'Shipwreck Survivors Caught on Camera' - The Wreck of the SS London by Simon Wills
What motivates an author to write a book? Well, in my case it was an old photograph. I bought it in a junk shop for a few pounds, simply because I liked it. It’s dated 1866, and shows three very stern-faced Victorian gentlemen staring into the lens. The men in question seem unremarkable, but they were the only passengers to survive the sinking of the SS London in January 1866. The year 2016 therefore marked the 150th anniversary of the ship’s loss.
This was once a notorious shipwreck, as famous in its day as the Titanic or the Lusitania. The SS London was a luxury liner on only its third trip to Melbourne, transporting British emigrants and carrying Australian citizens back home. When it sank, the initial reaction was incredulity; then two nations fell into mourning.
I was intrigued by the photograph, but my interest was further piqued by the find of another ‘artefact’ connected with this wreck only a few weeks later. Wedged into an old encyclopedia and acting as a bookmark was a slip of paper carrying the autograph of one John King, an able seaman who escaped the sinking of the SS London. The text accompanying the autograph explains that he was the hero of the shipwreck and ensured the safety of other survivors. Interestingly, he’d been wrecked twice before.
I now set about researching the loss of the SS London in earnest. It was a difficult task because the wreck received such intense and prolonged media coverage that there were acres of newspaper coverage to wade through. My task was further complicated by the fact that original archive materials that I needed to see were distributed all around the globe – from Australia to Canada to New Zealand to London.
I am not superstitious, but it would be easy to believe that someone guided me towards finding the many other artefacts that I stumbled upon over the course of a decade. I found a copy of the ship’s original sailing brochure – an almost impossibly rare item and it’s probably the only one left in existence – and I also managed to get hold of contemporary books about the wreck, official reports and even sermons. I was fortunate enough to meet some descendents of one of the survivors as well.
Yet two artefacts stand out for me. The first is a ceramic mug bearing a picture of the ship and the legend ‘The Unfortunate London’. This intrigues me because it says so much about the Victorian attitude to death. These days, it would be considered enormously distasteful to produce a commemorative mug after, say, a plane crash or a motorway pile up. But the Victorians regarded death differently. It was important for them to honour and remember significant life events – even tragedies like the sinking of the SS London.
The other artefact that I found, by enormous good luck, was a small model of the SS London made by one of the survivors: fifteen-year-old midshipman, Walter Edwards. It’s more of a diorama than a conventional ship model of the kind we often see in museums. Yet it has a presence and a feeling of movement that I like. I imagine that the making of it was perhaps some kind of ‘therapy’ for poor Walter, who witnessed some appalling scenes as the ship went down. To me it is beautiful, but it also had practical value during my investigation because no contemporary ship-plans for the SS London survive. So the next best thing was a model built by someone who actually worked on the vessel.
None of the items I’ve managed to find have any real monetary worth. Yet putting them together with contemporary information sources has enabled me to tell the tale of the loss of the SS London. It’s a dramatic tale; a tragedy; but with twists and turns that you wouldn’t believe, and it’s always a very human story. A tale worth telling and I hope those who died would think I had done it justice.
Simon Wills new book The Wreck of the SS London is available for purchase now.