Archive for the ‘Sea mysteries’ Category

Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.

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U28 sea serpent reported by Baron Von Forstner. torpedoing of SS Iberian, 31 July 1915. Original image from Begegnungen Mit Seeungeheuren - Encounters With Sea Monsters - by Gould and Von Forstner. Leipzig: Grethlein & Co., 1935.

This much is beyond dispute: that on the afternoon of 31 July 1915, in the first year of the First World War, the British steamer Iberian was shelled, torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U28. This much is disputed: that when the Iberian went down, there was a large underwater disturbance – caused, it is supposed, by her boilers imploding. Quantities of wreckage were hurled into the air, and there, amid the debris, six members of the U-boat’s crew beheld “a gigantic sea-animal, writhing and struggling wildly”, which “shot out of the water to a height of 60 to 100 feet.” [Source: Bernard Heuvelmans, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1968) p.395]

This sea-monster yarn first saw light nearly 20 years later, in the autumn of 1933, at a time when the Loch Ness Monster was much in the news. It was told by the U-boat’s skipper, Georg-Günther Freiherr (Baron) von Forstner (1882-1940), an old U-boat hand who had formerly commanded SMS U1, and who wrote an article about Loch Ness for a German paper that dragged in his own sighting. According to Von Forstner, the creature had also been seen by five other members of the submarine’s crew, all standing in the conning tower. It “had a long, tapering head and a long body with two pairs of legs. Its length may have been some 20 metres [roughly 65 feet]. In shape, it was more like a crocodile than anything else.” [Source: Deutschen Algemeine Zeitung, 19 October 1933]

Since Von Forstner first mentioned it, the story of the U28‘s strange sighting has been frequently repeated, and the U-boat’s “giant crocodile” now ranks among the most iconic of all monster reports – no mean achievement for such a definite oddity, or for a creature that bears practically no resemblance to the received notion of what a sea serpent should look like. Von Forstner’s account has been influential, too, for it forms a central plank in the skimpy evidence for one of Bernard Heuvelmans’s celebrated nine species of sea serpent: an animal the Belgian authority on aardvark dentition labelled the “marine saurian” and speculated was “a surviving thalattosuchian” – in other words a giant sea crocodile from the age of the dinosaurs. Heuvelmans’s database of 587 sea serpent reports contains only four “certain” encounters with marine saurians, of which Von Forstner’s is by a distance the most dramatic and most definite. Without the U28‘s sighting, evidence for the existence of any such animal looks patchy indeed.

Hevelmans version of the U28 monsterWhat made Von Forstner’s sighting so memorable? The strange circumstances, for one thing, and the fact that the animal was supposed to have been flung far into the air for another. That gave the surprised members of the U28‘s crew a rare and unsurpassed opportunity to inspect the whole of a “sea serpent’s” body, making their report of unusual interest and significant potential value. Then there was the chief witness’s apparently impeccable credentials – it is hard to imagine a more ostensibly sober and reliable witness to strange maritime events than a German baron who was also a career naval officer. To this list I would add the illustration Heuvelmans printed alongside the U28 report (right): a crude but memorable etching showing a surprised-looking giant croc eternally suspended in mid air above a small scattering of wreckage.

For all this, though, there are good reasons to doubt that Von Forstner’s encounter was anything but a figment of an over-active imagination – and it is to these reasons I now want to turn. It is, to begin with, apparent that the circumstances under which the baron made his report were less than ideal. The sighting appears not to have been set down in writing until more than 18 years after it occurred, and at a time when marine monsters were frequently discussed; plenty of time had elapsed in which memories could have become distorted or confused, and it’s even possible to suggest an element of nationalism may have crept into the reports; Scotland had its famous lake monster, but here, in a country rapidly gaining in self-confidence, and in which Hitler had become Chancellor at the beginning of the year, was a German report more spectacular than anything yet heard of at Loch Ness – one that had been published, moreover, in a right-wing, pro-government newspaper. (Von Forstner’s pre-1933 silence, incidentally, stretched to not mentioning the story in a 1917 booklet he published about his U-boat experiences, which covers in some detail several other, less dramatic encounters with enemy ships in that same year.)

