Official Number
Yard Number: 264

She was said to be the largest vessel ever built at the yard at that time at a cost of £70,000.

Thermopylae was the second ship of that name to be built for George Thompson's Aberdeen Line and intended for the emigrant trade to Australia carrying passengers as well as cargo.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported the new ship on 31st October 1891:

'Once more there is included in the Aberdeen Line fleet a vessel bearing the classic name Thermopylae. The new vessel, however, differs widely from her renowned namesake, and the contrast marks clearly the great strides made in marine architecture since the launch of the old ship in 1868. The new Thermopylae, which is a splendid screw steamer of 4000 tons gross register, was launched on Saturday, September 19, at Aberdeen, having been built by Messrs. Hall Russell & Co. She is said to be the largest vessel built at that place...when fully laden she will carry a deadweight of about 5000 tons. The engines, which are of the triple-expansion type, are capable of deveopling 3000 horse-power, and when fuly equipped this addition to the Aberdeen-Australian liners will be one of the finest passenger boats afloat. The total cost of the Thermopylae will be about £70,000. As is already known in Sydney, the master of the new steamer has been given to Captain Alexander Simpson, who made himself so popular as master of the Australasian and other vessels of the same employ.'

The SS THERMOPYLAE presented a yacht-like appearance, being a three-masted clipper bowed steamer, she carried yards on the foremast and often used sail.

Homeward bound from Australia she was shipwrecked on a reef in thick fog at Green Point at the western entrance to Table Bay, Cape Town, South Africa on the 11th September 1899. Two racehorses 'Chesney' and 'Kiera' although injured, were saved as were all the passengers and crew. The ship also carried a valuable cargo including nearly 8,000 copper ingots, 5,000 bars of bullion and ten boxes of gold valued at £50,000.

Built for the Aberdeen White Star Line she would not have been fully insured as the owners would have taken the risk of loss themselves. Having cost upwards of £80,000 to build, the owners George Thompson & Co. would have been lucky to recoup a quarter of this from insurers.

Transcript from the Court of Enquiry:

JUDGMENT of a Court of Enquiry, held on the 18th day of September, 1899, before WILLIAM MARTIN FLEISCHER, Esq., Resident Magistrate for the District of the Cape; Captain JOHN TYSON, of the R.M.S. "MOOR," and Captain THOMAS CARTER FEARON, of the barque "GENERAL ROBERTS," into the circumstances attending the wreck of the screw steamship "THERMOPYLAE," of Aberdeen, official number 98,566, in Table Bay, on September 11th, 1899, under authority of the Attorney General's letter, No. 5/1001, dated September 16th, 1899.

It appears, from the evidence given before this Court, that the "Thermopylae" sailed from Sydney, New South Wales, on the 11th August, 1899, bound for London, via Melbourne, Albany, Port Natal, and Table Bay, with general cargo, and a crew of 84 hands all told, as well as 52 passengers, and was well found and equipped and fully manned.

All went well until 11th September, 1899. At 7.46 p.m., 11th September, Cape Point Light was abeam, bearing N. 25° East, distant four miles, the master alleging that he kept this course till 8 o'clock p.m., when it was altered to North 37° West, the speed being 12 knots.

At 10 o'clock p.m. the Robben Island Light was sighted, and the course was altered so as to keep the light ahead.

At 10.20 o'clock p.m. the Green Point Light was sighted, and the master says he altered the course to East by North by compass or North 46° East true. This course, the master was of opinion, should have cleared the vessel of all outlying dangers between Green Point by two miles, and the Whale Rock by a similar distance.

After proceeding on this course for some time the red light on Mouille Point showed up, and appeared to the master to open up in perfect accord with his observations on previous voyages, in which he had, when approaching Table Bay by night, steered an exactly similar course. He says he was throughout continuing a most careful examination of all the lights, and that a thorough scrutiny of his surroundings did not in any way lead him to even the remotest suspicion that the vessel was in any danger whatever. While carefully scanning the outlook through his night glasses for the Green Pier Head Light, the master says he became conscious of a sudden change in the appearance of the Mouille Point Light it loomed towards him with extraordinary proximity but the Green Point Light which appeared almost abeam did not show any observable change in distance. As a precautionary measure, however, he immediately ordered the quartermaster to starboard the helm, and continuing his observations through the glasses thought he perceived an undulating roll extending shorewards from the bow. Without a moment's loss of time he called out "Hard-a-starboard," but almost simultaneously, and, in fact, before she could answer her helm, the "Thermopylae" struck heavily and remained stationary, and is now a total wreck on the rocks within a quarter of a mile of the Green Point Lighthouse. The speed of the vessel at the time being about 10 knots.

