Mutiny on the Ostrich

This story is a fictionalised account of a real event. If there was ever a ghost ship sighted off the Leas at South Shields one unseasonably dark and stormy July night, it would have to be the Ostrich. The loss of the Ostrich at Manhaven in the early hours of 31st July 1866 is one of the most tragic and at the same time most mysterious shipwrecks on the North East Coast. There were no independent witnesses who could say what happened when the former East Indiaman came ashore and the accounts of the four survivors from the crew of 14 were criticised in the press as “unreliable”. An inquest at Whitburn blamed the Captain and Mate for the disaster because of their “inexplicable” decision to remain at anchor overnight in the exposed Tynemouth anchorage after the ship sailed without four of her crew. Another inquest at North Shields exonerated the officers ignoring evidence that the crew had been drinking heavily and concluded that the cause of the wreck was simply a squall of unusual severity, and no one could be held responsible for the tragedy. My story is a plausible explanation of the strange events surrounding the wreck and it should be clear from the narrative where verifiable facts end and speculation albeit based on evident begins. There is still one piece of evidence that might go some way to settle some of the issues surrounding the wreck. The Ostrich’s best bower anchor may lie off Manhaven and if it were found intact then it would be likely that she dragged south for some time before going ashore. If it were found to be broken then the account of the crew that she came suddenly on the rocks almost without warning would be more credible. I hope that this account might inspire some local divers to conduct a search – the odds would be against it being found but it would be an interesting project. If the chain broke it would be in the anchorage off Tynemouth and be unlikely to be found because of the pier works, but then marine archaeology is built on endless optimism.


A Merchant Navy Barque by an unknown artist, Hull Maritime Museum

Captain George Jackson much preferred to be at sea than on the land, and on the evening of Monday 30th July 1866 he was particularly anxious to be well clear of the coast, as the weather was unusually unsettled for the middle of summer. At 5pm when the tug Home was booked to tow his ship the Ostrich out sea four of his crew were missing, so he asked the tug to take the ship a mile and a half out to the anchorage and planned to wait there for a short time until the absentees were brought out. The Ostrich an old wooden barque built in 1845 wasn’t an easy ship to handle, and he needed a full complement of hands, so he had no choice but to wait for the four men to board, an irritation which was a common problem on the river. Once as an East Indiaman the Ostrich was one of the top ships on the river taking passengers and freight on her regular run to Madras, but now most sailors thought her outdated, uncomfortable, and slow compared with the latest steam ships and were reluctant to ship unless there was no other alternative. Captain Jackson was confident that the missing men would turn up, so he ordered the crew to prepare the ship for sea securing her with just one anchor on a short chain in the anchorage off Tynemouth as he didn’t expect to stay for long. The carpenter Thomas Miller who had been drinking with new men was on board when the Ostrich sailed, and he said the four absentee’s money was spent and they would be brought out by the tug as soon as it returned to New Quay after leaving the ship. Miller was an unreliable man, too fond of the drink for the Captain’s liking, but he did stay with the Ostrich when she arrived in Shields on the 5th July after three years in the West Indies when the rest of the crew jumped ship and Captain Jackson would have had problems finding a replacement. He had his eye on Miller and the carpenter would be replaced with the rest of the crew on their return from Cronstadt if the free availability of drink effected his work. In the meantime, the scratch crew picked up in the seamen’s bars and lodging houses that filled the Low Street would have to do for the easy summer trip to Russia with coal. Captain Jackson looked at the crew who were trying to give the impression of being busy with their work without doing very much: perhaps he could make seamen out of them on a long voyage in three years, but not on this trip so he would sign new men for the Caribbean, the Ostrich’s usual territory when he returned.


The Ostrich arrived in the Tyne at the beginning of July at the end of a violent and bitter seamen’s strike which paralysed the North East Coal trade for most of the early summer and left many seamen unemployed. Captain Jackson had no trouble signing men of the lowest class to make up his crew at the low rates the owner was prepared to offer, but next time he would stand his ground to pay more and get the men he wanted. His only worry was that he had taken his thirteen-year-old son Jacob on board for a “holiday” to give him a taste of life at sea, and while the experience would certainly open the boy’s eyes to the realities of his father’s trade, he hoped it would not deter the lad from following in his footsteps as he thought compared with other professions the sea offered a good living.


