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The Skeleton Closet

The Burning of the Lightning.

An account of the accidental burning of the McKay built clipper "Lightning" at the Geelong Wharf on 31 October 1869 as recorded in The Geelong Advertiser, Monday, 1 November, 1869.


Hardly has the public mind had time to settle down from the shock it received by the intelligence of the loss of that splendid clipper the Victoria Tower, than again it is shaken by the news of the total loss of an equally splendid and still greater favourite, the Lightning. The causes of the two accidents were widely different as were also the claims of the two vessels to public favor.

The Victoria Tower was run ashore on a foggy night and a heavy sea on, water and rocks being her executioners, her only claim to the public favor being that she was an entirly new vessel, said to be remarkably fast and strong, and as such a great addition to our liners. On the other hand the Lightning was moored on a calm moonlit night, in a landlocked bay, safe from any sea, and apparently until a few short minutes before the calamity occured, from any danger whatever. Suddenly, a cry of fire arose, and within a few short hours nothing was to be seen of one of the finest vessels that ever entered Port Phillip Heads but a charred ungainly shell.

For fifteen years did the Lightning plough her native element conveying thousands to these shores, and in less than a day almost everything that can bring her to mind, except perhaps a few happy hours spent aboard, has been obliterated by an element she was never built to encounter. Both the vessels mentioned had valuable cargoes on board, one being just about to conclude her voyage, the other just about to commence one, and certainly we think the shock has been greater in the case of the Lightning, as accidents though often occuring at sea are seldom anticipated in port, besides which she was so well and favourably known by the people of Geelong.

Shortly after two o'clock yesterday morning the deathlike stillness that prevailed in the lower part of the town was broken by the clanging of the bells of the fire brigades. As, however, the wind was blowing off the shore many residing in the uppwer portion of the town never heard the fire-bell, whilst others heard the ringing but attributed it to a false alarm, being unable to see any glare in the town. Thus the news did not become generally known till eleven or twelve o'clock in the morning, and some even then seeing the smoke attributed it to the funnels of the Resolute, which had come down on the previous evening to tow the Lanarkshire out to sea. Those of the firemen however who did hear the alarm, went quickly to the station and at a quarter-past two o'clock No. 1 engine arrived at the wharf, quickly followed by No. 2, and shortly afterwards the Newtown engine.

On arriving at the end of the warf very little flame could at times be seen, but when alongside the ship the fire was bursting out of the fore hatch. Here, it might be stated, blue lights and rockets had been sent up at intervals since the fire was first discovered by the captain of the Aboukir and these had been the means of calling assistance from the Lanarkshire, which was anchored out ready to start on her homeward voyage.

The Lightning was moored on the west side of the wharf, the Aboukir having been towed on Saturday into the opposite berth. In five minutes the firemen were at work, the hose was run aboard, and a stream of water began to pour down on the fire, a hundred such streams however, it is thought would have had the desired effect. At half past two, or perhaps a little later, the ship moved away from the wharf and the hoses broke. A few minutes afterwards she was brought back again to the wharf, and again did the firemen do their utmost, being assisted by the force pump belonging to the vessel, and by the three crews, who hauled water up over the side in scores of buckets. At a quarter past three she was finally hauled away from the wharf into deep water, and an attempt made to scuttle her, the operation being superintended by Captain Jenking of the Aboukir. This, however, signally failed. The fire by this time had become almost unbearable, the flames working their way aft with a fierceness that defies description. Still the volunteer firemen and sailors on board persevered.

As fast as the stevedore's men engaged below could send up the wool, sails, and furniture, etc, they placed them on board the tug Resolute, lying alongside. Captain Williams' boats also rendered material assistance; and so the work continued, the flames gradually driving the men aft. When the moon rose and began to sparkle across the waters, brightening the sides of the vessel, which belched forth lurid flames and dense smoke, the scene as viewed from the wharf was striking in the extreme, and one that will not easily be forgotten by those who saw it.

At half past seven o'clock the Resolute came alongside the wharf from the Lightning, conveying a number of sails, ship's furniture, stores, etc. Captain Nicholson, the harbour master, landed by her and placed himself in communication with Mr Stephen, of Messers. Swanston, Willis, and Stephen, the agents of the ship, and Mr Douglass, the agent for the Cornwall Insurance Company. These gentlemen at once had an interview with Captain Williams of the Lanarkshire, and agreed to pay him twenty-five pounds demurrage if he would allow the Resolute to again go off to the burning ship and save what wool she could. Captain Hayes' lighter was also at the wharf with a load of wool. She quickly discharged and proceeded to the scene of the disaster.

Captain Nicholson's boat conveyed Messrs. Stephen and Douglass on board, and the latter superintended the getting out of wool from the main hatch, where the stevedore's men continued to work with a will; bales were lifted on deck in quick succession, and put into the lighter alongside by willing hands. Seldom, in fact, did we ever see a body of men work with greater determination; amateurs and professionals vied with each other as to who should do the most good, and many of them got rather severely burnt by pieces of lighted canvas falling on the bales they were so anxious to remove.

