Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 20 - 1857 - A Good Man Gets his Chance - London's Odours

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Burning of s.s. Sarah Sands - Captain Castle - P.s. Nyanza - At Sunderland - Cleopatra's Needle - Atlantic cable, first attempt - Chinese and Persian Wars - General Tom Thumb - London, S. - Insanitary London - Foulness of Thames and Serpentine - Chloride of Lime.

ONE of the most outstanding recollections of the Mutiny is the burning of the troop-ship Sarah Sands and the gallant conduct of all concerned - captain, officers, crew and troops. It was an affair my mother was especially enthusiastic about. The Sarah Sands was an iron merchant screw-steamer of about 2,000 tons register, usually trading between England and America, but chartered by the East India Company to carry troops to India in the Mutiny emergency. She left Portsmouth for Calcutta August 16th, 1857, commanded by Captain J. S. Castle, and carrying 306 rank and file of the 54th Regiment, 8 women and 7 children, besides a number of lady relatives of the officers.
    On November 11th at 3 p.m. when 400 miles from Mauritius, during a heavy gale, fire was discovered in a store on the after orlop deck. The soldiers made gallant efforts to clear the magazine, and, although several were overcome by fumes, ultimately succeeded in getting out all but two barrels of powder. They also relieved the sailors by climbing aloft and extinguishing fires that continually caught the main rigging. The ladies, women and children were put into boats and three rafts were prepared.
    All efforts to extinguish the fire were unavailing, but it was confined to the after part of the hull by the fortunate staunchness of a bulkhead which, continually kept wet on one side by volunteers, never got weak enough to yield to [-169-] the flames raging on the other. All abaft this bulkhead was destroyed, including the mizzen rigging, but the ship being kept nose to wind the fire swept sternwards. Had the vessel paid off all would have been involved. About 2 a. m. next day the fire began to diminish through want of material, and by daylight was got under control.
    But the position was deplorable. The upper plates of the hull abaft were red hot and holed by the explosion of the gunpowder not removed; she was burnt out down to the propeller-shaft, and there were fifteen feet of water in the hold. Besides, the gale continued and the steamer rolled desperately, with water-tanks loose and dashing about in the hull. The men, already exhausted, were put to pumping and baling, and as soon as the plates were sufficiently cool two hawsers were got round the ship aft to keep the shell together. The boats were recalled, and by the 13th the chief leaks had been stopped and steerage way got on the vessel, which had drifted as far as 13 12' South. She passed between the pier-heads at Mauritius on November 21st under sail and at the rate of 1 knot an hour. There her arrival and miraculous escape caused great excitement.
    .Everybody, crew and soldiers, had behaved with devoted intrepidity, but the chief merit was unanimously accorded to Captain Castle, whose unfailing resource in every succeeding difficulty had been the admiration of all and whose example had encouraged both crew and passengers in circumstances that would have daunted all but the stoutest hearts. The behaviour of the troops equalled that of the historic heroes of the Birkenhead* (*Paddle-wheel troop-ship Birkenhead ran on a rock off Danger Point, Algoa Bay, February 27th, 1852, and was totally wrecked with great loss of life.); like them the 54th fell in at the bugle-call, and, like them, would have sunk in their ranks had no happier issue been possible. Captain Castle became a national hero for a time, and we were glad to know that the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company had offered him a command in their fleet of mail steamers - an unparalleled compliment to an outsider, the [-170-] master of a mere merchant steamer - I had almost written tramp, but the expression was not known in those days.
