Who knew that months of agony was in store when the SS Hibernia sailed from New York on Nov. 14, 1868?
The answer of course is no one, but this is exactly what happened, not just physical agony but emotional
torture as well. Built in 1865 by Alexander Stephen and Sons of Glasgow for the Anchor Line of the same city,
the Hibernia was a 278' long iron hull, single screw passenger-cargo ship which carried three masts and was
fully rigged for sail. This was the case for all ships of that day for if there was a malfunction of the engines they could still sail to their destination safely. However engine trouble was not the only danger to the early screw steamers, another weakness was in the propeller shaft and it was not uncommon for the shaft to break in mid ocean.
When Hibernia left New York bound for Glasgow she had a crew of 59 and 74 passengers (some later reports
put the number of passengers at 83), the sea was reported to have been rough, but it smoothed out shortly
thereafter. That was until Nov. 23 when they ran into a gale, this caused much extra stress on the propulsion
system of the ship and at 2 a.m. on Nov. 24, 1868 about 700 miles west of Ireland, the propeller shaft broke
and water began to enter the ship. The noise was so loud that it woke those who were lucky enough to be
sleeping, those who were not came on deck to inquire about the problem. At first captain Robert D. Munro told the passengers "there was no danger and all would be put right" and so, believing the captain was correct, they went back to their cabins and attempted to sleep.
Their fears were reinforced the following morning when captain Munro was not at breakfast. He soon appeared and calmly told the passengers to prepare themselves in the event they would have to take to the lifeboats, which he felt was a definite possibility. The crew began to prepare the lifeboats around 8 a.m., adding water and food provisions, checking the sails and going over everything they would need if these small boats would become their home for a few days.
As the storm worsened the pumps could not keep up with the volume of water coming into the ship and Munro began preparing to abandon her. At 4 p.m. they began to lower the boats, which under such conditions was extremely difficult, however all six boats were launched with only one being damaged. At 5:20 p.m. they began to put the women and children into the boats, while difficult this was done successfully without a single loss of life. Even as water entered the saloon the passengers and crew remained calm, there was no panic as happens all to often in such situations. Captain Munro and Chief Engineer Brown were the last people to leave the ship, which sank shortly thereafter.
Soon after Hibernia slipped below the waves the first tragedy occurred, the 1st Officer's boat capsized when
a gust of wind caught the sail he had hoisted, because of the heavy seas and the fact that all the boats were
basically overloaded, none could come to the aid of the people in the water and all were lost. (As many as 33
people had been in the lifeboat.)
As the storm did not let up, water had to constantly be baled out of the lifeboats, capt. Munro feared his boat would founder if it was not lightened, his was the boat damaged when it was launched. Another boat came alongside and removed two of the people from the captain's boat, easing some of his fears, however they were far from out of danger. The storm prevented the boats from remaining together and they were scattered about the North Atlantic leaving each boat to care for themselves.
For capt. Munro and the people in his boat their ordeal was thankfully short for at about 7:30 p.m. the sailing ship Star of Hope happened along and plucked them from the sea. Her captain, Talbot, began to search for the other boats and sometime after 10 p.m. they found another boat and rescued them. Talbot continued to search into the next day, but found none of the other boats, he reluctantly left the area and headed for Leith arriving Dec. 10.
The survivors were treated so well that they presented captain Talbot with the following address;
"Dear Sir,-As we, the undersigned, are about to take leave of you, we take this opportunity of expressing to you our warmest thanks for the merciful and kindly manner in which you have acted to us while partaking of your hospitality on board of the Star of Hope, and also for the humanity you displayed in searching after the remaining boats, and in rescuing us, through Divine Providence, from a watery grave.
Feel assured, Sir, that, although we may be soon separated from you, far and wide, in tins transient world, still the recollection of your noble and generous conduct will remain deeply impressed upon our hearts, and we trust it will be our Constant care to present our aspirations to Almighty God for your future welfare.
To your officers and crew we feel much indebted for their extreme attention, and we beg to return them our most sincere thanks In conclusion, permit us to reiterate our grateful thanks for your kindness, and we beg to inform you that this humble address is only meant as an expression of our feelings for the present, and that a more substantial token of our esteem will be given you as soon as we have arrived at our various destinations."
The boat that 2nd Officer William Davies was in charge of had a far more terrible ordeal. There were twenty eight people in his boat, including six or seven women and an infant. His boat was so full they did not even have enough room to use the oars properly, and for this reason they fell behind the others. Quartermaster Peter Blair reported that the boat had several leaks which required at least two people to bale her out just to keep her from sinking. He also reported seeing one of the other lifeboats capsize (it is unclear if this was the same boat the captain saw capsize, but it is likely that it was). He stated;
"After being sometime on the water we saw the mate's boat making sail, and we were going to make sail too,
but were immediately afterwards attracted by cries of help from the mate's boat. He was standing up in the
boat with his hands up, imploring us to come to his assistance. We rounded as best we could, to see if we
could render any help to him and his boat, but found we could not, as it was as much as we could do to keep our own boat afloat.
