New article with complete crew list.

I have posted a new article on the site that gives a complete crew list for SS Volturno’s final voyage. Although I have previously posted the names of all the crew victims, and all of the Dutch crew members, this is—to my knowledge—the first complete list published of the entire crew anywhere.

Using primary sources from The National Archives (of the United Kingdom), I have compiled a list of all 93 officers and crew that sailed from Rotterdam on 2 October 1913. See the complete list, and my discussion and examination of the primary source materials here.

Some numbers related to Volturno’s crew:

  • 92 men and 1 woman comprised the entire crew.
  • 29 men and 1 woman died in the disaster; 63 men survived
  • Of the victims:
    • 2 were officers: Chief Mate, 4th Mate
    • 8 were deck personnel: Boatswain’s Mate, 4 (of 6) able-bodied seamen, 2 (of 6) ordinary seamen, 1 deck boy
    • 3 were engine-room personnel: 1 greaser, 2 firemen
    • 17 others: the Assistant Purser, the Chief Steward, the pantryman, the stewardess, 1 baker, the butcher, the Steam Cook, 4 assistant stewards, the Chief Steerage Steward, 5 general stewards

Thoughts on the 98th anniversary.

Today marks the 98th anniversary of the fire aboard SS Volturno that led to the ship’s destruction and the deaths of 30 crew members and over 100 passengers.

Although several time zones to the west of where Volturno met its end, I was, just like those on the ill-fated ship, awakened this morning shortly after 6:00 a.m. to the sounds of a heavy storm. Unlike those on Volturno, however, I awakened in a comfortable bed and in a sturdy house, which is firmly attached to solid ground and most decidedly not burning out of control.

When I think of the Volturno disaster, I’ve always tried to imagine what it must have been like on board the Volturno at that time. I’ve tried to imagine the sounds. The clamor of hundreds of people speaking many languages. The shouts of officers and crew making vain attempts to fight the fire. The yells of families struggling to stay together. The prayers for deliverance. A shofar blowing against the roar of gale-force winds. Each pop of the hull, expanding from the flames like a giant radiator, inducing fresh shrieks from panicked passengers. All of this overlaid on the sounds a ship straining against heavy seas.

I’ve tried to visualize the sights on board the ship. The smoke and flames erupting from the front half of the ship. The sight of lifeboats—seeming to be, at first, the only salvation from death by fire or water—overturned in the water or smashed against the ship, their occupants claimed by the heaving sea. The sight of panicked passengers and crewmen jumping to their deaths to flee the conflagration. Watching as the ship’s fire hoses played on the flames with little effect. Seeing the dazed passengers—some clad only in sleeping clothes, most not dressed to be in the weather—huddled at the back of the ship. Observing the rescue ship lifeboats one after another, futilely striving against the sea. Experiencing the eerie glow of a ship illuminated at night only by flames and a setting moon, while surrounded by nearly a dozen ships, each fully lit, circling tantalizingly close.

I’ve tried to imagine the smells. The smell of the ocean. And rain. The crisp autumn air blowing in from the northwest. The smells of 600 people a week at sea in cramped quarters. Coal smoke emerging from Volturno’s stack. The pungent smells of burning chemicals and hot metal. The smells of coffee and baking bread emerging from Volturno’s galley even as the fire raged.

I’ve tried to understand how it would be to feel the sensations of being on a pitching ship settling to starboard and by the bow. To shiver in the cold air and rain even while the deck below continued to get hotter underfoot. To jump from the deck of the rolling ship, when lifeboats were finally able to approach, plunging into the cold ocean with hopes of being dragged into a waiting boat.

As much as I can’t ever know for sure, I can at least imagine what it might have been like to be on Volturno during that storm, fire, and rescue, in that early October, 98 years ago today.

I’ll be keeping the victims of the disaster in my thoughts today, and hope that you will, too.

Volturno-related photos by Second Officer of SS Devonian

Men preparing two lifeboats to be launched while an officer supervises.

Crewmen on Devonian ready lifeboats as they rush to assist Volturno. Photo by Devonian’s Second Officer, William Henry Baker (Copyrighted photo published at courtesy of descendants of Baker.)

William Henry Baker was the Second Officer aboard SS Devonian when that ship responded to Volturno’s distress calls. According to an article on Baker by Senan Molony at the Encyclopedia Titanica website, “Mount Temple Temp’s Memories”, Baker took thousands of photographs during his career, including some from October 1913 as his ship raced to assist Volturno. One such example is at right, showing Devonian crew readying lifeboats before reaching Volturno. Other Volturno-related photos at that site include a close-up picture of the burning Volturno, pictures of the Devonian boat crew that rescued Volturno passengers, and some of the men that Devonian rescued. I highly recommend that you visit the site to see the other images.

The Volturno passengers on Devonian seem to have been well photographed. In addition to Baker’s photos discussed here, I have also featured posts on extant Pathé newsreel footage and a press photo taken on board. In addition, Peter Searle features several Devonian photos (about a third of the way down the page) on his website provided by grandsons of Devonian’s First Officer Thomas Burdett Knight.


Volturno’s wireless history

Volturno’s wireless system from Guglielmo Marconi, pictured, was responsible for the saving of most of her passengers and crew. (Public domain photo by the Nobel foundation, via Wikimedia Commons.)