    In May 1869, I went to India via Egypt and at Marseilles boarded the P. and O. steamer Nyanza of some 2,500 tons, one of the finest of the fleet and moreover the last paddle-wheel ship built for that company. In after-years she was converted to a screw and plied between Cape Town and Durban. No sooner were we at sea than I discovered that our commander was Captain Castle, of Sarah Sands fame. Never had I been so close to a hero before - and here was one of my own pet heroes - possessor of the hall-mark of my mother's especial approval! During the passage to Alexandria no opportunity occurred for conversation, and I was too junior and too bashful to presume to seek one. But I often saw him and noted that he was tall, upright, brisk and quite good-looking. Not a Romeo, perhaps, but for a hero - I saw others later in life - quite passable. It was pleasant to hear the good opinions of him that prevailed on board.
    Some forty years later I was spending several days in Sunderland, at the Grand Hotel, and, coming in one evening towards bed-time, found the sole occupant of the coffee-room was a pleasant-looking elderly gentleman. We got into conversation, and it transpired that he was a retired master mariner and was acting as assessor in a Board of Trade wreck enquiry, then proceeding in the town. So naturally we talked of ships and wrecks. He told me of a salvage case he had once been interested in. Starting to salve a steamer wrecked in an inlet of Newfoundland, it was found that she was lying embedded right on the top of another previously sunk, straightly stem to stem and stern to stern.
    I thought that pretty salt and deserving of a true story in return, so I told him how I had once been on a British India Navigation Company's steamer in the Persian Gulf when a fire started in the coal-bunkers and made some plates red-hot, although the captain, to avoid possible panic, swore by Davy Jones that the slight haze and thicker smell that hung about came from a hot bearing. He hadn't observed [-171-] that I was standing with my hands projecting over the rail, in which position they could feel the radiation from the hot plates below with quite convincing distinctness. We steamed into Bushire roads at sunset, just as one of Her Majesty's gunboats, the name of which I forget, lowered her flag and the marine sentry on the bridge fired off his rifle.
    They got the fire under, and when going down the gangway next morning I noticed some of the iron plates discoloured and brown. I shouted to the captain, "That was a devil of a hot bearing of yours, captain, yesterday; it's eaten the paint quite off most of the ship's side!" My companion smiled at this, and I went on to say that the incident reminded me a little of the Sarah Sands, which he would no doubt recollect. He nodded.
    Then I spoke of Captain Castle and his achievement, and how I had once sailed with that gallant seaman from Marseilles to Alexandria. "In what year was that?" I told him, mentioning also the name of the ship and other particulars. While I was speaking he had been fingering his watch-chain, and when I had done handed me a fine gold timepiece with the case open. I took it and read an inscription inside, in substance: "Presented to Captain Castle of the s.s. Sarah Sands by the officers and other passengers whose lives he preserved by his skill, courage and devotion, etc., etc." Whereupon we both stood up and without hesitation shook hands most cordially.
    "Yes," he said, "we must have been fellow-voyagers, for it was the only trip I ever made on the Nyanza. My ship was the Masillia, but coming from Alexandria to Marseilles she broke her paddle-shaft in the Straits of Messina. I brought her in with one wheel, but as she was unable to make the return trip for which she was booked I was given the Nyanza, then preparing to start for Southampton for overhaul. On getting back to Marseilles I gave her up and was never aboard her afterwards."
    I had noticed on my voyage to Alexandria a great pile of bricks on the forward deck, tarpaulined over, and, wondering at the apparent incongruity of sending bricks to the land [-172-] of the Pharaohs, had asked one of the officers, "Is there no straw in Egypt?" "Oh," he replied, "the company is building an extension to one of its sheds at Alexandria, and these are for it." So I thought I would test Captain Castle's memory by enquiring whether he recollected any unusual deck cargo on the Nyanza. But he could not, not even when I had explained.
    We spliced the main-brace before retiring and parted next morning, he saying that if ever I came to Sidcup, where he lived, I was to be sure to look him up. But the chance did not come, and not many years afterwards I heard that he had at last struck to the grim enemy he had so gallantly defied and out-manoeuvred in the Indian Ocean fifty-four years before.
