A HISTORY OF DISASTERS

The Bailiwick of Guernsey has a long and distinguished seafaring tradition. Guernsey itself became an island some 10,000 years ago – a consequence of the ending of the last Ice Age – and since then its people have been closely linked with fishing and sea-borne trade.

            Throughout this time a countless number of boats and ships have been wrecked on the rock-strewn coasts of Guernsey, Alderney Sark, Herm and the dreaded Casquets. Many thousands of lives have been lost. But the rocks are only part of the challenge confronting seafarers navigating these waters. They must also be aware of strong tides and the vagaries of weather. Modern navigation equipment, improved meteorological forecasting and sophisticated search and rescue services have greatly improved maritime safety in recent times. Nevertheless, modern sailors are wise enough still to treat the seas around Guernsey with the respect it deserves. Shipwrecks still occur.

            Down the centuries shipwrecks have triggered almost every emotion. Some notable disasters horrified the islanders for the great loss of life and suffering involved. Some wrecks have intrigued, for they have yet to shed light on the mystery surrounding their fate. Many prompted admiration for the courage displayed by the rescuers and rescued alike while others led directly to the introduction of safety measures and rescue services. And a few wrecks even brought a smile to those who benefited from unexpected flotsam, especially those Guernsey folk who “rescued” some of the cargo of 7,000 casks of Algerian wine from the stricken steamer ss Briseis that sank after striking a reef off Vazon Bay in 1937.

            The recent rise in popularity of diving as a sport, together with advances in marine archaeology, are helping to shed some light on some of the earliest wrecks in and around Guernsey.

 

The STELLA

Most wrecks are associated with suffering and tragedy…none more so than the loss of the Channel Island railway steamer Stella that sank with the loss of around 100 lives after striking the Casquets. The vessel, sailing to Guernsey from Southampton, was packed for it was the start of the Easter holiday. The railway steamer, which struck while in thick fog, sank within eight just minutes. The official board of trade report into the 1899 accident, records that of the 174 passengers and 43 crew on board that day, 105 lost their lives. However, there is still uncertainty about the true number of casualties, given the unreliable information about the identity of some of the deceased.

The Stella was a 1,059 gross tons ship of the Frederica class built on Clydebank in 1890. Her twin screws were capable of propelling her at a top speed of 19 knots and it was near this speed that she made most of the crossing from Southampton to Guernsey on that fateful day in 1899. It was Maunday Thursday at the beginning of the Easter weekend and the ship was particularly crowded for the daytime crossing.

She had left Southampton at 11.40 am with captain Reekes on the bridge and, after steaming across the channel at full speed she ran into fog. Surviving passengers, James Parton of London, recalled seeing “a great mass of rock, apparently a hundred or more feet high” suddenly loom up on the port side. At this moment the ship’s head was brought around to starboard but it was too late. Hemmed in by the cruel rocks and after grazing one, the Stella careered over onto a submerged one before she could be stopped. It was then evident that serious results must follow.

The officers, without a trace of excitement, assured the passengers that if they would remain calm and collected all would be well. The boats were lowered and although only twelve minutes had elapsed before it’s foundering, four were loaded and got away; the other boats were being prepared for launching. Six boats in all got away, not bad considering they only had twelve minutes.

There were many examples of heroism displayed that fateful day, none more so than that displayed by stewardess Mary Ann Rogers who gave up her life belt and space in a lifeboat for other passengers. Mrs Rogers perished.

There was a terrible coincidence about the manner of her death for 16 years earlier her husband had drowned in the service of the very same shipping company.

The heroism of Mrs Rogers captured the public’s imagination and a subscription was set up. A monument – a handsome drinking fountain made in Portland stone – was unveiled on 27 July 1901 opposite Southampton pier. There are other memorials to the memory of Mrs Rogers including one at Postman’s Park in the City of London that records the heroine was “self-sacrificed by giving up her life belt and voluntarily going down in the sinking ship”. In June 1997 the Board of Administration unveiled a metal plaque on the outer harbour wall of St Peter Port in memory of all who perished on SS Stella.

The hull of the Stella – the “Titanic of the Channel Islands” – was discovered in 49 metres of water south of the Casquets reef in June 1973 by two of the Channel Islands’ most experienced divers, Richard Keen of Guernsey and Fred Shaw of Alderney. To safeguard the site from treasure seekers, the divers agreed not to divulge the location of the well-preserved passenger steamer. Then in 1984 Martin Woodward, a leading Isle of Wight diver, located the Stella and recovered a chamber pot, ceramic tile and a small dish which were put on display in his Maritime Museum and Shipwreck centre at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight