"H I L D A" (S.S.)
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894.
In the matter of a formal
investigation held at Caxton Hall, Westminster, on the 1st , 2nd
and 8th day of February 1906, before R.H. B.MARSHAM, Esq., assisted
by Captain RONALDSON, Commander CABORNE, C.B., R.N.R., and Vice Admiral O.
CHURCHILL, into the circumstances attending the loss of the British steamship
"HILDA" at or near the Pierres des Portes, northwest coast of France, on the 18th
day of November, 1905, whereby loss of life ensued.
Report of Court
The Court having carefully inquired
into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds
for the reasons stated in the Annex hereto that the said casualty was caused by
the Hilda striking on one of the Pierres des Portes rocks, outside St. Malo,
during a snowstorm, but in the absence of definite evidence, owing to the fact
that all those who could have thrown light upon the matter were drowned, the
Court is unable to express an opinion as to how she got there.
Dated this 12th day of
We concur in the above Report
Annex to the Report
This inquiry was held at the Caxton
Hall, Caxton Street, in the city of Westminster, on the 1st , 2nd
and 8th day of February, 1906.
Mr Pickford, K.C., and Mr A.D.
Bateson (instructed by the sollicitor for the department) represented the Board
of Trade, while Mr Butler Aspinall, K.C., and Mr J.A. Simon, M.P. (instructed by
Mr Sam Bircham, sollicitor to the London & South Western Railway Company, and
Messrs Clarkson, Greenwell and Company), appeared for the owners, Mr D. Stephens
(instructed by Messrs Woodhouse and Davidson) for the executor and children of
the late Mr and Mrs Wellesley, Mr Maurice Hill (instructed by Messrs Broad and
Cheston) for the representatives of the late Colonel Follett, Mr Ryland (Messrs
Woodcock, Ryland and Parker) for the relatives of Rev. Dr. Stanley, Mrs Stanley,
Miss Norah Stanley, and a maid, and Mr Jones (representing Messrs Peake, Bird
and Collins) for the Honourable Henry Cavendish-Butler, husband of the late
Honourable Mrs Butler.
The "Hilda" official number 86327,
was a screw steamship built in iron in 1882, at Glasgow, by Messrs Aitken and
Mansel. She was registered at the port of Southampton, and was the property of
London and South Western Railway Company, having its principal place of business
in London and was under the management of Mr Tom Mitchell Williams, the
company's dock and marine superintendent, at Southampton, who was designated as
the person to whom the management of the vessel was entrusted by and on behalf
of the owners, by advice under the seal of the said company received on the 1st
of January, 1902.
The dimensions of the vessel were
as follows :- Length 235.6 ft. ; breadth 29.1 ft. ; and depth in hold from
tonnage deck to ceiling at midships, 14.2 ft. ; her gross tonnage being 848.06
tons, and her registered tonnage, 378.36 tons.
She was propelled by compound
engines of 220 nominal horse-power, built by Messrs John and James Thomson and
Company of Glasgow, in 1882 and designed to give her a speed of 12 knots, the
cylinders being respectively 37 ins. And 69 ins. And the length of stroke 39
ins. ; and she was fitted with two steel boilers, made by Messrs Day, Summers
and Company, of the Northam Iron Works, Southampton, in 1894, and having a
working pressure of 85 lbs. to the square inch.
She had five water-tight bulkheads
; both hand and steam steering gear were provided and she had been furnished
with an installation of the electric light in 1894.
She carried six boats, namely, two
lifeboats of the aggregate capacity of 587 cubic ft. and capable of
accommodating 57 persons, two boats of the aggregate capacity of 321 cubic ft.
and capable of accommodating 40 persons and two other boats capable of
accommodating 57 persons. These boats were supplied with all requisite
equipments and were fitted with Messrs Hill and Clarke's patent disengaging
With regard to other life-saving
appliances, she had 12 lifebuoys and 318 lifebelts, 192 of the latter being
placed in the cabins, 100 being stowed on battens under the forecastle, and 26
being reserved for the use of the crew.
