1873 Atlantic

“One of the most frightful marine disasters of this century”

-The Morning Chronicle April 19, 1873.

The Atlantic was one of the most luxurious steamers of its time. She had been launched in Belfast in 1871 and was 3707 tones gross, 2366 tons net, 420 feet [nearly 130 meters] long, 40 feet 9 inches [approximately 12.5 meters] broad, and 31 feet [about 10 meters] deep in hold, with engines of 600 horse power.

E.A. Bollinger’s rendering of the Atlantic sinking. 1873.

On March 20, 1873, she departed from Liverpool for New York carrying 957 people, including Captain and crew. The journey was only supposed to take about eleven days at most, but severe weather was encountered on route, which significantly slowed the voyage. On the eleventh day the ship was only off the coast of Nova Scotia, but was running out of coal. The steamer had been loaded with less than a thirteen day supply of coal and had less than forty-eight hours worth remaining. Captain James A. Williams, who had only been with White Star for about a year and was on his second voyage on the Atlantic, thus decided to change course for Halifax to restock.

At about 1 p.m. on March 31, the course was altered. At midnight the watch changed and the Captain left his Second and Fourth Officers in charge with the order to wake him at twenty minutes to three. At about 3:15 am, the Captain awoke to the shock of the ship striking shore at Prospect, Nova Scotia.

Captain Williams, along with other passengers rushed to the deck to see what had happened. Immediately efforts were made to release the ship’s lifeboats, but all of the lifeboats on the port side of the ship were swept away immediately, and less than ten minutes after running aground, the lifeboats on the starboard side were also made useless when the ship rolled heavily to the port side as she sank. The Captain thus decreed: “Take to the rigging — it’s your last chance.” However, only the passengers that were lucky enough to escape the bowels of the ship before it was flooded even had this chance – the speed at which the ship was destroyed tragically meant that many of the passengers were unable to escape before she sunk and some were likely even drowned in their sleep.

While survivors clung to the rigging, Third Officer Brady, and Quarter Masters Owens and Speakman were able to get a line to a rock about forty yards away and then secure four more lines, by which about two-hundred people were able to escape the ship. Fifty of these were able to get to shore via another line, which spanned the distance of about one hundred yards from the rock.

The Chief Officer, J. W. Firth, was among those who climbed into the rigging for safety. According to him: “All who were alive on board were in the rigging. When daylight came I counted 32 persons in the mittenmast [sic] rigging with me, including one woman.” Eventually all other people besides a boy [John Hundley] and the woman had attempted to reach the rope to the rock. Some were successful and reached safety, others were swept away by the ocean. Others perished because in their haste to escape the wreck, they did put on their life buoys improperly so that their feet instead of their heads were kept out of the water.

At 5 a.m. the first boat appeared, but it was too small to facilitate rescue efforts. At 5:45 a.m., a man on shore wrote on a blackboard: “Cheer up; the boats are coming to your assistance.” By 6 a.m. three larger ships arrived and started rescuing the survivors on the rocks. At this point the survivors on the ship and the captain began shouting to rescue them first as they were in the most imminent danger. Apparently the captain even offered to give the rescuers $500 for every boatload rescued from the ship, which got them to save two boatloads. The increasing roughness of the seas meant boats could not safely get close enough to the wreck to save survivors in the rigging. However, John Hundley, the boy in the rigging, was eventually washed off and picked up by one of the rescue boats.

Once the captain got to shore, he sent Third Officer Brady to Halifax, a distance of about 35 kilometers, for help and to telegraph news of the wreck. As the wreck fell on “All Fool’s Day,” the newspaper and general public were disinclined to believe the story at first. The Morning Chronicle admits, “yesterday afternoon a report became current that a steamer had been wrecked somewhere on the coast and one or two lives lost. The report was regarded as one of the canards put afloat on “All Fool’s Day,” and little attention paid to it.” Once it became apparent that the rumour was actually a grave under exaggeration of the truth, two steamers were promptly sent by Mr. Morrow, the Cunard Line agent, to transport the survivors to Halifax, where they could be better cared for before being sent to New York at the first opportunity. The Chronicle also sought out the first (and at the time, the only) survivor to reach Halifax, Third Officer Brady, who conceded to an interview.

