One of the most famous and tragic of shipwrecks to ever befall the islands was that of the SS Schiller.
The Isles of Scilly are famous all around the world for the number of shipwrecks that have occurred in the waters around the islands. The ocean floor around Scilly is littered with the decaying remains of ships, in places three wrecks deep. However the story of the SS Schiller is one that still resonates even today, some 150 years later.
The SS Schiller
The Schiller was one of the largest vessels of her time. Weighing in at 3421 tonnes she plied her trade as a long distance ocean liner. She was launched in 1873, and carried passengers back and forth between Hamburg and New York.
She was 380 feet long, with a 40 foot beam, and she was powered by a combination of steam and sail, with two masts, fore and aft and two funnels in the centre. Owned by the German Transatlantic Steam Navigation Line, she successfully sailed across the atlantic for two years.
She carried 254 passengers, and was crewed by 118 men. The majority of whom were German.
The SS Schiller’s last voyage
On the 27th April 1875 the SS Schiller set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey in fine weather. She carried a full complement of crew, and every passenger berth was full. She also carried a large cargo of sewing machines, mailbags destined for Australia, and gold coins worth somewhere in the region of £6,000,000 in today’s money.
The ship was heading for Hamburg, with scheduled stops in Plymouth, and Cherbourg along the way.
After several day’s sailing in pleasant conditions the weather began to change.
By May 4th fog had become a major issue. Unbeknownst to anyone on board she had begun to go off course. By the 7th of May the fog had become so thick it was said you could not see one mast from the other. But the seas had become much more turbulent, with large waves rocking the ship making it even harder to navigate effectively.
On the evening of the 7th the Captain; George Thomas ordered the sails taken in and the engine cut to half speed. He knew he must be approaching Scilly, and was understandably cautious.
The Last Night of the SS Schiller
As night began to fall the crew asked for volunteers to come on deck to help try to spot the Bishop’s Rock lighthouse through the fog. However due to the earlier inadvertent change in course the majority of people were looking on the starboard side where the lighthouse should have been. In fact the lighthouse was some distance to port.
Rather than being in open water as the Captain and crew believed, the SS Schiller was steaming directly into the Western Rocks.
At approximately 10pm on the 7th May 1875, with visibility almost non-existant, and seas running high, the SS Schiller ran aground on the rocks of the Retarrier Ledge.
The ship sustained a large amount of damage, but not enough to sink her. The Captain reacted instantly and reversed the engines at full power to refloat the ship. However the seas were rapidly growing rougher. As she came free of the reef a series of freak waves dashed her side on against the rocks.
This fatally injured the vessel causing her to list dangerously. It also caused the majority of the lanterns to be extinguished. More importantly it destroyed all of the lifeboats on one side of the ship.
There was pandemonium on board as passengers fought to get into the remaining lifeboats. But before any could be launched the stormy seas swept one of the funnels of the ship clean off, causing it to crash directly on to the assembled lifeboats killing many passengers.
Three boats managed to be launched, one sank immediately due to never having been effectively maintained. Two made it away with twenty six men, and one woman on board.
The Rescue That Never Came
The captain attempted to restore order with his pistol, and eventually did so. Fierce waves were constantly crashing over the deck so the crew helped the women and children aboard to the relative shelter of the deckhouse. This was an ill fated attempt to keep them safe.
It was not to be.
The biggest wave yet ripped the roof clean from the deckhouse. In one brief moment it swept all the passengers inside to their deaths.
In times of distress the recognized method of signaling the need for help was to fire the signal gun on a ship. But ships passing through the waters around Scilly had taken to firing their gun to mark a successful navigation of the dangerous waters. Due to this no help was sent.
The broken hulk continued to be battered by the sea through the night. One by one the surviving members of the passengers and crew were swept away.
Desparate to survive, passengers climbed up into the rigging, sometimes holding on to their own children. At one point the fog cleared briefly. it is said that the crew of the Bishop’s Rock Lighthouse were able to briefly see the destruction. But the fog soon settled again leaving them no way to help.
As dawn began to rise the pounding of the waves took its toll on the wreckage. Both masts collapsed into the water, taking most of the remaining survivors with them.
At first light it became clear a ship had come to grief on the rocks, and so help was sent. The pilot gig from St Agnes “The O and M” was the first on the scene and rescued five survivors before returning to the island. Vessels from all across the area came to help, but to little avail.
Out of a passenger manifest of 254 men, women, and children, and a crew of 118, only 37 people survived.
Over 100 bodies were recovered, and buried in the churchyard in Old Town on St Mary’s. The islanders did their best to treat the dead with as much dignity as possible, despite the overwhelming numbers. Wherever possible they were identified and their graves marked. However vast numbers of the dead were never recovered.
The German government expressed their gratitude to the islanders for the care they had taken. In Germany it became almost legendary. To the point where some 60 years later orders were issued during WWII not to attack the islands in any way.
The story of the SS Schiller is as famous in Germany as the Titanic is in the UK, and for many of the same reasons. Both ships were exceedingly large, and almost brand new. Both ships went down in circumstances that could and should have been avoided. And both ships lost far more lives than they should have due to the negligence of the crew.
The islands are still famous in Germany. A recent television documentary featuring the SS Schiller has caused a resurgence in visitors to the Isles of Scilly from Germany.
The next time you visit St Agnes, take a moment to look out across the Western Rocks, and remember the 335 people who lost their lives that night.