by Jeremy Archer
On 29 December and 30 December 1857 The Times published articles entitled Burning of the Sarah Sands Screw Transport Steamer. The earlier article noted that the 'preservation (of the ship) and that of her crew may be fairly considered one of the most marvellous on record' while the latter article thought the story 'a counterpart, although a far happier one, to that of the Birkenhead.' SS Sarah Sands was launched in 1846, just three years after SS Great Britain, and was only the second large, iron screw steamer to be built. Although intended to be powered by sail as much as possible, the Sarah Sands also benefited from auxiliary screw-power provided by two 200 horse-power, coal-fired engines. She displaced 1,300 tons, had four masts and featured iron bulkheads, which divided the hull into three watertight compartments - this last innovation was to prove important.
The 54th Foot - later the 2nd Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment - were to reinforce the loyal troops fighting the mutineers in India. However, their journey was bedevilled by problems from the outset. Following an inspection by the Major-General Commanding Portsmouth, the Sarah Sands was found to be unfit to carry the allotted number of troops and retainers. Thus the Regiment was split between three different ships and, on 15 August 1857, 14 officers, 21 non-commissioned officers and 333 soldiers of 54th Foot, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Bowland Moffat, who was commissioned into the 54th Foot as an Ensign on 22 June 1832, duly boarded the Sarah Sands. There also embarked - and this had an unanticipated influence on subsequent events - several wives, the Regimental schoolmistress and the daughters of Colonel Moffat.
Progress was slow and it took two months to reach Simonstown in the Cape. When attempting to weigh anchor on 25 October there were problems with the crew, who complained about the state of their rations. Naval bluejackets were summoned and 'the ringleaders of the mutineers were put in irons', according to Sergeant Murray of the 54th Foot, one of the later chroniclers of events. Lieutenant Frederick Schlotel of the 54th Foot, writing in 1870, noted that the demand for men was such that Captain James Castle of the Sarah Sands 'had no alternative but to make up the complement of his crew with such as presented themselves, and who were nearly all foreigners'.
On 7 November a violent squall carried away the foremast. At around half past three in the afternoon on 11 November - with the Sarah Sands 600 miles from Ceylon and 800 miles from Mauritius - Sergeant Murray 'observed smoke coming up from the hatch near the stern of the vessel'. Lieutenant Schlotel wrote that 'a cry of "Fire!" - that most horrible of all cries at sea - was raised'. The ship was brought head to wind, all sail was immediately taken in and Captain Castle swiftly provisioned such boats as there were and into them went the women, the sick, the younger drummerboys and, rather surprisingly, Colonel Moffat. His presence there came as a consequence of helping his wife and two daughters into the Third Officer's boat; despite his entreaties, he was rowed away to a safe distance and was not able to re-board until the crisis had passed.
While hoses connected to the fire-engines and the donkey-engine were soon pouring water on the burning government stores in the hold, the more immediate threat came from two powder-filled magazines. Under the energetic leadership of Major William Freeland Brett and Captain Prideaux William Gillum, the soldiers of the 54th Foot set to work. There were ninety barrels in each magazine and a zealous Quartermaster Sergeant duly counted each one out in turn. The starboard magazine was soon emptied and the powder kegs and barrels of ammunition thrown overboard. That on the port side proved more challenging: one barrel of ammunition and a quantity of the ship's signalling powder proved impossible to reach. While some soldiers were emptying the magazines, others were damping down the coal by pouring water through holes in the upper desk planking. This was both exhausting and asphyxiating work and many were 'brought on deck quite senseless'.
Initially the Regimental Colours had been forgotten: now Private William Wiles and the ship's Quartermaster, Richard Richmond, dared to enter the fiery labyrinth that was formerly the ship's saloon in order to save these symbols of the Regiment's honour. Bearing in mind that the saloon was directly over the magazines - which were being emptied through the same entrance - it is unsurprising that the pair's re-emergence with their precious prizes was greeted by prolonged cheers.
By eight o'clock that evening, despite these endeavours, the fire had taken hold, forced its way through the quarterdeck and brought the mizzenmast crashing down. Fortunately Lance-Corporal John McCullum thought quickly and, by cutting through the rigging with an axe, allowed the mast to fall clear of the ship. At that stage Captain Castle believed his ship lost but Major Brett assured him: "We shall fight on till driven overboard!" The inevitable happened: the flames reached the powder around midnight and a terrifying explosion resulted. After a violent roll and a dramatic dip of the stern, the Sarah Sands somehow righted herself and Captain Gillum was heard to shout: "She's all right, boys, pull away at the pumps!"