In the dark smoke-filled bars of the taverns in the Low Street North Shields the crack was all about the seaman’s strike. The strikers had tried to take advantage of a shortage of men to advance seamen’s wages from 26 shillings to 30 shillings a day, but the strike was broken by the owners who divided the men by offering 28 shillings to a few at the same time as using the police and magistrates to enforce the old rate on the many who had already signed articles. With the leaders identified as agitators and imprisoned after violent assaults when blacklegs who accepted 28 shillings were beaten up and stabbed, the strike collapsed and the old rate of 26 shillings was imposed on the resentful men. In the Ferry Tavern where the four absent members of the crew of the Ostrich were, as was the custom among sailors of their type, drinking their advances there was an alcohol fuelled consensus that the poor seamen had in general been wronged by the owners, and that the crew of the Ostrich in particular had been unfairly treated. They had signed on the uncomfortable old ship, a pig of a vessel everyone said, for just twenty-six shillings when they should have had twenty-eight. Everyone, memories enhanced by drink, could name someone who had signed for twenty-eight and opined loudly that the Ostriches as they called them were fools for shipping. Ostriches were renowned for being stupid birds and the nickname wasn’t intended as a compliment, and the talk also angered the crimp who owned the bar. He had recruited the men for a fee and was now increasing his profit by encouraging them to drink the advance of their wages in his house, but his reputation depended on getting the men to sea. When he heard the whistle announcing the tug’s return to the Quay, he quickly ushered them aboard, their money was in his pocket, and he was pleased with his taking which had previously been much reduced because of the strike. They would soon be back from Cronstadt, and their thirst and uncertain employment would continue to be good for his business. One man Alan Freel refused to go, he was intoxicated and a known troublemaker, so the landlord was happy for him to be left behind knowing Captain Jackson wouldn’t thank him for putting a sea lawyer aboard his ship, and confident in his belief that masters never expected everyone who signed to board. Freel’s desertion landed him a spell in prison, but it also probably saved his life as he escaped the disaster that overtook the Ostrich less than twelve hours after she sailed from North Shields.

The Wreck of the Ostrich

Robert Chambers the pilot who took the Ostrich to sea was at a loss to understand why Captain Jackson instructed him to anchor the ship where he did. Chambers would have gone over the bar and laid off out to sea until the missing crew were brought out even if it did cost more for the tug – he could after all always deduct it from their wages later. That’s what most colliers in the coasting trade where late arrivals were a curse did, and even for those going foreign it was the usual practice. The pilot wasn’t impressed with the Ostrich; her jib boom wasn’t out, the main topsail was flying loose, and though she had her best bower anchor down there was he thought insufficient chain. The second hook was on deck but there was no chain, and it couldn’t be let go quickly, a sure sign the pilot thought that the Captain didn’t mean to stay long. Chambers knew the Ostrich’s reputation and could see there was an obvious lack of discipline about the ship: Thomas Miller the carpenter who set the anchor with another man was drunk and offered the pilot a glass of grog from his bottle as Chambers boarded the tug to return to Shields. Putting the ship in the anchorage was very much against the pilot’s better judgement, but he could see she wasn’t ready for sea, and he thought perhaps Captain Jackson was mindful of a previous trip when the old ship was trapped off the Tyne for days with blown topsails, or another when she was driven back from Yarmouth Roads to Dundee trying to make the Channel. The Ostrich was a fine vessel, but she was past her best and no match for the steam colliers which were now common in the river. While her captain certainly knew how to handle her, many of her new crew had little knowledge of her type of vessel, an East Indiaman which would be considered overmanned compared with a humble collier. James Barras the owner of the Ostrich was on the tug with Robert Chambers when it returned to Shields for the truants, and he assured the pilot that it was Captain Jackson’s intention to sail as soon as the four were aboard. They were brought out by the tug just after eight, but the old ship was still lying at anchor at Midnight when a gale of unexpected ferocity came down from the North with disastrous results.


