The Wreck of the Norwich City

Introduction

On the night of Friday, 29th November 1929, whilst on passage from Melbourne to Vancouver, the SS Norwich City was wrecked on Gardner Island, with the loss of 11 lives. Information from available official documents and printed anecdotal accounts, together with the work of TIGHAR, can provide a fairly detailed account of events. Whilst the limits of some sources are recognised, an attempt is made to distinguish fact from myth, and references are only included here when supported by others.

The Grounding of the S.S. Norwich City

The SS Norwich City departed Melbourne on 17th November 1929, manned by 26 officers and crew and 9 Arab firemen. Bound for Honolulu for refuelling, before heading on to Vancouver, she was in ballast and riding high, especially at the bow (Naval Court Evidence). According to Heaton (1984), she encountered a cyclonic disturbance with heavy seas and headwind, which continued for 24 hours, after which conditions eased. By late in the day of 29th November, unusual weather conditions existed, with unusually strong currents, which appear to have altered her course, and at approximately 23.00 hours she ran aground the reef of Gardner Island (Heaton, 1984). Support for this account is provided by Middlemiss (1991), who describes the variable weather conditions experienced, and that strong currents set the vessel off course, resulting in her grounding on the reef. Further evidence was also given to the Naval Court Inquiry (Apia, 1929) as to the erratic nature of the currents that existed naturally in the area surrounding Gardner Island.

Henry C. Lott, second officer, in his evidence given to the Naval Court, describes his experiences. “The first thing I knew was at 5 past 11 when there was a crash and the vessel went up on the reef. I jumped off the settee in my room, went outside, and returned to put on some clothes. I went straight to the bridge to wait for orders.” Accounts were also given to the waiting press by some of the survivors on their return to the UK, in February 1930. They include the recollections of D. Rees, an apprentice, who reportedly states: “When the Norwich City struck the coral reef, at about 11 o’clock at night, I was asleep having been on a previous watch,” (South Wales Echo) Another apprentice, D. Harkness reportedly describes “...the sky blazing with lightning and the ship rocking like a cork in boiling water” (South Wales Echo, 8th February, 1930). Heavy seas and winds repeatedly pounded the vessel onto the reef. Having taken orders from the Master, Daniel Hamer, Lott assisted in checking the lifeboats and surveying the condition of the vessel, when he reported that she was taking in water in 2 of her 6 holds (Naval Court Evidence). It was hoped that all could stay aboard until daylight as there appeared no immediate danger. However, due to the possibility that she would break in two, orders were given to stay around the galley, aft the funnel, in order to be handy for the lifeboats (Naval Court Evidence).

It is estimated that at about 04.00 hrs the Norwich City burst into flames. Lott testifies that he noticed smoke coming from the fiddley and that he saw flames in number 3 hold. Strong winds fanned the flames and by 04.30 hrs a fire was raging in the engine room and number 5 hold, and Hamer ordered the lifeboats to be lowered (Naval Court Evidence). Whilst he and the Chief Officer, J. Thomas, were attending the port boat, the Norwich City was struck by a heavy sea which ripped the lifeboat from its davit and swept Hamer overboard. He called out for a rope to be lowered over the side, was heard briefly then given up for lost. Thomas assumed command and last minute orders were given, at about 05.15 hrs, take to the lifeboats. T. Clarke, the wireless offficer, had been engaged in sending SOS messages which were received by the Apia Radio Station. Extracts of their log, presented to the Naval Court Inquiry, make it clear that the Norwich City crew was aware that a rescue effort was being planned. However, by the time confirmation came that assistance was on the way, all hands had abandoned ship.

All hands took to the remaining lifeboat, but no sooner was it launched than it was drawn up into the surf and capsized. It was then that 11 men lost their lives: 5 Europeans and 6 Arab firemen. Lott recalls being washed on the reef, out again to sea, swimming outside the reef for sometime before making it back to the reef and being washed ashore. There are numerous accounts of the presence of sharks in the water and Harkeness recalls the horrifying scream from an Arab seaman as he was attacked (South Wales Echo, 8th Feb. 1930). Thomas is later reported as saying “... every man had had to fight hard for his life” (South Wales Echo, 8th Feb 1930). In their attempts to reach safety, the survivors had discarded much of their clothing and most had suffered cuts about the body from sharp coral, support of which is provided in the list of injuries supplied to the Naval Court Inquiry. By daybreak the survivors had been washed ashore where they met up with Hamer. He too had been hindered in his attempts to reach safety (Daily Express, Feb 1930). Despite being an extremely capable swimmer, he was hampered by the strong currents before being washed onto the reef, reaching the beach as dawn was breaking.

