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Clipper Ship Avalanche

Avalanche - Iron Ship
Launch: August 1874
Yard Number: 285

Owner: Shaw, Savill & Co.

The ship 'Avalanche,' Captain Bishop, made the offing early yesterday morning, dropping anchor in the roadstead about 7 o'clock. This is the 1st immigrant ship that has visited the port for nearly 20 years, and the event is one of great importance to the Province. No sooner was the vessel signalled, than active preparations were made for landing the passengers. The Health Officer (Dr. O'Carroll) and Mr. Hulke, the Immigration Agent, went on board, and having inspected the immigrants, the single women were placed in the boats and brought ashore first, after which the remainder of the passengers were landed as fast as the boats could pass to and from the ship. By the time the first cargo boat reached the shore, a large number of persons had assembled on the beach, which had a lively appearance throughout the day. The passengers together with their luggage were landed carefully and expeditiously, and Messrs. Boswell & Co. deserve every credit for the manner they carried out the work. 

The 'Avalanche' was built under the immediate superintendence of Captain Bishop, in the well known yards of Messrs. Alexander Hall & Co., of Aberdeen. Her length is 215 feet; beam, 30 feet, with a depth of hold, 21 feet; net tonnage, 1,100 tons, but she will carry nearly 2,500 tons, her registered measurement being 1,210 tons. She is an iron ship of the highest class; her. lower masts are tubular iron, being made out of boiler plate ; her fore and main yards and lower fore and main topsail yards are also iron. She is calculated to carry 350 adult immigrants. She has 9 patent ventilators through her decks, besides hatchways and side lights. She is fitted according to " Lloyd's" specification in every respect and has on board a steam winch and steam windlass for weighing the anchors. She was built expressly to the order of Messrs. Shaw, Saville, & Co., and intended for the New Zealand trade. 

The 'Avalanche' was christened by Mrs. Bishop, the captain's wife; and the name was suggested by Mr. Temple, of the Alpine Club, one of the partners of the firm of Shaw, Saville, and Co. She was launched on the 29th August last. Her saloons are admirably fitted; the side cabins are fitted with standing berths, under which are placed drawers for passengers, and all the conveniences which tend to mitigate the dreariness of a sea voyage.  The walls are lined with polished bird's-eye maple, inlaid with teak; the ceilings are pure white, with gold mouldings. The captain's cabin is very spacious, and furnished with polished walnut fittings. The Chief Saloon has no mast .running through it, and is very spacious. The side hand-rails are teak (polished), with electro-plated mounts. The partitions, etc, are all polished bird's-eye maple, inlaid with teak. At the entrance is a curved sideboard, of white marble; around which runs a handsome brass railing.  A large looking-glass, surmounted by a clock, runs the length of this, and forms a handsome ornament to the saloon, which is well lighted' by a clerestory skylight, glazed with bent ornamental matted glass.  The ceiling is painted pure white, and ornamented with gilt mouldings.  On each side of the various passages leading to the cabins, arc small brackets gilt, picked out with blue and vermillion. The seats are provided with reversible backs padded, with velvet covers and carved ends.  The general effect on entering the cabin, is that it is very light and cheerful, and the fittings resemble those of a yacht, more than of a trader.  Evidently, Messrs. Shaw, Saville, and Co. have an eye to preserving their laurels, and prevent them being wrested from them by the New Zealand Shipping Company.  Her decks are spacious; there are 4 deck-houses for the men, besides accommodation for 27 more in the forecastle Adjoining the deck-houses is a well-arranged galley and cook-house; and next this the donkey engine, for working the steam winch and windlass. Between decks , she has 7 feet of head-room; and, although lumbered with the passengers' luggage, &c, appeared very spacious. The department for the single women is divided off, and inaccessible except from the poop, behind the saloon. No intermingling of the passengers has been allowed during the passage. The married people occupied the middle of the 'tween decks; while the single men were forward, and during the passage were not allowed further aft than the mainmast, and could communicate with the other ends of the vessel by signal only. In every respect she may be looked upon as a model for emigrant ships. The passengers, nem. con., express themselves very well pleased with the treatment received on board - with the one exception of being on short allowance of food, the scale not being sufficiently large to meet the demands of a healthy, sea appetite. 

The 'Avalanche' has on board a silver cup for the Wellington Regatta, presented by Messrs. Shaw, Saville, & Co. 

