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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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The Destruction of the St Cuthbert, Part 4: The End of the Cuthbert
In yesterday's instalment we left my grandfather, along with five other men (plus three corpses), adrift in a winter storm in the North Atlantic, in a lifeboat with no food or water, a bad leak, no rudder and just one oar. It looks bad, but if I've learned one thing from my time aboard the St Cuthbert it's that sailors are remarkably resourceful people...

After a while Mr Twohy said, “I think the wind is changing. If it does we will hoist the jib and try to steer back with the oar astern." This actually did happen, and we made good headway towards the Cuthbert. This time when they saw us approaching they had long life lines ready with lifebuoys attached. We caught one of these and the Lamptrimmer went to make it fast in the bows, but lost his life through it. How this came about we don’t know, but we saw him with a turn around his body, between the boat and the ship, and every time the boat fell between the waves it looked as if he would be cut in halves. We tried to pull the boat to him, but before we could help him he turned a summersault and sank, and we never saw him again.

All hands now started to pull the boat under the stern, but when we got near the suction started and drew us under the propeller. I saw the blade overhead and jumped. So I believe did most of the others. Of course the dead men disappeared. Five of us were picked up with bowlines and taken aboard. Mr Twohy, I learnt before this, couldn’t swim, but I saw him struggle to the boat which was waterlogged and only showing the top of the gunnel. (The air tanks were keeping her afloat.) I helped him into a bowline, another bowline was lowered and I put my arms through, but when they hoisted I found another arm through it, so I helped him to hold on. He was quite a heavy fireman named Olsen. When my head came near the rail I heard them on deck say “My word, this one is heavy!” I shouted to them not to lift me aboard until they had got hold of Olsen, because if the bowline had slacked he would have fallen into the sea. When we were safe we were given a glass of gin which had been in the Chief Engineer’s room, and had not been burnt, being in the opposite alleyway to my cabin.

We now heard what had happened aboard whilst we had been away. They had flooded the cross bunker on No.3 hatch which could be converted into a tank, and stopped the fire spreading aft. The flames I had seen aft were blown along the main deck but had not caught the cargo in the after holds. Their biggest worry, Mr Patterson (Chief Engineer) told me, was whether the bulkhead between No.3 Hold and the engine room would stand the strain, because both the forrid holds were flooded, and with seas and the rolling pressure was coming on this bulkhead, and only the after part of the ship was keeping her afloat.

I found my room had been ransacked. My watch and other things I valued had been stolen. I suppose they thought I wouldn’t get back and they were entitled to them.

I kept watch that night with two more hands while the other officers had some rest. We had to keep a lookout for any approaching ship and report anything we heard out of the usual which should occur in the ship. Being dark when we got aboard I hadn’t seen anything forrid of the engine room.

I was told the story of the port lifeboat, which was lowered and lost alongside with all hands. It was a terrible end to my roommate Brophy. He had gone to the boat with the carpenter in charge, and no other seamen. They lowered the boat and she had knocked herself about badly with the seas and drifted astern. Somebody on deck had thrown them a line which had been made fast to a thwart, and as soon as a heavy sea hit her she capsized. All hands disappeared except Brophy, and he being a good swimmer got on the bottom of the boat and once made an attempt to swim to the burning ship but found he couldn’t make it so went back to the boat. The people aboard tried to float a buoy to him but failed. They say he was washed off the boat several times, and at last must have become exhausted and drowned. This was only seen by the fire of the burning ship, and for quite long periods he couldn’t been seen at all for the smoke.

The Captain sent for me. He had been locked in a room, because he had been burnt badly and was making himself a nuisance on deck. I had a shock when I saw him. Part of his scalp was hanging over his face, which was one huge blister. He was blind, and I felt very sorry for him. He couldn’t help being the same John Lewis, and yet I didn’t blame the officers for putting him away. He said, “Everybody has turned against me and thinks I am not fit to command the ship.” I said, “It isn’t that, Captain. You are badly burnt and they are afraid of you hurting yourself. The sailor Frenchy is the same.” And he said, “I know, we had it together.”

Mr Patterson had told me they were playing the hose down No.3 Hold, himself, the Captain and Frenchy, when some of the drums burst. He (Mr Patterson) managed to get his head down in time below the combings, but the other two had the full force of the explosion.

