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The Sinking of the Waesland
Posted 19 September 2010
Howard Mathieson,

A Dangerfield family researcher first alerted me to the mysterious death of Edwin Dangerfield. Oral history within the family suggested he had died while "he was boarding a ship in Liverpool after a family visit, fell & hit his head which caused his death." This information lay dormant in my one name files for several years until one day while searching the Times Digital Archive for Dangerfields I came across a news story concerning "The Sinking of the Wasesland". It certainly sounded like it had more potential than the hundreds of "room for rent, enquire within" snippets which characterized the humdrum life of the average Dangerfield indexed in The Times archive. Within moments I realized I had uncovered the story behind a long lost memory, one that would explain the fate of Edwin Dangerfield.

"A most agreeable fellow……."

So stated a passenger from the Waesland upon his return to Liverpool the day following the fateful collision with the cargo ship Harmonides. He was speaking of Edwin Dangerfield, one of only two passengers to lose their lives in this long forgotten maritime accident on Wednesday, March 5, 1902.

Edwin's life had begun 61 years earlier with his birth in Horsley, Gloucestershire to parents Joseph and Esther Dangerfield. Little is known of his early life. His father was an agricultural labourer, and his mother a laundress. An older brother Job worked as a woolen cloth dresser and yet another brother Henry was a day labourer. Opportunities for a young Gloucestershire man would not be great. His father would have been familiar with the "machine breaking riots" of the 1830's that had swept through the south west of England. Technological change was reducing the demand for farm labour creating a class of temporary seasonal workers with little or no security. Similarly the Gloucestershire textile industry was in decline. Before his 20th birthday Edwin Dangerfield would begin a fateful journey.

We first pick up Edwin's trail in the 1861 census; a lodger employed as a labourer in a Wolverhampton Iron Works. The Midlands would be a natural first stop for a young man in pursuit of employment. It would only be a short rail journey along the River Severn to the industrial heartland of the British Empire. Steel, coal, and heavy industry such as railway engineering would provide ample opportunity for a young man willing to endure the backbreaking work of the foundry or the mine.

In the same decade (1867), the second player in this unfortunate drama would begin its journey as well. The Waesland, first christened the Russian by the Cunard line, was being constructed at the dockyards of J&G Thompson Ltd on the Clydebank of Glasgow. It was one of a new generation of ocean going vessels.

The Waesland formerly the Russian

Sleek and fast, it was designed to deliver mail, cargo, and passengers on a speedy and regular schedule. It was built of steel and powered by wind and coal. This irony would not have been lost on Edwin Dangerfield, who had started his working life in the iron works and would toil for many years at the face of a coal mine. One of the first steam ships to employ a screw propeller in place of the paddle wheel, it was 358 feet in length, 42 ft at the beam and 2959 gross tons. The Russian was striking in appearance with its clipper like bow. At the time one of the fastest vessels on the North Atlantic, it was originally designed to carry a small number (235) of first class passengers in luxurious accommodation. It would remain part of the Cunard fleet until 1880 when it was bought by the Red Star Line of Antwerp and renamed the Waesland. Refitted to reflect the rising tide of emigration to North America, it was lengthened to 435 ft. to allow for 120 second class passengers as well as 1500 third class or steerage passengers. Between the years 1880 and 1895, it plied the North Atlantic between Antwerp and New York. In 1895 it was chartered to the American Line and worked her remaining years on the Liverpool to Philadelphia crossing.

Lavinia Dangerfield, daughter Eliza Jane, and her husband George Hope.

If Edwin's first move was difficult the second was likely less so. It would certainly be more significant, for he would meet and marry Lavinia Stead in Leeds Yorkshire. The marriage would take place July18, 1869 at St Saviour Church. The marriage certificate indicates Edwin was now employed as a coal miner. Over the next twenty years Edwin and Lavinia would have 11 children.. Sometime in the 1870's Edwin and family began planning for life in America. Passenger records indicate that Lavinia and several of her children emigrated to America in 1880. Edwin is absent from the passenger list. He may have left in advance, certainly no earlier than a year, as Lavinia brought with her a two year old son Edwin Barnard. The births of their next several children would indicate stops in Pennsylvania (1881), Ohio (1882) and Kansas (1884). All these States were associated with coal mining and Edwin is listed in the 1900 Kansas Census as a coal miner. It would appear that the family put down solid roots in Scranton, Kansas. Located in Osage County, Scranton would be pivotal in the expansion of the western frontier. The presence of coal favoured development in the area and the voracious appetite of the railways would ensure its' economic prosperity until the beginning of the 20th century.

