1. It happened one night – April 1st 1873 (early hours)
“Three in the Morning!? April Fools day!? What a dreadful sound?”
It was, literally, freezing and pitch black.
Thomas felt as though he needed a long sleep.
Not that the chief bed room steward seemed to get much sleep with all the ‘passenger needs’, including complaints that they “should have been in New York by now!” Indeed, “
Wasn’t this steamer, RMS (SS) Atlantic, only launched in 1871, with four masts and the power of its boiler, the pride of the White Star Line?”
Passengers never seemed to tire of pressing the ‘new fangled’ bell push for steward service (or twice for a stewardess).
If Thomas had been dreaming it was probably of his home, in Liverpool, wife Annie and the three young children.
He didn’t get much time with them, since the vessel was so popular and always crowded to its capacity of over 900 souls that it would turn round and leave Liverpool in not much more than a week.
He had not even managed to have the latest addition, little Susannah (his Mothers’ name), christened at St Mary's Church in Kirkdale the previous
All three were late September births.
They had (obviously!) been conceived in his winter breaks and christened at the same time the following year, when the port was almost shut because of the weather, but last winter he hadn’t been able to get enough time back in Liverpool.
Still, there was no child on the horizon this September!
So, what if he was at sea?
Wasn’t granddad company secretary and agent of a steampacket company (he sold the tickets from his shoe shop) and wasn’t Annie’s brother at sea?
Annie should be well aware of the problem of a seafarer being away from home. Indeed they had even named their eldest after Annie’s brother Walter, the Master of the brand new “Princess Louise” also launched two years ago in 1871.
There was, however, always the spectre of her eldest brother James who had died of fever on board the screw ship Bellona, by Malta, aged only 24.
Perhaps he would soon take over elderly granddad Thomas’s agency?
It would, though, mean moving back to the other end of the country.
When he was four, his father Thomas had died during (another!) London cholera epidemic; having struggled to get work as a butcher and (despite help from the grandparents – Thomas Druce was a butcher) hadn’t he and his younger brother David struggled – particularly getting work after the original White Star Line collapsed in 1866 when their Liverpool Bankers went ‘bust’?
The fact was that no one wanted most of their rotting old ships - so some were beached and burned where they lay.
David was now in Australia and seemed to be settled.
Thomas had worked his way up with Guion and Cunard.
Thomas felt lucky to be on such a modern, fast and (he had thought) far safer vessel now but,
having been roused by what seemed to be a dreadful noise and a continuing commotion quickly realised that the ship was in trouble.
The weather on the Eastern seaboard had been dire for two weeks, with the hatches down for days and the skipper had decided to put in to the unfamiliar port of Halifax Nova Scotia.
Some said it was to load more coal or food (they had struggled to cook in that weather - or wash after the outside water tanks were washed away) but surely they had easily enough (and indeed, the Captain would later say it was to avoid a storm).
They would surely dock very soon.
The captain had left the bridge at midnight.
They were, he said, forty miles from the lighthouse and the rocks.
The Officer of the watch was to wake him if they got closer to land.
His servant was to wake him at 2:40. Thomas, who had been in and out of Halifax had never known a captain to leave the bridge so close to land and also tried to rouse him, earlier, he said, without success.
He was also only a ‘servant’ in this hierarchy.
When quartermaster Robert Thomas told the first officer that they were close enough to see the Sambro Light lighthouse he was told unceremoniously that “he was not the Captain or Mate”. They were close enough to see Chetbuco Head light also but apparently no one on the ship was paying attention...
Fourth officer Brown stopped the servant boy waking the captain and failed to wake him, himself. He and the third and fourth Mates had not long been arguing when it happened.
One mate said they needed to post a watch to check their proximity to the rocks and the other that, if they did not slow down, any call would not be in time to them to take action he, Quartermaster (fourth Mate) Robert Thomas offered to go to the main yard himself, knowing the land.
