The City of London was a single screw passenger/cargo ship built by Tod & McGregor in Glasgow, she was 336' long with a beam of just over 40' and was registered at 2,560 tons. In 1869 the ship was lengthened to 374' and reregistered at 2,765 tons, she also had new compound engines installed. She was launched for the Inman Line in 1863 and was used on the London to New York route, in 1878 she was sold to the Thistle Line (William H. Ross) who kept her on the same route.
On her last voyage she carried no passengers and some of the men who had sailed on her from New York to England refused to sail on her again and took passage on other ships to return to the USA. The City of London not only carried passengers, but carried cattle and these American cattlemen were concerned about the design of the wheelhouse on the City of London. The wheelhouse was made of wood, although the ship was made of iron, one of the men remarked "I don't like that large wooden deck-house. If it should once be carried away by heavy seas the hold would fill rapidly. Mark my words, that ship will make a hole in the water yet".
She left London on November 13, 1881 carrying a forty-one man crew and a cargo of wool, iron, fruit and various other items valued at over $200,000, the ship and crew were never seen again. What happened to her is unknown, but it is most likely that she was sunk by a storm. Violent storms raged across the Atlantic in November of 1881 causing devastation to shipping from the USA to Europe. Dozens of ships were damaged and several were sunk, several others went missing. Vessels arriving in English ports were badly damaged and several that set out from Europe were forced to turn back because of the ferocious storms.
The 3,400 ton SS Lessing of the Hamburg-America Line left Hamburg on the 16th of November and on the 23rd the storm broke her rudder head. After a heroic effort by the crew she turned around and headed for Plymouth arriving under tow on Nov. 29. Another German ship, Hermann of the North German Lloyd had her rudder and steering gear damaged and one lifeboat was carried away. Their situation became so desperate they had to toss 200 bales of cotton overboard and burn twenty tons of tobacco in place of coal. They arrived in Southampton on Nov. 29.
The Inman liner City of Berlin as well as the American Line's Lord Gough both made port with lost lifeboats and damage. The bark A. F. Stoneman was dismasted, another bark, James A. Mark made port with shredded sails and lost stanchions and bulwarks. Proteus from Quebec as well as San Fernando both arrived in ports in similar condition. These and many more including HMS Valorous were damaged or sunk.
Ships arriving in American ports were in no better shape. Neederland of the Red Star Line was badly damaged and had several injured crewmen when she arrived in New York on Nov. 12, the wheelhouse was stove in, chart room and galley smashed, five lifeboats destroyed and for some time the rudder had been disabled. Three passengers had also died, two children in steerage and a cabin passenger named Miss A. Dyckman, who died of exhaustion. There were two small exceptions to the terror that the passengers were going through, two babies were born during the twenty-two days it took to cross the Atlantic.
The Lake Champlain of the Beaver Line took eighteen days to cross from Liverpool to New York, she hit storms as soon as she entered the north Atlantic after rounding northern Ireland. On Nov. 26 the barometer dropped for two days, during this time huge waves pounded the ship and caused much damage. Others shared the same story, the Persian Monarch took eighteen days to cross from London, Egypt of the National Line arrived in a damaged state and the Suevia of the Hamburg-America Line fought fierce storms and headwinds so long she had to put into St. John's, Newfoundland for additional coal.
And if it was an ordeal to weather the storms in an iron steamer, imagine what the men of the German bark Alpina had to go through. It took them fifty-one days to cross from Hamburg to New York, in that time they fought massive seas which flooded the cabin and forecastle and heavy winds which carried away their sails. On Nov. 19 the last lower topsail was blown away and Capt. Nordt headed south where he hoped he would find calmer waters. But there seemed to be nowhere on the Atlantic to find calm seas as on Dec. 5 at 38.30N - 61W another storm came at him out of the east.
The crew of the bark Anna which left Pillau, East Prussia (now Baltiysk, Russia) on Oct. 20 survived only by the grace of a passing liner. On Nov. 30 the ship was a wreck and in a sinking condition when the National Line's SS Canada, who herself was fighting the hurricanes, found the ship. The officers and men of the Canada made a daring, and I might add a volunteer rescue in the most appalling and dangerous conditions saving every man and a dog from Anna.
Other ships which experienced the November storms and survived to make port were, SS Somerset of the Great Western Line, Red Star's SS Switzerland, who lost one man when he was dashed against a deckhouse and broke his skull, SS Pieter de Coninck from Antwerp, sailing vessel Elwell, schooner Jordan L. Mott and SS Lake Manitoba, SS Alaska of the Guion Line, SS Ethiopia of the Anchor Line, SS Amsterdam of Holland, SS France of the National Line, SS Allemannia (which had to be towed to port), White Star's SS Arabic, SS Australia, SS General Werder, SS City of Washington, SS Stella, SS Castor and many more.
Those who made port were the lucky ones, several were never seen again, the City of London of course was one of them. Others who went missing in November of 1881 were, the City of Dunedin, a bark, sailing from Pensacola, Florida for Cardiff and the Belgian steamer Henry Edye bound from Antwerp for Boston. Another that did not make port was the Bath City from Bristol, her story can be read here.
In late February 1882 wreckage, including the cover of a signal locker, washed ashore in County Kerry, Ireland, the cover was marked "City of London, Thistle Line, Night Signals". Wreckage from the City of Dunedin also came ashore, but to the nest of my knowledge the bodies of captain Robert S. Wilson and the forty men of his crew were never recovered.
The Thistle Line was formed in 1878 and consisted of four ships, three purchased from other companies and two to be built for them, but only one of the new builds ever sailed for the line. Even before the City of London was officially posted as missing on Feb. 1, 1882 a second Thistle Line ship, City of Limerick, also went missing. She sailed from London on Jan. 8, 1882 and was never seen again. The loss of these two ships in such a short time caused the demise of the line later in the year. The three remaining ships were sold off and the company dissolved.
© 2010 Michael W. Pocock
This Daily Event was originally written in 2005 and was expanded in 2010.