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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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Four Years Before the Titanic - there was the St Cuthbert
I seem to be in a transcribing family papers mood, and what with all the talk of the Titanic, it's about time I turned to to my grandfather's account of the destruction in February 1908 of the St Cuthbert, on which he served as Fourth Officer. As far as I know, no other account of this disaster has ever been published, beyond the newspaper reports at the time.

My mother's father was no man of letters, and this account is written in a fairly plain style, but the events it relates are more than dramatic enough to compensate. He wrote it in the 1930s, some twenty plus years after the event, at a time when he was bankrupt and thought that the story might be saleable, but seems never to have found a publisher. Then, in the 1970s my mother revived the publication idea, and the young Steepholm typed out the manuscript for her (by far my grandest typing accomplishment at that date). But she didn't pursue it either, and in those days there was no Lulu.com to make self-publishing a viable option.

So, here it is - "The Destruction of the St Cuthbert". I'll do it in four parts, to save my fingers, over the coming days. The really dramatic action doesn't start till part 3, but I think the first two parts are interesting too, at least if you want to know about life on an Atlantic cargo ship in the early years of the last century. It's about as far from the gleaming Titanic as you can get.

By the way, between my grandfather's not-entirely-legible handwriting and my own poor teenage typing, I'm sure there are some mistakes here (and in the parts to come), especially when it comes to proper names and nautical jargon. Any suggested corrections are welcome. For example, I can't find any mention of the Cape de Neige Islands through Google...



During the winter of 1908, I was at home on leave after serving three and a half years as an apprentice on the SS Saint Jerome. At that time I was 19 years old.

Nothing very exciting had happened during the time I had served. The ship was running from England and the continent to South America and we usually picked up our homeward fresh water supply in the River Plate off the Chico Bank. This was supposed to be very good water but one voyage we had a bad lot and most of the crew were ill, and before we arrived at the Cape de Neige Islands many had died. However, I came through with nothing more than a bad stomach ache. After that the ship developed bunker fires. This was caused by loading combustible coal at one of the coaling islands, probably a mixture they wanted to get rid of and which was sold as South Wales Coal.

When the engineers found that the coal at the bottom was actually smouldering everything was battened down and holes bored in the bulkhead to inject steam and water. The deck got hot, but the ship was brought safely to port where all the coal was removed, damage repaired, and fresh bunker coal shipped. We thought our troubles were at an end, but no, another bunker fire started when we were on a voyage from Caleta Buena, with saltpetre. The fire itself wasn’t so bad, but the fact of having a saltpetre cargo alongside of it made it more serious for the older hands, but it didn’t trouble me much as saltpetre looks too wet to burn, so I didn’t worry when the sailors told me some of the terrible fires that happened to these ships from the Chilean coast. Anyway, they had pulled my leg before, so I pretended to believe for discipline’s sake, and the ship arrived in England with her cargo, and I came to the conclusion that a fire at sea made more work, but wasn’t dangerous.

I had nearly finished my apprenticeship, and the Company appointed me as Fourth Officer of the St Cuthbert (of course on apprentice’s wages). “Never mind the money,” I could say, “I am going as Fourth Officer”, and my friends and relations wouldn’t half be proud of me. The Saint Cuthbert and Saint Andrew were the two biggest ships in the Company. They both ran from Antwerp to New York and were known as the two cattleships. Of course they carried general cargo in their lower holds, and their main decks and upper deck had cattle fittings. They usually took horses to New York and cattle to Antwerp.

When I reported to the Chief Officer of the St Cuthbert he said “Report to the Captain and then come back to me.” Now the Captain had one of the toughest names in the Company and I didn’t relish the interview. When he went ashore he dressed like a parson all in black with an open umbrella, and I believe this same umbrella saved his life once when a fireman attacked with a knife.

I knocked at the door and a voice said “Come in.” I said, “My name is Bowman Sir, and I have been sent to serve under you.”

“Oh yes. What ships have you served in, Bowman?”

When I told him he looked thoughtful and remarked, “Not Western Ocean ships – just a fine weather sailor. You will find that every man aboard this ship has to work except me. And what’s this letter of introduction call you Fourth Officer for? Have you got a certificate?” “No Sir, I haven’t finished my apprenticeship.” “Well what do the office think I am, sending me an apprentice and calling him an officer?” Then quieter he said, “But that isn’t your fault. Can you signal by semaphore and morse?” Previously to going to sea I had served a short time in the Yeomanry as a signaller, and had kept it up on the Saint Jerome and so could truthfully say “Yes, Sir.” He jumped up and told me to read his signal, which was “John Lewis”, his name. I could tell after the first two letters what was coming, but waited until he had finished. He seemed delighted. His name was his usual test and I think he was rather proud of it. I left him feeling that his name was painted worse than he really was. I went back to the Chief Officer (Mr Hobbs) and he put me on gangway duty with special instructions to look out for stowaways. These cattleships were being made use of by a lot of stowaways. I had good experience with them later when I served on the Saint Andrew as a proper officer. The ships usually had four working gangways in addition to the one I was told to watch and they usually loaded night and day, so it was impossible to stop them coming on board and mixing with the stevedores, and then when we carried horses they mixed with the horsemen. I have had a case where we found a stowaway the morning we arrived in New York after being a fortnight at sea.

