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Archive for the ‘Disappearances’ Category

The Land of Cockaigne, in an engraving after a 1567 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cockaigne was a peasant’s vision of paradise that tells us much about life in the medieval and early modern periods. A sure supply of rich food and plenty of rest were the chief aspirations of those who sang the praises of this idyllic land.

Men and women have always dreamed of paradise – and for many, in the years before the world was fully explored, it was somewhere that might have a physical existence in some distant corner of the earth. This week’s Smithsonian essay takes a look at what’s been said about an earthly arcadia, from the medieval Land of Cockaigne (a villein’s playground that offered a mirror image of life as it was led in this period, with plenty of rest, a ban on work, and food that literally threw itself into the mouths of inhabitants) to Russia’s much more spiritual peasant paradise, Belovode, the “Kingdom of White Waters.” More intriguingly, it tracks some of the many very real expeditions that set out over the years to locate these lands of dreams – and focuses on one especially remarkable myth in particular: widespread belief among the first Irish convicts who were transported to Australia that it was possible to walk from the penal colony near Sydney all the way to sanctuary China.

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The  Saladin balloon c.1881At a time when MPs are in the news, and not often for the right reasons, I want to take a moment to dwell on the more worthwhile, and (from a Fortean perspective, anyway) peculiarly illuminating career of a long-forgotten predecessor of the current bunch of petty crooks. His name was Walter Powell (1842-1881) [below left], he was Tory MP for Malmesbury in Wiltshire, and his strange and lonely death offers a good deal of unexpected insight into the perennially fascinating topics of expectant attention and witness perception.

First, a snippet of biography. Walter Powell was the youngest son of a tough and ruthless Welsh mine owner (a tautology, I know) who ran his pits for profit first and safety very much last, emerging during the 1840s as the largest coal exporter in the world. Having driven through a 20% cut in wages and broken the resultant strike, Thomas Powell’s mines were plagued by accidents, culminating in two major explosions at Dyffryn, in Aberdare, and the deaths of more than 80 men. According to Walter Powell’s biographer, the Dyffryn disasters belatedly shamed Thomas senior into repentence for his past behaviour, and inculcated in Walter Powell a determination to use his own inherited wealth more for the public good.

In the late 1860s, Powell moved to Wiltshire, where in 1868 he was selected as Conservative parliamentary candidate for the market town of Malmesbury. Powell won the seat in the subsequent election with a narrow majority of 23, which most likely says something positive about his personality and character, as well as his wealth; the election was a Liberal triumph, and Malmesbury had been a solidly Liberal seat since the 1830s, so Powell’s victory was achieved very much against the prevailing political winds of the day. The evidence suggests he was a good MP and a benefactor to the town; he earned the soubriquet “the poor man’s friend,” and among his achievements was the endowment of a Ragged School there and the supply of 50 tons of coal each winter to Malmesbury’s “aged poor”. More pertinently, from our perspective, Powell was also an enthusiast for all sorts of new inventions. He acquired a magic lantern at around the time just such a contraption was suspected of being used to create the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Knock, in Ireland, and in 1880, after the death of his wife, he took up ballooning and became very keen on aeronautics.

Ballooning in those days was a preserve of the wealthy. The balloons themselves were hand-made to order, from “good Lyons silk” (Powell’s own apparently in the nearby village of Little Somerford), and filled either with hot air or, in the case of more advanced types, hydrogen gas. They were, of course, dependent on the wind and impossible to steer, making fine judgement of course, distance and the likelihood of being blown off course and out to sea important qualities for aeronauts – particularly those living in a small island kingdom such as Britain. Powell seems to have been trained as a balloonist by the noted Crystal Palace company, and received some personal tuition from the celebrated aeronaut Henry Coxwell, with whom he made a number of flights. Coxwell liked Powell but seems to have found him rather too daring, writing:

I never had a companion who so thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was with extreme regret that I recommended Mr Powell to pass into other hands. He was rather too enterprising and fresh for an aeronaut at my time of life. He had superabundant pluck and his was the type of chivalry which needed checking if possible.

