14: The Sad Story of Two Men in a Boat

What happened?


It was 10.30 on the morning of Sunday 15th November 1914. Cousins Charles Orchard and Alfred Wheeler were in a small rowing boat on Southampton Water about a quarter of a mile from the entrance to Ashlett Creek where they had set from being Fawley men. They were anchored and fishing where they had done many times before, just beyond the edge of the mudflats. They were not professional fishermen, they were just two working father's out for some recreation and hoping to catch some fish for the family dinner.


It was a bright, clear morning. As they sat there quietly waiting for ‘a bite’ they saw the Duchess of York, a paddle steamer operating as a ferry between Southampton and the Isle of Wight, come round by Calshot Castle about 1.5 miles away. At first there was no concern and then they watched as the ferry got nearer and nearer. At first they thought it was going to pass by quite closely, but safely, as the bow seemed to be pointing outside of the line of their dingy. As the Duchess of York got closer the full horror of what was going to happen became obvious. Charles Orchard shouted “They are going to run us down!” Both men stood up and shouted but by now the Duchess was just a matter of 50 yards away. They both crouched down in their boat as the ferry’s bow passed them by just a few feet away and then the steamer’s paddle smashed into the dingy throwing Charles into the water, what happened to Alfred is unclear but he obviously took the full force of the impact.

Neither of the two men could swim. It was a cold and rather blustery morning and there were few other boats about. In the water now, Charles surfaced and clung to a piece of wreckage. He was in considerable pain, especially his head and back.

On board the Duchess of York Captain Alfred Sherrington Mitchell of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment watched the incident unfold. He was stood on the deck and it appeared to him that the Duchess of York was heading straight for the dingy. It became clear to when they were less than 100 yards from the boat there would be a collision and he ran to the bridge shouting “Man overboard” and threw a life belt over the side towards Charles Orchard. He again shouted “Man overboard” and the crew reacted quickly by lowering a lifeboat into the water and Charles, who by then had been in the water for about ten minutes, was rescued and transferred to the Duchess of York.

Sadly, there was no sign of Alfred but, in any event, it seems that it would have been too late to save him. Some while later his body was seen floating near Calshot Castle by William Maddox Taylor, an acting bombardier with the Royal Garrison Artillery stationed at the castle. Taylor got into a dingy and rowed out to tow the body back to the Calshot spit shoreline where it was handed over to the police.

Why did it happen?

The Duchess of York was originally built with the bridge behind the funnel

The Duchess of York was an ironclad, steam-driven paddle steamer built on the Clyde by Barclay, Curle and Co Ltd for the Southampton, Isle of Wight & South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Co Ltd which we know today as Red Funnel. She was launched on the 28th May 1896 and was similar in construction to the ill-fated Princess of Wales which was involved in a collision and sank with the loss of three lives on her sea trials on the Clyde in 1888. The Princess of Wales was replaced by the Solent Queen which entered service in 1889.

All three of these paddle steamers were built with the bridge behind the funnel thus, presumably, giving good visibility over each paddle during docking maneuvers but the down side was that vision ahead for the helmsman was obstructed by the funnel. To overcome this the vessel was required to have men on lookout duties when at sea.

On the day in question the Duchess of York went about her routine journey from Cowes to Southampton under the command of George Bullmore who lived in Argyll Road in Southampton. Bullmore was 67 years old and had been a ship’s master for 40 years and had had no previous accidents.

In evidence to the inquest he said that he was on the bridge and in charge of the vessel, which was on its proper course, but did he not see the small boat ahead of them; he was not keeping a lookout himself, he was under the impression someone else was only to find out later that no one else was! Having passed Calshot Castle into Southampton Water he gave instruction for his boat to vere more to starboard which, although it would take her closer to the shore,  would give him better visibility as there was another steamer coming in the opposite direction. He was to the rear of the bridge where his view was also obstructed by the funnel.

It transpires that the man who should have been on lookout on the bridge was ‘down below’ and there was no bow look out in place either. The captain said he always gave strict orders that the lookout man should “do his work” and had no idea the mate “was below”.

The captain claims the first he knew of the accident was when he heard the smash of the impact, he heard no warnings but did give immediate instructions that the men in the water should be saved!

What was the outcome?

The inquest recorded that Alfred Walter Wheeler died having been accidentally killed after being struck by the paddle wheel of the steamer, the Duchess of York. The captain, the lookout and the mate were severely censured for neglecting to observe the regulations of the company by not keeping “proper lookout”.

The Company was also censured for continuing to use vessels with the bridge aft of the funnel where the view of the helmsman was obstructed by the funnel. This implies the Company had been previously warned about this. After this incident all the Company's vessels were modified and the bridge moved in front of the funnel.

At the time of writing this summary I do not know whether a prosecution of the Company, or the Captain, for negligence or manslaughter took place although my Aunt Helen, one of Charles’ daughters, recalled there was a court case surrounding her father and some form of financial claim. One thing is certain, if there was a court case the families were not awarded huge sums of compensation money as they might have been today!

Alfred Wheeler was buried in Fawley churchyard on Sunday 22nd November 1914 after a full ‘sung’ funeral mass in Fawley church. Many of the Fawley villagers turned out as Alfred was a popular local man who was a good all round sportsman. He was a key player in the village cricket team and a top billiards player in the local social club. The newspaper describes the scene at the graveside as “most pathetic”. Just 27 years old he left a wife, Annie and four children; Walter, Ethel, Albert and Elsie. It seems Albert also died in 1914 at less than a year old.

The full extent of the injuries sustained by Charles Orchard, who survived the incident, are unknown but it seems certain that they made him unfit for military service and was, therefore, not called upon to serve in the Great War. Whilst incurring severe injuries in such a way cannot be described as ‘fortunate’ it does seem some compensation that he should be spared the horrors of the trenches. He went on to father fourteen children and to live until well into his 80’s.

As for the Duchess of York? She was requisitioned by the Admiralty for service as a minesweeper during World War 1 returning to ferry work in 1921. She was renamed the Duchess of Cornwall in 1928 at the request of the Canadian Pacific Line who wanted to use the name “Duchess of York” for one of their transatlantic liners. In 1940 she was bombed whilst at the Royal Pier in Southampton and sank. She was raised and restored only to be scrapped at a yard in Northam, Southampton, in 1949.

What became of the Captain, George Bullmore, is unknown but I suspect he never took charge of a ship again! Whilst 67 may not now be considered ‘old’ over 100 years ago it certainly was and one might ask what a man of his age was doing in charge of a passenger carrying vessel! A male child born in 1914 only had a life expectancy of 52 so George Bullmore would have to be considered ‘advanced in years’. Also reflecting on this, he gained his master’s certificate in the mid-1870’s and probably as a sailing boat master, not a steamship captain.

The result of accidents like this did lead to considerable improvements in maritime safety for which we should all be thankful but that would have been of little consolation to the young family of poor Alfred Wheeler, a man who paid the ultimate price for the crew's negligence.



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