Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: 'SS Eider' and 'Alcester' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: 'SS Eider' and 'Alcester'

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
Ancient and Roman | Medieval | The Hundred Years War | Mary Rose | The Spanish Armada | Treasure, and Hazardous | Sir Robert Holmes | The Frigate Assurance and HMS Invincible | Royal George | HMS Pomone and Carn Brae Castle | Clarendon | HMS Eurydice | Sirenia and Irex | SS Eider and Alcester | HMS Gladiator and the Submarine A1 | The First World War | Between the Wars | The Second World War | SS Virginia and HMS Alliance | Pacific Glory | Höegh Osaka

The largest shipwreck of the 19th Century on the Island was the wreck of SS Eider, the most spectacular shipwreck of the Victorian era. SS Eider was a giant 4,179-ton German luxury passenger liner. She was a four-masted two-funnelled steamer over 430ft long, with a crew of 167, and 227 passengers. She also carried over 500 sacks of mail, as well as just under 10 tons of gold and silver.

On 31 January, 1892, the liner, sailing from New York to Bremen, entered the English Channel and encountered a dense fog bank. The captain ordered the crew to take regular soundings, but the voyage continued, with the ship's orchestra giving a concert for the First Class passengers in the Saloon. At 10pm everyone on board felt a bump. The ship had run aground, but the captain was sure that the liner would ride off with the tide. Some of the cargo was jettisoned. The new Atherfield lifeboat approached, but the captain refused her offer of help, asking instead for tugs. The lifeboat left, but the coastguard kept watch on Eider as she became more deeply embedded in the rock below her.

At 7am the lifeboat again approached Eider to warn that a gale looked likely. The captain, however, felt sure that the tugs would arrive in time, and asked the lifeboat to carry some of the mail bags ashore instead of the passengers. The lifeboatmen regretfully complied.

Although the tugs did approach Eider, when they did so the gale made it impossible for them to get close for fear of striking the rocks themselves. At 10am the Captain decided to evacuate the passengers, but it was now too rough for the small Atherfield lifeboat to be launched. The larger lifeboats at Brook and Brighstone were launched, but they were much farther away. The Brighstone lifeboat arrived first, and carried a dozen women and children to safety. The Brook lifeboat eventually reached Eider five hours after launching, and rescued more women and children.

The Atherfield lifeboat was finally launched, and by 3pm the wind had died down sufficiently to allow the three lifeboats to begin evacuating the ship successfully. By nightfall the three lifeboats had made 18 trips, with the Atherfield boat having rescued 55 people, the Brook boat 90 people, and the Brighstone boat 88. After a good night's sleep the lifeboatmen returned to the wreck, only for the storm to increase. Despite this, in 11 trips the three lifeboats managed to bring ashore the remaining 146 crew and all the mailbags. Over the next two days they brought all the silver and gold to safety as well.

The passengers were sent to Southampton, where they were able to continue on another Norddeutscher ship to Bremen. The lifeboatmen, though, received letters of thanks and congratulations for their bravery from Queen Victoria. They were congratulated in person by the Prince of Wales and Prince George, and the coxswains of the lifeboats each received a gold watch from the German Emperor Wilhelm II inscribed with his congratulations. They also received many honours and awards from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Eider was eventually hauled off Atherfield Ledge on 29 March and taken to Southampton, where she was declared by her owners, the Norddeutscher company, to be a total loss.


The last big wreck of the 19th Century was that of Alcester, an iron, full-rigged, 257ft ship of 1,596 tons, built in 1883. In October 1886 she sailed from Calcutta heading for Hamburg, and entered the English Channel on 19 February. At 3.30pm the ship entered a thick fog bank. The captain estimated that he was past St Catherine's Point, only to discover that the ship was rapidly heading ashore. Although the wheel was spun to turn her round it was too late. Alcester ploughed on to Typit Ledge, Atherfield.

The Atherfield lifeboat was launched at 7pm, but Alcester's captain declined the offer of help, asking instead for tugs. The tug arrived at 9am, and began to drag Alcester back to the open sea. Despite the tug's best attempts, Alcester only managed to get further wedged onto the rocks. Eventually her hull gave way and she filled with water.

The tug left Alcester at noon, and at 1pm the Atherfield lifeboat was called for. The crew of 22 were taken ashore, only the captain and First Mate stubbornly remaining on board. The lifeboatmen tried to warn of the dangers of further storms, but were ignored. By 9pm a storm had come, and the two on board Alcester signalled for the lifeboat. But the storm was too strong, and each attempt to launch the lifeboat failed. The lifeboat was eventually launched, and rescued both men, but the ship was a total wreck - even the stove had been removed from the cookhouse.


One of the first wrecks of the 20th Century was that of Auguste, a three-masted iron 1,300-ton German barque sailing from Australia to London. She was caught by a storm and forced onto the Atherfield Ledge at 4.30pm on 15 February, 1900.

Due to the storm the Atherfield lifeboat was unable to be launched until 5.30pm. By that time the storm was so violent that 19 men aboard the barque were forced into the rigging, as the deck was suffering heavy punishment after the hull had been ruptured. Despite all attempts to reach Auguste, the lifeboat was unable to make headway against the gale, and was forced back to shore. The Brighstone lifeboat also failed against the storm, being driven aground on a sandbank.

Eventually, at 2.30am, the Atherfield lifeboat was finally able to fight the storm and rescue the whole of the crew of Auguste, without injury.

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