Titanic story was only tip of the iceberg

Image of sailing ship kapunda
Image of sailing ship kapunda

Trevor Whittley is a man on a mission. His interest in maritime history has sent him on a search for descendants of the few survivors from the ‘Kapunda’ disaster.

Having lived in Queensferry for over 30 years Trevor became interested in history while researching a story about a cousin who had supposedly drowned aboard the Titanic.

Although Whittleys had helped build the Titanic there was no record of a family member perishing aboard her.

But little did he know that fate was about to take an interesting turn.

An Australian great-uncle recalled that the ship was actually called the “Kapunda” and not the Titanic as previously thought.

In February 1887 Kapunda collided with another ship; badly holed she sank and nearly all on board drowned, including four from the Whittley family.

He often visited the Queensferry Museum and 10 years ago, due to redecoration, a ship’s model was taken down from the wall.

On the reverse, hidden for over 50 years, was an inscription: “This is the Ship Kapunda of London. Built Dumbarton 1875. She left London Dec 1886 with double crew and 279 emigrants for Freemantle, Western Australia.

“When off the Brazil coast, on January 20th 1887 she was rammed and sunk in a few minutes by the Belfast Barque, Ada Melmore, homeward bound from Coquimbo with a cargo of copper ore. Only eight of the crew and eight male passengers were saved.

“No sailing ship ever conveyed passengers after this catastrophe.”

Trevor said: “I was astonished! It fairly sent a tingle down my spine to have this model ship appear under my very nose when I had been looking everywhere else with little success.”

As for the mystery model maker, he turned out to be Lt. Commdr. John Robert Anderson McEwan, OBE, who served in the Royal Naval Reserve and was decorated during WW1 for his brave work aboard the minesweepers.

He later became the Marine Superintendent for the Fisheries Board.

The Illustrated London News of February 5, 1887 reported: “A terrible disaster to a British emigrant-ship, bound for Australia, took place on the 20th, off the coast of Brazil.

“The Kapunda, a sailing-vessel left Plymouth on Dec 18.

“She was bound for Fremantle, and had on board 312 crew and passengers. News came on Monday she had been in collision and both vessels had sunk south of Maceio.

“The number lost on board the Kapunda must exceed 200 and may be nearly 300.”