Dundee’s ship Richard King and the mystery of the “Australian Titanic”


The Richard King was the Dundee-built tugboat that featured in one of the most puzzling marine mysteries of all time.

The Richard King, launched by Gourlay Brothers and Co Ltd in 1891, steered the Waratah safely out of the South African deepwater port of Durban.

The Waratah was sailing towards Cape Town but disappeared from sight in the haze with her 211 passengers and crew in July 1909.

The history of Waratah has often been compared to that of the Titanic, which sank three years later.

As such, the Waratah has been variously referred to as the “Titanic of the Southern Ocean” and “Titanic of Australia”.

The Richard King was one of the ships that participated in an exhaustive but unsuccessful search for the Waratah.

Numerous attempts to save it and a few sightings have been reported, with none proving to be true.

No one has ever found trace of the ship and this great maritime mystery is up there with the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman.

A woodcut shows the lost ship Mary Celeste in 1872.

The 327 ton steam tug was built at the Camperdown shipyard in 1891.

Ownership of the Richard King was transferred to Walter Pearce of London, who was an agent of the Natal Harbor Board in South Africa.

Captain John Watson, archivist of the Brotherhood of Masters and Sailors in Dundee, said the Richard King was the largest steam tug of its time.

He said: “Due to its location, widely open to the effects of the mighty Indian Ocean, the Port of Durban in South Africa has become known to have the largest and most powerful harbor tugs in the world.

The Richard King escorted the Waratah out of Durban harbor, above.

“When the Richard King twin-screw steam tug, built by Gourlay Brothers and Co Ltd, for the Natal Harbor Board, sailed from Dundee for Durban on August 15, 1891, it was at that time the largest and most powerful tug in vapor of its time. , more than capable of helping ships of any size enter this port, easily coping with the large swells that dominated the approach channel.

“After escorting the hapless SS Waratah out of the port of Durban in 1909, bound for Cape Town, it is no wonder that she was later called in to search for the missing vessel because if it had been discovered that the tug built by Dundee could have easily towed her to a safe haven.

“Alas, that was not to be the case and the mystery of what happened to Waratah is still alive today.”

Captain John Watson.

The 9,333 ton Waratah became the 20th vessel to belong to the Blue Anchor Line and was built by Barclay Curle, shipbuilders, of Elderslie Dockyard, Glasgow.

It was launched in 1908 following sea trials on the Clyde and was designed to transport emigrants to Australia and goods on their way back to England.

The vessel was 500 feet long, 59 feet wide, and 38 feet deep.

It had enough lifeboats for 921 passengers and could carry 15,000 tons of coal and cargo at a speed of 13 knots.

It also had a watertight compartment, like the Titanic, and was considered unsinkable.

Captain Joshua Edward Ilbery, 69, was the most experienced officer in the Blue Anchor Line.

But was the Waratah doomed from the start?

All of the company’s steamboats are named after Australian flowers.

The Waratah was named after the iconic flower of New South Wales.

The Waratah is the emblem of the State of New South Wales in Australia.
The Waratah is the emblem of the State of New South Wales in Australia.

A ship of this name had already been lost off the English Channel in 1848.

Then, in 1887, two ships, each named Waratah, sank off Sydney in a matter of months.

Following a cyclone in 1889, the newly built Waratah, from the port of Fremantle, sank off Cape Preston in the Pilbara, with the loss of all crew.

Just five years later, another Waratah was lost in northern Australia.

“A knight on horseback came out of the waves …”

The Waratah’s maiden voyage from London to Adelaide began on November 6, 1908. The ship arrived in Adelaide on December 15 and Sydney on Christmas Eve 1908.

It was back in London on March 7, 1909 before being loaded again and began its second voyage to Australia on April 27 with cargo and nearly 200 passengers.

She left Adelaide on July 7 and arrived a day ahead of schedule in Durban on July 25 and unloaded some of her cargo before heading to Cape Town.

One passenger, Claude Sawyer, a frequent ocean traveler, had reservations about her seaworthiness and got off when the ship docked in Durban.

The apparition shouted ‘Waratah! Waratah! Then passed out.

Newspaper article about a passenger’s dream aboard the SS Waratah

Sawyer claimed that on three occasions during the trip he saw a vision of a man with a sword, warning him of impending disaster.

The Daily Observer recounted Sawyer’s dream: “One night at sea, he dreamed of standing on the deck of the boat looking out to sea.

“Suddenly a knight on horseback came out of the waves brandishing a medieval sword.

“A blood-stained sheet floated behind him.

“The apparition cried ‘Waratah! Waratah! Then passed out.

“Sawyer woke up screaming in his bunk.

“He couldn’t sleep after that but decided to get off the ship at the next stop.”

Sawyer repeated his concerns to Ilbery; however, the captain saw no merit in it.

The rigging of the ship immediately reminded me of the legend of the Flying Dutchman… the ghost ship kept me spellbound.

MacIntyre Clan Chief Officer CG Phillips

The ship was due to arrive in Cape Town on the morning of July 29.

When he did not arrive, it was assumed he had been delayed by the rough seas, but when several days passed without any signs, tugs were dispatched to search for him.

The families of the 92 passengers and 119 crew of the missing ship continued to hope that the ship would be found.

The Board of Trade investigation into the disappearance took place in December 1910 at Caxton Hall in London.

The evidence was greatly hampered by the lack of survivors, other than the small number, including Claude Sawyer, who had landed in Durban.

Alexander Smith Duthie, who was the captain of the Richard King, said: “We towed the Waratah cartridge from hangar C.

“She didn’t lean towards us at all. She was standing on the dock, and when we started towing her she was as nearly standing as possible.

“If she had been tender, she probably would have leaned towards us.

“She did not do it.”

“I know my knowledge of navigation”

The Waratah headed south for Cape Town.

The next morning, Waratah was spotted by the cargo ship Clan MacIntyre, which had left Durban the day before.

Clan MacIntyre recorded in their diaries that the Waratah “appeared to be perfectly straight and having no difficulty, smoking rapidly”.

The Waratah then picked up speed and disappeared from view in the haze.

MacIntyre clan chief officer CG Phillips will later tell the investigation that he experienced a ghostly omen after losing sight of the missing steamer.

“A few hours after sending the signal to the liner, I was standing on the deck when I saw another ship, a sailboat,” he said.

“There was something oddly old-fashioned about his rig. I am not a superstitious man but I know my maritime traditions.

“The rigging of the ship immediately recalled the legend of the flying dutchman… The ghost ship had me spellbound.

“He disappeared in the direction taken by the Waratah, and I had the feeling that it was a sign of disaster for the liner.”

The emerging storm: the SS Waratah was heading for the Cape, above, when it disappeared.
The emerging storm: the SS Waratah was heading for the Cape, above, when it disappeared.

The untold loss of the Waratah has confused almost everyone.

The disappearance of the vessel led to the commercial failure of the Blue Anchor Line and its vessels were sold to P&O before its liquidation in 1910.

Carrying provisions on board for a period of one year, the investigation estimated that the Waratah suffered an abnormal wave, capsized and was sucked to the bottom of the ocean.

Shortly after the Waratah episode, Richard King was transferred to the Union government of South Africa.

In 1938 it was sold to Imperial Airways to be transformed into a floating hotel in the waters of Mozambique.

War followed soon after and while she reprized her new role, it didn’t last very long.

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