The Mystery of the SS Mohegan

There are a number of intriguing mysteries that surround the loss of the steam ship Mohegan on Cornwall’s Manacle Reef in October 1898 that no one, as yet, has managed to satisfactorily explain.

The Manacle Reef has sunk many fine ships and claimed many thousands of lives, but the story of the Mohegan is a very sad one for a number of reasons, the first of which is, why was the ship set on a collision course with the reef, and why the captain and crew never seemed to have realised the danger until it was much too late.

In those days, ships entering the English Channel from the Atlantic, bound for Falmouth or beyond, may have been at sea for months and unsure of their correct position or compromised by fog or gales. Consequently, as they entered the part of the English Channel where the Lizard Peninsula narrows their safe passage, and if they were just a little too far north, then they could so easily come to grief on the rocky granite cliffs of Cornwall.

However, the Mohegan wasn’t entering the channel after months at sea and unsure of her position, neither was there fog or storm — in fact, the evening was dark but clear, with lights on shore clearly visible from seaward, and the ship was not approaching from the west but running down channel, from the east. The Mohegan was outward bound from Gravesend, bound for New York, had already successfully navigated the narrowest, most crowded part of the channel and should have been on a safe course for America. However, it seems that after passing the Eddystone Lighthouse the course was mysteriously changed, in a mistake or a deliberate act, which set the ship on a more northerly, fatal rendezvous with the Manacle Reef.

At the court of enquiry, ordered by the British Board of Trade, it was suggested that the known magnetic quality of the Manacle rocks had upset the compass, drawing the ship to its doom, but this legendary theory was dismissed when it was established that the course had been set by the captain and it was the course, not the compass, that was incorrect. The court’s final decision was that ‘After passing the Eddystone lighthouse the wrong course of west-by-north was steered’. However, the court could not offer an explanation as to why the wrong course had been set, and there that mystery remains to this day.

The Mohegan left Gravesend on 13 October 1898, entered the English Channel at Dover and set a course for the New World. She carried 53 passengers and a regular crew of 97. Also on board were seven cattlemen, who were to look after the cows and horses it was intended to bring back from America. There was also, as it later transpired, one stowaway on board. The Mohegan’s captain was Commodore Richard Griffiths, a title he carried as the Atlantic Transport Line’s most senior captain.

At 2.40pm on 14 October, the ship was in sight of the signal station, at Prawle Point, Devon, and made the usual signal ‘All’s well, report me’. Later that day it was seen off Rame Head signal station, and no signals were exchanged before the ship disappeared into a shower of rain, apparently on course for America. Had the Mohegan kept to her course, she would have passed 10 to 12 nautical miles south of the Manacle Reef. Instead, at some point, her course was changed to west-by-north, heading her for the one group of rocks in the whole of the British Isles that seafarers feared the most. On that course, even if she had avoided the Manacles she would have struck Cornwall’s granite cliffs between Godrevy Cove and Lowland Point, on the Lizard Peninsula.

Image, The chart showing the course the Mohegan should have taken and the incorrect course that led to disaster.
The chart showing the course the Mohegan should have taken and the incorrect course that led to disaster.

Around 6.30pm, as the Mohegan approached the land, the dinner gong sounded and the elegantly dressed passengers began assembling in the dining saloon, where white-coated stewards were waiting to serve the meal.  Commodore Griffiths was on the bridge, the engine room telegraph was set at full ahead, giving a speed of 15 knots at engine revolutions of 68 rpm. The course was still set at west-by-north, with the Manacle Reef dead ahead at less than two miles, so the scene was set for disaster, but all on board seemed to be completely unaware of the danger, even though lights could be seen on the shore.

However, on shore a number of people were becoming aware that the approaching vessel was too close in and headed for disaster. One of the first to spot trouble was Mr John May, who was the duty coastguard officer at Coverack, and he acted immediately by going outside and firing off some signal rockets as a warning, but received no reply from the ship. Realising that a disaster was imminent, he called out the Rocket Brigade and sent them to the cliff tops at Godrevy Cove with their equipment, as that appeared to be where the vessel was headed.