Life in America was good to Edwin Dangerfield. He had laboured for 40 some years, most as a miner, and had raised a large family. In his later years he had become a saloon keeper in Kansas and had returned to England on at least two occasions, 1897 and 1900. By 1901 Edwin Dangerfield was 60 years of age. In August of that year he and members of the family returned to England for an extended 8 month visit. We have no way of knowing who the Dangerfields visited. Both Edwin and Lavinia had surviving family members remaining in England and their stay may have taken them and their four children to both Yorkshire and Gloucestershire. Prior to returning Edwin had sent word a son in Kansas to "have the family home placed in order by May 1 as they would again occupy it".

On March 5, 1902 the Waesland was preparing to leave Liverpool for Philadelphia. Among the 78 mostly Scandinavian steerage passengers were Edwin, Lavinia, and four of their children. Two older sons, Thomas and Major had left Liverpool three days earlier on the Westernland. Edwin and family, with 32 saloon passengers set sail that afternoon for America with a stop first scheduled for Queenston in Ireland.

Liverpool harbour, early 20th Century

The South Stack on the Anglesey coast

The voyage began uneventfully and the weather was apparently calm and clear. They passed the South Stack on the Anglesey coast at 7:45 in the evening, and Carnarvon Lighthouse at 8:35. However between 10:00 P.M. and 11:30 P.M. visibility began to deteriorate, culminating in a dense fog. Captain Apfield of the Waesland took the necessary actions mandated by the Board of Trade, first reducing to half speed, then stopping the engines and in fact eventually ordering them to be run at full speed astern to slow the progress of the Waesland. At 11:39 P.M. two whistles were heard off the port bow indicating that another vessel was in the vicinity. The Harmonides was returning from the River Platt in Argentina carrying a general cargo and frozen beef. It had already reduced speed to 4 ˝ knots in response to the poor visibility, this according to testimony at the subsequent coroners inquest. Hearing the return whistle of the Waesland, Captain Penton testified he stopped his engines. Judging from the sound of the whistles Penton assumed the Waesland was passing clear of the Harmonides. However within moments of this exchange of whistles, the Waesland loomed in front of the Harmonides. As reported in the March 8th Times report of the incident, Captain Penton claimed he immediately reversed his engines. It was too late. The Harmonides sliced into the Waesland amid ship penetrating the engine room and stokehold. It was fortunate no loss of life occurred as a result of the immediate impact. The purser did however have a close brush with death as iron plate from the bow of the Harmonides came to rest in his room.

Captain Apfield immediately recognized the gravity of the situation. The Harmonides had buried itself deeply into the port side of the Waesland. The damage extended from below the water line to above the deck. Realizing the damage would be fatal, Apfield attempted to hail the crew of the Harmonides to insure she would not back out, in effect opening the floodgates to the interior of the mortally wounded vessel.

Evidently this communication was not received, or if it was, it was not acted upon. Within moments of the initial collision, and probably the result of Captain Penton having ordering his engines into reverse, the Harmonides backed out of the Waesland. Strangely, inexplicably, but again according to the inquest testimony of Captain Apfield, the Waesland was then struck a second time. Following the second impact the Harmonides remained at hand in the general vicinity of the mortally wounded Waesland.

Captain Apfield immediately ordered the lifeboats to be readied and passengers to abandon ship. The exact number of life boats is in some dispute with numbers being given in different accounts as either eight or ten. Examination of the image of the Russian as outfitted in 1867 clearly shows four lifeboats on the starboard side. Fortunately the crew and passengers numbered 193 souls, well within the capacity of the Waesland lifeboats. However in fore-shadowing the Titanic disaster, the number was well short of the potential capacity of the vessel. Ironically Captain Apfield would later be called to testify at the Titanic inquiry concerning the danger of pack ice in the North Atlantic.