While we were rounding we saw his boat capsize, and all were thrown into the sea. I am of opinion that at
that time the third mate's boat, which is reported as still missing, went to the assistance of the mate's boat,
and that some of those unfortunate persons who were struggling in the sea got hold of it, and were lifted in; and, therefore my firm belief is that boat was also swamped by the heavy load she had on board. I cannot, however, speak positively of this, as we were not in a position to ascertain exactly."
The following is Blair's personal account of what happened on the boat.
"We soon parted company with the other boats and put out an improvised floating anchor, consisting of two oars and a tarpaulin lashed together, and lay to all that night. The next morning we made sail, and proceeded to steer ESE, that being the direction of the Irish coast. We nailed canvas around the bulwarks of our boat in order to keep out the sea, and we laid a tarpaulin over the bow to protect the women and children as much as possible. For this they seemed very grateful, but did not want any food during the whole of that day, their anxiety being too great.
On Thursday, through the day, a passenger who had become somewhat deranged jumped overboard. He had
one boot on and the other off, and he told us he was going into his bed to look after the missing boot. That
night we had a strong breeze, and I am sure we went at the rate of nine knots an hour in the direction of the land. This inspired us with hope, and every one became more buoyant; but the next morning was a calm, and
all that day we had to work our two oars, and only went at the rate of about two knots an hour. This again depressed several of our male passengers.
That morning (Friday) Francis Rodgers, supposed to be a schoolmaster, who had frequently previously exhibited signs of raving madness, jumped clean out of the boat and was drowned. His disposition had been for some hours of a most quarrelsome nature, and he begged of us to mend the holes in his trousers, saying that he could not go home with them in that state. No tongue can tell what our position was as day by day rolled on. We shifted for ourselves as we were able, and all did their beast to assist each other.
I was occasionally called upon to spin a good yarn to the party, and I did my utmost. One old Irish woman was indefatigable in her efforts to keep up the spirits of all on board. She would get the women into a line of conversation, and by her drolleries would cause them to laugh heartily. We told her that she ought to wear the 'breeks' if ever she got ashore, and she replied that she was determined to do so.
We had on board two bottles of gin and one of wine, and we gave the women and children the gin to drink,
and the bottle of wine was stolen by some one after we left the Hibernia. After the water became so scarce some of the men took to drinking the salt water, and notwithstanding all our endeavours to dissuade them from such a practice, they continued to do so. This soon told on them, and they became raving mad.
On Wednesday a passenger named Samuel Brewster, an old man, died from exhaustion, after having become raving mad. In fact by this time deliriousness was apparent in a great many of the passengers and crew, and it was as much as we could possibly do to exercise control over them, in some cases force having to be resorted to. Walter MacFarlane, a fireman, was one of those who was continually drinking the salt water, and he became so very obstreperous, that we had to secure him to a portion of the boat, in which position he died.
On Friday morning we calculated that we had sailed upwards of 450 miles. It came on to blow again that day. In the earlier part of the day the poor little infant succumbed to the deprivations it had suffered, and our hearts were heavy indeed. As night came upon us that day a woman died. We did not, however, become cognisant of the fact till some time afterwards. A little before 11 o'clock that night a high wind arose, and we had our sail up at the time. The sea was very heavy, and all our passengers that remained were completely exhausted. Several of them lay down to sleep a little, and I was dozing at the time. Several of the others afterwards appeared to be sleeping on their hands, when a wave struck us, and caused a number of persons to fall to the leeside of the boat.
Then followed the most unhappy of all our occurrences, for at a moment's notice the boat was capsized and all of us thrown into the sea. We struggled in the water for a short time, and the cries of some of our number were most pitiful. I saw John Reilly (Able Seaman) get on to the keel of the boat as she lay bottom up and I immediately endeavoured to do the same. Reilly saw me and assisted me to get up, but one of the stewards had hold of the leg of my trouser. I said to Reilly, "Is that you, John?" and he replied in the affirmative, and at the same time I shook myself free of the person who had hold of my trousers, and was assisted by Reilly to get on to the keel of the boat. In a moment or two afterwards Davies rose to the surface of the water, and shouted for help. Some one likewise had hold of his leg, and it was with difficulty that he was able to float. Reilly caught him, and also pulled him to the keel of the boat.
Then I saw Wm. Mack, a seaman, swimming towards the boat and for a long time he kept above water. I would have assisted him if it had been in my power, as would also Davies and Reilly, but we could not. MacLean, a fireman, had hold of Mack. At that time we heard another fireman swearing most fearfully. He appeared to be raving mad. We three had remained on the keel of the boat for about 20 minutes, when we heard a voice cry from below it, 'Hallo' We answered, but could not by any possible means render assistance to the person, as the waves were breaking over us at the time, and it took us all our time to hold on.