Mr May was not the only person on shore to realise that the big ship, lit up like a small city, now approaching the land, was headed for disaster. Mr James Hill, the cox’n of the Porthoustock lifeboat, was standing by his stable door, after putting his horse away for the night when he looked out to sea and was amazed to see a large vessel heading at speed for the shore. At first he thought it must be the small steam packet, on her regular run from Falmouth, as no other vessel had any right to be so close inshore. As soon as he realised what was going to happen, he got his horse out and, riding bare-back, galloped down to the lifeboat house and fired off the maroon signal rockets to summon the crew. So within 25 minutes the Porthoustock lifeboat Charlotte was on its way to the Manacles under oars.

At the very last minute, the crew on board the Mohegan seemed to have become aware of the danger and put the wheel over, observers on shore saw the configuration of her lights change, indicating she was altering course, turning to port and onto a more southerly heading. Unfortunately, she turned right into the centre of the Manacle Reef. If she had not turned she may have fared better and hit the cliffs at Godrevy Cove where the Rocket Brigade were waiting and could have reached them with their life-line throwing apparatus. Sadly, the Manacles was beyond their reach. The time was 6.50pm.

The impact with the rocks was quite light and no one at first suspected that the ship had been mortally wounded, below the waterline, by the razor sharp rocks, but within two minutes of striking, the ship had 14 feet of water in the engine room, submerging the dynamos. One by one, all the lights went out.

The captain acted immediately and ordered all the lifeboats got out, but because of the increasing port list, the starboard boats could not be lowered, so he ordered all the women and children into the port-side boats. However, when the crew tried to hoist the boats up, they proved too heavy, so all the frightened and panicky passengers had to be coaxed out, before the boats could be hoisted up and out, where the women and children could re-enter them. All this took time, and time was something the Mohegan did not have.

Within 15 minutes of the ship striking the rocks, she sank, with only her funnel and masts above the water. The time was 7.05pm. As the ship slipped under the water, all the starboard lifeboats and one on the port side were still firmly lashed in their chocks. Some people made for the rigging of the masts, and Captain Griffith’s last words were reported as being, ‘Get the women into the rigging.’ Shortly after this the wing of the bridge he was standing on slipped beneath the waves and the commodore of the Atlantic Transport Line was presumed to have gone down with his ship.

Three months later, a headless body was washed up at Caernarron Bay and identified as Commodore Griffiths. However, before this body turned up, a rumour had spread around that was still strongly held by the older people of the St Kevern community in the 60s, when I was enquiring about the wreck. They believed that Commodore Griffiths survived the sinking, landed at St Kevern in the Charlotte, then ran off into the night and went into hiding. Curiously, that rumour was also intertwined with another, that the commodore had deliberately wrecked his own ship because of some dispute with the Atlantic Transport Line or — curiouser and curiouser — in order to gain some financial advantage from insurance. I never found any good proof offered to substantiate any of this, so it’s just more Mohegan mysteries that we shall probably never discover the truth of.

As I discovered more of the tragedy, I learned that the Porthoustock lifeboat, Charlotte, was attracted by a woman’s screams and quickly came upon an overturned ship’s lifeboat. After turning it right way up, they managed, with some difficulty, to rescue two men, the woman who had been screaming — Miss Rodenbusch — and a Mrs Compton-Swift. They then went on in search of the shipwreck, but almost immediately found a second lifeboat with 24 women and children aboard. That boat had been badly damaged and was in danger of sinking, so James Hill took the survivors on board the Charlotte and, crowded to capacity, headed back past the Shark’s Fin Rock to Porthoustock, all the time burning white flares as a signal they needed the assistance of other lifeboats.

