On the night of Friday, November 29, 1929 the steamer S.S. Norwich
City made an unscheduled stop at Gardner Island. She was under the
ownership of the Reardon Smith Line, Captain Daniel Hamer, Master, and
about halfway on her run from Melbourne to Honolulu to pick up a cargo
bound for Vancouver. With empty holds, the freighter’s 397 foot length
was riding high, especially at the bow, and her 53.5 foot beam rolled
with the heavy swell. Amidships her 412 H.P. oil-fueled, triple-expansion
steam engine was serviced by nine Arab firemen, while topside a crew
of four officers and 22 British seamen completed the ship’s company.
Her keel had been laid in Hartlepool, England in 1911 and she was registered
out of Bideford in 1919 as ship no. 132596, gross tonnage 5,587 on the
Mercantile Navy List.
According to the testimony of Henry Lott of Folkestone, England, Second
Officer, given at a Naval Court held December 9, 1929, in Apia, Samoa:
The first thing I knew was at 5 past 11 there was a crash and the vessel
went up on the reef. I jumped off the settee in my room, went outside,
and returned and put on some clothes. I went straight to the bridge for
The Norwich City was making water in two of her six holds so
Captain Hamer ordered everyone to gather in the galley and wait for daylight.
After a considerable time I noticed smoke coming from the fiddley.
I looked down in No. 3 [hold] and could just see flames down below.
Hamer ordered the lifeboats lowered but the mountainous seas breaking
against the stranded ship ripped one boat from its davit and swept the
By that time the ship was a furnace .... We had the intention of waiting
on board till daylight. [Then] she started exploding down below.
Those who could took to the remaining lifeboat but it was no sooner launched
than it was capsized by a wave. Lott was swept to the reef, then back to
the ship, and finally, around daybreak, found himself on the beach. In
all, five British seamen and six Arab firemen were lost. The 24 survivors
were rescued five days later by ships which had set out from Samoa when
the first SOS was received.
After two rescue ships arrived from Samoa the survivors were forced to
move to the “lee side” of the island because the surf was too
severe near the wreck for boats to take them off the island. It is not
clear from the available accounts just where on the shore the rescue was
effected A note sent by Captain Hamer on December 4th to the captain of
one of the rescue ships provides an interesting list of the needs of Europeans
marooned on Gardner Island for five days, “… Please send as
much water as you can as we have none. We have meat but a case of milk
would come in useful as would matches, chlorodyne as some of us have diarrhea
and any old boots (one pair size tens) and any old hats and tobacco.” For
a complete report of and discussion on the wreck of the Norwich City, see Norwich