I’m uncomfortably aware that the research portion of this blog has gone by the board over the last few months – blame it on my struggles with an upcoming book. So I thought it might be an idea to step back and take a detailed look at ways of getting an entirely new project off the ground, exploiting all the sources that are available nowadays to someone trying to pin down a subject – perhaps one that’s not too well documented and that seems a challenge to research.
All on board? OK, let’s pick a topic and see what we can do with it. Oh, and to inject a little bit of faux excitement in the project – just like on TV! – we’ll also set ourselves a totally spurious time deadline of, say, one hour to gather as much information we possibly can. Well, if it’s good enough for Time Team…
Our subject is one I’ve known of vaguely for years and years, but never properly looked into: the mysterious disappearance of the steamer Waratah, a brand-new passenger ship belonging to the Blue Anchor Line, in July 1909. The ship, a 9,300 ton, single-stack luxury liner intended for the London-Sydney route, vanished off the coast of South Africa with all hands – a total of 211 passengers and crew. According to most accounts, not a single body or piece of identifiable wreckage was ever found, and repeated searches have since failed to reveal any trace of the ship on the sea bed.
If that was all there was to the Waratah’s tale, it would be enough to make the story interesting – it’s surprisingly rare for a vessel of such size to vanish absolutely without trace. But there’s another facet to the legend, one I remember pretty vividly from my first encounter with it in – I think – Carey Miller’s pot-boiler Baffling Mysteries, one of the paperback oddity books I used to devour as a kid. One passenger, so the story goes, survived the loss of the doomed ship by disembarking when she called at the South African port of Durban just before she vanished.
This man’s name was Claude Sawyer, and he was an engineer of wide experience, with enough knowledge of ship stability to notice some worrying things about the Waratah during the first leg of her final voyage. Boarding the ship in Sydney, Sawyer noticed that she rolled heavily even in moderate weather, and took an unusually long time to recover. On one occasion, sitting in his bath, Sawyer was surprised to notice that the water was tilting to an angle of 45 degrees – a discovery that alarmed him so much that he mentioned it to some fellow passengers and at least one member of the Waratah’s crew.
It was what happened next that gives the Waratah story an especially spooky quality. On three successive nights – or so the story goes – Sawyer was awakened from an uneasy onboard sleep by a terrible nightmare in which he saw the figure of a man armed with a sword standing before him. (Miller’s book had a spooky illustration portraying the man as a medieval knight.) In the more elaborate versions of the legend, the figure is a man on horseback, or even a Roman soldier, who rises from the waves ahead of the ship. But all tellers or the tale agree that as well as brandishing a sword, the mute figure that haunted Sawyer’s dreams was carrying a blood-soaked cloth that it thrust towards the engineer.
Not surprisingly, Sawyer was considerably alarmed by his triple vision – so much so that, despite having a booking through to London, he left the ship at the first opportunity, cabling his wife: “Thought Waratah top heavy, landed Durban.” Soon afterwards, after the liner had departed and while Sawyer himself was waiting in port for another ship headed for London, he had another dream. In this one, a ship, much like the Waratah, was labouring through heavy seas. As Sawyer watched, horrified, she was struck on the beam by a huge wave that rolled her over and sent her plunging to the bottom.
Leaving aside the vexed question of whether Mr Sawyer’s subconscious was doing its darnedest to give him a good kick up the backside or there was something genuinely supernatural about his dreams, it’s certainly true that nothing definite was heard from the Waratah after her departure from Durban. She was seen by at least one other vessel, a smaller steamer called the Clan McIntyre, but despite the rising seas she appeared to be in no difficulty and pulled ahead. Next day, the Clan McIntyre ran into a heavy storm, which the Waratah must also have encountered. The liner was never seen again, and Sawyer, among others, soon concluded that she had probably met with a fate very similar to the one he had seen in his dream.
Right, so that’s the bare bones of our story. Suppose, then, that we’re planning to write something on the subject – an article, perhaps, or even a chapter in a book. We want to make sure our take on the story is accurate, and we want, if possible, to add some new information. How do we go about making a start with our research?
