The Wreck Of The Steamer “London”

While on her way to Australia

’Twas in the year of 1866, and on a very beautiful day,
That eighty-two passengers, with spirits light and gay,
Left Gravesend harbour, and sailed gaily away
On board the steamship “London,”
Bound for the city of Melbourne,
Which unfortunately was her last run,
Because she was wrecked on the stormy main,
Which has caused many a heart to throb with pain,
Because they will ne’er look upon their lost ones again.

’Twas on the 11th of January they anchored at the Nore;
The weather was charming — the like was seldom seen before,
Especially the next morning as they came in sight
Of the charming and beautiful Isle of Wight,
But the wind it blew a terrific gale towards night,
Which caused the passengers’ hearts to shake with fright,
And caused many of them to sigh and mourn,
And whisper to themselves, We will ne’er see Melbourne.

Amongst the passengers was Gustavus V. Brooke,
Who was to be seen walking on the poop,
Also clergymen, and bankers, and magistrates also,
All chatting merrily together in the cabin below;
And also wealthy families returning to their dear native land,
And accomplished young ladies, most lovely and grand,
All in the beauty and bloom of their pride,
And some with their husbands sitting close by their side.

’Twas all on a sudden the storm did arise,
Which took the captain and passengers all by surprise,
Because they had just sat down to their tea,
When the ship began to roll with the heaving of the sea,
And shipped a deal of water, which came down on their heads,
Which wet their clothes and also their beds;
And caused a fearful scene of consternation,
And amongst the ladies great tribulation,
And made them cry out, Lord, save us from being drowned,
And for a few minutes the silence was profound.

Then the passengers began to run to and fro,
With buckets to bale out the water between decks below,
And Gustavus Brooke quickly leapt from his bed
In his Garibaldi jacket and drawers, without fear or dread,
And rushed to the pump, and wrought with might and main;
But alas! all their struggling was in vain,
For the water fast did on them gain;
But he enacted a tragic part until the last,
And sank exhausted when all succour was past;
While the big billows did lash her o’er,
And the Storm-fiend did laugh and roar.

Oh, Heaven! it must have really been
A most harrowing and pitiful scene
To hear mothers and their children loudly screaming,
And to see the tears adown their pale faces streaming,
And to see a clergyman engaged in prayer,
Imploring God their lives to spare,
Whilst the cries of the women and children did rend the air.

Then the captain cried, Lower down the small boats,
And see if either of them sinks or floats;
Then the small boats were launched on the stormy wave,
And each one tried hard his life to save
From a merciless watery grave.

A beautiful young lady did madly cry and rave,
“Five hundred sovereigns, my life to save!”
But she was by the sailors plainly told
For to keep her filthy gold,
Because they were afraid to overload the boat,
Therefore she might either sink or float,
Then she cast her eyes to Heaven, and cried, Lord, save me,
Then went down with the ship to the bottom of the sea,
Along with Gustavus Brooke, who was wont to fill our hearts with glee
While performing Shakespearian tragedy.

And out of eighty-two passengers only twenty were saved,
And that twenty survivors most heroically behaved.
For three stormy days and stormy nights they were tossed to and fro
On the raging billows, with their hearts full of woe,
Alas! poor souls, not knowing where to go,
Until at last they all agreed to steer for the south,
And they chanced to meet an Italian barque bound for Falmouth,
And they were all rescued from a watery grave,
And they thanked God and Captain Cavassa, who did their lives save.

Foundering at Sea of the Steamship London

Plymouth, Jan 16, Evening

Messrs. Money Wigram and Son’s steamship London, Captain Martin, from London for Melbourne, has foundered at sea with about 270 souls on board. The suvivors, 16 of the crew and three passengers, were landed at Falmouth to-day by the Italian bark Marianople. The chief officer among them, Mr. John Greenhill, the engineer, reports as follows:-

