Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Yatala, the fastest of the Orient Line ships, 1865-1872

Yatala. Painting by Thomas Goldworth Sutton.
Yatala, a 1127 ton clipper, was completed in 1865 for the Orient Line.  She was built by Thomas Bilbe, who specialized in tea and wool clippers, and worked out of Cuckold's Point in Rotherhithe, where the Hilton Hotel is now located.  Bilbe has been mentioned on previous posts about other ships that he built:  Orient, Wynaud and Borealis. A most remarkable man, some of his enterprises seem highly questionable when considered from a modern perspective.  He built, for example, a ship that was armed with canons which was designed to operate in the illegal opium trade,  and he transported Chinese coolies as cheap labour.  However, he was an inventor of genuine talent and skill, pioneering a new method of iron hull framing and inventing a mechanical slip, which he patented.   The slip can still be seen today immediately next to the Hilton Hotel's car park on Rotherhithe Street, its engine house preserved immediately behind it, facing onto Rotherhithe Street.

Yatala was specifically designed as a passenger ship for the Orient Line, although she also carried cargo.  It is unclear how Bilbe became involved with the owners of the Orient Line, but he built a number of clippers for them (when they were operating under the names James Thomson and Co. and Anderson, Anderson and Co.) at the Rotherhithe yard.  His first commission for them was Celestial, which he built for James Thompson and Co. in 1851 and the last were Yatala in 1865 and Argonaut in 1866, both of which Bilbe built with his business partner, the former shipmaster William Perry.

was the name of both a town on the Gold Coast in eastern Australia and a rural district near Adelaide in South Australia, an Aboriginal word, but this particular Yatala was probably named for an earlier Yatala of the Orient Line, a 65ft wooden schooner, built at Port Adelaide in Australia and launched on July 28th, 1848.   She was a composite (iron framed) clipper registered with a tonnage of 1127 tons, was 204ft long, 35ft wide, with a depth of 21ft.  The had two decks, three masts and carried full rigging.  Although she conformed to the Lloyds Registry requirements, she was not registered with Lloyds, for reasons unknown. 

There is a lovely account of Yatala's launch in 1865 from the South Australian Register, dated 14th August 1865:

Orient Line of Packet Ships.— A correspondent sends us the following:— 'A splendid new ship of 1127 tons register, specially built for this line, was launched on the River Thames on the 10th June, from the yard of Messrs. Thomas Bilbe and Co., Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe, the well known builders of the Orient and Coonatto. As the vessel glided into the water she received her name from Mrs. W. L. Marchant with the usual ceremony. After the launch the company, including upwards of 100 South Australians, ladies and gentlemen, accompanied by the band of the London Scottish Rifle Corps, proceeded in a steamer, hired for the occasion, to the Ship Tavern, at Greenwich, and partook there of an excellent luncheon, provided by the owners of the ship. Among other loyal and customary toasts the health of Mrs. Marchant, who had named the ship, was proposed by the Chairman, Mr Anderson, and enthusiastically received.  Mr. Marchant proposed 'Success to the Yatala, and Captain Legoe's health.' Mr. Purdy. Mr. Bakewell, and Mr. Paxton spoke ably on subjects connected with South Australia. The Yatala is a composite ship (iron frame and wooden planking) her length is 215 feet, her breadth 35 feet, her depth 21 feet 4 inches. Her graceful, almost yacht-like appearance inn the water was the subject of general remark, and as everything has been done that money and science can do to make the Yatala worthy of the Orient Line, and equal to the requirements of the colony for passenger and general purposes, we venture to predict that the good wishes expressed at Greenwich for her success will at least be approximately fulfilled. We have seen plans of the ship, but of the unrivalled accomodation and comforts provided on board colonists ganerally will no doubt have the opportunity of judging for themselves when Captain Legoe arrives here with this Yatala in the end of October. The Murray, hitherto commanded by Captain Legoe, was to sail from Plymouth on the 1st July in command of Captain Smart, late chief officer of the same ship, with a large and valuable cargo and a full complement of passengers. The Yatala was to follow, sailing from Plymouuth on the 1st of August.

Her captain from her launch until her demise was Mr John Legoe, who had held a Certificate of the Board of Trade since 1856 as Master Mariner.  He had regularly run the route from London to Adelaide since 1861, and had had great success at the helm of the Murray, which was a fast ship built for Anderson of the Orient line to run between Plymouth and Adelaide carrying both passengers and cargo.  At the time of Yatala's wreckage off the coast of France was listed as a part-owner of the ship. 

