SS Norwich City

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SS Norwich City (Courtesy: Janet Powell)

Historical records give us a fairly clear picture of the SS Norwich City’s construction and operation as a cargo vessel in the British Mercantile Fleet, and her demise on the reef of Gardner Island in the Phoenix Group (29 November 1929). What is not so clear is whether she played a passive role in the saga of Amelia Earhart seven and a half years after her grounding. Knowing more about the Norwich City may help to understand if there was a relationship to artifacts found at The Seven Site and to a post loss radio message that could have provided clues to Earhart’s location.

Contents

Construction and Early History

Originally Constructed as SS Normanby
(Courtesy: Hartlepool Built)

The Norwich City was launched as the Normanby on 12 July 1911, by William Gray and Company of West Hartlepool with the assigned yard number of 792 (similar to a constructor's number). Originally built for the London and Northern Steamship Company, she was registered out of London as ship number 132596. The 397 foot bulk carrier had a beam of 53 feet 5.5 inches. The keel had been laid five months earlier on 9 February 1911, and was constructed of steel. She was driven by a Central Marine 412 BHP (1960 IHP) triple expansion reciprocating steam engine whose three cylinders of 70, 40, and 26 inches propelled the ship at an operating speed of 9 knots. Fitted with two multitubular steel boilers, steam was produced at 180 psi. The steering gear and windlass machinery were also operated by steam. At launching, the gross tonnage was calculated to be 5633.2; her displacement was 8730 tons.

The London certificate was given up and cancelled on 24 April 1919, when the ship was re-registered at Bideford, UK, to the St. Just Steamship Company, Limited, with Sir William Reardon Smith, Limited, designated to manage the vessel. The ship’s name was changed to Norwich City by Board of Trade minutes number 2544. In 1928 modifications to the ship had changed her gross tonnage to its last recorded gross tonnage of 5587.08.

By 1922 the Reardon Smith fleet had grown to 39 vessels. On 2 July 1928, the name of the St. Just Steamship Company, Limited, was changed to Reardon Smith Lines, Limited, and continued to expand.

Norwich City and the Second Narrows Bridge

Norwich City in for Repairs at the Burrard Drydock Co. Following the Second Narrows Bridge Accident (North Vancouver Museum and Archives 7346)
Norwich City and Her Cargo of Lumber with Derricks and Funnel Toppled. (North Vancouver Museum and Archives 7347)

The Norwich City was involved in an accident, striking Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge the year prior to her grounding on Gardner Island. In Vancouver, B.C. the bridge across the tidal bore known as Burrard Inlet was completed in 1925 with its companion rail bridge completed in 1926. The name “Second Narrows” derives from the second narrowing of Burrard Inlet. The bridge was low, and the bascule was built near the south shore in shallow water in order to eliminate the cost of constructing two expensive towers for a lift span--against the recommendations of shipping experts. Accidents had plagued the bridge in its first years, [1] with major damage caused when the American freighter Eurana and the tug Shamrock struck the bridge in 1927, and on 23 April 1928 the Norwich City struck the Second Narrows bridge and was taken to the Burrard Dry Dock Company, where repairs and repainting were completed. In 1930 accidents continued when the American freighter Losmar struck the span, and the log carrier Pacific Gatherer toppled the bridge into Burard Inlest putting it out of commission for four years. [2]

Norwich City’s Stranding on Gardner

From Argus,Melbourne, Australia Newspaper, 3 Dec 1929, Courtesy: Australian Newspapers Beta Service
From Argus, Melbourne, Australia Newspaper, 5 Dec 1929 Courtesy: Australian Newspapers Beta Service
Planned Routes of Norwich City and Trongate

In Melbourne, Vic., Australia, the Norwich City off-loaded her cargo of coal for the Metropolitan Gas Company and with its crew of four officers and 31 men, departed for Vancouver, B.C., Canada, via Honolulu on 17 November 1929. Steaming in ballast and nearing the halfway point en-route to Honolulu, the Norwich City encountered a cyclonic weather disturbance with powerful westerly winds and heavy seas. Strong unexpected currents had set the vessel off its course. [3] Shortly after 11:00 p.m. on the night of 29 November 1929, in near total darkness, torrential rain, high winds, and heavy seas, the Norwich City slammed up on the fringing reef of Gardner Island.

