From Start to Netley Abbey 

The Last Voyage of Netley Abbey


When Netley Abbey left Cardiff in August 1899 her crew and passenger thought they were going to Krondstatt with a cargo of coal. Instead they returned to Cardiff via Portsmouth with a story to tell but no papers or posessions.


The Netley Abbey was a single screw, iron steam collier listed in Lloyds Register at 1620 gross tons, 1,012 net tons. At the time of her demise she was 21 years old.


A lengthy report of the subsequent Court Martial appeared in The Times on the 23 August 1899, where Commander Fane-Hervey asserted that Netley Abbey had no water tight compartments, other newspaper reports following this claimed she was constructed without collision bulkheads or watertight compartment.


Netley Abbey was owned by Pyman, Watson, and Co., of Cardiff, however, no search has been made for company records where further research may provide additional details on Netley Abbey, her voyages and crew. She had been in the command of Captain G.M. Lewis for only 4 days at the time of the collision; however Captain Lewis had served on Netley Abbey for sixteen months. She had a total crew of twenty five officers and men and one passenger.


At 6 a.m. on Thursday morning Netley Abbey left Cardiff bound for Krondstadt taking a cargo of 2,300 tons of Welsh coal for the Russian Government. All apparently went well and Netley Abbey had been going full speed at around 8 ½ to 9 knots until 4 p.m. on Friday when the vessel ran into a dense fog bank approximately 8 miles E by S (101¼°) from the Shambles lightship. On entering the fog at 4.05p.m., Captain Lewis reported that he eased Netley Abbey’s engines to dead slow, reducing the speed to four knots.


At 4.15 p.m. he reported hearing a siren on his port bow and as the sound seemed to draw nearer, he stopped the engines to locate the sound. In an interview with a reporter from Hampshire Telegraph & Naval Chronicle, he said ‘We were not going at all, we had stopped’ and he added, ‘I was navigating my ship according to the rule of the Board of Trade. It is a terrible affair’. This was not the view of all observers at the time because The Army & Navy Gazette, reporting on the Court Martial claimed that “the collier was not under control at the time of the collision” and that “it cannot be contended that a vessel moving through the water at the rate of a mile an hour is complying with this regulation.” Netley Abbey however lay across the track of the vessels passing up and down the Channel off St. Alban's Head and did not sound her siren in accordance with regulations.


The Second Officer had been relieved at 4.00 p.m. by the Chief Officer, Mr. Robert Henry Kid, who reported at the Court martial that the collier was just slightly answering her helm, and he thought that that was the moderate speed required by the Board of Trade regulations. The helmsman, Alfred Anderson, A.B., was steering E ¾ S (@ 098.5° M) but saw nothing of the other vessel until after the collision. At that time they were four or five minutes from disaster, unaware that HMS Surprise was about to loom out of the fog and crash into her port side.


The arrival of HMS Surprise

Earlier that day HMS Surprise had left Portsmouth to resume her duties with the Mediterranean squadron. HMS Surprise was a steel dispatch boat of 1,650 tons displacement, 2,000 horsepower engines and a speed of 18 knots. She had returned home with Admiral Sir J.W. Hopkins, giving up the command of the Mediterranean fleet, and was on her return journey to Malta when the collision occurred. She was commanded by Commander Frederick William Fane-Hervey.


HMS Surprise cleared the Needles Channel in fine weather at about 14.00 hrs Friday afternoon and began steaming at a good rate down the channel but shortly afterwards ran into fog that was reported to be so dense, it was impossible to see half the ship's length ahead. There was a south-westerly breeze with fog, and a 1½ knot tide against the ship which was going at 9½ knots by the log, but 8 knots over the ground. At the Court martial, Commander Fane-Hervey, reading his defence, considered the speed moderate and proper for a ship of her class, providing her best manoeuvring power and stated that with the smooth sea and little wind, was HMS Surprise’s handiest turning speed.