The clock’s ticking now, so let’s begin with the obvious, a hurried Google search.
A quick look at the first slew of results reveals several competing uses of the word Waratah – it’s also an Australian wildflower that is the state emblem of New South Wales, and the name of a township on the South Gippsland coast. It’s easy enough to filter these out by refining the search to “SS Waratah” or “Waratah” and “1909” or “disappeared”. This leaves us with a pared down bunch of links including a Wikipedia article, a BBC History short, and some material posted by a South African who’s been searching for the lost ship off the coast. All potentially useful, and if we take a couple of minutes to scroll through them we’ll find the first two broadly confirm the basic story (Wikipedia adds a couple of handy reference links) and the latter details of eight separate, fruitless, sonar-based expeditions in search of the ship.
Next up is a much better source, www.researchthepast.com, which turns out to be run by a researcher working for the BBC History documentary we noted above. This lists the key archival sources that the site owner, Hannah Cunliffe, uncovered in the National Maritime Museum and Britain’s National Archives. This is a real piece of luck – getting hold of these sort of references can take quite a lot of work – and this information will form the heart of a preliminary bibliography, which should be started now and to which every new source that we encounter should be added for the time being. We can also list the one authoritative source that we, by chance, already know exists for the Waratah: a chapter on the loss of the ship in George Behe and Michael Goss’s excellent compendium Lost at Sea. Getting a copy of that book from a library ought to be one of the first longer-term jobs that we set ourselves.
A look at the researchthepast list, anyway, reveals the following:
Lloyd’s Weekly Shipping Index Volume 2 1909, entries July 29 – Sept 30, Dec 16.Lloyd’s Register of Shipping 1909 – specification of vessel
P&O Company: Ships: Individual Ships, miscellaneous material: Waratah 1908
Sea Breezes XLIV Vol 44 Jan-Dec 1970 & 1997 Edition
Dossier on the Waratah
The first three are fundamental sources that will give us an accurate take on the basics – the ship’s size, construction, ownership and so on. Sea Breezes is a long-running popular magazine aimed at maritime enthusiasts – copies can be found in most large reference libraries, so those two articles go onto the preliminary bibliography. The ‘Dossier on the Waratah’ could be anything, but it sounds intriguing enough to be well worth investigating. Call up the NMM website, hit the “Contact and enquiries” page, then “Library and collection enquiries”, and fire off a brief email to the address listed for “Manuscript items” to find out more.
The National Archives at Kew looks like it holds even more of a treasure trove – and, by the way, the NA has an extensive series of introductory guides to its holdings online here that we could have used as a guide to likely locations of this material if we hadn’t been lucky enough to have someone else locate the precise references. But
BT 369/16-30 Board of Trade and successors: Marine Department and successors: Shipping Casualty Investigation Papers 1910-1988: Passenger Steam Vessel Waratah Lost Between Durban and Cape Town on 27 July 1909
BT 100/244 Admiralty and Board of Trade: Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and predecessor: Agreements and Crew Lists, Series III: Ship’s Name: Waratah 1908-1909
HO 45/10632/201093 Inquiry into loss of S.S. Waratah 1910-1911
BT 334/46 Register of Deceased Seamen January 1910
are plainly all going to be key sources, and a visit to the NA will certainly be required. One of the first things to investigate will be whether the two enquiries listed – one by the Board of Trade and one in the HO – Home Office – series are two separate investigations. Perhaps they are, but the dates match up, so it’s also possible the HO document is merely a copy of the enquiry by the Board of Trade.
