Here it is a mist, here a fog, always in the end it conceals all things; it is called time. Almost faded from sight now, although not so far back through the obscurity, lies a drifting danger which is sometimes another mist, sometimes another fog. Here it conceals all things, here it shows the sea, and the changing darkness of a night sky.
To human perception we are all but lost as we move back through this obscurity to the midnight when Wednesday the 16th of March 1870 is giving way to Thursday the 17th March. The place – emptiness some twenty five miles south-west from the Needles, nearest point of land; the sea – a ‘nasty swell’; the wind – ‘light WSW’.
We are suspended in the quietness, the dampness of the mist, but then far away we hear a sound which will give us an anchor point in space and time – a sort of whisper. Two minutes later we hear it again. Then again … about once every two minutes. Again louder. Now taking shape as a sort of faint roar filtered by the dampness. On this sea it could be almost anything – the mating call of a marine dinosaur or sonar booms, or the gunfire of a dozen wars.
But this is 1870, and the roar is the steam whistle of the screw-steamer Mary, inching cautiously up-Channel through the fog, from warm spring sunshine of the south to cool spring dampness of home, from the deeper fog of time to this place where she can still be glimpsed a hundred years away.
As we are thought but no substance we may close invisible on the Mary, 893 tons, a dark hulk laden with maize from Odessa to Grimsby via Gibraltar, slowly heaving her way against the ebb tide, creeping east shrouded in her own patch of special fog. Destiny requires that fog to travel with her.
From below the bridge her Admiralty lights glow murky red to port, and murky green to starboard. Forty feet above the forecastle the white masthead light glows murky too, forward and round to both beams, at times barely visible from the deck, at times seeming to pierce into cleaner air. Suspended through a thimble from the foretopgallant stay at a position 15 to 20 ft before the mainmast and steadied by guy-lines to the forecastle rails and the bowsprit, we are to see more of this masthead light before the night is out. Everything is in order, but everything is far from right.
It is midnight as Mr Andrews, second mate, takes over the watch from the chief mate, Mr Griggs, and Captain Stranach stands on the bridge beside him, blind men feeling their way home as best their skill permits.
They are well aware of the peril of their position. Radio lattices and radar have yet to be the vaguest of future hopes; their only guides are dead reckoning and an occasional sounding, their only shield that steam whistle.
Captain Stranach does not intend to sleep until he and the twenty men of his crew – he has no passengers – are out of this lot, and he does not know, as we do, that his ship is moving with the very edge of the drifting fog.
He knows, though, that he has to allow for the pull and push of the tide, and that he has to contend with the cliffs of Dorset and the Isle of Wight.
His last fix was as he entered fog passing Start Point fifteen hours ago; since then his position has had to be calculated.
He is keeping well clear of land, but he is uneasy; he has told the officer of the watch to have a lookout posted and the steam whistle sounding. The Mary is a modern vessel, built only two years ago, and steered from the bridge, so the helmsman stands there behind Captain Stranach and Mr Andrews in the darkness.
Shut below water level, though, it is the engine room crew who have the least enviable station in such times of danger, and indeed all five firemen are to quit the ship when she eventually berths. From the engine room the fog is invisible, but the order from the telegraph is clear enough – half speed, for hour after hour. It can mean only one thing – the possibility of instant danger in a trap from which there is no more than one narrow vertical exit.
Mr Parker, the second engineer, takes over the engine room watch from his chief, Mr Clark, at midnight. He steps up onto the oil-soaked platform beside the engines almost amidships. During the next five hours he will keep a close watch on the engines, the steam pressure gauge and the telegraph from the bridge, whilst fireman Wood and trimmer Bullent tend the furnace.
Mr Parker likes these engines; they are ‘as handy to work as those of a river steamer’ At full speed in calm water their 90 HP can give the Mary 7 knots, gleaming cranks revolving 54 times a minute; but now they are idling over at no more than 18 to 19 revolutions a minute, and the steam pressure is down to 35 pounds, well below the normal 40 pounds.
