SS Utopia

The sinking of Utopia. Sketch by a witness, Ms. Georgina Smith
Name: SS Utopia
Operator: Anchor Line
Route: Transatlantic
Builder: Robert Duncan & Co., Glasgow
Launched: 14 February 1874
Maiden voyage: 23 May 1874
Refit: 1890–1891
Fate: Sank in Gibraltar on 17 March 1891. Scrapped in 1900.
General characteristics
Tonnage: 2,371 gross tons[1]
Length: 350 ft (110 m)[1]
Beam: 35 ft (11 m)[1]
Propulsion: Triple expansion steam engine
Speed: 13 knots (24 km/h)[1]

SS Utopia was a transatlantic passenger steamship built in 1874 by Robert Duncan & Co of Glasgow. From 1874 to 1882 she operated on Anchor Line routes from Glasgow to New York City, from Glasgow to Bombay and from London to New York City. After 1882 she carried Italian immigrants to the United States.

On 17 March 1891 Utopia accidentally collided with the moored battleship HMS Anson in the Bay of Gibraltar. Utopia sank in less than twenty minutes; 562[2] of 880 passengers and crew of Utopia and two rescuers from HMS Immortalité died in the accident. The sinking of Utopia was blamed on "grave error of judgement" of her captain John McKeague, who survived the accident.

Anchor Liner

Utopia was built by Robert Duncan of Glasgow as a transatlantic steamer for the Anchor Line. Utopia was a sister ship to Elysia (1873) and Alsatia (1876),[3] designed to carry 120 first class, 60 second class and 600 steerage (third class) passengers.[1] She was launched on 14 February 1874 and sailed out on her maiden voyage to New York City on 23 May 1874.[1] After twelve round-trips on the route from Glasgow to New York City she sailed on the route from Glasgow to Bombay.[1] In April 1876, Anchor Line transferred Utopia, Elysia, Anglia and Australia to serve the route from London to New York City.[4] Utopia performed forty round-trip voyages on this route.

In 1882 she was transferred to the Mediterranean, and regularly carried Italian immigrants to the United States.[1] In 1890–1891 she was refitted with a triple expansion steam engine.[1] To maximize revenue on the Italian route, her first class accommodations were reduced to 45 passengers, and second class was removed altogether, thus increasing steerage capacity to 900 bunks.[5]

1891 disaster

On 25 February 1891 Utopia sailed out from Trieste to New York City with stopovers at Naples, Genoa and Gibraltar. She carried a total of 880 people: 59 crewmembers (most of them stewards),[6] 3 first-class passengers, 815 third-class passengers, and 3 stowaways. There were 85 women and 67 children.[7] According to captain John McKeague's signed statement, Utopia normally carried seven lifeboats that could accommodate up to "460 people in moderate weather" but on the night of the catastrophe one of these boats was missing.[8]

Utopia reached Gibraltar in the afternoon of 17 March. Captain John McKeague steered Utopia to her usual anchorage in the inner harbour, but then realized that it was occupied by two battleships, HMS Anson and HMS Rodney. McKeague later recalled that he had been temporarily dazzled by Anson's searchlight. When McKeague's eyesight recovered he "suddenly discovered that the inside anchorage was full of ships".[9] McKeague, according to his statement, thought that Anson was "further off than she really was" and attempted to steer Utopia ahead of Anson's bow. Suddenly, a "strong gale combined with current swept the vessel across the bows of the Anson, and in a moment her hull was pierced and cut by the ram of the ironclad".[10] According to third mate Francis Wadsworth, the impact occurred at 6:36 p.m.[11] Anson's ram tore a hole 5 metres (16 ft) wide below Utopia's waterline, and her holds quickly flooded.