We had been on the keel for about an hour, when we were again washed off by an immense wave. We were not, however, washed far away, and I managed to get on the keel again. Reilly then came up arm and arm with Davies, and I assisted them both up to the side of me. No one but ourselves can conjecture, I am sure, the awful position in which we were then placed; but notwithstanding that our feelings were of the most agonizing nature, our hopes were still buoyant, for we felt confident that every sea would right the lifeboat.
As the sea came on we let ourselves down to the side of the boat to assist it to right, but it refused to do so. About 4 o'clock in the morning after having been in that position for about four hours, the boat righted itself. Our feelings while we were on the bottom of the boat were awful, and Davies said that about half an hour would do for him; but Reilly told him to cheer up, for where there was life there was hope.
However, we all felt that we could not exist long if the boat did not right itself. I had hold of a portion of the rigging, and was first to get into the boat again. Davies and Reilly hung on to the sides of the boat, and I assisted them in. Our mast and sail were still left to us, but our boat was full of water. We saw floating by the side two pieces of wood, which we succeeded in getting and with these we baled a quantity of the water out. Still we were taking in water, and our progress was very slow.
Notwithstanding we had had no food from the time the boat upset, we did not feel very hungry, but were dreadfully thirsty. Our anxiety was great, when it came on to rain very heavily during the night. The thought struck me then to tie my handkerchief to the boat, so that it might get soaked with the rain, which it did, and I occasionally sucked it, and my throat was relieved a little. Davies and Reilly spread their oilskin coats out to catch the rain, and caught a quantity of water, which they drank. The mate also wiped the sides and seats of the boat with his handkerchief, and licked it. This was the first water we had tasted since the capsizing of the boat on the Friday evening previously, and during the interval we had suffered such agonies from thirst as reduced us to the extremity of drinking our own urine.
After the rain our spirits grew better, and we felt quite strong again, and confident that we would get ashore in the morning. Early in the morning we again set sail, and steered by turns. We made for the land as fast as we could, remarking that we would beach the boat at the first place that was suitable. We looked at every point, and at last saw a nice sandy spot. No time was lost in making for it. A number of people had observed us by this time, and they hailed us to make in at another point, but we kept on our way to the sandy spot, determined to ran her up as high and dry as possible.
In this we succeeded, for a wave landed us well on the beach. The second mate and myself jumped out of the boat first, and it was not till then we discovered our weak state and inability to walk. The people kindly assisted us to a house, and so anxious were they to supply our every want and pay us every attention, that they placed us before a huge peet fire, which had the effect of causing our legs, arms, and hands to swell immensely, and gave rise to sufferings perhaps more intense than anything I experienced during the whole of the 12 days spent. in the boat"
As we know at least one of the other three lifeboats capsized, what happened to the other two is unknown. Only the 51 picked up by the Star of Hope and the three who made it to Donegal survived, the other 79 persons perished.
With the Atlantic cable laid in 1866, news of the loss of the Hibernia came fast, however wireless had not yet
been invented so any new information came from ships that had made port and filed reports to local officials.
The news of the loss of Hibernia was not learned until Dec. 8 and it took several more days to sort out the
details of who had survived. For the families of those on board this was agony, and it would be fueled by a
strange turn of events.
On Jan. 11, 1869 newspapers began to report that 39 more survivors had been heard of and were due to be landed soon. The report came from a captain Gyles of the brig Hannibal when he arrived in Liverpool, however there seemed to be two versions of the story. The communication between vessels was hindered by a storm and it is clear that Gyles did not understand what the captain of the America was telling him.
In one version it was reported that he had come in contact with the bark America, a German owned vessel, and was told by the captain that he had on board 39 survivors from the Hibernia bound for Quebec. This was a detail which was odd as the SS Hibernia was bound for New York, nevertheless he went on to say that the America did not have enough provisions for all on board and asked Gyles to take some of them off his ship. Gyles could not take them all and offered to take less than half, this was not accepted by the survivors and they decided to continue on in America.
The details of a second report differed only in the name of the ship Gyles was in contact with, this one was named Ocean Spray, and her destination was New York. The number of survivors was the same and it was thought she would land them at Maderia. This gave hope to the families, hope that their loved one would be on that ship, what ever the name.
Their prolonged agony would continue until late January when the details became clear, believe it or not there was a second Hibernia lost in the Atlantic! This Hibernia was a Canadian sailing vessel which departed Quebec on Nov. 10 bound for Queenstown, Ireland. She ran afoul of the same storm that sank the SS Hibernia and became dismasted. Fortunately her crew was removed by the sailing vessel Cuthbert, however that ship became waterlogged and was abandoned on Dec. 25, both crews, all 39 men, being removed by the America.
However with the problem of provisions being low they were landed in the Azores on Jan. 2 and America sailed for New York arriving on Feb. 5, 1869, but by then capt. Williams of the Hibernia had made his way to the UK and told his story. It is unknown how Gyles got the details mixed up, but trying to communicate in a storm, and with the SS Hibernia being in the news so much recently it is easy to understand how the mix up occurred.
© 2008 Michael W. Pocock