The officer turned down both. Then there was the grinding crash as they hit Mars Head rock less than a chain from safe anchorage...
When news of the shipwreck broke people took it for an ‘April Fool’ joke.
The first telegraph from Lloyds simply noted that the ship was on the rocks and that most of the cargo could be saved.
The messages grew in severity.
Annie at home in Liverpool would no doubt have heard the news soon after the first editions of the Liverpool papers hit the streets on the second of April; though they had little information on what had happened.
No doubt she contacted the White Star offices but they had no news.
It was not until the second editions that the shipping company found out from the newspapers that it seemed that at least six hundred people had died!
No one knew any survivors names.
Telegraph traffic across the Atlantic was still difficult and it did not help those in Liverpool that
the New York Times and Halifax papers had published a list of survivors on the third.
This was England and it was only the first class passengers and officers who had their names published in the English papers.
When they did publish a list on the fourth it was of the entire crew, including Thomas, noting that it was likely some had survived from the worst disaster in living memory (until another White Star ship the Titanic) Annie knew some of her neighbours would be widows.
Was she? If only communications were better...
Thomas shouted to his stewards that they needed to get out now.
Not stopping to throw on any clothes or his uniform (White Star were sticklers for staff not appearing improperly dressed in public), he was leading the bedroom stewardess up the companionway and had just reached the deck when the ship heeled over, the cabin filled.
She was washed away and half his fellow stewards, delaying for clothes, died where they were below decks.
The first that many of the single women passengers in the stern would know of the disaster was when they awoke below decks to a frightening rush of water and certain death.
Some passengers were light sleepers and were trying to fight their way through the small hatches to get on deck but the ship was sinking fast.
One officer managed to loose a lifeboat by hacking the ropes with an axe.
Two women boarded but a rush of men filled the lifeboat and it started to make its way in the freezing darkness to the rock, some forty yards away.
Just then the ship lurched and the lifeboat was swallowed by the waves.
All aboard were lost.
Only a very short time (of absolute pandemonium) had passed but the ship was already almost lost.
By now many first class passengers were on deck and others had fought their way there. It seemed as though almost two hundred were on deck but no more boats could be launched. There was little time to think as the ship hit the rocks again and again – then swiftly lurched and began to turn turtle.
Those on the deck were swept away and the wails and cries were horrendous.
Heaven help those in ‘stowage’!
A few hardy souls managed to cling to the rigging which stayed clear above the water - and hold on... and on...
Hours passed. It was obvious that no ship would be able to rescue them.
As the time went on and it became light some, including the purser, died of the cold - frozen to the rigging.
Others simply lost their grip in the cold and disappeared from sight.
It was obvious that they needed to swim to the rock and try to set up a rope line to get the remaining souls off the rock.
Two quartermasters (Mates) began to swim in the icy waters.
Other seamen went to help – or decided that their best chance was to swim for it - and they too jumped from the rigging and began the difficult swim.
Some of the people around Thomas were praying but he never thought of praying at all.
His only thought was how to stop himself from being frozen.
He blessed the earlier times when he could not get a berth as a steward and had to take the tough job as a seaman.
He was still alive and wanted to stay alive!
Clinging, shivering, to the rigging, he had hardly any clothing and was freezing (literally) to death.
Inducing several others to do the same, he was one of those who began to swim...
Once there, Thomas helped the quartermasters to set up a rudimentary rope line and began to help the remaining souls get to the nearest rock.
Only a temporary ‘haven’, boats could not get to them and it was obvious that they had to reach land.
Thomas gave his life-belt to quartermaster Speakman who swam the couple of hundred yards to shore.
He and another Quartermaster (who had swum to the beach via Prospect Island) tied the rope he brought to the rock.
When Thomas joined them he and Speakman dragged a small boat to the beach and tried to rescue some from the rock.
It was useless in the raging surf and was swept away with those it tried to save.