The gale that hit Tynemouth on the night of the 31st July was a short sharp blast that was felt all along the coast but passed unnoticed offshore. Boats fishing forty miles out at sea reported only a moderate breeze but off the Tyne in the hour before midnight, the wind which had been in the NW veered to the N and then increased to hurricane force accompanied by torrential rain. A maid at the large house on the cliffs to the south of South Shields, known rather inaccurately by the name of Marsden Cottage, put a lamp in the small window in the staircase on the seaward side of the mansion to light her way to bed just after one. She wondered if she would be able to sleep with the wind and rain beating against the roof and walls making so much noise that the old house seemed like a ship in a tempest. In fact, no one at Marsden Cottage would sleep that night. Before half past one they were all woken by a naked man hammering at the door. It was Thomas Miller the carpenter of the Ostrich, freezing and almost incoherent, but after threatening to call the police Mr Shaw the owner of the house eventually understood that there was a ship on the rocks at Manhaven that needed their assistance. Men were sent at once to the coastguard station a quarter of a mile away at Marsden, but before they returned with the two coastguards three more survivors from the wreck managed to find their way to the house. They were John McKenzie, William Thompson, and William Chambers. Like Thomas Miller, Thompson and Chambers were naked having stripped off their clothes to swim ashore while McKenzie, the last man off the Ostrich, was fully clothed having wisely kept on his sea coat and guernsey which undoubtedly protected him from being injured by the rocks as he struggled through the surf to reach the beach. He found Thompson, who had a badly cut head, and Chambers sheltering in the pilot’s lookout hut on the cliff edge and together they made their way to Marsden Cottage which by then was showing many lights to guide them to its sanctuary. The sight that greeted the coastguards when they reached Manhaven, a small cove used by pilots to launch their cobles to meet light ships inbound for the Tyne, was one they would never forget. The Ostrich had ceased to exist, broken into matchwood by the ferocious sea, and the bay was filled with wreckage. Curious visitors walking along the cliffs that morning after news reached the town, the gale having departed as quickly as it arrived, saw bodies floating in the surf although the sea was much too high for anyone to attempt to reach them. Ultimately, they would all be recovered the first being the body of the Captain which was washed ashore just after 11am completely naked suggesting he must have drowned attempting to swim ashore.


The wreck of the Ostrich was well reported in both regional and national newspapers, and the narrow riverside streets which were at the heart of the maritime communities of North and South Shields were alive with rumours about the ship. In the bars of the Low Street there was general agreement that the crew were drunk, they were seen drinking in the Ferry Tavern before the joined the ship where the landlord now claimed, rather unconvincingly with Alan Freel lying still insensible in the corner of the bar, that they were sober when they left. Stories grew in the telling, some said that the captain and mate were among the drinkers, others claimed they had been seen in the town and weren’t aboard the ship when it struck. People wanted answers and in the febrile atmosphere following the wreck it’s not surprising that the owner James Barras of Cramlington acted quickly, and arranged for the bodies of Captain Jackson, his son Jacob, and the mate John Robson to be brought to North Shields, so that an inquest could be opened at North Shields Town Hall before Mr L M Cockcroft the conservative coroner for South Northumberland as soon as possible. The removal of the bodies from the scene of the wreck was highly irregular, but Mr Barras, a butcher well known in landed Northumberland circles through his regular attendance at livestock marts, wanted to protect the reputation of his captain and his investment in the Ostrich by establishing that the loss of the ship was not due to negligence. The Ostrich cost him £2100, she was fully insured, but the accusation of negligence if proved could invalidate any claim, so he was naturally anxious to have the matter settled in his favour as soon as possible. Custom and practice dictated that the bodies remained where they were found until an inquest was held by the coroner of that district, and only then were they allowed to be moved for burial, but the Corner for North Durham, Mr J M Favell, was a radical known to favour the interests of seaman so leaving the matter in his hands was far too much of a risk when so much about the circumstances of the wreck was uncertain.