So juicy do the NA’s holdings look, in fact, that it’s tempting to head to Kew straight away. But one research tip I can offer, based on painful experience, is to do your secondary reading first wherever possible, and visit the archives second. Not only will the secondary sources give you a decent feel for what’s important in a subject and what questions to ask – in many cases they’ll also supply you with a firm grasp of specialist vocabulary and of names and places associated with your story. This can be especially invaluable when you’re dealing with manuscript sources; hard-to-read handwriting is bad enough without having to confront unusual vocab and unidentifiable place-names. I had a lot of trouble with this sort of thing while writing my book Thug, a history of events in India in the early nineteenth century – and story full of jemadars and chaukidars and Imperial place-names – and would have been quite lost in a lot of the primary material if I hadn’t already mastered most of the abstruse vocabulary of the subject by reading every secondary source that I could lay my hands on.
For the time being, anyway, we have to restrict ourselves to what’s available over the internet, and it’s pretty obvious that if we want to get a basic idea of what was said at the inquiry into the loss of the Waratah, the place to look is a good contemporary newspaper.
Though great strides have been made in digitising old newspapers over the past few years, the UK still lags behind the United States, and both South Africa and Australia are further behind again. The great resource, for British readers, remains the online archive of The Times, run by Gale, a site that’s likely to prove particularly worthwhile for a search involving a missing passenger ship, since we already know that the loss of the Waratah resulted in an official enquiry, something that the early 20th century Times was especially good at covering in depth. Cross checks can be run in the only other British national newspaper archives currently up and running, those operated by The Scotsman and The Guardian, both of which are pay sites that allow researchers to make initial enquiries free of charge and pay to download any useful-looking results. In this instance, neither newspaper produces anything that looks likely to rival the Times archive, but it’s certainly worth noting down the dates of both papers’ coverage. These can be cross-checked with those disclosed by a search of The Times; most will inevitably be duplicates, but if either the Guardian or the Scotsman turn out to have run coverage on dates that do not feature in the Times archive, it’ll probably be worth while taking a closer look at those articles, at least – they may contain information that the self-proclaimed paper of record missed.
For years, the great drawback with the Times’s archive was that it was only available through research libraries and academic institutions; Gale, which paid to digitise the collection, and needs to get its money back, adheres to a business model that prefers taking large annual subscriptions from a small number of rich institutions to the idea, adopted by almost all its rivals, of allowing private customers to pay to download an article or two at a time. In recent months, however – and not a lot of people know this – Gale has been offering free trials to potential institutional customers here. I can confirm, having made an application, that the company website is not too choosy as to which institutions it accepts applications from. Mine, giving my affiliation as the Charles Fort Institute, went straight through and has enabled me to enjoy free access to The Times archive for the last several months. (Gale also runs several other invaluable digital resources from the same hub, and these too are available via the same trial subscription. I’ll discuss these other sites in a later post.)
The Times’s site uses some quite old search technology, and I’ve never mastered its advanced search option – which for reasons that remain beyond me never seems to return worthwhile results. Thankfully the Basic Search function includes the option to narrow down a search by date. Although the site still requires the use of clumsy old Boolean operators, a search for Waratah and another for Waratah AND sawyer for the years 1909 to 1912 quickly turns up several dozen articles dating between the summer of 1909 and the first months of 1912. Each return is illustrated with a tiny window showing where the article in question appeared on the page – a very handy way of seeing which are the major reports and which mere news-in-brief. It takes only a matter of seconds to discover that the bulk of the coverage is devoted to a long series of wonderfully detailed daily reports filed from the Board of Trade wrecks enquiry that sat from December 1910 to January 1911.
This is the gold-mine we’d be hoping for: detailed, accurate, comprehensive contemporary reporting of the Waratah’s disappearance featuring a lot of background information together with the opinions of numerous expert shipbuilders, mariners and other specialists who knew the ship and had examined and even sailed in her. We learn who the ship’s builders were – Barclay Curle & Co. of Glasgow – background information about her owners, the Blue Anchor Line, and even a fair bit about her captain, passengers and crew. If we were writing an article or a book on the Waratah’s disappearance, this source would be one of the most important available to us.