In accordance with the Board of
Trade regulations, she carried a signal gun and the proper number of cartridges,
rockets and blue lights.
In the way of navigating
instruments, she had three compasses, namely, one (Lord Kelvin's patent) on the
bridge, which was the standard compass by which the courses were set and
steered, and two others (one of them being a spirit compass) situated one on
either side of forward of the after steering wheel, and she was also furnished
with a "cherub" taffrail log, and the ordinary hand and deep-sea lines.
The compasses were last regularly
adjusted by Mr J. Blount Thomas, compass maker and adjuster of Southampton, in
May 1894, but since then, it was stated they had been examined and overhauled at
fixed periods, the vessel subsequently making a trial trip to ascertain that all
was in order. Moreover, on the 26th April, 1905, both the master and
the then chief mate signed a declaration as to the good condition of the
compasses, and their knowledge of their errors, as required by the Board of
Trade when granting a passenger certificate.
Admiralty charts and Part II of the
Channel Pilot, found by the master, were on board and the company further
supplied the steamer with a copy of the "Annuaire des Marées des Côtes de France
pour l'an 1905", published by the French "Service Hydrographique de la Marine".
On the 30th of May,
1905, the "Hilda" which originally cost £33,000, and at the time of her loss was
valued at £12,000, half of that amount being covered by insurance and the London
and South Western Railway Company taking the other moiety of the risk, was
granted a passenger certificate for Home Trade limits (such limits including of
course the Channel Islands and St. Malo), such certificate to remain in force
until the 15th of May, 1906 and the number of passengers for which
she was licensed being 566.
A few words should now be devoted
to the personnel of the vessel.
The master, Mr William Gregory,
entered the company's service as an A.B. about the year 1869 and gradually
worked his way up, becoming successively second mate in 1871, chief mate in 1874
and master in 1880. He was described by several witnesses as a man proverbial
for his caution and one whom passengers specially selected to travel with, and
in addition to a Home Trade master's certificate of competency (N° 101888), he
possessed pilotage licenses for Southampton and Jersey. Of his experience in
connection with this particular trade it is not necessary to say more than
that, during his time as master, he had entered the harbour of St. Malo on about
one thousand occasions.
The chief mate, Mr Albert Edward
Pearson, also entered the company's service as an A.B. in 1890, becoming second
mate in 1899 and chief mate in 1904. He was possessed of a Home Trade master's
certificate of competency and held pilotage licenses for Southampton and Jersey.
The second mate, Mr E. Greaves joined the company in 1904 and possessed a
Foreign Trade master's certificate.
The pilot, Mr J.W. Courtman who had
special knowledge of the Channel Island waters and the coast of France in the
neighbourhood of St. Malo, had been in the service of the company for about
four years. He held a pilotage license for Jersey, but not for St. Malo.
However, by an agreement entered into by the representatives of the company and
the pilots of St. Malo, St. Servan, St. Cast and Cancale, the company's steamers
are allowed to dispense with the service of local pilots.
Coming to the narrative of the
voyage, the "Hilda" left Southampton at 10 p.m. of the 17th of
November, 1905, bound to St. Malo with about 109 passengers and about 10 tons of
general cargo, manned by a crew of 28 persons all told (including the pilot),
and under the command of Mr. William Gregory. Her approximate mean draught
would be about 10 ft. and she would be trimmed about two and a-half ft. by the
stern. The proper sailing time was 8.15 p.m., in which case the vessel would
have been due at her destination about 9 o'clock of the following morning, but
the master delayed his departure for an hour and three-quarters owing to the
presence of fog and did not leave until it lifted.
Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight, was
reached shortly after 11 p.m. and further fog being encountered, the master
anchored off that place until about 6 a.m. of the 18th of November
when the voyage was resumed.