The rope that they set up, provided by two fishermen, helped save ninety people from the rock but many were drowned between rocks and shore.
Quartermaster Robert Thomas, de facto in charge of the ‘rescue’, noted in his subsequent
reports that at nine, nearly six hours after the disaster, he was relieved by “steward Thomas
Dunn and one other” and the battle to save them continued under his charge.
Not all had even reached the rock. Some fishing boats came to help but were unable to get to the rigging where a few frozen souls (and dead bodies) still hung.
At midday still not all these few souls were safe.
The cries of the second officer from the rigging were heart rending but they could not reach him and the few crew left were too tired (or too scared?) to volunteer to go back and rescue him. They were, after all, lucky to have survived.
Every woman on board died - and all the children save one lucky twelve year old.
Even the local vicar took a boat out and aided the rescuers.
The magistrate who arrived gave permission for the frozen souls on land to take clothing and boots from the bodies but a few hardy stowaways who had made it to land were looting everything and robbing dead and rescued alike.
Thomas was now warmer but the indignity and trauma of taking clothes from the dead did not help any of them.
Indeed, one able seaman, ‘Bill’, who had served on three voyages, was found to be a girl! His/her uniform was rearranged reverently on the body by the shocked crew.
As a final indignity Captain Williams insisted his surviving crew be searched after the rescue as a few hardy stowaways who had made it to land were looting everything and robbingdead and rescued alike. Perhaps needless to say, none of the crew had anything of value – not
even their own valuables survived.
If they had managed to cling on to anything, they were being robbed also.
Some, after their ordeal, still set off to walk the miles to the nearest town, preferable to waiting in the cold.
Some of the survivors were put up by the local fishermen and villagers on the way.
They gave the survivors a celebration breakfast at Faneuil Hall Boston but Thomas stayed
behind in Halifax with those needed for the enquiry.
He pondered. Should he return to the sea?
What he had been through was an occupational hazard.
He was not to know that Annie’s brother Walter would be lost at sea some ten years later, still skipper of the same vessel (the Board of Trade enquiry made specific mention of his abilities as captain but it would not aid his widow).
He would leave the sea – but first he was going to have a break at home with his wife.
The officers and (few) others stayed behind to give evidence to the Inquiry ordered by the
Though his words are in the Times with those who gave evidence on the afternoon of the fifth of May, after the first handful of witnesses that afternoon the panel required to hear only ‘new’ evidence.
Perhaps Annie would see his words in the Times before she saw him...
Forty six of the crew arrived in Liverpool on the twenty first on the Allan steamer‘North American’. Thomas also arrived on that day on the Inman steamer ‘City of Montreal’ and was interviewed again by a number of papers. Those who gave evidence (or had been available to?) had arrived separately.
Independently, though the officers ‘closed ranks’ in the inquiry, English newspapers reported crew members, including Thomas, praising White Star vessels, blaming the Captain (solely) for the disaster and saying they would never forget the heart rending screams when Atlantic pitched and hundreds were swept from the deck to their deaths.
Some six hundred souls perished – a higher percentage than Titanic.
Thomas had lost his personal possessions, livelihood and many friends but was home with his family.
THE LOSS OF THE "ATLANTIC" - UNPUBLISHED NARRATIVES OF THE CREW (title of one article).
To leave the ship on to rigging – rocks – island – even land - freezing, with breakers washing
over all, does not guarantee survival...
Syndicated newspaper report: “Captain Williams had never taken a vessel into Halifax before, nor, indeed, had any of his officers, with the exception of the Third Officer, Mr. Brady, ever entered the port. At midnight, however, on the 31st, the Captain left the deck and went to bed, the ship being then according to calculation, some 39 miles* from a certain light marking the western side of Halifax Harbour. (*The vessel was far closer to land than he calculated, having failed to note the strong coastal current).
Third Officer (Brady) had also been relieved**, and the vessel was in charge of the Second
and Fourth Officers.
