Notes and references are at the end.
Their cargoes were of tea and gold,
Their bows a cutting blade;
And, on the bridge, the skippers walked,
Lords of the China trade.
'Clipper Ships and Captains' by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet
The SS Robert Lowe
Detail from The Lindsay Fleet, a painting (ref 200280) by an unknown artist in the Swedish Maritime Museum.
Please acknowledge the museum if you embed this image in your website. Please do not download the image.
The Robert Lowe was built at the Cartsdyke shipyard of Scott & Co.1 at Greenock to a strict specification laid down by her purchaser, William Schaw Lindsay (1815-1877). His firm, W.S. Lindsay & Co, was on its way to becoming one of the most important shipping lines in Britain and the Robert Lowe was to be an important addition to his passenger fleet. Although she started her life as a screw-assisted passenger ship, after traversing the Suez Canal soon after its opening in 1869, her engines were removed and she was renamed the Iron Cross. Her final twenty years were spent as a cargo ship.
When launched, the gross tonnage of Lindsay’s new ship was 1220 and her dimensions were 247 × 35 × 19 feet. At 80 HP, her two-cylinder Tulloch & Denny 2 engine was small by the standards of passenger ships of her time. For example, Brunel’s Great Britain, launched in 1843, had well over twice the power-weight ratio of the Robert Lowe, her power being over six times and her gross tonnage being less than three times that of Lindsay’s ship.3 Nevertheless, there were three things that the two ships had in common. They were built of iron, their propulsion was by screw rather than paddle and their accommodation was of the highest order. The luxuriance of the Robert Lowe's accommodation may be judged by an article from the Greenock Advertiser:
From the Greenock Advertiser, 26 September 1854 (As with with most images herein you
may increase its size by clicking on it. Use the browser back-arrow to return.)
As a large screw-assisted passenger ship, the Robert Lowe may have been unusual, but there were in existence at the time a few fully-rigged cargo vessels with small engines to keep them going in calm conditions. Often known as steam clippers, they were a development of the tea clipper that had been around since the early 1830s. The Robert Lowe was never intended to be a tea clipper but she did act in that capacity at least once, so the introductory verse is not entirely inappropriate. The proportions of the last great clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, built 15 years later than the Robert Lowe, are not unlike those of the Robert Lowe:
Like the Robert Lowe, the Cutty Sark has three mainmasts. Unlike the Robert Lowe she never had an engine. Although the Cutty Sark's hull was wooden, she did have an iron frame. That meant she could be sleek – though not quite so sleek as the Robert Lowe. So, if you want to get some idea as to what the Robert Lowe was like, go and see the Cutty Sark at Greenwich.
Lindsay was a great advocate of the screw-assisted sailing ship. He first thought of the idea in 1838 when he was first mate on the Richard Bell, a brig carrying sugar from India. Whilst she was crossing the Bay of Bengal, the vessel was becalmed for 30 days. Just a small engine, he thought to himself, would be sufficient to deliver us from these dreary doldrums.5 However, as the principal means of propulsion, Lindsay remained a firm believer in the virtues of sail. Large engines, he believed, were uneconomic. Even in the mid-1850s, given the right conditions, well-rigged sailing ships could outpace their steam-driven counterparts – and they did not have to find suitable ports to take on expensive fuel.
In parallel with the development of the steam engine had come the use of iron for the building of ships. Not only did this make for a more robust and durable structure, but it meant that ships could be built long and narrow, thus reducing drag. Lindsay incorporated all the the foregoing ideas into his specification for the Robert Lowe. The result was a ship that was fast, economical and long-lasting. As he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, she was "more than two years under construction by Messrs Scott and Co at Greenock, and I had expended all my ingenuity and skill upon her".5
Robert Lowe, another relatively new member on the Liberal benches. He had been elected for Kidderminster in 1852 after spending eight years in Australia as a lawyer and politician. Although on opposite poles of the Liberal Party, they were to become long-term friends and colleagues. However, unlike Lindsay, who was never to achieve ministerial rank, Lowe was recruited to the ranks of the Government as Secretary to the Board of Control soon after he entered Parliament. He was later to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Gladstone's first administration.