Midnight sees the changing of the watch on the Mary; at midnight too, 45 miles away to the north-east, the paddle-wheel mail-steamer Normandy has slipped moorings in Southampton docks, her great black wheels threshing the dark water, and is standing slowing out into the river.
The Normandy is a proud vessel in a proud fleet, built with an iron frame and engines of 236 HP, a great power in relation to her size of 209ft length, 24ft beam and 12ft draft. She is operated by the Steam Packet Company, a subsidiary of the London and South-West Railway Co, on the Southampton-Guernsey-Jersey run.
As benefits a vessel of her reputation, the Normandy leaves sharp on time just before midnight. he is due in Jersey twelve hours later, and this is a schedule she has not often missed during the seven years since her building in Millwall. The agreement between the Steam Packet Company and the government for the carriage of Her Majesty’s mails to the Channel Isles states that vessels undertaking this duty are to make ‘the best of their way’ on the run, stopping only for ‘the saving of life’, under a penalty of £50 an hour, a penalty which has never been exacted.
Captain Henry Beckford Harvey stands erect on the bridge as the vessel gathers way and the lights of Southampton drop astern.
To Captain Harvey this is a routine operation on rather a pleasant night, but for him the good sea conditions offer no reason for any relaxation. He intends to remain on the bridge until well after the Needles are cleared at about 1.40am and the vessel is headed into the safety of open waters. The night is fine and clear, with a light wind from the WSW; the paddles of the Normandy begin to throw up a broad white wake as her pace steps up to her normal night-time speed of 10 knots.
Captain Harvey is 56 years of age and has been with the Company for 36 years, rising from before the mast to become a most respected master. He is prudent in poor weather and punctual in good; in one foggy period he is known to have taken 40 hours for the 12-hour passage, never leaving the bridge until the vessel was safely berthed at her destination.
He has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances amongst the travelling public in both Southampton and the Channel Islands. We are later to learn that one of the Captain Harvey’s good friends from the Islands is Victor Hugo, greatest of all French writers.
During that 40-hour crossing in fog some passengers may well have been anxious whilst the Normandy crept slowly through the obscurity, but tonight there is no need for concern. At the paddles settle to their rhythm they retire quietly to their accommodation, some to first and second class cabins below, others to the deck shelters.
A special pride of the Normandy is her lamps, the most powerful and up-to-date of any vessel operating in the Channel.
They will burn for 26 to 34 hours without trimming, and can be seen from a distance of 10 to 12 miles in good visibility. The deck crew know that the brightness of these lamps is their particular concern.
Mr Godwin, the second mate, is on duty until 2am, when he goes below to his berth leaving Captain Harvey on the bridge. This is the start of the watch of Mr Ockleford, the first mate, but we do not see him arrive nor do we see Captain Harvey retire to his cabin.
The two men probably exchange a few words in dim lamplight over the chart, the Captain pointing out their position, clear of the Needles now, and their course, SW by half S; he is certain to have asked to be called if there is any change in the weather, and to have checked that the two lookouts, Bennett and West, are at the alert.
Mr Ockleford is an experienced and trusted officer with a Master’s certificate, well versed in his duty after 16 years in the Company’s service. When the Captain retires he probably first walks aft to where Willis is standing on the starboard side of the great spoked wheel, making occasional slight adjustment to keep the Normandy true on course as ordered.
Tonight, therefore, there are the chief mate and three men on deck; normal for night running. In mist or fog ‘all hands on deck’ is invariably the order, and the whistle is kept blowing by a seaman permanently stationed for this duty, another remaining stationed by the telegraph to relay instant instructions to the engine room.
Tonight, however, there is no fog, and moreover there is no shipping forecast for mariners to which to turn for any warning. The atmosphere is hissing with random noise from a thousand radio stars, but even this goes unheard.