The watertight bulkheads played a vital part because Frazer, the ship's engineer, felt able to flood the stern, keeping the after-bulkhead cool and thus preventing the coals from catching fire, 'the ignition of which must have cut off the last hope of being saved', according to Schlotel. The soldiers of the 54th carried on their work through the night 'as the iron sides of the vessel were becoming red-hot'. A heavy gale fanned the flames and the mainmast was lost when its rigging caught fire. However, by nine o'clock on the morning of 12 November, 'steam was observed to arise instead of smoke'. The first part of the battle was won.
The situation was still desperate: three of Sarah Sands's four masts had gone overboard; the port quarter just above the waterline had been substantially blown out in the explosion; two water-tanks in the hold were loose and threatening to smash the hull; twenty feet of water flooded the stern compartment; the chronometers were destroyed and Captain Castle was left with just 'a compass and a chart'. At this stage Providence played a part: the wind eased, leaving a heavy swell and the Sarah Sands had somehow ridden out the savage storm. After a struggle, the water-tanks were secured and two hawsers were then passed round the stern to hold in place spare sail-cloth and hammocks filled with ashes and sand; thus was the leaking hull stopped. Six men sat on planks either side of the ship and, using ropes attached to the horizontal bar at the stern, made the necessary adjustments to the rudder. Captain Castle now decided, on the basis that the winds might be more favourable, to make for Mauritius, rather than for Point de Galle on Ceylon. A jury-rig was built round the remaining mast and, under favourable conditions necessitating 'scarcely ever having to trace our yards', the Sarah Sands finally reached Port Louis, Mauritius on 23 November. Engineer Frazer, having felt that the resulting vibrations might be catastrophic, only risked the engine for the final approach: in the absence of much of the wooden decking, those on board had a grandstand view of the 'naked screw-shaft' turning in the bowels of the vessel.
At Port Louis the passengers and crew of the Sarah Sands received a hero's welcome: the Legislative Council presented them with an address; a public subscription provided for a 'magnificent' banquet for all ranks in the market place, which had been 'decorated in the most tasteful manner' and the General Officer Commanding Mauritius issued a special General Order praising the conduct of the 54th Foot. When the news reached London the Duke of Cambridge, the Commander-in-Chief, issued a General Order to be read in front of every regiment in the Army, recording 'the remarkable gallantry and resolution displayed by the Officers and soldiers of the 54th Regiment, on board the ship Sarah Sands, under circumstances of a most trying nature, namely, when the vessel took fire at sea, having at the time a large quantity of ammunition on board'. Sir John Fortescue, the historian of the British Army, cited the incident as 'ever since rightly held up as a grand example of discipline'. Lieutenant and Adjutant Thomas Houston wrote to sister Annie: 'You ask me how we fared after the fire. I had never better "grat" in my life. I was rather badly off for clothing but the Sergeant Major lent me everything I wanted.'
Alas Lieutenant-Colonel Bowland Moffat was not one of the Officers to whom the Duke was referring. In the General Order it was noted that command had 'devolved upon' Major Brett. Interestingly, from the articles in The Times, it was by no means apparent that Colonel Moffat was not deeply involved at every stage: 'Colonel Moffat was seen in earnest consultation with Captain Castle deciding upon measures for suppressing the flames ... the soldiers, under Colonel Moffat's directions, succeeded in clearing out the starboard magazine ... Colonel Moffat informed them that Captain Castle did not despair of saving the ship ...'
Once on Mauritius, Bowland Moffat did his best to explain 'the unfortunate most painful position in which I was placed through an accident over which I had no control'. The day that they arrived at Mauritius, Lieutenant Joseph William Hughes wrote in a personal letter: 'I am ashamed to say that the Colonel's private feelings prevailed over his duty and he left the ship the first man with his wife and daughters, a step he bitterly repents'. Despite taking written evidence from nine participants, submitting two reports on the incident to the Military Secretary in London and being exonerated by a Court of Inquiry on Mauritius, Colonel Moffat was relieved of his command. Lord Clyde, Commander-in-Chief in India, concluded that Moffat could not continue 'either with advantage to the State or honour or credit to himself'. The Adjutant-General had already decided that Colonel Moffat was 'urged to (desert his post) by the distracted state of his family' and that, furthermore, 'the motive may excuse the man, but not the soldier'. Having purchased the command on 5 September 1856, Bowland Moffat was placed on half-pay on 15 June 1858. He appears in subsequent Army Lists as a Colonel in the 1st West India Regiment with effect from 1 May 1861 and apparently died around 1890.
Lieutenant Houston had a slightly different take on the events of that dreadful night and, in that same letter to his sister Annie, wrote on 17 February 1858: 'How disgraceful the reports are in the English papers about the fire, they are false from beginning to end. We never took a single "bale" out and I would like to see the man that would do it so sudden was the fire. The Crew never took in the sail - it was done by our men. It says in The Times that the saving of the ship is due first to the crew and secondly to the troops. The crew, with the exception of one man who had formerly been a soldier, disgracefully abandoned us to our fate.'