In that interview with The Chronicle in Halifax, Brady recalled Firth, who had been in the rigging when he left Prospect. “Would he be saved?” asked the reporter. “I fear not,” replied Brady; “he must have been almost exhausted when I left, and he could hardly hold out until the sea became calm enough for a boat to venture out; I tried to get some volunteers to go, but all said it would be certain death.” Brady, to his own relief, underestimated both the toughness of Firth and the bravery of some rescuers as at two o’clock in the afternoon on April 2, after Firth had spent approximately ten hours in the rigging, help arrived:

The Rev. Mr. Ancient, a Church of England clergyman, whose noble conduct I can never forget while I live, got a crew of four men to row him out to the wreck. He got into the main rigging and procured a line, then advanced as far as he could toward me, and threw it to me. I caught it, made it fast around my body and then jumped clear. A sea swept me off the wreck, but Mr. Ancient held fast to the line, pulled me back and got me safely to the boat (The Morning Chronicle April 3, 1873).

Reverend William Johnson Ancient was originally from Lincolnshire, England, and had served with the British Navy on the H.M.S. Mars from 1859 to 1863 before being posted to Halifax as a scripture reader. He later studied for the Anglican ministry. Ancient’s past as a mariner not only helped him gain the respect of his parish, which was largely composed of fishermen and their families, but also made it possible for him to save First Officer Firth. The exchange between Firth and Ancient supposedly went as follows. Ancient shouted:

“‘You are an officer, are you not?’
‘Then you know how to make a bowline?’
‘Yes, sir.’
Ancient then threw him an end of a rope, first taking a turn around the davit. ‘Now put your confidence in me and the Lord and move when I tell you.’ Clumsily Firth tied the rope and started to climb down the stay. A tremendous wave broke on board and washed him off, but the rope lashed to a davit held them both. When the next sea came Ancient hauled the sailor back on board. Firth yelled:
‘O Lord, I have broken my shins! I have broken my shins!’
‘Never mind your shins, Man! It is your life we are after,’ called Ancient as he dragged the officer along the life line he had made.”

The woman had succumbed to fatigue and exposure only two hours before the Reverend arrived.

Notably, all of the women and children (with the exception John Hundley, a six-year old boy) perished in the wreck. According to The Chronicle, this was because in order to prevent confusion, the officers gave the order to keep passengers, especially women and children below deck. This of course had tragic consequences when the ship sunk minutes after running aground. Third Officer Brady, however, argued that this was not the case: “To my knowledge, nothing was said or done to impede any of the passengers in coming on deck: the statement that has been made that there was, is absurd and incorrect.”

Not only did all the women on board Atlantic perish in the wreck, according to The Morning Chronicle: “In every instance where there was a married couple on board both perished. In all the excitement husbands and wives stood beside each other, as in duty bound, and together were drowned.”

The wreck became somewhat of a spectacle with large numbers of people flocking to see it, including passengers on the tug boat Henry Hoover, who paid $2 each for the trip. Many of the tourists to the wreck sought to procure a souvenir, whether a piece of wood from the vessel, a bottle or piece of china, or, the most popular relic of the wreck: a lock of hair from one of the dead bodies, particularly from a pretty woman. This practice soon had to be stopped. The only surviving child, John Hundley, became somewhat of a celebrity. He was photographed in Halifax; his pictures were mass-produced and sold readily.

For the next several weeks, hundreds of bodies washed up on shore. A great effort was made to identify them, remove any valuables, which were returned to loved ones if possible, and either ship the body to family in New York or inter it locally. Roman Catholics were buried at the Catholic cemetery in Terrence Bay, the others were buried at the Episcopal cemetery at Lower Prospect until there was no space left and an alternative burial site had to be found. In addition to burying the dead and site clean up, officials at the wreck encountered some problems with looters who picked over corpses or took goods from the ship that washed up.

An enquiry was ordered by the Dominion Government into the wreck and began at the Custom-House in Halifax on April 5, 1873. E. M. McDonald, the collector, presided and Captain McKenzie was his assistant. The Hon. S. T. Shannon, Q.C., and Mr. H. Blanchard, Q.C., represented the government. Mr. J. W. Ritchie, Q.C., represented Captain Williams of the Atlantic.

The Captain and crew were adamant that error on their part was not the sole reason for the wreck. Chief Officer Firth, for example, like others argued that there must have been a current that set them off course: “I cannot account for the disaster in no other way than that there was a strong current setting north and west, which we did not know of.”

