Shipwreck of the Blenden Hall 1821

Extracts from my book. 
                            Shipwreck of the Blenden Hall
                             on Inaccessible Island 1821.

Chapter 1 

Blenden Hall

At about ten o'clock on the morning of 22 July 1821, just before breakfast, the passengers gathered on deck of the Blenden Hall to get a glimpse through the mist of the island of Tristan da Cunha.  They were making about five knots and passing through floating seaweed. Sails were shortened but no land was in sight.  A call from the man in the mizzen top sang out:


            Breakers on the starboard bow.


An attempt was at once made to bring the ship to the wind, when it was found that she would not answer the helm as it had become entangled in the seaweed.  At that moment the wind dropped suddenly.  Captain Greig then gave orders to boxhaul the ship, with the idea of clearing the breakers on the other tack; and when the manoeuvre failed for the lack of wind, the cutter and jolly-boat were lowered and manned, and sent with tow-ropes to bring the ship's head round. But the swell was so heavy that the boats were tossed about like corks, and made no headway, while little by little the Blenden Hall was being driven towards the breakers. An ominous streak of white and broken water was now clearly visible from the quarterdeck.  At length the anchor was let go, but the depth was still too great for it to grip.  The next moment the Blenden Hall struck, the shock being so violent that the helmsman was flung from his post at the wheel on the poop-deck down the after-hatch.


The ship's situation was hopeless, and to add to the horror the mist wrapped itself around her.  The roar of the breakers indicated that if she came off the reef, she would merely slip on to another.  To complete the disaster, the Blenden Hall’s boats, which until she struck had persisted in their futile efforts to bring her head round, now slipped their towropes and vanished into the fog.  The remainder of the crew lined the decks hurling vain abuse at them into the mist.  All that was left now was the longboat which had been up till now used to house the livestock.  Clearing it of the cows and sheep took valuable time, and then the labour was wasted, for as soon as cleared, it was stoved in by the violence of the waves.


The Blenden Hall, her back broken, now lay at the mercy of the riotous seas that pounded her helpless against the rocks.  Having keeled on the starboard side, she was exposed to the full fury of the sea.  Her poop deck fell in and was in part washed overboard. The ship was filled with water and although the masts were cut away she began to break-up rapidly.


Captain Greig at this point, with all hope abandoned, shook hands with all the passengers and crew, telling them to prepare to meet their fate.  He then ordered them to go forwards to the fo'c'sle, this was only just in time, as the ship was struck by another heavy wave and she parted amidships, the stern being carried off a short distance, where it sank.


Crew and passengers were now huddled on the fo'c'sle, where they waited for a death that seemed inescapable.  The waves were sweeping over them; at one stage the Captain was washed away, but managed to struggle back on board.  They remained clinging to whatever they could for many hours, uncertain whether the fo'c'sle would break-up beneath them before it was torn bodily from the reef on which it was wedged.


In the early afternoon came the first glint of hope.  The mist had lifted a little, and the sun broke out.  They found to their surprise that they were quite close to the shore and that there was a great cliff towering over the wreck.  Even so, between them and safety lay a stretch of broken water, through which it seemed impossible to swim.  They were heartened by the sight on land, of the men from the missing boats.  A line was ingeniously set up but was unsuccessful.  The animals on board were launched over the side, but all were dashed to pieces. The second officer Thomas Symmers jumped overboard with a rope between his teeth and nearly succeeded in reaching the land.  After another try two sailors were able to make the shore. Still those on the fo'c'sle were in great danger as many were being washed overboard, only regaining their place by the helping hands of the others.  Finding that their soggy clothes were a hindrance most of them stripped them off; and since the women and children were particularly helpless under the buffering of the waves, the seaman lashed them in the fore chains.


One of the crew Peter Wilson (a tough old stager) at last constructed a raft from some of the wreckage, securing it with rope yarn. The raft was able to carry about nine people. There was some hesitation as to who wanted to risk their lives on it. But as the fo'c'sle sank lower in the water their minds were soon changed.  It was then that Mr Gormby, the Quartermaster disgraced himself; shoved past his wife and child, gained a place on the raft and pushed it off from the wreck, leaving his wife and child and all the others behind.  The nine men gained the shore with only the loss of one seaman named Bantiff.


The day wore on and now those left on the fo'c'sle were often up to their necks in water, surrounded by sea-elephants and seals.  Suddenly a large part of the fo'c'sle tore loose from the bulk of the wreckage, leaving insufficient room for those remaining.  At this point several of the men jumped off striking out through the breakers. One of them, detailed as supposedly a good swimmer named Matthew Hore, sank and was drowned.


