Culture

The Wreck of the Charlotte: Records of a Bygone Age

By Ian Cooper

On 2nd of February 1883, the Bremen registered barque Charlotte left Antwerp bound for New York with a cargo of pig iron, steel wire and a large number of empty petroleum casks.The 1370 ton vessel, under the command of Ship’s Master E Gutsmuths, was 3 days into her journey when a strong south-easterly gale blew up, with the resulting weather and sea conditions leading to poor visibility which in turn made navigation extremely difficult.

Early in the morning of the 6th of February, when by the captain’s reckoning, they should be making passage through the channel between Orkney and Fair Isle, a light was seen intermittently in the distance but it was found impossible to ascertain if this was on land or the lights of another vessel.

Being unsure of his true position but suspecting that this could be Fair Isle, the captain took the fateful decision to alter course to pass this light on his starboard side. A few minutes later, land and breaking seas were seen dead ahead and, still under the impression this could be Fair Isle, (this must have been in all probability the point of Grice Ness on Stronsay, about 40 miles south west of his estimated position) the captain again altered course to port, but sadly only minutes later, around 4 o’clock in the morning, struck hard in the little bay known as Sandy Geo, on the north side of the Mill Bay, just a little south of the point of Grice Ness.

It was fortunate that the vessel grounded there, where the seabed was reasonably flat, and not to have taken bottom further north on the point of the promontory where jagged rocks rose steeply from the sea bed and where the combination of dangerous rocks and the heavy seas running at the time would soon have caused her to break up completely, with little hope of the crew reaching safety.

Having grounded at around low water, she was slowly driven further ashore as the tide rose, hammering on the rocks all the while, and by 8 o’clock that morning the decision was made to cut away the foremast which, when done, carried part of the main mast along with it.

This cutting away of a mast was fairly standard practice to help stabilise the hull of a vessel which had taken shore and was aimed at reducing the risk of the ship rolling over.

With the ship in a perilous condition and in danger of breaking up at any time, the 25 strong crew abandoned the ship, all reaching shore safely, while the Captain made the decision to stay with his ship. The following evening, it was reported that the mate had decided to return to the vessel at low tide and was now back on board. Next morning the 8th of February he was to be seen standing on the foredeck waving a flag as if for assistance but, with a heavy sea still running, the weather was too severe for a boat to put out to him. The ship was now rapidly breaking up, with the keel having parted from the rest of the ship and being driven well up the beach, while the rest of the ship could be seen to be cracked in 3 places.

By the 10th of February, the captain and mate had been taken off the vessel and, with the storm now eased, surveyors had an opportunity to inspect the Charlotte at close quarters. They noted that she was lying on rocks with 7 feet of water alongside at low water, the hull was badly strained and that she was waterlogged between the fore and main masts. Their recommendation was that the vessel should be sold, as the expense to attempt to refloat and repair the ship would be more than her value. This recommendation was soon acted upon, with adverts placed in the local press offering her for sale by public auction.

The ‘yellow metal’ referred to, an alloy of 60% copper and 40% zinc, was stronger and considerable cheaper than pure copper bolts and sheathing and was widely used in ship construction from the mid-1800s on. The fact that she was sheathed with this metal ‘about 23 feet up’ gives some indication of the sheer size of this vessel! Dunnage wood was apparently low value wood which was used to help store and secure the cargo in the hold or to fill any voids to help make up a full cargo.

It was reported the following week that:

“The hull of the German barque ‘Charlotte’ , wrecked on Stronsay, Orkney, was sold by the underwriters on Thursday, and purchased by Provost Reid, Kirkwall, for £480.”

Much of the cargo had been salvaged, presumably by J&W Tait’s of Kirkwall who carried out salvage work at that time and who advertised the cargo for sale.

With much of the farmland of Orkney still to be partitioned off into fields as we see them today, I’m left wondering just how much local demand there would have been for 150 tons of black fencing wire which had been immersed in salt water for some considerable time!

The empty petroleum barrels were also successfully salvaged but this too wasn’t without its problems as, on the 28th August that same year, the cargo ship SS Queen, from Aberdeen, on its way to pick up the salvaged casks, grounded on a shoal close to Whitehall Pier while coming into the harbour under the guidance of a pilot. She got off without damage, loading the next day before heading south complete with a cargo of 2000 empty barrels.

At 1370 tons, the Charlotte was a large ship, not dissimilar in size to the Edenmore which was wrecked on Papa Stronsay 26 years later, but unlike the Edenmore, there seems to be no local folklore attached to this vessel or its salvage. The only local snippet that I believe to be relevant to the Charlotte came from Ingram Shearer of Airy as related to him by the late Bill Miller who told of his father and another local fisherman discovering a quantity of pig iron ‘in the ebb’ at the back of the Village, some of which they picked up and used as ballast for their fishing boats. As there was no mention of the pig iron the Charlotte carrying was being salvaged, there is a strong possibility, this could have been some of her cargo which may not have been worth the effort of salvaging at the time. We’ll likely never know now, but it would be interesting to go down there some day to have a ‘ rake about in the ebb’ to see what can be found.

If anyone has any further information about the Charlotte I would be delighted to hear about it.

Many thanks to The Stronsay Limpet for permission to republish Ian Cooper’s excellent account in The Orkney News