Thomas Dunn on the SS Atlantic - March/April 1873
Atlantic was the second ship built for the newly reborn White Star Line by Harland and Wolff in 1870. She was powered by a steam engine producing 600 horsepower driving a single propeller, along with four masts rigged for sail. It was one of the finest passenger vessels of its time. The notices in the paper confirmed that “a stewardess and a surgeon are on board each voyage”. (They carried three stewardesses). She was also one of the fastest vessels, taking from eight days to cross the Atlantic and with a quick turnaround; having docked at Liverpool only eight days earlier.
Eleven days later, still at sea, the captain decided to steam to Halifax Nova Scotia, the nearest port, perhaps as initially reported because the vessel's coal supply was running low (seemingly because it was poor quality and burning too quickly) - but as suggested later because a storm was brewing. The weather on that American coast had been dreadful for two weeks and other vessels had gained port only with difficulty. On this, its nineteenth voyage, Atlantic seemed to suffer a catalogue of problems and then errors.
For some days the hatches had been battened down, some of the water supplies had been washed away and many passengers were complaining about the standard (and lack of) food. More worryingly, it has been suggested that this was a ramshackle crew, many recruited (or, rather, ‘picked up’) before they left. Captain Williams, formerly a Commodore for the Guion line had joined the ‘new’ White Star almost from its inception two years earlier and on his second ‘Atlantic’ voyage, calls them ‘rougher’ than usual and notes that, since the abolition of apprenticeships, it is not usual to get more than ten competent seamen of the forty required. He, himself, was a relative invalid after an earlier accident at sea, walking haltingly with a cane. Then, near a most dangerous (and, to him, unknown) coastline he left his bridge and retired to sleep in his chartroom leaving others (also not familiar with the coast) on duty.
Those Officers were not experienced with the entry to Halifax Harbour, failed to take soundings, post a masthead lookout, reduce speed or wake the captain as they near the unfamiliar coast. It seems that they somehow did not spot (or note the significance of) the Sambro Lighthouse, the large landfall lighthouse which warns mariners of the rocky shoals to the west of the harbour entrance - with horrific consequences. Incidentally, Thomas with his experience of the Cunard line would (like Quartermaster Robert Thomas) no doubt have known the Halifax coast better than the officers but he was not really in a position to ‘assist’.
At 3:00 a.m. local time on 1 April 1873, the Atlantic struck an underwater rock called Marr's Head 50 metres from Meagher's Island, Nova Scotia. The contemporary newspapers reported that the ships' officers were mainly to blame for the accident. Quartermaster (Mate) Robert Thomas had stated at the inquiries, that he had warned 1st Mate Metcalf against keeping too close to land, but Metcalf ignored his warnings. Robert Thomas had then addressed 4th Officer Brown, and suggested that they should go up to keep lookout since, if not, they would not be able to see land in good time before they struck it. Brown answered that this was not necessary (and suggested, seemingly, that neither was senior enough to make that decision). Quartermaster Thomas was at the rudder when the lookout before the mast shouted "ice ahead". It was not ice in this case but the waves dashing on the rocks. The course was immediately changed and the engine reversed on full power, but almost instantly the ship ran on to the rock, “within a cables length of safe harbour”.
Only one boat was launched and that went down with the loss of all aboard it. Other lifeboats were impossible to launch because the ship had listed, or were washed away or smashed as the ship quickly filled with water and flipped on its side. The struggle to leave the ship and make it to (precarious) Golden Rule Rock claimed the lives of all women aboard, all married men and all the children, except one. Several crew members heroically swam through heavy surf and freezing water to land rescue lines and seek help. One of those, according to the reports was Thomas Dunn. The New York Times of Thursday April 3rd 1873 devotes its whole front page to the disaster and lists Thomas Dunn in its list of crew saved. His obituary many years later confirms that he “was saved by swimming ashore after spending many hours in the rigging of the vessel”. The newspapers of the time confirm that "Parts of the rig remained over the surface after the ship went under, and those who could, climbed up and clung to the rig...Some of those clinging to the rig had died from the cold, among them the ship's cashier." Other articles note
that “many passengers froze to death in the rigging including the purser...some of them benumbed by cold loosed their hold and vanished”.
