The last voyage of SS SWIFTSURE
                                         (researched and compiled by Tom Page, Cardiff, Wales. Edited and formatted by the webmaster)
 
 
 
        The port of Cardiff was once the greatest coal exporting port in the world, and in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, it attracted ships and seamen from all over the world.
        Many foreign seamen settled in Cardiff and married local women. Not only did Cardiff attract foreign seamen, but also seamen from other parts of the United Kingdom. Cardiff was a vibrant town, although it did have its darker side with illegal drinking houses, opium dens and more than its faire share of dubious ladies who would often relieve a hapless sailor of his meagre wages.
        The housing for the majority of the population was poor, with often 10 to 15 persons occupying one room. Crime and disease were rife, and so was the infant mortality rate.
        However, the boom to shipping, brought about by the discovery of coal in the valleys just 10 miles north of the town also attracted colliery owners and ship owners to Cardiff, all eager to swell their already bulging bank balances. Many ships were registered at the port, and many were owned and managed by local ship owners.
One such ship was the steamer SWIFTSURE.
        SS SWIFTSURE carried a crew of 23 and regularly plied her trade from Cardiff and Penarth, carrying coal to ports the world over. Although registered in London, the vessel was owned and managed by a Cardiff company, Messrs.Christie and Co., 72 Bute Street, Cardiff. In 1885 and 1886, her Master was George BURTON. George was a native of Stafford, but his last Crew Agreement gave an address at 39 De Burgh Street, Riverside, Cardiff. He was a married man with 5 young children, one of whom was born in Cardiff. Maritime Records have an address at 37 Stacey Road, Cardiff for him. It is likely he moved house just prior to his fateful voyage.
        I feel he must have been a good Master, as at least 18 of the crew have sailed with him on previous occasions. Of the crew who set sail on her ill-fated voyage on 7th August 1886, 3 were Cardiff born, and a total of 18 were residents of Cardiff at the time. Ther crew members who were born in Cardiff were the following:
 
                1. Henry F. RAUCH (44 years old), a Steward of 16 Coburn Street, Cardiff
                2. David KEENAN (24 years old), a Boatswain of 28 Ruby Street, Cardiff
                3. F.J. MOORE (24 years old), Able Body Seaman of 6 Victoria Street, Cardiff

The Steward Henry Ferdinand RAUCH was my wife's Great Grandfather. He had sailed with Captain BURTON on at least 2 previous voyages. As fate would have it, one of the seamen on board was a young Greek from Samos, named Antone ZOGRAFFO (25 years old), who resided in what was once Temperencetown in the hearth of old Cardiff. He was my Great Grandmother's first husband.

        On 29th October 1885, SWIFTSURE left Cardiff for Zanzibar, arriving at her destination on 15th December 1885. On this voyage, George BURTON, the Master, was accompanied by his wife and 2 of his 5 children. SWIFTSURE traded around Ceylon and India and returned to Cardiff on 22nd June 1886. Following a short trip to Venice on 2nd July 1886, the ship again returned to Cardiff on 5h August 1886. On 7th August 1886, she was to leave Cardiff for the last time, bound for Ancona in Italy with a cargo of coal. The vessel arrived in Odessa, Ukraine in mid-September 1886 where she loaded a cargo of barley intended for England. On the 26th September 1886, SWIFTSURE left Odessa for Portishead, a port on the Bristol Channel. En route, she called at Gibraltar, presumably for supplies and left there on 8th October 1886. SWIFTSURE was never heard of again. The following report was taken from the Shipping Gazette weekly summary:

    SWIFTSURE - London, November 8th - A ship's lifebuoy marked "Steamship Swiftsure" and the bow of a boat have been washed ashore at Marazion Beach, near Penzance.  (Shipping Gazette....November 12th 1886, page 724)

    PERRANPORTH - Truro, November 8, 12:10PM - A vessel's name board was picked up on Holywell Beach, near Perranporth, on the 6th inst., marked "Swiftsure". in 4-inch letters, painted yellow, shaded black.    (Shipping Gazette....November 12th 1886, page 725)

    SWIFTSURE - (report from Suline, Nov. 8th)    The Master of the "Triton" of West Hartlepool, reports as follows: "I left Cardiff for Malta on 13th October. At 7AM of the 15th, whilst hove to about 50 miles SW of the Wolf Light, the SWIFTSURE passed me, steering for the Bristol Channel. At that time, it was blowing hard from the WSW and high sea and hazy, but the SWIFTSURE was making very fair weather at the time"    (Shipping Gazette....November 19th 1886, page 773)
    This was the last sighting of the SWIFTSURE.