The Times archive is so comprehensive that there’s no time, in the hour available to us, to do more than briefly skim the coverage to get some idea of its scope and the general train of thought followed by the enquiry- which turns out to have been that the Waratah was probably lost as a result of being overwhelmed by a severe storm. We’re principally interested in Sawyer and his visions, though, and it’s easy enough to discover the report on his evidence. The engineer’s account of his experience and his dreams appears in the newspaper for 17 December 1910, p.3, and reads, in its entirety, as follows:
Mr. Sawyer’s evidence
Mr Claude G. Sawyer said, in answer to Mr. Laing, that in 1909 he was in New Zealand and booked a passage from Sydney to Cape Town on the Waratah, and reserved the right to continue to London. He sailed from Sydney in the Waratah on June 26, 1909. He had done a great deal of ocean travel. At Melbourne he noticed a big list to port when leaving, and then going through some disturbed water she wobbled about a good deal and then took a list to starboard, and remained there for a very long time. She heeled over while the witness was on the boat deck till the water was underneath him, and remained so long that the witness did not like it. The weather from Melbourne to Adelaide was fine, and through the Bight was fine, but the passengers complained of the roll. Witness had had very bad weather on the Wariloo [another vessel in the Blue Anchor Line’s fleet] and did not feel alarmed. Soon after leaving Adelaide the weather became rough and the Waratah rolled in a very disagreeable way. She rolled and then remained for a long time on her side before recovering. While she was recovering, when the deck had become horizontal, she often gave a decided jerk, and several of the passengers had bad falls on deck in consequence. One morning the cabin steward told him the vessel had rolled very much during the night. Soon afterwards, while the witness was taking his bath, the vessel rolled very much and he had time to take note of the angle. Apparently it was about 45 deg. He asked one of the officers to what angle the vessel had rolled, but got no satisfactory answer. He asked whether there was any instrument on the bridge to record the angle, but understood there was not. The reply he got was that the builders would have seen to the roll and that it was all right. He mentioned the matter to a Mr Ebsworth, and another passenger, a solicitor, who had been a sailor for about seven or nine years, and they went together to look at the way the vessel was pitching from the forward end of the promenade deck. There were big rollers coming towards the ship. She took the first one, and when she went down into the trough of the wave she remained there and seemed to keep her nose into the next wave and simply plough through it. They watched a long time. One very big wave came and Mr Ebsworth caught hold of the railing, and said that in the whole of his experience he had never seen a ship do that before.
Mr Laing.– Do what?
Witness.– Remain in that position, ploughing through the waves. Witness thought about the matter, and then found out it was only the Waratah’s second trip. He then formed the opinion that he had better be off that ship. That was about ten days before arriving at Durban. Captain Ilbery asked whether the witness was going on to London with him, and witness said he was leaving at Durban, but gave no reason why. He heard passengers complain about the vessel’s behaviour. A Mrs Caywood fell and hurt both her arms and her hip, and was in the saloon for two days. She was taken from Durban to her destination, Johannesburg, in an invalid chair. At another time witness was standing on the promenade deck, and Dr Fulford and Miss Lascelles were crossing the deck, when the vessel gave one of the peculiar jerks, and they were both thrown flat, knocking witness against the railings. Miss Lascelles hurt her head, and Dr Fulford his elbow. This was in fine weather, with the sea smooth with a swell. Witness told a Mr Millen, Mrs and Miss Hay, and other passengers of his intention to leave at Durban and his reasons. At Adelaide he heard the third and fourth officers express the opinion that the Waratah was top-heavy, while they were discussing the list the vessel had.”
Note that we now have a middle initial for Mr Sawyer, and also the name of the Waratah‘s captain, Ilbery. Next comes the portion of the report we are most interested in: Sawyer’s own account of his peculiar dreams.