The catalyst that brought Lindsay and Lowe together was probably their common respect for Caroline Chisholm. She was an Englishwoman who had been in Australia between 1838 and 1846 and, while there, placed over 11,000 people in homes and jobs.6 Her work was recognised by the Legislative Council on which, Lowe served.7 He was so impressed with her work that, when they were in England during the 1850s, he gave support to her efforts to assist the emigration of women to Australia.
Lindsay met Chisholm soon after she returned to England and he too was impressed with her work – so impressed that he built a ship to carry the emigrants she had recruited. The ship, which was appropriately called the Caroline Chisholm, was launched in March 1854.8 But one ship was not enough for Chisholm’s requirements so Lindsay had already commissioned a second. Furthermore the new ship was to be named the Robert Lowe out of respect for his new parliamentary colleague. Unfortunately, however, because the ship took so long to build, she was not ready for Chisholm’s second batch of immigrants and she had to use another vessel.
The fact that the building of his ship had taken so much longer than expected had frustrated Lindsay somewhat. However the date of its completion fortuitously coincided with the Government’s request to hire ships for the transport of troops, armaments and other equipment to Crimea where the war against Russia was being waged by the Allied forces of the United Kingdom, France, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia. Britain's sent a 20,000-strong expeditionary force to the Black Sea during the war, the largest force ever sent overseas up to that time.9 Hundreds of ships were required to carry the soldiers and their equipment. As an MP Lindsay was proscribed from acting as a contractor to the government but he had got round this by temporarily transferring the ownership of the Robert Lowe to a business colleague.10 By that, and other subterfuges, Lindsay was able to garner a lot of money through Government contracts. He could – and sometimes did – obtain even more by hiring ships to the French Government.
For the two months between her launch and her departure from Portsmouth for Balaclava the Robert Lowe was under the command of a Captain Bingham. The time was spent picking up armaments in Dartford and Tynemouth. Some six months after the event, Lindsay was censured in Parliament for the time it took for the ship to reach Portsmouth. After he made a long defence of his conduct during the period, the matter was dropped.11 By 23 November 1854 she was ready to take on about 200 troops. But then, just as she was about to set off for the Black Sea, there was a set-back that required Lindsay's personal attention. At 5 o'clock in the morning of 24 November, he was aroused from his bed in his London home by the ship's pilot "who", as he wrote in his Journal "had come from Portsmouth by mail train to inform me that the Robert Lowe had arrived at Spithead last night at 6 o'clock all well, except the captain, who was so indisposed that he could not proceed on the voyage".12 Guessing the nature of the indisposition, Lindsay quickly found a new commander for the ship in a Captain Pentreath.13 Together, Lindsay and Pentreath took the noon train to Portsmouth and proceeded directly to the ship. "When there", Lindsay wrote in his Journal "I found Captain Bingham in bed unwell, evidently through the effect of his own in prudence or intemperance, though, of course, he would not admit it".14
This 1867 French map by Charles Alexander Fay of the Chersonesus Peninsula in southwestern Crimea shows
Sevastopol Harbour to the north and the smaller estuary containing Balaklava Harbour to the south.
