Book Review – The Loss of the S.S. Trevessa

Glancing through the shelves in the Jenner Room I came across a book with the title on the spine, THE LOSS OF THE TREVESSA. On opening the book I found that the title page read ‘1700 miles in open boats.’ The book was written by Cecil Foster, Captain of the ss. ‘Trevessa.’ It was originally published in 1924 and this was the second edition of 1926.

The ‘Trevessa’ was a steamer belonging to the Hain Steamship Co. of St.Ives. She was originally a German vessel named Inkenturm and built in 1909. During the 1914-18 War she was interned in the Dutch East Indies and eventually taken over by the British Government and sold to the Hain Line in 1920. Her gross tonnage was 5000 tons. The ships of the Hain Line were named after houses and farms in Cornwall. They would be known as bulk carriers today and went all over the world, picking up cargoes and carrying them from port to port across the great oceans. By the time she left Freemantle, Western Australia, on her final voyage on he 25th May 1923 she had already sailed from Liverpool to Canada, then to the USA and then, via the Panama Canal to New Zealand and Australia.

She had a cargo of zinc concentrates which should not have been a hazardous cargo had it been loaded properly.   The Lloyds Register surveyor at the port supervised the loading and he was satisfied enough to certify that the ship was correctly loaded.

Sailing across the Indian Ocean the ship was on a course towards Durban, South Africa, but on the night of June 3rd, in very stormy weather, it was found that the ship was taking water so seriously that there was no chance that it would remain afloat. After the radio operator had given the ship’s position in the hope that other vessels would come to her rescue, the crew of 44 successfully took to two lifeboats with only oars and a sail for propulsion.The ship sank 1640 miles out from Freemantle and the nearest land which was reachable with the prevailing winds was about 1700 miles to the west. These were islands, the largest of which was Mauritius but small enough to miss with only the sun and stars to navigate by. Rather than attempt to remain in the vicinity of the sinking and chance the unlikely event of a ship finding them before their supplies of water and food ran out it was decided to make for the islands. In any event they were at the mercy of the winds and the currents, and it would have been impossible to have held the two lifeboats close to where the Trevessa sank.

It was fortunate that both Captain Cecil Foster in charge of No. 1 lifeboat and First Officer James Smith was in charge of No. 3 lifeboat were men were of that generation of master mariners who were familiar with sail. Having a wide experience of sailing in all parts of the world they have known the winds and currents of the Indian Ocean. So much depended on the captain and the first officer to maintain discipline in the two very crowded boats, and strict rationing of water, milk and biscuits was enforced. Thirst was the great enemy and there were cases where men succumbed to the temptation of drinking sea water resulting in greater thirst and in one case led to death.

For navigation they depended on the sun and the stars, and it was remarkable that they were able to navigate with some sense of direction. They were without a useful compass and they had no chronometers, both of which are essential for steering and establishing the position of a vessel and the rate of progress. In the beginning the two lifeboats kept together but there were difficulties in keeping together as the captain’s boat was faster than than that of the first officer. They agreed to separate so that the first to reach land could summon help for the other boat.

It was remarkable that strict discipline was kept in such crowded boats with men close to despair. For much of the ordeal they were encouraged by the hope of rescue or of reaching land. They did capture rainwater which provided welcome relief from thirst but not all of it was drinkable since receptacles were contaminated by sea water .       

They spent about three weeks in the lifeboats, very cramped and hardly able to move and all suffered from lack of exercise and, most of all, water and food. The rationing was so strict  that they ended up with supplies they did not use but the length of the ordeal could not have been predicted. Eleven lives were lost, two in the captain’s boat and nine in that of the first officer. These were all due to the conditions suffered by those in the boats except for one instance when a man was accidently lost overboard.

The captain’s boat arrived at Rodriguez Island, part of the Mauritius group and the first officer’s boat arrived at Mauritius itself. No.1 boat had travelled 1556 miles and No. 3 boat 1747 miles. It was quite a long time before the men were able to eat any quantity of food and several were treated in hospital on the islands.

