When SS Waratah vanished off Africa in 1909, her mystery-shrouded disappearance paved the way for P&O’s takeover of the Blue Anchor Line and its lucrative emigrant trade to Australia. Words: Rob Henderson.

London, January 1910 – a cold and miserable winter’s day was the backdrop to a sad affair. On that day, a contract was signed by P&O for the purchase of the disconsolate Blue Anchor Line, a month after Lloyds of London had rung the bell and listed Blue Anchor’s newest ship, Waratah, missing. Pundits said P&O had the best of the bargain, paying £275,000 which included five steamers totalling almost 30,000 gross tons.

For decades, P&O had followed the lucrative emigrant/cargo trade to Australia closely. The company had toyed with the emigrant idea in the late 1880s but didn’t have the ships to implement it. After all, P&O ships were, first and foremost, first-class mail ships offering express services to the empire east of Suez.

P&O carried only First and Second Class passengers, and invariably, those in First Class outnumbered those in Second Class, which left no room for anyone else; and certainly, as some said at the time, “First-class ships carrying H.M. Mails were not the place for emigrants.”

On the other hand, the Blue Anchor Line, founded in London by German émigré Wilhelm Lund in 1869, had a flourishing business on the Australian route via the Cape of Good Hope, carrying a small number of First Class passengers with a large number of emigrants in Third Class. The shipping line’s business model was outstandingly lucrative. On arrival in Australia, the demountable emigrant accommodation was stored away to make room for increasing Australian exports.

Compared with P&O’s ships, the Blue Anchor Line ships were plain and unattractive but admirably suited to the task Lund required. In 1908, Lund ordered a new, large steamer from the Scottish yards of Barclay, Curle and Company. She was the 9,399-ton Waratah, which had 100 comparatively luxurious first-class cabins and room for nearly 700 emigrants in mostly demountable cabins.

The Waratah’s maiden return voyage to Australia was a huge success and Lund had every reason to be satisfied. On her second voyage to Australia, she completed the first sector without incident, departing on the return journey from Sydney on June 26 and from Melbourne on July 1, 1909. Bound for Durban, Waratah was carrying 50-odd passengers, 119 crew, and a cargo that reportedly included 600 tons of oats, 100 tons of flour, 1,050 boxes of the best Australian butter, 8,000 crates of rabbits, 1,000 carcasses of mutton, and about 1,000 tons of lead. At Durban, some 40 more passengers embarked, one engineer and seasoned ocean traveller disembarked, thinking the ship “top-heavy”, and Waratah sailed for Cape Town on July 26, 1909.

The next morning, she exchanged signals by lamp with the ship Clan Macintyre and again, later that day, with the Union Castle Line steamer Guelph but due to adverse conditions, the latter vessel could only make out the letters T-A-H. Later that night, the steamer Harlow sighted a large and unknown ship making heavy weather, a not-unusual circumstance, and thought no more of it.

Meanwhile, the port agents in Cape Town were making the usual arrangements for the arrival of Waratah on July 29, 1909 – but the ship never arrived at Cape Town. As the days slipped by, the anxious agents sought assistance from local authorities, who despatched a tugboat to search for the missing vessel, but nothing was found.

News of the ship’s failure to arrive in Cape Town soon reached Australia. It caused some anxiety; however, the belief prevailed that a new, well-founded ship under Captain Ilberry, who had almost 40 years of service including 20 as a master, had suffered no more than a “machinery breakdown during the recent heavy gales” and was adrift in the Southern Ocean. In fact, the Australian agents of the line believed that, in the face of such extreme weather, the Captain had taken an alternate course so as to escape its effects.

Searches were also made by Royal Navy ships. In September 1909, the steamer Sabine searched 14,000 miles of some of the worst seas in the world, fruitlessly. And yet in February 1910, so strong was the hope that Waratah was merely missing that another search was instigated. This one was funded by public subscription, Australian governments and the shipping line itself, which chartered the steamer Wakefield to search an area encompassing more than 20,000 miles. Nothing was found.

The disappearance of Waratah had an enormous impact in Australia. Because of the absence of wreckage an optimistic belief that the ship would be found lingered for months, until the Wakefield’s sad return brought home the realisation that the sea alone held the secret to Waratah’s loss – which, to this day, is a mystery. She has never been found.

P&O, which, at the time, was eager to enter the emigrant trade with its newly founded Branch Line, then bought the ailing Blue Anchor Line. Ironically, P&O proceeded to bring to Australia well in excess of a quarter of a million emigrants, based on the successful Blue Anchor Line’s model.