A Most Fearful End
The Sinking of the Immigrant Ship Cospatrick on Route to Auckland in 1874

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Cospatrick at Gravesend, London

This is a testimonial to those brave souls who started out on life's greatest adventure and never made it.

Amongst the many hazards that may befall a ship at sea, fire must be the most terrifying. Almost everything on board was flammable, from the timber construction with tar-sealed joints and painted exterior to the tarred sails that drove the ship forward. Many stories have been recorded of ships catching fire, burning to the waterline and sinking while still more may be the un-recorded cause of mysterious disappearances.

One such ship, Cospatrick, bore a name which carried a huge amount of history. Maldred and Aldatha, members of early English royalty from the family of Etherlred the Unready and Alfred the Great gave birth to a son they called Cospatrick. He was to become the Earl of Northumberland and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Later events connected Cospatrick with the Home (or Hume) family of Scotland and a change of family name from Cospatrick to Dunbar after the castle built for the family.

The ship Cospatrick sailed from London bound for Auckland on September 11th 1874. On board were 429 passengers, a crew of 44 and general cargo. The Captain, A. Elmslie (brother of the former Cospatrick Captain) had brought his wife and young son on the voyage.

By Tuesday, November 17th Cospatrick was south-west of the Cape of Good Hope and "several hundred miles from land". At around midnight, just after the change of watch, the cry of fire rang throughout the still and sleeping ship. Those who arrived on deck first saw smoke billowing from the Bosuns locker in the ships forepeak. While the ships "fire engine" was being rigged, attempts were made to bring her head before the wind. This would drive the flames forward and away from the ship until those fighting the fire could bring it under control. The ship had lost steerage, however, and was virtually uncontrollable. She came round, instead, with her head to the wind and the smoke billowed forth to engulf the whole ship.

The fire soon took hold and began to spread throughout the ship. 'Tween decks burst into flames and tongues of flame could be seen issuing from almost every scuttle and air vent. An hour and a half after the discovery of the fire the flames had such a hold on the ship that her fate was sealed.

Panic stricken passengers started to rush the lifeboats and the first to get away, the starboard quarter boat, was swamped by the terrified migrants and capsized and sank.The second boat to be swung out, the longboat, caught fire near its bow and in the end only two boats got away from the ship. Carrying 42 and 39 survivors respectively, the lifeboats were forced to stand off from the burning ship and watch events unfold. Those left on the ship crowded her stern away from the flames but as the fire crept towards them the main and mizzen masts crashed to the deck crushing many of those crowded there. Finally the stern blew out signalling an end to the horror.

On the afternoon of November 19th the blackened, charred and smoking hull of this once proud ship sank beneath the waves. During the previous day and a half 394 passengers and crew had perished in the most horrific of circumstances. Richard and Sarah Hedges from Oxfordshire died on board with their children and grandchildren, the youngest of whom was 4 month old George. Young couples such as Robert and Ellen Scott (22 and 19 years old) from Ayr in Scotland never saw the opportunity for the better life they hoped for in New Zealand. Friends Patrick Connell (19) and James Connor (20) from Kerry in Ireland would never complete their great adventure while the life of the young Colonial Nominated Immigrant Michael McQuillon from Cavan in Ireland was cut short at the age of 22.

Those left in the lifeboats bore mute witness to this tragedy, unable to do anything but watch. With the end of the Cospatrick their attention turned to their own desperate plight. Most were in night attire and neither boat carried food, water, masts or sails. Indeed the starboard lifeboat had but one oar. While the two boats managed to remain together over the next two days November 23rd saw the wind increase and the boats became separated one of which was never seen again.

Many of those left in the remaining boat were gradually struck off one by one by thirst, hunger and delirium. The bodies of the first few to die were heaved overboard but as hunger and thirst amongst the remaining survivors increased, they drank the blood and consumed the livers of the dead to sustain themselves. Early in the morning of November 26th a boat passed within 50 yards of them but did not stop. Those who survived were sure it had seen them and described it as "a foreigner".

Gradually the survivors died until, on November 27th, there were seven left. Two more died that day and they managed to throw one overboard but were too weak to do likewise with the other. The following day they were all dozing, weak from hunger and deprivation, when Henry McDonald the Second Mate woke and saw a ship bearing down on them. It proved to be the British Sceptre on its way from Calcutta to Dundee. The ship rescued them and took them to the island of St Helena. Of the five who were rescued, one passenger, an ordinary seaman, the Second Mate, Quarter master and an able seamen, two (the passenger and the ordinary seaman) died a couple of days after their rescue. The three survivors out of a full complement of 473 souls are shown below.

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Edward Cotter Henry McDonald Thomas Lewis

Additional Information:

17 villagers from the Cotswolds town of Shipton lost their lives in the tragedy. Their loss is commemorated by a fountain on Shipton Green. This may be seen at the following website: