First and Famous: Waratah

By Wayne Fortune

The loss of the Waratah remains one of the most famous and enduring mysteries of the sea.  The steel screw steamer, built at Glasgow in 1908 by Barclay, Curle & Co, was intended to serve as a passenger and cargo liner between Britain and Australia for the Blue Anchor Line Ltd.  Described as a splendid ship with fine first class cabins and a luxurious music lounge, she also featured a desalination plant capable of providing up to 5,500 gallons of fresh water per day, and was classed +100A1 by Lloyd’s Register.  Alas, she also bore a somewhat unlucky name, with no less than four other vessels called Waratah being lost in the preceding years.

The Waratah sailed on her maiden voyage for Australia on 5th November 1908.  This voyage and her return passed without incident and she encountered no bad weather, however some onboard noted that she appeared to be a somewhat tender ship and that she was difficult to load, while murmurings had began that she may be ‘top-heavy’.  Although Blue Anchor Line did not request a formal report from the Captain, he was said to have some reservations about her.

The outward leg of her second voyage passed without incident, and she left Adelaide on the 7th July 1909 bound for London via South Africa with over 200 passengers aboard and a cargo including lead concentrates and food products.  On arrival at Durban on 25th July one passenger, a Mr Sawyer, disembarked, complaining of bad dreams and subsequently cabled his wife in London that he felt Waratah was top-heavy.  The following day she put to sea again with 211 passengers, making for Cape Town, and on the morning of the 27th she passed and exchanged pleasantries with the smaller Clan MacIntyre by signalling lamp.

Waratah was never seen again; she was due at Cape Town on 29th July and failed to appear.  Other vessels named Harlow and Guelph reported possible but unconfirmed sightings later on the 27th, and Clan MacIntyre reported severe weather in the area.  A wide-ranging search operation swung into action, however no trace of her was ever found.  Many stories were reported of debris being found, messages in bottles washing up, and even dead bodies being spotted, but all turned out to be spurious.

A Board of Trade inquiry opened in December 1910, and although suffering from a lack of evidence, attention turned to doubts over the stability of Waratah.  Nonetheless, for every witness who stated that she had a very long roll, was displaying a list, or appeared top-heavy there were others who praised her seaworthiness.  Expert witnesses all agreed the ship was well designed and built, although one passenger from her first voyage, Professor William Bragg, a Fellow of the Royal Society and later winner of the Nobel Prize for physics, opined that her metacentre was below her centre of gravity with the result that she lacked balance to right herself when she rolled.

With only a mixture of insufficient and contradictory evidence, the inquiry struggled to come to a firm or clear conclusion, eventually stating that “the Court cannot say what particular form was taken by the catastrophe, but the fact that no wreckage has been found in spite of the most careful and exhaustive search which was carried out, indicates that it must have been sudden. The Court, on the whole, inclines to the opinion that she capsized, but what particular chain of circumstances brought about this result must remain undetermined”.

In the aftermath, amidst a barrage of criticism and negative publicity, Blue Anchor Line sold their remaining vessels to the P & O Line and declared voluntary liquidation.  Despite exhaustive searches the wreck of Waratah has never been located, and theories abound as to her fate, from freak waves to an explosion in her coal bunker, to more fanciful stories of treasure or whirlpools.  The mystery and tragedy is enough to see Waratah often referred to as “Australia’s Titanic”.

Look out on Twitter and Facebook next week for the story of the SS Sirius and an unsung maritime hero!

Please note, the below scanned reports, plans and correspondence are a sample of Waratah's archived documents. A larger collection, with high resolution images will be made available when the new HEC website launches later this year.