The battles of Inkerman (east of Sebastopol) and Balaclava are marked. The Battle of Alma
took place 40 km northeast of Sebastopol.(The United States Library of Congress)
Sebastopol in 1854 was the main Russian fortress and naval base not only in the Crimea but along the whole of the shores of the Black Sea. It possessed a well-defended 5 km long harbour. Should the city fall, Russia would almost certainly have lost the war within weeks. After losing the battle of Alma in September 1854, the Russians withdrew the bulk of their forces from Sebastopol leaving a largely naval and marine force of about 18,000. However, to eliminate the possibility of an invasion by Allied naval forces, they scuttled several ships across the entrance to the harbour The Allies victory at Alma was followed by a second at Inkerman in November, but they failed to follow-up their successes at the Battle of Balaclava. They allowed the Russian army to concentrate its force at Sebastopol so that it by then totalled about 32,000.15 To counter this, the British decided to blow up the offending ships. The means of achieving this was a set of thirteen large electrically-detonated cylinders and twelve smaller ones all based on a design by James Meadows Rendel. Each of the large cylinders was filled with 1000 lbs of gunpowder They comprised an inner shell containing the powder that was retained within an outer cast-iron shell by a number of fixing bolts. The idea was that, when the powder was sparked, the powder would have a chance to ignite fully before the outer shell exploded and water was admitted.16
One of the John Deane's mines (Royal Engineers' Library)
The operation was to be carried out by a party of four civilian divers led by John Deane, and including William Edwards, James Rigby and George Allen. Traditional elements, both in the Navy and the army, resented the fact that 'outsiders' had been recruited to perform what they regarded as primarily a military operation. The chief engineer of the army, the 72-year-old Sir John Burgoyne, was dismissive of the effectiveness of Deane's mines. He wrote a letter to an unknown recipient that included the sentence: "I have no scruples whatsoever in giving a strong opinion that they are utterly useless and founded on and unsounded principles".17
Lieutenant General Sir John Burgoyne at Balaclava
(photograph by Roger Fenton)
The Robert Lowe was the ship chosen to transport the divers and their cylinders to Balaklava, 15 km south-east of Sebastopol. Supplementary diving equipment was sent out on the Royal Navy storeship HMS Prince. That vessel arrived in Balaclava on 7 November before Lindsay's ship had even reached Portsmouth. The Robert Lowe eventually set sail on Sunday, 26 November, 1854, carrying 12 officers, 673 men, armaments, hospital stores, bedding and, of course, the 13 cylinders.18
Valletta Harbour, Malta, in the mid-1830s
(L'Italia descritta e dipinta, Davide Bertolotti)
On route to Balaclava, the Robert Lowe called at Malta and Scutari where she was detained for twelve days by adverse weather conditions. The Selimiye Barracks at Scutari, on the opposite shore of the Bosporus from Constantinople, had been allocated by the Turks for the use by the British during the war. Located within the barracks were four military hospitals that were used by Florence Nightingale and her team during the winter of 1854-55.19 There is a picture of the building further down the page.
Some of the equipment that John Deane and his colleagues used during
their diving operations in the Black Sea. The original plan to blow up
the Russian ships that were blockading the entrance to Sebastopol
Harbour was not implemented until after the fall of the city in
the autumn of 1855. (Hoosier State Chronicles)
On 28 December, Lindsay received two letters regarding happenings in Malta. One was from Captain Pentreath saying that all was well. The other was from the Admiralty enclosing copies of reports from Rear Admiral Houston Stewart complaining of the conduct of Pentreath and another officer. Pentreath was accused of neglect of duty and intemperance and the two officers’ behaviour had led to unruliness by the crew. Ironically, it was the intemperance of Bingham that had led to his replacement by Pentreath. At first Lindsay came to the defence of his captain, stating that he feared it to be just an example of the way in which the Admiralty conducted business. As he wrote in his Journal:
Pentreath and his officers have no doubt been so busy that they have not been able to pay that marks and fawning attention to the person in command [of the troops on board], which our haughty naval officers expect on board of merchant ships, and thus likely enough to have brought about some cross words between them which has led to the report sent home. If Pentreath had treated them to a dinner and given them plenty of wine, the official report might have been very different. However I must see further into it. If true, Pentreath is unfit to command any ship. If false it is a most disgraceful proceeding on the part of Admiral Stewart.20
Nonetheless, even Lindsay was unable to prevail against the might of the Admiralty. Pentreath had to go!21 But no replacement was available at Malta so Pentreath had to stay on the ship until she reached Scutari. From there he wrote Lindsay two letters of protest at his dismissal but, even though Lindsay’s sympathies remained with him, there was nothing he could do. Fortunately Lindsay had another captain available at Constantinople, though the circumstances that brought that about were not at all fortunate.