Coming from Coxwell, this was quite a statement, since Powell’s teacher had been the pilot involved in a ridiculously dangerous assault on the world altitude record a few years earlier – an effort that ended, as I recall pretty vividly from a book on daring aerial adventures that I devoured as a kid, with the balloon ascending into the stratosphere past 35,000 feet, one of its two crewmen (neither of whom was, of course, equipped with oxygen), collapsing, unconscious, and Coxwell himself eventually saving them both by clambering out of the basket while temporarily blinded by lack of air, his hands so frozen they were useless, so as to pull the gas release cord with his teeth.

Walter  Powell MPPowell made numerous flights in his own balloon during 1881, but also assisted fellow aeronauts with theirs. He was a close friend of Captain J.L.B. Templer, a pioneer in military ballooning who ran the War Office’s ‘Balloon Corps‘, and he helped him make several ascents to take meteorological readings. On 10 December 1881, Powell, Templar and a third man, named in press reports at the time as “A. Agg-Gardner”, travelled to Bath to make a flight in a new military balloon that had been stationed there named Saladin. The Saladin, it may be noted here, utilised not expensive hydrogen but 38,000 cubic feet of “used coal gas,” and had an open basket equipped with various scientific instruments. The mysterious Agg-Gardner, meanwhile, was probably a relative of Powell’s fellow Conservative MP James Agg-Gardner, of Cheltenham – whose chief contribution to political life, in a near-40-year career in parliament, was to serve on the Commons Kitchen Committee and supervise the daily serving of tea on the Commons terrace.

With Templer, Powell and Agg-Gardner on board, the Saladin made a long flight across Somerset and Devon, borne south by the prevailing winds. Conditions, particularly visibility, were poor, and the crew only became aware that they were approaching the English Channel when they heard the roar of the sea. Templer made what must have been a very hurried emergency descent, ripping opening a valve to allow gas to escape and the balloon to touch down. In any event, the landing was uncontrolled and violent; Agg-Gardner and Templer were thrown from the basket, Agg-Gardner broke an arm and a leg, and Powell was left stranded and alone on the by now far lighter craft [The Graphic, 17 December 1881]. Templer’s report, made a few weeks later to the Met. Office, sums up the next stage of the disaster as follows:

I retained my hold of the valve line and was dragged along the earth by it for a considerable distance. I tried very hard to get the line between my teeth, and could I have done so, I have no doubt the balloon would have been crippled. I shouted to Mr. Powell to come down the line. At this time he was close to me and about eight feet from the earth. The line was torn from my grasp by a succession of jerks, both my hands being severely lacerated. The balloon then floated along close to the earth for some 300 feet until it reached a fence, which the car grazed as it went by. I had risen to my feet and could see Mr. Powell standing up in the car…  The balloon rose rapidly and Mr Powell waved his hand to me.

Quite why Powell chose to stay on board the Saladin was never clear; it may simply have been fear of injuring himself by jumping. Templer thought that, as an experienced aeronaut, he was hoping to save the balloon by bringing her down on the nearby beach, and even when it became clear that the Saladin could not be brought to earth so soon, he still hoped Powell would succeed in crossing the Channel to France. Most contemporary aeronauts, apparently, believed the lightened Saladin would prove easily capable of such a crossing. In the event, however, neither Powell nor the Saladin was seen again. The helpless MP drifted out over Bridport, heading towards the sea, and there, it was presumed, he came down into the Channel or the Atlantic and drowned.The only firm evidence of the Saladin’s progress that could be found at the time was a thermometer, “with a single human hair attached,” that was picked up on the beach at Portland [The Graphic, 17 December 1881].