The loss of life was horrendous — 565 passengers and crew was an early estimate; though this discounted the hundred plus who had purchased tickets at Liverpool or Ireland before the boat sailed and whose records would sink with them and the ship. Many died in their cabins aware of the disaster only as the ship sank. Many of those on deck were swept away to their death “with piteous cries” when the ship sank. The disaster was the world's worst merchant shipwreck known at that time, and was not surpassed until the loss of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Half the ships crew died. Thomas Dunn was one who swam to land. Not only that but Quartermaster Robert Thomas (who was defacto in charge of the rescue attempt) says in his narrative that he was “relieved by Thomas Dunn and others” at nine a.m. when they were trying to get some survivors from the rock to the shore. (The book published that year simply says “a steward and one other”. It was left to the newspapers to report his name. Other ‘crew’ such as the captain’s servant do not merit a ‘name check’ either) Bob Love’s recent book commentary notes that “there were 1070 actual souls, living and recovered bodies. There were many bodies never recovered and some found miles away with others beneath the hull and left inside because the divers got more money for the salvage”.
More than one newspaper notes that early reports of the loss of the steamer with ‘some deaths’ were almost dismissed as an ‘April Fool joke’. One can only speculate upon how the news of the disaster was greeted in Liverpool, particularly since a full list of the people saved and lost was not immediately available (and papers concentrated, anyway, on the passengers and officers) and imagine the joy when the good news finally came through. “When a telegram of safe arrival at New York might have been hourly expected”, as the news put it, the initial news came the following day to Liverpool in a Lloyds telegram that wrote of the vessel being stranded on Magher’s Island and that part of her cargo would be saved.
The telegraph system was nationwide, following the major railways, by 1852. (On September 1 1846 the South Eastern Railway opened every telegraph station on its lines from London to Dover, Folkestone, Ramsgate and Margate to public messages for the first time - and Liverpool was part of the network by July 1947). There were, however, many different companies using different systems and messages had to be hand transcribed and re-sent between systems. The Atlantic cable of 1858 failed at huge cost. Two undersea cables to Dublin failed in 1859. The replacements failed in four years. Though the main British company The Electric Telegraph Company anticipated reaching New York by telegraph overland by way of Siberia, Russian America, Canada and California (and even experimented with wireless telegraphy in 1863), construction of the Russian America line was abandoned in July 1867. A circuit dedicated to Atlantic traffic, between Valentia San Diego and London, via Wexford, was finally leased in late 1867 and it was only on December 21, 1867 that a twenty-two word test message was sent from the Polytechnic in London to the telegraph station at Heart's Content in Newfoundland and messages were short. (In 1864 an 11,000 word speech sent to the Times took 6 hours to be received and produced a 1 mile long tape).
The news in the telegrams got worse but the first that the White Star Line owners heard of the extent of the calamity was in the second edition of the Liverpool papers of that following day. Early, though otherwise extensively detailed, reports in the English press concentrated on the lack of any immediate rescue vessels, the extreme cold, that not a woman or child survived and that had the first officer and two quartermasters not been able, after some hours to swim to the rocks and set up a line to pull some of those on the rigging to safety the list of survivors would have been negligible. The newspapers of the third of April noted that “the list of those saved has not yet been reported”. By the fourth they had reported only the first class passengers and ships officers that had been saved and by the fifth the Lancaster Chronicle was reporting a list of all the crew – but with no notice who had survived.
As we know even many of those who had managed to make it as far as the rigging did not ultimately survive; including the second officer whose piteous cries for help could not convince any of the survivors to attempt to make it back to him. A small percentage, only the strongest (luckiest and resourceful), survived. His years of sailing before the mast would no doubt have helped Thomas. There was not, even, any way of communicating from the fisherman’s cottages where the survivors found themselves with Halifax so someone was despatched on horseback.
Many of those who were rescued then had to walk into the nearest town through more than a foot of snow – not easy for the soaked, freezing and traumatised survivors. A large trench was dug where the bodies “of the unclaimed” were put. Thomas had lost many friends and colleagues and would no doubt have heard the cries of distress and seen the destruction and death in his mind for many years. Indeed, it is dwelt upon in his obituary many years later. No doubt some of Annie’s friends were now widows.