Captain Daniel Hamer had the bridge watch. The order was given to don life jackets and prepare the lifeboats, as he and the officers conducted an assessment of the damage and made soundings around the ship--hoping that daylight would offer the opportunity to “let her off”. Lightning, heavy rain, and high winds, made radio communications difficult for wireless operator Clark. After three hours, contact was made with Apia, Western Samoa. Apia Radio then attempted to contact vessels in the vicinity of Gardner Island but none could be located closer than 850 miles from the Norwich City.

At 4:00 a.m. smoke was seen coming from the engine room. The wireless operator continued at his post long enough to report the fire to Apia. Hamer’s later testimony[4] painted a dramatic picture:“Fanned by the strong wind it wasn’t long before the vessel presented an alarming spectacle. Minor explosions were occurring at frequent intervals while the crew were engaged getting out lifeboats and lowering them to the rail.” After lowering the starboard boat to the gunwale, Captain Hamer and the Chief Officer went to the port boat to lower it when a wave slammed into the weather side of the ship, carrying the lifeboat away. Captain Hamer was thrown into the sea 40 feet below and given up for lost. By 5:15 a.m. the Mate orderd the starboard life boat lowered with the remaining crew aboard it. When they were ready to “let go” the lines, the lifeboat was swept aft under the quarter and immediately capsized by a wave.

The New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Party Brings Equipment Ashore Past the Bow of the Grounded Norwich City in 1938. (Courtesy, Wigram Air Force Base Archives, RNZAF)

By 6:00 a.m. in Apia’s harbor, John Harry Swindell, Master of the SS Trongate, received the harbormaster aboard the ship and was ordered to raise steam, then was summoned to Government House to meet with Administrator Allen. His Excellency, Administrator Allen of Western Samoa gave instructions to proceed to Gardner Island in the Phoenix Group and render assistance to the stranded vessel. With a Government guarantee to cover expenses, the Trongate was provisioned and a 19 foot whale boat with a six man native crew was brought aboard.

On the Gardner reef, the crew members of the Norwich City were repeatedly swept out to sea, then tumbled through the surf onto the reef, and swept back again for what seemed an eternity. Eleven men drowned or fell victim to the large number of sharks that gathered. One by one, including Captain Hamer, the survivors found their way across the reef to the shore. Four men were trapped under the overturned life boat. Three survived after the bottom was cut out of the boat to free them.

Sometime after daybreak Saturday morning, both lifeboats and most of the equipment had washed ashore. Provisions were gathered up and a camp was established about 100 yards into the brush to offer protection from the continuing rain and wind. After resting for a while, parties were dispatched to search for water. At noon the survivors had their first ration: a half tin of milk, water and biscuits with corned beef. Later Saturday afternoon, the rain eased some and a fire was started after several attempts.

In Apia, at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Captain Swindell commanded “Proceed Norwich City”, and by 2:00 p.m. the Trongate left Apia Harbor “Full Away”. At 6 p.m. Saturday, Apia Radio got through to the SS Lavington Court whose position was 350 miles from the Norwich City with an estimated arrival at Gardner at daybreak on Monday, but the ship did not participate in the rescue of the Norwich City crewmembers.

Three crewmen whose bodies washed ashore on Gardner Island were buried; the steward first, the fireman who was trapped under the lifeboat was buried toward evening, and later, the carpenter. The remainder of the eleven men lost were never found.

Sunday was a showery day, but with more sun than was wanted. The ponds of rainwater were quickly drying up, though a three week supply had been stored in the lifeboats’ tanks. In the morning an issue of water was given, and the camp was moved. Parties were dispatched to look for water and coconuts and the remainder worked on building a camp shelter. Upon return of the parties, rations were issued: biscuit, meat, diluted milk, and “coconut for dessert”.

On Monday the Trongate made contact with the Norwegian tanker, MT Lincoln Ellsworth, and they made arrangements to rendezvous at Gardner Island at first light the following morning.

Survivors took to the beach at daybreak Monday to look for ships. None were sighted. The long day ended with evening rations, and a hope that the following day would see their rescue.

