(Courtesy of Paul Benyon) .

From A Voyage in the Sunbeam, part of CHAPTER Lady Brassey


Thursday, September 28th [1876]. A fine bright morning, with a strong,
fair wind. The order to stop firing was given at noon, and we ceased
steaming shortly after. There had evidently been a gale from the
southward during the last few days, for the swell was tremendous, and
considerably diminished our speed. Still, we managed to go twenty-seven
knots in two hours and a half.

I was lying down, below, after breakfast, feeling very stupid, when
Mabelle rushed into the cabin, saying, " Papa says you are to come up on
deck at once, to see the ship on fire." I rushed up quickly, hardly
knowing whether she referred to our own or some other vessel, and on
reaching the deck I found everybody looking at a large barque, under
full sail, flying the red union jack upside down, and with signals in
her rigging, which our signalman read as `Ship on fire.' These were
lowered shortly afterwards, and the signals, "Come on board at once,"
hoisted in their place. Still we could see no appearance of smoke or
flames, but we nevertheless hauled to the wind, tacked, hove to, and
sent off a boat's crew, well  armed, thinking it not impossible that a
mutiny had taken place on board, and that the captain or officers,
mistaking  the yacht for a gunboat; had appealed to us for assistance.
We were now near enough to the barque to make out her name through a
glass - the 'Monkshaven,'  of Whitby and we observed a puff of smoke
issue from her deck simultaneously with the arrival of our boat

In the course of a few minutes, the boat returned, bringing the mate of
the  ' Monkshaven,' a fine-looking Norwegian, who spoke English
perfectly, and who reported his ship to be sixty-eight days out from
Swansea, bound for Valparaiso, with a cargo of smelting coal. The fire
had first been discovered on the previous Sunday, and by 6 a.m. on
Monday the crew had got up their clothes and provisions on deck, thrown
overboard all articles of a combustible character, such as tar, oil,
paint, spare spars and sails, planks, and rope and battened clown the

Ever since then they had all been living on deck, with no protection
from the wind and sea but a canvas screen. Tom and Captain Brown
proceeded on board at once. They found the deck more than a foot deep in
water, and all awash ; when the hatches were opened for a moment dense
clouds of hot suffocating yellow smoke immediately poured forth, driving
back all who stood near. From the captain's cabin came volumes of
poisonous gas, which had found its way in through the crevices, and one
man, who tried to enter, was rendered insensible. 

It was perfectly evident that it would be impossible to save the ship,
and the captain therefore determined, after consultation with Tom and
Captain Brown, to abandon her. Some of the crew were accordingly at once
brought on board the ' Sunbeam,' in our boat, which was then sent back
to assist in removing the remainder, a portion of whom came in their own
boat. The poor fellows were almost wild with joy at getting alongside
another ship, after all the hardships they had gone through, and in
their excitement they threw overboard many things which they might as
well have kept, as they had taken the trouble to bring them. Our boat
made three trips altogether, and by half-past six we bad them all safe
on board, with most of their effects, and the ship's chronometers,
charts, and papers.

The poor little dingy, belonging to the ' Monkshaven,' had been cast
away as soon as the men had disembarked from her, and there was
something melancholy in seeing her slowly drift away to leeward,
followed by her oars and various small articles, as if to rejoin the
noble ship she had so lately quitted. The latter was now hove-to, under
full sail, an occasional puff of smoke alone betraying the presence of
the demon of destruction within. ......................

For two hours we could see the smoke pouring from various portions of
the ill-fated barque. Our men, who had brought off the last of her crew,
reported that, as they left her, flames were just beginning to burst
from the fore-hatchway; and it was therefore certain that the rescue had
not taken place an hour too soon. Whilst we were at dinner, Powell
called us up on deck to look at her again, when we found that she was
blazing like a tar-barrel. The captain was anxious to stay by and see
the last of her, but Tom was unwilling to incur the delay which this
would have involved. We accordingly got up steam, and at 9 p.m. steamed
round the ' Monkshaven,' as close as it was deemed prudent to go. No
flames were visible then ; only dense volumes of smoke and sparks,
issuing from the hatches. The heat, however, was intense, and could be
plainly felt, even in the cold night air, as we passed some distance to
leeward. All hands were clustered in our rigging, on the deckhouse or on
the bridge, to see the last of the poor ' Monkshaven,' as she was slowly
being burnt down to the water's edge.