The   accident to the balloon Saladin at Bridport, 10 December 1881 (The   Graphic 17 December 1881)

It was what happened next that gives the saga of the Saladin its Fortean relevance. Powell was a well-known man; his disappearance was big news, and widely reported as such in the newspapers. The consequence was a flurry of “sightings” of the missing balloon, which flooded in not just from Devon, France and the Channel (there was at least one in the vicinity of Alderney [Western Mail, 17 December 1881]), but from areas much further off – including many where the balloon could not possibly have been. These reports were picked up and read with interest by Charles Fort [Complete Books pp.461-2], who in New Lands devoted a full page to sightings of mysterious “lights in the sky” reported in the days that followed, many of which moved about in a manner quite unlike any balloon:

The extraordinary circumstance is that reports came in upon a luminous object that was seen in the sky at the time that this balloon disappeared. In the London Times, it is said that a luminous object had been seen, evening of the 13th, moving in various directions in the sky near Cherbourg. It is said that upon the night of the 16th three customhouse guards, at Laredo, Spain, had seen something like a balloon in the sky, and had climbed a mountain in order to see it better, but that it had shot out sparks, and had disappeared – and had been reported from Bilbao, Spain, the next day. In the Morning Post, it is said that this luminous display was the chief feature; that it was this sparkling that had made the object visible. In the Standard, December 16, is an account of something that was seen in the sky, five o’clock in the morning of December 15, by Capt. McBain, of the steamship Countess of Aberdeen, off the coast of Scotland, 25 miles from Montrose. Through glasses, the object seemed to be a light attached to something thought to be the car of a balloon, increasing and decreasing in size – a large light – “as large as the light at Girdleness” [a lighthouse]. It moved in a opposite direction to that of the wind, though possibly with wind of an upper stratum. It was visible half an hour, and when it finally disappeared, was moving toward Bervie, a town on the Scottish coast about 12 miles north of Montrose. In the Morning Post it is said that the explanation is simple: that someone in Monfrieth, 8 miles from Dundee, had, late in the evening of the 15th, sent up a fire-balloon, “which had been carried along the coast by a gentle breeze, and, after burning all night, extinguished and collapsed off Montrose, early on Thursday morning (16th).” This story of a balloon that wafted to Montrose, and that was evidently traced until it collapsed near Montrose, does not so simply explain an object that was seen 25 miles from Montrose. In the Standard, December 19, it is said that two bright lights were seen over Dartmouth Harbor, upon the 11th.

If we plot these balloon sightings on a map [below], we can see that those in Spain are more or less in line with the likely route followed by a balloon borne on winds that were moving pretty much directly south – though whether the distance travelled, about 500 miles, is credible is harder to say. It’s equally possible to state with some certainty that whatever might have been seen around Montrose, and off the Scottish coast, certainly could not have been the Saladin, and was almost equally unlikely to have been a “fire-balloon” capable of burning for the entire duration of a northern winter night. Whether the Scottish reports were suggested by word of the disappearance of a rogue balloon is harder to say, but news of the Saladin‘s loss had made the papers by 12 December [Leeds Mercury and many others, 12 December 1881], so it’s entirely credible that reports made in Scotland two or three days after that were directly influenced by knowledge of Walter Powell’s appalling and evocative predicament. The Countess of Aberdeen‘s sighting, on the other hand, may have been of something else entirely… something only associated with the Saladin when the ship made port and heard the news.

Sightings of the balloon Saladin 1881-83

Thus, in any case, the story of the Saladin as reported in 1881… and so far as most later accounts of the tale go, that was that – Powell and his balloon had simply vanished, presumably to end their days somewhere out in the Atlantic. In the course of doing the research for this post, however, I discovered something rather interesting: a much later report, in the New York Times [24 January 1883], of the discovery of what appeared to be the remnants of a large balloon at Sierra del Pedroza, in the Asturias, directly to the west of the two Spanish locations mentioned as sighting spots in 1881. Ballooning was not practised in northern Spain at this time, and the discovery – though originating in a report from Paris, of indeterminate reliability, which mentioned only the recovery of “a few fragments and shreds of cloth” – was immediately assumed to be the Saladin. Of Powell, however, there was no sign.