At 0.30 p.m. the steamer had passed
through the Race of Alderney, the weather at the time being fine and clear, with
a light easterly wind, James Grinter, A.B., the sole survivor of the crew, to
whom the Court is indebted for the narration of events, now left the deck, it
being his watch below. About 2 p.m. one of the other hands went below and told
Grinter that they were off Jersey and that the breeze was freshening, but the
latter had no knowledge as to the position at that hour. At 4.30 p.m. Grinter
returned to the deck and it was then blowing hard from the eastward, there was a
heavy sea running and the atmosphere was very clear. At 5.10 p.m. he went n the
look-out on the bridge where were the master, pilot, and chief mate, and the
Grand Jardin light was then visible a little open on the port bow but he did not
know its compass bearing. The weather still remained clear but looked
threatening. About 6 p.m., the St. Malo leading lights were in sight, open to
the eastward of the Grand Jardin light and all the town lights and the light on
Cap Fréhel were likewise to be seen. About 6.30 p.m. the Grand Jardin light was
distant about half a mile, and bearing a little on the port bow. A heavy snow
squall now came along, shutting in all the lights and the master instantly
ordered the engines to be slowed down and the helm to be put hard-a-starboard
and the ship's head was brought to seaward. Grinter went off the look-out at
6.30 p.m. but remained on the bridge until 8.30 p.m., and during those two
hours, the "Hilda" was manoeuvring or dodging off the land, the weather being
squally and heavy snow falling. However, the Grand Jardin light was visible
every 10 or 15 minutes, between the snow squalls, but none of the other lights
could be distinguished. The first time the master saw the Grand Jardin light
after the snow commenced, he called the pilot's attention to the fact that the
ship was far enough to the eastward and the course was altered more to the
westward. Afterwards, when he saw the light, the master took bearings of it and
then went and consulted the chart. The lead, according to Grinter's evidence,
was not used prior to 8.30 p.m. That it was not used subsequently, the Court has
no evidence and therefore cannot attribute the loss of the vessel to its
At 8.30 p.m., it was blowing strong
from the eastward, there was a very heavy sea and snow was falling heavily. The
master, pilot and chief mate were all still on the bridge when Grinter went
below at that hour, his watch on deck being over, and thence forward, there is
no information as to the navigational proceedings in connection with the
Approximately about 11 p.m. Grinter
who was asleep in his bunk, was awakened by the ship striking the rocks, and he
and the remainder of the watch below instantly rushed on deck and ran to their
stations on the bridge and at the boats. At this time, it was snowing hard, a
strong easterly wind was blowing and there was a heavy sea running. The master,
chief mate and second mate were on the bridge, but Grinter did not notice the
pilot, probably owing to its being very dark.
The master ordered the boats to be
got ready, and the starboard lifeboat was lifted out of the chocks ; but it was
then discovered that it could not be lowered into the water on account of the
nearness of the rocks. For the same reason, the port lifeboat and the port
cutter were not available. The master gave orders for the starboard cutter to be
lowered, but when it was half way down, a heavy sea smashed the boat against the
ship's side, rendering it useless and turning it bottom up. About this time, the
foremast which had previously been seen swaying, went over the side.
While all this was going on, the
master had been alternately firing distress rockets and sounding the whistle.
The saloon passengers had
congregated round the after hatch, which was the most sheltered place on the
vessel, and the stewards and stewardesses were helping them to put the lifebelts
while the Breton onion-sellers gathered along the starboard side under the
bridge, were assisting one another in a similar manner. There was no confusion
either amongst the passengers or the crew.
An attempt was made to get out the
port quarter boat, but while this was being done, the after part of the ship
sank in the water, a heavy sea swept over her stern and everybody was washed off
the deck. Grinter was washed alongside the private cabin under the port main
rigging, which he managed to seize and climb up into, as did also the chief mate
and the cook ; the starboard main rigging being full of people who had succeeded
in obtaining refuge there, such as it was. Some two minutes later, or about ten
or twelve minutes after she struck , there was a crash and the "Hilda" broke in
two, at the same time, heeling over to such an extent as to put those who were
clinging to the eyes of the rigging into the water, and causing the loss of most
of the others. However, she righted again to an angle of about forty-five
degrees, although she subsequently rolled throughout the night. Only a few words
passed between Grinter and the chief mate who was as to the cause of the
accident, but the latter remarked to the former, "all gone ! not a soul left to
tell the tale !" and wished him goodbye. Grinter now climbed up on the gallows
of the masthead light, which remained burning until the morning although
latterly somewhat dimly, and called to the chief mate to get up higher, but he
was unable to do so. Some two hours after the vessel sank, the cook dropped into
the sea, and at about 6 o'clock the following morning, the 19th of
November, the chief mate died clinging to the mast. Throughout the night, it
only cleared once for five minutes and then the shore lights were visible but it
cam thick again, the heavy snow giving place to thick sleet.