British and French ships in Balaclava Harbour during 1855. A photograph by
James Robertson who succeeded Roger Fenton as the Crimea photographer
of The Times. It must surely have been taken from a balloon.
(The J Paul Getty Museum via Wikimedia Commons)
Yevpatoria), about 60 km north of Sebastopol. However, the great majority of the British and French ships – including HMS Prince – were berthed or anchored at Balaclava where about 60 vessels were crammed into a harbour that would have been reckoned crowded with half that number. Then, on the 14th of the month, a violent storm that had been raging across the Black Sea for a fortnight, struck the southwest coast of Crimea. Many ships were sunk or driven ashore and most of those were lost. Amongst the latter 18 were British and 12 French. Another 15 or so were dismasted.23
HMS Prince 24 (uploaded to Wikipedia by
Ivan Constantinovich Aivasosky)
Two of the ships that were lost, HMS Prince and the Ganges had relevance to what was happening on the Robert Lowe. The Prince, at Balaclava, went down with the loss of 154 men and women (soldiers' wives). Only seven men were saved. Everything else on board was lost. Amongst the men lost were divers that were to have joined Deane's party. The diving equipment that was on board was also lost. That, of course, had the effect of delaying the start of operations to blow up the scuttled Russian ships.25 The Ganges, at Eupotopia with her commander William Congalton on board, was more fortunate. There were no fatalities and it was even possible to salvage much of the cargo. That was fortuitous as on the following day she was seen to be burning.26 For Lindsay, disheartening though it was to lose a fine ship, it did at least mean that he had a commander in Congalton available to take over from Pentreath. The much-respected Captain William Congalton was soon to become the master of the Robert Lowe. He remained in that capacity for nine years.
Electric telegraphy was in its infancy during the Crimean war. Postal communication by sea between London and Constantinople took nearly three weeks and another week could be added for Sebastopol despatches. Telegraphic links – notably that between London and Vienna – helped to shorten these times significantly. Furthermore, by the end of April 1855, a underwater telegraph link had been established between Balaclava and Varna on the west coast of the Black Sea. With a lenth of 450 km cable it was longer than any underwater cable previously laid. At about the same time, the French established a telegraphic link between Varna and Vienna. The first telegraphic communication from Balaclava was received in London on 25 April 1855 although, at that stage, the service was primarily for the military. It was not available to the general public. Even up to the end of the war, press reports from Balaclava could take about two weeks to reach London. Of course, all such messages were sent by means of Morse code and, as a result their transmission took about four hours. But but that was a great deal less than comparable communications had been taking when sent by post or even via the Vienna link.27
In the autumn of 1854, the extension of the link beyond Vienna was still in the future, and newspaper readers in England had to wait until 2 December for reports of the Crimean storm of the 14 November to reach them.28 Lindsay would have read about the fate of the Ganges in The Times of 5 December. He may well have written at once to Congalton instructing him remain in Balaclava pending the arrival of the Robert Lowe but, had he done so, it would not have arrived in time. Congalton set off for England well before Christmas and was still there when, on 16 January 1855 Lindsay heard more news from the Admiralty of Pentreath's intemperance. "I am resolved", he wrote in his journal "to dismiss him and send out forthwith Captain Congalton, late of the Ganges, to take his place".29
Scutari in 1856 looking north (lithograph by J. Needham, 1856, after a painting by W. Simpson)
In the background is the Selimiye Barracks that, for the period of the war, was placed
at the disposal of the British government and was known as the Barrack Hospital.
