Early in 1873, 342 emigrants gathered at London’s West India Docks. Most were men their late teens or early twenties. They were drawn from the tough underclass that built Victorian Britain. There were a sprinkling of older men – the oldest said he was 46 – and a few had brought wife and family (there were 42 women and 52 children under 12). The 950 ton Northfleet was chartered by the greatest international railway contractor of the day to carry 340 tons of rails plus labourers who were to build a new railway between Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania.
The 180 foot long Northfleet was a fast and seaworthy Blackwall frigate. Blackwalls were a class of elegant, sleek three-masted sailing ship, somewhat reminiscent of a clipper.
One person was missing from the 37-strong crew – the captain. A letter from the Treasury Solicitor saved him from certain death. He had been subpoenaed at the last minute to appear for the prosecution in the notorious Tichborne Case and so forbidden to leave the country. On Oates’ recommendation, the ship’s owners gave the command of the Northfleet to its newly-married first officer Edward Knowles. Only six weeks married, Knowles’ wife Frederica insisted that the three month voyage would be a fitting honeymoon.
On Friday 17th January the steam tug Middlesex towed the ship out of the estuary and south into the Channel, parting with her off Deal in Kent. A gale force wind in wrong direction made headway down the English Channel impossible. By Sunday morning, after two nights in a heavy sea, they were blown back further east than they were on Friday.
By Wednesday morning, January 22nd, the Northfleet had not made 50 miles from where she started. The skies were clear but the wind was strengthening all the time with rough sea and sudden rain showers. Taking their cue from nearly 200 other ships that were sheltering from the southwest wind in the lee of Dungeness point, the Northfleet anchored just before lunch on Wednesday to sit out the storm until the next day.
As it got dark, the crew lit the brilliant white bull’s eye globe paraffin lamp and hauled it half way up in the starboard rigging of the foremast. That was the rule of the sea when ships were at anchor, but it was almost unnecessary here, so close to shore and out of the sea lanes. Everyone onboard could plainly see the electric light of the Dungeness lighthouse about two miles away. Around them other ships lit their running lights as they settled down for the night.
The English Channel was getting busier by the year. Traffic was changing too. Sailing ships following the wind were being replaced by paddle and screw propeller steamers going wherever they wished. The rule was “sail before steam”, but time was unquestionably money and so captains were encouraged to go as fast as possible and as much as possible in a straight line. There was some degree of traffic management in the Channel. Steam ships always followed the deep water channel a couple miles further out from where the Northfleet and the other sheltering ships were anchored in about 30 feet of water.
About noon that same Wednesday, a schooner-rigged two funnelled Spanish steamer called the Murillo raised steam and nosed out of Antwerp in Belgium to cross the Channel. Though nominally Spanish, she was part owned by an English company and one of a number of ships in the company which provided a weekly service between London and Spain. The Murillo was built in Glasgow in 1866. She was longer, taller and heavier than the Northfleet. Built to move live cattle, coincidentally she too had a cargo of rails this time, 950 tons of them, bound for Lisbon. But first the ship had to stop in Dover to drop off the owner. Like the Northfleet, she too would be without her regular captain, Pascual Marc. Coincidentally, he was a witness in a court case. The chief mate Felipe Beruti would take the ship onward. Three Englishmen were aboard, a passenger named Samuel Bell and the ship’s first and second engineers, Giles Bethell from Gloucestershire and James Goodeave from Wandsworth. The Murillo left Dover at around 8pm and started down the English Channel.
Back on the Northfleet, in the converted hold that was the single men’s cabin, the card playing and singsongs were over. Some men were exhausted by days of sea sickness. Just before 10:30 pm 22-year old John Start was folding his clothes on his bunk painted with his number, 56, situated on the starboard side just below the main hatch. He heard shouting and a whistle blowing on deck, to which he didn’t pay much attention. Moments later he was knocked off his feet as the riveted iron plates of a ship’s bow broke through the heavy horizontal teak planking, pushing knee braces aside and splintering the decking both above Start’s head and below his feet.
The wet black hull stayed there for quite a few seconds, effectively sealing the gigantic hole it had made below the waterline. Silently, it slid back and disappeared, replaced by unreal sight of the waterfall of cold green sea that in moments covered the cabin inches deep. Hundreds of sleeping men awoke to realise that there was a good chance they were going to drown. They began fighting their way up to the deck. Start was already there. He would survive. The Northfleet would sink 20 to 30 minutes later.
Ship’s lifeboats got in the way of a sailing ship’s complicated rigging. There were just six boats on board — two lifeboats in davits and four cutters. If each boat were filled in an orderly fashion to capacity there was only sufficient for a quarter of the souls on board — but rules for emigrants’ ships gave better odds of survival than the Royal Navy gave its sailors.
To prevent cutters getting washed overboard in heavy seas the boats were turned hull up, mounted on skids hanging over the quarter deck. On a good day in calm seas it took 15 minutes for an experienced crew to launch one of these boats. The navvies began using brute force to match their ignorance of how it should be done, but were getting nowhere. They turned their attention to the lifeboats.
Confusion descended into hysteria. No-one later was prepared do describe in detail what transpired in those last few moments, but it was probably brutish and ugly. Knowles was bellowing “women and children first” but no-one thought to obey him. Thomas Biddiss was a 28-year old who had worked as a labourer on the Manchester Ship Canal. His logic was simple, if supremely selfish, but he was not alone. Other men — including some of the crew — elbowed women and children out of the way to get a place in one of the boats. The boatswain John Easter, whom Knowles had ordered to take his wife to safety, tried to throw them off the boat, but even as he did, more jumped in.