At dawn on Tuesday several men went to the beach to look for ships, but seeing none, returned to camp. An issue of milk and a biscuit was made, before several men walked to the other side of the island. Two ships were then spotted which came around to the wreck side of the island: one from the north and one from the south. Everyone gathered on the beach as the Lincoln Ellsworth lowered a motor boat, and the Trongate lowered the whale boat from her aft deck.

Rescue of the Norwich City's Crew

Norwich City Resue Map
Norwich City's Crew Survivor Camp in 1938(Courtesy, Wigram Air Force Base Archives, RNZAF)

With water and provisions loaded aboard the 19 foot whale boat, the native crew left the Trongate just after 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, and headed across the surf. The survivors on shore attempted to wave them away from the treacherous surf, not aware they were highly skilled islanders. The boat landed successfully and its water and provisions were taken to the shelter.

Feeling it was unsafe to re-cross the surf taking the survivors to the ship, it was decided to find a more favorable rescue location. The provisions were secured in the camp, and with some reluctance the shelter was abandoned. Captain Hamer wrote in his testimony [5] "I sincerely hope that no-one will ever be so unfortunate as to need them”. The survivors would not return to this shelter again.

Captain Hamer joined the whale boat crew, (perhaps with several other survivors) and proceeded southeast across the lagoon opposite the two ships which had cruised the shore and found a better location to effect the rescue. The ships had stopped about one and a half miles south of the wreck site. Again, the Lincoln Ellsworth launched its motor boat, and the Trongate launched a lifeboat. (It is not clear whether the ships “circled the island” and rounded the southeastern corner as stated in a dispatch by Captain Tichendorf[6] of the Lincoln Ellsworth, or if the ships proceeded directly down the shoreline to the new location, rounding the “southeast corner” of the island—meaning the turn of the shoreline on the southwest face of the island.) Either way, they ended up about a mile and a half south of the wreck.

Captain Hamer estimated the first attempt to take survivors across the surf from the new location was about 2:00 p.m., while Captain Swindell of the Trongate said they tried the “whole of the morning”. At 2:30 p.m., a rocket line was fired to the survivors. A message was returned from Captain Hamer, fearing that they would be forced to spend another night ashore and away from their abandoned shelter, saying, “send, water, biscuits-- weather too bad-- try tomorrow.” At 3 p.m., after many more attempts, three survivors were successfully taken across, with much cheering and blowing of the ships’ whistles. The whale boat returned to shore, but was unable to bring the requested provisions. Near sundown, after several more unsuccessful attempts, the native crew, unable to return to the ship, built a fire, caught crabs and birds for a meal, and settled in for the night.

After standing off for the night, the ships returned Wednesday morning. The survivors waited for high water to try crossing again. On the third attempt, at about noon, three more survivors were taken across, carrying another note from Captain Hamer. “To the Master Trongate-the position as to getting over that surf appears to be hopeless. The only thing I can see for it is a cruiser with a seaplane to alight in the lagoon inside, if possible. Send us as much water as you can as we have none. We have meat but a case of milk would come in useful also matches, chlorodyne as some of us are getting diarrhea and any old boots (one pair size tens) and any old hats and tobacco. These (native) men from your ship say there is too much risk from sharks should the boat capsize when crossing the reef. Sorry to put you to all this bother and we all thank you for your assistance. Sincerely yours, D. Hamer, Master”

This time on its return to shore, the whale boat carried “liberal” provisions “enough for a month”. The remaining survivors had a ration of biscuits and a tin of water. Captain Hamer commented in his statement, “Water never tasted so sweet.” Five more successful crossings were made that afternoon. The last included Captain Hamer. The whale boat was loaded “to take what we could of the stores etc., off with us.” All survivors were off the island and aboard the Trongate by 2:15 p.m.

At 2:30 p.m. twelve men were transferred to the Lincoln Ellsworth; by 3:30 p.m. Captain Swindell of the Trongate, commanded “Full Away”.

The Final Registry Entry in the Bideford, U.K., Ship's Register. (TIGHAR Collection)

Disputed interpretations about site of the rescue

Questions have been raised in the Forum about the site of Norwich City Rescue.