The Captain asked me if he was badly burnt, and I made as light of it as possible. Our medical stores had gone up with the bridge, also all the provisions, so I got some engine oil and smeared his head and face, also his hands were in a bad state. He said he felt easier and started to talk to me, but not a bit like Capt. Lewis. He said, “You have lost your roommate Brophy.” He even told me we had been good apprentices, and the loss of one of us made him feel sad, but he added, “I don’t suppose any of us will get through this. The ship can’t possibly hold out much longer.” I told him the sea was abating and there was still hope of being saved.

During that night we had reports of ship’s lights, which I think must be imagination because one would see a light and the others would agree with him until it disappeared from our imagination.

At daylight I had a search around. Everybody was frightfully hungry, and they all said that there was no food on board, but two of us went down the lazaretto below the poop and found some potatoes, which I knew had been stored there after filling up the cabin storeroom. Not many knew of them. The steward kept it from the crew for fear they stole them during the voyage. We put a lot of these on to boil in their jackets. Then I went to see how far forrid I could get. I went past the bridge, walking on beams and holding on wherever I could. The fire was out, but the ship was full of water and was running in and out between the plates. Some of the bales of compressed rags were still smouldering, in spite of the water. The men on the anchor had got aft the day before. We called all hands and shared the potatoes, which was a surprise to them. Then we went below and apart from the awful dreams I slept quite well.

About noon I was on deck and somebody reported smoke on the port quarter, which would be to the sou’west. We hoisted a cork fender and a blanket (a substitute for a ball and red flag which is the distress signal). There was no doubt it was a ship, but it wouldn’t come near enough to show the funnel, and on its course it began to go further away and eventually disappeared. How disappointed we were! It seemed like the last straw. About half an hour later the smoke showed up again, but nearer the beam. We knew a ship approaching on this bearing would not be on a regular course across the Atlantic. Our hopes rose and we guessed at fishing boats and several types of ship that would be off the beaten track, and still we had a feeling it was the same ship we had seen earlier, and yet she hadn’t been above the horizon and able to see us. Then we saw the funnels – it must be a big ship, and Ah the joy as it came nearer and grew bigger until we could tell it was a liner. She steamed around and told us she would stand by until the sea was fit to put a boat out. We asked if we could be towed, and the reply was that they could see daylight right through us and it would be impossible for any ship to tow us far before we foundered.

Later another steamer appeared. This was one of Leyland’s, S/S Californian, and the first was the White Star Liner S/S Cymric. They both stood by for us for about two hours, and the Cymric said they would take of the life so the Californian continued her voyage. About 3pm the Cymric lowered a boat. They were afraid we couldn’t keep afloat another night. Their Chief Officer was in charge, and he and the crew showed splendid seamanship. (I understand that they had a decoration for it on their return to England, which they greatly deserved.) We lowered all the invalids into the boat, including the Captain, and then filled up with the other hands. The Captain as he was being rowed away shouted, “Whatever you do, don’t abandon the ship!”, and to keep him quiet our Chief Officer said, “All right, Sir.” We knew their boat’s crew would not take it seriously, because they could see that he was blind and wouldn’t know the condition we were in and they would understand that he could hardly be normal after having been burnt so badly.

We waited for the return of the boat, but it seemed an awfully long time and it was quite dark now, and we began to wonder whether they had taken the Chief Officer’s reply seriously. In the mean time the engineers had sawn the pipes to let the water in, which is the equivalent to opening the sea cocks. If she remained afloat it would be a danger to shipping. We listened at the engine room door and could hear the water rushing in, and at last the Cymric came to windward of us, and we saw a boat put off and it wasn’t long before we were alongside of her. They had ropes reeved through pullies, and you only had to put your arms through and up you went like a shot, with half a dozen men on each rope pulling.

I was taken to the Officers’ quarters, and given a suit of clothes and a hot bath. What luxury! I was then asked if I would like a golden plover on toast with lots to follow.

They told us how they had seen smoke, but thought it was fishing vessels. It was one of the passengers who persuaded them to return and investigate, as there was so much smoke. How lucky we were to be windward of them! We were taken into Boston where we were met by reporters who wanted stories and made a lot up themselves. We were asked not to say too much in view of the inquiry that was to be held. Boston had one of their coldest spells during the week we were there (40 degrees of frost).

I used to go to the hospital to see the injured, and every morning I had to read the paper to the Captain. At this time the doctors didn’t know whether his sight would be restored, but eventually I heard that it was. I never saw Capt. Lewis again after leaving Boston.

The mission to seamen gave us new clothes so that I was able to return the borrowed suit. We were delighted to hear that we were to have a passage back on the Cymric.