Two hours later she struck heavily upon a rock, and our readers know the rest. (**”...Mr. Brady said that he was thrown from his berth by the violence of the shock.
His door was locked, and Fourth Officer Browne bad the key in his pocket.
Mr. Brady burst the partition from his room to the after wheelhouse”).
“The following statements of petty officers (Thomas Dunn Chief Bedroom Steward, Samuel May Second Steward (the chief steward perished), Ralph Smith Chief Saloon Steward) ... None of these men were brought before the Halifax Court of Inquiry and their evidence is most important... and all express their belief that the entire blame of the catastrophe rested with the captain. (NB: also quoted by the newspapers and shown here: William Hogan steerage passenger and Quartermaster Thomas.)
(SM) I have sailed in all the ships of the White Star lane. I would prefer them as safe sea boats to any others crossing the Atlantic, as they are all double plated and double riveted, and strong in every way.
I have been in the Baltic in the severest hurricane I ever experienced, and she rode it out like a bird...
(TD) expresses his preference for the White Star steamers, in rough weather, over any other he had ever sailed in.
(SM) This was my third voyage in the Atlantic. When she left the Mersey she was a well found ship in every way. The crew generally was a fairly efficient one. On the previous Sunday the muster-roll for the manning of the boats was duly called.
Everyone knew his proper station, but to have got out the boats was impossible before the ship heeled over.
As we wanted to make a good appearance there we had that day trimmed the ship in every way, as is usual when nearing land...
(TD) attempted to awake the captain about a quarter-past two'o'clock, but ... he refused to stir. (He) had been employed for several years on the Cunard and Guion lines, and had never known a captain to go asleep when his vessel was approaching a dangerous coast.
(WH) I was on deck at three o'clock heard the sailor on duty call out, 'All's well! Three o'clock.' After hearing the sailor saying 'All's well’ I went to the forward steerage and got into bed.
About five ten minutes afterwards I heard watchmen cry out' Breakers ahead!' and almost instantly I heard a tremendous crash, and the air rushed in and blew out the lights.
(QT) As soon as I heard the man at the look-out sing out ‘Ice’, I went outside the wheelhouse, and saw the breakers, which first I took to be ice until the ship struck hard and fast on the land. Then I went to the wheel, and put my helm hard a starboard without orders to do so, after which I ran to thetelegraph under the bridge to reverse the engines.
(TD) the vessel careered over after striking, and her propeller struck against the rock, and with so much force that it wrenched the stern apart between the sections of iron, starting the rivets, and allowing the water to pour in in great quantities into the women's compartment, and this is the reason no women were saved.
(RS) I made twelve voyages in the Atlantic. I consider she was a first class sea boat, and although inclined to be wet forward, as all quick boats are, she was buoyant in the heaviest seas, and from my experience, having been wrecked three times, I consider it was only owing to her double decks and great strength that she did not go to pieces at the first shock instead of holding together for so many hours.
(WH) the ship commenced to turn over gradually on her side. I got on the side of the ship and caught hold of a rope.
I then heard a dismal wall which was fearful to listen to.
It proceeded from the steerage passengers who were below, and were then smothering.
It did not last more than two minutes, when all was still death.
(SM) If it had not been for the peculiar shear of the bow of the Atlantic, every soul must have perished.
She first struck some way out from where she finally settled; rocks, which must have torn her bottom all to pieces.
Had she been quite square at the stem instead of well rounded off towards the keel,
she would have been shivered from stem to stern, and gone to pieces almost immediately.
As it was, through the shape of her keel at the bow, she ran smoothly on to the rocks on which she nestled, and her stem was thus kept out of the water after the stern sank.
But for this point of refuge, even after she heeled over, hundreds would have perished.
(QT) The Interval between the ship sinking and the time when she listed over was very brief, and I shall never forget the terrible wail which met ears from all quarters that moment.