“The wreck of the balloon discovered in the Spanish mountains,” concluded the NYT,

Walter Powell gravestonesettles the dispute as to the strength of that pride of the aeronaut; it undoubtedly  did not pitch into the Channel, but half-inflated with gas, sailed through the air for many days. But while the tattered rags and splintered wood which formed it have been rotting among the peaks of Spain, the bones of the intrepid aeronaut have been whitening beneath the waters of the English Channel.

Balloon in Boer WarAs for Templer, though, there is one interesting postscript. He continued to serve with the Royal Engineers’ balloon unit for a further two decades, and in 1899 was posted, with three of his contraptions, to South Africa to serve in the Boer War. British balloons were widely used during the mobile phase of the conflict to keep an eye open for elusive Boer troops, and their appearance there evidently had quite an impact on the Boers themselves, since they soon began making reports of phantom aerial craft over their northern territories in almost precisely the same terms as were to become so familiar a few years later, during the various phantom airship scares of the next decade. These incidents – summarised by Nigel Watson and analysed afresh a while ago in the excellent Airminded blog – plainly had little connection to the actual activities of Templer’s units; the Boers feared bombs drops from free-flying balloons (a virtually untested and highly difficult and dangerous proposition at the time), while the Royal Engineer’s command consisted solely of securely tethered observation balloons that operated in close conjunction with the main British army [above]. Says Airminded:

The Boers were initially quite worried about the British balloons, for which they had no counter. It was thought they might be used to float over Boer cities to drop bombs. In October 1899 the following telegraph message was sent from (actually, the source says received by, but that makes little sense) the Transvaal headquarters:

Balloons — Yesterday evening two balloons were seen at Irene, proceeding in the direction of Springs. Official telegraphists instructed to inform the Commander in Chief about any objects seen in the sky.

Here’s an example of the sort of response that was received, in this case from Vryheid:

Airship with powerful light plainly visible from here in far off distance towards Dundee. Telegraphist at Paulpietersburg also spied one, and at Amsterdam three in the direction of Zambaansland to the south east.

Shots were fired at these supposed balloons or airships, and Transvaal apparently bought powerful searchlights from Germany to sweep the skies for them (although if that’s true, it must have been done before the outbreak of war, because the British imposed an effective blockade on the Boer republics). The British balloons were nowhere near the Transvaal, so the Boers were seeing what they didn’t want to see, so to speak. But lest it be thought that Tommy Atkins was too sober and rational to be afflicted with such visions, General Buller’s men thought they were being followed by a light which appeared at dusk, which they called the ‘Boer signal’. It was probably Venus.

Now, where have we heard that before?

Additional sources:

Portia Hobbs, Walter Powell MP: Balloonist (Malmesbury: self published, 1985)

Nigel Watson, Phantom Aerial Flaps and Waves (London: Magonia, 1987)

__________, The Scareship Mystery (Corby, Northants: Domra  Publications, 2000)

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The Welsh dragon on the First World War memorial to the men of the 38th (Welsh) Division at Mametz Wood

Today is St David’s Day, the national day of Wales, and it seems an appropriate moment to post what remains my very favourite story among all the thousands of strange tales that have featured in Fortean Times over the years. That is a large claim – the complete set of FT must run to several million words by now – but even after all these years I still find what follows so surreal and so magical, in its combination of the gentle, the mundane and the extraordinary, that for me each reading is like immersing myself in a warm bath. All right, it’s pretty hard to credit that it’s literally ‘true’; it helps that it’s a Welsh story, and that I’m a proud Welshman – and that the tale remains all but unknown; the account first appeared in print in 1928, and so far as I can tell has never made it onto the Internet. The Fortean Times version of the story is by Paul Sieveking, and it was published in FT48:32 (Spring 1987). The names of the characters involved are so common that it would be extremely difficult to check if they were actually real or not; Radnor Forest, though, is real – and is, according to local legend, the place where the last Welsh dragon still lies sleeping (Daniel Parry-Jones, A Country Parson. London: Batsford, 1975). The strange stamps you’re about to read of apparently did exist. No other comment is possible – but then perhaps none is necessary. The best thing to do is simply to sit back and enjoy.