To make matters worse, there are also several versions of Von Forstner’s story, which vary one from another in subtle but significant ways. The first account to appear in English was published by Rupert Gould,  who corresponded with Von Forstner, and translates the baron’s article from the Deutsche Algemeine Zeitung in his The Loch Ness Monster and Others (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1934) p.187. The key points, as given in this article, can be paraphrased as follows:

The Iberian was sunk off the west coast of France [sic]. The steamer sank very rapidly, with her bow in the air. Some time after her disappearance – at least 25 seconds – there was a “moderately-loud” explosion underwater. “Immediately,” wreckage flew into the air, and the monster was seen among it. The witnesses were Von Forstner, officer of the watch Dieckmann, Chief Engineer Ziemer and engineer officer Romeiss, Cox’n Parisch and Able Seaman Bartels. The “Deep-Sea crocodile, as we named it, was flung some 20 or 30 metres [65 to 100 feet] into the air, [and] disappeared under water again after some 20 or 30 seconds.”

Compare this to the Heuvelmans version, vaguely attributed to “a newspaper” [Heuvelmans p.395]:

The Iberian, which was about 600 feet long, was intercepted in the North Atlantic and “sank quickly… towards the bottom a thousand fathoms or more below. When the steamer had been gone for about 25 seconds, there was a violent explosion at a depth which it was clearly impossible for us to know, but which we can reckon, without risking being far out, at about 500 fathoms [3,000 feet/915 metres]. A little later pieces of wreckage wreckage, and among them a gigantic sea-animal, writhing and struggling wildly, were shot out of the water to a height of 60 or 100 feet.”

Naming the same six witnesses as Gould, Heuvelmans continues Von Forstner’s account:

“We were, alas, unable to identify it. We did not have time to take a photograph, for the animal sank out of sight after 10 to 15 seconds… It was about 60 feet long, was like a crocodile in shape and had four limbs with powerful webbed feet and a long tail tapering to a point.

Whether or not Gould and Heuvelmans based their English-language accounts on the same German source is uncertain, but there are enough similarities in the phrasing to suggest they did – in which case it is disturbing to see so many more-or-less significant differences between them. A length of 600 feet would be a huge size for a merchant vessel, for one thing* – it is nearly a hundred feet longer than the battleship HMS Dreadnought – and even Heuvelmans, who is by no means much of a sceptic, draws attention to the fact that the doomed Iberian would have had to be sinking at a speed of 90 miles per hour to reach a depth of 3,000 feet in only 25 seconds.  Fortunately a third, more authoritative account is also available. This appeared in the German-language edition of Gould’s The Case For The Sea Serpent, a volume published in 1935 as Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn (“Encounters With Sea Monsters”) by Grethlein & Co. of Leipzig. This book incorporates some notes from The Loch Ness Monster and Others and additional material by Von Forstner, who is listed as co-author.

First page of Begegnungen mit SeeungeheurenAccording to Von Forstner’s own account [Begegnungen pp.9-10 – see right], he published in the Deutschen Algemaine Zeitung

die Beschreibung jenes Tieres von 20m geschätzter Länge, das von mir und Teilen der Besatzung des mir seinerzeit unterstellten Unterseebootes “U28” am 30. Juli 1915 im Atlantischen Ozean etwa 60 seemeilen rechtsweisend Süd von Fastnet Rock, der Südwestecke Irlands, nach der Versenkung des englischen Dampfers “Iberian” gesichtet wurde. Dieses Tier war durch eine Unterwasserdetonation ungefähr 25 Sekunden nach Sinken des genannten Schiffes in voller Länge aus dem Wasser etwas 20 bis 30 metre in die Luft geschleudert worden. Es ist möglich, dass diese nicht allzu starke Detonation von mitgeführter Sprengladung herrührte, die uns in den übernommenen Schiffspapieren verheimlicht wurde, oder von einer kleinen Kesselexplosion… Ebensogut konnte diese Detonation aber meiner Meinung nach auch nur durch das Bersten der auf Tiefe durch Luftdruck gesprengten Schiffsräume erfolgt sein.

