Celt (2)

In the first week of January 1875  the Union Liner "Celt" made her way down Southampton Water, heading for Plymouth where she would embark her passengers for the expected three and a half week voyage to Cape Town.   She was under the command of George Edward Bird, a master of considerable experience having commanded the "Basuto" and latterly the "Natal".   Her chief officer, Alfred William Brook-Smith was again an officer of long experience having been with the Union Line for seven years, thus when the "Celt" sailed from Plymouth on the 6th of January the passengers had every right to have complete confidence in their safety with such men in charge.

This confidence appeared to be well placed, for the ship experienced a tremendous storm crossing the Bay of Biscay, the ship's own report:  

From the 'Cape Argus', Thursday 4th. February, 1875:-


The R.M.St. Celt, Captain Bird, R.N.R., arrived here yesterday morning from England, after an unusually tempestuous passage.   Between Plymouth and Madeira the weather was terrific, and it is a marvel that the vessel weathered the storm as well as it did.   For the first week heavy southerly gales were experienced, and everything on board was thrown into the most complete confusion.   A couple of days after leaving a tremendous sea struck the ship. and came on board bodily, driving in the whole front of the poop, filling the saloon with water, smashing fittings and woodwork, and seriously damaging the passengers baggage.   The commander's cabin was smashed, the chronometer cases being filled with water, while a telescope was doubled up as if it had been a piece of wire.   The top skylights were washed off, and tarpaulins carried away from the hatches.   The servants of the Company, as well as the passengers, had to set to and bale out the saloon, which was literally swimming with water, and presented a most ruinous appearance.  

For a long time the vessel continued to ship green seas fore and aft, and so bad was the state of things that most serious apprehensions were entertained as to her safety.   The engines were kept going as slowly as possible, and planks, sails, and other things were called into requisition to make good, as far as possible, the havoc that the water kept making.   While the gale was at its worst no fresh water was obtainable, as no access could be got to the tanks.   The consternation and alarm of the passengers may be easily imagined, and many of them seemed to have given up all hopes of ever reaching land.  

Madeira was reached on the 14th of January, and thence to Cape Verdes light N.E. trades were experienced.   From the equator to Cape Town moderate head winds and head seas.   With all her vicissitudes the Celt has not made such a bad passage, taking all the circumstances into consideration, and has certainly made good her name to being a capital sea going boat, while passengers speak in terms of the highest praise for both Captain Bird and his officers.

The Celt brought out 83 sacks of mails, and the following passengers:- .........

It is not difficult to see the utter chaos and confusion on the wharf in the newly completed Alfred Dock on the Wednesday, the 3rd of February, 1875.   There would have been a degree of hurry, the ship had arrived very late.   Hansom cabs coming to and fro with passengers, officials and visitors, baggage carts, carts with stores, cargo, cargo being off loaded and cargo to load for the coast.   The arrival of the mail ship always was an 'event', the mail ship was the principle link between the Colony and the mother country.  

The outward voyage was via Madeira where the ship's coaled, she would again take coal in Cape Town before proceeding up coast to the anchorage in Algoa Bay, Port Elizabeth had no port.    For the crew it must have been a hectic three days, firstly there would have been repairs still to be made after the storm, stores to take on board, linen to be landed for laundering, and making the ship ready for the coast. It may be safely assumed that nights were spent carousing in the local public houses, the officers of course probably being entertained somewhat more sedately!   There are suggestions of this in the answers given by the chief officer and crew.   The chief officer says that the crew had only 'worked a normal day', the crew say they were not tired, they all say or infer that they were sober.

Amongst the cargo landed was some 'railway iron', presumably railway track, and galvanised wire.   And here we find the first rather telling point, they never at the inquiry go further than calling it '140 bars', there is never a mention of the weight but the chief officer dismisses it as insignificant.   Upon sailing the chief officer, who was on the bridge with Captain Bird didn't bother to take any bearings, he could have so easily done so whilst rounding the breakwater.   This despite all the officers passing various remarks about the divergences of the standard and bridge compasses on various headings which should have told them that something was very amiss.   It is easy for us to say this today, but in 1875 the general officer at sea had only a rudimentary idea about the theory of magnetism, to them it was all a bit of a mystery.

