Thursday 1 August 2019

The dreams of Mrs Briton

The dreams of Mrs Briton of Grahamstown, Thames, during the early hours of Monday 4 January 1875, were wretched with visions of the bodies of her family being eaten by fish.  As she surfaced from slumber, they left her with a sense of foreboding which she tried to dismiss.

Five months earlier, the family of Mrs Briton, the Whyte’s, from Renfrew, Scotland, arrived at the New Zealand Emigration Depot at Blackwall on the Thames, London.  The place was thronged with men, women and children from all over Great Britain – mostly farm labourers and domestic servants, referred to as the ‘agricultural poor’, with high hopes of a fresh start in New Zealand.  Some applicants were provided with free passages, others were assisted emigrants. A predominately male population in New Zealand meant young Irish and Scots women were urged to emigrate.

The Whyte’s long railway journey had passed by bleak stations, the grim conditions not helped by the fact that many of the passengers were still dressed in farm clothes dirty with mud.  Once through the Blackwall terminus they blinked at the hectic scene before them – the curve of a river busy with barges and boats, back dropped by large ships sliding slowly by.

Among the feelings of hope and expectation, a flicker of fear was felt by some.   Sea voyages were dangerous.  Bad weather, collision, flawed navigation or the most dreaded - fire - were common.  Wooden sailing vessels, combined with their often flammable cargo and primitive fire fighting equipment were a recipe for disaster.

The Whyte’s, a family of eight, including two small children, were assisted emigrants on their way to Grahamstown, Thames.   They would be sailing on the Cospatrick, a two decked, three masted sailing ship constructed of teak, built 18 years before.  

The Cospatrick 
 The Graphic 9 January1875
Public Domain

While the Cospatrick was readied for the voyage the family, along with hundreds of other emigrants, were housed at the Blackwall Immigration Depot located on the East India Docks.  Once a hotel, the depot now provided a safe and secure environment for the travellers in unfamiliar surroundings.  

Housed and fed by the NZ government many emigrants became healthier eating food superior to that which they were used to.   They were berthed in bunks and family dormitories in conditions similar to the overcrowding they would experience on the voyage out.  Prior to sailing they were inspected by the ship's surgeons – any signs of infectious disease cancelled out their passage.

While the Whyte family waited, the Cospatrick moored at the West India Export Dock  was loaded with her ‘colonial cargo’ - agricultural implements, haberdashery, medical supplies, crockery, furniture, tools, books, clothing and children’s toys.  Also brought on board were 257 tons of railway iron, large volumes of spirits, wine and beer, and quantities of varnish, turpentine, pitch and vegetable oil.

Carpenters, in a flurry of activity, converted the ‘tween decks into emigrant accommodation.   Ventilation was improved, bunks, seats and tables added.  Kitchen and privies were built as well as a small hospital area.  The alterations were made of inexpensive soft pinewood.

For the non-stop passage to Auckland via the Cape of Good Hope adequate provisions were bought in.   The Cospatrick’s water tanks were too small for the journey so a distillation plant was mounted on the upper deck.  Six boats, the minimum permissible for a vessel of Cospatrick’s tonnage, were on board.

A Downtown fire pump in a fixed mounting was located on the forecastle and a portable Downton unit with 125 ft of hose was also ordered, doubling the Cospatrick’s’ fire fighting capacity.  There were also 14 fire buckets although they were known to float instead of fill when dropped in the sea.

On 8 September the Cospatrick cleared customs on the East India docks.   A crew of 44 was under the command of 39 year old Captain Alexander Elmslie. The next day, taking the first steps towards their future, the Whyte’s embarked from Brunswick wharf.  On board were 479 people – 178 men, 125 women, 126 children (including 16 infants).

Passengers were segregated and the Whyte family were from then on separated. Single men were berthed in the forward section, families amidships and single women aft.  Children aged 12 and over were housed separately from parents and younger siblings, 12 being the age at which adulthood was considered to have been reached.

An Emigration Officer inspected the Cospatrick the following day, checking that the safety equipment and cargo complied with regulations.   A visit was also paid by a Chaplin who handed out school books and spiritually soothing bibles.

There was uneasiness about this voyage though.  Some passengers suddenly refused to sail and left with their luggage, a seaman inexplicably didn’t show and the wife of the Cospatrick’s second mate, Henry MacDonald, while seeing him off, sensed an “impending evil.”

On the last flood tide of 11 September, 1874, at 5am the Cospatrick sailed from Gravesend. Many miles, weeks and months away in Grahamstown, Thames, Mrs Briton read and re-read her letter.  Her family - mother, two sisters, three brothers, a niece and a nephew – were coming at last.