The myriad distorted voices of a later world lie unconceived and silent. We are silent too. We can see the looming danger but we are nothing more than spirits from the future, without substance or power to act.
It is perhaps as well. Such is the tangled interdependence of every thread of human activity, that if we could avert the impending disaster many of us would be instantly obliterated, to be replaced by others of the countless millions of alternative lives. One word of caution now might a century later destroy more of us than any holocaust.
At 2am the engine room telegraph of the Mary rings as it moves to ‘Stop’ and at almost the same time John Andrews shouts down to Thomas Parker to stop for a cast of the lead. Parker duly shuts the main steam control valve, opens the steam bypass, and the telegraphs back ‘Stop’ as the Mary coasts slowly to a steamy halt.
When most of the way is off the ship Captain Stranach motions to Mr Andrews to have the lead cast. The plumb slithers down through dark water to bottom at 32 fathoms, blind visitor from these blind men, arriving unheralded and departing without a sound; contact but no communion with an unseen world so close, yet more remote and strange than the surface of another planet.
Sullivan is on duty in the forecastle from 1 to 3am, and it is he who casts the lead. As he watches, the second mate glances at the lights, all burning clear and bright enough for now. They were last trimmed by the boatswain, Harley, at 10pm and will need to be trimmed again before his watch is out, but no hurry yet. He tells Sullivan to keep an eye on the masthead light as it is not visible from the bridge.
’32 fathoms, Captain’, and Captain Stranach leaves the bridge for a few minutes to consult the chart in his quarters. It lies open on his table, lit by a gently swaying lamp; 32 fathoms looks alright, and another calculated position is marked in pencil.
‘Half speed forward’. ‘Half speed forward’, and the order is repeated by the telegraph to the engine room; the time – 2.10am. And then by word of mouth from above – ‘Go as slow as you can’. Thomas Parker can make the engines go no slower without risk of loosing the vacuum, and he shouts as much back to the second mate.
At 3am we see him climb up for a short breather and to ‘pass a word’ with John Andrews on the bridge. Captain Stranach is not with them, and we cannot see where he is, but he may be on the deck. We hear Andrews once again urge Parker to run the engines as slow as they will go, and once again we hear the same reply.
The weather is very thick, the Mary wallowing forward at two knots, barely enough to give her headway; still that roar from the steam whistle about once every two minutes, whenever Andrews remembers to pull the chain running across the wheelhouse roof.
At 3am, too, it is time for Sullivan to be relieved on the forecastle, so he goes to shake the shoulder of English, asleep in the crew quarters forward. ‘Your watch Jim’.
It is a few minutes before English comes stiffly up on deck, still not fully awake, fumbling in his pocket for his pipe, his tobacco and his matches. Ruddy glow on a ruddy face in the swirling dampness as he takes deep sucks on the warm smoke.
This done, he glances up at the masthead light. It is beginning to burn dim. ‘Give us a hand Dennis’.
Together the two men untie the guy ropes securing the light to the forecastle rails and the bowsprit, and lower it to the deck. Sullivan takes it into the forecastle, pricks it out, wipes the smoke from the glass, brings it back and fixes it once more to its guy ropes; then the two men start to pull on the guys to bring it back into position 40ft above the deck.
Neither Captain Stranach nor Mr Andrews knows that the light is being cleaned. The Captain is later to say that it was ‘not proper’ for the light to be lowered without orders. It is never to get back into position.
At 3.30am the Normandy is closing fast on the Mary on a crossing course. She is still making 10 knots in fine weather, and all is well, but it is at this time that Willis, alone at the wheel, notices a bank of blacker blackness on the starboard bow.
Willis is not the lookout; it is his job to hold the wheel true on course as ordered – SW by half S. The great wheel activates the rudder through a system of blocks and chains, and the Normandy responds well to her helm, but it is hard work to make a major change of course. Willis takes the blackness to be a bank of rain.