Yatala was the fastest of the Orient Line ships.  In 1867, and for 14 years she shared the record of completing the voyage from London to Adelaide with Devitt and Moore's clipper City of Adelaide in 65 days. In 1866 both ships left Adelaide late in December 1866, headed for Plymouth, and engaged in a friendly race.  Races from one port to another were common, and a ship's worth was measured partly on the speed with which she completed a journey each season.  City of Adelaide (which, with the Cutty Sark is one of the last two remaining composite clippers to have survived into the 21st Century) was under the command of Captain Bruce.   The following account comes from one of the ubiquitous Australian shipping newspapers, the South Australian Register, dated  June 11, 1867:

The Ocean Race – The interest which has been excited by the race home between the two celebrated clippers, YATALA and CITY OF ADELAIDE, will be increased by the extracts from letter which we publish below. It is clear that they are about a match in speed. A lady passenger on board the ship YATALA on her last voyage writes:-
"We arrived on the 8th April, and were in the Docks at about 5 o’clock. Captain Legoe is deservedly popular; he is such a nice person, so kind, attentive, and obliging; the perfection of a captain and a seaman, always at his post and attending to his duty. The ship is beautifully clean, kept in order, and well found. When we went into the Cape it was in the teeth of a strong south-easter, and of course we had to tack. We afterwards heard on the shore that numbers of people were watching the vessel, and the exclamation was – ‘That ship has a first-rate seaman on board’. We went in with one tack, which they say is a most unusual thing, and that the vessel looked beautiful, she was so well handled…. You will have heard that we beat the CITY OF ADELAIDE. Several times when we were becalmed or had light winds we saw her quite near; it was very close; but in the end we were in the Docks 48 hours before her; but the precise time I am not sure of; it was at least a day. We passed quite close to St Helena on a lovely day; we could almost distinguish the people in the streets.”

The City of Adelaide
The following is an extract from a private letter from Captain Legoe, dated London, 25th April:- “I arrived in London on the 8th instant, and Bruce (CITY OF ADELAIDE) passed through the Downs on the following morning, but did not get in dock for two days, owning to the heavy weather from the westward. We had a close run for it. I was through the Downs on Sunday, and Bruce on Tuesday following. I saw him at sea 12 days before I arrived, and as the breeze freshened I went away from him.”

To these we add the following extracts from a letter written to a gentleman in Adelaide by Captain John Bruce, then chief officer on the CITY OF ADELAIDE. His friends will be glad to see that he is promoted to the command of the vessel which his father has made so popular:- “London Dock, April 26th – No doubt this trial of prowess between the two vessels is of subordinate importance to you; but the ocean race possesses on this occasion features that should not be passed over without being noticed. The register tonnage of the ‘CITY’ is 791; of the ‘YATALA’ 1,217. I don’t know whether in Adelaide this fact is known. At the Cape, in a newspaper paragraph, they were said to be an unfair match in class, age and size. The YATALA, if you remember, took the initiative in starting from the Lightship on account of our having to wait for some papers that were forgotten.

She got under weigh at 6 o’clock, while we had a ‘five hours’ cruise in the Gulf until we got the missing documents at 11am. At daylight on the following morning we found ourselves within a short distance of our competitor, and the evening saw us abreast of each other, with a fresh south wind, and not more tan a quarter of a mile apart. The custodians of the Cape Borda Lighthouse must have taken notice of us as they would have an uninterrupted view of the course for many miles.

During the night we did not steer parallel courses, for the next day the ‘YATALA’ was nearly hull down in a S.W. direction. Fog came on and lasted three days – rather unusual on the Australian coast I should imagine. The wind, E., was of course very light, as is the case with fogs. Light and variable winds characterized the passage to Cape Lewin, which we rounded on 7th January. On the 12th a large vessel was seen astern. Speculation was rife, and tendered to one conclusion – it was the ‘YATALA’. This probed so far on the 13th that the rig corresponded to the ‘YATALA’s. On the 14th all doubts were removed, as she was near enough to exchange signals. At noon on that day we were in Lat. 30o S., long. 100o E.

The ships parted company during the day, the wind a pleasant and increasing south east trade. Tedious weather succeeded in a few days, and we made slow progress to the Cape. On February 10, off Cape Afulhas (land in sight), the ‘YATALA’ was seen three miles ahead of us, gradually increasing the distance; the wind at the time was of the description that figures in sea logs as ‘faint, variable airs’. Three days afterwards (13th February) we anchored at Table Bay at 10pm. The ‘YATALA’ reached the same place at 6pm, four hours sooner. It blew hard from the south east during our stay, which terminated on the 16th, both ships leaving within half an hour of each other, ‘YATALA’ first. The ‘CITY’ crept up in the night, and the following evening she was six miles ahead. A head wind sprung up separating the ships. The ‘CITY’ made all speed through the trade winds S.E. and N.E.