The "Celt" sailed from Cape Town on Saturday, 6th of February at 17.00 hrs.   After rounding Green Point the chief officer and third officer were successively in charge. Cape Point light was sighted at a quarter past seven p.m., it was abeam at nine o'clock, the master himself takes the bearings and subsequently gives the order to steer S.E.by S.   We have no means of knowing absolutely what the position of the ship was because it would appear it was not the practice to fix a position by means of a ‘running fix'.   Not entirely an accurate position, but better than nothing.   So in effect the ship set off on her course to Quoin Point from an unknown position steering a course by a compass nobody was sure of what the error was.

The chief, third and fourth officers were absolved of all blame, yet not one of them had made any attempt to find the compass error nor fix the vessels position other than 'we were about five or so miles off'!  

Reading the evidence of the chief, second, third and fourth officers, with that of the two quartermasters and lookouts, the immediate impression is of a confused transition between old sailing ship practices and those of the new iron built steamship.   The ship is still steered from the poop deck, not the bridge.   There are two helmsmen, the quartermaster is in his old role of 'master of the quarter deck', he oversees the helmsmen are steering the correct course.   Meanwhile the officer of the watch moves between the forecastle where the lookout is kept, the bridge, and the poop.   The bridge is a somewhat flimsy affair atop a deckhouse, there is no chart room, the officer on watch does not have a chart, that is kept in the master's cabin, the third officer, upon land being sighted, did not know where the ship was.

There are many reasons for thinking perhaps the officers were not being as sharp as they should be, but the Court of Inquiry's verdict was perhaps a trifle harsh.   The second mate, who is blamed for not keeping a proper lookout, and not taking soundings with the hand lead, took over a watch, not knowing precisely where the ship was, simply that it was making the master's prescribed compass course.   That they were clearly for much of the night in reduced visibility without realising it is evident.  

CELT (2) was built in 1866 by Charles Lungley & Co. at Deptford Green with a tonnage of 1439grt, a length of 262ft 9in, a beam of 32ft 2in and a service speed of 9 knots. The last ship to be built for the Union Line by Charles Lungley at Rotherhithe, it seemed as if she were ill stared from the start, for her builder went bankrupt.   

Finally being completed in May 1866 she arrived in Cape Town on her maiden voyage under the command of Edward Baynton in July.

Sister of the Norseman she joined the mail service in August 1866 and in 1874 she was lengthen to 293ft with an increase in tonnage to 2112grt.

In February 1875 she was wrecked at the mouth of the River Ratel between Cape Agulhas and Danger Point, all 98 persons aboard being saved by the Union steamer Zulu.

A telegram was posted early yesterday morning at the Commercial Exchange announcing the wreck, at four a.m., on Sunday, of the  R.M.S. Celt at the boundary of Ratel River and Hagel Kraal.   The passengers and mails were saved and landed.

Later in the day we received from Messrs. Barry, Danvers & Co., Lloyds agents at Struy's Bay, the following communication:-

The following telegram relating to the wreck, Celt, R.M.S., having been received from our Bradesdorp agent, dated 7th inst.:-

1.   Mail steamer Celt got ashore about four this morning at Long Bay, near the boundary of Ratel River and Hagel Kraal; passengers and mails ashore.   Start at once for scene of accident, and will telegraph particulars.

2.   On road to wreck, have heard the Celt badly bilged and injured, after part hull full of water with rising tide.

A court of inquiry was convened on Monday, 22nd of February 1875, at the resident Magistrate's Court in Cape Town, Mr John Campbell, Esq., R.M., presiding assisted by Captain Perry, R.N.   The court delivered its findings on Tuesday, 2nd of March, 1875.

