ASHonline – published by the Sydney Maritime Museum; home of Sydney Heritage Fleet
Research can often take unexpected turns. Bill Bourke of our editorial team wrote a series of articles for the print edition of Australian Sea Heritage about the life at sea of his father-in-law, Captain Ronald Charles Pratt.
Since writing these articles Bill’s further research has unearthed a lot more detail – and a surprise – surrounding the death at sea on 29 December 1905 of Captain Pratt’s uncle Charles Thompson Pratt, while he was chief officer on SS Cymbeline.
Passed down through the Pratt family are original copies of a letter (see above) from the Master of the Cymbeline to Charles’ widow Annie Maude and a poem written by the mother of the vessel’s 2nd engineer. Both attest to the heroic actions of Mr Pratt when the Cymbeline was stranded off the coast of the Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil in December 1905.
The UK Board of Trade’s report of the inquiry into Charles’ death and the stranding of the vessel, conducted in Newport UK from the 21st to the 26th of June 1906, found that ‘the vessel’s stranding was caused by her having been set eighteen miles to the northwestward of the course set, which was not made good and to the lead not being used’. Furthermore the Court of Inquiry found the Master was in default and he had his certificate of competency suspended for three months.
Embedded in the report’s significant details surrounding the sequence of events that led to the ship’s stranding, is the following detailed account of Mr Pratt’s heroic action and death. This followed several unsuccessful attempts by the crew in two lifeboats, which had been swamped, to set kedge anchors to stabilise the ship.
‘The late chief officer Mr Charles Thompson Pratt, being anxious to get the (swamped) lifeboats back to the vessel, and the distance only about 25 yards from the vessel to the beach, asked the Master’s permission to swim ashore with a line. The Master at first refused, but afterwards, on his persisting, allowed him to go providing he took a lifebuoy or a life belt with a line attached to it.
‘He undressed, put on bathing drawers, took a lifebuoy which he attached to a light heaving line, and went into the lifebuoy to try to swim ashore, but after swimming a short distance away he got exhausted, and on trying to return to the vessel he was washed out of the lifebuoy and could not get into it again.
‘Another line was thrown to him. However he was unable to take hold of it owing to having been stunned by a blow against the stem of the vessel which caused him to sink.’
In the original magazine article, Bill included after much research, an image of SS Cymbeline, a tank steamer built in 1902 at the shipyards of Armstrong Whitworth & Co for the Bear Creek Oil & Shipping Company.
The vintage and type of vessel appeared to confirm the identity of the ship that Mr Pratt was aboard. However much to Bill’s surprise, the Board of Trade’s report stated that the vessel in question was another ship – of the same name. It was in fact a single screw steel steamer, schooner rigged, built by Messrs. Bartram & Sons (official constructor’s number 112720), at Sunderland in 1900 for the Howard Steamship Company and registered at the Port of London. This Cymbeline was a bulk cargo carrier and after being re-floated in Brazil in January 1906 proceeded to the West Coast of South America to load nitrates which she discharged at Dunkirk in May 1906.
The occurrence of ships of the same name on the British Register is not entirely unusual. However both being launched in the same area and within two years of each other is unusual. It is interesting to note that Sydney Heritage Fleet’s restored Barque James Craig was built at Bartram’s in Sunderland in 1874.
Unfortunately Bill’s inquiries to the various archives in the Newcastle-on-Tyne area for an image of the correct Cymbeline have so far proved unsuccessful.