The Brisbane Courier Thursday July 15, 1909


News was received in Sydney to-day of one of the most heart rending ocean tragedies that have occurred in Australasian waters. The Norwegian barque Errol (Captain Andreasen), bound from Chimbote, on the west coast of South America to Newcastle, was wrecked on the Middleton Reef, 99 miles from Lord Howe Island, and of those on board only five survived to tell the tale. Seventeen persons were drowned, including the captain, his wife, and four children, and the first and second officers. But for the providential arrival of the Island mail steamship Tofua the few who were rescued would inevitably have perished. As it was, they were in the last stages of emaciation and exhaustion. Their accounts of the disaster comprise stories of shocking suffering and hardship.

From accounts given to the captain and officers of the Tofua, it appears the barque Errol left South America for Newcastle on April 15, and encountered favorable winds and weather until the vessel reached the vicinity of Lord Howe Island. Here headwinds retarded her progress until about, midnight, when she crashed on to the northern point of a circular chain of rocks known as the Middleton Reef, near where the ship Annasona was wrecked some years ago. The barque crashed with full force on the reef, swung round, and lay broadside on to the waves, which soon rendered her a complete wreck. The north-west wind and heavy sea every minute made the case seem more hopeless.  The whole of the deck and fittings amid ship was washed away. Then the ship broke her back and stem, and the stern subsided on to the reefs.

When the Errol struck the first mate and two seamen were -washed overboard and drowned. The survivors held on till morning when an attempt was made to construct a raft. On the fourth day, the captain and second mate were swept away by the undercurrent and drowned. The captain's wife and children, the eldest being only nine years old, witnessed their husband and father drowning and were powerless to help. The captain and officers being lost, the men endeavored to complete the building of the raft. There were hardly any provisions procurable, but the men hoped to reach the Annasona a few miles away. The waters were alive with sharks, which hovered around the wreck.

Failing to construct a raft on the rocks the men put together some timber on deck, but they were separated from the captain's wife and children and one seaman, who were in the after end, by a stretch of foaming shark-infested waters. Eventually- accounts as to dates are conflicting-the raft was completed, and leaving Lawrence, an able seaman from Sydney in charge of the widow and orphans, the others put off to the old wreck. Their few provisions were lost, and with great difficulty, they escaped being drowned or devoured by sharks. After being blown out to sea, and fortunately again making back into the lagoon, the survivors reached the southern line of the reef. Then, weak and exhausted, the five men attempted to crawl along the jagged rocks to the dismantled Annasona. One of the seamen, a big strong man, collapsed from sheer exhaustion and had to be left to his fate.

Reaching the old wreck, at last, the unfortunate seamen found absolutely nothing in the shape of food or drink. Weak and almost famished they resorted to drinking salt water, which only aggravated their plight and drove them to the verge of madness. When death seemed inevitable black clouds appeared, and for three days heavy rain afforded a grateful respite. The tank and scuppers were filled, and this water, supplemented by a supply of shellfish, served to keep them alive for some days longer. Once plumes of smoke from a passing steamer was sighted, but the hopes thus kindled were not realized, for the vessel loomed up on the horizon, and passed on without altering her course, leaving the shipped wrecked four on the old wreck almost in despair.

In the meantime Lawrence had a pitiable experience, on the Errol. The unfortunate captain's wife was heartbroken, and with her children was absolutely helpless. The two seamen and the sailmaker were also there, but there was no food or drink. Lawrence dived into the hold and found some provisions and tinned milk, which lasted for a couple of days, but one by one the castaways died of starvation. First the children, then the captain's wife, and afterward the seaman until Lawrence alone remained. On Monday last, when the survivor thought he would follow his shipmates, the Tofua was sighted, and the party taken aboard.


John Lawrence, one of the survivors, is 27 years old, but he looked double that age today as weak and exhausted, he in a low tone told how, when Palmer's party set off, he had been left in charge of the little party on the wreck, and of how he had watched all of them die one after the other of hunger and thirst and wretchedness. There were nine of them when Palmer's party left. First, the two youngest children went next day, the captain's  wife, then the two older girls, then the sailmaker, and the two ordinary seamen last. His story was, as might have been expected, a little mixed and broken, but in the main, it was quite clear. The party on the wreck were at the stern, and out of reach of water, and there they waited hoping for water, nine of them and the Mack cat. "A great black tom, he was," said Lawrence, " and he knew how things were as well as anyone. He was that intelligent."