    On the 1st December 1886, SWIFTSURE was officially posted as missing. The Board of Trade returns stated that the vessel (who's cargo was insured for £7,860) and her crew of 23 had not been seen nor heard of since having been sighted by the Master of the TRITON on 15th October 1886. What had happened to SWIFTSURE?

    Newspaper reports at the time indicate ferocious seas in the Bristol Channel and off the coasts of Cornwall, Devon and West Wales. They were reportedly the worst in living memory. The South Wales Daily News reported the following

    Saturday, 16th October 1886
    "...Terrific storms...floods in South Wales...Disasters in the Channel....Incessant rain and high wind.... No arrivals in South Wales ports 15th/16th October...Cattle washed away...terrific South West Gale"
    Monday, 18th October 1886
    "Has nature lost its control of the universe....but worse of all arre the dreadful catastrophes on the sea which swallows up many a well bult vessel with its gallant crew, leavint little or nothing even in the form of a wreck, to inform mourning friends and relatives that they need no longer hope.)
    The following day
    "More wrecks washed up on beaches....great loss of life....bodies washed ashore along the South Wales coast....terrible sufferings at sea."
    Thursday, 21st October 1886
    "An Overdue Cardiff vessel - Great anxiety is felt in Cardiff owing to the non arrival of the steamship Swiftsure, owned by Messrs. Christie and Co., of that port, which left Gibraltar on the 8th ofthis month and should have reached home in 5 or 6 days.
    Among the crew of the Swiftsure, a vessel of about 1,100 tons, are 12 married men with large families in Cardiff...."
    Saturday 23rd October 1886
    "No news had reached Cardiff concerning the steamer Swiftsure, and people who had at first professed to be confident that no untoward mishap had befallen her, are beginning to abandon all hope."
    Tuesday, 26th October 1886
    "Missing Steamer Swiftwure - Loss of the crew - Up to Monday no news had been received of the whereabouts of the missing Cardiff steamer Swiftsure by her owners Messrs. Christie and Co., and there would appear to be little, if any, hope of her safety..........The Crew it should be stated was shipped on 7th August when the steamer was last at home, for a voyage to Ancona....."

    From the press reports at the time, it is quite clear that dozens of ships were lost in the vicinity of the Bristol Channel on the South Wales coast and the Devon/Cornish coast on those fateful days of the 15th and 16th October 1886. The storm was said to be at its fiercest at 10PM on 15th October. Some reports put the number of wrecked and missing ships at 43. Numerous bodies were washed ashore along the West Wales and South Wales coastline, as well as the coastlines of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Bodies were continuing to be washed ashore several months later. The SWIFTSURE is just one of those many ships that perished. Others included the NERBUDDA, the HENRY, the BRITANNIA, the OXEN, the AGNES, the TEVIOTDALE, the BENYGLOE, the FREDERICK START and the DOLPHIN. All lost in one terrifyingly dark ferocious night. Along with SWIFTSURE, at least one other Cardiff owned vessel, the steamship CASTLETON, perished in the storm along with her crew. The loss of both SWIFTSURE and CASTLETON resulted in the death of some 50 seamen. Cardiff must have been a sorrowful, grief stricken town with widows and family members mourning their great loss, and children especially grieving for fathers they would never see again.

    How would the families survive? Who would feed them? I wonder what happened to them. I know of the fate of only 2 of those families:

    1.  Henry Ferdinand RAUCH, the steward on the ship was 44 years of age and born in Cardiff. He resided with his wife Martha (née Davie - 37 years old) and his 2 children, Amy (10 years old) and Henry (4 years old) at 16 Coburn Street Cathays, Cardiff. Young Henry was my wife's grandfather.
    Martha was a native of Thornton in Cheshire and she and Henry had previously resided in the Bristol area. Just 12 months earlier, Henry and Martha lost their 8-month old son, Ferdinand, to an unknown illness. Martha struggled on alone to feed her family, but never remarried. She may have carried out cleaning jobs, cleaning houses for the affluent members of Cardiff society. One can only speculate.
    Martha died in 1913 aged 64 years. She had little or no money, and is buried in a pauper's grave in a Cardiff cemetery.

    2.  Antone ZAGRAFFO, 25 years old, a seaman from Samos, resided at 40 Eisteddfod Street in Cardiff's old Temperencetown, with his wife Elvira (née Brewer - 24 years old). There is no know child of the marriage. Nothing else is known about Antone ZAGRAFFO. Shortly after his death, his widow returned to her parents home at 2 Little Tredegar Street, Cardiff, a squalid wretched area, inhabaited and frequented by the dregs of Cardiff's society.
    Two years later Elvira married my Great Grandfather, Robert Page. Robert was himself a Marine Engineer who hailed from Dundee. He was a widower, some 20 years Elvira's senior. Robert had fathered 8 children in Dundee, and he and Elvira produced another 7 children in Cardiff, including my grandfather, Thomas James PAGE (born Cardiff 1889). Elvira died in Cardiff in 1949, at the ripe old age of 87 years.

