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The Shipwreck of the Monkshaven

February 8, 2013

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From contemporary history to naval history in one swift movement. This story is about the ill-fated voyage of a ship which sailed in 1876 from Swansea to Valparaiso with a cargo of coal and the rescue of the crew by a well-to-do family sailing around the World. The story is told by Lady Brassey in the book, ‘A voyage in the Sunbeam.’ We are fortunate to have a detailed description of the rescue and if only we could be certain that the mariner we are interested in, was on the Monkshaven, then we could simply enjoy the account. Sadly, although we believe that  Olaf Johan Nielsen was a mate on the ship on this voyage, no crew list has been seen so far.  Born in 1840, Nielsen married in 1865 and died on the 2nd January 1919 aged 79. Nielsen settled in the UK and changed his name to Oliver John Nelson.

The Monkshaven was a large, three year old ship built and owned by Messrs Smales of Whitby and carried coal from the mines of Messrs Nicholas of Sunderland. Coal was so dangerous a cargo that Nicholas found it virtually impossible to charter ships and took to owning their own ships for the purpose. One can imagine that finding seamen would also have been difficult so that either the mariners had to be compensated by higher pay or they had to search far afield to find men to do the work. Perhaps it was a bit of both, for the fifteen mariners on the Monkshaven in 1876 were English, Scots, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes. They would have known of the risk they were taking when they sailed from Swansea to Valparaiso. One in three of the vessels sailing with coal as a cargo to Valparaiso, succumbed to fire. The problem was that the fire could start deep within the cargo and burn unseen so that a hole was burnt in the side of the ship. Alternatively, the gas generated could explode. It must have been like a cargo of dynamite which could explode at any moment.

One can imagine the grave concerns amongst the crew members when a fire was discovered and the Captain decide to make for Montevideo 120 miles away. The weather was set fair when he made this decision, but then it suddenly turned and a gale sprung up. The crew were exhausted as they tried to manage the ship and at the same time found that the fire was burning more strongly. They feared that at any moment the flames would burst through the deck. Just when they were losing hope, they saw a ship and hoisted a distress signal. Unfortunately, the ship turned and sailed away. The crew must have been desperate. They knew the seriousness of their situation, they had dug down into the hold to find the source of the fire, but without success and it was only a matter of a short space of time, before the ship would be ablaze.

The salvation of the Monkshaven’s crew was a ship called the Sunbeam on which the Brassey family were sailing round the world. On September 28th 1876 Lady Brassey wrote that she was in her cabin and was told to come up on deck to see a ship that was on fire. Everyone on board the Sunbeam was looking at a large barque with the union jack upside down. This was read as ‘Ship on fire.’ Soon afterwards another signal was hoisted saying ‘Come on board at once.’ From the Sunbeam’s point of view this was a dangerous situation as there could have been a mutiny on board and the crew could have been armed.
So it was a brave but humane move to launch a dinghy and go to the Monkshaven and it must have been with some relief that the boat returned to the Sunbeam with the mate of the Monkshaven, a fine-looking Norwegian, whose English was perfect and who reported that the vessel was sixty eight days out from Swansea bound for Valparaiso, with a cargo of smelting coal. The fire had been discovered on the previous Sunday and by 6am on the Monday the crew had got all their possessions on deck and thrown overboard all combustible materials. Since this time everyone had been living on deck.
The Sunbeam’s dinghy made three trips to save the crew and by half past six they were all safe on board the Sunbeam, together with the ship’s charts and papers. It was touch and go whether all the crew would be saved. As the last of the men were being taken off the ship, flames were just being to burst through the hatches.
Was the ‘mate,’ Olaf Johan Nielsen? It is probably impossible to know that. He certainly was a fine looking man and it would be interesting to know if he was, indeed, on the Monkshaven on that voyage.

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7 Comments
  1. First of all I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
    I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out
    there. I truly do take pleasure in writing however
    it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes
    are lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any ideas or tips? Kudos!

    • Hi Lynne,
      Once I am in front of the computer (always first thing in the morning before the day crowds in) then I have no problem starting. But I think the start is a long way before then. I need a structure and it depends how quickly I can get that as to how quickly the story is written. If it is a very difficult subject then it may take a year to get the structure but when I start to write people would think I write quickly. I am struggling at the moment with the story of a Victorian bankruptcy. I think I am about ready to start writing but it has been a heck of a time since the story’s inception.
      Many Thanks for you lovely feedback and good luck with your writing.
      Best Wishes,
      Jane

  2. ted permalink

    From Annie Brassey’s photo albums kept at Hastings library. This slightly naïve picture is in one of the books that has various ephemera of hers: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sidpickle/9509958264/

    • Ted, that is wonderful. She was quite a girl wasn’t she, Annie Brassey? Very, very brave I think. I wouldn’t have liked to have done what she did.The picture is charming. How terrifying for those on board. I loved the description of the food on board the Monkshaven, too, that the salt beef was better carved into ornaments than eaten.
      It was a nice story to do, to link the picture which this lady had of her ancestor, with this interesting story of the shipwreck and the crew’s rescue.

      • ted permalink

        The skipper of the Monkshaven was called Runciman. The final owner of Sunbeam (before she was broken up) was also a Runciman (Lord Walter). Strange co-incidence, but they were related, I believe cousins. The Sunbeam was named after the Brassey’s daughter that died Constance Alberta who they nicknamed Sunbeam, see: http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/18812.html

        Agree with you about Annie.

  3. Celia Nelson permalink

    Hi I am related to the Norwegian sailor Oliver John Nelson and wondered how you connected him to the story of the Monkshaven boat

    • Hi Celia, I picked the story up from a family also related to Oliver John Nelson. The story which was passed down in the family was that he had been on the Monkshaven. The problem was how to prove or indeed disprove it. This is why I was careful in what I wrote. There was a belief that he had been on the ship but no more than that. Has the same tradition passed down in your family and do you have the same images?

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