The People of Gibraltar

1891 - The Utopia - A Child's Hand Inside a Sea Bream

Maria Luisa Gomez, and Juan Shakery Linares - Charles Cavendish Boyle

The SS Utopia was a transatlantic passenger steamship operating on the Anchor Line routes from Glasgow to New York City, from Glasgow to Bombay and from London to New York. After 1882 she was used to carry immigrants from Naples to the United States.


Anchor Line Poster ( Unknown )

On 17 March 1891 Utopia collided with the battleship HMS Anson  in the Bay of Gibraltar. The Utopia sank just off Ragged Staff, near the Grand Parade and the Alameda Gardens in less than a few minutes in a midst a violent gale and rough seas. 


HMS Anson


The Sinking of the SS Utopia  ( 1891 - Georgina Sheriff - Gibraltar Museum )

Despite many acts of heroism performed by Royal Navy personnel and Swedish sailors of the man-of-war Frya - as well as many locals- the liner sank in a very short time with the loss of well over 500 emigrants and numerous member of the crew.

Two British sailors, James Cotton and George Hall were drowned when a pinnace of HMS Immortalité sank. According to the New York Times they were buried the very next day with full military honours. The bands of every one of the war ships forming the British Squadron played dead-marches at the funeral procession while all the iron-clads fired salutes as the bodies were lowered into their graves in the Government cemetery. The stores in Gibraltar were closed as a mark of respect for the 'Gallant Blue Jackets.' 


HMS Immortalité ( Unknown )

Rather insensitively the first group of Utopia victims were simply buried in a trench the following day, although the local clergy, several garrison officials and naval commanders including that of the Swedish Frya - Prince Bernadotte - did take part. Large numbers of locals also attended. 

As a young woman my grandmother, Maria Luisa Gomez ( see LINK ) witnessed the tragedy. While at home in 42 Crutchett's Ramp, she heard the sounds of gunfire and the noise of ships' sirens and despite the bad weather rushed out to join the crowds gathering along La Bateria. In those days it was a sea wall and despite the dark it offered them a grand-stand view.


Maria Luisa Gomez

Cutting through the noise of the storm it was still possible to hear the terrified cries of people trying to save themselves from the sinking ship. According to Maria Luisa,  eyewitnesses at the time suggested that if the Captain had kept to his original course there would have been no disaster. It was a view confirmed later by experienced British Naval officers who had witnessed the event from their own ships moored in the Bay and harbour.



Artistic impressions on the attempts made to save the passengers of the Utopia ( Unkown )

The Italian Government later awarded decorations for bravery to the servicemen and civilians who had been involved in the rescue operations. For several months after the event many people refused to eat fish. Apparently a rumour had gone round that a child's hand had been found inside the belly of a large red sea bream. The problem persisted for such a long time that funds had to be raised by charity to help the out-of-work fishermen.


Members of the Gibraltar Port Authority - most of them unnamed local men - wearing medals awarded for bravery during the Utopia disaster. ( Unknown )

Of the total passenger list of about 800 the vast majority were travelling 3rd Class. Of the three on the 1st class list, Mr. W.T. Colburn, a stock broker from New York and another unknown individual were saved. The third, Mr. C. G. Davis of Boston, was listed as missing. Not surprisingly there are no records of the names of survivors or otherwise of the third class passengers.

The Utopia had sunk in about nine fathoms and her masts and funnel were showing above water. The following picture taken from an unknown Spanish newspaper appears to have been drawn from life by a local resident, Juan Shakery Linares. 


'Horrible Naufrago del Vapor Ingles 'Utopia' ( 1891 - A de Caula )


The tragedy as viewd by a British newspaper - possibly the Graphic. 

Sir Charles Cavendish Boyle, Gibraltar's Colonial Secretary at the time, chaired the British Board of Enquiry which was held on the Rock. Other members were Commander Barry of HMS Curlew, Commander Dickson of HMS Howe, Staff Commander Bread of HMS Campletown and Captain Grevy of the Cable ship Amber. The masters of two merchant vessels made up the rest of the board. 

Typically they are unnamed. They may very well have been locals. Members of the crews of the Curlew, the Campletown, and the Amber had all taken part in the rescue operations. The Board blamed the sinking of the Utopia on a "grave error of judgment" by its captain John McKeague, who survived the accident.


The cable ship Amber ( Unknown )

The sinking of the Utopia made the headlines in Britain with various articles and sketches appearing in popular magazines and newspapers.



Scenes taken by C. W. Cole aboard HMS Anson


The Illustrated London News ( 1891 )


The wreck of the Utopia ( Unknown )

Over the years this traumatic event left its mark on the people of Gibralta, albeit in a rather odd manner. It entered the local patois - known as Llanito ( see LINK ) - and became part of several descriptive phrases such as - Tiene mas años que el Utopia - he is very old, which then became corrupted into - Tiene mas años que una tapia - with the same meaning.