March 17th, 1891 – The Sinking of the SS Utopia

On March 17th, 1891 the SS Utopia accidentally collided with the battleship HMS Anson in the Bay of Gibraltar. Utopia sank in less than twenty minutes. 562 of 880 passengers and crew of Utopia and two rescuers from HMS Immortalité died in the accident. The sinking of Utopia was blamed on “grave error of judgement” of her captain John McKeague, who survived the accident.

SS Utopia

The sinking of Utopia. Sketch by a witness, Ms. Georgina Smith

On February 25th, 1891 Utopia sailed out from Trieste to New York City with stopovers at Naples, Genoa and Gibraltar. She carried a total of 880 people: 59 crewmembers (most of them stewards), three first-class passengers, 815 third-class passengers and three stowaways. There were 85 women and 67 children. According to captain John McKeague’s signed statement, Utopia normally carried seven lifeboats that could accommodate up to “460 people in moderate weather” but on the night of the catastrophe one of these boats was missing.

Utopia reached Gibraltar in the afternoon of March 17th. Captain John McKeague steered Utopia to her usual anchorage in the inner harbour, but then realized that it was occupied by two battleships, HMS Anson and HMS Rodney. McKeague later recalled that he had been temporarily dazzled by Anson‘s searchlight. When McKeague’s eyesight recovered he “suddenly discovered that the inside anchorage was full of ships.” McKeague, according to his statement, thought that Anson was “further off than she really was” and attempted to steer Utopia ahead of Anson‘s bow. Suddenly, a “strong gale combined with current swept the vessel across the bows of the Anson, and in a moment her hull was pierced and cut by the ram of the ironclad.” According to third mate Francis Wadsworth, the impact occurred at 6:36 p.m. Anson‘s ram tore a hole five meters (16 ft) wide below Utopia‘s waterline, and her holds were quickly flooded.

HMS Anson 680

The battleship HMS Anson

McKeague at first considered beaching the ship, but Utopia almost instantly lost engine power: the engineers shut down the engines to prevent a steam explosion. McKeague ordered the lowering of the lifeboats and to abandon ship, but Utopia suddenly listed 70 degrees, crushing and sinking the boats. The survivors clung to the starboard of Utopia while hundreds were trapped inside steerage holds. Twenty minutes after the impact Utopia sank to the depth of 17 metres (56 ft). The masts, protruding above the waves, became the last refuge for the survivors.

Anson, the Swedish battleship Freya, and other nearby ships immediately sent rescue teams to the site, but rough weather and a strong current made it difficult for them to approach the wreck: “rescuers, blinded by the wind and rain, saw nothing but a confused, struggling mass of human beings entangled with wreckage.” Two sailors from HMS Immortalité, James Cotton and George Hales, drowned attempting to rescue survivors when their boat drifted on the rocks. Search and rescue continued until 11 p.m. Out of 880 passengers and crewmembers of Utopia, there were 318 survivors: 290 steerage passengers, two first class passengers, three Italian interpreters and 23 crewmembers. The remaining 562 passengers and crewmembers of Utopia were dead or missing.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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