The Forgotten

SS Atlantic disaster (Currier and Ives Lithographs)When I wrote my first novel, Ship of Haunts, the focus was on child migration, ghosts and Titanic. Titanic is well-known for being a major maritime disaster. But there have been many other tragedies, also with significant loss of life, and in Ship of Haunts, as well as Carrin, whose ghost haunts Titanic, we meet someone from the Empress of Ireland and a man called Aaron who was drowned on a ship called the SS Atlantic. Aaron gets bored staying by his ship under the sea, after it sank and wanders off and finds Titanic. Aaron and Carrin become ghost-friends, bound together by their shared tragedy and current home under the ocean.

I recently did a talk on the Atlantic and its sad history, because I felt that it’s important we remember all shipwrecks, not just the ones which are most obvious. Here, below, is a summarised version of that talk.

The Forgotten.

What makes a ship sink? When people talk about Titanic, and how she sank, they cite many things such as Captain Smith’s failure to navigate the iceberg – he wasn’t even on deck at the time, but instead eating his supper inside. There are numerous other things they cite, such as the repairs to Olympic, a sister ship, which delayed the departure of Titanic – had it not been for this, Titanic might never have hit that iceberg. And the list goes on.

But what if no-one remembered Titanic? All those people (1,500) tragically dead; it’s unimaginable, isn’t it?

The Atlantic is a ship very few remember, despite the enormous loss of life. At the time it was a terrible tragedy. It should be remembered.

‘The world’s worst single vessel maritime disaster, before Titanic in 1912.’

The wreck of the SS Atlantic – divers recovering bodies and cargo, 1873So what happened

The Atlantic sank, somewhat ironically, on 1 April 1873, near Halifax in Nova Scotia. The weather was bad, the wind was high and the sea very cold and decidedly choppy.

She left Liverpool on 20 March, heading for New York, but the Captain ran into a bout of  bad weather and also feared a shortage of fuel so he decided to head for Halifax (Canada, not Yorkshire!).

At that point the tragedy happened. She ran aground after striking a rock which left a vicious gash in her side. The ship began sinking.

Officers tried to get lifeboats out by chopping at ropes frantically with axes. But sadly the boats were washed away in what was now a terrible storm. It’s doubtful even if they’d been lowered properly whether they could have floated off. Conditions were dreadful.

People died, up on the deck as the ship began sinking, taking in water, and worse still, those below were trapped in the rush to get up and escape.  There was no way out.

The Final Death Toll

Reports vary as to the numbers. The official Canadian report of the time says more than 500 people died. This was out of 957.

Deaths included all of the women and all but one of the children on board. Many men were heroes that night, refusing to leave their wives to their fate. Others climbed the rigging to escape, as part of the rigging was still above water.

SS Atlantic disaster. Officer BradyWorst of all, the SS Atlantic wasn’t far from shore. Officer Brady, an enterprising man, swam out to a rock, probably part of the one the ship hit, and with two colleagues, engineered a system of ropes, so men could swim, first to the rock, and then from the rock to a nearby island. Fifty men were saved this way, but many others died. Brady and the others did their best.

Early in the morning, around 6 am, people from the island sent out boats to rescue those on the rock and the rigging. The rescue continued until midday. Meanwhile the wild and stormy weather raged on.

So who was to blame?

At first it seemed to be only the weather but…

The ship was due to arrive in New York in early April, but made little progress due to the weather. The captain decided to head for Halifax, fearing conditions and a shortage of fuel.

When the ship had previously left Queenstown, she appeared to have left with not enough coal – so much so that there were strong reactions to her leaving the port. But the owners said there was more than enough fuel for the journey.

The report of the tragedy laid some blame on Captain Williams and suspended his certificate for two years.

The Captain himself blamed miscalculations of speed and the current – the ship was off course and going too fast.

The papers of the time blamed the officers on board: for not being on the lookout for land and the dangers of rocks in the area.

There were also discipline problems on board  –  some of the crew had previously broken into a room where the drink was kept. Later, when the rescue boats came, crew were rumoured to have pushed passengers aside so they could get on board the boats first. There was also theft from the bodies of the dead. It was all very tragic.

And perhaps we’ll never know the full story…

There is one sad but interesting tale

One of the women who died that night, possibly American and in her early 20s, had been a member of the ship’s crew. She’d been on board for three voyages. But everyone thought this woman was a man. As one of her fellow crewmates said

‘I never realised Bill was  a woman. He took his grog like the rest of us and was always begging and stealing tobacco. But all the same, he was a good fellow, and I’m sorry he turned out to be a woman.’


With subsequent, more high-profile disasters, like the loss of Titanic and the Lusitania, the Atlantic tragedy has been Burial service for the victims of SS Atlantic, 1873forgotten. But in the 1990s something happened.

The Atlantic’s dead were buried in two locations, one of which was a small churchyard in Sandy Cove, not far from where the Atlantic sank. The ship stills rests there, even now, at the bottom of a slope less than 75 ft beneath the surface.

This area where the dead were buried, was sadly subject to coastal erosion. At that time, more than a century after the sinking, 30 feet of bank vanished, and waves crashing against the grave sites meant that the graves’ contents became exposed. Victims’ bones could now be seen.

Although the Atlantic had been forgotten, some of the victims of the ship made sure, apparently, that they and their shipmates would be remembered.

A final thought

Shipwrecks weren’t uncommon at the time, but the White Star Line suffered badly from the sinking. Passenger bookings were low for a year after the tragedy. The loss of lives and the circumstances surrounding the sinking almost spelt doom for the company that owned her. It’s rather ironic to consider the fact that if White Star had indeed gone under, RMS Titanic would never have been built…

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