Just before the chief mate died, a
pilot cutter sailed out past the wreck, but she was too far off for those on the
mast to attract her attention.
About 9.30 a.m., the s.s. "Ada" (Mr
Albert Edward Howe, master), belonging to the London and South Western Railway
Company, which vessel should have sailed for Southampton on the previous evening
but had been detained in port by the snowstorm, came out of St. Malo and
observing the men on the mast, sent a boat to rescue them, a feat which was
accomplished with considerable difficulty, although the wind had somewhat
moderated it was still blowing hard from the eastward and there was a heavy sea.
The chief mate, a fireman, and two Bretons were found dead in the rigging. About
the same time that the "Ada" sent her boat, a French pilot cutter which had
appeared on the scene, sent her boat also, and at great risk saved one of the
Breton onion-sellers who had spent the night on the forecastle of the "Hilda".
Unfortunately, the name of the pilot to whom this boat belonged, did not
transpire at the inquiry. The sole survivors consisted of James Grinter, A.B.,
and five Bretons who were conveyed to the hospital at St. Malo.
The position where the vessel
struck was on one of the Pierres des Portes rocks about six cables distant in a
W.N westerly direction from the Grand Jardin light, and about two cables, or say
four hundred yards, to the westward of the Chenal de la Petite Porte.
As it was high water at St. Malo at
9.53 p.m. on the 18th of November, the vessel must have stranded when
the tide had been falling for about an hour.
The first intelligence of the
catastrophe was conveyed to St. Malo by the "Ada", the signals of distress shown
by the "Hilda" not having been seen from the shore, although the London and
South Western Railway Company's employees were on the pier most of the night,
nor from the Grand Jardin lighthouse. Even if they had been seen from the Grand
Jardin, no information could have been conveyed during the night, owing to the
lack of telegraphic communication with the shore.
It is true that Mrs Eveleen
Grindle, widow of Mr G.A. Grindle, one of the passengers by the "Hilda" who was
staying at St. Malo, subsequently made a deposition before the Administrateur de
l'Inscription Maritime, of which the following is a translation :
"On Saturday the 18th at
half-past ten, I and my children went up to the top of the house in order to see
the lights of the 'Hilda' as she came in. During a few minutes, we saw the
lights and a minute or two afterwards, we saw several rockets 'fusées') - my
children and I counted six - and we all said : 'Oh that is the signal to show
that they are arriving' and then the lights disappeared, but we thought that the
boat had passed behind a house which is in front of this one. I ought to add
that we could see the lighthouse quite distinctly".
The court was informed that about
seventy bodies had been recovered and that most if not all of them, had
lifebelts on, secured by sailor knots.
The foregoing are the facts of the
case so far as they can be ascertained, but in the absence of direct evidence,
owing to the loss of all those who could have thrown light upon the matter, the
Court is unable to determine the cause of this most lamentable casualty and does
not feel justified in dealing with mere hypotheses.
The London and South Western
Railway Company rendered the Court every assistance in this inquiry, and it is
only fair to that corporation that two circulars issued by its marine
superintendent to the masters of its steamers should be quoted.
The first is dated at Southampton
the 9th of February 1898, and is as follows :
"I desire to call your attention to
practising your crew at fire and boat drill. I trust this matter has had your
continued attention, still I wish to remind you that the drill should take place
not less than once a month under your supervision, and at the same time you
should see all pumps, hoses, boats and gear in good working order. Please record
the drill in the ship's log, and inform me in your voyage report each time it
These instructions appear to have
been duly carried out in the case of the "Hilda."
