The People of Gibraltar
1891 - SS Utopia - Child's Hand Inside a Sea Bream

Maria Luisa Gomez, and Juan Shakery Linares - Charles Cavendish Boyle
Bjorklander and Werner - William Seed and William McQue 
Mr. W. Undery and Peter Grao -N. Adan and Charles Atole (?) 
Francis Correa and John Chiappory - E. Rommuguin (?) and Vicente Robba  
Andrew Coll

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 two Swedish sailors from the man-of-war Freya - 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.

The Swedish seamen were named as Bjorklander and Werner. Despite the South-west gale and heavy seas both threw themselves into the water to rescue people who were drowning by taking them to the shore. Both had to swim back 200 yards to return to their ship 

Engraving based on a sketch made by Georg Bergman, an officer on the Freya who was in command on one of the rescue boats   (Herman Feychting )

Taken on the day after the disaster the photograph shows the wreck of the Utopia with the Swedish corvette Freya just next to it. She was captained by Prince Oscar Bernadotte, King Oscar's second son. The two warships on the left are the HMS Anson and HMS Curlew - The one on the right might be HMS Howe  (Swedish Maritime Museum)

The Freya off Gibraltar (Jacob Hägg)

Pepino - an Italian boy rescued by the crew of the Freya  (Francesco Pesce )

William Seed - Gibraltar's Chief of Police and William McQue a corporal of the King's Royal Rifles also distinguished themselves that day. Both were on duty on the harbour breakwater, a low line of very rough and very slippery rocks on which it was hard to stand up on under normal circumstances. 

When they noticed that a launch carrying two seamen and eight Italians had fouled her screw, the two men immediately swam out  to her - a distance of about 80 yards - and delivered a rope by which the launch was able to negotiate a passage ashore despite the very strong currents brought about by the gale. Both men were awarded the Albert Medal

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 Freya - 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 impression 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 local men - wearing medals awarded for bravery during the Utopia disaster. 
The first three can be identified as Mr. W. Undery - Port Officer - Silver Medal, Peter Grao - Pilot - Silver Medal, and N. Adan - Port Officer.
The five seamen who all received a bronze medal  were Charles Atole (?), Francis Correa , John Chiappory, E. Rommuguin (?), Vicente Robba     
(Unknown photographer)

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)

The tragedy as viewed 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 Broad of HMS Campertown and Captain Greet of the Cable ship Amber, Gibraltarians all noticeable for their absence. Members of the crews of the Curlew, the Campertown and the Amber had all taken part in the rescue operations. But then so had many a local. 

The local barrister, Anthony Coll was counsel for Captain John McKeague, master of the Utopia.

The cable ship Amber (Unknown)

According to an article published the Quebec Daily Telegraph dated March 23rd 1891:

The bodies of the drowned were found so firmly clasped together that it was difficult to separate them. Captain McKeague, of the Utopia, charged with “wrongful acts, improper conduct, negligence and mismanagement,” had a preliminary hearing before a Magistrate . . . He was remanded for a further hearing.

One of the survivors said that just before the collision, he was on deck with a crowd of emigrants. When the collision occurred, there was a rush to the hatches, many trying to get below to save their property and to assist relatives to escape’ The cabin passengers swarmed the companion way trying to escape, the water poring through the rent in the steamer’s side. 
The two crowds met and the hatches were choked to the top with a surging mass of human beings unable to advance or retreat . . . 

McKeague may or may not have been charged as mentioned in the above article but the final indictment was less severe. He was accused not of negligence but of a grave error of judgement. A moot point, but it meant that his master’s certificate was not cancelled and all criminal charges were withdrawn. Nevertheless, he was fired by the Anchor Line Company and never captained a ship again.

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 Gibraltar, albeit in a rather odd manner. It entered the local patois - known as Llanito (see LINK) in the phrase - Tiene mas años que el Utopia - he is very old.

Raising the wreck of the Utopia