“We left Plymouth on the 6th of January. On the 7th we experienced heavy weather with rain. On the 8th the same. On the 9th lost jibboom and foretopmast, topgallant mast and royal mast. About 9 a.m. we lost the port lifeboat, a heavy gale prevailing at the time. On the 10th, at 3 a.m. the ship put about, intending to run back to Plymouth. About the same time the starboard lifeboat was washed overboard by a heavy sea which also stove in the starboard cutter. At noon, in lat. 40.8N., 0.87 W., we were shipping heavy seas, which carried away the engine-room hatch, the water going down and putting the fires out. The passengers were bailing the water out of the ship with buckets. January 11 – The gale was still increasing, with heavy seas, nearly all coming over the ship. During the morning all that could were trying to stop the leak in the engine-room hatch, but to no purpose. About 4 a.m. four of the stern ports were stove in; efforts were made to stop them, but it was found to be impossible. At 10 a.m. lowered the starboard pinnace, which foundered. At 1 p.m. we could see the ship gradually sinking, it being then as low in the water as the main chains. At 2 p.m. the following persons left in the port cutter :- D. G. Wain, John Munro, and J. E. Wilson, passengers; John Greenhill, engineer; John Jones, second engineer; John Armour, third engineer; Thomas Brown, fireman; W. M. Edwards, midshipman; D. T. Smith, boatswain’s mate; William Daniels, quartermaster; John King, Benjamin Shield, Richard Lewis, James Gough, Edward Quin, able seamen; William Grimes, ordinary seaman; A. G. White, boatswain’s boy; William Hart, carpenter’s mate, and Edward Gardiner, second-class steward. About five minutes after leaving the vessel we saw her go down, stern foremost, with about 270 persons on board, all of whom are supposed to have perished. There were two other boats getting ready when we left, but they were too late. The above named persons, who were saved, were picked up by the Marianople, and treated with the greatest kindness by her captain, Carasa.


The survivors were driven before the gale in the cutter for 20 hours before they were picked up, and had one very narrow escape of being swamped, the boat being half filled with water. The London’s pumps were kept working by a donkey-engine up to the last moment.

The Times, 17th January 1866


As the SS London steamed down the Thames on 30th December 1865, a watching sailor remarked “It’ll be her last voyage.” Asked why, he explained “She is too low down in the water: she’ll never rise to a stiff sea.” A few days later his prediction would prove all too gruesomely accurate.

Though delayed somewhat by storms, the ship made her way without serious incident along the South coast of England before landing in Plymouth on 5th January. Here, the already well-loaded ship took on further passengers and cargo before departing for Melbourne the following day. As she steamed south, she carried 220 passengers and 69 crew. In the hold was 347 tons of railway iron, along with 14 tons of agricultural machinery and 1,000 tons of merchandise; the deck was stacked with 50 tons of coal stored in sacks.

The next day, a storm began to blow from the South-West. It gathered in ferocity over the next three days until, on the 9th, the uppermost sections of the bowsprit, fore and main masts were snapped off by the force of the wind and swung around dangerously in the rigging. One of the lifeboats was washed away by the raging sea, followed by another when the Captain decided to turn back to Plymouth early on the 10th. A third boat was staved in by the weight of the water, and coal broke loose from the sacks and blocked the scupper holes through which water was supposed to drain from the deck.

By now sailors had managed to cut away some of the broken rigging, hauling in some 25 feet of the flying jib-boom (the foremost part of the bowsprit) and lashing one end of it to the deck. However, with the deck deep in water thanks to the blocked scupper holes, the partly secured spar began to float and bash away at the hatch above the engine room. Fatally weakened, this hatch gave way that night as the storm waves beat upon it, and water poured into the engine room extinguishing the boilers forever.

Many of the panic-stricken passengers gathered in the saloon to pray for deliverance, led by three Christian ministers from among their number (a survivor later noted “if the passengers had exerted themselves more for their own safety and attended less to the pious exhortations of the good clergymen, more would have been saved. The praying paralyzed them.”). Others helped the crew attempt to build a makeshift shelter over the engine room and to bale water from the depths of the ship.

All was in vain, at 5 a.m. on January 11th, the stern ports were driven in and more water gushed into the ship. The Captain announced that nothing short of a miracle could save the ship. Passengers wrote last messages to loved ones and stuffed them into bottles, like this note from one Henry Dennis, which washed up on the shore of Brittany a few weeks later:

Farewell father, brother, sisters and my Edith. Ship London, Bay of Biscay, Thursday 12 o’c. noon. Reason – Ship overweighted with cargo, and too slight a house over engine room all washed away from deck. Bad poop windows. Water broken in. – God bless my little orphan … Storm, but not too violent for a well-ordered ship.

When daylight came, an attempt was made to launch one of the ship’s boats. The starboard pinnace, with six sailors aboard, was lowered into the sea, but instantly foundered in the heavy waves and sank like a stone. The crewmen were able to clamber back onto the London, but nobody felt like renewing the attempt.

It wasn’t until 2pm that anybody was desperate enough to have another try. Sixteen of the crew and three passengers crowded into the port cutter, led by the Chief Engineer. The Captain declined to leave his ship, but offered the advice “E.N.E. for Brest, 190 miles, the nearest land.” As the little boat left the stricken ship, a young woman cried “a thousand guineas if you take me in!” But there was no room for her, even if it had been safe to return. Those remaining on the London waved their handkerchiefs and cheered the little cutter as they prepared to launch another boat, but it was too late. Three minutes after the launch of the cutter, with it barely eighty yards away, the London suddenly tipped up stern-first into the water and sank without a trace. 270 people went down with her.

