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BI History

shortly before the ship was lost without trace

The following is transcribed and extracted from a manuscript handwritten in December, 1911, by George Wilde, a young draughtsman with shipbuilder Alexander Stephen of Linthouse, Govan, describing sea trials he had attended between 1909 and 1911. The spelling (ommitted, untill, principle for principal, inadvertantly, occured, whiskey) and punctuation are precisely as in the original, but paragraph breaks have been introduced. Words and parts of words lost due to mouse damage at the bottom right hand corner are suggested in square brackets [...].

The original
George Wilde's
: Abhona
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The ill fated British India steamer "Abhona" was my next trial; Wednesday and Thursday, the 2nd & 3rd Novr. 1910 was the date. We went on board early the previous evg., 7 o'clock, so we had plenty of time for a look round before bed time. The Abhona was a particularly fine ship, I mean fine in shape, and was one of the fastest we had turned out for some time. She had two magnificent sets of quadruple expansion engines, and her auxiliary machinery was all of the first class order, and she had six large boilers capable of supplying ample steam to make her "hum".

Her saloons were furnished in grand style, also the smoke room and drawing room, the latter having a piano and two large bookcases containing the pick of the classics. Our rooms were par excellence, having wardrobes, washhand basin of the fold up type, writing tables that folded up against the wall and an electric fan controlled as willed by a switch; our beds were laid with spotless linen & blankets so there was nothing left for us to desire, except perhaps, that our sojourn in such a magnificent ship as this, might be lengthier than, at the most, two days & nights.

About 11 o'clock, before going to bed, we must needs have our usual banquet. There were five of us this time & we all contributed to the feast; he of the sardines & cake was present, while I was again responsible for the pineapple chunks. Apples, sweets, chocolate and sandwiches followed in rapid succession and we ate [the] lot in a manner regardless of method or discretion.

We finished up about midnight and were preparing for bed when someone gave us the wire that supper was being served in the saloon. This was something we daren't miss, so with one accord we adjourned thither and ate as if nothing unusual had happened but a short time back. We at last got to bed as there was nothing more to eat, and at 7.30 the next morning the steward came round all the cabins and knocked at the door informing us as he did so, that it was "Half past seven, gentlemen."

We got up & dressed and I remember that I almost felt disappointed that I wasn't ill; in fact I felt particularly fresh, whereas by all common reasoning I ought to have been ill after what I ate the previous night. When we sat down to breakfast it seemed as if it had been eight days since we had seen food, instead of only eight hours; thus did we find our appetites.

From breakfast till the party came on board at 11 o'clock we had nothing to do. (I have ommitted again to say that we had arrived at the tail of the bank during the night). Well, untill the party arrived we enjoyed to the full extent the fresh morning breeze coming from the firth. After the visitors arrived, and before the trial commenced, we had lunch, and not long after we were up to the elbows in work, doing the Skelmorlie mile at ten knots. We increase[d] speed as the trial progressed until on the last two runs we were doing eighteen knots an hour leaving a wake behind us that would have graced a battleship.

The trial was a long one, about twelve runs if I remember right, but it was a delightfully cool pleasant one; I didn't break sweat till about the last two or three runs, and even then only a little. I believe the excitement made me sweat more than the heat, because, well, an engine room isn't exactly as quiet as a drawing room, this one especially, where eight ponderous cranks were revolving at 112 revolutions to the minute; things tumbled.

When the trial was over, we washed and dressed ourselves before we went in to dinner; we had a delightful dinner that set us in such good spirits that our greatest enemy would have been freely forgiven if he had met us after it. This was about 4 pm, so as we were remaining on board that night also, we went and comfortably ensconced ourselves in the smokeroom and there worked out the indicator diagrams we had taken that day, to see what horse power our engines were developing.

At 6 o'clock we had barely finished when the steward told us that tea was ready. We didn't object, so we went in and had a good tea of fish and cold meat not to mention other minor delicacies such as "bun". After tea we went back to the smokeroom and got out the cards again; not [indicator] cards this time, but those with the red and black spots and faces on them: you know the kind I mean. We didn't abuse the cards though, but played the good old game of whist for a couple of hours.

We had a most enjoyable time, but still we weren't angry when the steward invited us to supper at 9 o'clock; truly they didn't mean us to starve on board this ship. Coffee and cold meat and sandwiches were the principle items of the supper, but I partly spoiled mine by inadvertantly lifting a sandwich on which there was mustard: ugh! I am like cats, I don't like mustard, but up to that point I had done not so bad, so there wasn't a great deal of harm done.

After supper we went into the drawing room where the steward gave us several selections and accompanied some of the officers and others who sang. We had a real first class concert and as the steward had a pile of music about two feet high there was songs in plenty to choose from. I had mine chosen, and would have sung it too, as would have some others of our crowd, had the lateness of the hour not brought the entertainment to a close. We had such a delightfully happy time and everybody was so free that the memory of it is still quite plain; after the event which subsequently followed I don't think I shall ever forget it.

We got to bed about midnight again and after a pleasant night's rest [the] steward woke us again at 7.30 the next morning. After we got washed and dressed we had our breakfast at 8 o'clock as usual which we all enjoyed, afterwards enjoying a deck stroll till about 11 o'clock again, when the party, who had gone home after the trial the previous day, came on board. They were accompanied by our old friend of the fur coat, Sir James MacKay, now Lord Inchcape, who is chairman of the British India Company.

Just before they came on board, we learned from a newspaper that someone had got hold of, that an earthquake had occured in Glasgow the previous evening; ie, Wednesday 2nd Novr. We were greatly surprised and felt a little anxious, not knowing the actual extent of the damage; we wondered whether we should feel glad that we had been out of the city, or sorry that we had missed such a unique experience. However, now that the party is on board, let the trial proceed.