    The testimonial Captain Castle showed me was not the only one he received. The Admiralty declined to grant any reward for fear of setting a precedent, although the Times urged that the episode of the Sarah Sands "would form an epoch in the naval annals of any other nation." So some 450 influential persons banded themselves together and raised a very handsome testimonial, the particulars of which I do not remember, and this was presented in 1859.
    Amongst the interesting things I found in the land of Egypt when the Nyanza made her port was Cleopatra's Needle lying prone on the sands at Alexandria. I walked along the granite shaft and beard how it had been presented to the British Government and by them left there to take pot luck. In after-years I came across it again, this time when moored in its special tubular ship, after its very adventurous voyage, off St. Thomas's Hospital, where it was awaiting completion of the preparations to erect it on the Thames Embankment.
    In August 1857, the first attempt to lay an Atlantic telegraph was made, but the cable broke in two miles of water after 335 knots had been paid out. Two ships were engaged-H.M.S. Agamemnon and the U.S. screw corvette Niagara, and it was the latter which met with the disaster that compelled postponement of the work for a year. This Niagara has already been referred to as the largest ship [-173-] afloat while the Great Eastern was still on the stocks. Quite new, she was still without armament when she came to the Thames to ship cable, and was visited at Tilbury by many thousands of curious sight-seers. It was noted in the press that close by was lying the famous American yacht America, winner of the Cup so much and vainly yearned for by Sir Thomas Lipton in after-years, in a dreadful condition from dry-rot. She must have been successfully repaired, however, as I believe she was still afloat quite recently. At all events, there has been no dry-rot about her fame.
    We had war with China in 1857-8, but it does not stand out in my memory. I do remember papa reading out the account of our attack on the Taku forts and the assertion of some of the storming party that they heard orders to the defenders given in Russian, the inference being that the Muscovites were bearing in mind what we had done for them in the Crimea and were endeavouring to get some of their own back. We felt very indignant, not considering such conduct in the least sportsmanlike. In one sense the Chinese War was lucky, as troops on their way to it were intercepted and diverted to India with very valuable results.
    There was also the small war with Persia in 1856 and 1857, which was over just in time for the Indian Mutiny. It did not impress me forcibly then, but some thirteen years later I visited both Bushire and Mahommerah, near which the chief fighting had taken place, and then heard a great many yarns about it. The Persians, by their own reckoning, were very gallant warriors indeed, and it was lucky for the British that they left off when they did.
    The tiny American dwarf known as General Tom Thumb made his first visit to England this year, and was much talked about. We became familiar with his history and pictures, but never actually saw him.
    In 1857, it is interesting to recall, London had a South postal division, which comprised Lambeth, Walworth, Clapham, Brixton, Tooting, Croydon and Sutton. As late as 1904, when surveying for the southern approaches of my proposed new bridge and County Hall, I noticed that some [-174-] of the turnings out of Stamford Street - including Coin Street - had S. still in evidence after the names painted on the walls. Later the S. division was abolished and divided between South-East and South-Western districts.
    The insanitary condition of London, the foulness of the Thames, Serpentine and other water-courses and the consequent danger of cholera engaged newspaper writers' attention a good deal this year, and the responsible authorities were urged on to reckless investment in the newly discovered disinfectant, chloride of lime. I remember great tubs of it being mixed and allowed to empty slowly into a black sewer-like stream that meandered, openly and unashamed, between the Old Kent Road and the Bricklayers' Arms Branch of the South-Eastern Railway; and I heard that Father Thames and his various tributaries were being treated in the same manner. In those days and for long afterwards mud-banks in the river exposed at low water swarmed with bright red worms, which lent quite a charming tint to the landscape, especially when the sun shone on them. The boys called them blood-worms, and it was no misnomer.
    The state of the Serpentine and of the lake in St. James's Park, practically under the Queen's windows, was especially commented upon. Animalcules caught in them - to judge by published illustrations - assumed almost the bigness of crocodiles and certainly looked a great deal fiercer.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924