Mr Ockleford, above on the bridge, must be able to see the blackness too. At night these things can be deceiving and he is reluctant to disturb the Captain unnecessarily, so he watches carefully for a few minutes. With his steady nerve he has found at sea that a little deliberation is always preferable to a panic response.
At 3.39am he takes his decision; the vessel is about to enter fog and fog routine must be adopted. The first step is to call the Captain.
West is immediately despatched to do so – ‘Tell the Captain it is coming on thick’.
As West slips out of the bridge he remarks to Bennett that it would be as well to put on their oilskins, then in seconds he is knocking at Captain Harvey’s deck cabin, opening the door and delivering his message. The reply comes at once, ‘Alright’, and he can hear the Captain getting up from his bunk. Within a minute West is back on the bridge.
At this stage disaster can be averted by no human action, be it made in panic or with the most calm deliberation.
Is it West or Bennett who first sees the red light two points on the starboard bow? We cannot tell, because suddenly there is tense anxiety on the bridge, three pairs of eyes straining into obscurity seeking its meaning.
‘Sound the whistle and stand by the telegraph.’
‘There is no masthead light’ it is a sailing ship.’
‘Starboard her helm, hard astarboard.’
‘It is a steamboat and she is right into us.’
It is Mr Ockleford who shouts the orders. He attempts a hopeless gamble against a certainty. Three ship’s lengths away the outline of the Mary emerges slowly from the murk, and only then, low down above her bulwarks, can be seen the masthead light which denotes she is a steamer.
The Normandy continues unchecked at 10 knots, attempting to cut round in front of the bow of what at first sight might have been a sailing vessel, almost becalmed and near motionless.
But why the order to starboard, inevitably bringing the courses of the two ships closer?
Because it is the standard response of a mariner to a situation of near-collision, deeply ingrained and legally established: both vessels to starboard.
The decisions to starboard and to maintain full speed are inconsistent, but Mr Ockleford will never have a chance or a need to explain, except perhaps in a few minutes time to Captain Harvey – if so, the passing years have mercifully drawn a deeper fog across the moment.
As the vessels close, the first sighting aboard the Mary seems to be made by the lookout Sullivan, now off duty but helping to draw up the masthead light. He shouts to Captain Stranach, ‘Do you see that light?’ and receives the reply ‘Where away?’
‘On the port side standing off the land.’
The Captain is later to say he had already seen the light, and replied ‘Where away?’ because that was his habit. He had first heard the noise of the paddles, then seen the green starboard light and masthead light of the steamer, soon to be followed by a sight of the vessel 2 points on his port bow and three ship’s lengths away. Captain Stranach is in the same disaster situation as Mr Ockleford, and indeed he hears the latter’s shouted order ‘Hard astarboard.’
The hopeless gamble of Captain Stranach is to order Mr Andrews ‘Full speed astern’, and William Larke at the helm ‘Hard aport’, in an effort to cant the bow of the Mary out of the course of the Normandy.
Neither the orders of Captain Stranach nor those of Mr Ockleford are able to affect the ponderous motion of their vessels in time to make any difference.
The wheel of the Normandy is hard astarboard a minute or so before the impact, that of the Mary hard aport a bare second before.
The head of the Normandy responds immediately, and she turns two or three points to starboard, moving ‘faster than the compass can follow’; West has run forward from the bridge to help Willis turn the wheel. The Mary is still advancing at about 2 knots, white water curling lazily round her stem, as the Normandy turns at 10 knots across her bow and towards her.
It is too late to do anything but watch. It will take half a minute to get the Mary’s engines to full speed astern, let alone stop her. As the seconds pass, the nine men who watch from the shadows are silent before the slow inevitability of the motion.
Captain Stranach is later to say ‘our whistle, and I say so whether it tells against me or not, was not blown from the time I saw the other ship until the collision.’
