Gladys Story

Contributed by David Gore

Rupert was still a great traveller well into his 80s. He thought nothing of jetting off to see his son in South Africa or friends in America, India or New Zealand. A man of few qualms, he nevertheless had one superstition about travelling: he would never venture forth on leap day - the 29th February.

The reason, he told me, goes back more than a century to the history of his family and their long association with India. Rupert's aunt Gladys, the eldest of his grandfather's children, used to tell of the time that she and her baby brother (Rupert's father) were shipwrecked in the Arabian Sea. This is her story.

"It was the shouting that woke me, that and the thud of feet on the deck above our heads. It had been a wonderful February day. I had stood on the SS Vingorla with my mother among all the Indian deck passengers and crew, waving goodbye to the Bombay dock workers as we set sail on a calm sea with a warm light breeze. I watched the sails billow and the ship heal over slightly and felt the reassuring vibration of the engines beneath my feet."

"All the previous day we had been on the train from Neemuch, our home in Central India, 400 miles away. We slept that night at the Army base at Colaba and then went down to Bombay to catch the British India Steamship Vingorla (578 tons) for Karachi where my father was waiting for us. His regiment, the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, were fighting in Afghanistan and we were to join him for his local leave. Despite the excitement of my first sea voyage, I was asleep almost as soon as we went below to the cabin which I shared with my baby brother Charles, just seven months old."

"It was dark when I was woken by the commotion on deck and soon my mother was there in her night dress. She looked worried, spoke to some other passengers and then we were all told to come up on deck at once. There wasn't even time to get dressed and we all were in our night clothes just wrapped in blankets throughout the momentous events that followed."

"The deck was damp and cold under my feet and bathed in eerie moonlight casting long shadows as the men worked. Some were raising the mail boat into its davits, others with lights were around the main cargo hold and I saw that the deck passengers had all been moved to the stern of the ship. We stood around in a group, the saloon passengers among whom I recognised Mrs Stuart, the Master's wife with her small baby, Major Greig, Lieut. Colborne, Mr. Cloete and the second officer Mr. Battersby Wood who was in charge of launching the mail boat. Vingorla's sails had been taken in and we seemed to be at anchor with engines stopped. The sea remained calm and nothing appeared to be amiss with our ship but I saw men dumping what looked like cargo over the side. Eventually I was lifted into the mail boat, in which there were about twenty people including my mother with Charles, and we were lowered jerkily down to the sea."

"It was only much later that I discovered what had happened. The ship had left Bombay at noon; by 9.30 p.m. she was about 70 miles out with her sails set and doing 8 knots in light winds on a smooth sea when she began to steer abnormally with the head down. It was found that water was leaking into the main cargo hold and from there the disaster developed. Efforts were made to save the ship by dumping cargo overboard but the water gained steadily over the next four hours and at 1.30 in the morning Vingorla sank by the head in 20 fathoms. Our mail boat had been launched soon after 10.30 p.m. and two of the three remaining life boats got off shortly before the ship went down. The third was rushed by deck passengers, for whom no boats were provided, and broke in two in the davits, dumping them all in the sea."

SS Malda
"Our small boat continued circling the ship at a distance, but we could see little of what was happening on Vingorla until the awful moment when she sank with a dreadful hiss and we heard the cries of people in the water. The three life boats continued searching for survivors until about 4 a.m. at which time, overloaded with a total of 95 survivors aboard, the boats set course for Bombay. All that day, Sunday 29th February 1880 (leap day), we sat crowded into that mail boat with the sun beating down on us. Fortunately the sea remained calm and at 3 p.m. when we were apparently still 45 miles from Bombay we were spotted by the SS Malda (1945 tons) and our ordeal was over. We had been in that little open boat for more than 16 hours. Malda then went directly to the scene of the sinking but after a two hour search found no more survivors. That eventful leap day ended early the following morning at 3.50 when we were landed back at Bombay and my mother was able to reassure my father at Karachi that we were well. He had known only that the Vingorla had sunk with heavy loss of life!"

Some seventy years later Rupert verified all the facts about his father's shipwreck which figure in aunt Gladys' story. His interest in the tale had suddenly been reawakened by a flight he took in 1948, the year after Independence, when on route from Karachi to Bombay one of the two engines stopped. It was a close call but the Indian pilot just succeeded in making an emergency landing at Ahmedabad and Rupert and the other passengers walked off the plane, shaken but unharmed. It was another 29th February - leap day!

SS Vingorla
"We learnt subsequently that four more survivors clinging to wreckage had been picked up by other ships late on the 29th, including Conroy, the Chief Officer. This meant that 75 people, nearly half the ship's complement, had drowned. Among those lost were the Master, Captain JW Stuart, the ship's clerk, Mr. Mowbray, and all three engineer officers, with most of the rest being deck passengers. The Court of Inquiry failed to discover the cause of the leak in Vingorla's hull. She had a good reputation as a well maintained and seaworthy vessel, was not overloaded and no impact or shock had been felt, either on leaving Bombay or afterwards. They found that the loss of life was due to the lack of provision of boats for deck passengers, although under Bombay legislation at that time this was not a requirement and the ship had her full complement of life boats."

BISN Co Ltd papers & time tables dated 1st Jan 1800
William Meade Hall (ex British India Line agent) of Northamptonshire.
David J Mitchell of York
The late Rupert Mayne

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