On April 18, 1873, the decision of the enquiry was delivered. The findings were as follows:

The inference seems to be inevitable that she had not sufficient coal on board when sailing for a ship of her class…. Under the circumstances, Capt. Williams seems to have been justified in changing his course and bearing up for Halifax.… It also appears that the officers in charge did not obey the command given by Captain Williams to awake him at three o’clock; for I find that he slept until awakened by the shock of the ship striking the shore at from 12 to 15 minutes after three…. The conduct of Captain Williams and his officers during this time of trial after the ship struck, seems to have been all that could be demanded of men in their situation. Their efforts to save life appear to have been characterized by judgment, coolness, and bravery…. But I regret that I find it impossible to speak with approval of the management of the ship from the time her course was changed at 1 p.m. on Monday, until the time she became a wreck on the morning of Tuesday…. it is a well authenticated fact, that during the spring months there is no continuous northerly set of currents on this coast… it seems therefore impossible to account for the error in estimating the ship’s speed, except on the ground of incompetency or carelessness in calculating on the part of those attending to the log…. Had the very ordinary precaution been taken of sending a look-out at intervals to the masthead, the disaster would in all human probability have been prevented. But the greatest and I may say perhaps the fatal error is found in the fact that that the lead was never used, although the ship was in soundings for 8 hours before she struck.

Captain Williams consequently had his extra master and master certificates suspended for two years, a penalty that was relatively light because of his efforts to save lives after the ship struck. Fourth Officer Brown also had his certificate suspended for three months for his violation of the Captain’s orders to wake him at twenty minutes to three.

The calamity of errors that conspired to result in the devastating loss of the Atlantic was widely noted almost immediately. The Morning Chronicle for instance reprinted a piece from The New York Evening Post that mentions three preventable reasons for the wreck:

If the ‘Atlantic’ had been built after the model of the Dutch ship whose adventures in the waters adjacent to this city Washington Irving made famous, most or all of her passengers might have escaped the sudden death which came upon them; if she had been supplied with sufficient coal, in all probability human hearts on both sides of the Atlantic would not to-day by bursting with anxiety and grief for those who may have been or were strangled to death by the sea; if the captain had been at his post some sudden device might have prevented or lessened the waste of life. But all three contingencies occurred at the same time, with the sickening results known.

Interestingly, the Chronicle reporter who got a “scoop” by sending information about the wreck to New York papers was William S. Fielding, who later became the Premier of Nova Scotia and finance minister of Canada.

Of the 957 people aboard the Atlantic when she steamed into the shore of Nova Scotia on April 1, 1873, only 422 were saved. 535, or fifty-six percent were lost. A granite monument now stands in honour of the Atlantic in a small cemetery that overlooks the area of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.


Blakeley, Phyllis R. 1973. “The Atlantic Goes Aground: 546 Lost in April Tragedy of 1873,” The Atlantic Advocate. Fredericton, N.B. University Press of New Brunswick.

Blakeley, Phyllis R. 1973. “W.J. Ancient—Hero of Shipwreck Atlantic,” Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly. Halifax, N.S. Petheric Press.

Hatchard, Keith. 1981. The Two Atlantics: The Shipwreck of the SS Atlantic at Prospect, NS April 1, 1873. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.

Unknown. 1873.”Loss of the Steam Ship “Atlantic,” of the “White Star” Line,” Toronto: McLeish & Co., Printers.

Unknown. 1873. “Terrible Marine Disaster,” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), April 3.

Unknown. 1873. “The “Atlantic” Disaster. Additional Statements and Incidents,” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), April 5.

Unknown. 1873. “The “Atlantic” Disaster. Further Particulars and Incidents.” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), April 5.

Unknown. 1873. “The Atlantic Disaster. More Bodies Recovered. Result of the Official Inquiry,” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), April 19.

Unknown. 1873. “The Atlantic Disaster. The Actual Number Lost 535. The Ship Not Yet Broken Up. The Investigation,” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), April 15.

Unknown. 1873. “The “Atlantic” Horror. Opinions of the American Press,” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), April 10.

Unknown. 1873. “The “Atlantic” Horror. Scenes and Incidents at Prospect. Sunday at the Wreck,” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), April 8.

Unknown. 1873. “The Great Calamity; The Wreck of the “Atlantic” at Prospect,” The Morning Chronicle (Halifax) April 3.

Zinck, Jack. 1975. Shipwrecks of Nova Scotia: Volume I. Windsor NS: Lancelot Press.


Ship Floods as it Strikes Nova Scotia Land

2 responses to “1873 Atlantic”

  1. joseph farley says:

    Did John Speakman receive any bravery award and what happened to him after the tragedy.


    • Heather Sparling says:

      I’m afraid that I don’t know. If you or anyone else has additional information to share, please let me know!

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