The only people who really knew what happened on the Ostrich were the survivors of the wreck, William Chambers, John McKenzie, Thomas Miller, and William Thompson. They had as we shall see later good reason to hope that the inquest would be concluded as quickly as possible and were resolved to say as little as possible about what happened on board before she came ashore with the loss of ten lives at Manhaven some three miles down the coast from Tynemouth. The four men spent the night in the house of Mr Fryer, the coachman of Mr Shaw the owner of Marsden Cottage, who treated them kindly, and then in the afternoon they were taken to the sailor’s home at North Shields where their accommodation was paid for by Mr Barras the owner of the Ostrich. While it is impossible to be certain that they colluded to frustrate the efforts of the inquest to discover the truth about the disaster, they had ample time to make sure they didn’t incriminate themselves in the testimony they about to give to the inquest before they took the stand. It is surely more than a consequence of the trauma of the wreck that they all gave accounts which shed little light on the events that led to Ostrich’s tragic end. Mr Cockcroft opened the inquest on the bodies of the captain George Jackson, Jacob Jackson, and John Robson at North Shields Town Hall on the morning of Thursday 2nd August two days after the wreck. After hearing evidence confirming the identity of the bodies John McKenzie was the first witness called. Described in the press as a powerful looking man he said that while some of the men might have had a glass, they were all in his opinion capable of doing their duty. He told the inquest he was concerned from the moment the weather worsened that the ship might break out and was down below lying on his bunk when all hands were called just after twelve, and within ten minutes the Ostrich was on the rocks. After describing his amazing escape from the wreck by swimming ashore just before the ship broke up, he stood down and William Thompson took the stand. Like McKenzie he denied that any of the men were intoxicated and described how he came on watch at 11.15 with William Chambers another survivor to find the ship labouring heavily but still holding her ground. They came off watch he said at 12.15 and he told the court that he was certain the ship was not dragging during his watch, although within minutes of him going below all hands were called with the ship driving towards the rocks perhaps, he said, because the anchor had broken. The Ostrich was then just twenty fathoms from the breakers and there was no time to get out more chain or slip the second anchor before she struck, so the crew took to the rigging. The ship broke up he said three quarters of an hour after she grounded, and he didn’t see what happened to the Captain and Mate. The coroner then adjourned the inquest until the following Monday when he said he would take more evidence on the condition of the ship and its equipment before asking the jury to give their verdict.


Thomas Miller the carpenter gave evidence on the second day. Like the others he denied seeing any of the crew “in alcohol” and knew nothing about the management of vessel until she struck when he came on deck and found it was every man for himself. He said he didn’t know why the ship remained at anchor after the absentees boarded but did remember the captain telling him they would stay at anchorage until 3am and then sail provided the weather remained good. Testimony was heard from the Ostrich’s insurers who were on board with the owner when she sailed and declared the ship to be a sound well-equipped vessel with good ground tackle, fit to go to sea and not overloaded. The owner, James Barras, who went out with the tug that took the Ostrich to sea told the jury Captain Jackson said he planned to sail at eight when the last crew member was expected. He saw no evidence that anyone of board was intoxicated and declared that the Ostrich was in any case a dry ship. His testimony was confirmed by Williiam Rennoldson, a foyboatman who went with the Ostrich to sea and remembered the Captain telling the owner that he planned to sail as soon as the crew had supper i.e., shortly after eight. After some direction from the coroner who didn’t address the contradiction between Miller’s evidence that Captain Jackson planned to sail at 3am, and the owner’s and others that he wanted to be away at 8, the jury quickly returned a satisfactory (for the owner at least) verdict that the deaths were accidental caused by the loss of the Ostrich due to the severe weather for which no one could be held responsible. No evidence was taken from the fourth survivor William Chambers even though according to William Thompson he was on watch up to 12.15 shortly before the ship struck as the coroner ruled, he had little to add to the testimony of the others.


