7,000 tons? That’s a big ship. What’s more, she’s a new ship. And the icing on the cake, so to speak? She’s a top of the range ship. On her second voyage, built in Hull just this summer, with four masts and four boilers. Plenty of pumps, water-tight bulkheads and so forth. What could possibly go wrong?
Although the cargo includes church ornaments, sloe gin and golf balls its main component is the 60 passengers, all travelling first class. There is a Mr Kipling - although he is not the Mr Kipling, author and poet - an opera singer (who will live to sing another day), and the necessary maids and valets. In their service, ninety crew - and seven men whose sole responsibility is to mind the livestock, given deckspace on the condition that they provide meaty dinners en route to America which, for almost all of those on board, is home. Some of the passengers have noticed a certain laxity among the crew; “smoking… at all hours”. But at this moment, the passengers are busy tucking into the first course of their evening meal: soup, or fish. Meet the Atlantic Transport Company’s Mohegan, just completing the first full day of her voyage out from Tilbury on the open sea, making good progress in fine weather, and currently ten miles south of Falmouth.
S.S. Mohecan (photographer unknown, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10943177)
Or so Captain Griffith and his officers believe. In fact, as Coverack coastguard Charles May is already aware, the huge vessel with its brilliant electrically-powered lights is heading straight for the Lizard – and already dangerously close to the Outer Manacles rocks, south-east of Porthoustock. Charles May fires a rocket, lights blue flares. And up the coast at Porthoustock another observant man, lifeboat coxswain James Hill, has already called out his crew.
The accounts of the ship’s fate – the slight jarring motion, the order to stop engines, the weight of inrushing water, the drenched crewmen scrambling up from the flooded compartments below deck – will, for early 21st century readers, call to mind sequences from the 1997 blockbuster film about the loss of another vessel bound for America, 14 years later in 1912. Thus the Mohegan, her bright lights extinguished forever, sinks within ten minutes. There is not even time to launch all the lifeboats. The water is “swarming with men, women and children… struggling with all their failing strength against the overpowering forces of the relentless deep”. There are rescues, and also of course deaths, including children. One survivor has “to literally swim through shrieking, screaming, half-demented, and half-dead human beings”. He sees a line of passengers on the side of the ship – one great wave, and they are gone. “Heart-rending Scenes” headlines in the Cornishman will announce next week. “Pathetic Incidents”. “Whole Family Blotted Out”. By morning 105 people, more than two thirds of those on board, will have lost their lives.
Neither Captain Griffith nor any of the officers will be available to tell their tale, and so there is mystery thrown into the mix along with drama and pathos: why was the ship taking such a drastically wrong course? Why did nobody on the bridge or the forecastle head notice the rocks; notice the landmass ahead: already far, far too close? “The conduct of both officers and men”, the Cornish Telegraph will report, “was all that we expect the conduct of Anglo-Saxons in a tight place to be”, with none of the “brutish panic” displayed by foreigners in similar circumstances. But there will always be rumours. Was the Captain drunk, or (as will be implied) suicidally depressed? Did he actually escape, a figure in evening dress seen running away up the beach, as some accounts suggest? Are these new electric lights an acceptable alternative to trusty oil lamps? And is the Lizard peninsula no more than a huge magnet, fatal to modern shipping?
Mohegan – the Cornish ‘Titanic’, Chris Holwill, 2013. Pages 286-288 deal with the rumour of Captain Griffith’s survival and a possible alternative ending for him. Sources differ even as to the spelling of his name, sometimes given as “Griffiths”.
Cornish Telegraph Thursday 20th October 1898, pages 3 and 4, with further detail on other pages
Cornishman Thursday 20th October 1898, page 6, with further detail on other pages
Cornish Shipwrecks vol. 1, the South Coast, Richard Larn and Clive Carter, 1971 edition pages 87-94
Keen on poetry? Then on no account follow this link