The Robert Lowe had only stayed at Malta long enough to refuel.30 With Pentrieth still in command, she arrived at Scutari on Christmas Eve, 1854. It was not intended that she should stay there more than a couple of days or so but two things militated against that – the difficulties experienced in the unloading of the cargo and the continuing severity of the weather. During unloading it was found that Deane's heavy cylinders had been placed in the ship's hold on top of medical supplies. The cylinders were, of course, to stay on the ship until she reached Balaclava on the other side of the Black Sea. But the medical supplies were urgently needed by the military hospitals at Scutari. The terms of the contract for the hire of the ship required that the cargo be stowed properly and that the captain and his officers be aware of where the various items were located. Captain Pentreath and his officers had probably not bothered themselves about such matters. On being questioned by the Naval authorities, they would have put themselves in as good a light as they could. Pentreath, for example, would have mentioned that he had been a last-minute replacement and had not been present during loading. However, that admission turned out to make matters worse when the irregularities became the subject of the Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry on the Army before Sebastopol the report of which was published on 3 May 1855.31 That Pentreath was being less than open about matters is confirmed by letters he sent to Lindsay while he was in Scutari and which were received on 12 January. They included the words "everything is in order"!32 A week later, Lindsay received a letter from Congalton at Scutari informing him that he had taken over command of the ship from Pentreath.33
The new master of the Robert Lowe had been born in 1827 in Aberlady, a village in East Lothian on shore of the Firth of Forth.34 Like Pentreath, he was of the family of Mariners. At least two of his uncles, Thomas and Samuel, were ship captains. Samuel in particular was quite famous for having contributed significantly to the campaign to clear the Malacca Straits of piracy in the 1840s. His story was told in 1878 by the Rev Alexander Wallace in his book One from the Ranks. Sadly, both Thomas and Samuel Congalton died in 1850. Thomas was drowned in Invergordon35 and Samuel died of natural causes in Penang.36 It was soon after the death of his two uncles that their 24-year-old nephew received his Master's Certificate of Competency and took his first command, a 206-ton Brig called the Jansen.37 He probably only made one return trip – to Havana – on that vessel before taking command of a 311-ton bark called the Duncan. Small though she was, the Duncan made at least one return trip to Valparaiso under Congalton's command.38 At some stage – probably 1854 – Congalton joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was promoted to lieutenant in June 1862.39
The Robert Lowe set sail for Balaklava on 4 January 1855 with Captain William Congalton at the helm. On board were over 800 soldiers of various regiments and, in the hold, were John Deane’s explosive cylinders.40 The weather remained atrocious, with temperatures below zero and a biting headwind. Another ship, the Albatross, that was sailing at the same time had to throw 190 bullocks overboard in order to make headway.41 Nevertheless, the Robert Lowe arrived the next day having covered the 300 nautical miles between Scutari and Balaklava in about 30 hours at an average speed of about 10 knots.
John Deane and his party expected their cylinders to be unloaded by the end of the month, but it was not to be. A convoluted bureaucratic process probably involving the Government and the two services delayed the unloading.42 In fact the presence of a ship loaded with such highly explosive devices became a concern to Lord Raglan, the Commander-In-Chief of British forces in the Crimea. At the end of March he wrote to the naval commander, Sir Edmund Lyons, expressing his concern.43 But the cylinders remained on board even as the Robert Lowe shuttled backwards and forwards across the Black Sea. On 31 July 1855, the Liberal member for Tewkesbury, Humphrey Brown, suggested in Parliament that the cylinders was still on board. Lindsay, who spoke shortly after, did not even refer to the matter.44 Bevan in The Infernal Diver suggests that they were eventually taken ashore and used to blow up the scuttled ships after Sebastopol fell into Allied hands in September 1855.45
Photograph of a ship in Balaklava Harbour in 1855 by Roger Fenton, the celebrated photographer of The Times
Although the Robert Lowe was berthed in the harbour for some time in 1855 this is not her as she has no funnel
Fenton met John Deane's party and accompanied them on some of their diving expeditions but unfortunately,
even if he took photographs of the operations, they did not survive.46