Knowles judged that unless he acted now, his young wife might be thrown out of the boat. He drew his revolver and shouted that he would shoot the next coward that tried to get in. Biddiss reckoned that death by drowning was certain and so he reasoned he might as well get shot attempting to climb onto the boat as wait for the sea to kill him. As he scrambled in Knowles ordered him out of the boat. He refused.
Knowles told the boatswain Easter to stand aside while he took aim. Biddiss felt the first bullet pass close by his head, but the next shot went deep into his leg just above his left knee. He fell into the boat bleeding heavily and in great pain. He survived.
The boat left with just nine people. With all order broken down, men commandeered a second boat. They launched it not knowing that it had drain holes and plugs. When they were rescued by one of the three tugs that now appeared on the scene, their craft was all but underwater. Then Northfleet’s stern rose out of the water. With a loud exhalation of air the ship sank. As it was in shallow water it settled in an upright position on the bottom with just the tops of its masts above the water. Some men had the sense to climb into the rigging. Anyone who survived described the cries for help. The screams of those that did not continued for only a short while in the January night.
None of the anchored ships – one as close as 400 yards by some accounts – did anything. Blue signal rockets that the ship’s Chinese steward continued firing off before the ship sank were thought by the coastguard lifeboat station to be a signal calling for a pilot boat to turn out. At the final tally, just 74 passengers, ten crew and the ship’s pilot escaped.
The story of what happened came during the enquiry from witness statements of the three Britons on board the Murillo. Each told the same version of events. The Murillo was making full speed down the Channel from Dover when the engines first went to half speed and then were reversed. Second engineer Goodeave, who was off duty and Bell who were sharing a cabin felt the impact and went on deck. They saw that they had hit a large anchored and lighted sailing vessel with white painted portholes and a white figurehead (both thought it was probably an emigrant ship). They had struck amidships on the starboard side.
By now Bethell had joined the other two on deck. All reported that they heard shouts and screaming in English “Don’t leave us. Send boats”. They shouted back that they would. As the Murillo backed away and motored around the stern of the Northfleet they imagined the captain was manoeuvring to a better spot to begin lowering his boats. They were wrong. Bethell, who had returned to the engine room was ordered to resume full speed. Knowing full well what he had done, the captain of the Murillo headed out to sea.
In the days following the disaster public shock turned to “hot indignation” over the criminal callousness of any mariner who could ignore the obvious damage he had done and sail away. Find that ship and bring the captain back to face his crime, newspapers demanded. But which ship? None of the survivors could name the vessel. It was just a large two-masted steamer that came straight at them. Its bow was higher than the deck rail of the Northfleet. It was probably painted black and carried no visible name. For a few days there was speculation that the other ship too had sunk with all hands in the Channel.
By the 29th of January Lloyd’s agents in Portugal reported by telegraph that the Murillo was acting suspiciously. She went into Lisbon to unload her cargo but abruptly sailed away to Cadiz with the rails still onboard. Her bow was freshly painted, but there were some signs of a collision with a wooden ship.
When it reached Cadiz, the Spanish arrested the captain and crew, but they were soon released. All though that year various enquiries, coroner’s inquests and judicial proceedings named the guilty man, but as extradition was unavailable, no-one was ever held responsible for the deaths. The most that English justice could manage was to ban the ship from British ports. This made the ship economically unviable, so when the ship needed extensive repair the owners conceded defeat and sailed the vessel back. Officials boarded and “arrested” the ship when it moored off Dover in September. It was sold to pay off some of the insurance claims.
Of the £7,000 donated to the Lord Mayor’s Fund it was decided that Knowles’ widow should get £1,000. A sliding scale of payments reflected the individual’s social standing rather than the actual needs of the deceased’s family. It was also ruled that the surviving male passengers were “as was long suspected, a worthless set of fellows” and should get nothing.
The human cost was high indeed. Very few of the bodies were ever found. Only two of the 52 children and babies on board were saved and only one of the 42 women (aside from the captain’s wife). The only shred of good news was that the one woman found and the second child rescued were part of the only family that was saved. They were John (aged 23) and Lucy (aged 22) Sturgeon and their tiny baby Harriet, who was just seven months old at the time of the nightmare. One of Harriet’s descendants reported that the Sturgeons lost all their belongings and spent time in a sailors’ home, but finally settled in Rotherham, where they opened a tripe factory and became “quite prosperous”.
A ten-year old little waif is staring vacantly into the distance. She is clearly in shock. She poses — unwillingly you would guess — for her picture before a painted studio backdrop of the White Cliffs of Dover. Beside her, just to rub it in, is one of the Northfleet’s cork life saving rings, inscribed with the ship’s name. Maria Taplin looks uncomfortable in a new dress (probably the first she ever owned that wasn’t a hand-me-down) of mourning black, hurriedly stitched by the good ladies of Dover so that she could wear it on the train journey to London, to be exhibited hand in hand with Captain Knowles’ widow. A few nights ago her entire family died. The last she saw was her father fighting his way through the mob carrying her twin sister Caroline — Carrie as she called her – but they were knocked down by the mob and she never saw them again. Life didn’t get much better for Maria. She was ‘adopted’ by the Forsters, a brother and sister living in Dover. Their motive? Probably for the money Maria was to get from the charitable donations that poured in. Maria literally fell among thieves, as three years later the brother, a prominent local lawyer and honorary Belgian consul, was facing criminal charges. Maria Taplin ended her short sad life at Miss Haddon’s orphanage in Dover where she died of consumption aged 17.