- Jersey Times
- From our Guernsey correspondent, 5.15 pm
- "The scene where the Channel Queen lies is wild and terrible, a coast studded with dangerous rocks for miles around, and the sea washes furiously over them. The ship is fast breaking up, boatmen picking up wreckage dot the foreshore. This is a great and terrible tragedy"
It is now 70 years since it happened. And it occurred quite inauspiciously, quite unexpectedly. There was no prelude to the tragedy and there were probably few people around on the misty night of 31 January 1898, when the Channel Queen left Sutton's Wharf, Plymouth, at 10.50 pm on her regular route to Guernsey and Jersey. It was too late for farewells.
Certainly the 47 passengers and 16 crew members had no misgivings. They had every reason for confidence. The weather was hazy but there had been no reed for delay. The ship they sailed in was a 386-ton vessel which had journeyed to the Channel Islands since she was launched in a Middlesbrough dockyard in 1895.
The skipper, Captain Collings, had been master of the Channel Queen for the same period and captain of the Commerce' and the Aquila before; a Plymouth man, he had crossed the Channel more than 3,000 times and been in the service since 1863. The route was operated by a reputable company, the Channel Islands and St Brieuc line. There was every reason for confidence.
The ship was due at St Peter Port at 5.15 am. She never arrived. The Channel Queen was on her last journey and, aboard her, as she headed south into rougher seas, were several ordinary people destined to play a part in the tragic drama to come.
The most well-to-do of the passengers was J A Balleine. He was travelling to his home at 53 New St John's Road, Jersey, after a trip to Saltash in Devon. Sharing a cabin with him was a commercial traveller, Mr Cowell, who lived in South Devon Place, Plymouth. The representative for a West country firm of lead and oil merchants, James and Rowswall, he was a cheerful, carefree man well liked in the Islands. That night both of them turned in early. Mr Balleine slept badly.
The only lady passenger was Mrs Pollard, a Plymouth stoker's wife. She was journeying with a two-year-old baby girl, Dolly, and strictly they should have been deck passengers. But the sea was rough and the captain told her to take one of the cabins — an act of compassion which was to have tragic results. Dolly was not Mrs Pollard's daughter. Her father was a regular soldier, Corporal Wiltshire of the Gloucester regiment, stationed in Jersey. Her mother was unknown, at least unknown to Mrs Pollard. And that was her reason for being on the Channel Queen.
Two months before Mrs Pollard had answered a newspaper advertisement for someone to look after a young child. She had taken Dolly into her home, but for the last six weeks, no money had been sent to pay for the child’s board and lodging. Borrowing money for the passage, Mrs Pollard was travelling to Jersey to put her baby-minding job on a proper business footing.
These were three of the passengers. The other 44 were Breton onion-sellers from Roscoff and St Pol. Two gangs of them had joined the ship at Plymouth after selling their wares in the west of England. Their annual exile was now over and they were returning with six months’ hard earnings. They were men and boys, fathers, sons and nephews.
Manning the Channel Queen on her last voyage were Captain Collings, his chief engineer, Mr Scone, and over a dozen crew members, most of them from Plymouth or Jersey. Among these were fireman John Fudge, who lived with his wife and daughter in Seale Street; Jack Gunney, of Ann Street; seaman Syborn, who lived near Greve d'Azette railway station; fireman Renouf and fireman Willcox, from Millbrook.
Also on board was a young cabin boy, second class steward George Amy, of 71 Great Union Road. It was young George who was up on deck when the Channel Queen struck the Noir Rocher a mile off Guernsey’s north-west coast. He remembers that Captain Collings was about to light a cigar.
The fog was thicker and the Channel Queen had reduced to half speed. She was due to change course. The time was 5.15 am. The ship began to sink in mountainous seas.
Below the steward burst into Mr Balleine and Mr Cowell’s cabin.
- ”Slip on your trousers and come on deck; we are on the rocks,” he told them.
Above the captain yelled out:
- ”Save yourselves; on deck all hands.”
There was panic. Mrs Pollard rushed out of her cabin leaving the child behind. She stopped George Amy from going hack, telling him that water was pouring in the portholes and there was nothing to be done. It wasn't her child anyway, she reminded him.
On deck the crew and passengers were issued with lifebelts. Many of the Bretons discarded them or did them up too loosely.