“Three of four days before reaching Durban, witness had a dream, which was unusual for him. He was a man with a long sword in his left hand, holding a rag or cloth in his right hand saturated with blood. He saw the same dream twice again the same night, and the last time he looked so carefully that he could almost draw the design on the edge of the sword. He mentioned his dream to Mr Ebsworth, who said it was a warning. Witness was then anxious to get off the ship. He landed at Durban and drafted a telegram to his wife. He tried to persuade Mrs and Miss Hay to leave the ship, but unfortunately they decided to go on. He saw the Waratah leave, and believed there was a slight list to starboard. While at Durban, on July 28, he had another dream. He dreamt he saw the ship in big waves; one big wave went over her bows and pressed her down,; she rolled over on her starboard side, and disappeared. On the 26th he called at the Union-Castle offices [Unon Castle was another shipping line], saw a Mr Hadfield, and told him what he had told the Court. Witness sailed from Durban to Cape Town in the Kildonan Castle, and from Cape Town to London in the Galician on August 5. On August 4 he cabled to his wife: “Booked Cape Town. Thought Waratah top heavy. Landed Durban. Claude.” He produced the draft and the original cable.
[Sawyer’s response to quetions put] by Mr Scott.–He had no nautical knowledge. When he landed at Duran he found out he had neuritis.
By Admiral Davis.–When the Waratah was diving, that was into a head sea, she frequently took a good deal of water, which seemed to run away very slowly. Witness had been in similar vessels under similar conditions and had never known a vessel which recovered so slowly.
It’s immediately clear that parts of this evidence act to modify the popular accounts of the Waratah and her disappearance. To begin with, Sawyer turns out not to have been booked all the way through to London: he had reservations to Cape Town, with the option of continuing his journey from there to the UK. This makes his decision to disembark at Durban a good deal less radical than it is generally supposed to have been, since the financial loss to him of paying twice for the journey from Durban to Cape Town must have been hugely less than the loss he would have faced in tearing up a ticket all the way to London. Then there’s the issue of his neuritis – a blanket term for a wide range of nerve conditions. And what to make of the odd detail of the left-handed swordsman? There are also minor modifications to the story as we originally had it – three dreams on one night, not one dream on each of three, and a slight alteration to the wording and circumstances of the cable – that we can note and which will help make any account we write more accurate.
Quick cross checks on some of the other digital newspaper resources already mentioned in this blog reveal comparatively little – as one would expect, given the fact that the Waratah was a British liner sailing to Imperial destinations. But the New York Times archive does turn up one interesting news in brief, dated 31 December 1911. This reports the discovery of what appeared to be one of the Waratah’s lifebelts on a beach in New Zealand, and that discovery sends us swiftly back to The Times archive in search of more information and possible follow-ups. By extending our search there to the first months of 1912, we soon uncover reports dated 29 December and 4 January that fill in further details. It’s important to remain cautious about such finds – one possibility, clearly, is that the belt was lost overboard from the Waratah while she was in Australian waters, and had nothing to do with the ship’s disappearance. But consideration of fine details like that will have to wait till we’ve progressed a lot further with the project.
For now, the best thing to do next is to return to Google for more basic searches for reliable background information. We can use some of the information we’ve uncovered so far to refine searches, for example by adding the strings “Claude Sawyer” and “Claude G. Sawyer” to our Waratah search. We can also expand the investigation considerably by excluding the Waratah phrase, which may help uncover references to the mysterious Mr Sawyer’s earlier and later career. A standalone search for “Claude Sawyer” reveals the inconvenient fact that there’s a current-day basketball player of that name, which considerably pollutes the results. But a search on “Claude Sawyer” and “engineer” reveals a much more targeted 140 results of potential interest.
One especially important document turns up with this last search: a passenger list giving the names of all those who disembarked from the ship when she called at Durban. Aside from reminding us that Sawyer was not, as tradition sometimes states, the only person to leave the Waratah in South Africa (he may well have been the only passenger booked to continue on to London to disembark), this list gives us an important extra piece of information about our man: his age, 54. No source is given for this information on the web page we’ve visited, which must make us cautious, but it’s a simple matter to trim back the url until we discover that this page is part of a subsite on a genealogy resource run by a South African researcher named Rosemary Dixon-Smith, who’s gone back to the original passenger lists retained in archives in Natal, transcribed them, and posted the results. Her material can almost certainly be trusted – and, importantly, it includes photos of the vessel, and full lists of passengers and crew.