The second circular is dated at
Southampton on the 12th of June, 1899, and is as under :
"I am instructed by the directors
to send you a copy of the decision of the board of Trade assessors in the case
of the recent sad wreck of the "Stella", involving the unfortunate loss of so
many lives. I must particularly draw our attention to the answers given by the
Court on questions N° 13, 16, 17, 18, and 20. Several orders have been given
from this office to the captains at various times and I am again to impress
upon you that the first consideration under all and every circumstance is to be
the safety of the passengers carried in the company's steamers. Comment has been
made in the Press as to the company's vessels racing with steamers of other
companies to the Channel Islands. If any case of racing is proved I am
instructed to inform you that the captain responsible will be subject to
immediate dismissal. It is impossible to lay down any strict rules as to what
captains should do under varying circumstances, but in case of fog, soundings
must be taken and the speed so regulated that all possible risk may be avoided.
Under no circumstances whatever are any unnecessary risks to be run, either by
excessive speed or by attempting to take short cuts, but the vessels have to be
navigated by the correct and proper courses and by the various marks when
visible. Officers and men must always be at their posts, and a good and
efficient look-out kept both by the mates and men throughout the voyage ; and
whenever leaving or coming into port all hands must be at their posts for a
sufficient and proper time after leaving or approaching the port. It is the duty
of the captain to maintain strict discipline on the part of the crew, and not
to allow any unnecessary attention to passengers on his own part or the
officers or crew to interfere with the due and careful navigation of the ship.
Boat drill should be frequent, and every man must know his post. The boats must
be frequently and regularly inspected in order it may be seen that they are
fitted for every emergency and are so placed to as to be ready for use on the
shortest notice. The lifebelts must also be regularly overhauled at short
intervals. Be good enough to make this communication known to all chief and
other officers on board your ship, and acknowledge receipt by signing and
returning to me the annexed slip."
After the proceedings had
practically closed, a report from a diver, and the depositions taken at a French
Court of Inquiry were received, but they were of no additional material
assistance. One French deposition however, -that of Mrs Grindle - has been
quoted in the course of this Report.
At the conclusion of the evidence,
Mr Pickford, on behalf of the Board of Trade, submitted the following questions
for the opinion of the Court :
What number of compasses had the vessel, were they in good order and
sufficient for the safe navigation of the vessel ; and when and by whom were
they last adjusted ?
Was the vessel supplied with proper and sufficient charts, and sailing
When the vessel left Southampton on the 17th November last,
Was she in good and seaworthy condition as regard hull and equipments ?
Was she supplied with the requisite boats and life-saving appliances ;
were the boats and life-saving appliances on board in good condition and ready
for use ?
What was the cause of the stranding and loss of the vessel on or near the
Pierres des Portes rocks outside of St. Malo shortly before midnight of the 18th
- 19th last ?
What was the cause of the loss of life ; was every effort possible made
by the master, officers and crew, to save life ?
Does any blame attach to Mr Tom Mitchell Williams, registered manager ?
The various legal representatives
then addressed the Court. Mr Pickford replied on behalf of the Board of Trade ;
and on a latter day - the 8th instant - the Court gave judgement as
above, returning the following answers to the questions submitted to it by the
Board of Trade :
The "Hilda" had three compasses, namely, one (Lord Kelvin's patent) on
the bridge, by which the courses were set and steered, and two others placed one
on either side before the after steering wheel. They were in good order and
sufficient for the safe navigation of the vessel, and were last adjusted by Mr
J. Blount Thomas of Southampton, in May, 1894. While the date of the last
regular adjustment was upwards of eleven years ago, the compasses had since been
examined and overhauled at regular periods by a competent person, and that
master and mate signed a certificate as to the condition and deviations of the
said compasses, as required by the Board of Trade when granting a passenger
certificate, on the 26th day of April, 1905.