From the log we take the following extracts - "The 'Avalanche' left Gravesend on the 22nd October, 1874, and lost sight of the Lizard Point, on the 27th October; sighted San Antonio, one of the Cape de Verd Islands on the 13th November; crossed the live on the 25th, 34 days after leaving Gravesend, but made too much westing, and got becalmed off the Brazilian Coast while crossing the S.E. trades. Sighted the Croizettes, Hog Island, and the Twelve Apostles commenced running eastwards about the 17th December. From this date to the 17th January, both days inclusive she made 7,636 nautical miles,-her quickest days work having been 300 miles, whilst her daily average during this time was 13½ knots an hour; for thirty-two days she averaged 238½ miles daily. During the voyage only two vessels were spoken, both bound for Melbourne, the 'Benvovrick' and the 'Romanouff' (the family name of the Duchess of Edinburgh). This latter ship was built alongside the 'Avalanche' and was launched the day previous, and sailed from Gravesend 2 days after the 'Avalanche,' and was spoken on the 5th January, 1875, in longitude 46°S. and 87ºE. latitude. The first land sighted was Mount Egmont on the 21st instant, and anchored yesterday morning in the roadstead. On the whole she has had a very fair passage. At first she experienced head winds and calms, afterwards very fine, when she commenced her easting." 

She brings 258 immigrants on this trip, equal to 320 souls and 8 cabin passengers. She carries on 59 immigrants to Wellington, including the crew she had 371 souls on board. She has room for 30 first-class cabin passengers. Three births have taken place during the voyage, and 5 deaths. This is her first trip, and Captain Bishop reports that owing to light winds he has not had a fair opportunity of trying what the ship could do, and had he not been becalmed would have made the passage in less than 80 days.


Captain Bishop (formerly of the 'Wild Duck' and 'Hermione') expressed very great surprise at the easiness with which though anchorage was approached, and still more at the rapid despatch with which the emigrants were landed. He says the roadstead, had been very much traduced, and he would not hesitate to bring a much larger vessel into the roadstead. He thought Captain Holford was only chaffing him when he said the 'Avalanche' would be able to sail for Wellington the same night, but there is the fact accomplished; he has come in, landed his passengers, and sailed - all within 12 hours. The following testimonial was presented to Captain Bishop and Dr. Doyle, previous to the passengers leaving the vessel:- 

TESTIMONIAL TO THE CAPTAIN AND DOCTOR - Ship 'Avalanche,' January 22nd, 1875. 
To Messrs. Bishop and Doyle, — 
Gentlemen, - We the emigrants on hoard the 'Avalanche,' at the termination of our voyage of 91 days 15 hours' duration, feel called on to express the high opinion we entertain of your professional skill, and to thank you for the courtesy and kindness you manifested iv your daily intercourse with us.  The Captain (Mr. Bishop) has always shown himself most watchful of our welfare, and in the discharge of his onerous duties has displayed such firmness tempered with kindness as to win the ready cooperation of all on board, and to make us feel we were under the guidance of a perfectly competent seaman and gentleman.  Of the Surgeon (Mr. Doyle) we can say he was most affable and courteous, whilst he always displayed the greatest anxiety and watchfulness not only over his patients, but also over all the passengers. He was ever ready, day and night, to hear our complaints and to minister to our wants; and the absence of any serious or infectious disease, is, in a great measure, due to his attention and skill. To both gentlemen we tender our heartfelt gratitude for having landed us in safety, after such a long and perilous journey.  We cannot let this opportunity pass without bearing witness to the great professional skill and untiring exertions displayed by the 1st and 2nd Officers (Messrs. Bolin and Woods), and to thank them also for the courtesy and kindness they showed to make us feel contented and happy. We trust in our separation that all will carry away with them grateful remembrances of the days spent on hoard the 'Avalanche,' and that the shortcomings of any offender may be forgotten, so that a bitter thought may not arise out of the voyage. To carry out this wish, if any have misbehaved or offended, we strongly recommend them not only to lenity but to mercy, for -
"The quality of mercy is not strained, 

It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven on the place beneath
It is twice blessed, it blessed him that gives and him that takes, 
It is mightiest in the mighty and becomes the throned monarch better than his crown." 

In conclusion, we have only to wish the Captain and Officers a safe voyage home to the bosom of their families and friends, and to all and each a happy and prosperous future. 

Wreck of the Clipper Avalanche

Birmingham Daily Post, 13th Sept 1877:
AVALANCHE carried 26 saloon, 17 second cabin and 20 third class passengers. She carried no emigrants, passengers bring mostly colonists. After colliding with the FOREST she was nearly cut in two and sank within 3 minutes, before there was time to launch the boats.  Only survivors of AVALANCHE were 3rd Officer, J. C. Sherrington, and 2 seaman, Mills and McCarthy.  They were in only surviving boat of the FOREST QUEEN, which was pluckily rescued by 2 Portland fishing boats, which battled with the waves for a considerable time before reaching it.