The fact that this bit of information turned up on a genealogy website immediately suggests another interesting line of enquiry. Thanks to Mrs Dixon-Smith, we now know Sawyer’s age, and that’s enough to make a search of one of the main British genealogy sites worthwhile. Ancestry is one of the largest, and while expensive (it’s aimed principally at enthusiasts working on long-term projects, not cheapskate Forteans like us), it does, handily, offer a free 14-day trial. Signing up requires the new user to lodge credit card details with the site, so be very careful to cancel membership while the trial period is still running if you’re only accessing it for one or two key bits of information.
Go to Ancestry, anyway, and enter the name “Claude Sawyer” into the search engine. We’re lucky that it’s not an especially common name – the searches on these sites work by generating the maximum possible number of responses in order to lure in the largest possible number of visitors, so we’re going to get returns for a large number of superfluous Sawyers in the mix. Fortunately, results are ranked by usefulness, meaning that all the Claude Sawyers appear at the top. Rather reassuringly, one of the top hits we see is a Claude G. Sawyer, born “about 1853” in Switzerland. The “about” tells us there’s no birth certificate and a birth date is being deduced from an age reported, probably on a census form. We know “our” Mr Sawyer was born in 1854-5 and had the middle initial G., so this is very likely going to be our guy. And Ancestry has a series of documents relating to him, mostly successive censuses revealing a whole string of addresses, in London, Hampshire and other parts of the south. This ties in pretty well with our notion of a globe-trotting engineer, returning home only occasionally, and perhaps not that tied to any one location. Accessing the information via our free trial will give us all sort of valuable data – names, ages and occupations of all those in the household and sundry other bits of news, and the first new information we uncover is the name of Sawyer’s wife – Emeline. This is a European name common in Sweden, Hungary and – yes – Switzerland, so it looks quite likely that our engineer married a Swiss girl, and that in turn suggests that his family was not merely passing through a few cantons at the time of his birth. If we have enough time, money and language chops, we can try following this intriguing discovery up in Swiss sources some other time.
Time’s running short now, but the next discovery turned up by our Google search is a series of articles and websites relating to various searches that have been undertaken for the Waratah over the years. These include several long threads on the Encyclopedia Titanica, one of the main internet resources devoted to the Titanic, and a site that’s frequented by George Behe, co-author of Lost At Sea. There’s also a website run by NUMA, Clive Cussler’s marine search organisation – the group that located the Confederate submarine Hunley, among several notable wrecks. The most persistent searcher for the Waratah turns out to be Emlyn Brown, a South African who has run at least expeditions and deployed sidescan sonar in an attempt to find the missing ship. His email and phone details turn out to be listed here. We can read some stories about his searches here and here.
Back in 2001, as a long thread on the Encyclopedia Titanica explains, Brown actually thought he had found the Waratah, and made a public announcement to that effect through NUMA. Does this mean the mystery ship has actually been found? Scrolling down the site reveals a bit of bad news: a follow up story explaining that a follow-up expedition, deploying underwater cameras, discovered that the ship in question was a World War II freighter carrying an arms shipment – the Second World War tanks dotted across the bottom being a bit of a giveaway. A further Google search turns up a short article archived on the website of the Guardian newspaper which reports the failure of Brown’s eighth mission.
Wrapping up this initial hour’s search, let’s make sure we’ve missed nothing of importance that’s already been written. The British Library has the greatest stock of English language books around, and its Integrated Catalogue is online, making it a simple matter to search for our ship.
The BL’s results are disappointing, but at least we can be pretty sure we’re not treading well-worn ground here. Anyway, there is one item of some interest, a contemporary poem on the ship’s loss, published in Australia in 1911. If nothing else, this might yield a decent epigraph for some future article on the subject.
A second helpful place to search would be the library of the National Maritime Museum, which we already know holds some Waratah material. That, too, is online, here – most major library catalogues are these days. Entering Waratah into the search engine brings up one item, and a contemporary one at that –
The loss of the Waratah, 1909
See also: 629.123Waratah
Personal Author: Ilbery, Peter
Title: The loss of the Waratah, 1909 / Peter Ilbery.