Mr Favell the coroner for North Durham was not a man to take any slight real or imagined lightly, especially when it seemed to involve a conspiracy to hide the truth of a wreck that had occurred in his district, so despite a lack of cooperation from the police he opened an inquest into the body of a crewmember from the Ostrich in the Jolly Sailor Inn at Whitburn on Friday 3rd August, the day after the opening of the North Shields inquest. By that time there were six bodies from the Ostrich in the Whitburn mortuary with the last being found at Cullercoats almost three weeks later. The inquest was adjourned after taking evidence of identification and reopened on Tuesday 7th August the day after the jury at North Shields delivered their verdict. Mr Favell was in a difficult position with the inquest at North Shields having closed and he was forced to rely on the testimony of two survivors to that inquest for his inquiry with only John McKenzie being brought to give new evidence at Whitburn, He was able to call William Chambers who gave a more detailed account than the others. Chambers admitted some of the crew were “in drink” (intoxicated?) and said that the men continued drinking in the fo’c’sle while the ship was at anchor. Chambers was not clear how the position of the ship could be established by taking bearings from the lights in the harbour (essential for an anchor watch) and in any case, was by his own account too occupied in securing loose spars and casks that were rolling about on deck to take much notice. His remark that he saw the harbour lights as one at 10.30 suggests that the ship was already dragging her anchor before the gale struck, and at the end of his watch he was called just as he was going to bed with the ship already on the rocks. He said that he had instructions to call the Captain if the ship dragged but claimed he didn’t know where he slept and called the mate instead when the weather deteriorated but he never came. The evidence Robert Chambers, the pilot who took the Ostrich to sea, gave to the Whitburn inquest was damming. Thomas Miller the carpenter who set the anchor and another man were “in drink”, the anchor had too little chain, and if he had intended lying there all night, he would have set a second anchor. He would himself not have left the ship there as there were visible signs that the wind would change to the North East, but would have stood out to sea under topsails waiting for the men to join. Mr Favell’s summing up stressing the responsibility of the officers for the safety of the men in their charge left the Whitburn jury in no doubt about what was expected of them:


"He (the coroner) did not see why the lives of seaman should not be as sacred as other people. If the managers of railways got drunk, and lives were lost in consequence, there was great public excitement. So it was if the managers of collieries were negligent, and an explosion took place… The question for the jury was, whether in their opinion the ship ought to have been brought up where she was. The steamboat master took three men on board before eight o’clock and there was no reason why she should not have gone to sea then."

Following his direction, they returned a verdict that “the wreck was caused by gross carelessness on the part of those who had charge of her, and that she never ought to have been anchored that night, especially considering the state of the weather.”


The two people whose voices should have been heard at the inquests were the Captain and Mate, but they were silent, they were dead, drowned in the wreck. They could not defend their reputations against the North Durham coroner’s politically motivated attack on their professional competence. His words went down well with the politicised seamen in the riverside districts of North and South Shields where drinkers toasted the North Durham coroner’s his good health with great enthusiasm, but the verdict of the Whitburn inquest was of little consequence set against the earlier inquest at North Shields. Away from the riverside bars there was a feeling that despite the two inquests the truth about the wreck had not been found. The Newcastle Daily Chronicle called the evidence of the survivors “unreliable” and the decision of Captain Jackson “as decent a man and as good a sailor … as ever served his time out of the Tyne” to remain at anchor as “perfectly inexplicable”. If the captain and mate were absent from the inquest, they were also according to the evidence of the survivors absent from the deck of the Ostrich until shortly before she struck. The Chronicle might have found decision of Captain Jackson to remain at anchor “perfectly inexplicable” but the suggestion of William Chambers and others that the Captain and Mate remained in their cabins oblivious to the ship labouring in deteriorating weather in a dangerous anchorage stretches the credibility of the survivor’s accounts to breaking point. Reading their statements now it is obvious that they had something to hide. Thomas Miller, the carpenter who offered the pilot a glass said he saw no alcohol on board the ship. William Chambers and William Thompson who on their account had the anchor watch from 11pm until 12.15pm claimed that the anchor was not dragging during their duty and then demonstrated they had no idea how to take the crucial bearings that would have fixed the position of the ship. By their own account, their conduct during the crucial period up to the time amounted to gross negligence and they could and should have been held accountable by the inquests if the coroners had not been intent on pursuing their own agendas. The Ostrich went ashore less than fifteen minutes after their watch ended more than two miles south of the anchorage. Chambers admitted that the crew were drinking in the forecastle following what must have been a long session on shore but denied that they were intoxicated. John McKenzie who was one of the last of the crew to join on the tug at around 8pm said he didn’t know why the ship remained at anchor after all he boarded, he wasn’t asked to stand a watch, and didn’t know what happened.