It seemed that nothing less than a miracle would save those remaining.  The Captain, his son and the more helpless of the passengers were now alone on what was left of the fo'c'sle, the planks of which were coming apart beneath their feet.  The Captain who could swim a little was urged to leave, but he would not leave them.


Suddenly a great wall of water towered above the ship and broke with fearful impact. For some seconds all were buried in the water.  The fo'c'sle was driven clear over the reef on which it had lain since the Blenden Hall had struck, and sea after sea was sweeping it ashore.  Still their trial was not over, as its advance was slow and checked now and then by another reef.  At last it was torn loose and hurled shoreward once more.  The wretched people who clung to the wreckage were half drowned and savagely battered, but they still held on.


There was one last and desperate struggle, with safety within a stone's throw.  The men who had already landed dashed out with cheers to lend a hand.  A final sea canted the fo'c'sle round, carried it forward, and deposited it so that the passengers could scramble down on the beach.  The last man had hardly reached safety when another big wave caught the wreckage in its backwash and drew it far out into deep water, in which it sank almost at once.





Time on Inaccessible Island


                                                  Inaccessable Island

After an ordeal that had lasted over twelve hours, all except two of the crew were safe.  On looking around they wondered if they were better off.  There was only a bit of beach that the island possessed.  Most of them lay naked, with no food, water or shelter.


Mrs Keys with her children, niece and maid Peggy were lying helpless on the shore, tired out and covered with cuts and bruises.  Many others were lying senseless along the beach.  When the roll call was taken by the Captain, eighty-two answered their names.  All were accounted for except the two crew who had perished. 


Some of the crew who now felt rather ashamed of themselves, after leaving their Captain and the passengers on the wreck, while they found refuge on land, shared some of their clothes with the women and children, and under their Captain’s instructions, helped the weaker ones.  Shortly after dark it began to rain, and with the coming of night, a violent storm struck the island.


What a scene this must have been, half naked bodies attempting to find somewhere to hide from the storm and waves they had dragged themselves up amongst the rocks above the shore, but during the night, so steep and slippery was the slope, most of them had dropped back to the beach, where morning found them wet, hungry, muddy, bruised and miserable.  At first they thought they were on the island of Tristan da Cunha, and knowing that it had a small settlement on it, had hoped someone would find them.  Instead they were on the uninhabited island called Inaccessible, which was about twenty miles south of Tristan da Cunha.


To find food for over eighty people was the first thought of Captain Greig. That first morning, he and Captain George Syms[1] the assistant Surgeon, went on a short tour of inspection.  The only food they found were penguins and some small birds called thrusts.  So hungry were they that the thrusts were knocked against the rocks and eaten raw.  They did, however, find on their return to the beach fragments of casks, bales, and goods from the wreck, including a cask of Hibbert's Celebrated Bottled Porter.  From the bales, rolls of white and red muslin were recovered, allowing all to cover their nakedness.  The porter no doubt enabled some of them, at least for a while to forget where they were.  Tents were also constructed from the cloth for the women and children. Water was soon found, in a stream close by.


The camp was set up on a muddy little plateau above the shore, where a few makeshift bivouacs were rigged up.  Drizzling rain soon brought most of these down.  The officers at first attempted to busy their men with tasks, such as retrieving goods from the beach.  Many of the men however lay stretched out on the mud in the rain; they had lost all hope and courage, and except when they found liquor, were content to die.  Alexander Greig observed that the women bore their hard fate more stoically than the men.


The bad weather continued making life almost impossible. Had it not been for the wreckage swept ashore where they camped, their fate would have been one of slow death.  Amongst the wreckage was a case of instruments and a Congreve rocket, which was a godsend, as it enabled them to light their first fire.  A trunk belonging to Dr McLellan[2] came ashore undamaged with five dozen shirts.  Some of these the good doctor handed out to the passengers.  The remainder he kept, but they were later stolen.


The weather cleared and spirits picked up.  They had food, shelter and a fire.  The main problem was the crew who outnumbered the passengers almost three to one.  They continued to find casks of liquor and spent most of their time, drunk.  During one of the many flare-ups, they threatened to kill and eat the children.  These threats were bought about by Mrs Keys's abusive language.  Knowing Mrs Keys's weakness, the crew made the most of it, bringing screams of terror from the females.  The Captain attempted to restore order, but being so outnumbered, he and his officers had difficulty in maintaining it.  The crew at last left the camp and set up their own further down the beach, taking with them most of the passengers' clothing and food.


Mrs Keys and her family were in a deplorable state: her legs had been cut almost to the bone from the rocks, and with the lack of proper remedies, the sores had become infected, while her long jet black hair, tangled over her face and shoulders to her waist, gave her the appearance of being hardly human.  The maid Peggy and her niece attended to the children, whom Alexander reported as looking perfectly happy and contented.


