A HARWICH DITTY

Late morning on Friday 18th September 1908, the Ganges I [known by all, civil and naval] as the "Ganges Hulk", was towed from her mooring off Shotley for pastures new, with what turned out to be many more useful years of service before she was finally broken up.

She was replaced in Harwich harbour [although not a part of the Shotley Barracks group]  by a redundant Victorian battleship called officially HMS Camperdown, but unofficially at worst as SOS = Ship of Shame! At worst this was by sailors of lowly disposition, said in bars and waterfronts of naval ports but never within earshot of officialdom, or of any fair-minded person liable to give feed-back to officials. Their adverse comment was quintessentially gutter-speak of the lower deck based on an assumption and an avid dislike of authority and naval officers.

That these slurs were used and known about brought a new ghoulish interest on Camperdown's arrival at Harwich and many boats left places like Ipswich, Felixstowe, and the Stour regions [before brackish water turned to fresh water], to view this ship close-up, whilst ignoring the other ships in the harbour as lack-lustre and of no importance, neither famous or infamous. It had a record, a very bad and dreadfully sad record, justly infamous, and Victorians plus not a few Edwardians, loved to see and hear about death, in all its forms, believing in the paranormal, ghosts, with surrealism then in its embryonic stages but not yet fully recognised as a cult. Victorians of all classes liked nothing better that a good murder and witnessing the murderer getting his or her comeupance. The murderer could be a human being or an inanimate object like a run away coach and horses or bus, or even a ship that personified death in large numbers like for example the Titanic and yes, the Camperdown.  Londoner's, once they were told [it wasn't at all obvious although the smell affected everybody's lives]  that their sewage [before sewers were built and commissioned] had long caused disease and death, chiefly cholera, started to 'blame' the pre-Bazalgette period infrastructure and workers thereof, for the malaise which they themselves caused, irrationally blaming them for deaths, as rational people might blame a known arsonist for setting fire to an occupied building resulting in deaths. Men like Arthur Conan Doyle a medical doctor and Charles Dickens, made a lucrative living playing on the fears death, suffering and deprivation in all its forms, natural or unnatural. 

Now Harwich and Shotley had its own 'death-machine', and although inanimate, people believed that the vessel was somehow to blame for the mass murder of hundreds of innocent people. Whilst it wasn't a coffin for these many souls, it was symbolic of their drownings and was a living reminder in their very midst.

  In 1893, just fifteen years before Camperdown arrived at Harwich with memories still very raw, the fleet were exercising in the Eastern Mediterranean when an order given by the flag officer in charge embarked in the battleship HMS Victoria, was queried at the point of delivery as being a foolhardy manoeuvre by other ship's and virtually all the officers embarked in them, plus the senior officers in the flagship standing but feet away from the flag officer ordering the manoeuvre. The ill fated manoeuvre went ahead involving two long columns of heavy warships, one led by the admiral in Victoria and the other led by the Camperdown.  The inevitable happened and the Camperdown rammed the Victoria sinking it within a few minutes, taking the lives of 358 men including that of the admirals, although half the crew, 357 men were saved. Camperdown herself was badly damaged but struggled back to harbour,  in danger of sinking throughout with a pronounced list having taken on board a great amount of water. Clearly she was repaired and survived for another day. That in naval terms, the officer in charge of the Camperdown was obeying orders [although he had voiced his opinion about the proposed sea exercises]  was blameless [and he survived], he nevertheless carried his share of guilt to his grave, not just for the deaths at the scene of the disaster, but for all the suffering of the next of kin of these men and all the close and distant relatives of the deceased, friends and acquaintances, totalling upwards of 2000 souls in all, based on family formations of those days, when families were large as compared to ours, eight to ten children not an exaggeration.

In 1908, as the autumn was beginning and the ship was settling into her new role, many eyes would scan the harbour some close on, others from a distance, and rest awhile on the vast size or this now redundant capital warship with their minds and thoughts racing, and wondering if this 'sad' vessel would bring good or bad luck to Harwich/Shotley?

She remained in Harwich for three years only until 1911 acting as an accommodation ship for submarine crews. Many, as they rested their heads and snuggled down to sleep, must have closed their eyes, trying to put out their minds an envisagement of the final moments of the 1893 mega disaster.

She [Camperdown] was not a murderer [as defined by Victorian standards and their ubiquitous death allegiances] and not even an accessory before or after the fact, but just a hapless protagonist, put into a position by somebody who failed to plan and obviously didn't understand his vessel [albeit, despite his lofty position, a passenger therein] nor the vessels under his command.  The now deceased admiral's ego had unbelievable consequences, exercised at a time when the navy had no belligerent enemies upon the high seas dating from the War of 1812 right up to 1914 and the start of WW1, getting on for one hundred years - even though the French often used to blow hot air,  but nothing ever came of their threats.  However, the most important part of the world and our empire was East of Suez and the Suez Canal [called the "ditch" by the USN] had to be guarded at all costs. It was continuously harassed by the Italian Navy out of Taranto and the French Navy out of Toulon and Djibouti, and the British C-in-C was continuously briefed that he must put to sea regularly and be seen to carry out fleet manoeuvres  such that would display to those threatening the Canal Zone our omnipotence. Britain had, in the Mediterranean, the largest fleet even assembled in the 19th century frequently enhanced by cruises sunning themselves from other fleets, typically the Grand Fleet, Home Fleet and exceptionally the East Indies Fleet: any ship operating or stationed there, was said to be "going up the straits"; the straits being the Straits of Gibraltar, which applied equally to any private ship, squadron of ships or fleets which have arrived on station via the Suez Canal. When the navy did go into action during this one hundred year period, and there were many small wars and skirmishes [far east Asia, near east Asia, Mediterranean, South Africa, South America, Crimea, and others] it was in support of the army ashore e.g. bombardments, pirate and gun-running chasers, blockades, landing fresh troops, supplies and ammunition replacements, medical aid and support services inter alia, none of it involving grand fleet manoeuvres which really died a death after the Napoleonic Wars. Deaths attributable to "playing at war or war games" are less acceptable than deaths caused by enemy action, especially if the deaths were caused through ignorance and incompetence.  Britain had bases for its fleet[s] in the Lebanon & Egypt [both in the modern day Levant area] plus Algeria, Malta, Gibraltar and exceptionally Aden but of course well outside the sphere of the Mediterranean. I have used the word 'fleet', as do most people to refer to a group of ships, but the truth of the matter is that a fleet must have battleships, otherwise the 'group' is a squadron, or a flotilla.

Below tells of the strange sinking position of HMS Victoria, the only known British warship to rest in such a bizarre position.