1875 - A Terrible Disaster

18th August. A Terrible Disaster. The Royal Yacht Alberta, in company with the Victoria & Albert, (Alberta was tender to the V & A) steamed at 15 knots across Spithead towards the Harbour entrance. His Serene Highness Prince Ernest of Leiningen, Captain David Welch and Commander J.R.T. Fullerton were on the bridge and noted a schooner away on the port bow coming out of Stokes Bay. The Schooner was the 120 ton Mistletoe. At the helm was the Master, 74 year old Thomas Stokes of Hamworthy, Dorset. Taking tea in the saloon was the owner Mr. E. S. Heywood of Manchester, a Banker and Lancashire Magistrate, and his two sisters-in-law, the Misses Eleanor and Annie Peel, daughters of a former MP. They had enjoyed a pleasant afternoon, sailing out to the Nab lightship and were returning to Ryde, where they were spending a summer holiday. Mrs Heywood was awaiting their return.

The steward informed the party that the Royal Yacht Alberta was close by and the party went on deck and noticed that the Alberta was flying the Royal Standard. Henry Brown the coxswain of Mistletoe asked the Master if they should dip their flag to which the Master agreed. The two vessels drew closer but there was no cause for alarm as yachts and other craft often, on seeing the Royal Yacht, would close her, hoping for a glimpse of the Queen. Capt. Welch, on moving to the Starboard side, saw that the schooner was only 100-150 yards ahead and trying to cross the Alberta’s bows. He ordered the wheel of Alberta to be put hard a Starboard. Telegraphs were put to “Stop engines” and then “Reverse”. On the Mistletoe, Capt. Stokes had right of way but on realising that a collision was imminent brought the Mistletoe up into the wind in a desperate attempt to avoid the coming disaster. The bow and bowsprit of the Alberta plunged into the Mistletoe amidships on her starboard side between her two masts; it was then seven minutes passed six and the Mistletoe had but a few minutes to live. In fact the Mistletoe was virtually cut in half and her back broken. Alberta’s engines were slowly reversed for there was a fear that the mast and rigging would fall onto Alberta’s bow that was crowded with her own crew and servants of the Queen, of which at least five were women. Cdr. Fullerton who was on the Alberta’s bow became entangled in the jumble of rigging and was nearly drowned trying to rescue one of the women. Some of Mistletoe’s crew managed to scramble across the Alberta’s bows to safety. Capt. Stokes was struck by a spar and knocked into the water, from where he was picked up but was unconscious and died on the way to Portsmouth. Mr. Heywood was rescued after he managed to grab a rope hanging from Albert’s bows. He and other wounded crew received medical care from the Queen’s doctor. Poor Miss Annie Peel might have been saved too had she not been too petrified to jump into the outstretched arms of Lieut. Britten who drew alongside in one of the rescue boats. Sadly she was dragged down in the jumble of rigging with the Mistletoe along with the mate Nathaniel Turner.

Mistletoe sank between Stokes Bay and the Mother Bank in 13 fathoms of water. Alberta, with bowsprit carried away and damaged bow, managed to complete her journey to the Royal Clarence Yard at Gosport arriving at seven o’clock and there landed HM Queen and family. The crew of the Mistletoe was sent to the Flagship Duke of Wellington.

Mr Heywood and Miss Eleanor Peel were transported to the Commander-in-Chief’s residence in the Dockyard; the body of the Master was sent to Haslar.

The next day a Mr. George Hardy, one of the divers from the Rigging House in the dockyard, who was sent to search the schooner, felt some hair as he groped in the entangled rigging and, on cutting the mainsail, discovered the body of poor Miss Annie Peel. Nathaniel Turner’s body was not found until thirteen days later floating near Sturbridge Shoal by the yacht Florinda. It was assumed he had managed to free himself from the entangling rigging but drowned trying to reach the surface. The Queen and her family were seen to be deeply distressed over the tragedy and wished to abandon their journey to Balmoral. She directed that the Royal Yacht tender Elfin should be placed at the service of Mrs. Heywood at Ryde so that she could be quickly brought to Portsmouth to join her husband at Admiralty House. The Queen also directed that every circumstance that transpired after her departure was to be telegraphed to Balmoral and that every effort should be made to ensure the comfort of the survivors.

A detailed survey was made of the wreck and her rigging, mast and spar were sent to the surface. Misletoe was slung between two dockyard lifting vessels and towed to a shallow part of the Spit. The following evening on Wednesday 25th August hundreds of spectators lined the beach and other vantage points in the harbour to witness the last entry of the Mistletoe into the harbour. The lifting craft were towed by two dockyard tugs, Grinder & Camel. The wreck was beached near the premises of Messrs. Camper & Nicholson, Yacht Builders, to be broken up. Queen Victoria was kept fully inform about those hurt in the collision and the subsequent proceedings. It was on her directive that within a month the First Lord of the Admiralty announced that Capt. Stokes widow would receive £500 and Nathaniel Turner’s widow £400; that, for its time, was a considerable sum especially when one considers that the wreck sold by auction at Messrs King & King of Portsea in September 1875 raised £180. On 22nd February 1876 the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty offered Mr. Heywood £3000 as compensation for the loss that he had suffered which he duly accepted.

Who was to blame for the tragedy? The Admiralty held an inquiry aboard the Victoria & Albert to which the public were excluded. At the inquest on the body of Nathaniel Turner held at the Guildhall, Portsmouth, in summing up, the jury wished to express their opium that there was an error of judgement on the part of the Navigating Officer of the Alberta, and they thought that a slower speed, during the Summer months especially, would be more conducive to public safety, and that there should be a more efficient look-out! Certainly there appears to have been an attitude that all vessels should give way to the Royal Yacht - as all traffic gives way to the Queen’s carriage, and this opinion was upheld by certain newspapers at the time. However among seafaring people, fishermen and yachtsmen, the Rules of the Sea were there to be upheld, even by the Royal Navy and the Royal Yacht Squadron.

For this account, we are indebted to Mr. D. Welch of Portsmouth who has thoroughly researched the tragedy and generously allowed us access to his research. He is in no way related to the Captain D. Welch referred to in this account, although he is related to Welch, the Post Card Photographers of Portsmouth.