Natives of the Red Dragon

Trigolion y Ddraig Goch, 'Natives of the Red Dragon'.A curious article, ‘The Red Dragon Stamps’ by C.H.R. Andrews, appeared in a journal called The Stamp Lover in 1928. Apparently, collectors had been mystified over the previous months by the appearance of certain small denomination British stamps overprinted with a red dragon. Some 20 letters and postcards were known to exist, all having pairs of stamps, the left one of which bore the overprint. Invariably, both were cancelled, although only the normal one could pay postage. At the time of writing, none had been reported for nearly two months.

The first of these stamps was reported shortly after the disappearance of Rhys Evans, 71, a well-known Welsh book collector and expert. Evans left home in Sketty, Swansea, on the afternoon of 4 April 1928 to show his friend, Professor Jenkins of University College, a very old Welsh book of stories and legends, which he carried in a waterproof wrapper. It included an account of a secret sect or clan responsible for the guardianship of five sacred dragons, and a crude plan which Evans hoped his friend would decypher.

Evans never reached the college, a short walk away. Two days later, his wife received a letter from Cardiff, bearing a pair of penny ha’penny stamps, one of which had the dragon overprint. The message, in Welsh, told her not to worry, as her husband was quite well, and it bore what was undoubtedly his signature. The note ended with the words Trigolion y Ddraig Goch, ‘Natives of the Red Dragon’. Various people subsequently received letters from the group, all bearing dragon stamps and all referring to old Welsh articles. The postmarks were from Cardiff, Cardigan, Wrexham and various towns on the sites of old Roman camps.

Evans turned up five days later, sitting by a lake in Brynmill Park. He was in good health, and would give no explanation of his absence. The ancient book was missing, and he seemed unconcerned about its loss, which was quite out of character. He stated enigmatically that “there were dragons in Wales today,” but refused to elaborate.

Coincidentally, a report from Llandegley, near Radnor Forest, stated that three children saw a huge beast in the woods, and that one, bolder than the rest, attempted to follow it. His way was blocked by two men who escorted him part of the way home. They were dressed in white with red dragons emblazoned on their chests.

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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

WaratahOur 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:

The National Maritime Museum: Caird Library

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.
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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
Ilbery, Peter
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
Binding: 26cm
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.

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FawcettOne of the great joys of reading history is the endless capacity it possesses for throwing up the unexpected.

There I was, ploughing happily through Richard Holmes’s well-researched and anecdote-rich Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front in my bath, when I ran across an old friend in quite unusual circumstances. ‘Structural and personal problems prevailed,’ writes Holmes in a passage otherwise dryly devoted to the problems encountered by British artillery in suppressing German heavy guns. ‘Perhaps the most notorious came in VI Corps in late 1916 when the Amazon explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett arrived to take up the new post of corps counter-battery colonel. He immediately declared that he was not in the least bit interested in the innovative work being done on the detection of German guns by flash-spotting and sound ranging… The only counter-battery shots which he would allow were those against targets clearly visible from British lines – or those he had personally detected on his ouija board.’

Fawcett, for those who have never encountered him, was one of the most celebrated explorers of his day, noted for a series of expeditions into the uncharted and dangerous Amazon basin that began with a 1906 commission to chart the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil. Best-known among Forteans for the post-war vanishing act he performed back in the jungle – which has since inspired dozens of expeditions to take off in search of him – he was actually a regular artillery officer, commissioned in 1886, who had seen long service in Ceylon – hence his appearance in the trenches. But while most accounts of Fawcett’s career agree he was eccentric, he is not usually thought of as much of a mystic. His still-unexplained disappearance, which occurred while on a quixotic expedition with his son Jack and the boy’s friend, Raleigh Rimmell, to find the ‘Lost City of Z’, deep in the jungle, is generally supposed to be about as weird as the explorer got. (The best recent coverage of this mysterious city, incidentally, appears in a long article by David Grann published in the New Yorker, 19 September 2005.)

