This article first appeared in Our Island in August 2019. It was a story that I considered for inclusion in my new book Jersey: Secrets of the Sea, but eventually wrote as a side-project.
March 30, 1899
The Casquets, near Alderney
March proved deathly icy, a month of buds freezing on the branches, in a year without a Spring. In America, freak snowstorms smothered the South, with snowball fights on the steps of the Florida statehouse. Britain’s fate was less exotic, with rain-drenched gloom and vicious frosts that strangled the first daffodils.
Yet the Easter holidays were coming. Colonel George Dixon, of Surrey, longed for the succour of milder climes, and booked a family holiday. A Channel Islands break was always an alluring prospect; to step from the train at Southampton and stroll to the quay was sheer ease. That March morning, two hundred passengers stepped on board the magnificent SS Stella, and its state-of-the-art electric lighting glinted invitingly in the morning light.
It was the first cruise of the holiday season. Captain Reeks knew that the SS Ibex, his bitter rival, would be hard on his heels. The last ship to arrive in the islands would be forced to wait its turn to dock at St Helier. The race was on. In this battle of wills, Stella was a name to conjure with; her powerful triple-expansion engines and a racing speed of 18 knots gave her a powerful advantage.
At 11.20am on Maundy Thursday, the Stella slipped out of port. The sun was glittering on the waves; it was shaping up to be a smooth crossing. The hours slid by. Captain Reeks knew the Casquet rocks lay on his course, but heaven knew they were paper tigers these days, defanged by a great foghorn that roared three great blasts with clockwork precision. And this afternoon, as the Stella suddenly pierced a cotton wool mountain of sea-mist, he heard no such warning.
The Channel weather had turned on a penny. A veil of freezing fog descended, white and cold. The chill insinuated every cloak, and the wind whipped every shawl. Colonel Dixon, on deck, thought he heard a faint sound, from afar, but it was hard to discern when the wind made every ear sing. Instead he turned to an officer. “It is unfortunate, this fog coming on”. “Yes, it has spoiled a good run”, the sailor replied. An elderly passenger muttered that he had never seen such speed in these conditions before. SS Stella plunged heedlessly on into the fog.
Visibility dropped like a stone. The crockery in the first-class lounge was shaking, vibrating with the extreme speed. Dark-liveried servants secured it in place, and then the urgent clattering eased. And there was just the eerie silence again, of water parting at the rate of knots, of the white haze all around, and the icy breath of the sea.
The clock struck four, and the world ended. The angels announced this with three trumpet blasts that physically shook the ship, and left the sailors clutching their ears. The din was coming from directly above; SS Stella was at the very foot of the foghorn. Colonel Dixon gasped, but the reflex of his military training swiftly asserted itself and he appraised the situation. A vicious rock, taller than the ship itself, loomed just yards ahead of them.
The ship screeched into full speed astern, lurching violently, felling the legs of men like trees. Then the body of the ship was ripped open like the belly of a hare. Colonel Dixon felt the ship slice away beneath him, as a granite ridge amputated the hull. He whispered an urgent prayer.
SS Stella would be granted no languorous, gradual slide into the oblivion; no bands would play on deck as gentlemen exchanged farewells over choice brandy. The razor reefs of the Channel Islands inflicted a swifter death; within seven minutes of impact, the ship would be swallowed by the freezing sea.
The crew, with commendable precision, started to lower the lifeboats. Their discipline was astonishing, for the deck was already the angle of a sloping roof. Mary Ann Rogers, the chief stewardess, saw most of the women and children to safety in a boat. She sacrificed her own lifejacket for a young girl. Some urged her to jump to safety; but the lifeboat lay low in the water and was clearly overladen; she would not risk the lives of her passengers. She waved a cheery “Good-bye” and continued to do her duty.
Colonel Dixon, meanwhile, scrambled with his wife and children into the starboard lifeboat. Four boats were safely down; a fifth set to launch. The deck was bucking high now, reaching a tipping point. Then the waters surged in, and the boilers exploded. A series of terrifying thuds ensued, with a ferocious hiss of steam and a stinging mist that covered everything. In the chaos, the fifth lifeboat capsized during launch, spewing women and children into the icy maw of the sea.
The ship was almost vertical now, readying for its fatal dive. A young mother and her two sons floundered on the deck. The youngest was clutching his cherished football. In her last desperate moments, she tied him to his football for buoyancy, just before the ship started the final plunge.