The Court is satisfied that everything possible was done by the master, officers, and engineers after the disaster to save life and property, and no lives were lost.

The Bridge Book, in which the course steered was entered, and the chart from Table Bay to L'Agulhas, by which the ship was being navigated, were not produced, it being alleged that they were lost on the night of the wreck, and the Court therefore has no evidence later than 7.46 o'clock p.m., as to the course steered when Cape Point was abeam, this being the last entry in the Deck Log, which was produced to the Court, to verify the master's statement.

After a careful consideration of the evidence, the Court finds that at 10.20 o'clock p.m., 11th September, 1899, when the Green Point Light was sighted, and the course altered to East by North, no measures were taken by the master to ascertain or verify the position of the vessel, which could have been readily and accurately done by cross bearings of Robben Island and Green Point Lights, and a course set to take the ship safely into Table Bay, nor did he at any time use the lead to ascertain his position, or distance off the land. The weather was hazy over the land, but the lights were distinctly visible. The master, instead of taking these ordinary and necessary steps, relied upon his own judgment as to his distance from Green Point.

We are of opinion that the vessel was not navigated with proper and seamanlike care by the master after 10.20 o'clock p.m., and that the master should have taken cross bearings or used the lead.

We, therefore, find that the loss of the steam vessel "Thermopylae," was due to the wrongful act or default of the master, William Philip, junior, and we do adjudge that the certificate of the said master be suspended for a period of six months.

W. M. FLEISCHER, R.M., Cape.

J. TYSON, Master, R.M S. "Moor."

T. C. FEARON, Master, Barque, "General Roberts."

(Issued in London by the Board of Trade on the 10th day of November, 1899.)

[courtesy of Southampton County Council Libraries & thanks to Stewart Ross]

Morning Post, 13/10/1891:
Aberdeen line. London to Australia via Cape of Good Hope. The magnificent new full powered steamer Thermopylae, Capt. Alexander Simson, will sail from Royal Albert Dock 24 November for Melbourne + Sydne, accommodation for 1st and 2nd class passengers is very superior and a surgeon and stewardess will be carried. Fares - saloon from 40gns, 3rd class from 14gns. Apply George Thomson, 24 Leadenhall St., Ec.

Dundee Courier, 27/10/1891:
Steamer Horsby, Cardiff - Aberdeen with cargo of coals for new steamer Thermopylae, took the ground and sank when entering Aberdeen harbour + blocks passage.

Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, 16/11/1891:
On her maidenvoyage Aberdee - Royal Albert Dock, London, Thermopylae maintained speed of 14 knots as far as Flamborough Head, severe galethen tested her sea going capabilities, with most satisfactory results. For 5 hours she was obliged to anchor because of force of hurricane. She is fitted with most modern improvements in hull + machinery, including electric lighting, has most sumptuous accommodation for up to 50 saloon passengers + ample space in her tweendecks for large no. of 3rd class passengers. Is confidently expected to exceed passage time of other Aberdeen line steamers, whose regularity has made them favourites with shippers + passengers.

Newspaper reports of Thermopylae's sailings between London, Capetown and Australia:
24/05/1892 - Sailed from Capetown - Australia.
17/10/1892 - Sailed from Capetown - Australia.
18/01/1893 - Sailed Tenerife for London, 24/01/1893 passed Gravesend.
30/07/1894 - sailed Tenerife for Sydney.
15/01/1895 - Sailed Capetown for Australia, 11/02/1895 arrived Sydney.
23/09/1895 - Loaded Sydney 25 tons Canadian salmon, having been carried from Vancouver by mail steamer.
Hall, Russell & Company, Limited
G Thompson & Co., Aberdeen
length 350 5/6' x breadth 44 1/12' x depth 33 1/12'
Gross Tonnage: 3711ton

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