    The fate of SWIFTSURE has long been forgotten in the mists of time. There is certainly no record of her fate, nor her importance to the port of Cardiff, recorded anywhere in Cardiff's maritime history. There is no monument to those brave seafarers who risked theri lives and died in one of the worst storm ever to hit the southern shores of the United Kingdom. A list of the lost crew was printed in the South Wales Daily News, but with such obvious glaring spelling mistakes, it must have been extremely difficult to truly identify their correct names.
    I have perused the Crew Agreement for the SWIFTSURE's last 3 voyages and append hereto a list of all those who perished on the vessel. Some of the names and addresses are difficult to read, and these are indicated with a question mark. None of the lost seamen have known graves, where family and relatives could have paid their last respects. No one knows their final resting place. To this day, the location of the wreck of SWIFTSURE is unknown.

    On the 23rd October 1886, the South Wales Daily News reported that a message in a bottle had been picked up on the North Devon/Cornwall coast. It read words to the effect:
    "Ship sinking fast....we have lost our funnel....No hope....Tell my wife I love her....My name is George RAVION, engineer on the SS DOLPHIN out of Liverpool....I live at 45 Fore Street, Bristol....hope someone finds this message...."
    A poignant and sad epitaph to all those seafarers who lost their lives.
 

Steamer "SWIFTSURE"
Crew list - 7th September 1886
George BURTON            38 yrs    Master            Born Staford            39 De Burgh Street, Cardiff
Richard TAVENOR         28 yrs    1st Mate                 Deal                "on board" and 3 ??? Road, Fulham
Philip THOMAS              48 yrs    2nd Mate                Carmarthen      44 Bridge Street, Cardiff
Hugh MASON                26 yrs    Carpenter                Down               28 James Street, Cardiff
Henry F. RAUCH            44 yrs    Steward                  Cardiff              16 Coburn Street, Cardiff
Giorge GOMES              44 yrs    Cook                      Capetown         H/A London
David KEENAN              24 yrs     Bosun                    Cardiff              28 Ruby Street, Cardiff
Thomas STAMMAS?      34 yrs     AB                        Corfu                15 Adam Street, Cardiff
F.J. MOORE                  24 yrs     AB                        Cardiff               6 Victoria Street, Cardiff
Edward JENKINS            45 yrs     AB                       Aberystwyth      4 Mayar? Street, Cardiff
Laurence MARITIAL?      34 yrs     AB                        Naples              197 Bute Street, Cardiff
Antone ZOGRAFFO        25 yrs     AB                        Samos             40 Eisteddfod Street, Cardiff
William MEDDER           28 yrs     AB                        Devon               22 Maud Street, Cardiff
William THOMPSON       37 yrs    Engineer                Antrim               72 Commercial Road, ?
John WISEMAN             36 yrs     2nd engineer          Glasgow            7 North Road, Cardiff
Frederick J. KENWARD  25 yrs     3rd engineer           Devon               4 Market Pde, Glos?
N. THOMPSON                           Donkeyman            Belper               14 Caroline Street, Cardiff
James EVANS               24 yrs    Fireman                  Port Talbot        71 Constellation Street, Cardiff
                                                                                                       H/A Port Talbot
C. OLSEN                     25 yrs    Fireman                  Norway              166 Bute Street, Cardiff
J. HANSEN                   32 yrs    Fireman                  Norway              175 Bute Street, Cardiff
Andrew HOUSTON        46 yrs    Fireman                  Derry                  65 Ordell Street, Cardiff
Olaf DURMAN?             24 yrs    Fireman                  Norway               30 Francis Street, Cardiff
John PIKE                    19 yrs    Fireman                  Bath                   1 Clive Street, Cardiff and
                                                                                                        15 Dowry? Squ., Clifton
 

    According to the Crew List, the two firemen underlined above, James EVANS and Andrew HOUSTON failed to join the ship. However, the Mercantile Marine records show that they were indeed on the ship and drowned, when it was lost in October 1886. The record also indicates they were replaced by the following:

William BASSET or BARRETT    29 yrs    no further information
James EASTWOOD (recorded as EARLWOOD)    38 yrs        Born Manchester

    Mercantile Marine records clearly indicate that 25 were on the vessel, including Andrew HOUSTON and James EVANS, although only 23 were reported as crews when the vessel was lost.
 

Sources

Memorial University of Newfoundland
South Wales Daily News...reports 1886
Cardiff Central Library
Guildhall manuscripts, City of London
Shipping Gazette...1886
 

Tom Page, Cardiff
tom.pag@ntlworld.com