After Volturno caught fire in the mid-Atlantic in early October 1913, the lifeline of everyone aboard the vessel was the ship’s Marconi wireless installation and its two operators, Walter Seddon, and his assistant, Christopher Pennington.

In the early years of Volturno’s operation, it sailed—like many ships at the time—without wireless. On at least two occasions Volturno could’ve benefited from having that capability. In April 1908, for example, on Volturno’s first New York-bound voyage for the New York & Continental Line, the ship stayed alongside the French fishing vessel Champagne for nearly two days to rescue that stricken sailing vessel’s crew. And in May the following year, Volturno was trapped in sea ice off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks for quite some time before finally able to steam clear and arrive at Halifax five days late. But, regardless of how useful wireless might have been in the past, there were some specific legal reasons that Volturno ended up with the wireless set-up it had.

Fate of Volturno’s Fourth Engineer discovered

When SS Volturno burned in the Atlantic in early October 1913, the fourth engineer on board was a young man by the name of James Belfield. He was rescued by SS Kroonland and taken to New York, and returned to England on RMS Olympic Oceanic with the majority of Volturno’s crew landed in the United States. According to Kroonland’s passenger manifest, the 23-year-old Belfield was 5′ 6″ (1.67 m), had brown hair and blue eyes, was born in Rockhampton, Australia, and was living at No. 369, East India Dock Road in London (the same address given by Volturno’s 2nd engineer, New Zealander Frank Malcolmson).

While searching Australian newspaper articles online, I came across Belfield’s death notice, and it helps to fill in some details about his short life.

British Pathé newsreel footage of Volturno survivors

Look for the promised update on the short life of Volturno‘s fourth engineer, James Belfield, in my next post, but now a special find!

Thanks to some descriptions in January 1914 editions of the Townsville Daily Herald (Townsville, Queensland), I have learned that there was newsreel footage taken of Volturno survivors. From the 7 January edition, a film from the Olympia theater’s program was a Pathé English Gazette newsreel that included footage of Volturno survivors. From the 14 January edition, a listing of the Stanley theater’s program describes the (presumably same) footage as being of Volturno survivors arriving on SS Devonian at Liverpool.

Fortunately, British Pathé have a wonderful website where you can search for and preview clips from their newsreels. A search for the word Volturno brings up three clips, two of which are related to the Allied offensive in Italy during World War II. The third, however, appears to be the footage discussed in the Townsville newspaper.

On the page with the clip, the title suggests that footage of the burning Volturno itself might be included, but I don’t think that is the case. The other wording on the page reads like an offering from the Descriptive Video Service, merely describing what appears in the clip.

Examining the footage, the imagery of the ship is clearly not that of Volturno, since the vessel has four masts (Volturno only had two). Comparing extant images of Devonian to the images, though, suggests that it is indeed the Devonian in the film clip.

The clip itself is about 1 minute 15 seconds long and nobody clearly identifiable as a Volturno survivor appears until about 26 seconds in, when the camera pans across two rows of men who were probably also posing for photograpers. Near the end, there is footage of women and children survivors descending a staircase on the ship. It is interesting to note that the three boys that I discussed in a previous post are seen descending the staircase at about 50 seconds into the clip. The photo in that post was described as being ‘Volturno survivors in England’, which I interpreted as being from Devonian (since it was the only rescue ship that landed women and children in England). The Volturno castaways in the film clip and those in the photograph are clearly the same, and combined with my deductions in the previous post and the Townsville Daily Herald descriptions, I feel confident that these are indeed Volturno survivors rescued by Devonian who are pictured.

In any case, here is the link for you to view the clip. One may also purchase the clip for £30, presumably in a higher resolution, non-watermarked version.

The life and career of Lawrence Johnston

I discussed published personal accounts of the Volturno disaster in a previous post and mentioned one of the more interesting accounts was by Lawrence Johnston of Boise, Idaho. In my last post, I related Johnston’s account from the perspective of RMS Campania, under the command of Arthur Henry Rostron, of RMS Carpathia fame. I intended to cover Johnston’s interesting life in that post as well, but felt to do justice to the career of an apparently forgotten performer, I would continue with his story in this post. (And return to more directly Volturno-related posts next time.)

In Johnston’s Volturno account from the 2 November 1913 Idaho Sunday Statesman, the newspaper referred to him as a “boy from Idaho”. Looking at Campania’s UK incoming passenger manifest (available through, the ‘boy’ turns out to have been a 34-year-old married man. Lawrence and Gertrude Johnston were on the manifest (under the spelling Johnstone) as second cabin passengers, with Lawrence’s occupation listed as “performer”. Curious as to what kind of performer, I began to dig a little deeper. What I found about Johnston and his career appears after the jump.

Lawrence Johnston, Arthur Rostron, and Campania

RMS Campania

RMS Campania

In my last post, discussing personal accounts of the Volturno disaster, I mentioned one of the more interesting accounts was by Lawrence Johnston, a man from Idaho. I also mentioned that he was not even aboard one of the eleven ships that came to Volturno’s aid in the stormy North Atlantic in October 1913. As it turns out, Johnston was a passenger on the Cunard ship RMS Campania (pictured at right), which was commanded by Arthur Henry Rostron, of RMS Titanic fame.

The full story after the jump.