Das etwa 20m lange Tier hatte krokodilsähnliche Gestalt, je zwei Vorder- und Hinterbeine mit starken Schwim flossen under eine langen, nach vorne spitz zulaufenden Kopf…

Die von unserm leitenden Ingenieur, Marineingenieur Romeihs, sofort nach dem Wiederverschwinden des Tieres im Wasser – Beobachtungszeit etwa 10 bis 15 Sekunden aus 150 bis 100m Abstand bei hellem Sonnenschein unter Zuhilfenahme starker Glaser.

the description of an animal estimated at 20 metres in length, seen by me and some of the crew of the submarine U28 on 30 July 1915 in the Atlantic Ocean; [it] was sighted on the starboard side, about 60 nautical miles south of Fastnet Rock, off the southwest corner of Ireland, after the sinking of the British steamer Iberian. This animal was hurled some 20 or 30m into the air by an underwater explosion about 25 seconds after the sinking of that vessel, thrown full length from the water. It is possible that this was caused by the detonation of an explosive device on board, the existence of which we assumed was  concealed in the ship’s papers, or from a small boiler explosion… This explosion certainly could have been the result of a detonation, but in my opinion only the bursting of the spaces deep inside the ship could have produced such air pressure.

The animal was about 20 meters long and crocodile-like in shape, with pairs of strong front and hind legs adapted for swimming, and a long head that tapered towards the nose…

Our senior engineering officer, marine engineer Romeihs, watched the animal for 10 to 15 seconds at a distance of about 150 to 100m in bright sunshine with the aid of powerful glasses.”

Richard Hennig, Les Grandes énigmes de l'universA better idea of what the U28‘s monster is supposed to have actually looked like can be had from an illustration Von Forstner had published in a second newspaper, the Kölnische Illustrierten Zeitung of 10 February 1934. The U-boat captain does not state whether or not the artist worked under his supervision, or how accurate his depiction of the creature was, but it seems more than likely that this sketch was the one which appears as plate 27 of Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn and which is reproduced at the head of this entry. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that Von Forstner approved of it. (It will be noted, parenthetically, that the original differs somewhat in content, and considerably in detail, from the version printed by Heuvelmans, which crops up so frequently on the net. The Heuvelmans sketch is not only much the cruder of the two, especially around the area of the forelimbs, but also shows more of the tail. This is a more than incidental point, since it proves that Heuvelmans had not read Von Forstner’s lengthy account in Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn – a book which does not feature in his bibliography. Instead, he appears to have got his information from some other source – not Gould, since the two men’s translations of Von Forstner’s article differ so substantially – and the solution to this minor mystery can be deduced from Heuvelmans’s caption to his illustration. This states that it has been drawn “after Richard Hennig”, and Hennig, a German hack writer of the 1950s, was the author of a popular potboiler on a variety of mysteries, translated into French as Les grandes enigmes de l’univers, and published in several best-selling editions between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s.** The fact is worth mentioning only because it shows how little effort Heuvelmans invested in investigating the Von Forstner case, and what poor sources of information he was willing to accept in preparing what remains, for the most part, a highly-respected work.)

So much for Von Forstner’s story. There are plenty of problems with it, and with Heuvelmans’s interpretation of it. To begin with, the creature, as depicted, is remarkably unlikely. I leave it to the reader to consider quite how plausible it is to suppose that a population of 60-foot long crocodiles, which require a base on land, could survive undiscovered today, and to any physicists among you to calculate the force needed to hurl an animal of such a size through a large body of water and then “60 to 100 feet” into the air, but salt-water crocodiles are cold-blooded reptiles, and though they can roam widely – they have been sighted in the Sea of Japan and within 40 kilometres of the New Zealand coast – they lack the cold-water adaptations of creatures such as the leatherback turtle, and are certainly not adapted to live comfortably in waters as cold as those off Fastnet Rock, even in July. Nor do they grow anywhere near the size described by Von Forstner – the largest Australian “saltie” measured to date was no more than 20 feet (6.1m) long. This problem led Heuvelmans to hazard his guess that the U28 sea serpent was a thalattosuchian, or metriorhynchid – that is, a surviving prehistoric marine crocodile of the sort that flourished 75 million or more years ago, but his identification is itself fatally flawed, since Von Forstner clearly describes “legs” and his illustration shows a typically crocodilian tail, while the metriorhynchids were far more fully adapted to life in the water: they lacked the crocodile’s osteoderms (the bony ridge along the back), sported small fin-like limbs in place of legs, and had a bilobal, fishlike tail. All this is bad news for Heuvelmans, since neither fins nor fish-tail were mentioned by the U-boat’s skipper, while the sketch he apparently approved certainly seems to suggest the presence of a bony ridge along the back. The baron’s evidence, in short, suggests that Von Forstner’s creature was wildly unlikely to be a surviving metriorhynchid, while if it was an out-of-place saltie it was not only half a world away from home, and in hostile waters, but also at least three times larger than it had any right to be.