She was a large and nearly new (three years old composite ship, built
and found by her owners, Messrs. Smales, of Whitby, of 657 tons burden,
and classed A1 for ten years at Lloyd's. Her cargo, which consisted of
coal for smelting purposes, was a very dangerous one ; so much so that
Messrs. Nicholas, of Sunderland, from whose mines the coal is procured,
have great difficulty in chartering vessels to carry it, and are
therefore in the habit of building and using their own ships for the
purpose. At Buenos Ayres we were told that of every three ships carrying
this cargo round to Valparaiso or Callao one catches fire, though the
danger is frequently discovered in time to prevent much damage to the
vessel or loss of life.

The crew of the   ' Monkshaven' - Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Scotch, and
Welsh - appear to be quiet, respectable men. This is fortunate, as an
incursion of fifteen rough lawless spirits on board our little vessel
would have been rather a serious matter. In their hurry and fright,
however, they left all their provisions behind them, and it is no joke
to have to provide food for fifteen extra hungry mouths for a week or
ten days, with no shops at hand from which to replenish our stores.

Some account of the disaster, as gathered from the lips of various
members of the crew at different times, may perhaps be interesting. It
seems that early on Monday morning, the day following that on which the
fire was discovered, another barque, the ' Robert Hinds,' of Liverpool,
was spoken. The captain of that vessel offered to stand by them or do
anything in his power to help them ; but at that time they had a fair
wind for Monte Video, only 120 miles distant, and they therefore 
determined to run for that port, and do their best to save the ship, 
and possibly some of the cargo. In the course of the night ; however, a
terrible gale sprang up, the same, no doubt, as the one of which we had
felt the effects on first leaving the River Plate. They were driven
hither and thither, the sea constantly sweeping the decks. After
forty-eight hours the men were all exhausted, while the fire was
gradually increasing in strength beneath their feet, and they knew not
at what moment it might burst through the decks and envelope the whole
ship in flames. They were beginning to abandon all hope of a rescue,
when a sail was suddenly discovered; and as soon as the necessary flags
could be found, the same signal which attracted us was displayed. The
vessel, now quite close to them, proved to be a large American steamer,
but she merely hoisted her own ensign and code-pennant, and then coolly
steamed away to the southward. " I think that captain deserved tarring
and feathering, anyway, " one of the men said to me. Another said, "
When we saw that ship go away, we all gave in and lay down in despair to
die. But our captain, who is very good to his crew, and a religious man
too, said, " There is One above who looks after us all." That was true
enough, for, about ten minutes afterwards, as I was talking to the cook,
and telling him it was all over with us, I saw a sail to leeward, and
informed the captain. We bore down a little, but did not like to go out
of our course too much, fearing you might be a " Portuguese," and play
us the same trick as the American.' (They could not understand our white
ensign ; for, our funnel being stowed, we looked like a sailing vessel,
while all gunboats of our size are steamers.) "When we saw it was an
English vessel, and that you answered our signals and sent a boat off,
we were indeed thankful ; though that was nothing to what we feel now at
once more having a really dry ship under our feet."

It was almost impossible to sleep during the night, owing to the heavy
rolling, by far the most violent that we have yet experienced.

Friday, September 29th.- Again a fine morning. A fair breeze sprang up,
and, the dreaded storm having apparently passed over, we ceased steaming
at 6 a.m.

All on board are now settling down into something like order. The
stewards are arranging matters below, and measuring out the stores, to
allowance the men for twelve days. The men belonging respectively to the
port and starboard watches of the 'Monkshaven' have been placed in the
corresponding watches on board the ' Sunbeam.' The cook and steward are
assisting ours below, and the two boys are very happy, helping in the
kitchen, and making themselves generally useful. The deck does not look
quite as neat as usual. Such of the men's seachests as have been saved
are lashed round the steam-chest, so that they can be got at easily,
while their bags and other odd things have been stowed on deck, wherever
they can be kept dry; for every inch of available space below is
occupied. Captain Runciman is writing, with tears in his eyes, the
account of the loss of his fine ship.

