Imagine yourself standing on the clifftop at Bass Point, not far from the Lizard Lighthouse. It’s May, the sea is smooth, you can hear gentle waves flopping onto the rocks below. But it’s not a clear night. There is a thick, damp mist hanging in the almost still air. Then, quite suddenly, a ship in full sail appears silently out of the fog. Without warning, without any attempt at evasive action it ploughs headlong into the unforgiving cliffs. The vessel comes to a shuddering halt and the silence is broken by the terrible sound of splintering wood and metal grinding on rock.
It sounds like scene from a film but that is exactly what happened in the final moments of the disastrous last voyage of the Cromdale. It was a journey that saw one calamity after another befall the crew until this abrupt event brought it all to an end. Well, almost . . .
“Disaster has dogged the voyage of the Cromdale throughout”Mancester Courier, 26th May 1913
This 1,903 ton vessel had been launched in Glasgow in 1891 and was owned by Messrs Donaldson Rose & Company of Aberdeen. An elegant clipper, she had three masts and a steel hull (though some reports say she was wooden) and was one of the last ships to be built for the Australia wool trade. The Cromdale’s captain, Captain Arthur, was a very capable seaman with more than 20 years experience, well liked by his crew, and the ship had already made numerous sailings to Australia under his command.
She had left Cardiff for Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, on the 12th January 1912 with a crew of 24 men and Captain Arthur and his wife onboard.
And as far as I can gather the voyage to Uruguay was pretty uneventful, Lloyds List records the ship safely in Montevideo by July 1912. It was after their arrival there that the first tragedy struck.
So Many Misadventures
It had taken the Cromdale seven months to reach Uruguay and I am sure that the crew would have been delighted to have some time on dry land, to take in the sights of this new country and to relax and enjoy themselves a little before the arduous onward journey. And of course there was work to be done. Repairs and the loading and unloading of cargo.
But things did not go as anyone had planned. The second mate, sadly we don’t know his name, decided to go for a swim in Montevideo bay and was never seen again. The newspaper reports at the time suggested that he had been eaten by a shark (though this seems fairly unlikely as shark attacks are historically extremely rare in Uruguay). It seems more probable that the unfortunate man simply drowned.
Whatever the case, the Cromdale left Montevideo with one less crew member.
The next port of call was Newcastle, Australia and while in the harbour here loading cargo a seaman of the Cromdale fell into the hold and was killed. To make matters worse a few days later history repeated itself. The boatswain, the petty officer of the ship, did exactly the same thing, he slipped and fell into the ship’s hold, dying of his injuries.
Now minus three crew members, the Cromdale then set sail from Australia bound for Chile.
When the ship finally left Taltal, Chile with a cargo of nitrate on 19th January 1913 she had been away from home for over a year but the next port of call was homeward bound, Falmouth ‘for orders’. Sadly, however, their troubles were far from over.
The journey to Cornwall was a long and arduous one. They encountered some rough seas rounding Cape Horn but the rest of the voyage was pretty much uneventful until they were just a few miles from Falmouth.
As they neared the Cornish coast the weather became ‘thick’. The captain reported hearing the low moan of the Lizard foghorn but he had checked his position and adjusted his course after advice from a passing vessel as they approached Lands End, so Arthur was confident of the passage ahead.
It must have been a heart stopping moment when the watchman spotted the towering cliffs looming through the mist dead ahead. There was a panicked flurry of activity on deck but there was no time to turn and the Cromdale stuck the rocks just below the Lloyds Signal Station at about 10 o’clock at night.
It became clear very quickly that the Cromdale was sinking. But fortunately for the crew the sea was extremely calm and they were able to take to the ship’s lifeboats and raise the alarm by sending up flares. The men in the signal station almost directly above them sent for the Cadgwith and Lizard lifeboats and it was so quiet that they were able to communicate this to the crew below via a megaphone from the clifftop.
However, despite the still weather and the imminent promise of rescue, the crew were highly agitated, perhaps because of their previous bad luck on the voyage, perhaps because of the dark and fog and the suddenness of the disaster, whatever the case it appears that some acted in a disorganised and irrational way. The ship’s dog, a fox terrier, that had been the Cromdale‘s pet for over two years was killed by a crew member “to save it from drowning”. In the panic men that had been sleeping below left the ship with barely any clothes on and an elderly seaman called Issacson lost the whole of his life-savings over the side of the ship.
“Amongst the crew was an aged Swede whose condition excited pity for he had lost his life savings. Amongst his effects were his bank book and a little bag of gold which he had carefully hoarded up and those he had unfortunately dropped overboard in his flight from the sinking ship.”The Cornishman, 29th May 1913
The Cadgwith lifeboat with Coxwain Edward Rutter in charge was the first to arrive to the stricken ship and Captain Arthur and his wife and the remaining 21 members of the crew climbed onboard.
But, in another twist of fate, this was only their first rescue.
Another Narrow Escape
“Next morning, when the fog lifted, the ‘Cromdale’ was an awesome spectacle, poop deck under water and bows on the rocks below the high cliffs, every sail set but hanging limply from the yards in the still air.”Richard Larn & Clive Carter, Cornish Shipwrecks – The South Coast, 1969.
The image below, which appeared in the Illustrated London News on 31st May 1913, was taken onboard the Cromdale before she sank, it is unclear who the photographer was but we do know that several members of the crew managed to persuade the Cadgwith lifeboat to take them back to the ship when she still hadn’t sunk the next morning.
The men who had all left the ship in such a panic were hoping to retrieve some of their abandoned belongings. The vicar of Ruan Minor, Rev Henry Vyvyan, who was also a member of the lifeboat crew, accompanied them on to the ship so it is possible that the photograph was taken by him. A seaman called Nightingale managed to rescue the ship’s log books and papers from the captain’s cabin but unfortunately almost as soon as they stepped onboard things took a dangerous turn.
“The ship settled down so quickly that the men had to take to the rigging and were rescued by the Cadwith and Lizard lifeboats.”
So effectively they were rescued twice from the same ship.
There had been a hope that the Cromdale might be re-floated but she began to break up as heavier seas rolled in and she was soon declared a total loss. There was some discussion of blaming the crew of the vessel that they had passed nearing Lands End, “a steamer with blue funnels”, the one that had advised them of their position and told them to alter their course but it was never identified.
The wreck was put up for auction but she was deemed of little value and was bought by Harris Brothers of Falmouth for just £41. They were apparently hoping to salvage her sailing gear but a week after she came ashore and before anything could be saved the Cromdale was broken up in a heavy gale. The last unlucky chapter in her disastrous final voyage.
And Finally, a Weird Coincidence
A few days before the Cromdale hit the rocks near Lizard Point another ship, the Queen Margaret, had been wrecked just half a mile away, on the 5th May. Bizarrely there are striking similarities between the fate of these two ships. Both had left Cardiff for Montevideo, both had sailed from Montevideo to Australia, both were bound for Falmouth and both were wrecked on the Lizard just a few days apart.