The People of Gibraltar
1845 - The Loreto Nuns - 16. Disaster in the Bay

Emilia Cocklan and Jimmy Cocklan - Giuseppe Codali and Mother Angelica Canny
Mother Agnes Fitzgerald and Mother Francis Hennessy and Bishop Canilla
Mother Angela Kelly and Mother Augustine Armstrong - María Teresa Bonell

Bishop James Bellford

On Tuesday March 17th 1891 Emilia Cocklan, whose father was a diver, was celebrating her eighth birthday. That evening a crowd gathered along Line Wall despite the dreadful weather. A gale was blowing and the wind and the thunder were deafening. It had been a long time since Gibraltar had experienced such a storm. Rain poured into all the houses with leaking roofs; buckets, tins, and all possible receptacles were used to collect the drips. When the wind dropped, the horrifying screams of terrified people could be heard. Then the searchlights from the battleships in the Bay picked out the SS Utopia and those of her passengers who were desperately climbing the rigging in their bid to escape the sinking ship. (See LINK

The Utopia   (1891 - Georgina Sheriff ) 

The searchlights and the sounds of ships’ sirens would certainly have been seen and heard from the Convent in Europa; it might have taken longer for the Town Convent to hear about what had happened. Along the Line Wall the stunned onlookers heard and watched in horror as they began to understand the enormity of what was taking place. The driving force of the wind had rammed the Utopia on to the bows of HMS Anson. 

A gaping hole was cut into the ship’s side, and most of the nine hundred Italian emigrants aboard were facing death.  Many small boats attempted in vain to rescue those passengers who had managed to get into the water, or on to the upper deck, or into the rigging, but the waves and the roaring winds kept the little boats away. 
Within minutes Jimmy Cocklan was down in the bay helping the men in the rescue boats; he saw bodies blown out of the ship to come crashing down into the sea. Moments later dead bodies were floating face down in the water, beaten about by the violent waves. In seventeen minutes, six hundred and eighty of the nine hundred passengers were dead.

The SS Utopia was a small ship, packed to the gunwales with passengers and crew. It had left Trieste in Italy only a few days earlier with nine hundred poor emigrants bound for a better life in Argentina. 

HMS Anson trying to pick up survivors of the SS Utopia

Next morning, Wednesday March 18th, the storm had abated and the day dawned bright, sunny and ‘innocent’. People in Waterport Street were distressed by the sight of so many poor people sitting along the pavements with their heads in their hands. These were some of the survivors of the previous night’s storm and its tragic consequences. The authorities and many ordinary people in Gibraltar, including Giuseppe Codali, did what they could to alleviate the sufferings of the survivors.
The event left its mark on Gibraltar for many years. People would not eat fish for months. Divers were employed by the salvage company to retrieve any valuable cargo on board, whether freight or small items from the Captain‘s and the Purser’s safes. These would have contained important personal items belonging to the passengers and crew such as jewellery and important documents deposited there for safekeeping. 

The divers also had to prepare the ship to be re-floated. Jimmy Cocklan told lurid tales of dead bodies floating towards the divers as they moved around under water within the ship’s hull, and of unscrupulous colleagues who cut rings off dead fingers, or stole lengths of silk from the hold by wrapping the material around their bodies as they helped themselves to the ship’s apparel and fittings and to the personal effects of the dead.

19th century Gibraltar diver

The next day from the terrace in Europa the nuns and the boarders would have been able to see the masts of the sunken ship and all the activity of the tugs and the salvage men as they worked on the wreck. Some of the pupils in St Joseph’s and the town schools were the children of rescue and salvage workers, divers and sailors, members of the Port Department, Dockyard officials and others who had been involved in one way or another with the events of the previous evening. The disaster would have been discussed for some time to come. 
In 1892 Mother Angelica Canny moved from the town convent at Gavino’s to Europa as Superior. The following June Mother Agnes Fitzgerald died aged thirty-seven. She had been in Gibraltar for nineteen years since the age of eighteen. 
In educational circles in Ireland and England there was talk of introducing registration for teachers and it was thought that soon it might be necessary for teachers to train and qualify. . .  In Gibraltar St Joseph’s and St Mary’s were now receiving financial aid from the Colonial Government; a condition was that an official yearly assessment must be carried out by qualified Inspectors. This was no problem for the nuns, whose results were greatly praised by the appointed officials. Mother Agnes Fitzgerald’s valuable skills and training had helped to maintain the high standards set by Loreto for the education of girls in Gibraltar.    

People from Gibraltar ( 1890 The Illustrated London News )

In December of the following year Mother Francis Hennessy died at the age of eighty after having lived and taught in Gibraltar for forty-eight years. In 1895 the Loreto sisters celebrated the Golden Jubilee of their arrival on the Rock, albeit in a low key following Bishop Canilla’s advice. “Mrs Kelly” who as Mother Angela Kelly had been the first Superior of the Gibraltar Community at their first Convent, “St Aloysius”, was still living in the town and it was felt that public celebrations might not be appropriate.  

Mother Augustine Armstrong died that year aged forty-three. The sisters had lost three of their number in as many years. Towards the end of Bishop Canilla’s relatively short life (he died aged fifty-two) a legal dispute arose about María Teresa Bonell’s Will. She had left her entire – and considerable – estate to be administered by the Church. In administering the legacy Dr Canilla ensured that a share went to the Loreto Sisters in Gibraltar. However, María Bonell’s nephew contested the Will claiming that it had been drawn up under undue influence from the Bishop. On October 28th 1898 the court found in favour of the Bishop but sadly Dr Canilla, good friend and supporter of the Loreto nuns, had died just ten days earlier. James Bellord was appointed Bishop the following year.