After six weeks on Mauritius, the 54th Foot were re-embarked aboard the Clarendon for passage to Calcutta. There was a strange sequel, which may be of interest to those who enjoy cult advertising campaigns. It was almost as serious as a fire at sea that the Clarendon ran out of tobacco: three officers of the 54th rowed over the American ship Hamlet, moored off Kedgeree in the Hooghly River, to see if they might purchase supplies. According to Scholotel, Captain Lecran received them 'with great cordiality' and, having heard their story, insisted that they take '400 pounds weight of tobacco (the finest cavendish) and 1,000 Manillas for the officers'. He refused payment on the grounds that 'Americans never take anything from shipwrecked people'. For the Officers of the 54th at least: 'Happiness was a cigar called Hamlet'!
In the aftermath there was considerable discussion concerning whether or not those named in the General Order - or just one exemplary participant - might be eligible for the Victoria Cross. In the event Private Andrew Walsh was nominated for the Victoria Cross by the then-Lieutenant-Colonel Brett in 1860; however, although the Royal Warrant of 10 August 1858 permitted the award of a Victoria Cross for 'acts of conspicuous courage and bravery under circumstances of extreme danger, such as the occurrence of a fire on board ship', no such award was ever gazetted for the saving of the Sarah Sands. The Royal Warrant was deemed to have 'no retrospective effect'. However, four officers and twenty-five non-commissioned officers and men were singled out for praise in the General Order. Sergeant Murray's name was later added to the list and, on 4 August 1875, he was granted a Royal Bounty of 6d a day 'in consideration of his gallant conduct'. Both Brett and Gillum received Brevets and were duly promoted by one rank without purchase: apart from the Victoria Cross this was the only reward for gallant, meritorious or distinguished service for which captains and above were eligible until the inauguration of the Distinguished Service Order in 1886.
The other two officers named in the General Order were Lieutenants Houston and Hughes. Of those on board the Sarah Sands the latter enjoyed the most distinguished career: he was commanding the 54th when the amalgamation with the 39th took place in 1881 and retired as a major-general. Recently an individual has very generously given The Military Museum of Devon and Dorset an inkwell with the following inscription:
Major J.W. Hughes - To his friend Colour Sergeant Thomas Copsey
in remembrance of their eleven years connection as Captain and Colour Sergeant
of E Company, 54th Regiment and of the occasion when on board the, Sarah Sands
they fought together against fire and water
In the first instance the Royal Humane Society (RHS) honoured both Colonel Moffat and Private Wiles with silver medals, then their highest award, at the same time passing a vote congratulating the Regiment on the 'cool, courageous and energetic conditions' that had saved the ship. Moffat's medal was sent by post to India and Moffat neither acknowledged its receipt nor sent a letter of thanks. After his brother, an officer in the Hussars, had made representations on his behalf, Brett was awarded the RHS silver medal on 17 October 1860. In a letter to his brother Matthew dated 30 March 1858, Lieutenant Houston, wrote: 'So the Royal Humane Society have determined to give our Chief a Medal!! What a farce it will appear when they know the true facts. The East India Company have, I hear, given Captain Castle £1,000 - not bad.'
Having enjoyed such adventures as carrying goldminers to Australia, taking a party of the 17th Lancers and 99 horses to the Crimea, almost coming to grief and being written off (according to The Times it was 'heavily insured') by Lloyd's during its ill-fated journey with the 54th Foot, the Sarah Sands was finally wrecked on the Kalpeni Reef off the Laccadive Islands in the Indian Ocean on 28 April 1869. Once again, it appears that not a life was lost. The master story-teller Rudyard Kipling immortalised the Sarah Sands by including the story in his Land and Sea Tales. In the introduction he wrote: 'since the behaviour of bodies of untried men under trying circumstances is always interesting, and since I have been put in possession of some facts not very generally known, I am trying to tell again the old story of the Sarah Sands as an example of long-drawn-out and undefeatable courage and cool-headedness.'
The Regimental Colours, which had been presented by General Gascoigne, Colonel of the Regiment, at Weedon on 3 August 1841, were eventually taken out of service and placed in Norwich Cathedral on 19 January 1868. They remained there until 1946, when they were entrusted to the Royal School of Needlework, in a 'torn and tattered state', to repair the damage they had suffered on the Sarah Sands. They now hang in the north aisle of Sherborne Abbey. Nearby there is a framed poem:
A moth-eaten rag
On a worm-eaten pole,
It doesn't seem much
To stir a man's soul
'Tis the deeds that were done
'Neath the moth-eaten rag
When the pole was a Staff
And the rag was a Flag.