Norwich City Wreck as a Landmark

From the time Captain Swindell described the location of the rescue as “A mile and a half south of the wreck”, the Norwich City served as the de facto bench mark for location references on Gardner Island. Even though not always known by name, the ship served as a landmark for over three quarters of a century as noted in these records of visitors and passers-by:

  • Eric Bevington’s Journal: “Wednesday, October 13th (R.T.) We sighted Gardner at dawn. A wrecked cargo steamer was up on the reef and in the distance it looked O.K.”
  • New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Expedition Topographical Map Is Annotated: “Wreck: SS Norwich City Conspicuous But Breaking Up.”
Norwich City in 2007. (Courtesy: TIGHAR by John Clauss)

Identification of the Norwich City

Norwich City With Unburned White Paint Still on Her Bow. (Courtesy, Wigram Air Force Base Archives, RNZAF)

During the first years following her stranding, there may have been clues available to determine the name of the Norwich City by inspection. Because the build name of the vessel was Normanby, she would not have had a name cut of steel plate welded on her bow to identify her as the Norwich City. But, just as the white paint applied to her bow during the Vancouver repairs survived the fire that followed her grounding, the name painted on the bow may have similarly survived. In November, 1939, ten years after the grounding, a party from the USS Bushnell went aboard the Norwich City. The following description was entered into Captain Coleman’s “Employment Report” for November 16th 1939 (p.21).

“The party sent to hoist an electric beacon on the stranded steamer at GARDNER ISLAND reported that the steamer apparently was once owned by the W. R. Smith Company of England, as evidenced by the firm name on crockery and old silver pieces found in the Captain's cabin with inscribed name "Normanby". The ship is in an upright position on the coral ledge, the forward half high and dry, the after part submerged to the upper deck. A fire apparently gutted the ship before or after stranding. Both anchors are housed although the stoppers were released. The hull is broken on both sides amidships and, on the port side, a huge opening extends to the keel line. No one on the island seems to know when the steamer grounded. From the state of deterioration of the hull and the wooden boats, it is believed to have stranded at least 3-4 years ago. All nameplates and articles of value have been removed. Three clinker-type boats, believed to have belonged to the ship, were found on the beach. The ship's name had been removed but the barely legible name "BIDEFORD" was discerned on one boat. Kodak pictures taken from the BUSHNELL, at a distance of about 1000 yards, are forwarded with this report as enclosure (A).”[7]

Most documented visitors to Gardner Island prior to the Bushnell survey occurred between November, 1937 and December,1938, but there may have been earlier undocumented visitors who could have scavenged equipment from the Norwich City. The fact that three clinker type boats were found on the beach, indicates that at least one of the two ship’s boats had been lowered after the time of the stranding. During the Board of Trade inquiry it was documented that only the two lifeboats washed ashore. The “Hailing Port” of Bideford (UK) was visible on one boat, but the name of its Mother ship (Norwich City) had been removed. It is unknown if this occurred before or after July of 1937.

The TIGHAR Forum Highlights from 9 May 2001 has the following description by Dick Evans of his visit to the Norwich City Wreck when he served with the U.S Coast Guard on Gardner Island during WW II.

Regarding the name Norwich City. As I recall the name could be read on the bow of the ship (1944) although it was not very plain. On one occasion several of us walked thru the hole torn in the port side of the hull and climbed up to the forepeak. From there we could see several places where the name was painted on equipment. For the next few months we threatened to climb back up and work our way to the bridge, which was in good shape. But like most things, this got lost in the scope-watching and similar exciting things we were doing. Don't know if this is any use to you or Lawrence, but there it is.

Norwich City Lifeboat,1938 (Courtesy, Wigram Air Force Base Archives, RNZAF)

Dick Evans

This April 23, 1928 photo of the Norwich City taken following the Second Narrows Bridge collision offers a view of the port lifeboat. It does not appear to have the name of the mother vessel and port of registry painted on the bow a year before the grounding on Gardner Island. Although not required at the time of the collision for this class of ship, it was common for lifeboats to be so marked. (Courtesy Vancouver City Archives)

