Mike Perkins


            Collectors of Wembley cards will be aware of the card showing the lifeboat from  the SS Trevessa, which was on display in the exhibition grounds during both 1924 and 1925. The lifeboat could be found by crossing eastward over Adams Bridge towards the Amusement Park, and proceeding to the Ceylon Pavilion. The lifeboat had been purchased by the Ceylon Committee after it's epic journey in 1923, and was positioned on the right hand side of the Ceylon Pavilion, where it doubled as a collecting box for donations to the R. L. N. I..



The Lifeboat outside the Ceylon Pavillion.


            Here is the story of the lifeboat, it's sister boat, and the men who sailed some 1750 miles in 25 days across the Indian Ocean in them to reach the safety of Mauritius.

            The story is from the book "Adrift as far from land as possible" by Len Ortzen, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers Arthur Barker Ltd., of Weidenfeld and Nicolson of London.


            The Trevessa, a freighter of 5,004 tons gross, had sailed through a hurricane in the North Atlantic on the voyage out from Liverpool to Sydney. Now she was at Port Pirie, at the head of Spencer's Gulf in South Australia, loading a full cargo of zinc concentrates which her master, Captain Cecil Foster, had orders to deliver at Antwerp. The Trevessa duly sailed on 15 May 1923, having been surveyed before loading and passed as satisfactory by the Lloyd's Register surveyor.

            Freemantle was safely reached on 24 May, the Trevessa took on about four hundred tons of bunker coal and sailed again the following morning in fine weather. Captain Foster shaped course for Durban and the Trevessa made good progress across the southern Indian Ocean during the next few days. Then the westerly wind blew more strongly, shifted to the southward, and by the afternoon of 3 June the sea was running so high that Captain Foster decided to heave to. At about midnight, water was heard swishing around in No.1 hold and the pumps were switched on, but no water came through them.

            The ship had sprung a leak, but the cargo of concentrates had the consistency of half-set cement, and due to this and the method of stowing the cargo, the water entering the hold could not reach the bilges and tanks and therefore could not be removed by the pumps. In the past years, hundreds of vessels had loaded concentrates at Port Pirie and all had been stowed in the same manner as in the Trevessa; only one ship had ever been known to meet trouble, and she had successfully put back for repairs.

            The ship was already well down by the head, and heavy seas were breaking right over the hatches making it impossible to open the holds to investigate the damage. Less than an hour had passed since the alarm had been given, but the water was up to the top of No.1 hold.

            Captain Foster on the bridge, turned the ship round so as to run before the wind and sea, thus easing the pressure on the bulkheads. But he realised the ship was doomed and at 1 a.m. ordered all hands to the boats and told the radio officer to send SOS. Three replies were received, but all from ships a long way off. The Tregenna was 350 miles to the east, and the Trevcan (both sister ships of the Hain Line) was 272 miles to the south.

            The two starboard lifeboats were quite sufficient for the whole company, forty-four officers and crew. The two stewards began putting some provisions in them, working as fast as possible against time. The ship was settling fast by the head; the collision bulkheads had started to give way and water was rushing through the forecastle into the forepeak. One of the Indian firemen fell into the water as the boats were being launched, but he was got safely into the chief officer's boat. The ship was lying at an angle, the engines stopped and the stern high out of the water. Foster ordered 'abandon ship'.

            The two lifeboats stood off, keeping their heads to the sea by using the oars; Captain Foster was in command of one, First Officer J. C. Stewart Smith the other. Half an hour after they had left her, the Trevessa floundered, standing almost on end. It was then 3 a.m. on 4 June. They were adrift in a heavy sea and about as far from land as it was possible to be: the west coast of Australia was 1,600 miles in one direction and the Mauritius group of islands 1,700 miles in the other.

            The boats lay to all that day, a sharp lookout being kept for the smoke of a rescue ship. By evening they had drifted some distance from the position where the Trevessa had floundered, and Captain Foster had to come to a decision: to remain in the area or to set course for land. They were in mid-ocean, at about latitude 28 degrees 45 minutes south, longitude 85 degrees 42 minutes east. The nearest islands were St Paul and Amsterdam to the southward, but both were small and uninhabited; and to reach them would take the boats through westerly gales and bitterly cold weather. To turn back and make for Australia would mean steering for the northern most because of the prevailing winds, which might even carry them to Java; this would take them through tropical heat which few of the men were likely to survive on the available water ration. The best course was undoubtedly to make for the Mauritius group; although the distance was the greatest, the winds were likely to be favourable, rainy weather could be expected at this season of the year, and temperatures along the route should be supportable.

            Captain Foster reckoned that it would take three weeks to reach one of the Mauritius group. He conferred with Smith and they calculated that the rations would  be just about enough to see them through. Each boat had roughly the same amount; three cases of condensed milk (130 tins), five tins of biscuits, and about fifteen gallons of water. (They also had five thousand cigarettes, ten pounds of tobacco and three dozen boxes of matches, much to the appreciation of those who smoked.). Smith had two or three gallons more than Foster, but he also had four more men in his boat, which was carrying twenty-four as against twenty in the captain's boat.

            The daily rations issued by the two boat commanders were exactly the same - starvation rations - one biscuit per man, about four teaspoonfuls of condensed milk, and about three teaspoonfuls of water.

            The two boats were alike in size and each had on board the equipment required by the Board of Trade regulations, but there  was one important difference: the sail on the captain's boat was larger than that of the other. Consequently, it was difficult for the two boats to keep company. After nine days (on 9 June) Foster decided that it would be better for the boats to proceed independently. They
parted at 8 a.m. and by mid-afternoon the chief officer's boat was far astern, and soon afterwards was lost to sight.