The great danger of smelting coal, as a ship's cargo, besides its
special liability to spontaneous combustion, appears to be that the fire
may smoulder in the very centre of the mass so long that, when the smoke
is at last discovered, it is impossible to know how far the mischief has
advanced. It may go on smouldering quietly for days, or at any moment
the gas that has been generated may burst up the vessel's decks from end
to end, without the slightest warning. Or it may burn downwards, and
penetrate some portion of the side of the ship below water; so that,
before any suspicion has been aroused, the water rushes in, and the
unfortunate ship and her crew go to the bottom. On board the
'Monkshaven' the men dug down into the cargo in many places on Sunday
night, only to find that the beat became more intense the deeper they
went ; and several of them had their hands or fingers burnt in the

This has been about the best day for sailing that we have had since we
left the tropics. The sea has been smooth,...................... At
midnight, however, Tom and I were awakened by a knock at our cabin door,
and the gruff voice of Powell, saying: " The barometer's going down very
fast, please, sir, and it's lightning awful in the sou'west. There's a
heavy storm coming up." We were soon on deck, where we found all hands
busily engaged in preparing for the tempest. Around us a splendid sight
presented itself. On one side a heavy bank of black clouds could be seen
rapidly approaching, while the rest of the heavens were brilliantly
illuminated by forked and sheet lightning, the thunder meanwhile rolling
and rattling without intermission. An ominous calm followed, during
which the men had barely time to lower all the sails on deck, without
waiting to stow them, the foresail and jib only being left standing,
when the squall struck us, not very severely, but with a blast as hot as
that from a furnace. We thought worse was coming, and continued our
preparations ; but the storm passed rapidly away to windward, and was
succeeded by torrents of rain, so that it was evident we could only have
had quite the tail of it.

Saturday, September 30th.- The morning broke bright and clear, and was
followed by a calm, bright, sunny day, of which I availed myself to take
some photographs of the captain and crew of the ' Monkshaven ! The wind
failed us entirely in the afternoon, ................ Another grand but
wild-looking sunset seemed like the precursor of a storm; but we
experienced nothing worse than a sharp squall of hot wind, accompanied
by thunder and lightning.

Sunday, October 1st - A fine morning, with a fair wind................

I have said that no provisions were saved from the 'Monkshaven: As far
as the men are concerned, I think this is hardly to be regretted, for I
am told that the salt beef with which they were supplied had lain in
pickle for so many years that the saltpetre had eaten all the
nourishment out of it, and had made it so hard that the men, instead of
eating it, used to amuse themselves by carving it into snuff boxes,
little models of ships, &c. I should not, however, omit to mention that
Captain Runciman managed to bring away with him four excellent York
hams, which he presented to us, and one of which we had today at dinner.

Wednesday, October 4th.- At 6 a.m., on going on deck, I found we were
hove-to under steam and closely-reefed sails, a heavy gale blowing from
the south-west, right ahead. The screw was racing round in the air every
time we encountered an unusually big wave; the spray was dashing over
the vessel, and the water was rushing along the deck - altogether an
uncomfortable morning. As the sun rose, the gale abated, and in the
course of the day the reefs were shaken out of the sails, one by one,
until, by sunset, we were once more under whole canvas, beating to
windward. There were several cries of 'land ahead' during the day ; but
in each case a closer examination, through a glass, proved that the
fancied coastline or mountain top existed only in cloud-land.

Thursday, October 5th.- We made the land early, and most uninteresting
it looked, consisting, as it did, of a low sandy shore, with a
background of light clay-coloured cliffs. Not a vestige of vegetation
was anywhere to be seen, and I am quite at a loss to imagine what the
guanacos and ostriches, with which the chart tells us the country
hereabouts abounds, find to live upon. About twelve o'clock we made Cape
Virgins, looking very like Berry Head to the North of Torbay, and a long
spit of low sandy land, stretching out to the southward, appropriately
called Dungeness.

About two o'clock we saw in the far distance what looked at first like
an island, and then like smoke, but gradually shaped itself into the
masts, funnel, and hull of a large steamer. From her rig we at once
guessed her to be the Pacific Company's mail boat, homeward bound. When
near enough, we accordingly hoisted our number, and signalled ' We wish
to communicate,' whereupon she bore down upon us and ceased steaming. We
then rounded up under her lee and lowered a boat, and Tom, Mabelle, and
I, with Captain Runciman and four or five of the shipwrecked crew, went
on board. Our advent caused great excitement, and seamen and passengers
all crowded into the bows to watch us. As we approached the ladder the
passengers ran aft, and as soon as we reached the deck the captain took
possession of Tom, the first and second officers of Mabelle and myself,
while Captain Runciman and each of his crew were surrounded by a little
audience eager to know what had happened, and all about it. At first it
was thought that we all wanted a passage, but when we explained matters
Captain Thomas, the commander of the ' Illimani,' very kindly undertook
to receive all our refugees and convey them to England. We therefore
sent the gig back for the rest of the men and the chests of the whole
party, and then availed ourselves of the opportunity afforded by the
delay to walk round the ship. ............. A mail steamer does not stop
for a light cause, and it was therefore evident to them that the present
was no ordinary occurrence. The captain told us that the last time he
passed through the Straits he picked up two boats' crews, who had
escaped from a burning ship, and who had suffered indescribable
hardships before they were rescued.