There is, moreover, every reason to doubt that the monster, at least as sketched for the Kölnische Illustrierten Zeitung, bore any direct resemblance to the creature Von Forstner asserts he saw. I am indebted to Dr Darren Naish for the penetrating observation that

the more I look at the animal in the picture, the more I think it’s copied from a stuffed specimen of a baby croc/caiman. The head is distinctly juvenile in shape (short rostrum, big eye, bulging cranium). The curled, folded limbs could conceivably have been copied from a contorted stuffed specimen, and the tail is strangely lumpy and misshapen, as is typically the case in badly stuffed crocodilian specimens.

This theory makes perfect sense, and certainly seems much more plausible, as an explanation for the morphology on show in the famous illustration, than the notion that Von Forstner was able to find an artist, in the Germany of the 1930s, familiar with salt-water crocs – or that the U-boat skipper perfectly recalled an animal he had glimpsed only fleetingly nearly two decades earlier, and was able to describe it with precision for his artist.

Cryptozoological literalists, I have no doubt, will easily rationalise all this by suggesting that the U28 had encountered an as-yet-unknown species of giant marine crocodile, adapted to life in northern latitudes, yet so elusive that, a century after Von Forstner’s alleged observation, neither further sightings nor a specimen have come to light. So this might be the moment to move from the zoological problems with Von Forstner’s account to the purely historical ones – which are, frankly, even more damning.

It is, to begin with, rather noteworthy that the baron was the only member of the U28‘s crew ever to speak of the monster croc they supposedly saw in July 1915. Indeed, according to Von Forstner’s own account, none of the other five men who were with him in the sub’s conning tower that day survived the war (Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn pp.10-11). This is not in itself all that surprising, given the high mortality suffered by U-boat crews in both World Wars, and it is tempting to suppose that all five men may have stayed with the sub until she was lost, on 2 September 1917, in another wildly bizarre incident at sea. (In the tale told by a Royal Navy officer named R.S. Gwatkin-Willians, writing in Under the Black Ensign (London: Hutchinson, 1926), U28 surfaced in the freezing waters off North Cape to shell a cargo ship, the Olive Branch, which was carrying a consignment of army trucks as deck cargo. A German shell touched off ammunition stored on board, and in the resultant explosion one of the Olive Branch‘s trucks was flung into the air, “only to land (from a great height) on the U-boat, sinking her” – an unlikely-sounding account that has been challenged, but is simply too good not to be passed on here.) In fact, according to the baron’s own detailed account, there was a seventh witness –

Leider sind fast alle Zeugen der Vorfalles später gefallen. Es lebt aber noch unser damaliger Koch, U-Boots-Obermatrose Robert Maas in Gross Ottersleben bei Magdeburg, den ich kürzlich zu meiner Freude wieder zufällig traf under der das noch zappelnde Tier in der Luft sah…

Unfortunately, almost all witnesses to the incident were later killed. But one lives on: our then cook, submariner Robert Maas, who lives in Gross Ottersleben, near Magdeburg, and who saw the animal while it was still flailing in the air. To my delight, I recently met him again by chance…

– but if seaman Maas did indeed see anything, he never seems to have placed the fact on record.

U28 KTB 31 July 1915 IberianOne other piece of German evidence survives, however, and it is well worth citing here. Every U-boat kept its own Kriegstagebücher (war diary, or KTB), and – thankfully, given the frequency with which submarines were sunk or disappeared throughout the war – it was standard procedure for these to be typed up on a boat’s return to port and submitted to the flotilla commander. Most U-boat KTBs survived World War I and World War II to be captured, in 1945, by American troops. A vast mass of German naval material was subsequently microfilmed, and copies were retained by NARA, the US National Archives, when the originals were transferred back to the Germany a few years later. The U28‘s Kriegstagebücher is, fortunately, among them, and the entry for the Iberian sinking is shown here (left – as with all illustrations on this blog, you can download the file, or drag to your desktop and open, to see and read the original at a readable scale).