When Cox’n James Hill had called the lifeboat crew by firing off maroons, Second Cox’n John Cliff was on the road, returning from St Kevern, and arrived too late to join the lifeboat crew. Disappointed but undeterred, he rode his horse several miles along the cliff tops above Godrevy Cove where the Rocket Brigade told him that they had heard cries for help, but that the distance was well beyond the range of their apparatus. John Cliff then rode back to Porthoustock where he collected four local men and rowed out in a 14-foot boat to where he estimated the shipwreck was. When they came abreast of the Carn-du rocks, they heard cries for help about a quarter of a mile to the west. Cautiously, they pulled towards the rocks with the ancient name of Maen Varses, where they could see, through the darkness, white foam breaking and could just make out the masts and funnel of the wreck. They could see and hear survivors on the funnel and in the rigging but could not reach them or even attract their attention. The ever resourceful John Cliff took off his necktie, soaked it in paraffin, tied it to an oar and set it alight. The survivors saw the flames and John Cliff was able to explain to them that their ship was now resting on the bottom and would sink no further. Also, if they could only hang on, help would soon be coming now that the location of the wreck was known.

In fact, help was on its way from all quarters. The tug Penguin came around the point towing the Falmouth lifeboat and by chance picked up the head cattleman, George Maule, who had been clinging to a piece of wreckage and had drifted many miles from the wreck. The lifeboat from Cadgewith and another from Polpeor Cove had also arrived, but in the darkness failed to spot the masts and funnel amongst the rocks. However, John Cliff, in his small boat, returned to Porthoustock and met up with the Charlotte and was able to report the exact position of the wreck before taking up his rightful position in the lifeboat as second cox’n, ready for the second mission.

Previously, as the Charlotte reached the beach at Porthoustock to unload the 28 survivors, a little incident occurred that many people noticed but paid scant attention to at the time. A man jumped from the lifeboat and ran up into the village and disappeared. Later, it would be claimed that the man was the Mohegan’s captain, Richard Griffiths.

Quickly the Charlotte set out once more on the second mission of mercy, but as they neared the Mohegan they found it impossible to bring the lifeboat close enough to the wreck to take off the survivors. The problem was that on the one side were the Maen Varses, and on the other were the boat davits and stanchions of the wreck, sticking up out of the water just waiting to snag the Charlotte. Cox’n James Hill ordered the bowman to drop their anchor, and then allowed the lifeboat to slowly back down towards the wreck, but even then they were not quite close enough and daren’t go closer.

However, at that point one of the survivors in the rigging plunged into the sea and swam to the Charlotte. The man was Colin Juddery, the quartermaster of the Mohegan and a man of great determination, who then swam back to the wreck with a line that could be rigged to rescue the survivors from their precarious perch in the rigging. One by one the survivors were hauled across to the Charlotte; the first to be rescued was a young stewardess and the last was the gallant but exhausted Colin Juddery.

Image, The funnel and masts of the ill-fated Mohegan visible above the water.
At first light on 15 October, only the funnel and masts of the ill-fated Mohegan were visible above the water.

Only 45 of the 158 souls on board survived. The others, including the unfortunate stowaway, either drowned or died of exposure and exhaustion in the rigging or in the cold Cornish sea. Most of the victims were buried in a common grave in St Kevern churchyard, marked by a simple granite cross, engraved with the legend ‘Mohegan 1898’.

In the early 60s, I was a navy diver stationed in Cornwall and a very keen wreck diver. But in those far off days before computers and the internet it was quite difficult to obtain accurate, reliable information about shipwrecks. The Mohegan at that time was just an almost forgotten bit of Cornish history, and the grave marker in St Kevern’s churchyard was the only really sure fact.

Then I met old Tommy Hocking, who occasionally drank in my local pub, The Halzephron, at Gunwalloe. Tommy claimed that as a young lad living in St Kevern he had made up the numbers in the lifeboat that night on the first trip out to the Mohegan. At the time Tommy was in his 70s and could have been just old enough, and he certainly knew a great deal about the events of that night from the perspective of someone who was involved. But the thought did cross my mind that Tommy was just recounting a bit of Cornish history and writing himself into the script.