Sub-Lieutenant Woodmartin had been on watch but was relieved by the Lieutenant George P. Ross at 16.00 hrs. When the fog descended the hands were drilled at collision quarters and abandoning ship; then they were then dispersed to supper, and Sub-Lieut. Woodmartin reported going to the wardroom; at that time the alarm sounded, a matter of seconds prior to the collision.


Commander Fane-Hervey was on the bridge of HMS Surprise and had heard a whistle from another ship but reported that it did not seem to be close. He was certain that the other vessel was signalling that she was underway and thought he would have ample time to get clear of her, should she come into sight. A good watch was reportedly kept and HMS Surprise’s siren was regularly sounded.


At about 16.25 hrs the outline of a large steamer suddenly loomed up some 150 or 200 yards right ahead of HMS Surprise. Commander Fane-Hervey instantly ordered the engines astern, and the helm was put hard over to port (altering course to starboard) in the hope that if the other vessel took a similar precaution a collision would be avoided. However, at the speed she was going the collision was inevitable and only a few seconds away.

The Collision 

When HMS Surprise was first seen from on board Netley Abbey, they were only two ships lengths apart. Captain Lewis on board Netley Abbey rang to the engine room “full speed ahead” and gave one long blast with his whistle, at the same time porting his helm (altering course to starboard). When he saw that a collision was unavoidable he ordered the engine to stop. Mr. G.H. Pogden, Second Officer of Netley Abbey, reported being in his cabin on the upper deck and saw a vessel with swan bows coming right down on where he was standing. Anticipating the collision, he ran across to the starboard side - he had been standing just where the ship was struck.


Netley Abbey was struck at right angles almost amidships on the port side and with such velocity that HMS Surprise went nearly through the centre of the ship and cargo, almost cutting her in two. The bows of HMS Surprise were wedged in the Netley Abbey and locked the two ships together for about ten minutes. Some of Netley Abbey’s men stated that the blow of the collision was so severe that she cut right through the centre of the ship, which was in two halves as she settled down.


As soon as the collision occurred the engines of HMS Surprise were stopped and the two ships remained locked together for several minutes. Captain Lewis mustered his crew, directing them to save themselves by climbing over the bows of HMS Surprise. He went to and from HMS Surprise several times ensuring that all the crew were saved, and hoping to recover some of the ship’s papers, but he reported water was already coming in his cabin door, and he had time to save only an old coat. His crew was immediately engaged to assist in fixing the collision mats to HMS Surprise.


The Naval & Military Record reported details of damage sustained to HMS Surprise and speculated she was saved from more serious damage because Netley Abbey “appears to have been a ‘well ship’ rising high out of the water fore and aft and lying low amidships”. The forecastle and above are reported to have sustained little more than a few scratches, however below that there was extensive and serious damage. A hole was torn right through her forepeak from port to starboard reportedly large enough to allow a man to crawl in at the port side and out at the starboard, while the plating and framing before and aft of the hole was torn and twisted. Immediately above this the bows were badly strained. The shock appears to have affected the whole of the framework of the hull under the water. It was later found that from the forepeak right down to the keel, rivets had parted and plates were bent. She was leaking from the water line downwards in the four compartments. So severe was the shock that the caulking in the after seams was reported to have been shaken out.


Once the crew of Netley Abbey were safely aboard, HMS Surprise went astern and gradually tore herself clear of the wreckage; Netley Abbey sank at 16.49, in all, less than 30 minutes after the collision. With the holes filled as far as possible, the forward bulkhead shored up and with pumps running, HMS Surprise proceeded cautiously back to Spithead where she anchored at midnight. The bows were full of water and she was down 18 inches at the head. Soon after daylight the dispatch vessel was taken into the harbour and subsequently docked.


On Saturday the crew of Netley Abbey was placed in the charge of Mr. T. H. Williams, the manager of the Royal Sailors Home, who was Hon. Secretary of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society. Later in the day they were sent to their homes in the west of England.


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