This, rendered roughly from the German, gives a good deal of detail concerning the action – it states that the submarine fired 11 shots as it chased the fleeing steamer and got two hits, that fire was opened at 6000 metres and much coal smoke was seen to emerge from the ventilators and funnel, that the ship sank with her bow in the air and that her cargo was cellulose consigned to Boston. Von Forstner also mentions that he found two wounded in the lifeboats and supplied bandages to treat them; that there were 70 or 80 men in six boats; that four men were left dead on board; and that the U28’s target had ziz-zagged desperately in her attempt to escape, and might have succeeded had she not been struck by the shells. There is, conspicuously, no mention of an underwater detonation, nor of wreckage flung into the air, nor of gigantic sea monsters writhing amid the debris.

This, admittedly, is not entirely conclusive evidence that Von Forstner did not see what he said he saw. The crews of some vessels who saw what they believed to be sea serpents have noted the fact in their logs – one thinks of the case of the SS Umfuli (1893). But others, cautiously, have not – among them the crew of HMS Daedalus (1848) and HMS Hilary (1917) [Source: Gould, The Case for the Sea Serpent (London: Philip Allan, 1930), pp.96, 192, 210]. It may be that the baron thought the matter of no interest in wartime, or feared ridicule or censure.

What, though, of the Iberian‘s crew? No fewer than 61 of them (Von Forstner had his figures wrong) survived to take to the boats, and these men were picked up at midnight by a patrol craft and taken back to port in Ireland. They included several Americans, who spoke freely to the US press. Members of the British crew spoke of their experiences to Irish and English newspapers.

Washington Post, 1 August 1915 IberianThe Times 2 August 1915 IberianThis fact was first noted by Ulrich Magin, who in an essay highly critical of Bernard Heuvelmans studied contemporary copies of the Cork County Eagle & Munster Advertiser – an Irish paper published close to the spot where the Iberian‘s survivors were put ashore – and discovered that the issue for 7 August 1915 “devoted a complete page-length column to the stories of the crew… who gave their version of the incident. They had all watched the ship go down, yet none saw a monster.” [Magin, “St George without a dragon: Bernard Heuvelmans and the sea serpent”. Fortean Studies 3 (1996) p.230.] I have duplicated Magin’s exercise and consulted stories in The Times (2 August 1915) – right – the Washington Post (1 August 1915) – left – and the New York Times (17 August 1915). All contain detailed descriptions of the chase and sinking, and none mentions what would surely have been the memorable and remarkable sight of a 60-foot-long crocodile thrashing amid the wreckage of their ship. Not one of the three, indeed, so much as mentions an underwater detonation or the violent eruption of any wreckage, though there is every sign that the reporters responsible took pains to make their descriptions as dramatic as possible. The report in the New York Times, for instance, makes much of the concussion of the torpedo explosion, mentioning even the minor detail that it shattered the glass on the watch worn by one of the survivors. The Times described dramatic scenes in the lifeboats as the seas rose in the evening. And the Post gave a minute description of the names, homes and occupations of the Iberian‘s American crew. While it is possible to imagine that The Times might have deemed news of a sea monster too frivolous to give in time of war, no such restrictions applied to the American papers (the United States did not enter the war until 1917). More than three score potential witnesses, in short, seem to have missed this unmissable sight, for it is as inconceivable that the survivors in the Iberian‘s boats would not have watched their ship as she went down as it is that they could have failed to observe the appearance of the U28‘s monstrous crocodile. Hence I conclude that Von Forstner at best misperceived some flying piece of wreckage, and, more likely, simply invented his tale years later. Scratch the “marine saurian” from Heuvelmans’s inventory of sea serpents.


* Thanks to Loren Coleman of the celebrated Cryptomundo blog, we now know the Iberian was  436 feet and 4.22 inches long. Which certainly makes her a pretty big ship.

** My own edition of this book, published in 1957, contains a passing mention of the U28 incident, but no illustration. Hennig’s book appeared in many different editions in France, however, and unfortunately I have had neither the time nor the resources to check each one.

Follow-up: Loren has also posted a thought-provoking article about a likely  inspiration for the illustration of the U28’s monster here.


My grateful thanks to Darren Naish, for discussing the U28 animal’s morphology, and Michael Lowrey, of the superb  Uboat.net site, for supplying a copy of U28‘s KTB.

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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.
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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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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