On 14 September the Cospatrick headed into the wild Atlantic and the emigrants adjusted to ship board life.  From the groups of emigrant’s cleaners, watchmen, constables, a school master, a nurse and cook’s assistant were appointed.  The emigrants spent most of their time helping the cooks or cleaning the living quarters. 

Twice a week clothes were washed in salt water and slung across rigging to dry.  At all times segregation by gender was strictly maintained. Smoking and naked lights were forbidden below decks. Despite the necessary discipline there were small pleasures - Divine Service was read on Sunday’s, card playing was common and King Neptune visited when the equator was crossed.  The Cospatrick’s emigrants were, for the most part, obedient.

The Cospatrick became becalmed in the tropics and cleanliness suffered.  Gastro intestinal complaints swept the ship killing eight infants.  On 28 October winds finally rose and for the next 20 days the ship averaged 150 miles a day towards the Cape of Good Hope.  During this time a child was born and Cospatrick sailed on, making steady progress.

Three months later a ship arrived at Auckland from London.  Mrs Briton travelled by steamer from Thames to Auckland in high expectations of meeting her family.  But it was the barque Glenlora which had arrived on 5 January.  She had left London 15 days after the Cospatrick, her passage having taken 101 days.  Ominously there was no sign of the Cospatrick.

Mrs Briton became very anxious and nervous about the long delay and suffered the dream that impressed itself upon her that the bodies of her family had all been eaten by fish.  She began frequently expressing her fears that the vessel was lost. Other concerned Thames residents who had relatives aboard included Messers Rawden, Baker and Townsend.When the news finally filtered through, it was unbearable.

On 18 November, around 12.45am, the night time card players in Cospatrick’s single men’s compartment had noticed smoke curling through a ventilation grill.  Panicked, they rushed to the upper deck but despite frantic efforts to put out the fire, flames erupted from the shaft. 

Henry MacDonald, second mate, whose wife had sensed impending evil, was startled from a state of semi sleep by cries of “Fire!” When he reached the forecastle head MacDonald was horrified by the sight of smoke streaming from the forescuttle.

The captain kept the ship before the wind so that the flames were driven forward rather than rushing down the length of the ship.  Signal rockets and fog gun ammunition were thrown overboard but the speed of the fire was extraordinary. 

Within 15 minutes Cospatrick’s entire forward section was alight. Crude pine wood furniture, wood shaving mattress filling, stores of  highly flammable pitch and Stockholm tar, turpentine, varnish, paraffin and linseed oil, about 30 tons of coal and  6000 gallons of spirits became a lethal mix.   The fierce heat forced seamen to abandon the fixed Downton fire pump. 

To stop the fire taking hold in the foremast rigging, the foresail above the hatch was hauled up. This spelled the end for the vessel and her passengers.  Cospatrick swung leeward and turned bow to the wind, her steerage lost. A deadly cloud of smoke and embers blew the whole length of the upper deck towards those on the poop.

The burning of the Cospatrick off the Cape of Good Hope, 1874
Wood engraving by Samuel Calvert, 1828 - 1913
 Illustrated New Zealand Herald.. Ref: PUBL-0047-1875-09. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22817867

The terrified emigrants grabbed whatever came to hand - fire buckets, mess tins, tubs and dishes -    but the height of the bulwarks made it practically impossible to fill them.  A chain bucket brigade proved hopeless and was hampered by smothering smoke.  The portable Downton fire pump was inadequate - the inlet hose hardly reached the surface of the sea.  The fire, fueled by cargo and driven by the headwind, consumed the ship.

Captain Elmslie, preoccupied by the danger to his wife and child, wouldn’t put the surviving boats over the side but ordered that efforts to quell the fire be redoubled.

Hope, like the vessel, was relentlessly destroyed by the fire.   Segregated families searched desperately for each other and some emigrants, realising what was to happen, surrendered silently.  An ill chief steward retired to his cabin.  A mother, having given birth, remained below with her husband and four children.

Hospital patients were brought up and given water.  Women and children became dreadfully anguished.  Second Mate Henry MacDonald had women clinging to him, begging him to save them, deafened by their awful screams.

Two of the boats had been destroyed and a rush was made for the starboard boat.   The principle of women and children first was completely ignored.  As the starboard boat was lowered the stern fell into the sea, swamping the boat and capsizing it.  Most of the 80 occupants were tossed out.

Sheer panic followed.   Chicken coops, lifebuoys and anything that would float were thrown overboard by those on the Cospatrick’s decks. Many of the women were kept afloat by air trapped in their petticoats until they were saturated and became death traps.   The launch of a heavy longboat failed when it caught alight; the smaller captain’s gig was flooded and floated away empty.  Almost everyone in the water drowned.

Only the port lifeboat, with a capacity to hold just 30 people, remained.  It was practically barricaded as knives were drawn and sailors were admitted to the boat but male passengers weren’t. 