It doesn’t take much digging, though, to discover that Fawcett was a much stranger bird than that. He enjoyed some highly eccentric cryptozoological encounters, supposedly shooting a monstrous anaconda measuring a record-breaking 62 feet long, and at one point discovered a breed of dog that had two noses. And, according to a TV producer named Misha Williams, his purpose in searching for the fabled City of Z was not what it had seemed at all.

The Observer covered Williams’s theories in a story published back in March 2004. The producer had befriended the Fawcett family and been granted access to personal papers that had lain unread for decades. Searching through these, he discovered that ‘Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.’

Fawcett, The Observer continued, ‘hoped to follow what he privately described to friends and family as ‘the Grand Scheme’. He wanted to set up a secret community which would be based on a mixture of unusual beliefs involving both the worship of his own son, Jack, and the tenets of the then-fashionable credo of theosophy.

Jack Fawcett (left) – worship him! – and Raleigh Rimmell

‘I can now show that there were scores of associates who were planning to go out and join Fawcett to live in a new, freer way,’ Williams concluded after discovering ‘a drawing of a beguiling and ageless “sith” or female “spirit guide” who he suspects is near the heart of the mystery. Appearing only to the Fawcett family and to those who try to track the expedition’s path, the erotic siren draws white men into the jungle.’

Earlier expeditions in search of Fawcett headed off in quite the wrong direction, the producer contends. The last word of his whereabouts came as he and his inexperienced companions crossed the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary of the Amazon. The repeated rescue missions followed mostly headed deep into the Matto Grosso, theorising that the explorer might have been killed by the Kalapalo tribe. One group even brought back bones said to Fawcett’s, but these proved on examination to be Indian, not European. As late as the 1960s there were those who believed Fawcett might still survive deep in the jungle perhaps worshipped as a god by some Amazon tribe.

This, it now transpires, may have been closer to the truth than anybody thought. Fawcett certainly planned to live on deep in the jungle. ‘The English go native very easily, he once wrote. ‘There is no disgrace in it. On the contrary, in my opinion it shows a creditable regard for the real things in life.’

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Deering1Chance can be a fine thing.

The darker recesses of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library would never top most people’s lists of likely sources of Fortean material, but, leafing through the catalogue of the Lawrence Richey papers held there yesterday, I stumbled across a name I hadn’t heard in quite a while: that of the Carroll A. Deering.

The Deering was an elegant five-masted schooner that went aground on Diamond Shoals, off the coast of North Carolina, back in January 1921, and her name still crops up frequently in the literature of mysteries of the sea. At the time of her stranding, she was on the return leg of a voyage from her home port in Virginia to Brazil, and, as was the case with the Mary Celeste, to which she has often been compared, she seems to have been, at least until going aground on the shoals, in a sound, sailable condition despite a recent brush with foul weather. To make matters more intriguing, the first men to board the wreck found an evening meal sitting, uneaten, on the stove. The Deering‘s crew of 11 men were nowhere to be seen (and neither were the ship’s boats, another thing this ghost ship has in common with the Mary Celeste). None of them were ever seen alive again.

The Deering stuck in my mind for two reasons: the wonderful, archetypal detail that the only living things on board the ship were a pair of cats, and the commentary of Lawrence Kusche, whose sceptical The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved concluded its account of the mystery with the observation: “The story… is unique in maritime history, and it can truly be said that the more that is learned about it, the more mysterious it becomes.” That’s high praise indeed from an author who ably demolishes most of the dafter accretions of myth that make up the legend of the Bermuda Triangle and who could scarcely be described to be a mystery monger.

To understand how the Carroll A. Deering found her way into a Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, a thousand miles from the sea, one needs to know something of Larry Richey. He was the sort of eminence grise who slips frustratingly beneath history’s radar. Famous in his day, he nowadays eludes even the Dictionary of American Biography; even a Google search turns up remarkably few mentions of him. But three-quarters of a century ago, he was Herbert Hoover’s confidential secretary at a time when the future President was Secretary for Commerce, and that’s how he came to investigate the stranding of the Deering.