A deathly stillness followed.
(SM) I was in bed when we struck, and at once ran on deck. Only those who kept very cool saved themselves. There was much confusion at first, but it soon subsided.
The reason no women were saved is soon explained. The water poured into the steerage department almost immediately, and none but those who did not stay to put their clothes on were saved.
Some of these hurried back into the steerage for female relatives, and were overwhelmed by the rushing waves.
Nearly all of those who scrambled into the rigging, and had not sufficient clothes on, were frozen to death very soon...
(TD) was trying to bring the bed room stewardess along with him up the companion-way but just then as he stepped on deck the vessel heeled over, the cabin filled, and be barely managed to save himself in the rigging.
(SM) The captain then shouted that the last chance the survivors had was to get on the rigging. Several of them did so. I afterwards heard the first officer shout out that the only chance to those who could swim was to jump overboard and endeavour to reach the rock.
(QT) The whole of the port boats were smashed or wasted away.
Quartermaster Purdie said to me, "Are you going to swim ashore with me?" but I told him
I wanted to save the mother and her baby. Purdie then went down by line from the fore davit on the starboard boat aft into the water, when heavy breaker swept him forward, and that was the last I saw of him...
(TD) saved himself by getting into the rigging,
(QT) pulled off boots coat, and guernsey frock, and swam to the Prospect Island' a distance of about 200 yards. ... there were numbers of the people dropping dead from the rigging and the rock.
(TD) After the ship settled down there was no confusion or excitement among the survivors in the rigging. Some were praying, but he "never thought of prayer at all" his only thought being how to save himself from being frozen.
(RS) The most awful spectacle he beheld as be clung to the rails of the pilot's bridge was the upturned faces of the men below frozen to death as they sat huddled together. He kicked some of them and tried to arouse them, but they were already dead.
(TD) having hardly any clothes on and fearing that he might be frozen to death, swam ashore (and) induced several others to swim to shore with him.
(QT) Quartermaster Speakman was the first to come this rock, bringing with him a life belt and four signal halyards around his body. ... the surf was
carrying him away, and he would have been drowned had not my line caught his hand.
(TD) helped to fasten the first line, by which so many got on to the rocks. He gave his life belt to the quartermaster (Spekeman, who swam from the rock
to the shore, and with the aid of TD got a small boat dragged towards the point where the Atlantic lay before the fishermen came up This small boat, however, was quite useless in the heavy surf, which dashed over the rocks and carried away many persons who were clinging to them.
Many were drowned between the rocks and the shore.
(WH) During the time several of the passengers were being conveyed to the rock, which, near I can judge, about 30 feet from the vessel; there were three ropes from the ship to the rock, and one rope from the rock to the island, which was about 160 feet distant.
The passengers by means of these ropes saved an hour, very few them venturing to wade ashore, with the assistance of the single line, to the island.
(WH) At six o'clock a small boat skiff came to our assistance, but the sea was so heavy that they could not rescue any of those who were on either the rock or the ship.
About half an hour afterwards saw some men carrying a boat over the rocks on the island, and a few minutes thereafter they launched it and went to the rock, and rescued this way three boatloads of passengers, or about persons.
During the time they were rescuing these men from the rock the captain and the passengers on the ship called loudly to those in the boat come to the ship and take them off first, as they were in most imminent danger.
The captain called out to the men in the boat to come to the vessel and he would give them 600 dols. for every boatload they would rescue.
The boat commenced taking men from the ship, and rescued two boatloads...
(QT) At nine o'clock I was relieved by Thos. Dunn, the steward, and others, when I had to go to Thos. Clancey's for rest.
Afterwards I was taken to Mr. Rylans, the magistrate, where I was kindly cared for till I started for Halifax.
(WH) afterwards another boat came their assistance and took off those persons who were clinging to the rigging. A third boat came off with the third officer, who had succeeded getting to the shore previously by the aid of ropes.