Mr Balleine recalled later:
- ”We could feel the vessel sinking beneath us and every few seconds we felt a bump and knew that we had gone lower in the water. It was then
pitch dark and We could see absolutely nothing before us. In less than three minutes from the time we got on deck, the steamer had sunk as low as she possibly could."
One lifeboat had been smashed. The other was launched and so was a jollyboat which capsized instantly. Four men clung to the keel of the boat; they were picked up hours later. Captain Collings tried sending up distress rockets but they failed to go off; instead he blew the ship's whistle which was heard onshore.
He also tried to restrain Mr Cowell, the commercial traveller, who, stripped down to his vest and pants, plunged into the sea and tried to swim to safety. The Captain wrote his epitaph in a report on the disaster:
- ”This was a rash act. Mr Cowell was picked up afterwards quite dead with a great gash on the back of his head.”
The chief engineer, Mr Scone, might have tried to swim for it as well. He disappeared and was never seen again.
The remaining passengers and crew were in a desperate plight. Furious seas broke over them as they clung to the bridge rails, cabin doors floated away, hatches banged like gunfire and the sea sstriking the ships bell made a doleful, tolling sound.
Mr Balleine reported:
- ”Several times I was nearly swept off, but I clung to the rails for four hours, the seas washing over me. I grew fearfully cold and stiff and once I thought of loosing my hold and ending the suspense. I had at that moment little hope of being rescued and it seemed only a question of time.”
George Amy reported:
- ”I would ocasionally hear the ejaculation Mon Dieu and then would notice a Breton was missing from the place to which he had beenhanging. I almost feared to turn around and look upon the victim’s wide staring eyes and open mouth as he disappeared beneath the surface.”
At one point the survivors saw two lights. They cried out but it was in vain. Captain Collings described their long wait:
- "Miserably the time passed with the sea constantly breaking over the vessel."
When daylight came, they found themselves only 50 yards from a group of rocks with the tide lowering. "But so heavy was the surf that any attempt to reach them must have meant death," recounted Mr Balleine.
Eventually help came. A few minutes after eight o'clock a small boat approached. Slowly in the heavy seas, Guernsey fishermen Mr Gaudion and Mr Bewley brought their rescue boat within 20 feet of the wreck and threw a line to the ship's bridge. It was caught by Captain Collings and then, one by one, passengers and crew were dragged to safety through the heavy seas, transferred to small boats and landed at Rocquaine Bay. The last of them, the captain, came ashore at 10.35 (he knew this because his watch, battered and drenched for more than five hours, was still keeping perfect time).
News of the disaster had spread fast. It caused consternation in Jersey and Guernsey. Early reports put the number of drowned at four and the managing director of the shipping line, Onesimus Dorey, told the newspapers it was only two. The actual death toll was 21.
Those who perished on the first morning of February 1898 included the chief engineer, a married man with a family, and Mr Cowell, the commercial traveller, fireman John Fudge of Jersey, and three Plymouth men including greaser J Hawkings, who supported a wife and nine children; Dolly, the unwanted child in the care of Mrs Pollard, and a total of 14 Bretons.
Among the French dead was a 12-year-old boy whose father and two brothers survived, a yough who was the breadwinner for his mother, sister and crippled father, and a St Pol man who looked after his 70-year-old mother. Altogether the men from the Cotes du Nord had 23 dependents.
The day after the tragedy the Jersey survivors arrived in the Island on board the Great Western ship, Antelope . They included Mr Balleine and four of the seamen. The 30 frenchmen were less fortunate. A special ship, the Alert , was chartered to take them to St Brieuc but had to return to Guernsey after another frightening gale. Eventually they arrived home a week late without their own clothes or their money.
Meanwhile the Islands went into mourning. Inquests and inquiries followed the tragedy, and there were plenty of criticisms to be made. Why had the Guernsey lifeboat been delayed? Why were there no adequate fog signals on this dangerous stretch of coast? Why did the Hanois lighthouse have only a warning bell, indistinct in bad weather?
The authorities, St. Helier's harbourmaster, Capt F J Renouf, the hero of the wreck Capt Collings, even the national Daily Telegraph , all blamed the lack of a fog signal for the tragedy. As a result the Hanois was equipped with a new warning system.
But when all the inquiries had been made and all the investigations completed, the disaster remained just as appalling. The sinking of the Channel Queen on Guernsey’s notorious ‘black rock’ remains one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of Channel Island shipping.