On November 22, 1873 the passenger ship Ville du Havre was rammed by the iron clipper Loch Earn in the
North Atlantic about 680 miles northwest of the Azores. The Ville du Havre was built in London in 1865 as the
Napoleon III for the French Line she was 365' long and was registered at 3,376 tons. She was a iron hull
sidewheeler which could carry 320 passengers and was used on the Havre-Brest-New York route.
However the ship used more fuel than anticipated and her cargo capacity was not enough to make her a
profitable vessel. The ship made only five trans-Atlantic voyages between 1866 and 1868 and was then
removed from service and laid up at Havre.
In Sept. 1871 she sailed from France to the shipyard of A. Leslie & Company in England for a rebuild. Over the
next year her length was increased to 421' (some sources say 430') and her gross tons were increased to
3,950 giving her more cargo capacity. The most important change was her propulsion, her paddles were
removed and a single propeller was fitted powered by new compound engines by Maudsley, Son & Field of
London. A third mast was added and she was renamed Ville du Havre.
The new ship, the second largest ship on the Atlantic, the 679' Great Eastern being the largest of her time,
set sail on her maiden voyage under her new name on Mar. 29, 1873 for New York. It is unclear how
many trans-Atlantic trips she between March and November, but she began her last return voyage from New
York on Nov. 15, 1873.
She had on board 313 people (176 passengers and 137 crew) and a large cargo, said to be the largest ever
carried by a ship of the French Line. This included 1,600 bails of cotton, 30,877 bushels of wheat, 280 tierces
of lard, 51 casks of jeweler's ashes, 1,393 bundles of hides and various other smaller shipments of general
At about midnight on Nov. 22, 1873 after five days of heavy fog Capt. Marino Surmont, who is said to have
been on duty the whole time, turned over the helm to the second officer and went to bed. The night is said
to have been "bright and starlight" and the sea was reported as "heavy". Two hours later the bow of the Loch
Earn crashed the Ville du Havre amidships causing a 30' hole in her side.
Capt. William Robertson of the Loch Earn stated that when he first saw the Ville du Havre he realized the two
ships were on a collision course and he took appropriate actions including sounding a warning with the ship's
bell and porting his helm. He also stated that the Ville du Havre turned to starboard causing the ship to cross
the bow of the Loch Earn and causing the collision.
The Ville du Havre began to sink by the bow and in only 12 minutes she would slide under the waves, in those
12 minuets panic and horror ruled on the sinking ship. Passengers, terrified, became paralyzed by fear and it
is said many made no attempt to save themselves. Some that made it off in a lifeboat did not make it far from
the ship when the mizenmast fell over the side crushing the boat killing most and injuring the rest. The
mainmast fell on the deck killing even more people.
The first reports published accused the captain and crew of the Ville du Havre of cowardice making no
attempt to rescue the passengers in their charge, the newspapers ran several stories with these charges, it appears that these charges were false. When the captain of the Loch Earn made it ashore he stated that the accusations made against the captain and crew of the Ville du Havre were unwarranted and exaggerated. It is believed that capt. Surmont did all he could to save his passengers and he did not leave the ship until the last minute. There is no doubt that there was a great panic and this, as it always does, caused more deaths to occur.
Boats from both ships rescued people in the water, the last being picked up two hours later. The disaster cost
the lives of two hundred and twenty-six people (115 passengers and 11 crew) the survivors were taken
aboard the Loch Earn until the American ship Trimountain came upon the Loch Earn the next morning. They were all taken aboard the Trimountain and dropped off in Cardiff, Wales.
The Loch Earn continued on her voyage to New York, but the damage caused in the collision was greater than
first thought. She was finally abandoned on Nov. 28, all 30 of her crew were picked up by the British Queen.
© 2007 Michael W. Pocock