Forty two members of the crew arrived back in Liverpool on the 21st April. They were the ones not needed for the Inquiry. All those interviewed in the press roundly condemned the Captain. Thomas arrived on a different vessel with many of those who gave evidence. The Report of the Investigation into the Cause of the Wreck of the Steamship Atlantic was published in the federal government’s Sessional Papers of 1874 (volume VII, no. 3, pages LVI-LVII and 340-343). The report was part of the annual report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. It is, however, only a summary of the court’s findings. Witness statements are not included. Unfortunately, the original records of the inquiry no longer exist. All records from before 1892 were destroyed in a fire in one of the Canadian Parliamentary buildings in 1897. It is fortunate that a copy was sent to the UK Board of Trade (and ended up in the National Archives at Kew).
The Times of the nineteenth reports his comments on the disaster and his attempts to get the captain to leave his bed at 2.15am. The time shown may be a typographical error (as is the spelling of his surname). In any event the time would not have been ‘exact’ since the captains own timepiece is ten minutes slower than the engine room clock. He is not ‘the Captains Servant’ whom the Inquiry accepts tries to raise him at 2:40/45 with his drink (as requested) but is stopped by the fourth officer. This is a ‘servant boy’ who, like all the women and children (save a single twelve year old), dies in the disaster and does not even receive the courtesy of a ‘name check’ in the inquiry. Did he go back to ‘the Servant’s quarters and tell the chief bedroom Steward that he had been prevented from doing his duty? Reuters also reports that ‘they’ had tried to raise the captain ten minutes before the crash. The captain, in his evidence, says that he slept until the ship struck and wishes he had been woken at three as he requested. He, perhaps tellingly, says that even if someone had tried to wake him they had not succeeded.
Thomas was a ‘Petty Officer” (as described in the Newspapers). The crew, effectively servants, were supposed to know their place, just as ‘downstairs’ in a country house was a strict hierarchy under the Butler. In the nineteen seventies I heard more than one senior Civil Servant commenting that clerical staff “were not allowed opinions”. A hundred years earlier, I read the statement that a quartermaster was told that he was neither the Captain nor first Officer, that he suggested that they were going so fast that, even were they to post a lookout (also suggested) they may be too late to stop the vessel hitting land. This was simply reported in the inquiry (not commented upon) and did not particularly concern the press or perturb or scandalise anyone. It was a fact of life; as was ‘ignoring’ all the crew (and second class passengers) in the early reports of survivors. Years later in the Titanic nearly all the first and second class women passengers survived. The third class generally died.
Although the officers ‘stuck together’ no fewer than two of the officers also contradict part of the Captains testimony. A captain who confirms that he was in the chartroom on the saloon deck thirty foot from the bridge asleep when the ship struck can, perhaps, not complain when his officers and quartermasters disagree who was where when the ship struck and who was ‘responsible’ for aiding the rescue attempts and who simply tried to save their own lives. Passenger’s statements in newspapers corroborate Quartermaster Robert Thomas’s version but they were not called...
The Inquiry only calls twenty one witnesses - a very limited mix of officers, a few first class passengers and lookouts. On the afternoon of the fifth of April after the first two passengers give evidence the committee suggests that they only need to hear from anyone who has something extra to add. The newspapers syndicated articles make clear that the Petty Officers (Thomas Dunn Chief Bedroom Steward, Samuel May Second Steward - the chief steward perished - and Ralph Smith Chief Saloon Steward) were not called. They and such ‘lowly’ people quoted as well as the witnesses in the many newspaper articles seemingly therefore were only able to tell the papers of their concerns.
The vessel on which Thomas returned to Liverpool docked at Queenstown on the eighteenth and delivered a number of despatches. Perhaps the paper spoke to him then. Either that or (far more unlikely) there is a gap in the list. The Inquiry was far more concerned with how the
accident happened to any thought of what happened after the ship hit the rocks. The subsequent Board of Trade inquiry concentrates on the ship and its cargo. Neither really asked all the questions or got to the bottom of the disaster. A book ‘rushed’ out in 1873 (named after Carrie Clancy the fisherman’s daughter who assisted in the rescue from the shore) notes that the “Lawyers seem more anxious to display their skill at pettifogging than to elicit truths”.