In a very short time the after hatch and skylight were cut away, and the wool discarded from thence. This work was necessarily slower, the bales having to be hauled up by a tackle. When he had got the work of discharging into full swing Captain Jones, who appeared cool and collected throughout, ordered a number of useless hands on shore and so made room for the most able of the workmen in the space that was getting continually more limited. He also ordered the lanyards of the iron foremast to be cut, and as the fire was raging all around its base it was expected every moment that it would go by the board.

Such, however, was not the case, it stood the intense heat for over an hour and then melting it gave a spasmodic sort of twist, the upper portion coming down with a crash over the side of the vessel and sending up a column of sparks like so many fireworks. The iron mass did not break, the lower part apparently stood in its socket, and bending about five or six feet above the main deck remained in that position throughout the brilliant scene. In its fall it brought down a lot of the top hamper of the other masts with it, and several who had, we understand, previously been cautioned to stand further aft, had a very narrow escape from being smashed to death. As it was, some of the burning canvas materially injured their clothing and uniforms, but it was extinguished before it had done more than scored them. The devouring element then caught hold of the ship's launch and it was soon simply impossible to work at the main hatch, where thanks to the exertions made all the available wool 'tween decks had been sent up.

A retreat was accordingly beat to the after hatch. Not much further work had been done here when the mainmast took fire, and Captain Jones, fearing loss of life, ordered all wool on deck to be thrown overboard, and everybody to leave the ship, as he would be blamed, he said, if any lives were lost. Nearly everybody on board then got on the wool-laden steamer, one or two firemen remaining a few minutes longer to show that they really were salamanders. Most of the wool thrown overboard was scoured wool from the between decks. The bales bobbed about on the waves like so many corks, until they became saturated and began to sink. Most of them were, however, rescued during the day by boats, and brought to shore drenched to the very core. The number of bales saved during the day was between four and five hundred, and it will be satisfactory for our volunteer firemen to know that their services were highly appreciated by Captain Jones, and also by his first mate, Mr Jones, who himself worked very hard indeed.

The Geelong voluntary firemen were under the command of their foreman, Mr Miller, who we believe was one of the "Salamnders", the Newton firemen being directed by Mr Seely. Some very opposite guesses were made as to the origin of the disaster. Two gentlemen from the Lanarkshire a little before one o'clock state that at that hour there was not the least sign of fire or smell of smoke. They, however, met some drunken sailors coming down the wharf singing, but they went on board the Argo barque. Several experienced hands gave it as their opinion that the fire arose from spontaneous combustion, and that the wool had been smouldring for two days; others again mentioned that no matter how wet the wool might have got coming down the country, it had not been long enough on baord the ship to ignite.

With regard to the fire originating the forecastle, it is worthy of mention that the forecastle is on the main deck, that there were no crevices in the looring for any fire to get through, and any fire originating there could, in the opinion of the firemen as well as the sailors, have been easily extinguished by the vessel's own force pump. Some of the firemen state that had the fire broken out in the forecastle, it would be impossible for it to have increased in volume in so short a time without being seen from the shore, and the policeman on the beach states he heard the bell of the ship ring, but did not see any fire until informed that such was the case by a sailor belonging to the Aboukir running up the wharf.

There were four decks forward, and it was the third deck just under the forecastle where the sailors believe the fire broke out. On the fourth deck the beef and pork were kept, whilst underneath this again was the coal hole. In this latter place the mate, as will appear by his statement published below had been at work on the Saturday, and there was no fire there. It is hardly likely fire would have originated amongst beef and pork, and as previously stated, there were no crevices for fire to fall through the floor of the forecastle into the deck where the wool was closely packed just below. Had the fire broken out in the forecastle, the sailors would quickly have discovered it; instead of which the first intimation was given by the boatswain, who, rushing out in his nightshirt, had no time to save his other garments after giving the alarm.

An interesting incident which occured at the commencement of the fire has been related to us. A young sailor named Harry Evans who rushed out on deck when the alarm was given, might have saved his clothes; but instead of this, he bethought that an old townsman of his, also a sailor named John Jones, was a heavy sleeper, and, rushing back, he succeeded in saving his life by bringing him on deck half asleep half awake.

But we must return to the burning wreck, which between 9 and 10 a.m. was standing in the fairway channel deserted by everybody. The wharf was gradually getting crowded with sightseers, who take advantage of every point from whence they could best witness the novel scene. The decks of the Aboukir were packed with a living throng, the top weight causing the vessel to "list" tremendously toward the wharf.

The work of destruction still went on, fire could be seen the whole length of the vessel, and round the main and mizen masts, which seemed to be trying to stick by the old vessel. At a quarter to eleven o'clock there was a cry of "There she goes"; the mizen could stand it no longer, and gave an uneasy lurch. Suddenly down it came, bringing what remained of the mainmast with it, and causing the waters between the ship and the wharf to seethe again. Some of the burning fragements going, it was imagined from the wharf uncomfortably near a little boat, of which there were scores bobbing round the wreck. At eleven o'clock another crash was heard, caused by a large piece of the bulwarks falling over the side.