The book is very readable and the text is punctuated by extracts from the logs of the two boats.The captain was very much a man of his time in seeing the superiority of the white races over the ‘coloured’ as represented by the 13 in the lifeboats who were not European. At the same time the captain said that he could not have wished for a better crew and all did what they could to try to ensure the survival of each one of them. With a chart at the back of the book, the progress of the voyage can be easily seen. The book could have done with a glossary of  nautical terms since the language of the sea cannot always be understood by ‘landlubbers.’ The incident, though well known at the time and now largely forgotten, deserves to be remembered today and ranks with such long open boat voyages as that of Captain Bligh, cast off from the ‘Bounty,’ and Mary Bryant, who escaped from Botany Bay. One can also add Shackleton’s 800 mile journey in 1914 an open boat in the Antarctic after the sinking of HMS Endurance .         

The book ends with a summary of the conclusions of the Court of Enquiry into the sinking of the ‘Trevessa’ and there was criticism of the way the ship was loaded and one feels that the excuse ‘that this manner of loading has been general use for many years’ was not good enough. There was no satisfactory explanation as to why plates opened up in severe weather to admit a rush of water to cause the ship to sink.Were the repairs to those rivets in the hull seen to be defective before the ship left adequate?  It is highly unlikely that the wreck, lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, will ever be examined by divers which could be the only way to discover answers to these questions.


Cedric Appleby, Library Member

What you can find in the Morrab…

If you go through the green baize door into the Reading Room at the Morrab Library, you will see in front of you a shelf with the title  “What you can find in the Morrab” The selection of books displayed will change approximately every month. It is intended to demonstrate the wide range of material that the Library holds.

This month’s theme is “BOOKS WRITTEN IN JAIL”

 Sir Walter Raleigh “History of the World  According to ‘’1066 and All That” Raleigh was executed because he was left over from the previous reign. In fact he disapproved of the incoming monarch, James 1; the feeling was mutual and Raleigh spent thirteen years in the Tower, which gave him plenty of time to write. He was released to do a bit of piracy on behalf of the crown, but his trip to Venezuela was no more forthcoming that it might be today, so in 1618 he was decapitated.  

Sir John Friend “History of Physick”  Friend was a distinguished and scientifically reputable London physician. He made the mistake of going into Parliament (as  MP for Launceston). He was suspected of having Jacobite tendencies and spent six months in prison, where he started the first of a scholarly two volume history of medicine. The second volume came out after his release in 1726 and is surprisingly difficult to find.  

John Cleland 1709-1789 “Fanny Hill – Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” Cleland, like Friend a Wickhamist (but, unlike Friend, expelled) led a varied and undistinguished career until he ended up in the Fleet debtors’ prison. Here he wrote Fanny Hill, a novel of such explicit pornography that even in the eighteenth century it was immediately suppressed. He was hauled up before the Privy Council where Lord Glanville found in it some literary merit and awarded him a pension of £100. It remained suppressed, but widely circulated, until 1970. In these more enlightened times it has been reissued with illustrations, as a Wordsworth Classic; no respectable library should hold a copy.  

John Bunyan 1628-1688 The Pilgrim’s Progress   Bunyan was the son of a tinker, but attended a grammar school at least for long enough to learn to read and write. A devout Anglican, he made a deep study of the Bible, absorbing on the way the rhythms and cadences of the King James’ version. He was on the Parliamentary side in the civil war, where he was exposed to the passionately held and widely differing ideas  of how to live the Christian life. He gradually espoused Calvinist doctrine and became a Baptist preacher. It was his refusal to conduct services in the prescribed format that led to a decade long imprisonment and to Paradise Lost. Packed with incident and mildly satirical it needs no praise from me.

“The Man Died. The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka.” Set at the time of the hideous Nigeria/Biafra/Oil war , this is one of the hardest hitting accounts of life under a despotic regime that one can read. Soyinka was a poet, author and playwright who became Africa’s first Nobel Laureate.  