I had been put on an important job and intended to do my best. We heard that we were not carrying horses this voyage, but were taking a large selection of birds, so this would make my task easier, but I was rather disappointed about the horses, because I hadn’t experienced carrying livestock before, but I found out later that it wasn’t the novelty one would expect.

Mr Hobbs explained the trouble about stowaways. If they got across to the other side, the ship had to pay for their keep on Ellis Island and then bring them back or pay their passage in addition to a fine, and our Company thought it negligence on our part so the Captain had it first and then passed it on. Should the stowaway have their American papers they were allowed to land, but one never knew, and Mr Hobbs emphasized about the Captain’s wrath, should any be found after the ship had cleared the river.

After being on gangway for four days I felt that I was getting along nicely, and was certain there weren’t any stowaways aboard. I went on duty at 8am the day before we were due to sail. The stevedores had just started loading when one came up the gangway and whispered, “You have got five stowaways aboard. I heard it settled in a saloon last night.”

I asked him where they were. He didn’t know, but was certain that they were on the ship. I felt very sick and thought it best to tell the Chief Officer. The way he got excited made me worse. Then he had me relieved of the gangway and told me to search the ship.

I intended to be very careful. We had about 8,000 tons of cargo in then and to search that along with the different store rooms and men’s quarters was going to be no easy job. I started with the men’s quarters and the forecastle head, also the fore peak which was through a manhole in the forecastle alleyway. I was certain that nobody was there. Then No.1 Hold: this was loaded mainly with compressed rags in large bales and fitted tightly as they do cotton. I walked all over these and I was sure it was impossible for anybody to secure themselves there. Then the main deck (which is below the upper deck) was loaded with large drums of fusel oil and benzine. No.2 Hold was similar except for a consignment of matches which were secured by themselves. It looked a nasty cargo. I had been used to straight cargoes up to then such as coal, grain, saltpetre, etc., but these big drums didn’t look very safe for a heavy sea. Still I had another immediate worry, the stowaways, so I went to No.3 Hold. This hold is called the crossbunker, and can be used on a long voyage to carry coal which is passed through a watertight door into the stokehole, or it can be used as a ballast tank, both bulkheads being watertight with a special hatch screwed down. I will have more to say later about this watertight compartment.

In the hold there were wicker baskets which seemed to be thrown in any way and were difficult to walk on. I didn’t know what was underneath. We were now abaft the bridge with no results. I examined the two after holds No.4 and No.5 and still nobody had shown any signs of life. I first of all went to the stevedore to ask him if he had heard anything different, but he still thought they were aboard. I reported to the Chief Officer and he sent the carpenter (who was an old hand in the ship) with me for a further search. The baskets looked the most likely thing to hide in so we started moving these and the carpenter thrashed them with a big stick using terrible language, but nothing bolted. He said, “We get these scares every voyage, but it is the ones we don’t hear of that get away with it.” So we gave it up and then I had to attend to the birds coming aboard. We had pheasants, partridge, pigeons, flamingos, and others I didn’t know their names.

The Cuthbert, I heard, had a very unlucky name, and I believe the previous Cuthbert was lost. When moving in dock during this voyage she had sunk a barge and drowned two men. An official said to me one day “This ship will go out and never come back.” One does meet these cheerful people, and he told it Brophy and myself. Brophy was an Irish boy from Waterford, and very supposititious. He was only seventeen years of age. Had been one voyage in the Cuthbert and had been homesick for a voyage, so he was practically new to the sea, and hated the amount he had had, but like most sailors found it hard to “swallow the anchor”. He shared my cabin and was an extremely nice shipmate. He was continually homesick, and I don’t think he was very strong. He told me that the sailors said that the ship was haunted, that ghosts flitted amongst the cattle fittings aft and he should look out when he went to read the log at midnight and 4am. She was an ugly brute – cattle fittings all over the upper deck as well as the main decks. I fell down many times myself through looking for this ghost instead of where I was going. They said it was hard to see, being the same colour as the fittings, which were whitewashed.

Next Time: Stowaways and Storms


My geography is appalling but could he possibly mean La Reunion, which has a volcano called Piton des Neiges?

I don't think that can be it, since Reunion is in the Indian Ocean, and he was coming from South America back to the UK. So I guess we're looking for somewhere on the South American coast, or in the Atlantic. (I'm not sure whether he'd have come through the Panama Canal or round the Horn, though, if he was coming from Chile.) EDIT: Apparently the Panama Canal didn't open until 1914, so I now have my answer to that, at least!

Edited at 2012-04-18 08:06 am (UTC)

My suspicion is that 'Neiges' is wrong. It's not typed on the manuscript, but has been added in my mother's handwriting, which probably means it's her best guess at a word I found illegible.

I'm sure they didn't use the Panama Canal, as they took on water in the River Plate, which is on the Atlantic seaboard. Mystery: Cape Verde, perhaps?

Yup - also the Panama Canal didn't open till six years later, as I've just discovered! Cape Verde is a possibility, certainly. I wish I still had the MS in front of me.

Brophy was an Irish boy from Waterford, and very supposititious

"Superstitious" perhaps?

Interesting - and a nice note of tension - were there any stowaways? Why is the crossbunker going to be important?

I imagine that 'superstitious' is what's meant. There's no suggestion that Brophy wasn't real, at any rate!

All will be revealed over the coming three instalments!