They had no food, Whatever, except shellfish, for which Lawrence dived among the rocks, and a couple of tins of condensed milk, which ha also dived for. Only once they got fresh water, and that was in the rainstorm when Palmer's party got their 50 gallons. Lawrence unshipped the brass ventilator and they turned it upside down and caught a pint or so in the elbow of it. They drunk salt water. They knew what would happen, but they, could not help it. Most of them were wild with thirst. Lawrence drank less and suffered less, and he survived. "I had read a lot about Shipwrecks," he said, " about how to keep the body saturated with salt water so as not to feel the thirst so much. I only touched an odd mouthful of salt water. I drank a little of the rainwater when we had it, but the children had it first. None of us took it before them, not even the cat, he was that sensible. I don't know how it happened," he went on, " but I didn't feel the thirst so much. I felt it a lot more since I came ashore," and he smiled. His lips are still blackish, and look cracked. There is a withered, aged look about them all.  Their brains seemed dazed, and their forces are so crashed they seem hardly alive. Others drank salt water though, he said. The missus drank it, and the children and some of the men bogged into it as if it was fresh. The woman and children bore up wonderfully.

Of the captain's wife, he said: " I could hardly say how she did stand it. It was like as if she didn't see all the things that happened round about, and all the men dying. The skipper, he was drowned down there on the reef right in front of her, and she couldn't do anything. She just watched. She seemed to take it pretty calm. She was a big strong woman, and she stood it well enough, and the children were little bricks. By Jove," said Lawrence, rising himself half up on his elbow, " I thought I had seen some hearty children, but these were proper little bricks. Nice little children, too. The youngest one, that was a proper brick, that one. She didn't complain much. Just sang out a bit."

But there seems to have been a fear of something worse than thirst.  As the days went, and they heard nothing from the raft. And saw no ship, the men got pretty wild. "There was talk about the children," said Lawrence. "The men said they would soon die, anyhow. One of the ordinary seamen talked so wildly about the children that I feared for them, but nothing came of it. I was on the move all the time in case. I told them nobody was going to do anything like that, only cannibals, and then when the children died some of us threw the bodies overboard. "They wanted to Kill the black cat, too. I kept him to the last. It might have come in handy right at the last minute. A good suck of his blood and then-. At the end, I did kill him, and I was going to suck his blood, but somehow I felt too weak and sick. I was too far gone."

The ages of the children range from 1 to 8, and the two youngest were the first to die. Lawrence used to make them snug at night in a corner of the stern. One evening he tucked them in blankets as usual, and they seemed well enough. The next morning they were gone. "I think," he said, "the missus threw them overboard herself. She was a big, strong woman, and could have done it easily enough. She would have done it to put them out of their misery, or perhaps she was mad. She was getting scratchy like, and the next day she was dead herself.  She just died where she was lying as if she was wore out. The men couldn't have hurt them. They were too far gone, and then the other two children died, and then the men. I looked out but saw no ships, and I was pretty bad, though not so bad as you would think, and all dried up with thirst and salt. Then I saw the punt come over from the other wreck and I jumped into the water to it."


It has always been the custom of Captain Halford, of the Union Company's steamer Tofua, to pass close in to the Middleton Reef on trips to and from Fiji, and to carefully scan this danger spot for castaways. On the present occasion, he noticed a second vessel on the reef, and also what he took to be signals of distress flying from the pole on the foremast head of the Annason. Coming on as close to the reef as was compatible with safety, he then observed a boat with a sail up, and the occupants making frantic endeavors with the aid of a broken spar to reach the steamer. Realizing the straits to which the seamen had been possibly reduced. Captain Halford sent off the lifeboat, under the charge of the mate, with stimulants, including brandy and water. The shipwrecked sailors simply tumbled into the lifeboat, and on reaching the Tofua Lawrence and Jensen were so helpless that they had to be carried up the gangway. Once on deck the sufferers were supplied with warm clothing and put to bed. The steward was told off to attend them, and they were fed every two hours with beef tea and port wine. On arrival at Sydney to the survivors from the Errol were taken to the Scandinavian Sailors' Home.

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