The Collision in the Channel

It was on her return trip to Wellington, leaving on September 10, 1877, that the Avalanche collided with a large American ship, the Forest Queen, in the English Channel. Both ships were heading down channel, but upon opposite tacks, the Avalanche being on the port tack and the Forest Queen on the starboard tack. One of the survivors supplied the following details of the collision:- "The night was unusually dark, with drizzling rain, a very heavy wind, with mountainous high seas running. When about twelve miles off Portland, and without scarcely any warning, a little after 9 pm, the Forest Queen collided with the Avalanche, striking her between the main and mizzen masts. The force of the collision was so great that in less than five minutes the Avalanche gave 3 plunges and then sank, carrying with her the whole of her crew, except 3 - the mate and 2 able seamen. The night was so dark that it was almost impossible to discern the mass of human beings struggling in the water below, and the cries of men, women, and children for aid were heart-rending.  Some of the passengers had managed to scramble on deck as soon as the Avalanche was struck, but others were in their cabins when the ship sunk, and went down with her. The sea was literally alive with human beings, whose cries for help were heard without the crew of the Forest Queen being able to render aid.  We had as much as we could do to look after our own safety, our vessel having suffered so severely from the effects of the collision as to be in a very leaky condition.  The water was gaining on us so fast that at last, in order to save our lives, we had to abandon her.  For this purpose 3 boats were launched, and in these frail craft the whole of the crew of the Forest of Windsor and the 3 belonging to the Avalanche took their places. The weather to which we were exposed throughout the night was fearful, the wind and sea being so rough that we thought the boats would be swamped every minute. Unfortunately, in the case of 2 of the boats these fears were realised, as only one of the boats, containing the 3 survivors of the Avalanche and men, with the Captain of the Forest of Windsor, was rescued. Five bodies and a boat were found washed up upon the beach by a party of fishermen - the dead being identified as a portion of the crew of the Forest of Windsor. Only 12 men remained out of the passengers and crew of the 2 ships, numbering over 120 persons.  The Forest of Windsor capsized about an hour after being abandoned, and next day she was seen floating bottom upwards a few miles off Portland.

How the Accident Happened
A narrative given by other survivors of the Forest of Windsor stated that when the collision occurred the Avalanche was slightly ahead, and being on the port tack she ought, according to the law at sea, to have given way directly she sighted the Forest Queen. As, however, she held on her course, without tacking, it was but fair to assume that either from the darkness of the night or the neglect of the officer on the watch, the near approach of the Forest Queen was not perceived. It then became the duty of the Forest Queen to keep clear, and the master, Captain Lockhart, asserted that, seeing the risk of collision, he ordered the helm to be luffed and that his order was carried out. But it was too late.  Referring to the disaster, Mr. Basil Lubbock, in "The Colonial Clippers," states that the ship which collided with the Avalanche was the Forest of Windsor, of Nova Scotia, that 4 boats were launched safely and were all picked up by fishermen the following morning off Portland. Both accounts agree that 3 survivors only were saved from the Avalanche.

Avalanche – Wreck Site - Max depth 50 metres

In 1877 this 1160 ton fully rigged clipper sunk with the loss of 89 lives, made up of passengers, some women and children, and crew after colliding with the Forest of Windor 10 to 12 miles off Portland Bill. Sinking immediately, the Avalanche left only 3 people alive. A church in Southwell, Portland has been named the Avalanche Memorial Church in respect for those that died. In 1984 divers located the anchor, and after seeking permission, managed to raise it and donate it to the church. Lying upright but buried to the gunwhale on one side it is important to avoid stirring the bottom as the visibility is soon reduced to nil.

The upturned hull of the Forest of Windsor showed no inclination to sink; it was a hazard to shipping and the Royal Navy ordered H.M.S. Defence under the command of Captain Howard, aided by H.M.S. Black Prince and H.M.S. Galatea to sink the wreck. The Navy attempted to blow the wreck out of the water using torpedoes but these just ran through the wreck. Over the following 3 weeks it shrugged off gunpowder charges, mines and all sorts of means, stubbornly remaining unmoved. As if to mock its attackers after one assault the lid of a seaman’s chest floated to the surface decorated with a picture of the Forest of Windsor in full sail. The demolition of the wreck was finally accomplished three and a half weeks after the collision at a cost of about £1,000.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013