Launched from the Usk Shipbuilding Co Ltd’s Newport yard on 16th November 1883 the iron steamship Ethel Gwendoline measured 120.1′ x 22,0′ x 10.5′ and her tonnage was 252 gross tons, 155 net tons. She was powered by a compound steam engine by Sheryn and Laurie delivering 50 net horse power. She was built for the Columbia Steamship Co Ltd of Cardiff but only two years after her launch she was sold to Mr Robert Taylor of Dundee in 1885 and commenced operations on the Scottish east coast mainly delivering coal from Sunderland to the various ports of the east of Scotland.
She arrived in Sunderland on 18th March 1890 in ballast and began laoding the holds with her next cargo of coal. 144 tons were loaded into the forepart of her hold and subsequently 167 tons of house coal was loaded into the rear of the hold. The vessel had been overloaded and was forced to offload some of the cargo before she could depart but the removal of some 11 tons only barely brought the water level on the Plimsoll line to the absolute limit. As she set out from Sunderland bound for Inverness on 19th March with a crew of nine men under the command of master James Milne she shipped some water over the starboard side in the beam sea at the port entrance. The skipper then turned north and set her engines to full ahead.
During the first part of the voyage everything was normal but, in the morning of 21st the sea state deteriorated and she began to ship more water. The fore hatch tarpaulin was also torn and washed off the port side. Despite concern from the second engineer who asked that they put into Aberdeen to put things right the skipper kept going expecting to round Rattray Head and gain some shelter from the strong wind and swell. However as they passed Rattray Head the situation deteriorated rapidly, the fore hatch tarpaulin, which had been recovered and nailed down. Blew off again and this time was lost completely over the port side. By now she was taking on large amounts of water and it was obvious she as about to founder. A distress flag was raised and her whistle blown continuously to attract the attention of a nearby steamer. The men clambered into the ship’s boat but almost immediately the Ethel Gwendoline plunged into a wave and went down by the bow. The lifeboat was still attached to the ship so it too was pulled under and all the crew thrown into the water. It broke free and resurfaced upside down but only four of the men survived to cling onto it. before the steamship arrived to pick them up the steward was washed off and lost. Only three men survived with remaining seven including the master lost. Despite the ship being loaded to the very limit the subsequent court of enquiry held that the loss was not due to overloading but to stress resulting in the damage and loss of the forehold tarpaulin which then allowed water to enter the hold and sink the ship.
A wreck believed to be the Ethel Gwendoline lies in position 57 43.520 N, 001 45.838 W oriented 065/245 degrees. She sits in 57 metres with a least depth clearance of 52 metres. The wreck is highly degraded with only the bow rising significantly above seabed level. The single forward hold is clearly visible among the wreckage suggesting the identity of the wreck discovered and dived by Buchan Divers in 2011. However, a subsequent dive in May 2023 revealed a ship’s telegraph manufactured by Mechan and Sons, a company which was founded in 1900. This makes the identification of this wreck as Ethel Gwendoline incorrect. A mystery wreck to be identified another day?
We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Buchan Divers – www.buchandivers.com in the preparation of this article.