From Ric

Thanks Dick. This is really very interesting. You're correct, of course, about the hole on the port side and it would make sense that there would be features aboard that bore the ship's name. Whatever you saw as the bridge, however, must have been something else. Photos of the ship prior to the accident show a white-painted superstructure just forward of the funnel and a smaller structure further aft that are missing in Bevington's 1937 photos of the wreck. These seem to have been of wooden construction and were consumed in the fire that engulfed the vessel at the time of its stranding.” Forum Highlights, Dick Evans, (9 May 2001)

A 1938 picture of the lifeboat taken by the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Expedition is not clear enough to determine if a name was visible, however, a 1928 picture taken following the Vancouve, B.C. Second Narrows Bridge accident, showed no visible marking on the bow. (The lifeboat cover which was in place may have partially obscured any name.) SOLAS 1914 lifeboat marking requirements in effect at the time did not require the name of the mother ship to be painted on the bow. It stated: “The dimensions of the boat and the number of persons it is authorised to carry, shall be marked in clear permanent characters. These marks shall be specifically approved by the officers appointed to inspect the ship.” Markings with the name of the mother vessel and port of registry were not required by SOLAS until later, never-the-less it was common to do so. The shipping specialist consulted by the reference library manager of the Hartlepool Central Library, England reported “The lifeboat would I believe have had the name of the ship it belongs to painted on the side of it.”

Provisions and Equipment Left at the Norwich City Survivor's Shelter

The Board of Trade testimony indicated that most of the equipment aboard the lifeboats washed ashore, as did both lifeboats themselves. This included the lifeboat provisions, such as biscuits, meat, and water contained in “breakers” (small barrels used to provision lifeboats with water), as well as the first stores sent ashore from the Trongate. Equipment such as sails, axes and floatation tanks (which keep the lifeboat afloat should it fill with water), or tanks used to pack provisions on the boat, may have also been at the shelter.

Commonly supplied equipment placed in lifeboats according to a maritime forum[8] were: hatchets with lanyards, mast and sails, compass, bailer, dipper (tube to insert into fresh water breaker or tank to extract a measured amount of water ration) tin opener (on jackknife), signaling equipment and flares, whistle, flashlight (torch), sea anchor, storm oil, spare bungs (plugs attached to keelson with chain for drain holes) oars, painter (rope to tie boat), rustproof water vessels (for drinking), biscuits, water in breakers or tanks, condensed milk, first aid kit, and fishing line & hooks.

Seven-site artifacts that could have had their origin in the survivors’ shelter could include: An empty can of the shape used for mutton; a sheep or goat vertebrae, like that contained in canned mutton to enhance flavor; a cork and brass chain like that used as a stopper or bung of a small wooden cask “breaker” used to store fresh water aboard the lifeboats.

Tin Can In Situ at the Seven Site in the Shape Consistent With That Used to Can Mutton. (TIGHAR Collection)
Chain and Stopper of a Small Wooden Cask Similar to Water Breakers Carried Aboard Lifeboats. (Courtesy: Andrew McKenna)
Sheep or Goat Vertibrae Which May Have Been in Canned Mutton as a Flavor Enhancer. (TIGHAR Collection)
Sketch of the Can Found at the Seven Site with Its Dimensions Indicated. (TIGHAR Collection)

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A Postscript

SS Trongate

Minesweeper HMCS Chedabucto sank the burning Trongate, loaded with explosives at Halifax. Fears of a repeat of the 1917 Mont Blanc disaster lead to the decision to sink the merchant ship by gunfire in the confines of the port.[9]

SS Trongate: Built in 1924 by Northumberland Shipbuilding Co., Newcastle-upon-Tyne. 3979 Gross Tons, Official Number 145738, Registered in London, Greater London, England. Sunk 10 April 1942 by an Allied ship.

Artist Derek Sarty's rendering of the sunken SS Trongate

MT Lincoln Ellsworth

On 6 April 1941 Lincoln Ellsworth was steaming in ballast, unescorted when she was struck by a German torpedo 150 miles west of Iceland. The crew abandoned ship in two lifeboats before a second torpedo struck. Not sinking, she was shelled from both sides. An hour and a half later she sank stern first. Captain Kristian Olsen and all 29 crewmen survived.

MT Lincoln Ellsworth: Oslo, Norway, Tanker, Built by in Gothenburg, 1927. 5580 Gross Tons, 8340 Tons displacement

Picture of Lincoln Ellsworth

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