No.36 The Charlwood and the Duke of Buccleuch

Through A Glass Darkly

Tomorrow marks the 112th anniversary of the wreck of the Charlwood, an English barque which was struck amidships and cut virtually in two to founder off the Eddystone while en route from Antwerp for Valparaiso, Chile, with what was described in contemporary sources as a ‘general cargo.’

In an age which was increasingly dominated by steam, iron barques such as the Charlwood were able to hold their own on an ultra long-distance route from Europe to the Pacific coast of Chile where Valparaiso lies, negotiating Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. They had one great advantage over the steamers – no need to put in for bunker coal in vast, empty oceans. It might be thought that there would be access to coal at calling points en route on the Atlantic coasts of South America, but there was a difficulty getting coal from the hinterland of South America to the ports – this is put into context by the fact that 10 out of the 14 wrecks recorded as lost in English waters with the destination of Valparaiso had a cargo of coal from the coalfields of Durham, the Welsh valleys, or the Ruhr. Coal was generally a popular import from Europe for various South American ports in the 19th and early 20th centuries. [Indeed, the Zoodochos mentioned in Wreck of the Week 29 was exporting coal to Buenos Aires.]

No wonder, then, that the cargo of the Charlwood was described as ‘general’. Yet she is a popular dive and her cargo is regularly seen to comprise glassware, including numerous wine and sherry glasses and decanters – so much so that she rejoices in the alternative sobriquet of the ‘Glass Wreck’. Her cargo suggests a demand for prestige goods from Europe and an appropriate destination in a country now one of the world’s largest wine exporters.

She has an almost contemporary parallel: only two years previously, in 1889, the Duke of Buccleuch also sank after a collision amidships with a significant cargo of glass- and chinaware, again on a long-distance route from Antwerp, this time to Calcutta. The Times, reporting on the incident, revealed that her ‘general cargo’ included iron nails and hardware. She is unusual in that her cargo, bound for a key outpost of the British Empire, originated in a non-British port – although she was, of course, a British ship. It was not until 1953 – after Indian independence – that another wreck in English waters bound to Calcutta began her voyage outside Britain, and this time it was a Swedish vessel.

Wrecks such as these are tangible evidence of the ebb and flow of international trade throughout time.

On another note: Does anyone have any ‘information challenges’ they would like to send me for inclusion in a future WOTW? Keep them coming!

Wreck of the Week No.29: The Supposed Svodohy

It’s All Greek to Me

Welcome back to WOTW following a little summer sabbatical. I trust you are all enjoying the weather!

Profiling a group of wrecks recently, I spotted one called the Svodohy, said to be a Greek brig lost off Lundy in 1883. The name didn’t seem at all Greek to me, but was reported as such in the Board of Trade Casualty Returns (the Victorian annual statistics for shipwrecks). I smelt a rat and called up 19th Century British Newspapers Online (most local libraries subscribe, a hugely useful resource).

Contemporary newspapers revealed various versions of her name, together with equally various versions of her home port, and likewise the master’s name varied from the BOT report. The one thing that they all said, however, was that she was Greek. Usually when this sort of thing happens, it’s a sure sign that foreign lettering, whether on the ship’s side, or as entered by the master in official records, hasn’t been read properly, in this case the Greek alphabet. The most convincing version came from her departure port at Cardiff where they would surely have had access to the port records: hence this report called her Zoodochos (Pigi). I realised that in Greek letters it must have read, probably all in lower case, ζωoδοχος; most likely probably if painted cursively it bore an even closer resemblance to Svodohy, with, for example, the unfamiliar final letter ‘s’ looking like a loose ‘y’. Zoodochos Pigi is one of the epithets of the Theotokos (Mother of God) in Greek Orthodoxy, so this seems on the right track, as, of course, saints’ names have historically always been very popular for ships.

There is a similar case with a 1946 Greek vessel charted as the OHPA, and mysteriously untraced, which, of course, was easily traced once Greek ΘΗΡΑ was transliterated as Thira, unlocking access to further references in the contemporary press..

I find both errors slightly odd during a period when far more people learnt Greek at school than they do now, even if they promptly forgot it as soon as they left . . . !

Such access to a Classical education had its effects on ship names at an earlier date in England. An 1808 wreck rejoiced in the pseudo-learned Greek name of Chrononhotonthologos. 

In fact, it is a name from the English-speaking world, inspired by ‘the most tragical tragedy that ever was tragediz’d’ by Henry Carey in 1734, republished as one of ‘the most esteemed farces on the English stage’ in 1786. It was performed as far afield as Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1818, so the ship operated during the currency of the play. Why the owner named his ship thus is anyone’s guess, and there’s probably a very good story here we know nothing about.

At least it was certainly more distinctive than your average Betsey and probably jumped off the page in arrivals and departures lists, which was always good news for people looking for ‘when their ship came in’.