             At this time two boats were searching for the crew of the Trevessa. They had reached the scene of the sinking on 6 June, when the two lifeboats were about one hundred miles away on their course westwards. One ship continued searching to the eastwards and the other, the cargo vessel Tregenna, to the westward. On 9 June she was zigzagging on a course about one hundred and fifty miles behind the lifeboats, but then she turned north-east and maintained this direction until 13 June, when she again proceeded on her westward course to Mauritius.



Type 1 back, 'POSTCARD' measures 37mm



Type 2 back, 'POSTCARD' measures 45mm


            There had been no time to collect chronometers before the Trevessa sank, so Foster was unable to calculate latitude accurately; but by keeping to the latitude of Rodriguez, the most easterly of the Mauritius group, he was bound to sight it - unless he passed it in the dark or was blown off course. However, he would then be within reasonable distance of Mauritius, 344 miles further to the west and almost on the same latitude. And beyond Mauritius was the French island of Reunion and then the long coastline of Madagascar.

            During the First World War Foster had spent ten days in a lifeboat after his ship had been torpedoed in the Atlantic, and twelve of the thirty-one men in it had died from exposure before reaching the north coast of Spain. This experience now stood him in good stead.

            By the end of a week everyone was looking haggard and was suffering from the shortage of food and drink - water was the dominant thought on everyone's mind. Late on the morning of the 14 June they sailed into a  big squall, and they caught enough rainwater for everyone to have a good drink.

            Smith was sailing almost as fast as Foster, but his track was some distance to the south of the other boat, and they never sighted one another again. Speeding in the same direction but about two hundred miles south of Smith's track was the Tregenna, bound for Mauritius, which she reached on 21 June.

            Meanwhile both lifeboats were meeting heavy weather. This brought more rain, which was very welcome; but the crews were kept busy baling, which made great demands on their little remaining strength. Moreover, for several periods the weather was so bad that it became necessary to heave to and ride to a sea-anchor. Foster was having great difficulty in keeping on the desired latitude, and he had only a very approximate idea how far west he was. But by his reckoning they
should sight land in a week's time.

            The chief officer's boat was almost keeping pace with the captain's but was well to the southward, too much so to make Rodreguez Island. The conditions of wind and sea were making it impossible to steer an exact compass course. On 22 June Smith reduced the rations by half as a precautionary measure, as there still remained enough water and biscuits for another week. No land was sighted, and Smith held on his course westward to Mauritius.

            Foster reduced the rations in his boat at almost the same time as Smith, also as a precaution against missing Rodreguez.

            On 25 June, in mid-afternoon, land was sighted to the south-west. By four o'clock they were close enough to land for there to be no doubt that it was indeed Rodreguez Island. Darkness fell soon after but there was a bright moon, and they ran along the coast and rounded the northern end of the island. Suddenly they heard a shout from across the water; a fisherman in a small boat was gesticulating to them that they where running onto a reef. He came aboard and piloted them into harbour. Minutes later, eighteen survivors were being carried ashore and taken to the nearest building, which was the police station.

            The island's doctor had the four weakest sent to hospital; the others were taken into homes and given every attention. There was an Eastern Telegraph Company station on the island, and Foster telegraphed to England the names of the crew and details of the route of the other boat for assistance to be requested. They had survived almost twenty-three days in the open boat on the absolute minimum of food and water, and by their seamanship and courage had brought all but two of the twenty men to safety.

            Two days later Foster received a telegraph that the chief officer's boat had reached Mauritius. The excitement and joy was dimmed when  more detailed messages disclosed that nine of the twenty-four in the other boat had not survived the ordeal. Smith's boat had been twenty-five days at sea and had sailed 1,750 miles to reach Mauritius.

            A British naval vessel sailed from Mauritius to collect Foster and the others, and a few days later all thirty-three survivors from the forty-four who had sailed in the Trevessa were reunited at Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.

            The British survivors of the Trevessa sailed for home on a Union Castle liner on 16 July, and were given a great welcome on arrival at Tilbury. A few months later, Captain Foster and Chief Officer Smith were received by the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace. Captain Foster's lifeboat was brought to England and put on show at the British Empire Exhibition. Lloyds awarded the Silver Medal for saving life at sea to the Captain and the First Officer, and the Hain Steamship Co. presented pieces of plate to the Captain, First Officer and Chief Engineer N. V. Robson

            The  Trevessa was built in Germany in 1909 by FlensburgerSchiffsb Gesellschaft, and was originally named the Imkenturn. She was 401 feet long, 52.2 feet wide and 28.2 feet deep, had four cylinder triple expansion engines of 2,400 horse-power, and was capable of 11.5 knots. She had electric lighting and wireless. She was taken from Germany at the end of the First World War, re-named Trevessa, and added to the  fleet of the Hain Steamship Company Limited, of St. Ives, Cornwall.

            I have looked at the cards in my collection and the lifeboat is visible on one of the Aerial View cards and Beagle 696G, which appear to have been taken before the Exhibition was opened as the greenhouse has not yet been built, and the lifeboat is alongside the Pavilion. Valentine's XL series card number 91132 shows a front view of Ceylon, with the greenhouse on the right. The lifeboat is positioned just to the right of this greenhouse. Also in the background to the lifeboat card, is the bridge which carried the Roadrail over the Wembley Loop railway track.

            The cards have been found with two backs, and it is possible that these reflect the two years it was there.