Richey’s story was that of the young immigrant boy made good. His family came from Italy, and he himself had been born Ricci, and had anglicised his name to get ahead. He had several qualities that made him invaluable to Hoover, not least dogged loyalty to his boss, but the real reason he was selected to take charge of the Deering investigation was his skill as a detective. Richey’s first job, from the ages of 16 to 24, was as a Secret Service agent, a career that involved him in some hazardous work tracking down murderous gangs of counterfeiters in New York. He was as well qualified as anyone in the Department of Commerce to lead what proved to be a challenging investigation.

Of course, government departments rarely concern themselves overmuch with simple strandings. Washington was interested in the Deering‘s fate largely because the ghost ship ran aground at the height of the first great “Red Scare” in America. The civil war in Russia between the Bolsheviks and the Whites had only recently been resolved in the former’s favour, and the fear that revolution would spread into the western world was very real. Rumours of Red agents and Communist infiltration were rife, and one of the many stories doing the rounds at the time suggested that the infant Soviet government in Russia was attempting to build its merchant marine by having its agents hijack ships at sea. According to competing theories, the Deering might have been stopped and boarded by Red pirates, or have fallen victim to a mutiny led by Communist sympathisers among the crew.

Larry Richey spent several months gathering information about the loss of the ship from five different government agencies, and that is what gives this unique archive its real value. The pages of his bulging Deering file contain reports from the fledgling FBI, papers submitted by the Coast Guard, and notes on Richey’s own on-the-spot investigations in Carolina. Among the possible explanations for the ghost ship’s loss considered by the former Secret Service man were storms, insurance fraud and the activities of rum-runners, as well as the more frightening possibilities of mutiny and piracy.

Richey’s most notable contribution to finding a solution to the mystery was his demolition of the most peculiar piece of evidence advanced by proponents of the Red Scare theory. Soon after the Deering ran aground, a beachcomber by the name of Christopher Columbus Grey handed in a message in a bottle that he claimed to have found washed up on the shore. Uncorked, it was found to read: “DEERING CAPTURED BY OIL BURNING BOAT SOMETHING LIKE CHASER. TAKING OFF EVERYTHING HANDCUFFING CREW. CREW HIDING ALL OVER SHIP NO CHANCE TO MAKE ESCAPE. FINDER PLEASE NOTIFY HEADQUARTERS DEERING.” Several handwriting experts identified the writing as that of the Deering‘s chief engineer, but Richey was able to show that the note had been written by Grey himself, and that the man’s motive had been to land himself a job at the local coast guard station.

In the end, though, even Lawrence Richey never solved the Deering mystery. The evidence, he felt, pointed to mutiny, the ship’s captain had complained early in the voyage that his crew were an ill-disciplined bunch of malcontents, and when the schooner was last sighted her skipper was nowhere to be seen and the men were observed lounging on the quarterdeck, an area normally reserved for officers. What had happened to them thereafter remains a puzzle; they had, Richey supposed, left in the Deering‘s boats, and the fact that several heavy trunks of gear were missing suggested that they had not gone in haste. Perhaps, it was hypothesised, they had had confederates after all; another ship, the steamer Hewitt, known to have been in the area of Diamond Shoals when the Deering ran aground. Had she taken off the crew? If so, where was she now? Had she fallen victim to one of the hurricanes then sweeping down the Atlantic coast? Or was she even now sitting in a Russian port, repainted and disguised under another name?

The Richey archive on the Deering has languished, largely unseen and unread, for more than half a century now. It was mined by the unfortunately-named Bland Simpson for his recent book on the mystery, Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals, but Simpson has chosen to cast some valuable primary research as an unreferenced “non-fiction novel”, sadly rendering his book largely useless to other researchers. The story deserves to be explored again, in a more rigorous way. Few if any government archives on Fortean mysteries are quite so comprehensive or complete.

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