'Cape Argus', Thursday, 4th of March 1875

R. M. St.  "CELT"


The judgement of the official Court of Inquiry was delivered on Tuesday morning last at eleven o'clock, the Resident Magistrate's court being densely crowded with spectators.   The findings of the Court is as follows, and judgement was read by His Worship, in the presence of the captain and officers of the wrecked "Celt" , and Captain Ker, the representative of the Union Company.:-

After careful consideration of the evidence, the Court finds the captain failed to exercise due care for the safe navigation of the ship, in that after having landed a quantity of railway iron that as appears on comparison of observations in the compass book had affected the standard compass to the extent of 4(deg) and 5(deg) in certain points notably S.E.by S., the course given by him at 9.20 p.m.   He neglected to ascertain the error of his compasses, when the same could easily have been done in the afternoon of the 6th of February    Want of care is also shown in that, after the ship had been put on her course, that if true, would at the speed she was going (10 knots), lead her to close with the land after a run of five or six hours, no attempt was made to verify her position, as might have been done from time to time, by bearings of the Cape Point light having been visible until after midnight.   Want of care is also shown in that the ship steering a course that must lead her during the night too close to the dangerous part off the coast where the currents vary, no instructions were given to get a cast of the lead.   It also appears that after the captain gave the courses after 9.20 p.m. he never was on the bridge himself, nor had any communication with the officer of the watch.   By his own statement, he was asleep in his cabin, and had been so for an hour and a half before the vessel struck.   Such want of care is inexcusable in navigating any vessel, and is still more so in the present case, where the safety of so many depended on the prudence and the careful attention of the captain.   This neglect and want of care amounts to default on the part of the captain.

The court finds that John Alexander Miller, the second officer, is in default in that through great negligence and inattention on his part the ship was run ashore on a fine, calm, clear morning, when had a proper lookout been kept by him during his watch, the dangerous position of the ship must have been discovered in ample time to have avoided the disaster and the Court judges that the certificates of George Edward Bird, the master, and of John Alexander Miller, the second officer, be suspended for twelve months.

On returning the third officer's certificate the Court admonishes him to be more resourceful in the future.   The want of knowledge of the Cape coast  shown by him in stating positively that the Cape Point light is a fixed light when it is in reality a revolving light, is not to his credit.

In returning the certificates of the chief officer, Alfred William Brook Smith, and of the fourth officer, Franz Karl Thimms, the Court finds their conduct to be entirely free from all blame in connection with the loss of the said vessel.

The certificates of the first, third and fourth officers having been returned.

Captain Bird (addressing he Court) said:- Transportation would have been much better than that.

The Magistrate:- I cannot help that.

Captain Bird:- I have a wife and family, and now will be without means.

The Magistrate:- The Court had a duty to perform.

The captain and officers then left the Court.


Master:                 George Edward Bird

Chief Officer        Alfred William Brooke-Smith     gives evidence from the time of sailing to 20.00 hrs

Second Officer   John Alexander Miller               gives evidence from midnight to stranding at 03.50 hrs.

Third Officer        Loton Frederick Cattlin             gives evidence from 20.00 hrs to midnight

Fourth Officer     Franz Karl Thimm                      evidence from sailing to 8 p.m. then after grounding.

Quartermaster   Edward Eaton

Quartermaster   George Wilton

Lookout               Alfred Burrows                           gives evidence from midnight to two o'clock.

Helmsman         Trim

Helmsman         Carter

The irony of the story is that, only a year later, Captain Ker was again to take a principle part in a court of inquiry, but this time as the master who lost his ship, in remarkably similar circumstances.   European came to grief, off Ushant, Captain Ker did everything right, he stopped his ship, he took soundings but all to no avail, his certificate was suspended for 6 months.

Today there is nothing to see of the "Celt", that is visible above water.   She lies at the far western edge of Long Bay, on a sandy beach, called on the map Celt Bay.   It was her good fortune to strand in this spot, for on either side stretch miles of formidable rocks.   It was this chance of fate that gave the would be salvers hopes of re-floating her.   The very notion of salvage is a testament to the amazing conviction of the Victorians that nothing was above their ability.   Even today the spot is remote, accessible over the last kilometres by four wheel drive only.   From Danger point you drive eastwards on the A43 coast road some 33 kilometres (20 miles) until, just before the end of the tarred road and junction to Bradesdorp, you find the turn off to the coast, little more than a sand track, to Bufflesjags, a small fishing village, perhaps some twenty dwellings, built almost in the surf.   Some way beyond the village, the track deteriorating to a path, Celt Bay is reached.   It is a wild, isolated but incredibly beautiful place on the Overberg coast.

Captain G W Bird’s Story - 1875

The Wreck of Celt - 1875

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