(SM) I got to the top of the main rigging, and was taken off after eight hours' exposure to the frightful cold...
(WS) In about hour after getting warmed (I) went down to the wreck, and it was a fearful sight to behold. Some were still clinging to the vessel; others had been washed up on the beach, which was strewn around in all directions with dead bodies.
I saw one woman who exerted herself in getting out of the cabin to the rigging; but no one could render her any assistance she froze to death in the rigging...
I saw that no more assistance could be rendered, so I, with some others, got into a skiff and rowed to a fisherman's house, where the first, third, and sixth engineers were, with about 16 others.
(QT) By four o'clock (25 hours on from the disaster) , when I returned from Clancey's house it being then about daybreak, owing to the cold there were numbers of the people dropping dead from the rigging and the rock.
The steward, who was on the rock, was dead before my eyes.
Occasionally two or three
would come together ... having to be pulled up from the water's edge, a height of between three and four feet ... and the chief steward and another man were drowned at my feet in this way.
By this means (the rope) 90 people reached the shore.
The saved principally consisted of stewards, firemen, and passengers...
Times Leader: Altogether, we are compelled to conclude that the loss of the ill-fated vessel was due, in its ultimate shape and with its actual results, to a combination errors and misfortunes. She would in all probability never have been wrecked if she had carried an adequate stock of coals(later disputed), or If bad weather had not rendered her actual stock insufficient.
She would, again, perhaps have escaped the officers in charge had possessed a greater
knowledge of the coast they were approaching, or if a better look-out had been kept, especially by the Captain.
Syndicated article: the impossibility of saving female life, and the culpability of the captain and officers on duty, were concurred in by all the survivors questioned yesterday...
The New York Herald added that Captain Williams, who now lounges about the principal hotel in Halifax, is the man who is responsible, and, according to general wishes, as far as expressed, he is a man who ought to dangle from the yard- arm before the rising of another sun.
This statement is broad but there is an avalanche of evidence to support it.
That Captain Williams is one who is criminally responsible it is hardly necessary to repeat.
(TD) blamed the captain entirely for the disaster, and said he should not have left the ship while any persons remained behind.
(RS) all the crew blamed the captain, and some of them suggested that he should be lynched.
(QT) had slept but little, he no sooner fell asleep than he awoke with the despairing cry of that dreadful morning sounding in hls ears
(SM) I am about to sail in another of the White Star Liners on Thursday next, as I know by experience there are no finer boats afloat.
Eye witness accounts taken from:
Birmingham Daily Post and London Standard - Tue 22 Apr 1873 and Fife Herald Thu 24 Apr 1873 (syndicated account),
Alnwick Mercury - Saturday 26 April 1873, Birmingham Daily Post - Saturday 19 April 1873, Bradford Observer -
Tuesday 22 April 1873-which including reporting of the words of New York and Liverpool PapersThomas 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
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 andvanished”.
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
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.
As a footnote, Thomas left the sea the following year when
granddad retired, now aged well over eighty and the family (with, now, four children – including daughter Annie, named after his wife and conceived as he recuperated) left Liverpool.
Another son Thomas (who would also go to sea) came soon after followed by my grandfather David. „Steward‟ Thomas‟s later years were as a tax collector and running the General Steam Navigation Company agency (which he „inherited‟ from granddad and, in time, would pass to eldest son Walter).
Next to the agency that Thomas moved in to (in Margate Parade) had been the old telegraph office premises. Inadequate to report on the loss of the Atlantic, the telegraph was fairly soon obsolete.
The Dunn‟s added that next door corner premises to Parade House and Annie ran Dunns Parade Restaurant in Margate for years after Thomas‟s death.
It takes pride of place in many Margate postcards around the turn of the century.
My great grandparent‟s residence, restaurant, shoe shop, steampacket agency and home
is now Margate information centre.
More about Thomas on the Atlantic