Sunday, 15 March 2015

Postman's Park (3): Mary Rogers

The twin-screw steamship Stella was operated by the London & South Western Railway Company between Southampton, Jersey and Guernsey as an extension of its railway service to the coast. Its rival the Great Western Railway ran a service from Weymouth; the two competed on the speed of their crossings, often racing each other from the Casquets reef to St Helier. Although the companies did not officially acknowledge the competition, passengers were well aware of it and the newspapers reported it.

On 30 March 1899, both companies were running their first daytime service of the year. Travelling to the Channel Islands, the Stella hit thick fog. It was nearing the Casquets reef, notorious for its danger and the number of ships which had been lost there. Although the Casquets did have a lighthouse, the light was not visible due to the weather conditions, while the Stella didn't hear the fog signal until too late. The captain believed that the reef was still several miles ahead, a mistake which had tragic consequences: still at full speed, the Stella ran aground on the Casquets and sank in eight minutes.

Press reports stated that the conduct of those on board was exemplary, with no men leaving the ship until all women and children were in lifeboats - this appears to have been exaggerated as one lifeboat contained a number of men but only one woman, while some women and children seem to have been left on board. Those who made it to the lifeboats suffered a long night in cold seas. One capsized at launch, although survivors clung on to it; finally righted by a huge wave, it was flooded and swept along by the tide for nearly 24 hours before being found. Among those who died during its night at sea were the mother and brother of Bening Mourant Arnold, who survived only because his mother had tied the laces of his football to his shirt collar. Tragically, according to his father's memoir, Bening had sighted the lights of Alderney harbour but because another passenger believed that two red lights meant danger, they rowed away and were carried down the French coast.

Among the 105 who died was Mary Rogers, the senior stewardess. She was born in Frome, Somerset but married a seaman from Southampton. By the time of the disaster she was a widow with two grown-up children and a dependent father; her husband had been washed overboard the Honfleur six years earlier. When disaster struck the Stella, it is said that she calmly got the women out on deck and into lifeboats. One woman was without a lifebelt; Mary gave her her own. She then refused to get into the boat herself, as it was already full and she would not risk endangering it. She waved it goodbye; as the ship went down, her reported last words were, 'Lord, have me.' Her body was never found. (The accuracy of this account has been questioned by Jake Simpkin's research, but whether or not the story's details are all true, her conduct and that of the other stewardess Ada Preston certainly deserved praise; 'the greatest admiration' was expressed by the Board of Trade inquiry.)

Mary became a national hero. Feminist Frances Power Cobbe proposed a memorial; £570 was raised and the money was shared between Mary's family and the construction of a memorial on the quay at Southampton. Mary also has a stained glass window in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral; a memorial was placed on the harbour wall at St Peter Port, Guernsey in 1997. William McGonagall, best known for his poem on the Tay Bridge Disaster, was also moved to verse on this occasion although he did not mention Mary Rogers. In his inimitable style, he begins:
'Twas in the month of March and in the year of 1899,
Which will be remembered for a very long time;
The wreck of the steamer "Stella" that was wrecked on the Casquet Rocks,
By losing her bearings in a fog, and received some terrible shocks.
Rather more elegantly, Mary's plaque on the Watts Memorial reads:

MARY ROGERS, STEWARDESS OF THE STELLA, MAR 30 1899, SELF SACRIFICED BY GIVING UP HER LIFE BELT AND VOLUNTARILY GOING DOWN IN THE SINKING SHIP.

Following the disaster, the two steamship companies finally agreed to co-operate. They ran services on alternate days, pooling ticket receipts: there would be no more racing. As for the Stella, its wreck was rediscovered in 1973 by divers Richard Keen and Fred Shaw. They kept its location a secret until it was rediscovered by John Ovenden. With David Shayer, he has published a book on its discovery.

In the Guernsey Folk and Costume Museum courtyard is the captain's skiff from the Stella. Smaller than the ship's lifeboats, it nonetheless carried 14 people to safety during the events in which Mary Rogers lost her life.
 

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