One evening, after I had bought him a couple of beers to loosen his tongue and jog his memory, he recounted a very interesting episode that I felt must be authentic. He said that as the lifeboat was heading towards the Manacles, where they thought the wreck was, they heard a woman screaming. That led them to an overturned ship’s lifeboat with two men clinging to it, and the screaming was coming from underneath the boat. They quickly pulled the two men on board and turned the boat right way up, which revealed the woman who had been screaming, several bodies and a strange tangled bundle of clothing, hair and limbs which in the dark appeared to be a dead woman. The bowman said, according to Tommy, ‘She’s dead leave her.’ Then, to the amazement of all, the ‘dead woman’ cried, ‘I’m not dead, please don’t leave me. Save me, I’m trapped by my hair.’

Tommy jumped down into the waterlogged boat and found that the woman’s very long hair was tangled around one of the thwarts or cross seats. Someone in the lifeboat handed Tommy an axe, and with one expert stroke he severed the woman’s hair close to her scalp. Without further ado she was pulled aboard the Charlotte.

Tommy further claimed that the woman had then taken an expensive ruby ring from her finger and gave it to him in gratitude for saving her and not leaving her to die. It was a really good story, but sounded just a bit too good to be true, and at the time I chose to doubt that part of the tale. So, sometime later, when I had the opportunity to study the records of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, I was quite surprised to discover that the incident actually had occurred, with one very small variation. In the records, the man swinging the axe was not Tommy Hocking, but a lifeboat man called Francis Tripp, one of three Tripp relations — a father and two sons — manning the lifeboat that night.

The woman who had been screaming from under the boat was a young American opera singer called Miss Rodenbusch, whose trained voice had penetrated the overturned boat and attracted attention. The woman who had been trapped by her hair was Mrs Compton-Swift, and her story was quite ironic. She had just recovered from a serious illness and was embarking on the first leg of a world trip, accompanied by her personal physician, Doctor Fallows, to try to recover her health. Mrs Compton-Swift survived the shipwreck but Doctor Fallows was drowned. In the records there was no mention of her wearing or giving anyone a ruby ring, although this could have been a very natural gesture from a woman of wealth to a young lifeboat man who, it could be said, had risked his life to save hers.

The Royal Navy had no interest in the wreck of the Mohegan, so if I wanted to dive on her, I would have to organise my own expedition in collaboration with another wreck diving enthusiast friend of mine called George Hedley. However, we needed some local knowledge of the diving conditions on the Manacles, preferably from someone who owned, or had access to, a suitable boat.

After phoning around for a while I found the perfect man. His name was Graham and he claimed to be the past secretary of the St Kevern Sub-aqua Club and own his own boat. Looking back, I think it was that Graham had his own boat that persuaded me he was the right man for the job, but with hindsight it became clear I should have spent more effort enquiring into his diving ability.

George and I met Graham in the pub and he talked knowledgeably about the Mohegan wreck, the Manacles, the weather and sea conditions, and numerous other wrecks he claimed to have dived. Both George and I were impressed at how much he knew about the tides and currents around the wreck and were convinced he had gained his knowledge from long-time diving the area. As it was to prove, we were wrong.

We made three attempts to get out on the wreck but each time the weather turned against us. However, on our fourth try the weather was absolutely perfect, but George was in the naval sick-bay with suspected appendicitis, so Graham and I went out in his boat together. We anchored above the wreck, donned our diving gear and splashed in. My first brief impression of the wreck was of a very large ship, mostly collapsed down to seaward with the huge boilers dominating the site. The only mast now visible lay across what had once been the cargo hatch and the whole scene was quite melancholy and sad, as if the pain of those who had died still lingered in the remains of the once proud ship. I shook myself, to clear my mind of the negative feeling, and turned to ensure Graham was okay.

I was becoming aware that Graham was not quite the brilliant diver he’d led us to believe. He kept rolling around and adjusting his shoulder straps, clearing water from his facemask, with a lot of leg and arm movements, something I found very irritating. I like to remain as still and relaxed as possible underwater, so found Graham’s jiggling around very distracting.