Before we left they had the inquiry, and Mr Twohy, 2nd Officer, was censured by an “error of judgement” for leaving the ship, which I thought was very unfair, knowing the circumstances. He hadn’t left willingly, and I feel sure if he hadn’t been in the boat none of us would have been saved. He was ill all the passage home, and died within a few months.

Since I last read this typescript, a lot of newspaper reports from the time have appeared on the web. There’s one collection here, and another here, and here are additional clippings from the Sydney Morning Herald and Liverpool Mercury. It’s interesting to see how they disagree in places, both with my grandfather’s account and with each other.

In some cases, they give useful extra information, such as the spelling of ‘Twohy’, which I’d been able to make little of when typing the MS up as a teen. We also learn that ‘Frenchy’, the sailor who was burnt with Capt. Lewis, was called Joubert. It also seems that my grandfather is likely to have misremembered the name of the other ship that came to the St Cuthbert’s assistance before continuing its journey. It was indeed a Leyland ship, but the Cambrian, not the Californian. Perhaps he was remembering the latter’s role in the Titanic disaster a few years later?

The reports disagree wildly about when, why and how many lifeboats were lowered, and what became of their crews. My grandfather never mentions that most of the crew were non-English speakers (which implies to me that there was no significant language problem), but there’s a bit of casual racism in one of the reports of the lowering of the boats (“The cosmopolitan crew, maddened with fear, tugged long at one of the boats without loosing the braces”), and this was picked up by Havelock Wilson MP in the question he asked Winston Churchill about the disaster in the House of Commons, in which he suggests that the crew’s lack of fluency in English was itself a cause of panic: “the majority of the crew had an inadequate knowledge of English... in consequence there was a considerable panic amongst the foreigners at the time of the loss of the ship.”

A few random things get mentioned – the boiled potatoes, for instance – but others are omitted, such as, whatever happened to Murphy? He’s mentioned on none of the lists, of either survivors or dead.

Biggest mystery of all, why does one of the reports give my grandfather (P. E. Bowman, not E. Bowman, by the way) an address on 9th Avenue, New York? He was actually from Wrexham in North Wales.

I need to find out much more about my grandfather. I know he was a sailor throughout the Great War, but I’m not even sure whether it was in the merchant fleet or Royal Navy. Between the wars he ran a haulage firm (before the bankruptcy that gave rise to this account), but in World War II, though already in his fifties, he signed up and became commander of HMS Aristocrat, a converted paddle steamer more accustomed to ferrying tourists around the lochs of Scotland, in which capacity he helped carry the Mulberry harbours to Arromanches for the D Day landings. But that’s another story...

Fascinating story - thank you for sharing it.

My pleasure. I'm glad you found it interesting.

Yes, it's a great read. My granddad was a ship's engineer on the Atlantic Convoys (in WW2). Luckily never sunk but he suffered from post-traumatic stress for the rest of his life, and died quite young of a heart attack.

Edited at 2012-04-20 06:27 pm (UTC)

I can't imagine anything more frightening than the Atlantic convoys. All the above, plus people actively trying to kill you.

That was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it.

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I should have done it a while ago, I think!

An amazing piece of documentary evidence - made all the more so when you slot it into the existing sources like the newspapers...

Yes, I feel there must be people 'out there' who would be interested in it - historians and such - but I'm not sure where would be the best place to send it.

The Maritime Museum at Greenwich? An old unrequited love of mine once got a job there as a curator, but we have not spoken for c.twenty years....

What this has to do with documentary material relating to shipping I don't know, but you'd think they might be interested in this sort of material.

Yes, that's a good idea! I'll talk to my mother (who I think still has the original MS) and see what she reckons.

Wow. Thank you very much for this, for sharing it. I've just read through the whole story at breakneck speed, and still gobsmacked.

I'm glad you enjoyed it!

"Whatever happened to Murphy?"

Random belated comment (I have just read the whole thrilling saga after you linked the St. Cuthbert tag on a more recent post): I wonder if Murphy can't be found in the lists because, as a stereotypical Irish name, it is his nickname rather than his real name (c.f. A.B. Joubert, referred to as 'Frenchy')? If so, looking at the list of crew names in the Naval Court report, my guess would be that he is A.B. Patrick Ryan, and was among the saved.

Re: "Whatever happened to Murphy?"

You know, that's a very pleasing thought! And quite possible. My only slight doubt is that several of the crew seem to have been Irish (the Captain and Brophy, for a start), and a nickname like that tends to imply singularity. But of course, he could have acquired it elsewhere. And I always like the idea of people being saved, so let's go with it!