Fateful Last Voyage of Walter Hood – 22 January to 26 April 1870
By 1870, at 18 years old, the Walter Hood was a bit of an ‘old girl’ but still considered sound and seaworthy. After her 1869 voyage she’d spent some time in London being repaired and having her copper replaced, giving her another 6 year rating from Lloyd’s. Her captain, Andrew Latto had already sailed her three times to Sydney and back without incident. Until that fateful last voyage…
London to Sydney, 1870
On 22 January 1870, Walter Hood leaves Gravesend for her ill-fated final voyage to Sydney.
What’s aboard Walter Hood?
The Walter Hood‘s outbound cargo is the usual mix of heavy ballast in iron rails, hoops, pipes and wire, and casks of cement, plus household goods, furniture, woollen blankets, cloth and clothing, pickled fish and salt. Added to that is a very large quantity of wine and beer plus lots of ‘packages’ destined for various businesses, contents unknown. Many of the names on the ship’s manifest below are export/import companies and brokers.
Who’s aboard Walter Hood?
Unusually for this trip, there are also three passengers – two brothers, James and John Smith returning from London to Sydney, and Joshua Haynes from Barbados.
Walter Hood has 32 crew aboard:
Captain – Andrew Latto
Chief officer – William Hewison
Second mate – RF Cullen
Third mate – William Tickler
Boatswain (Bo’sun) – James Sinclair
Carpenter – David Grey
Sailmaker – James Thorn
Cook – Edward Harvey
Steward – William Berry
13 Able seamen – Joseph Ashton, John Jullien, Charles Branson, Robert Williams, Charles Coombs, ? Murray, R McPherson, Edward Lemon, R Croy, G Maul, W Scott, E Dunkerton, C Parnell. (NOTE ‘able-seaman’ means a more experienced sailor on a merchant vessel who is rated to perform a wide range of duties. He is paid more than an ordinary seaman)
6 Ordinary seamen – Alexander Wilkie, James Davis, James Moyes, W. Butchard, ? Fenwick, Joseph Wilson
3 Apprentices – Henry Gale, WL Sinclair, W. Lindsay
1 Boy – Charles Pritchard
So far, so good…then storm
After leaving London, the Walter Hood makes good time, and lands briefly at Cape Otway (south-west of Melbourne) on 23 April 1870. From there she continues through Bass Strait and up the Gippsland coast. Here, Latto and his crew first encounter a huge storm coming in from the south-east. The stunsails (extra sails on their own boom set outside the normal width of the yards) are ripped off. Two hours after seeing the Gabo Island light on 25 April, the storm increases and the topsails are torn off.
The Walter Hood now records her first casualty of the storm, losing Wilkie overboard. Someone throws Wilkie a lifebuoy but he can’t get to it in the massive seas. And in a violent storm like this, the ship can’t turn around to look for him.
The ship passes about 20 miles east of Cape Howe (just north of Mallacoota Inlet). Chief Officer Hewison and other seamen are up the masts trying to replace the torn topsails, but more sails are torn off. The crew work hard to put Walter Hood under a storm rig that can survive the howling wind and keep her sailing, although, without her topsails, she will lose lift and be in danger of being ‘pooped’ (when a large following sea crashes down onto the rear deck).
The ship is constantly pounded by huge waves, the wind increases and the air is so thick with heavy rain and foam that the captain and crew can’t see ahead.
Just how big is this storm in late April 1870?
The storm that surrounds the Walter Hood is not just out at sea. These days we would call it an ‘east-coast low’, which typically last three or four days, and tears roofs from houses, pushes ships onto the shore, eats away the beaches and causes widespread flooding. And this one is huge. At Eden, the wind measuring instruments collapse and the telegraph goes down. The Murrumbidgee River floods and there’s flooding all the way up the coast to the New England area.
But the worst of the storm hits the South Coast. In April 1870, the upper Shoalhaven River at Burrier rises to 23.32 metres and to 5.61 metres in Nowra. The little town of Terara on the south bank of the river is tragically swept away. The Australian Town and Country Journal correspondent files this report on 28 April 1870:
The Sydney Morning Herald of 3 May also reports the damage:
In Ulladulla on 26 April, a group of Aboriginal people who live in the camp at south Ulladulla (Warden’s Head) come to see local magistrate and businessman David Warden, telling him they’ve seen a ship sailing north in the storm. He hurries to a vantage point and sees that the ship is very close to the coast. He asks the Aboriginal men to run to the next headland and report back what they see.
Why is the Walter Hood sailing so dangerously close to the coast in a south-easterly storm?