The bow of the Mary crunches into the Normandy just astern of her starboard paddle wheel. For a few seconds the vessels seem to hang together. With the rise and fall of the swell three times the Mary lurches heavily against the starboard quarter of the Normandy as she sweeps past, paddle wheels still flailing the water.
Captain Harvey comes to the bridge at the moment of disaster. He asks the helmsman if the helm is hard astarboard, and says to keep it so. On the final impact the engines of the Normandy fail, but under her momentum she glides on past the Mary’s battered bow, drops off her starboard side and disappears into the fog, mortally stricken. We see a hand, perhaps that of Captain Harvey, move the engine room telegraph to ‘Stop’.
From sleep, several dozens of men and women, and at least two children, awaken with a crash to unknown peril, and each must decide on the instant, whilst every hair on his head is standing on end. How he should react.
One of the first onto the deck of the Normandy is Mr Goodwin, the second mate who had gone off duty in fine weather at 2am. He is awakened by the steam whistle, and the first impact occurs as he comes onto the deck. He sees the bow of the Mary impaled astern of the main paddle box, and he sees it withdraw, leaving a hole ‘as big as a door’ in the side of the ladies’ cabin; he sees the bow lurch again into the ship’s quarter; and again clear across the stern. He examines the damage ‘minutely’.
The main rigging, bulwarks, and stanchions have all been ripped away, the davits of the lifeboat smashed and the lifeboat itself carried off. He immediately reports the damage to Captain Harvey on the bridge.
‘Shall I launch the other two boats?’
The Captain – ‘Clear the boats away. Hold hard a bit and I will try to get her under the other ship’s lee to save the passengers.’
Through the mist we can see Captain Harvey again, ordering the hatch cover off the after hold, then standing by the opening looking down to ‘a large body of water with the light baggage floating’. The situation is clear enough.
By this time the Mary, her engines full speed astern, is again in sight 50 yards away, and Captain Harvey is attempting to hail her Captain from his bridge.
‘Send a boat. We have passengers and we are sinking.’
There is no acknowledgement, so Colborn the boatswain roars out the message again. This time the answer comes faintly back from Captain Stranach across a widening gap of water. ‘Alright.’ What is not heard on the Normandy is Captain Stranach’s rider – ‘We are in danger of sinking also.’
Now the Normandy’s two remaining boats are cleared and quickly launched, a cutter and a jolly boat, one on the port side and one of the fore quarter; both are lowered together. On the Master’s orders the second mate takes charge of the jolly boat, and into this go with small ceremony four male passengers and six crew members.
It is the account of the loading of the cutter which will gleam across the years as a bright beacon of Victorian chivalry. In a sense those few minutes can be said to turn human disaster into human triumph. As the cutter rolls and splashes along the port side of the sinking vessel, steadied there by the strong arms of crewmen, Captain Harvey takes clear command, transforming a panic into a quietly ordered evacuation.
We last see Mr Ockleford handing a lady over the taffrail and down into the cutter. We see twelve ladies in all being helped aboard – Mrs Mary Cluett, Mrs Agnes Wood and Mrs Warden from Guernsey, Mrs M Priest, Miss Pope and Miss Clabun from London, Mrs Roberts, Miss Kenloch, Miss Clara Godfrey and Miss Louisa Roche from Jersey, Miss Burrowes, and Mary Charlotte Wilson, the stewardess.
We see one lady, paralysed with fear, owing her life to a young man called Dacombe of the Marine Artillary, who throws his coat over her and places her in the boat.
We see Walter Kenlock, a young gentleman just passed out from Sandhurst Royal Military College, draw his sister from her cabin, envelope her in his cloak and hand her to the cutter, then toss his little dog down to her for safe keeping as he refuses a seat until all the ladies are taken off. We see another lady passenger blocking the only passage, afraid to climb down, until a ‘man-of-war’s man’ pushes her into the water to be hauled safely aboard.
Mr Ockleford, Dacombe, Walter Kenlock and the ‘man-of-war’s man’ are all to perish with Captain Harvey.
