Records of a Bygone Age: The loss of the steam drifter Dewdrop

By Ian Cooper and kindly republished here from The Stronsay Limpet

As the 19th century neared its end, steam was rapidly and relentlessly taking over from sail. These new steam powered ships were much less influenced by the vagaries of wind and tide but navigation was still fraught with difficulty, particularly where high seas were coupled with conditions of poor visibility. This is the tale of the difficulties encountered by one such ship, the steam drifter Dewdrop, and the tragedy that befell some of her crew.

Of wooden construction and built in Anstruther, Fife in 1883, the Dewdrop was originally 71’ long but in 1890 was lengthened to 85’ with a beam of 20’ and a draft of 7½’, fitted with a 2 cylinder steam engine delivering 32 horsepower and capable of propelling her at up to 9 knots. Among the first of this new breed of drifters to be brought into use, she was very much a typical steam drifter of the time, carrying a crew of 8 or 9 and being equipped with a steam winch enabling her to work bigger and heavier nets. Although first registered in Dundee, by the end of the 19th century she had been bought by John Lewis & Son of Point Law in Aberdeen where she was then registered for fishing with the number A11.

On Friday 27th October 1889, while making her way to Stronsay in a strong south westerly gale, the Dewdrop and her crew of eight men were driven ashore on the Swarf, a long, broad shoal of rocks near Linga Holm and the entrance to St Catherine’s Bay on the west side of Stronsay. That evening, it was reported that the vessel was flying signals of distress but, due to weather and sea conditions, no rescue could be attempted.

The following day, with the wind easing and seas moderating, the ship’s Master James Mutch, took the ship’s lifeboat and four of her crew and went ashore on Stronsay to telegraph a report of the ship’s stranding to the owners and to seek assistance in getting her off. While they were away, the wind again increased until it became a terrific storm, this time from the west. With the sea now breaking right over the stranded vessel, she was hammering on the rocks and was beginning to break up.

With no hope of rescue reaching them, the three remaining crew constructed a makeshift raft – reputedly utilising the ship’s wheelhouse – and, around 5 o’ clock that afternoon, cast themselves adrift to the mercy of the elements. One crewman was washed off the raft soon after leaving the ship and a second before they reached the coast of Stronsay but the third, although cold and exhausted, safely reached land where he was taken to a nearby farmhouse and was well looked after. Soon after the remaining crew had abandoned the Dewdrop, wind and sea carried the ship right over the top of the skerry, where she sank in deep water about 600 yards inside the skerry with only the tops of her mast showing. Sadly, the bodies of the two men who had been swept away were later recovered from the Stronsay shore.

All six surviving crew members were then taken to the Stronsay Hotel where they stayed until they could make their way to Kirkwall en route for home.

On Sunday morning, there was a lull in the storm during which Lloyd’s agent Captain George Robertson, who had been brought up on Stronsay and knew the waters well, proceeded to the area in the steamer ‘Fawn’ but discovered that nothing could be seen but the tops of the masts and the ship was therefore declared a total loss.

Very soon after, on 21st November 1899, at an auction sale in the Temperance Hotel in Kirkwall, the Dewdrop was offered for sale by the underwriters and was bought by a Mr Taylor of Grangemouth for £5. The ship’s boat was sold at the same auction, with it realising £4. With the ship’s boat realising only £1 less than the ship itself, it would seem that the purchase of the wreck was, at best, fairly speculative.

It appears that there must have been some hope of salvaging the Dewdrop as it was reported that, in May the following year, the steamer ‘Fawn’ from Kirkwall with divers aboard came to Stronsay to work on the wreck of the Dewdrop and also on the passenger and cargo steamship St Rognvald, which had run aground and been wrecked on Burgh Head on the east side of Stronsay the previous month.

Sadly, while engaged on a dive to survey the Dewdrop to see if a steel hawser could be passed under her, 50 year old Kirkwall man John Flett failed to respond to signals from the dive boat and, on being pulled back aboard, was found to be dead. The salvage attempt was abandoned and a Fatal Accident inquiry later that year recorded a cause of accidental death, with a possible unidentified problem with the airline thought to be a contributing factor in his death.

Captain Robertson, who was a founding member and chief instigator in the formation of the Orkney Steam Navigation Company in 1868 and was indeed still manager of the Company, had an uncanny aptitude for turning a profit from salvage operations and he and the Fawn made another salvage attempt in August that year but, due to deteriorating weather conditions at the time, it too had to be abandoned

The following year, around the beginning of August 1901 and with the Dewdrop now having been at the bottom of the sea for well nigh two years, yet another attempt was made to salvage her, this time with more success, as she was raised and floated in to shallow water near Linga Holm awaiting a tow to Kirkwall. The services of the Grangemouth steam tug ‘Tyne’ had been engaged for this salvage operation but this too was beset by problems as on the morning of Friday 16th August while manoeuvring in shallow water she struck bottom, was holed and she too sank! The Fawn was once again called from Kirkwall to assist and fortunately it was possible at low water to pump out the tug and effect temporary repairs which enabled her to make Kirkwall under her own power where more permanent repairs were carried out.

The Dewdrop was finally towed into Kirkwall Harbour on 30th August and was found not to be as badly damaged as was originally thought. The following week, a contract to repair the engines and mechanical gear was secured by Mr William Leslie of Kirkwall and repairs to the hull by carpenter Mr George Marcus, also of Kirkwall. These repairs were quickly and efficiently carried out and the Dewdrop, now seaworthy once more, was sold once again, this time to Samuel Reid jnr. of Kirkwall.

With the apparent loss of the Dewdrop, her Aberdeen registry was cancelled on 1st November 1899 but in 1903, now under the ownership of Mr Reid, she was again registered for fishing, this time at Wick under the new name of Acacia and the registration number WK561.

In 1917 she was again sold, this time to a fisherman in Lowestoft where she was re-registered as LT984 and fished successfully until her fishing registry was closed in 1920. She was subsequently sold to a Mr Henry Mathieson of Southampton and converted to a cargo ship, a fate that befell so many of her kind as fishing became a less profitable business.

In January 1921, while en route from Cherbourg to Cowes with a load of granite she encountered heavy weather which strained her timbers badly and, to prevent her sinking, she had to be run ashore on mud flats at Hurst Castle on the approach to Cowes Harbour. Most of her cargo was salvaged by barge but a few days later on 21st January 1921 she was, for the second time, declared by Lloyd’s to be a total wreck. There the story should end but, four days later, it was reported that she had once again been successfully refloated and, reports say, was ‘towed off to the east’ but this, I fear, was to be the final voyage of a valiant old ship.

seascape  by Petra Jochen Bruckhaus

credit: Petra Jochen Bruckhaus


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