the western entrance whenever the tide allowed him to do so and at no time had he never seen the upper red light as to get a good lead into the harbour The evidence complete, the tribunal were faced with eight questions which principally surrounded her speed and course. But the panel also had to inquire about the standard of the harbour lighting and whether Oyster Rock was sufficiently marked.

The court was strongly influenced by Captain Allix, the local pilot and master-mariner with considerable experience of the waters, who told them when it was half-flood and a vessel was on her correct course, the tide would safely take a ship into harbour.

Though they recommended a series of safety measures for St Helier, they chiefly concluded the Caledonia’s loss was down to Lainson allowing his ship to get southward of her proper position when nearing the harbour entrance and attempting to pass between Oyster Rock and the breakwater at full speed before he had seen the upper red light.

In mitigation, his lawyer submitted Lainson had been guilty of an error of judgement, and not of negligence or default.

But Rothery firmly rejected it.

“We should be very glad if we came to that conclusion but to attempt to drive a steamer with mail and passengers on board at full speed through a narrow and dangerous channel, without having first obtained his bearings, appears to us to amount not only to error of judgement but reckless and negligent navigation.”

But they took into consideration the care he had shown throughout the journey which had taken hours longer than it should because of the conditions and the lack of confusion when the Caledonia had been grounded was due to the “admirable discipline” on board.

They accordingly suspended his master’s certificate for three months but recommended that throughout that period he should be allowed to retain a first mate’s certificate.