Whilst I was distracted trying to assist Graham, we drifted in the slight current away from the wreck and into a cleft or gully in the rock, and it was there that I began to find small artefacts. I picked up a soup plate with a crest, a soup spoon, some other cutlery and what looked like a silver mustard pot. For me those sort of items bring back the poignancy of the moment just before the ship struck the rock, when everything on board was quite normal, but about to change dramatically for ever. Was it Mrs Compton-Swift who had just started the soup course? Or was it Miss Rodenbusch who was holding the cutlery, or Doctor Fallows who was passing the mustard pot? Quickly I placed the precious items into my sack and turned to check on Graham.

It was just at that moment that Graham’s mask filled with water and he began to panic, groping and thrashing about in a desperate attempt to break for the surface. I reached out to try to stop him only to be kicked in the face which dislodged my own mask, filling it with water. After clearing it I followed Graham up to the surface.

On the surface, the wind and tide were against us and Graham seemed to be having difficulty in just staying afloat (there were no buoyancy compensators in those days). So I told him to get his mask on and his mouthpiece in and we would go down on the bottom and swim back to the boat below the effects of the wind and tide. It was then Graham admitted that in his panic to reach the surface he had lost his mask and snorkel, which meant we would have to swim back on the surface, against the increasing wind and mercifully slight tide. I ended up practically towing Graham back to the boat and in the process inadvertently dropped my sack with its precious mementoes. When we got back to the boat I was so exhausted that I just could not climb up over the side and was obliged to just hang on and wait until my strength returned.

I felt really angry with myself, as I floated there hanging on to the boat, for accepting Graham at face value and in consequence putting both our lives in peril. But then, as I realised we would both be okay, once I’d regained my strength, my anger dissipated and I began to see the funny side of our still rather precarious situation. I had got into this predicament because Graham had told me a load of lies about his abilities as a diver, which I had only too willingly accepted, because Graham and his boat suited my purpose. Also, old Tommy Hocking and the lies and half-truths he’d woven into the story of the Mohegan, which had so intrigued me and got me interested in the ship, which once again I had accepted too readily.

As I clung exhausted to the side of the boat, with no chance of mustering enough strength to get aboard, the wind began to rise alarmingly. As the wavelets began to break against the side of the boat and over my exposed head, they made a sound rather like laughter. I couldn’t help but think it was old Tommy Hocking, having the last good laugh at my expense.

Image, Crew of the Charlotte.
The St Kevern lifeboat, Charlotte, and her crew, with Francis Tripp, fifth from left, back row, and Cox’n Hill, second from left, front row.

I never got another chance to dive the Mohegan, but I did, later, manage to track down one, still living, real hero of the lifeboat that night, Mr Francis Tripp. I arranged to meet him in his local pub, backed up by a few of his very ancient cronies. He confirmed that it really was him who had jumped down into the Mohegan’s lifeboat and freed Mrs Compton-Swift with an axe blow, but then added something that wasn’t in the RNLI records and quite surprised and saddened me. He claimed that as he was attempting to cut Mrs Compton-Swift’s hair, the boat had rolled, unbalancing him, and he had fallen sideways, causing his first axe blow to strike the leg of another woman, still alive in the lifeboat, cutting it badly. This woman, Mrs Lizzie Small Grandin, was gently lifted into the Charlotte. But sadly, in the darkness, while they were rescuing the people from the second lifeboat, she had become unconscious and quietly bled to death.

Later, when I related to Francis what Tommy Hocking had told me and how it had got me into such trouble diving with Graham, all the ancient crones laughed out loud. Francis told me that his old friend Tommy Hocking, who they all knew as ‘a teller of tall tales’, had never been to sea in his life and had got the lifeboat story from him when they worked together years before. As to the ruby ring Tommy spoke of, Francis reckoned that it was just one more of Tommy’s made up embellishments, which Tommy was apparently famous for. What they found so hilarious was that I had believed it all and fallen for it hook, line and sinker. As I sat politely smiling, enduring their laughter but quietly fuming, I had to admit that old Tommy Hocking really did have the last laugh at my expense.


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