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Shipwreck: ss Hilda


ss Hilda sank outside St Malo Harbour in 1905. The event was shown on the cover of Illustrated London News

Hilda in St Peter Port

London and South Western Railway Company's Hilda was built by Aitken and Mansell of Whiteinch, Glasgow. She was an iron single screw steamer, of 849 tons, 235 feet loong, 29 foot beam and 14 foot draught.

Strike delays delivery

She cost £33,000 and was launched in July 1882, although her maiden voyage did not take place until the following 19 January because of a strike at the shipyard. She operated between Southampton, the Channel Islands and St Malo until 1890, when she was replaced by the Stella.

A major refit in 1894 saw her return to service between Southampton and St Malo. She was wrecked in a blizzard off the Island of Czembre near St Malo on 18 November 1905 with a loss of 128 lives. All her crew, including Captain Gregory, were drowned except for one sailor. The mails were also lost.


History from Wikipedia


Hilda was built by Aitkin and Mansel, Whiteinch, Glasgow at a cost of £33,000. She was yard number 117 and was launched in July 1882. Completion was in January 1883. She was 235 ft 6 in (71.78 m) long, with a beam of 29 ft 1 in (8.86 m) and a depth of 14 ft 2 in (4.32 m). Hilda was powered by two 220 horsepower (160 kW) compound steam engines which were made by John and James Thompson and Company, Glasgow. They had cylinders of 37 in (94 cm) and 69 in (180 cm) bore by 39 in (99 cm) stroke. The boilers fitted in 1894 were made by Day, Summers and Company, of the Northam Iron Works, Southampton. These gave her a speed of 14 knots. She was 848 GRT, and had a licensed passenger capacity of 566. The ship carried six lifeboats with a capacity of 348 people, as well as 12 lifebuoys and 318 lifejackets.

Hilda approaches Guernsey


Hilda completed her sea trials on 13 January 1883 and was handed over to the LSWR that day. She was employed on the Southampton-Jersey-St Malo Service. On 7 October 1890, she was replaced by Stella on that service and transferred to the direct service between Southampton and St Malo. In 1894, new boilers were fitted by Day, Summers and Company and electric light was fitted throughout the ship.


Hilda left Southampton at 10 pm on 17 November 1905 on her regular service to St Malo. She was carrying 103 passengers. Thick fog forced her to anchor off Yarmouth, Isle of Wight to await better weather conditions. The voyage was resumed at 6 o'clock the following morning. Hilda passed through the Race of Alderney at 12:30 and, after leaving Jersey behind, the weather conditions worsened. By 6 pm Hilda was approaching St Malo. The lights from the town were visible, as was the Jardin Lighthouse, but snow squalls reduced visibility and Captain Gregory was forced to abandon the attempt to reach port.

Several times the visibility improved briefly, but then deteriorated. Hilda was forced to abandon each attempt to reach port. Around 11 pm the visibility improved again and another attempt to enter the harbour was made. A few minutes later, Hilda struck the Pierre de Portes rocks, which lie to the west of the entrance channel to St Malo harbour. Distress rockets were fired and the passengers donned their lifejackets. Attempts were made to launch the lifeboats, but five of them either could not be launched or were dashed to pieces on the rocks. The sixth washed up at Saint Cast le Guildo, some 15 miles (24 km) west of St Malo. The tide was ebbing, and Hilda broke in two some 15 minutes after running aground. About 20 or 30 people on the stern part of the wreck managed to climb the rigging to await rescue. By 9 o'clock the following morning, when they were discovered by SS Ada, only six remained. A total of 125 people had died. Among the dead were 70 Breton "Onion Johnnies" returning from selling produce in England.

Captain William Gregory had been employed by London and South Western Railway for 36 years. He joined the company in 1869 at the age of 20. His first command was SS Honfleur in 1880. In 1885 he was appointed as master of Hilda. The only surviving crew member was able-bodied seaman James Grinter. He had been twice shipwrecked before. The five surviving passengers were Olivier Caroff of Roscoff, Tanguy Laot of Cléder, Jean Louis Mouster of La Feuillée, Paul-Marie Pen of Cléder and Louis Rozec of Plouzévédé.


An inquiry was held under The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 into the circumstances of the loss of Hilda. It was held at the Caxton Hall, London with the Court of Inquiry sitting on 1, 2 and 8 February 1906. The inquiry found that the ship was seaworthy, with lifesaving equipment provision meeting the legislated standard of the time. There was no finding of recklessness or negligence on the part of Captain Gregory.

In November 2005 an exhibition was held in St Malo commemorating the 100th anniversary of the shipwreck. On 19 November flowers were cast on the water at the wreck site in memory of the victims, and some divers placed a string of onions on the wreck in memory of the Onion Johnnies. A memorial service was held in St Malo Cathedral on 20 November.

The Hilda shipwreck - what a strange subject for a postcard
Hilda in 1905 on her last voyage before she sank
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