Suddenly the foremast slammed into the sea in a cascade of sparks and debris.  Flames spewed from the after hatch.  Captain Elmslie gave his final command “Let every man look after himself.” 

Distraught emigrants rushed for the port lifeboat but it was lowered away, leaving behind 350 people. Appalling cries filled the air; emigrants either hurled themselves into the boat or fell in.  The main mast hit the poop killing those who huddled under it. Parents threw their children overboard and jumped in after them.  Many emigrants drowned straight away although others survived a few more hours by clinging to floating spars.

Half an hour after the port lifeboat had got away 40 tons of spirits ignited and a billowing mass of blazing vapour roared over the poop.  The mizzen mast went overboard and the stern exploded.

It was 3am and the ship carrying the hopes and dreams of hundreds of emigrants was nothing more than a fiery wreck.

The port lifeboat stayed by the burning ship for the rest of the night.  It was packed with 35 people, including 14 crew members, one of which was second mate Henry MacDonald.   Half a sheep's carcass was thrown out to make way for one more person.  They anticipated an early rescue, counting on the beacon of the pall of smoke and blaze from the fire. 

The starboard life boat, now the correct way up after phenomenal efforts to right it, drifted into view about noon.  It contained 29 men and boys.  A shuffle of crew and passengers still left both boats badly overloaded.

Cospatrick finally sank 40 hours after the start of the fire, taking with it the chance that a passing vessel would find the survivors.  They kept the boats together and headed for the Cape of Good Hope.  But they had no provisions, only one gallon of water and basic equipment was lost. The survivors were in great danger – they were exhausted, wet, cold, some naked. 

Over the next two days a bitter wind from the south blew, they couldn’t sleep and were saturated by sea spray.  They began to deteriorate, were driven to distraction by thirst and some began to drink sea water.   The evening of 21 November was stormy and both boats need constant bailing.  By dawn only one boat was left – the other was never heard of again.

Of the passengers in the remaining boat  one fell overboard.  Others drank seawater leaving them incoherent and delirious.  They tried to jump out before succumbing to a lethal stupor.  Only five were left alive at the end of ten terrible days.  Starvation led to the unthinkable. The survivors began eating the corpses.

They were rescued on 27 November by the British Sceptre.  It was clear to the rescuers that the skeletal survivors had been forced to resort to cannibalism.

Shortly after rescue two survivors died.  Of the Cospatrick’s  479 passengers and crew  only three survived - Henry MacDonald, aged 29, second mate, Edward Cotter, ordinary seaman, aged 17 and Thomas Lewis, Quartermaster, aged 46.

On Christmas Day, about 10pm, a telegram reached Shaw Saville’s London office, but the reports of Cospatrick’s loss took days to reach the newspapers due to the festive celebrations.  Bewilderment and disbelief met the headlines of 29 December when the details of the disaster became known.   The rural villages were badly affected – many of the immigrants were from the country.

On 11 January the news reached Auckland and the result was as harrowing as it had been in England.  Twenty emigrant’s had been nominated by friends or relatives in New Zealand.

The Auckland Star headlines were ghastly- “Four hundred and 57 lives reported lost – Only three men saved – Fearful scenes – Hundreds throw themselves overboard - Boat picked up with survivors – Many died raving mad.”

The impact on the community of Thames was extreme. Several families had relations on board coming out under the nominated immigrant system.    The Thames Advertiser  lamented "Never in these columns have we had to announce a more awful calamity than we have had to narrate our readers this day  ...”   For the families connected with passengers widespread sympathy was felt.  For those who had lost relatives “it is a shock that will not be forgotten during life.”  Mr Baker of Brown Street lost a sister and nephew.  Mrs Briton had lost most of her family and had scarcely a relation left. There was great grief and much mourning at Thames.

But then, on Tuesday 12 January, when a list of persons who did not sail was published, foremost on the list were the Whyte family. Mrs Briton grasped a thin thread of hope.  It seemed her relatives had not sailed, although they had written to her that they were on the point of going.   In order to make doubly sure, a friend of Mrs Briton’s telegraphed to Wellington for definite information and received a conflicting reply that the family of Whyte nominated at the Thames, had sailed on the Cospatrick.

The next day, in the hope that the Telegraph Association had some definite information, Mrs Briton’s friend telegraphed again –“Send particulars regarding White family, who, by your telegram last night, appear not to have sailed in the Cospatrick.   Reply immediately stating how particulars ascertained.”  A confusing reply came back - “As far as known by Immigration department here, the Whyte family did not sail.”