The Canadian inquiry still decides that the Captain’s conduct in the hours leading up to the disaster deserves censure but, in view of the Captain’s later heroism, they only suspended his licence for two years (and the fourth officer who was on duty was suspended for three months). The inquiry had reported before Thomas made his comments. Nearly forty years later in the subsequent White Star line disaster, the Titanic, (which killed a smaller percentage of its passengers) their Captain was questioned by the Inquiry as to why the story of the Atlantic had not acted as a salutary reminder and why its lessons had not prevented the loss of his vessel...
The 10th May 1873 Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald articles said “Mr. Thomas Dunn, grandson of Mr. Thomas Dunn, of this town,and chief bedroom steward on board the Atlantic, is one of the survivors from this ill-fated vessel. His statement of the catastrophe, published the New York papers, is one of great interest” – still in family contact!
Thomas did not leave the sea immediately, indeed, the birth of his next child a year after the disaster shows him as a ‘ships steward’ in 1874 (and suggests that he may have had a bit of time at home after it to recuperate - as all the others seem to have been conceived at the time at the turn of the year when the port was less busy). It seems that he had been home during three Decembers, but seemingly not for an early christening of his third child. Some of the forgoing chapter is necessarily based upon newspaper reports of Thomas’s words – taken at face value – but there is one piece of conjecture. It is possible that Annie had been ‘expecting’ at the time of his shipwreck and that the shock had an effect. Thomas’s first three children are all born a couple of years apart and there is nothing to suppose that she was pregnant. In any event, this is not something upon which I would wish to speculate further.
At the birth of his first and third children Thomas is described as a seaman in the Merchant Service but at the second and fourth as a Ships steward. (This job description is found both for the birth and baptism certificates). As a petty officer (senior bedroom steward), it is likely that he had been a steward for some time and would simply be using his title of ‘seaman’ as a generic or historic description; viz that he no longer had any need to undertake those duties. One presumes however that, if a senior steward’s job was not available Thomas would have required work as a steward/seaman. In any event, he would hardly have been home when he was working. It is always possible that Thomas’s comments in the paper would have made him less able to find work and many modern commentators suggest that all those who gave evidence would have been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Quartermaster Thomas tells the papers weeks later that he “had slept but little, he no sooner fell asleep than he awoke with the despairing cry of that dreadful morning sounding in hls ears”. Another of the Petty Officers said that he was “about to sail in another of the White Star Liners on Thursday next, as I know by experience there are no finer boats afloat”. A later obituary of Thomas says that “through being many hours in the rigging, and then having swum ashore, he suffered intensely from the cold: and it is supposed that the neuralgia from which he suffered for some years was thus caused”
In mid 1875, however, Thomas and Annie and family leave Liverpool for Margate. Mother Annie is returning to where she was born and Thomas to his grandfather’s abode. Perhaps now he wanted to spend more time with his family or perhaps the thought of how near he was to being lost at sea tipped the balance. Perhaps it was as well. When they leave Liverpool (and Thomas leaves the sea) his brother in law Walter Perkins is Master of a vessel there. He is still its master some ten years later when it is lost at sea. Lord Winston quotes studies on epigenetics showing that, after wars and disasters, the general population begins to produce more male children. Though we cannot draw any ‘scientific’ conclusions from Thomas’s life after his ‘disaster’, following his move to Margate he would have seven more children. The only further girl born was a twin. He has five more sons and a brand new career...
Saturday 14 January 1899 Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald - The late Mr. T. Dunn.—We regret to announce the death of Mr. Thos. Dunn, of Parade House, which took place in London on Wednesday, after a painful illness of some months' duration. He was for years the collector of Queen's taxes for this district ... and also for sixteen years local agent to the General Steam Navigation Company. Paralysis was the cause of death. The deceased in early life followed the sea, and was wrecked in the White Star line steamer Atlantic, off Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the Ist April. 1872 (sic), and, through being many hours in the rigging, and then having swum ashore, he suffered intensely from the cold: and it is supposed that the neuralgia from which he suffered for some years was thus caused.