Sunday, 5 June 2011

Death in the Channel

The Dover Straits was shrouded in fog on the night of the 19th of November, 1887, and the 720 ton West Hartlepool steamer Rosa Mary was anchored up near the South Sand Head Lightvessel. Her anchor light was shining from the masthead and a few of her 16 hands were keeping a look-out from the bridge in the cold night air.

In the swirling mist the Red Star passenger ship W.A.Scholten approached the anchored vessel. On board were 156 passengers and 54 crewmen. She had sailed from her home port of Rotterdam earlier in the day and her destination was New York. Many of the passengers were seeking a new life in America and the 2,569 ton Dutch steamship had families and children in the steerage class cabins of the vessel. On a steady course and slow speed of six knots the W.A.Scholten continued towards the Rosa Mary.

At ten-thirty Captain Taat saw the anchored collier ahead of the passenger ship and at the last moment ordered full astern on the ship’s telegraph. In the cold night air the sound of grating steel and wrenching plates were heard as the W.A.Scholten ripped off the bow of the Rosa Mary to her inner bulkhead. An eight foot gash was also torn along the port side of the Dutch ship as she disappeared into the mist.

When the forward way of the W.A.Scholten ceased, the strong ebb tide was to carry her on for another four miles. The sea was gushing in through the hole and pandemonium broke loose as the immigrants realised that the ship was sinking. Screaming passengers careered about the deck as the crew attempted to get the lifeboats away. Only two were launched before the sloping deck plunged below the cold waters of the Channel. Within a mere thirty minutes all that remained of the ship were her masts protruding from the sea.

It was the heartbreaking screams of the drowning families that alerted the crew of the British steamship Ebro, who managed to rescue 78 people. The other ship involved in the collision, Rosa Mary, limped into Dover Harbour with her bow watertight bulkhead still intact.

As many bodies washed up on the beaches of Deal it was deemed that the town should hold the inquest. From the findings some startling statements were made. A Hastings fishing boat’s skipper stated that the Rosa Mary had been underway prior to the collision and had ploughed through his herring nets. Parts of his nets were found on the mangled remains of the steamers bow. Some of the survivors accused the W.A.Scholten’s Captain Taat of keeping the steerage passengers away from the lifeboats. The captain could never defend himself as he and the first officer perished with their vessel. There were enough lifejackets on board for all, but many of the passengers had put them on incorrectly (as some of the recovered bodies had later shown) so inadvertently adding to the death toll.

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