We can only imagine the scene on the promenade. Crew had alerted the passengers, ordering them to report on deck immediately. Most appeared in their night clothes or wrapped in blankets. Time would be of the essence. Within 20 minutes the decks of the Waesland would be awash with water. Several witnesses stated on their return to Liverpool that initially passengers were panic stricken and pandemonium prevailed. At the same time, witnesses observed the Captain and crew were able to bring order to the situation and the process of assigning passengers began at once with the first three boats being reserved for women and children.

The exact nature of Edwin Dangerfield's fatal accident is unclear. Accounts carried in the press the following day suggest Dangerfield was responsible for his own fate. The Lincoln Evening news Friday March 7th, ran the byline, "Impetuosity of Kansas man caused death". The article obviously quoting from wire services commented that
    "statements by Waesland's passengers show that Dangerfield, the Kansan, did not die from a fall in the hold, he jumped while the boat was in the davits causing the boat to tip spilling the occupants into the water".
The foregoing account may have been based on the following observations made by a passenger interviewed in the Times:
    "There were some distressing scenes, some of which I shall never forget. One gentleman, a brewer from Kansas with whom I had had a pleasant chat, during the day before, and found to be a most agreeable fellow appeared to be fearfully excited and I saw him make frantic efforts to scramble into one of the first boats to be lowered. Poor fellow! He had a weak heart and I was half prepared for what happened. Just as he jumped from the deck of the Waesland the ships boat tilted and he missed his footing and fell on his head, in the bottom of the boat."
Edwin's son John would testify at the Coroners inquest that,
    "he saw his father attempting to get into the boat, but just as he had got to his knees on the side of the boat something gave way and the boat fell into the water. His father was pitched forward and fell on his head into the boat and died there".
Mr. Lyton, representing the Dangerfields at the inquest asked the son how many people were in the boat, to which he replied that,
    "there were four or five people in the boat at the time".
The quartermaster Frank Stromberg, likely the crew member in charge of loading this particular boat, confirmed the essential elements of John's story which had been supported by the testimony of Edwin's second son Job. Stromberg's account differed in several minor respects. He claimed that while the boat was being lowered and at the point when the lifeboat was a couple of feet below the promenade deck a number of males attempted to jump into the craft. It was this extra weight that caused the davit rope to slip, and according to Stromberg, the boat dropped into the water head first. Stromberg asserted there were about 30 people in the boat at the time.

Among the last passengers to leave the boat was a plumber from Preston. After disembarking on the seventh life boat the party became disoriented in the darkness and the fog. At some point they apparently rescued several men from the water. The body of young Elsie Emmott who had also fallen into the water as a result of the lifeboat incident, was not recovered.

Lost in the darkness, the Waesland's lights would draw them back to the scene of the accident. They would then witness the Waesland last moments.
    "... It was seen that the stern end of the vessel was sinking and it was realized they were rowing to the unmanned craft. The course of the boat was at once changed, but before the Waesland was again hidden in the fog there was a movement on her port which denoted she could float but a few seconds more. She began to settle on her port side, and then suddenly with a lurch disappeared beneath the waves. As she went down and the water gained access to the boilers they burst with a deadening crash".
The last to leave the Waesland were the Captain and remaining crew. Estimates vary between 30 and 40 minutes from the time the Waesland was struck to the time she slipped beneath the surface. Clearly, to remove passengers and crew within this time frame was a remarkable feat. It would be 2:00 A.M. before all the lifeboats could be brought to the Harmonides and the passengers safely secured on board. Fortunately the forward bulkheads of the Harmonides had prevented it from experiencing a fate similar to that of the Waesland. Following their eventual return to Liverpool a number of passengers would sign a letter commending the Captain and crew.

Wireless was not yet a fixture on ocean going vessels. Word was sent first to a pilot boat which had encountered the Harmonides on its return to Liverpool, and then by telegraph to the owners who dispatched tugs. However, the condition of the Harmonides was such that it would be 28 hours from the time of the collision until she would, with assistance, limp up the Mersey to the Huskisson Dock.

On March 10, 1902, in the matter of Edwin Dangerfield, the Coroner's inquest would return a verdict of "Accidental Death".

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