We see one lady request her cabin baggage of Smith, an able-seaman of HM Ship Asia, on his way to Jersey to visit his wife and family. We see him clamber back aboard to loose his life for his gallantry – on his return the cutter has cast off.
And so, with 31 persons aboard, the cutter and the jolly boat depart with raggedly splashing oars towards the Mary, still drifting just in view a quarter of a mile away.
In the words of one passenger, ‘The Captain behaved with the greatest coolness and judgement under such trying circumstances. All the gentlemen stood back and made no attempt to get into the boats until the ladies were in them. During the whole occurrence extraordinary order and quietness prevailed, and the greatest fortitude was shown. I last saw Captain Harvey on the bridge, giving orders for the management of the boats and engines.’
As they sit in the boats most of the gentlemen seem to be fully dressed, except that a few have no boots; many of the ladies are in their nightdresses, some wearing men’s cloaks which have been passed to them. They will arrive back at Southampton twelve hours latter still in these same clothes.
It had been the ladies’ chief cabin which had taken the main shock of the collision, the bow of the Mary cutting in just above a berth where a child was asleep. The woodwork and mirrors were smashed to splinters and water poured in, but miraculously all passengers in this cabin were saved, ushered on deck by the stewardess but with time to retrieve nothing.
As those aboard the Normandy adjust themselves from quiet routine or sleep to mortal peril, those aboard the Mary do the same. The Mary’s stem is bent over from port to starboard, tearing away from the plates on the port side, so that there is a gaping hole from 7 feet below the water line to 18 inches below the upper deck.
The figurehead and bowsprit are missing, and the rigging attached to the later has been torn down too, bringing the masthead light upside down onto the forecastle, wrenched from the position where it was secured by Sullivan and English when they scattered before the impact. That masthead light will be produced later in court – undamaged. It cannot have fallen far.
There is a general cry that the Mary is sinking as the Captain and ship’s officers run forward to inspect the wreckage of the bow, but it soon becomes clear that the watertight bulkhead inside is holding the pressure for the present. Nevertheless, within five minutes the Captain has ordered the two lifeboats to be cleared and launched, one to pull to the assistance of the Normandy and the other to stand by in case the bulkhead collapses.
Fifteen minutes elapse before the boats are ready, and the starboard lifeboat is then dispatched under the command of Mr Andrews.
‘Take four men and pull away to the other steamer at once.’
In the boat are English, Sullivan, the boatswain Harley and a fireman Bunnett. These men are by no means convinced that the Mary is not herself sinking – they have seen the hole in the bow extending well below water level, and they have heard Captain Stranach’s should to the Normandy about their danger. English and Sullivan have time to snatch up their bags from their quarters and put them in the boat, just in case the ship founders in their absence.
As the Mary’s lifeboat sets out it is still possible to glimpse the vague form of the Normandy, but after a few minutes rowing the fog closes down and she vanishes from view. Soon the Mary’s boat meets the two from the Normandy, and the second mate of the Normandy urges the second mate of the Mary to hasten to save some of the ‘souls in danger’.
Mr Andrews is in a dilemma. He cannot see the Normandy, and wonders if she has already sunk; moreover both he and the boatswain are later to say they heard cries from the Mary, although Captain Stranach is to deny that there were any such cries.
‘We must go back and receive orders from the Captain.’
This decision may cost more than 30 lives.
Mr Goodwin soon gives up any useless urging and in silence the three boats pull to the Mary. The cutter arrives first. The jolly boat works her way round the Mary’s stern to her port side and disembarks four passengers and three crewmen; two of the crewmen, the cook and a steward, jump overboard and have to be rescued by the Mary, the others climb up a ladder.
The Mary’s boat heaves too under her stern, the crew laying on their oars as the second mate shouts up to the Captain, ‘Shall we go on, Sir.’
‘Yes, of course. What did I send you for?’