McKeague at first considered beaching the ship, but Utopia almost instantly lost engine power: The engineers had shut down the engines to prevent a steam explosion.[8] McKeague ordered the lowering of the lifeboats and to abandon ship, but Utopia suddenly listed 70 degrees, crushing and sinking the boats. The survivors clung to the starboard of Utopia while hundreds were trapped inside steerage holds. Twenty minutes after the impact Utopia sank to the depth of 17 metres (56 ft). The masts, protruding above the waves, became the last refuge for the survivors.[10]

Anson, the Swedish corvette Freja, and other nearby ships immediately sent rescue teams to the site, but rough weather and a strong current made it difficult for them to approach the wreck: "rescuers, blinded by the wind and rain, saw nothing but a confused, struggling mass of human beings entangled with wreckage."[10] Two sailors from HMS Immortalité, James Cotton and George Hales, drowned attempting to rescue survivors[2] when their boat drifted on the rocks.[10] Search and rescue continued until 11 p.m.[10] Out of 880 passengers and crewmembers of Utopia, there were 318 survivors: 290 steerage passengers, 2 first class passengers, 3 Italian interpreters, and 23 crewmembers.[2] The remaining 562 passengers and crewmembers of Utopia were dead or missing.[2]


Wreck of Utopia in Gibraltar Harbour
Members of the Gibraltar Port Authority – most of them unidentified Gibraltarian men – wearing medals awarded for their bravery during the disaster

Cotton and Hales were buried with military honours on 19 March.[2] The first group of Utopia victims, 28 adults and 3 children, were buried in a trench in Gibraltar on 20 March. Divers sent to examine the wreck reported that the inner spaces of Utopia "were closely packed with the bodies ... who had become wedged into an almost solid mass";[2] and that "the bodies of many of the drowned were found so firmly clasped together that it was difficult to separate them."[12] Hundreds of bodies remained trapped in the steerage holds of the sunken ship.

Captain McKeague was arrested and released on the same day for a bail of £480.[12] The British court of inquiry chaired by Charles Cavendish Boyle, Captain of the Port of Gibraltar, convened on 23 March 1891 "under the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Ordinance, Gibraltar, 1886".[9] McKeague was found guilty of grave errors in judgement: "firstly, in attempting to enter the anchorage ... without having first opened out and ascertained what vessels were there" and "secondly, in attempting to turn his ship out across the bows of HMS Anson."[13][14]

After the accident the port authority of Gibraltar obliged Anchor Line to light up the remains of Utopia.[15] For a few days the wreck was illuminated by lights hoisted on each masthead.[15] The precaution, however, did not prevent another incident: SS Primula, entering the harbour, collided with the wreck of Utopia.[15] At the inquiry the crew of Primula said that they did see the lights, but not the ship.[15] They recognized the masts and funnel protruding above the water when the collision was already inevitable.[15] The court ruling on the second Utopia collision set a precedent of maritime law that remained in place for thirty-five years. Judge Sir Frances Jeune, contrary to established practice,[16] absolved the owners of Utopia from liability because they had legitimately transferred "control and management of the wreck" to the Port of Gibraltar.[15] In 1928 his obiter dictum was expressly overruled in Dee Conservancy Board vs. McConnell.[15][16]

The wreck of Utopia was raised in July 1892[17] and brought back to Scotland. The owners gave up their plans of reviving the ship, and she was left to rust in the River Clyde and was finally scrapped in 1900.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Bonsor, p. 154.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "The Dead of the Utopia". The New York Times, 20 March 1891.
  3. Bonsor, p. 142.
  4. Bonsor, p. 143.
  5. Bonsor, p. 145: "passengers on the southern route consisted almost entirely of steerage.
  6. McKeague described his crew as "7 A.B.'s, 4 quartermasters, a boatswain, an apprentice and a boy, 6 firemen, 2 coal trimmers, 3 officers, 3 engineers, and 1 doctor." - Board of Trade Wreck Report, page 2.
  7. Board of Trade Wreck Report, page 1: "with a crew of 59 hands all told, and 815 emigrants, 3 saloon passengers, and 3 stowaways, on a voyage from Genoa and Naples".
  8. 1 2 Board of Trade Wreck Report, page 2.
  9. 1 2 Board of Trade Wreck Report, page 1.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 "Lost in Gibraltar Bay". The New York Times, 19 March 1891.
  11. Board of Trade Wreck Report, page 3.
  12. 1 2 "The Utopia Victims". The New York Times, 21 March 1891.
  13. Board of Trade Wreck Report, p. 4.
  14. "Report of the investigation into the shipwreck of the steamship "Utopia" (PDF). Retrieved 24 September 2016.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Mandaraka-Sheppard 2007, pp. 567-568.
  16. 1 2 Gault, pp. 119-120.
  17. Fry, p. 188.


Further reading

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