Physical descrip: 73-87 p.
General Note: JRAHS, Vol. 82, Pt. 1, p. 73-87
Local subject: Merchant vessels
JRAHS is the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society. And the author’s name, Peter Ilbery, rings an immediate bell. Didn’t the Times name the Waratah’s skipper as ‘Captain Ilbery’? This paper is almost certainly by a relative. There’s also a lead to material on the Waratah in the collection of the Peninsula & Oriental Steam Navigation Company collection, and P&O, another quick Google search reveals, was the company that bought up the Blue Anchor line when that company went under soon after the Waratah’s loss – this material is almost certainly the location of the ”Dossier on the Waratah” mentioned above. As a bonus, the NMM catalogues turn up references to another journal article, in The Annual Dog Watch – an Australian maritime enthusiast’s title. Add that to the preliminary bibliography.
There’s one other NMM source worth mentioning – one that I picked up years ago doing some nautical research. This is NMM Maritime Monographs and Reports No.478, a guide to modern British shipbuilding records. This reveals that the archives of the Waratah’s builder, Barclay Curle, reside at the University of Strathclyde, and include minute books and correspondence from the period we’re interested in. It would be quite a surprise to discover they didn’t cover anything so important to the company as the loss of one of its ships, apparently as a result of a constructional problem. Strathclyde library has a page for Special Collections that would be the best place to start looking for additional information, but the point here is that many libraries and repositories issue monographs of this sort – so keep an eye open for them. Reference librarians are generally pretty helpful in pointing out such sources, if you ask.
We can broaden this search by looking at the stock held by the world’s secondhand booksellers. A decade or two ago, finding information of this sort in a bookshop was a matter of outrageous serendipity, but things have changed, thanks to the internet, and it’s now possible to browse something like 7 million titles with a single search enquiry. I recommend a visit to bookfinder.com, a simple but brilliant site that gathers together results from almost all the major online secondhand book emporiums, including ABEbooks and Bibliofind. A search there for ‘Waratah’ confirms the impression that surprisingly little has been written on the subject, so you might choose to broaden the search by trying some generic searches for phrases such as “lost at sea” or “sea mysteries”. Given the constraints of time, however, it’s sufficient to note that while the first of these searches produces three or four likely-looking volumes, an examination of their entries reveals most concern the Australian flower. Only a single book actually devoted to the mystery turns up – Search for the Waratah, Titanic of the South, by David Williers, a volume published in South Africa in 2005. Run that title back through Google and you soon discover more about the content. Williers’ book turns out to be a rather eccentric-sounding work that combines research into the ship’s background with a second half that veers off into fiction and suggests that the Waratah was disabled off the Cape of Good Hope and drifted off south and west across the Southern Ocean until she was eventually wrecked on the southern shores of Tierra del Fuego. We already know from The Times’s reporting that this was a theory entertained at the time of the steamer’s loss, though, so it’s almost certainly going to be worth our while to get hold of a copy.
Time’s running pretty short now, but we can guess from our fruitless BL catalogue search that Williers’s book is not likely to be in many UK libraries. Since Bookfinder reveals that it’s pretty rare in bookshops too – and sells secondhand for a rather steep £27 and up – it’d be worth spending a bit more time in online catalogues (start with the one at the National Maritime Museum) before actually placing an order for the book.
Finally, a look at Google Books gives us the best available idea of the sort of passing references to the Waratah that can’t be found using a standard catalogue search. This – a project, supported by the search engine – that aims to scan the complete contents of virtually every book ever published – is an increasingly valuable tool – see the separate blog entry on the subject here. In the case of the Waratah and Mr Sawyer, it turns up at least two more items of interest: a reference to a Claude Sawyer, FRGS, in a volume of the correct period, and a note, in a theosophical journal, pointing out that a letter written by the Hon. Southwell Fitzgerald, one of Sawyer’s closest friends relating to the Waratah was published in the Times of India. That’s a title we might expect to be stocked by several large research libraries, including the Newspaper Library and perhaps that of School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and though it is unfortunately unindexed, the pub date of the journal in question at least gives us some idea when the letter probably appeared.