The cutter spent 20 storm-tossed hours before finally being rescued. One ship was spotted but didn’t see them, a second was unable to get close enough to them to help them. They had to row after the third ship for five hours before its Captain noticed them and went to their aid. They were brought aboard the Marianople and landed in Falmouth five days later.

Gustavus Brooke (pictured right), one of the heroes of this tale, was born in Ireland in 1818 and made his first stage appearance in Dublin in 1833. He toured Britain, the US and Australia playing the great tragic roles of Romeo, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. Poor business sense and excessive drinking meant he was unable to enjoy the fruits of these labours, leaving him desperate for money. Hence his sailing for Australia, where he had had great success in his previous tour a decade earlier.

As the crisis developed aboard the London, Brooke took a prominent role in the attempt to sail the ship. A biographer described his involvement thus:

Bareheaded and barefooted, attired only in a red Crimean shirt and trousers, with his braces fastened belt-like around him, he laboured untiringly at the pumps, and time after time revived the drooping spirits of his companions by the almost superhuman energy with which he applied himself to his task.

It was not enough, and one of the men in the cutter spotted him leaning against the half-door of the companion way, calmly surveying the scene. “Will you come with us, Mr. Brooke?” he asked. “No! no!” replied Brooke. “Good-bye. Should you survive, give my last farewell to the people of Melbourne.”

Brooke had performed twice in Dundee during his career, once in 1840 and again in 1862, so it’s quite possible that McGonagall had seen his fellow tragedian in action. Maybe that’s what inspired him to pick up his pen sixteen years later and immortalise the manner of his passing.

Further Reading


Wikipedia Article

Related Gems

Comments (7) »

  1. Simon Wills
    In the year 2016, on the 7th day of December at 10:11 am

    Hi Chris. I enjoyed your post on McGonagall’s SS London poem and I thought you might like to know that I’ve just published a book about this shipwreck. Like you I was intrigued that such a major tragedy seems to have been largely forgotten. It’s a strange but fascinating tale in many respects, especially when you dig beneath the rather murky surface. If you’re interested it’s on the Amberley Publishing or Amazon websites under my name. I’ve got a section in the book about McGonagall’s poem but also the many other poems and ballads that were published at the time – almost all of them equally awful and many of them enormously lengthy. The record is 61 verses!
    Best wishes,

  2. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2017, on the 16th day of January at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the tip-off, Simon. I have added your book to the list of books above.

  3. In the year 2017, on the 29th day of June at 10:27 pm

    […] public.” An indication of his acute story sense, “Ode to the Queen on her Jubilee Year,” “The Wreck of the Steamer London While on Her Way to Australia,” “Grace Darling or the Wreck of the ‘Forfarshire’,” and his most renowned poem […]

  4. Keith langdon
    In the year 2017, on the 19th day of July at 10:25 am

    Hi Simon,

    I am about to purchase your book because my ancestor was on the SS London. Her name was Emily Debenhan (born Langdon).

    Looking forward to the reading. Hoping to find more information about Emily.

    Keith Langdon

  5. Dorit Dopson
    In the year 2017, on the 4th day of September at 11:11 pm

    hi simon,
    i will be most interested to read your book. i am researching the history of the sslondon because i have a copy of a diary written by a first class passenger who sailed on the maiden voyage which departed oct 23, 1864. She was travelling to Australia to be married. The diary excerpt was sent as a letter to her mother after the ships arrival in melbourne.

    a few things i’ve noted that were interesting include ships log reports of two engine fires early in the voyage neither of which are mentioned in the diary. my take is that the 1st class passengers were oblivious to the danger as they were not in close proximity to the engine room.

    in addition, so far my research on the detour to capetown only mentions replaceing sheep that had died on route while the diary goes into detail: “30 sheep, 1 cow, several pigs and no end of poultry”. The entry also goes on to speak of “water…undrinkable …obliged to have clsret…hope he will also get a fresh supply and change the hose”

    best regards,
    Dorit Dopson

  6. Kimberley Turner
    In the year 2018, on the 7th day of June at 11:04 am

    What a fantastic read! I have loved every word.
    I have recently decided to do more research on my family tree. My Mum approached it 20 years ago, when there was no internet!

    We have known for a while that our ancestors were on this ship when she sunk, but a son stayed to sell land and a business,we believe. I think his name was Matthew Turner because his is the last grave of the Turners from our line, we can find in Australia.
    We have no further information on his mother, father or siblings and would just love to know.
    Is there any info out there with the list of passengers?

    Warm regards,
    Kim :)

  7. In the year 2022, on the 21st day of November at 5:47 pm

    […] – Nigel S  has pointed out that astonishing Dundee poet William Topaz McGonagall wrote one of his legendary doggerel ballads about the disaster. It’s well worth checking out – and it comes with some interesting […]

Leave a comment