Adolf Hitler “Mein Kampf In the mid twentieth century everyone knew about Mein Kampf but very few had read it. It is an extremely boring account of the rise of the Nazi party, written whilst Hitler was in jail for his political activities after the first world war. It degenerates into a long and frenzied diatribe against the Jews. This edition was produced in parts by the Red Cross in order to remind us what we were fighting against. The illustrations are enlightening.  

Sir Thomas Malory (1416-1470) “Le Morte d’Artur He was not a good boy. By the time he was 35 he had committed attempted murder, rape (twice) and had sacked an abbey. This earned him his first jail sentence; after his release he committed the even greater crime of switching from Yorkist to Lancastrian. This earned him two more years in jail, during which time he completed the work. It was published by Caxton, but he may never have seen a copy as he died five months after release.  

Boethius “Consolations of Philosophy  Boethius was a senior civil servant under the Ostragothic King Theodoric. He attempted to bring together the Eastern and Western Christian churches. This was a mistake and he was accused of treason and spent a year consoling himself with philosophy before trial and, in 532 AD, execution. Some say he was framed, others do not; some say he was hanged, others that his head was compressed until the eyes popped out.     

Oscar Wilde “De Profundis This is in the form of a letter from jail to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. He possibly wanted to send it page by page, but this was forbidden, so, on his release he passed the whole 50000 words to Robert Ross, for onward transmission. It was Ross who gave the letter its title and who published a heavily redacted edition.  

“Prison Noir” edited by Joyce Oates  This is the noirest of noir. An anthology of short stories, it contains rapists, drug dealers, multiple murderers and mere single ones – and that is just the authors. It is hardly surprising that the stories were selected from a submission of many hundreds; the USA, with 5{68e87bb9641c9f43af8c28c29e83868a48fcd62dffda0820d3a7be1c382fd810} of the world’s population, holds 25{68e87bb9641c9f43af8c28c29e83868a48fcd62dffda0820d3a7be1c382fd810} of all its prisoners. Have a stiff drink before you start the book, and an even stiffer one afterwards.

Martin Crosfill Honorary Librarian

The Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (a gift from the Hypatia Trust)

Wednesday 22nd August: Formal Handover by the Hypatia Trust
Finally – A room of our own
In 2012 the Hypatia Trust launched a campaign called “A room of our own”– inspired by Virginia Woolf’s seminal feminist essay–to find a new permanent home for the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and just over 6 years later this 3000-strong collection of books and papers has finally found a permanent public home at the Morrab Library.
Hypatia has permanently gifted the Elizabeth Treffry Collection to the Morrab Library with a number of fittings and accessories to aid the continued cataloguing of the books and archives for the benefit of the public.
Dr Tehmina Goskar, Heritage Lead for the Hypatia Trust said:
“This move has been a long time coming. Echoing the struggles many women face to have their achievements recognised, recorded and valued, I am both relieved and delighted at the Morrab Library’s offer to be the place where the only collection dedicated to Cornish women will reside. And what a year to do it, to mark the suffrage centenary–the possibilities for women’s studies and women’s heritage in Cornwall have gone up considerably. We have numerous supporters to thank for making this happen, but in particular everyone involved in the Heritage Lottery-funded History 51 project in 2013 and the Tanner Trust who supported the cataloguing of the collection.”
The collection of books, information boxes and archives covers a range of topics from Cornish women’s achievements to their literary triumphs. It also includes works by women who have adopted Cornwall as their home or for whom the Duchy has been an inspiration.
Lisa Di Tommaso, Head Librarian of the Morrab Library said:
“We think the Morrab Library is a fitting permanent home for the collection. The library celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. It remains one of the last independent libraries in the UK, and with connections to Penzance’s late-18th century Ladies’ Book Club it is a very appropriate home for this unique collection of women’s writing.”
In a room of its own that has been lovingly decorated and set up by the library’s staff and trustees, readers will be able to use the collection for research and inspiration from this Autumn.