We had a most pleasant day of it and I was as cool as it was possible to be in any engine room. We only did four runs on the mile, all at top speed, but I felt inclined to do twenty four. We managed to get 18? knots out of her, which was quite a decent speed; I had a bet on with the Chief Draughtsman and another chap, that she would do 181/4 knots, the Chief 181/2, and the other chap said 19. The winner was to [get] a packet of cigarettes from each [of the] two losers and as I was the w[inner I] expected to get them. I only got one packet however, as the Chief wouldn't pay up; perhaps he forgot all about it.

We were finished fairly early with the trial so we had nice time to prepare for our departure and to get dinner. We had a splendid dinner in the saloon, Sir James MacKay being present this time. I never saw such a variety of drinks at any table before; there was whiskey, claret, champagne, Port wine, beer, soda and several aerated waters which was all the extent to which some of us went, although I saw some who had a taste of almost everything.

I was very sorry when we arrived off Gourock and we had to go ashore in the tug. We had got very friendly with the steward, and some of the officers and engineers who were sailing with the ship, and as we waved them goodbye as the tug eased off, little did they, or we, think that it was a last long farewell they were taking of us, that it was a goodbye for ever. Little did we think, either, that the handsome ship we were leaving was bound on a voyage from which she would never return, that she was in fact taking her precious cargo of human souls to bury them with her in the depths of the ocean; that anything untoward would ever befall her was the furthest thought from our minds as we took a last look of admiration from Gourock [....]. Alas poor "Abhona". We took t[rain] and early in the evening we arrived back in the city after having been absent for two days and two nights. It was such a good trial and we had such an enjoyable time of it that I for one won't forget it for a long time to come.

Well, to return to the Abhona; after we had left her she sailed for Plymouth where she was to take her coolie crew on board, all her white crew being already on board. From Plymouth on Sunday the 6th November 1910, she sailed for India via Gibraltar and Suez, bearing with her ninety nine of a crew, thirteen of who were whitemen, and although fully a year has gone by, the Abhona has never passed Gibraltar. Although no one knows how or where she went down, it is supposed that she disappeared off the north coast of Spain, as a trawler reported having seen a ship in that vicinity answering to the description of the "Abhona" with a heavy list, immediately turning over and sinking. The trawler went afterwards to the spot but could find not the smallest piece of wreckage to identify the lost ship. Even at the inquiry in July 1911 nothing definite was learned, but the most popular view set forth as to her disappearance, was that she had struck some wreckage or derelict floating below the surface of the water. It was a particularly sad ending to a bright beginning and I can even now picture to myself the faces of the steward & officers as we sat together in the drawing room listening to the singing. Poor fellows. They all got a water[y grave].


George's description of Sir James MacKay as "he of the fur coat" arose from a previous sea trial in April 1910 - SS Levuka, for The Australasian United Steam Navigation Company, a B.I. subsidiary. Sir James had amused George by visiting the engine room clad in a fur coat. His recollection of the Glasgow earthquake is out by a month. It occurred on December 15th, while he was aboard the SS Elizabethville. By all accounts it was an exciting quake, but no lives were lost.

Abhona took on 1800 tons of bunker coal and 500 tons of water ballast in Glasgow and sailed light ship to Plymouth where the builder's staff disembarked. Robert Kelly, Stephens' engine works manager, was engineer-in-charge for the run to Plymouth, along with David Firth, their foreman engineer. Some of Abhona's officers were; T.B. Tilling, Master; William Rennie (from Dumbarton), Chief E/O; R.M. Reid (from Govan), 2E/O; Philip McMahon (No 8 Commercial Road, Peckham), 4E/O; William M. Coll (from Lochranza, Arran), JE/O; B. Robertson (from Eyemouth), JE/O. B. Robertson, a first tripper, was the son of an Eyemouth fish-curer, grandson of Bernard Robertson, a fishmonger. He served his time with Aimers McLean & Co in Galashiels.

Abhona sailed at 5.30pm on November 5th 1910, bound for Rangoon, intending to call at Colombo. She carried no cargo and no passengers. She also carried no radio. At the BoT inquiry held in July 1911 at Glasgow, Captain George Hodgkinson, the BI marine consultant, commented that there were no shore stations to communicate with. An affidavit by Julius Skowgaard of the Danish steamer Boscia stated that at 8.15am on November 7th off Cape Finisterre he had seen a long black-funneled steamer about 3 kilometres distant, listing heavily to port. The weather was cloudy, with a hard storm from WSW. At 9.15am she disappeared. They reached the spot in 45 minutes, being hampered by heavy seas and a deck load, and saw a lifeboat sticking vertically out of the water - the name could not be made out. The ship, like other BI vessels, was not insured. Matthew Hunter, a Stephens director, suggested that she had struck a submerged object - another vessel had reported an encounter with such in the area where the Abhona sank. The Board's verdict was that she had foundered as described by the Boscia, but there was insufficent evidence to say how the tragedy had occurred.

With grateful acknowledgements to Hugh McIntyre in whose possession is the original and who wrote the notes. A well respected colleague, the late Charlie Lynch, passed the manuscript to Hugh in the 1980s. He had got it from a lady who had found it in a cupboard and whose mother had got it from a "boy friend" in 1912, probably the author.

Hugh McIntyre has tried to trace the writer, with limited success. He found a Wilde contemporary who was an engineer draughtsman, but his name wasn't George. The manuscript is not signed, and the attribution to George Wilde arises from a confrontation he had with himself on board ss Manzanares (Elders & Fyffes). He woke after a bad night: "A wash however soon made me feel all right and backed up by a good substantial breakfast I was soon "George Wilde" and none other."

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