The four lifeboats pushed out into the frigid water, and the survivors watched the tragedy unfold like a tableau from a horrific Bosch etching. Mary Ann Rogers was heard to cry: “Lord, have me!” as she tumbled into the abyss. Someone grabbed the young lad with the football and dragged him safely into a skiff. He would live, but never see his mother or brother again.
Driving a terrifying vortex in its wake, the SS Stella plunged down to the seabed. Men floundered like seals in the water, gasping and screaming. Thirty people clung desperately to the roof of a large furniture van, which was floating away, and others swam for the rocks. Captain Reeks himself had gone down with his ship, and a hundred more would be dead by nightfall.
On the starboard lifeboat, a man was hanging on the back of the boat, shivering and spluttering. He hooked his arm in, and it felt as icy as a corpse. He heard voices calling for him to be thrown back in the water, like a fish; best not to rock the boat. Yet one burly man dissented and manhandled the man to safety. He spluttered on the boards of the boat like an eel. A lady wrapped him in her cloak and slowly he was coaxed back to warmth and life. The voices that a moment earlier had called for him to drown were shamed and stilled.
The foghorn keepers above, snug in their lighthouse, never once realised that anything at all was amiss. They slumbered right through the unspeakable tragedy, as men froze to death on the rocks below them.
It was the early hours of Good Friday. Back in Southampton, a troubled and angry crowd was gathering in the street outside the LSWR offices. The SS Stella had not made expected landfall and its position was unknown. Then a telegram arrived from Guernsey, with the dreaded words: STELLA HAS GONE DOWN.
The passengers in the boats had paddled desperately, seeking to keep off the evil rocks. The little lifeboats were swept almost to the French coast, but as the tide turned, they were flung back towards the rocks. Horrifically, there were men still clinging on there, half-dead after the lashing of the freezing ocean. They pleaded desperately for help, but the lifeboats could not risk turning to save them.
Through fifteen hours of torment on the boat, the contralto Greta Williams began to sing, a beautiful prayer: “O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for me”. The survivors continued the refrain, hour after shivering hour. And eventually a pale dawn broke, and deliverance came, as the SS Vera scooped them to safety.
The horrific Victorian tragedy was done. A Board of Inquiry met in due course to dissect the evidence. The crew, it determined, had acted impeccably. “South Western men behaved like bricks”; in the words of one survivor. The disaster was pinned squarely on the captain’s poor judgment, and any suggestion of ships “racing” was swept under the carpet. Yet the sailing timetables were quietly altered so that direct competition was impossible. Then the survivors limped home, and the country mourned its dead.
To this day, in Southampton, there stands a memorial to Mary Ann Rogers, the stewardess who sacrificed her life for her passengers. Her image is immortalised too in stained glass in Liverpool Cathedral, the story of her mercy frozen in time, as cold and beautiful as starlight.
Paul Darroch is the author of Jersey: Secrets of the Sea, which is available at Waterstones and WH Smith in Jersey, and on Amazon UK in paperback and on Kindle.
JERSEY: SECRETS OF THE SEA
By Paul Darroch
The story of Jersey is shaped by the sea. The treacherous Channel waters drowned the King of England’s son in the White Ship and plunged his realm into chaos. Jersey legends tell of the waves that swept away the doomed manor of La Brecquette and sprung the fearsome trap of the Golden Chair.
Yet the ocean’s call of adventure inspired the mariners of Jersey to traverse the world. It tempted Sir Walter Raleigh, Jersey’s fallen Governor, into his fatal quest for El Dorado, and drove local boy Tom Davis to build a fortune in Africa. The same pioneering spirit led Lilian Grandin, Jersey’s first female doctor, to set sail for China, where she would sacrifice her life.
Jersey: Secrets of the Sea is their story, imagined in their own words. Step onto the bridge of RMS Titanic with her Jersey quartermaster just as the deadly iceberg looms into view, while Islander Lucy Duff-Gordon slumbers in her first-class suite below. Discover the story of her sister Elinor Glyn, who found fame at the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Stand with the Jersey Company volunteers as they leave St Helier for the Great War; and watch the lone boatman in 1941 slipping away from the shadow of the German Occupation.
Jersey: Secrets of the Sea is the panoramic story of an Island forged by the seas, set at the crossroads of maritime history, and told through the voices of the Jersey seafarers who made it.
(c) Paul Darroch 2019, 2020