Towards the end of February, Deane’s party was supplemented by a party of divers led by James Bell who had left Whitstable in mid-January.47 Together the divers engaged in various activities including three descents to investigate the submerged wreck of the Prince. They salvaged material from the Prince and other capsized ships in Balaklava harbour and this was eventually transported to England in the Robert Lowe. The divers also gave assistance to a military expedition to Kertch and an exploration of the Sea of Azoff. These activities would have kept the divers busy and thereby have provided some compensation for the fact that they never carried out their original intention of blowing up the scuttled Russian ships.48
Even if the cylinders had become available to the divers would have had problems while the Russian still occupied Sebastopol. Manned enemy guns stationed on the north and south banks of the entrance to the harbour would have prevented any serious attempt to blow up the block-ships. Russian forces maintained a presence on North bank of the entrance until they finally retreated at the fall of Sebastopol in September 1855.49 Before they retreated, they scuttled all the ships remaining in the harbour across the entrance. It was only then that John Deane, James Bell and their parties, assisted by naval personnel, were able to clear the entrance of the harbour using their explosive devices. The Robert Lowe continued to give assistance to the diving operations. In 1860 the Russians raised five steamships but it was not until the summer of 1869 an American party led by Colonel John Gowan salvaged the remaining 52 vessels.50
Florence Nightingale, tending soldiers at one of the hospitals at Scutari
(Illustrated London News, February 24, 1855)
On 27 October 1854, exactly 7 months after the British had declared war on Russia, the celebrated British nurse, Florence Nightingale, arrived in Scutari. Already, cholera and dysentery were endemic amongst the soldiers. Food, water and, most of all medicine, were in desperately short supply. The mismanagement of the war, and particularly of the hospitals in Scutari, had reached scandalous proportions. Nightingale berated mismanagement. Although she could do nothing about the chaotic running of the war, during her six months in Scutari, she was at least able to transform the conditions prevailing in the hospitals.51 Medical services in Scutari and Crimea were administered from London by Andrew Smith, the Director General of the Army medical Department. He had appointed Dr John Hall to administer the services in Crimea.52 In the same month as Nightingale had run, Hall had sent Smith a glowing report of conditions in the Scutari hospitals before he joined troops in Balaclava on, or very shortly after, the town was taken on 25 October 1854.530 Nightingale would have been aware of the report and she would also have heard that medical practices in Crimea were no better than those she had found in Scutari on her arrival.54 It is not surprising therefore that her opinion of Hall was already low when, with conditions in Scutari having improved, she was considering a visit to the hospitals in Crimea.
Hall’s opinion of Nightingale was no better than hers of him. He considered that she had no authority either to inspect hospitals in the Crimea, or to direct the nurses serving there. He had a reputation as a tyrant and was sceptical of the employment of women in administrative roles in the medical service. He opposed the use of chloroform.55 He had not cheerfully accepted the order to serve in Crimea and he may well have been party to the decision not to give Nightingale an official role in Crimea but rather to describe her as “The Almoner of the Free Gifts in the British Hospitals in the Crimea” the gifts in question were subscribed by the British public.56
On 2 May 1855, still laden with Deane’s cylinders, the Robert Lowe set sail for Balaclava in dazzling spring sunshine. On board were not only Florence Nightingale and four of her nurses but also Alexis Soyer, the noted French chef of the Reform Club, who was as keen to improve culinary practice in Crimea as Nightingale was to improve medical standards.57 The ship's performance was evidently not up to her usual standard. On the 5th of May – her 35th birthday – Nightingale wrote in her diary: "Poor old Flo steaming up the Bosporus & across the Black Sea in the Robert Lowe or Robert Slow (for an uncommon slowcoach she is) taking back 420 of her 'convalescents' to be shot at again".57
A huge crowd greeted the Robert Lowe when she did at last reach Balaclava on the 7th of May. Her average speed of 2½ knots had indeed been very slow – but she did not take the eight days that some reports suggested. At Balaclava Nightingale and Soyer found that no suitable accommodation had been provided for them ashore. Congalton therefore provided hospitality on board the Robert Lowe while she was in port.58
Revisions complete up to this point.
The process of correcting and enlarging the
article will be resumed in mid-February
In late September 1856 – by then commissioned as a Royal Mail Steam-Ship – the Robert Lowe was berthed in London's Victoria Docks. William Congalton was preparing her for a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope. The previous month, for an annual subsidy of £28,000, Lindsay had contracted to run a monthly mail service out to Cape Town in thirty-eight days. It was started in August 1856, and the Robert Lowe, was the second ship to provide the service. She arrived at the Cape in November after a thirty-nine day voyage. The service was later extended to Mauritius, Ceylon and India. But it was far from being Lindsay's most successful project as it it collapsed after only a year of operation.
On 28 November 1860 the Robert Lowe, whilst on charter to Shaw Savill, arrived at Auckland, New Zealand, having carried troops from Britain to fight in the Maori Wars. In his 1924 book, White Wings, Sir Henry Brett, wrote:
The Robert Lowe, which brought over 700 souls, including 500 soldiers under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Sir J. E. Alexander, was an auxiliary screw steam vessel of 1049 tons, clipper rig, and built of iron by naval architects. Under the command of Captain Congalton, she sailed from Cork on September 7 and crossed the Equator after 21 days at sea. The meridian of the Cape was passed on November 2, and the vessel arrived as above after a voyage devoid of incident. She thus made the passage out in 82 days, 15 of which the ship was under steam. This was four days better than the previously unequalled record of the Spray of the Ocean, established the previous year, when she arrived at Auckland after a dashing passage of 86 days from Deal.
During the summer of 1862 a series of very similar advertisements appeared in the British press. This one is from the London Daily News of 14 June:
In spite of the mention of the punctuality in the advert, the date of departure kept slipping. It wasn't until 15 September, that the Robert Lowe eventually set sail from London's Shadwell Basin with about 180 passengers on board.
The Shadwell Basin in 1953 with the steeple of St Paul's on the left. The basin
was much the same in the 1950s as it was in the 1860s, but it's very different now.
Among the passengers were 36 young unmarried women, mainly from the cotton mills of Lancashire. They had been recruited by the Columbia Mission Society of London to provide wives for the overwhelming male population of British Colombia. They were known by the other passengers as "brides" and the Robert Lowe became known as a "bride ship" – one of several such vessels that took young women from England to the colonies during the 1860s and 1870s. Also on board were many would-be gold prospectors who were responding to the opening sentence of the advert. Since the were probably quite a few more of them than there were "brides" said the whole exercise was somewhat counter-productive!
Among them were Charles Edward Monro and my great grandfather, Henry Taylor, who was sailing to the colony in the hope of making his fortune in the gold mines of the Caribou. You can read of his exploits in Henry Taylor's Journal.
During the late spring and summer of 1863 Robert Lowe was used as a tea clipper. In early May she left Shanghai for Hankow, taking ten days for the voyage of 608 miles. On 23 June she sailed from Hankow for Shanghai and London with a full cargo of tea, cotton, etc., arriving at Shanghai on 27 June and sailing for London on 8 July 1864. Of this voyage, on pp 467-468 of Volume 4 of History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce, his magnus opus, Lindsay himself wrote:
On the 8th May of that year, another of my auxiliary steamships³, the Robert Lowe, of 1250 tons, commanded by William Congalton, left Shanghai for Hankow for the purpose of loading a cargo of teas direct for London: two other English vessels had, however, preceded her.
The navigation of this river was then very little known, and there were many difficulties to encounter which have since been removed; under these circumstances, and as the engines of the Robert Lowe were only 80 nominal horse-power, her passage between Shanghai and Hankow, a distance of 608 miles, occupied ten days: one day, however, was lost in changing her propeller, while she had to anchor every night. The current against her averaged three knots an hour, but in some parts ran fully five knots. The least depth of water (the river being then at its ordinary height) found by soundings was 4¾ fathoms on the bar of the Longshan crossing: the average depth being from 8 to 9 fathoms, but, in many places, Captain Congalton did not obtain soundings at a depth of 14 fathoms, and, in long reaches, where the waters were contracted, the depths were from 20 to 30 fathoms.
At Hankow, where the Robert Lowe anchored to receive her cargo (about 300 yards from the bank), the depth of water was 14 fathoms, with a current running at the rate of 3½ knots an hour. The new teas generally arrive in boats (chops) about the 10th of June, and, on the 23rd of that month, she sailed with a full cargo for Shanghai and London. She was fifty-seven hours under weigh on her passage from Hankow to Shanghai; the current, the river being then fuller, running at from four to, in some places, seven knots an hour.
On 17 November 1869 the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III of France, officially opened the Suez Canal.Here are some of the first vessels passing through the waterway:
About six months later the Robert Lowe successfully negotiated the canal. By that time she had outlived many of her contempories – but, as a steamer, she was doomed. Soon after she returned to England she was sold, renamed the Iron Cross and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of her engines. The purchaser was Henry Fernie of Liverpool. He used her as a cargo ship until the end of her life in 1891.
The Iron Cross at an unknown port
(The photograph is from the Brodie Collection – part of the La Trobe Picture Collection of the State Library of
Victoria, Australia and is reproduced for academic research purposes only with the Library's consent).
On 4 December 1872 the Mary Celeste sank unaccountably off the Azores. This 1861 painting is one of the few that were made of the vessel:
The Amazon in 1861 – later to become the doomed Mary Celeste
At the time she was called the Amazon. When she set off for what was to be her last voyage she had just been rebuilt. Although the reason for her loss remains a mystery it was certainly not a result of stormy weather. Conditions were calm around the Azores at the time. However four days later, on Sunday 8 December 1872, a hurricane struck southern England. It was said at the time to be one of the worst that had been experienced. It would not have been severe as the tempest of the night of 26 November, 1703 but it may have been as severe as the one that wasn't forecast by Michael Fish in October 1987.
"Good afternoon. Earlier on today a woman rang the BBC and said she'd heard that
there was a hurricane on the way. Well if you're watching don't worry there isn’t".
In defence of the much-derided Michael Fish, apparently he was right. Strong though it was, the storm wasn't intense enough to be classified as a hurricane!
During the December 1872 storm, whilst sailing westward in the English Channel with a cargo of coal bound for Bombay, the Iron Cross experienced the full force of the gale. The vessel hove to and the foretopmast staysail blew from the ropes. At 6pm, a heavy sea struck her, carrying away bulwarks on both aides, breaking 14 stanchions, filling the middle compartment with about 9 feet of water, and injuring two men; cargo was also badly shifted. However, by the following day, the weather moderated. The ship was able to set canvas and sail up the Channel to Portland Roads were they put in for repairs. But a day or two after arrival, the crews, who had just joined and obtained their month's advance, refused to proceed to sea. Two men were committed to Dorchester Gaol for 12 weeks imprisonment on account of their refusal to board ship.
Little is known about the subsequent career of the ship until she met her end at mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea.
The Söderarm Light
On 5 September, 1891, she left Gefle (now Gävle) in Sweden bound for Melbourne, Australia, with 1850 tons of cargo including 360 tons of pig-iron. Soon after midnight, she was 85 km northeast of Stockholm, near the Söderarm Light when she struck the Storgrundsbädan Rock. She became jammed was extensively damaged. The sails and much of the contents of the hold were recovered and there was no loss of life. Although her 37-year life was over, she had outlived her original owner by 14 years. William Schaw Lindsay had died on 28 August 1877.
The location of the Storgrundsbädan Rock is indicated by the red arrow in the above map. Click on it to increase the scale. The map on which it is based can be seen at: www.xn--vbam-5qa.se/bildtemp/40324.jpg
The report of the Court of Inquiry into the incident can be seen here.
Robert Cutts, firstname.lastname@example.org, January 2016
Notes and references