Captain Runciman is convinced, after comparing notes with the chief
officer of the 'Illimani,' that the vessel which refused to notice his
signal of distress was the Wilmington,' sent down from New York, with a
party of forty wreckers, to try and get the steamer ' Georgia ' off the
rocks near Port Famine, in the Straits of Magellan. If this be so, .it
is the more surprising that no attempt was made to render assistance to
the ' Monkshaven,' provided her signals were understood, as the '
Wilmington' had plenty of spare hands, and could not have been in a
particular hurry. Moreover, one would think that, with her powerful
engines, she might have made an attempt to tow the distressed vessel
into Monte Video, and so secure three or four thousand pounds of salvage

The captain of the ' Illimani ' kindly gave us half a bullock, killed
this morning, a dozen live ducks and chickens, and the latest
newspapers. Thus supplied with food for body and mind, we said farewell,
and returned to the  Sunbeam;' our ensigns were duly dipped, we steamed
away on our respective courses, and in less than an hour we were out of
sight of each other. It is a sudden change for the ` Monkshaven' men,
who were all very reluctant to leave the yacht. Many of them broke down
at the last moment, particularly when it came to saying good-bye to Tom
and me at the gangway of the steamer. They had seemed thoroughly to
appreciate any kindnesses they received while with us, and were anxious
to show their gratitude in every possible way.



The captain of the 'Monkshaven' was Walter RUNCIMAN, Master Mariner, 
born Dunbar about 1833, son of Thomas RUNCIMAN & Isabella CRAIG; he 
died at Valpariso, Chile, 23 September 1887.

'Sunbeam' subsequently passed into the ownership of Sir Walter Runciman, 
Bart. (Walter RUNCIMAN, Master Mariner, b. Dunbar 6 Jul 1847; son of 
Walter RUNCIMAN [coastguard, first cousin of Walter RUNCIMAN 1833-87]
and Jean FINLAY; Baronet 1906, Baron 1933; d. Newcastle-upon-Tyne 
13 Aug 1937).

Walter 1833-87 had a master mariner brother William RUNCIMAN born about 
1824 who emigrated to South Africa ...

Press report of the death of Captain Walter RUNCIMAN 1833-87:

THE LATE CAPTAIN RUNCIMAN                     CAPE TIMES, 1887
The many friends of Captain Runciman will learn with regret of the death of 
his brother at Valparaiso.  He was well-known in Cape Town by old residents
having been engaged in the Cape carrying trade before it was monopolised by
steamers. We have been requested to take over the following extract from a
home paper. "Letters form Lyon Brothers and the British Consul at Valparaiso 
came to hand on Wednesday last, bearing the sad news that Captain Walter 
Runciman of the barque 'Swansea Castle', and of 22 Earl-street, Grimsby,
while getting his vessel under weigh for the homeward voyage on September 
19th  was seized with a severe attack of paralysis which rendered him unconscious. 
He was conveyed at once on shore to the English naval hospital, where every 
attention was paid him and everything done that medical science could suggest, 
but without avail.  He finished the voyage of life on September 23rd and was 
interred in the Protestant Cemetery on the 25th  deeply lamented because so highly 
respected.  Readers of the late Lady Brassey's book 'The Voyage of the Sunbeam' 
will remember the rescue by Sir Thomas Brassey of Captain Runciman and crew 
from the burning ship Monkshaven about 250 miles from Montevideo.  The captain 
was expected home in the early part of the new year, having been absent about
eighteen months." 
RUNCIMAN - At Valparaiso, on the 23rd  September -
Captain Walter Runciman, brother of Captain [William] Runciman,
of Simon's Town, aged 53 years.

Information supplied by Steven Gibbs

Return to Introductory Page