It was now observed as the cargo was being consumed the fore part of the vessel was gradually lifting, until the scuttle holes from the starboard counter to the main rigging instead of being under water were two or tree feet above. What should be done? was the question; and several volunteer artillerymen were applied to for their guns to fire into the vessel. Captain Isard of the mounted artillery had guns but no ammuntion. Major Heath had guns and ammunition, but unfortunately the gallant major was absent on a cruise in the Haidee, and the junior officers did not care about taking the responsibility.

Eventually Captain Rashleigh was sent for, and in the meantime the captain of the Resolute tried if he could cut the vessel down to the water by means of his tug. The shell however had not burnt thin enough. He succeeded in making two or three large holes about six feet above the waterline, but of course these had no effect on the Lightning, which was now one mass of flames from bows to stern. Captain Jones, Captain Williams, and others had now to content themselves with looking on, the heat being too great to allow of any boat approaching close enough for further scuttling, burning timbers falling occasionally from the top, rendering each work still more dangerous.

At half past twelve a cannon was heard booming, and crash went a thirty-two pound ball against the hull striking it amidships just above the waterline, a splendid shot. Looking round we noticed that the volunteers had got a short thirty-two pound gun in position on the old steamboat wharf opposite Mack's Hotel. Their next shot was anxiously looked for. Boom went the gun again, but this time the ball missed the ship altogether, creating considerable laughter. Firing was continued for some hours, another gun, a long thirty-two pounder, having been placed in position on the Yarra Street wharf; the short gun having been brought round to keep it company.

Under the command of Captain Rashleigh over thirty rounds were fired, and the volunteers completely made up for the miss by repeatedly striking the ill fated vessel just above the waterline. All their efforts were of no avail; the ship as it became lightened rose in the water until the bows, which in Saturday were drawing 20 feet were only drawing 12 feet. The stern was much deeper, being kept down by 200 tons of copper ore and 150 tons of fresh water in tanks. Between the shots Captain Jones, Nicholson and Williams, would occasionally go off to see what effect the fire was having, and our reporter on the last occasion went with them. He found the hull completely riddled on the land side for 20 or 30 feet just above the waterline, and a stream of fire occasionally falling through the holes. The fire was not visible to so great an extent on the outer side, but now and again a ping! ping! caused by the falling of a blazing timber into the water, reminded the boatmen they must be cautious, and an intense roar could be heard inside the hull.

Coming back the harbour and wharf presented a most attractive appearance. Scores of sailing and pulling boats dotted the waters of the bay, whilst the wharf, and decks, and lower rigging of the Aboukir was one vast collection of human faces, a most appropriate background being furnished by the beach, which was patronised by thousands of vistors. Never but on one occasion, the landing of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, has such a gallery been seen at Geelong.

The artillerymen, for want of powder, had to discontinue fireing shortly after three o'clock, but if their reports did nothing else they gave warning to people living in the country, who flocked in to see what was going on, and thus the town was made to present and unusually lively appearance. The fireing was heard out on the beach near Bream Creek, and many visitors at the wreck of the Victoria Tower came from a scene of past to one of present disaster.

At about 4 o'clock Captains Jones, Williams, and Nicholson took a number of ship carpenters to the wreck, and these quickly cut her down to the water's edge in several places. Their efforts, however, did not meet with immediate success, and the only noticeable event that occurred between four and five o'clock was the falling of the figurehead "Pluto", which had held its proud position during the heat of the day. At half past six the scuttlers met with their reward, the hull could be seen visibly sinking and in less than five minutes the water rushed through the holes and over the lower portions of the sides. The hull sank in twenty seven feet of water, and nothing remained to show that the Lightning had exsted but a few burning beams jutting above the placid waters of Corio Bay, In a few hours all was nearly over and the word "home" was sounded by the hundreds who had waited on the wharf to see the last of her. Just as she was going down the Haidee hove in sight filled by a joyous crew who sailed round her, the contrast between the two vessels being very striking.

The Lightning was built by Donald McKay, of Boston, and for years occupied the position of first favourite among the Black Ball Liners. She was 1769 tons registered, and for the last four years was commanded by Captain Jones, under whose command she effected some remarkably quick passages. Although 15 years old, she was on Saturday considered to be as good a ship as ever, having been lately furnished with new decks, caulked, coppered, and fitted with 1500 turnels along her bilge. On Saturday she had 4300 bales on board, 3000 of these being greasy wool; also 200 tons of copper ore, a quantity of tallow, and 35 casks of colonial wine, the latter being, we believe, some of Dr. Hope's Hermitage. Between four and five hundred bales were saved yesterday, and it is believed that all the wool in the lower hold, nearly 2000 bales will also be got out. The tallow was not burnt, and the copper, and let us hope, the colonial wine will be recovered.

Most of the cargo was, we believe fully insured. It was stated that Mr Haworth was a loser of 4000 pounds, but this, like many other idle rumours set about is, we have every reason to believe a false statement. The Lightning belongs to Mr Harrison of Liverpool, who also owns the Champion of the Seas and the Donald McKay. It is doubtful whether he was insured. During the day, we might mention five out of seven boats were brought to shore, and the total loss may be estimated, supposing the wool in the lower hold etc. to be saved, at close upon 70,000 pounds.

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