Of course there are plenty of other avenues of research one could explore offline, given time and determination. For British Forteans, a visit to the Newspaper Library at Colindale in North London to research in newspapers other than The Times would be a must. I’d suggest starting with specialist titles such as Lloyd’s List, the main daily paper devoted to shipping in the UK. Local newspapers will almost certainly prove to be another very profitable source of background information, as anyone who’s ever looked at the major Titanic websites will know. Small titles of this sort very often ran news articles about local people lost in shipwrecks, and these can be incredibly valuable sources of fine detail about the lives and times of a ship’s complement. It’ll take a good while, but – armed with information from the Waratah’s passenger lists – we can cross check the unfortunate missing people’s places of birth or residence with the Newspaper Library’s online catalogue, which is searchable by location, to discover which newspapers may carry new information. Again, using the Times’s online coverage as an index will give us the date news of the Waratah’s disappearance reached the UK, and hence guide us to the most likely dates that news stories would have run in the regional press.
Other newspapers from other countries will help, too. In time, South African and Australian titles should also be explored – in all cases using the same list of key dates – the liner’s disappearance, the dates of searches, and the period of the Board of Trade enquiry – to index to the most likely locations of material. Unfortunately, most of this material will only be available in its country of origin, but if you can’t get to Australia or South Africa in person, it’s sometimes possible to find people with similar interests on internet forums; make agreements to swap research. In time, of course, the chances are that all the papers we’re interested in will be digitised and will become far more accessible. The National Library of Australia has already started a digitisation programme that will include the Sydney Morning Herald – a useful starting place for coverage of a ship that sailed from that port. The Waratah disappeared long after the advent of undersea telegraph cables that linked the UK with her colonies, so much of the coverage that will turn up in South African and Australian papers will likely originate in London. But it would be surprising if thorough searches turned up no new information from local journalists.
OK, time’s up. It’s now an hour since we started. (And yes, I admit I’ve cheated a little by actually typing up most of this entry outside the time limit.) We’ve been able to use some pretty straightforward tools to get a fair idea of the facts concerning the Waratah’s disappearance, and discovered exactly what’s really known about Claude Sawyer and his peculiar dreams of disaster, the weirdest and for some the most compelling aspect of the mystery. We also have the beginnings of a preliminary bibliography and a good dozen or so leads that ought to open up some further avenues of research. These include:
• The full transcript of the Board of Trade enquiry into the Waratah’s loss, which we now know is at the National Archives
• Info about the ship’s layout and construction, from the builder’s archives in Strathclyde
• The owner’s file on the ship, at the NMM
• Knowledge that articles on the ship’s loss probably appeared in unknown local newspapers in the UK, Australia and South Africa that – thanks to the passenger lists and our rough dates index – should now prove to be a good deal more accessible
• An email address for the man who knows more than anyone about the search for the missing ship
• Information about the exact location of basic biographical details concerning Sawyer in the UK census
• The tantalising news that our man seems to have been born in Switzerland, and may well have been married to a Swiss.
• Hints as to the likely date of the Times of India letter written by Sawyer’s friend Fitzgerald
• The details of hitherto unconsulted journal articles, in The Annual Dog Watch and Sea Breezes.
• Was Sawyer a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society? If so, what information might they hold about him? Worth dropping the Society an email to find out.
• Details of Claude Sawyer’s various UK residences, from the UK census at ancestry.co.uk
In short, we now know a fair bit about the Waratah, and a good deal more about the mysterious Mr. Sawyer than any previous writer on the subject, with the possible exception of David Williers –we’ll be able to check on that when we get hold of a copy of his book.
I submit that that’s not too bad for 60 minutes’ work and the expenditure of £0 precisely. Next: how to boil an egg.