  Did they or didn't they?
Thames Star 12 January 1875

 The Thames Advertiser then came to the aid of Mrs Briton, immediately telegraphing the Press Association in Wellington, asking for an explanation of the telegram of Tuesday night – and received a reply to the effect that “the heads of the Immigration Office here state the White (sic) family did sail on the Cospatrick.”   The Thames Advertiser telegrammed back to clarify and received the reply “I fear Tuesday telegram was incorrect.  McCarthy (the manager) was out of town, I cannot find anyone who knows anything about it . . . 

For Mrs Briton the anguish caused by this bumbling can only be imagined.  The Thames Advertiser called it a case of gross carelessness which had all the appearance of a disgraceful hoax and a state of affairs which was highly discreditable to the NZ Press Telegraph Association.  The unpardonable stupid blundering of the Press Association added much to families’ grief.

A final definite reply was received – “McCarthy (the manager) got the information from the Post.  It was incorrect.  The Whyte family did sail.  The official list is correct.”

Newspapers were scathing in their opinion of the Press Association agent in Wellington, blaming the effects of the New Year holidays on those who supplied very untrustworthy information.  McCarthy, the manager, disappeared on holiday and was berated for having committed a grievous error in reference to the Cospatrick passenger list before he left for the country.  “We hope he will resume his duties refreshed and invigorated and that the agency will then exhibit signs of improvement,” spat the Thames Advertiser.

For Mrs Briton all hope was gone.  She had clung to the thought that her family had delayed their departure and perhaps sailed on the Warwick or Diharee instead.  There was still a faint expectation that the missing boat with survivors would be discovered.

Auckland grieved for weeks and it was feared that the event would seriously interfere with assisted or nominated immigration.

Towards the end of January Mr James Jeffry, fruiterer, Brown Street, Thames, was pronounced to be of unsound mind by two medical men and committed to the Lunatic Asylum.  He had been acting eccentrically for days.  The immediate cause was not known.  His business affairs were free from embarrassment and he was not without money.  It was said that he sustained some domestic affliction by the loss of the Cospatrick.

On 3 February, in England, the Board of Trade inquiry into loss of Cospatrick grappled with the lack of physical evidence of the wreck and survivor’s scanty testimony. Blame was laid at the feet of emigrants or sailors for plundering cargo and dropping a match or candle.  The volatility of “colonial cargoes” was ignored.   Universal shock greeted this finding.  Emigration to New Zealand plummeted.

On 1 April the Auckland Star was given a copy of the Glasgow Herald. which arrived by San Francisco mail, containing the startling news that two more Cospatrick survivors were aboard a ship which arrived in the West India Docks on February 8.  The story has no foundation whatever -– beyond the fact that a man named Java, who was suffering from dysentery, was in hospital with McDonald, Lewis and Cotter.  A shouted message from Captain to pilot had been misunderstood. 

The promise of a new life -  Grahamstown, Thames in the early 1870s.

Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19040430-32-2


The sinking of the Cospatrick is considered New Zealand’s worst civil disaster.

It is unknown if any of the Whyte family made it into one of the lifeboats.

Of six emigrants in one life boat, three or four were women, whose names are not known.

I believe Mrs Briton was married to John Briton a well-known Thames contractor/engineer who erected mining batteries and machinery at the Thames to great praise.  He would have had the finances and been able to offer employment to his wife’s family members

Various spellings of names in reports were White – Whyte  - Wayte - Britten, Briten, Briton. Britan.

“The lack of lifeboats and the inability to launch them successfully at sea caused public outrage, but little was done until after the loss of the Titanic in 1912” - Wikipedia


Assisted Emigrants Single Women 

Mary Whyte (or Wayte)                                  58         Renfrew           Housekeeper
Jeanie (Jane) Whyte (or Wayte)                    32         Renfrew           Cook

Assisted Emigrants Single Men

Robert S Whyte (or Wayte)                              25         Renfrew            Engineer
Andrew Whyte (or Wayte)                                19         Renfrew            Joiner

Assisted Emigrant Families

William Whyte                               27                            Renfrew             Farm Labourer
Isabella Whyte                              27                            Renfrew
William Whyte                               2 years                    Renfrew
Elizabeth Whyte                            8 months                 Renfrew

Women and children Last – the Burning of the Emigrant ship Cospatrick by Charles R Clark  - Otago University Press
Papers Past
Wikipedia -

© Meghan Hawkes 2019

Please acknowledge and credit this blog with a source link if using any material from it.  Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Sitting here tensed and uneasy at this information, so well written that one could place themselves among the melee, and feel the horror...
    These events hold a fascination despite their harrowing results... the writers descriptions and recountings cast a realness and all encompassing feeling of being a part of the events, so much so that sympathies are directed to those that the losses effected the most, Families and nominated friends etc.even though even those people are long gone... Thanks to Megan Hawkes again for her astounding ability to place the reader right there, at the firing line so to speak.... Baz C, Waihi.