To our amazement the ‘YATALA’ appeared right astern, in lat. 27o N., long. 40o W., on the 23rd March. It was calm at the time. The ‘YATALA’ brought a breeze with her, and both ships were again in competition. Heavy weather came on soon after, and on arriving in the Downs we got information from the tug steamer that the ‘YATALA’ had gone up the river the day before. The steamer that took her up came down to look for another job, and picked up our ship. We were detained 48 hours in consequence of the violence of the N.W. winds. Nothing happened to mar our comfort or enjoyment; fine weather nearly all the time. I am promoted to the command of the ‘CITY’. In the meantime my father will superintend the building of a new larger ship. The ‘YATALA passed the Downs 24 hours before our ship.”

The record of 65 days was held until the famous Torrens broke it in 1881.  Yatala's longest run was between Plymouth and Adelaide in 88 days, her last trip.

A typical entry for the arrival of Yatala in the Monthly Shipping Summary for England, published in Australia, is this brief entry from the South Australian Register on 13th October 1869:  "YATALA. Ship. 1127 tons. J.Legoe, Master, from London; 22 passengers.  General cargo." 

Beltana (from a painting by H. Percival)
Yatala only sailed for seven years.  Together with the clipper Beltana, with whom she entered an informal race, she left Port Adelaide on the 19th December 1871, bound for London under Legoe. She was carrying 35 hands and 35 passengers, and cargo of wool, copper, tallow and wheat, amongst other items, a cargo that the South Australian Advertiser referred to as "an ordinary cargo, but a large and valuable one."  She was wrecked on the 27th March of 1872, after only 7 years of service near Gris-Nez, north of Boulogne, France. All lives were saved, the survivors being taken to the nearby village of Andreselles, and most of her cargo of wool was recovered, but the ship was a total loss.  Beltana arrived home safely, but even that voyage had been plagued with ill luck and the ship's captain, Richard Angel, lost his command of the ship on arrival, having run her aground without reporting the incident, causing damage that caused the ship to leak so badly that she had to pull in for repairs.

There was a detailed technical account of the last hours of Yatala's journey as recounted to a Court at the Greenwich Police-Court by the ship's master John Legoe reported in the South Australian Advertiser.  Present at the proceedings wre the Magistrate, Nautical Assessors, a represetative of the Board of Trade and another for the owners. The Master, John Legoe, had no legal representation.  the courts were asked to consider whether the loss of the ship was an accident or caused by negligence, and witnesses were produced to testify.  The Court's conclusion was as follows:

Taking all the circumstances into consideration, the Court is of the opinion that the Yatala was lost by the default and careless navigationof the Master, Mr John Legoe; but, giving due wieght to the evidence that has been adduced in his favour as to his long service and character, adjudge that his Certificate be suspended for six calendar months from this date.

This was followed up the following day, July 3rd 1872, also on the South Australian Advertiser, by an account of the event by one of the passengers, Mr John Richardson, who was on board with his family and gave a very different and far more personal account of what it felt like to be on the wrecked ship and how the rescue was actioned.   

She finally settled down nearer to the shore, very near to a small plateau of rock, upon which after great difficutly the passengers were landed.  This is very easily and soon told, but the detail was truly dreadful and never shall I forget that night.  A cry, "Everybody come on deck and dave yourselves if you can."  Men, women and children rushing up in their nightdresses; some screaming, some imploring help, the sea washing over them . . . .The captain ordered all the passengers to go below, as he was going to cut away the mast, and there would be great danger to those remaining on deck from the falling yeards etc. . . . It was indeed an awful sight to see most of the large ship cut away, the falling of the heavy yards and spurs into the sea, and hear them crushing against her sides, and the sea washing over all, a gale blowing and quite dark.  It was indeed a fearful sight.  After the masts were cut away the hull was comparatively quiet, and the captain ordered the boat to be lowered, which, after great difficulty, owing to the position of the ship, was completed in safety.  The Gendarmes, who had now gathered in good numbers on the rocks, made into the sea with a rope, which they fastened to the head of the boat, and they fastened to the head of the boat, and the sailors to one at the stern, so that they had good command of her in the surf.  A rope was then made fast to the bullwarks of the vessel, and lowered to the boat, and by this rope the women and children were lowered one at a time in the most deplorable condition, half-naked, shivering from cold, the spray washing over them, the night dark, and the wind howling.

The passengers and crew were lucky; other clippers had been lost with all hands.

With thanks to the Trove website (http://trove.nla.gov.au/) for its wonderful archives.


morif said...

Dear Andie

Thank you for your excellent history of the Yatala. Just two small comments.

1. The 1848 Yatala was built for the Government of South Australia rather than for the Orient Line as you have suggested.

2. It is almost certain that Yatala was not named for a town on the Gold Coast Queensland, but rather for the rural district near Adelaide South Australia. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yatala_Vale,_South_Australia

Keep up the good work.


Andie said...

Hi Morif. Can you let me know what your source is for Yatala being built by the Govt of Australia? I am perfectly willing to believe it, but it conflicts with my sources so I'd just like to know where the conflict lies. Thanks for the suggestion re Yatala's name - very useful. Best, Andie.