Of the 11 men who lost their lives, the body of the Steward, J. Jones, was the first to be recovered. He had almost reached the shore when he collapsed and attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful (Lott’s statement). Later that day the body of a fireman was recovered from beneath the upturned starboard lifeboat, and the later discovery of the body of the carpenter, J. Leslie, completed the three bodies recovered, and afforded a burial on the beach. The information in Lott’s testimony that no other bodies were discovered during their stay on the island, is supported by all other available sources.

Survival on Gardner Island

Lott’s testimony states that both lifeboats were washed ashore. It is also clear from the available accounts that equipment and provisions were also recovered. It is unfortunate that no inventory exists, but the available documentation, and later discoveries by TIGHAR and others, can give some details.

One of the lifeboats was still to be found when the New Zealand Survey Party visited the island in 1938, and was photographed. It appears to be 12 to 15 ft long, relatively intact and out in the open (Earhart Project Book, 7th Edition, TIGHAR, 1993).

Thomas (submission to the Hydrographic Office, 1930) describes the use of their “small lifeboat axes.” Their purpose was to cut down trees for the construction of a shelter. Recollections of Hamer (family documents) indicate that the site of the survivors’ camp was approximately 100 yards into the woods, away from the exposure of the beach. He also recalls the use of recovered boat sails, blankets and old canvas in providing additional comfort. The New Zealand Survey Party in 1938 found and photographed what they took to be the survivors’ camp. The photo shows a few boxes and small barrels scattered about an area perhaps 20 ft in diameter and surrounded and covered by fairly dense vegetation (Earhart Project Book, 7th Edition, TIGHAR, 1993).

Provisions were also recovered. Numerous accounts describe rations of “... a biscuit covered with corned beef and ... a tin of milk and water” for each meal. The discovery of coconuts later supplemented their diet. Lott describes finding a pool of fresh water. This was collected and stored in small tanks recovered from the lifeboats (Hamer’s recollections), and boiled before use.

Those who had not lost their boots during their reach of safety, were able to search the island. Fresh water was a necessity and any aids to survival desirable. As the storm subsided on the 2nd day, the heat became uncomfortable and sunburn became a particular problem for those wearing only scanty clothing. All these recollections can be supported in a list of survivors and their injuries presented to the Naval Court Inquiry.

Of additional discomfort was the presence of what were described as small rats, together with giant land crabs which were observed “carrying coconuts in their claws without the least trouble” (Thomas’s statement – Hydrographic Office, 1930). Thomas also documents the existance of large birds that were easily caught, and surmised that between these edible birds, crabs and coconuts, one would be unlikely to starve on the island. However, there are no accounts of birds forming part of the diet of the Norwich City survivors. Despite the estimate that supplies would last approximately 3 weeks, (Thomas’s Statement – Hydrographic Office), there was hope for rescue much earlier. On the night of the wreck, the British vessel SS Trongate, under the command of Capt. John H. Swindell, was in port in Apia. Following receipt of distress calls from the stricken Norwich City, the Trongate was dispatched at 10.30 hrs on 30th November, for Gardner Island. Also sent aboard by Administrator Allen of Western Samoa, was a 19 ft whaleboat and its crew of 6 Ellice Island natives, in order to render assistance (Statutory Declaration John Swindell, private family document collection, Bob Swindell).

The Trongate was in communication with the Norwegian vessel, MV Lincoln Ellsworth, under the command of Capt. Tichendorf, which was on passage between San Francisco and Sydney. It was later acknowledged that both vessels played an equal part in later proceedings (Naval Court Inquiry).

Rescue of the Survivors

At 06.50 hrs on 3rd December, the crew of the Trongate sighted Gardner Island (Naval Court Evidence). The two rescue vessels met on the East side of the island, turning around and arriving at the site of the wreck at approx. 08.00hrs (recollections of Hamer).

The survivors had collected on the beach to witness the arrival of the ships, one from the North and the other from the South; their excitement marred only by thoughts of those buried on the beach (recollections of Hamer). At 09.00 hrs the whaleboat and her crew was launched carrying water and provisions. Numerous accounts describe the immense skill displayed by the native boat crew in reaching the shore. They made the beach a short distance south of the wreck but were unable to get away at that location due to the danger from the surf (Swindell’s statement to Naval Court Inquiry). Supplies were sent from the Trongate and gratefully received.