While it is impossible to know for certain what occurred on board the Ostrich on that tragic night, there is no doubt from the survivor’s accounts that discipline on the ship had broken down, and that the organisation of the anchor watches if they were set at all was chaotic. What the survivors couldn’t say was that fuelled by drink and an overblown sense of grievance the crew probably frustrated Captain Jackson’s intention to sail at eight by refusing to obey orders. At sea, the master theoretically has complete authority, but in practice rebellions by discontented crews were not unknown, especially in the aftermath of a bitter strike where emotions ran high. In this instance Captain Jackson seems to have decided to remain at anchor overnight and deal with the matter in the morning, perhaps by dismissing and charging the ringleaders of his rebellious crew with the serious crime of mutiny. It is difficult to take seriously Thomas Miller’s suggestion that Captain Jackson told him he was planning to sail at 3am when he had previously told the owner he would sail at 8pm as soon as the absent men were aboard. Something changed his mind when the best option was to leave the anchorage as soon as possible. The simplest interpretation of the chaos aboard the ship is that he was forced to stay there all night. For the mutineers, for that’s what they were, the wreck of the Ostrich with the loss of ten lives meant they were in peril of being put on trial for their lives if the reason the ship remained in the anchorage became known. Their evidence to the inquests was, as might be expected, at best incomplete and evasive if not dishonest, but they couldn’t hide the obvious chaos on board the Ostrich that night which Mr Favell incorrectly interpreted as the officer’s neglect of their duty. Captain Jackson and mate John Robson were both dead with their reputations protected by the verdict of the North Shields’ inquest which also suited the interest of the owner, while the verdict of the Whitburn inquest was easily dismissed as the product of the radical North Durham coroner so that despite many questions being unanswered the case of the wreck of the Ostrich was officially closed.


There is however one chilling possibility. Thomas Miller told the heart-breaking story of how Captain Jackson with the ship breaking up beneath him refused to leave his thirteen-year-old son who was afraid to jump into the raging sea so that father and son died together in the wreck. If Captain Jackson had survived and been able to give his account of the events leading up to the wreck Miller might have faced a long prison sentence or something much worse so it was to his advantage that the Captain did not survive. Was Miller’s dramatic story of how he survived the wreck like so much else of his testimony a fabrication in this instance designed to cover up a murder? Here again the accounts of the survivors are inconsistent. John McKenzie said he saw the Captain and the boy jump into the sea from the foremast, Miller said they were on the mizzen and William Thompson who said he was on the mizzen told the inquest he didn’t see them at all. Only the cliffs of the lonely cove of Manhaven know what really happened that night, and they won’t tell, but there remains something dark and disturbing about the story of the wreck of the Ostrich which leads me to fear that to this day angry ghosts might haunt the cliffs of Manhaven on dark stormy nights crying out for justice for the innocent men of the Ostrich who died in the wreck while the guilty seemingly walked free.

David Kidd is a trustee of The Coble and Keelboat Society and runs the Society’s Twitter account. He was born and brought up in South Shields and his Granda worked for the Tyne Improvement Commission at Howdon Yard. David studied Art part time at Newcastle Polytechnic while working for a bank in Newcastle and later became a teacher. He is now retired.