Though, the Court has no reason to
suppose that there was any error in the compasses or that the casualty was in
any way to be attributed to them, it thinks that it is desirable that a ship
should be swung and deviations ascertained at more frequents intervals.
The vessel was provided with proper and sufficient charts, sailing
directions and tide tables. The charts used were the Admiralty ones.
It has been shown that in the case
of steamers belonging to the London and South Western Railway Company, the
masters are required to provide their own charts ; and while in this instance,
the Court has no reason to believe that the charts relied upon were not up to
date, and is quite convinced that this disastrous casualty was in no way
attributable to such cause, yet in its view it is better that owners should
supply all charts and sailing directions.
When the vessel left Southampton on November 17th last -
She was in good and seaworthy condition as regards hull and equipments.
She was supplied with the requisite boats and life-savings appliances.
The boats and life-saving appliances on board were in good condition and ready
The cause of the stranding and loss of the vessel on or near the Pierres
des Portes rocks, outside St. Malo, shortly before midnight of the 18th
- 19th November last, will never be definitely known, owing to the
fact that all those who could have thrown light on the matter were unfortunately
drowned. It was shown in evidence that Mr William Gregory, the master, an
experienced man who had made about one thousand voyages to St. Malo, was an
extremely cautious navigator ; that upon the passage in question which commenced
at 10 p.m. on November 17th, he delayed his departure from
Southampton by one and three-quarter hours on account of fog ; that owing to
further thick weather setting in, he afterwards anchored off Yarmouth, Isle of
Wight, until 6 o'clock the following morning ; that heavy snow prevailing he put
his vessel's head to seaward when off Le Grand Jardin lighthouse ; that, prior
to 8.30 p.m., when all knowledge of the navigational proceedings on board
terminates, he was observed taking bearings and consulting his chart, and that
immediately after the "Hilda" struck, he was seen on the bridge attending to his
duty. Under these circumstances, whatever may have been the real cause of the
disaster, the Court is not inclined to attribute it either to rashness or
The cause of the loss of life was the inability to lower some of the
boats owing to the close proximity of the rocks, the smashing of another boat by
a wave while being lowered, the heavy sea running, the sudden manner in which
the vessel broke in two, and the intense cold of the night. From the evidence of
the survivors to the effect that after the vessel struck, there was no confusion
or disorganisation among the passengers or crew coupled with the fact that most,
if not all, of the bodies recovered were wearing lifebelts which, it was stated,
were fastened with reef knots ; the Court is of opinion that every possible
effort was made by the master, officers and crew to save life. From the
proceedings at a French court of Inquiry, it appears that no signals of distress
were seen from the Grand Jardin lighthouse during the night in question and,
even if they had been seen , the news of the catastrophe could not have been
conveyed to St. Malo, as it was stated that no telegraphic communication existed
with the mainland. As a matter of fact, the intelligence did not reach St. Malo
until the s.s. "Ada", also belonging to the London and south Western Railway
Company, which vessel left St. Malo for Southampton about 8.30 a.m. on the 19th
November, returned to the former port with the few survivors whom she had
rescued from the wreck with some difficulty by means of one of her boats.
A lady at St. Malo, the widow of a
passenger by the "Hilda", according to a deposition made at the same French
Inquiry, stated that she and her children saw from the top of their house some
lights and about six rockets at 10.30 p.m. of the 18th November, in
direction of the lighthouse, but the lights shortly afterwards disappeared.
(6) No blame attaches to Mr
Tom Mitchell Williams, the registered manager.
The Court wishes to express to the
French Government its great regret at the heavy loss of life of the subjects of
that nation, and to thank that Government for the valuable assistance given by a
pilot in rescuing at considerable risk one of those saved, and also for their
kindly help in this inquiry. The court also desires to state its high
appreciation of the extremely kind and considerate attention shown to the
relations of the English passengers and crew who were drowned, and of the care
and trouble taken in recovering the bodies. And the court also begs to convey
its deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of all those, both French and
English, who met their deaths in this most deplorable disaster, which cost the
lives of about 130 persons.