It had been about fifteen minutes row from the Normandy, still lost to sight. The three boats set off in her general direction, but before they can arrive, cries are heard. The cries are heard from the Mary also, but they do not last long – faint cries through the murk, ‘like Oh! Oh! Repeated twice.’
We hear the men in the Mary’s boat shouting ‘Steamer ahoy!’, as they pause in their search.
Through the fog we do not see the Normandy founder. We saw she was settling by the stern as her boats left her. We know that later Captain Harvey and Mr Ockleford started having the mail moved up from the locked mail room below, in the hope of saving it; a mail bag labelled ‘Jersey’ is to be picked up in Shanklin, Isle of Wight, five days later. We heard the cries. We can see a few pillows and rocket sticks floating on the dark water.
We can follow the futile search over the next few hours; rockets and blue lights; the Mary herself settling by the bow as the water gains on her pumps; her struggle back to safety in quiet water beyond the Needles, all men aboard assisting to jettison part of her cargo – the maize from the forward hold; Captain Stranach’s ‘great kindness’ to the rescued passengers; limping into Southampton to discharge the rest of her maize, whilst a crowd gathers round her bows to marvel that she did not herself sink.
We can see steamers diverting to search for several days afterwards. We can see the surviving passengers set out again the following night aboard the paddle-wheel mail-steamer Havre, and we will prefer not to watch the scene as she arrives in the Channel Isles.
Nobody knew for certain who was on the Normandy, as some of the tickets had been purchased aboard from Mr Ockleford; to this day we do not know if it was 17 or 18 firemen, and the ship’s boy.
We also know that 11 widows and 21 children were left by the crew, and that public subscriptions for their relief were opened in London, Southampton and Jersey, including one for a ‘lasting testimonial’ for the widow and children of Captain Harvey.
There is of course an official enquiry. If we wish we can attend this, but the finding is inevitable – the Normandy was travelling with an imprudent speed in fog, moreover she clearly infringed Articles 14 and 15 of the Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea by not giving way to a vessel on her starboard side. Captain Stranach is absolved, but the ‘irresolute’ conduct of his second mate is noted with dissatisfaction. The mater of the Mary’s masthead light is dismissed as irrelevant.
Captain Harvey does not have to answer before the court, and nor does Mr Ockleford, abut with the wisdom of hindsight we cannot but conclude that whatever might have been the view of victims of a technology which had moved in advance of its safety controls. The operations required of their ship demanded an electronic age – still a multitude of disasters away.
Even as we begin to commiserate with Captain Harvey and Mr Ockleford, caught in their trap of circumstance, we see that we have no need to do so. We see Victor Hugo rise in his considerable wrath to the defence of his friends, the officers of the Normandy.
We see him deliver an attack on the conduct of the Mary, brutally bearing down upon the Normandy to ram her at speed, whilst Captain Harvey stands on her bridge, navigating through fog with the greatest caution.
Victor Hugo follows with that eulogy of Captain Harvey which claims its own small place in the world’s store of classic literature, a eulogy which founds a legend based – it is in good company – on half-truth, but which will ensure that Captain Harvey’s undoubted virtues are remembered long long after the unnamed Captain of the Mary is forgotten.
And now, a century later, the Normandy lies there still, battered but not destroyed by time and the depth charges of two great wars. Her timbers are rotted away, her upper works collapsed, but her steel frame, her proud engines and her boilers are to remain a little longer – one of a thousand unseen monuments to the mechanical genius of the men who created that late Victorian dream.
She lies in another world on the edge of darkness, dimly visible at a depth of 30 fathoms through the murk of yet another fog, the topmost members of her frame picked out by phantom rows of sea anenomies, creamy pale, tight packed, concealing rust below. The busy commerce of an unknown generation passes so very close above, sonar beams continuously scanning the sea bed. There is contact but still there is no communion.
The brass engine room telegraph of the Normandy stands unwatched, encrusted with barnacles. It points to ‘Stop’, just as Captain Harvey ordered.