On the Waterfront: A fateful voyage

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Readers who watched Saturday’s popular BBC2 auction show “Flog It!” may have seen a shipbuilder’s plate fetch £1,200 and wondered about its origin.

Discovered 30 years ago by a diver off Torbay, Devon, the plate was being auctioned on behalf of the finder’s wife. Unfortunately, the programme did not identify the ship to which it once belonged.

Apart for the shipbuilder’s name – Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Co, Newcastle on Tyne and the date, 1877 – the only other details on the brass plaque was the number “355.”

This was the yard number, issued by Palmers to all newly-built ships and recorded chronologically in the shipyard register.

The number was allocated to the 835-ton iron cargo steamer, Ruperra, which was launched by Palmers’ Jarrow yard on August 25, 1877 for John Cory of Cardiff, whose fleet sailed under British Steam Shipping Co Ltd name.

Flying the Red Ensign and registered at Cardiff, the vessel measured 240 feet in length and was propelled by two direct-acting inverted compound surface condensing engines, having a combined rating of 120 horse power.

In 1880, Ruperra was in collision with the Portuguese schooner, Duque de Loule, off Cape Roca, Portugal. Although the schooner was lost, her crew was landed at Peniche by the steamer.

The fateful voyage leading to Ruperra’s loss began at the Egyptian port of Alexandria on January 7, 1881.

Under the command of Captain John Angel Lee and carrying 1,520 tons of cotton seed, she sailed for Gibraltar, where orders were received to proceed to Hull.

But, shortly after 5 am on January 27, Ruperra ran stem-on to rocks to the east of Ham Stone, near Bolt Head on the Devon coastline.

While the captain was asleep in his cabin, the chief mate had mistaken rocks for a fog bank and despite the helm being placed “hard-a-port,” a collision could not be avoided.

With engines full astern, the ebb tide caused the stricken vessel to swing broadside onto the rocks.

Within a few hours, she had broken up. Happily, all 22 crew took to the lifeboats and reached the safety of Hope Cove - a few miles to the west.

A Board of Trade investigation into the steamer’s stranding was convened at Cardiff on February 17 and 18, 1881.

Although the master and chief mate claimed that ship’s compasses had been affected by weather, the hearing found both guilty of careless navigation.

Captain Lee was held responsible as he had failed to ensure adequate measures were taken to establish the vessel’s correct course and position.

His master’s certificate was suspended for six months, with the chief mate’s being suspended for three. The second mate was reprimanded.