The Shipwreck of the Stella
The Casquets, the set of towers we’d seen on the flight in, is not surprisingly an important figure within the recent history of the island but the most interesting and tragic story is told at the Maritime Museum: the wreck of the Stella.
In the 1890s the competition between the ‘London and South Western’ and ‘the Great Western’ railway companies was heating up. The route across the Channel to the Channel Islands became the main battleground, with the ships openly racing each other to get their passengers ashore first. A number of issues were reported (with the Captains generally claiming they were “racing the tide”) but generally this competition was seen as exciting and a newspaper article in the Guernsey Star reports on a race between the Ibex (Great Western) and the Frederica (London and South Western) as if it were a sporting event. “The Frederica, skirting near the rocks and crossing the Ibex’s bows, beat the latter, after a grand race, by one minute and a half at the pier heads.”
The Stella was one of three steamers put into service in 1890 by London and South Western specifically for speed; the company’s advertising focused on best crossing times. By 1899, however, there had been at least one accident due to the competition (the Ibex struck a ledge going full-speed 40 feet from the Frederica) which led to an inquiry and the Captains certificate being suspended for six months. A sensible concern regarding the racing is beginning to arise and the two railway companies were “making tentative efforts to call a halt”.
However, the ‘Easter run’, the first daylight runs of the season, whetted interest in the best crossing times and spirits were high with special low fares offered for the holiday.
The Stella departed on March 30th under the command of a seasoned Captain within this context: a priority of getting the ship and her passengers to the Channel Islands as quickly as possible.
The ship met rail passengers from Waterloo at Southampton and then began the trip to Guernsey and Jersey with 217 on board. The weather was sunny and clear when they departed Southampton and continued to be fine as they passed the Isle of Wight. Shortly after passing the Needles, a thick fog began to form. The captain slowed to half-speed until they cleared the fog and then resumed his initial speed of 18 knots.
Shortly thereafter the fog descended around the Stella again but the Captain kept the ship at 18 knots. The Captain and various crew members, including the first officer, remained on the bridge, with a seaman sounding the fog whistle. At this point, the Captain and crew seemed to believe they were still half an hour away from the Casquets: a dangerous reef with three lighthouses placed upon it which was used as a standard visual turning point for the route to Guernsey.
It is unclear how the Stella had managed to veer off her course but at this stage she is still travelling at 18 knots in heavy fog. ‘The Wreck of the Stella’ by John Ovendon and David Shayer gives the following chilling account of Captain Reeks final moments:
“At 4pm three things happened simultaneously. Reeks heard — and the sound must have made the hair stand on his neck — a fog-horn blast of immense power from directly above his head; Hartup in the bow yelled ‘Stop her’ and ran back along the deck covering his head with his forearm; and at the same moment the men on the bridge and a handful of passengers on the deck saw, ‘as though a door had suddenly opened’, an immense rock loom out of the fog 80 yards directly ahead, towering over the ship.”
The Captain tried evasive action but it was too late and the Stella was going too fast. The dangerous shoals of the Casquets tore out the bottom of her hull. The fog was such that the keepers of the lighthouse never saw a thing.
Within 8 minutes the ship had sunk. 105 passengers and crew died in the worst disaster in the history of the Channel Islands’ mail steamers.