Despair! – crew cling desperately to life and the wrecked Walter Hood
Exactly what did happen after the Walter Hood struck the reef in Wreck Bay on the night of 26 April 1870?
By early May, several men had given their accounts of what happened in the following few days of 26-30 April 1870. While they agree on many of the events, there are important differences about who did what when, and how some survived and others did not. Although you might expect that an event as dramatic as a shipwreck would etch what happened strongly and accurately in a man’s memory, often the reverse is true. In emotional and physical trauma, people’s minds do not function clearly and, when that trauma goes on for sometime, in this case four days, it’s very common for memories to become confused.
Third mate William Tickler’s account
Our main primary source, and the one usually quoted, comes from the third officer, William Tickler, as published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 May 1870. As it’s an account given by an eye witness and only a couple of weeks after the wreck, perhaps it is near to the truth, although there is also the filter of the journalist who wrote the story. Tickler also confuses several of the names of victims and survivors.
After a description of the voyage and the wrecking, in his account, the waves breaking over the ship after it is grounded on the reef fling Captain Latto back against the spars or bulwarks, breaking some of his ribs. Crew carry him to his cabin and all men spend the night below deck, sheltering from the violence of the storm.
On the following morning of 27 April, their terrible position is clear. Although they are quite close to shore, perhaps only 120 metres, the swell and surf are huge and the ship is breaking up. To reduce the force on the ship they cut free the mizzen (rear) mast but a young man, James Davis, is entangled with the rigging and pulled overboard. He drowns. All around them the ship is being torn apart by the waves. The deck disintegrates, the ship lists onto her port side, and the cargo is being washed out of the hold.
“About this time Captain Latto came on deck, but was compelled to go below again, and he was shortly after seen floating away to leeward, the bulkhead of the cabin having given way; he had been washed out. No help could be rendered and after a few ineffectual struggles to regain the ship, he sank and was no more seen.”
By now, the crew realise that if any of them are to survive, someone must try to swim to shore. The task falls to passenger Joshua Haynes but the waves sweep him away and he drowns. Then a.b. seaman Joseph Ashton and boatswain James Sinclair both attempt the swim, but they too cannot reach the shore. The current catches them and pulls them out to sea where they also drown. Meanwhile Edward Harvey, the cook, dies from exposure and exhaustion. The men despair.
The following morning, 28 April, the sun is shining and the sea looks slightly calmer. Two able-bodied seamen, West-Indian Robert Williams and American Charles Branson decide that they will try to swim to the beach. They attach a line to Branson but he is overcome by the waves and drowns. Williams miraculously makes it shore and, soon after, Charles Pritchard the pantry boy also survives the swim. Now Chief Officer Hewison attempts the swim – he nearly drowns but Williams and Pritchard swim out and pull him to shore. Second mate RF Cullen is also successful as are a.b. seaman R. McPherson and apprentice Henry Gale. But three others, a.b. seamen Charles Coombs and Edward Lemon, and seaman James Moyes are swept away from the shore and drowned.
Several times the men already on shore try to swim out to the wreck with a line to rescue those still on board but the waves force them back to the beach.
By the night of 28 April, ten men from the Walter Hood have died.
On the morning of Friday 29 April, the weather is fine and the seas are calmer still. But conditions on the wreck are fast deteriorating as the ship breaks apart and the men have to survive without fresh water or food. Brothers James and John Smith who are passengers aboard the Walter Hood decide it’s time to try to get to shore by swimming to the nearest rocks rather than the beach. They succeed.
By now, those left on board are desperate for water and food. There was only one thing possible:
“a dog, belonging to the captain…was eagerly eaten, the blood being saved in a sou’wester and shared out”
Chief Officer Hewison’s account
Hewison gives his account in his deposition at the coronial inquest. Tickler had not mentioned the drowning of a.b. seaman John Jullien or the successful swimming to shore of a.b. seaman R. Croy, but we learn of their fate in Hewison’s deposition at the coronial inquest. Hewison’s list of victims and survivors differs in other ways from Tickler’s account – Hewison says Tickler and Sinclair attempted the swim but both came back to the ship, and that ‘Turner” swam ashore, although there is no Turner on the crew list for the voyage. He doesn’t mention how James Davis died.
After Hewison reads Tickler’s account in the Sydney Morning Herald, he writes to the editor:
However Hewison died on 25 July 1870 from “a painful illness, brought on by exposure consequent upon the wreck of the unfortunate ship Walter Hood” and the reason for his rebuttal is unknown.
At then, at 5pm on 29 April, word comes that help is on its way! But how were the men rescued? And who had come to their aid?