The quarrels between the women continued on shore, even though their tents were ordered to be set well away from each other.  Poor Mrs Gormby was considered by both Mrs Keys and Mrs Pepper to belong to a class well below them, and they did not have much contact with her.  She led a lonely life; since the incident on the Blenden Hall, she and her husband hardly spoke to each other.


Mrs Keys was heard to say that Mrs Pepper (who was by now pregnant):


            was no better than her servant Peggy.


 to which Mrs Pepper replied:


            behold the sea devil and her little imps.


 Referring to the two naked children at her feet. Peggy and Miss Morton (her niece) kept popping their heads out of the tent, no doubt worried about the children.


A week after the shipwreck a remarkable discovery was made when the ship's cutter was found high and dry and almost undamaged, behind a ridge of rocks.  When the cable had been cut the boat had vanished into the mist, the cutter's crew having abandoned it when they made the shore.  Unfortunately this good find was of no benefit to the group as the cutter was not properly secured and was lost when the island was struck by the worst hurricane of the season.


In times of disaster, the best and the worst, comes out in everybody, and those on Inaccessible Island were no different.  Some of those who would not have been expected to show resourcefulness or kindness, unselfishly helped their fellow passengers.  Some of the officers, however, behaved in a manner unbefitting their rank, refusing to share anything with anybody.  The crew while on board were under the authority of the Captain but disregarded his orders once on shore.    


It was about this time that Alexander Greig began his journal.  Without writing material, he devised a novel way of writing his story.  On board the Blenden Hall there was a large bundle of The Times newspapers and a writing desk and pens, which somehow came ashore in one piece.  With paper on hand, he began to write, with the aid of the blood from the slaughtered penguins, along the margin of the pages.  His journal was later published in 1847, and rewritten by J.G. Lockhart in 1930. [3]


Over the next four months these eighty-two people managed, not only to survive all the hardships the quarrels, and the thieving, but also to thrive on their strange diet of penguins served with celery, sea elephants-tongues, livers, brains, and birds.  Captain Greig was often very sick, and not able to keep control of the men.  This was no Swiss Family Robinson adventure.  Here was a group of people from many different walks of life, thrown together under the harshest conditions, with very little hope of being rescued.


The building of a boat became urgent, as the penguins, after laying their eggs, left the island, and sea elephants also became scarce.  Amongst those who began building boats were the cook and the carpenter and a few other individuals.  They formed into gangs but without proper leadership. There were no real plans. Robert Perris the ship’s carpenter and Leonard Sankaley the boatswain framed a boat out of part of the wreck.  This boat was most promising, as it would hold fourteen persons. 


After some delay the cook and five men sailed away in their clumsy punt boat in an attempt to reach Tristan da Cunha.  They were Joseph Nibbs, Andrew McCullock, M Alester, Joseph McDoughald, William Smith and William Taylor.[4]  They were never seen again. Nine men on the carpenter's boat were the next to try and as they left, Alexander climbed to the top of the mountain, and saw them well on their way to Tristan da Cunha.


At about this time our main character, Stephen White is mentioned in Alexander's journal.  He was a member of the crew, but instead of going off with them further down the beach, he took up lodgings with Mr & Mrs Gormby and another member of the crew James Smith.  He was described as being a turbulent character, who had shown some kindness to Mrs Keys's servant Peggy, giving her his protection and companionship during the shipwreck and later on Tristan da Cunha.


A few days later a feeble cry went up from the camp. Turning their eyes seaward they saw two boats drawing into the island.  These boats were not the makeshift ones that had left the island, but real ones with painted sides. Strange faces looked out at them. They were rescued at last.


The castaways were at first dumb after their three and a half months stay on the island, and could not believe that they were at last to be delivered from the island. A cheer went up as the boatman pulled their boat up on shore. To their relief they saw the carpenter and some of their own people amongst their rescuers. Their rescuers were from the island of Tristan da Cunha and their longboats were loaded with food. The carpenter introduced his Captain to Governor Glass who after the usual enquiries proceeded to tell the Captain the latest news that Napoleon had died on St. Helena.  Next Glass explained that he and seven others were the only inhabitants on Tristan.  As it was late in the day it was decided to wait until the next day to remove the first of the castaways to the island.............................................



[1] Code name Mills

[2] There were two assistant surgeons names on the list in the Hobart Town Gazette 5 July 1823,  John Patch and Robert Siddell.

[3]This may be the part that was added to give the story a little meat on the bone, but then maybe not!

[4] These men were named on the list in the Hobart Town Gazette 5 July 1823.



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