The decision was made to search for a more suitable location to attempt a rescue. The Trongate and Lincoln Ellsworth cruised the reef to the South and the Island natives and survivors were observed crossing the lagoon in the whaleboat (Naval Court Evidence). The exact location of the rescue site is unclear. Before leaving their camp the survivors placed “all provisions etc.... in the shelter, with the sincere hope that no one else would ever have need of them” (recollections of Hamer).

At 14.30 hrs a rocket line was fired from the Trongate and a request received for water and biscuits, but the difficulties experienced by the whaleboat crew prevented their delivery. By 17.00 hrs the whaleboat had at last been successful in transporting 3 of the survivors to the Trongate (Swindell’s statement, Naval Court Evidence). Heavy surf and the collection of sharks in the area was hampering rescue efforts and the whaleboat returned to the island with half its crew in the hope that their boat would be easier to handle (recollections of Hamer).

No further rescue efforts were successful that day, and the natives decided to remain ashore. Numerous anecdotal accounts describe their apparent enjoyment at building a campfire from dead vegetation and preparing a meal of crabs and seabirds. Later all settled down to spend what they hoped would be their last night on Gardner.

Shortly after 08.00 hrs the following day, another successful rescue saw 3 more survivors taken off the island. They reached the Trongate with a message from Hamer requesting water, matches, chlorodyne, any old boots and hats, and tobacco (Swindell’s statement, Naval Court Evidence), further evidence that sunburn and injuries from the hard coral were a particular problem. There was also concern among the survivors that some may be forced to spend another night ashore and that their previous stores had been abandoned.

It was with great appreciation that liberal stores were later received from the Trongate (recollections of Hamer). In the event, all attempts at rescue during the afternoon were successful and the last survivors boarded the Trongate at 14.15 hrs, full of admiration and respect for all involved in their rescue. Both vessels left Gardner Island with all 24 survivors at 15.30 hrs on 4th December 1929.

Conclusions

Whilst it is accepted that there exist some colourful anecdotes in relation to events, no disagreements in the accounts are evident. It could therefore be suggested that the stranding of the vessel took the crew by surprise. It would seem that the existence of bad weather, the use of navigational charts available at the time, now known to be inaccurate, and the nature of the environment surrounding Gardner Island, contributed significantly. In attempting to reach the safety of land all men experienced a hard and fearful effort. Of the 11 who died, only 3 bodies were recovered and afforded burial, and no others were found.

Despite the nature of the collision, it is clear that the crew had a little time to equip the starboard lifeboat. It is also evident that both lifeboats and some of their contents were washed ashore. Sufficient equipment was recovered to assist in the construction of a shelter, a campfire, and to enable the storage of water. A supply of food was recovered and the survivors had identified additional sources of food provided by their environment. Although uncomfortable, it appears that they were confident of being able to survive for longer than was subsequently necessary.

Upon the arrival of the rescue vessels, in the search for a suitable rescue site, the original survivors’ camp was abandoned. Equipment and provisions were collected and stored at that location. At no time did the survivors return to this site.

In spite of the presence and assistance of highly skillful local island natives, leaving the island was treacherous due to the nature of the surf and the presence of sharks. It could be concluded that survival in the water, or chances of a body remaining intact for any length of time in these conditions, is remote.

Whilst many anecdotes contribute to this account of the wreck of the SS Norwich City, sufficient documentation exists to support their accuracy.

Bibliography
Board of Trade Report, Mercantile Marine Department. Copy of Evidence taken at Naval Court. 1930. Public Record Office. Ref: MT 9/1967
Heaton, P.M. Reardon Smith Line: The History of a South Wales Shipping Venture. Newport: Starling Press, 1984.
Middlemiss, N.L. Travels of the Tramps: Twenty Tramp Fleets, Vol II. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Shield Publications Ltd., 1991.
Signed statement of J. Thomas, Chief Officer. Hydrographic Office. Jan. 1930.
Copy signed statement of John H. Swindell, 1929. (Private family document collection, B. Swindell.)
Copy statement of recollection of Daniel Hamer, date unknown. (Private family document collection, J. Powell)
South Wales Echo, Feb. 1930. (stored on microfilm, Cardiff Central Library)
Research Papers Earhart Project Home Page

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