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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Benjamin Powell Wilkins and
the Wreck of CS Robert Lowe, 1873

Introduction: Susan Sasse shares this story about her great great grandfather, Benjamin Powell Wilkins, who survived the wreck of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company’s repair steamer CS Robert Lowe off Newfoundland in November 1873.

In October 1873 the Robert Lowe had laid the cable between Prince Edward Island and the mainland of Nova Scotia, forming the final link in the new Atlantic cable between Valentia, Ireland - Heart’s Content, Newfoundland - Rantem - Island Cove - Placentia, Newfoundland - St Pierre - Sydney, Nova Scotia. The ship was working on the route of the cable near Placentia when she was wrecked that November.

--Bill Burns

 

Susan writes:

Photograph believed to be Benjamin Wilkins taken in Yokohama, Japan

My great great grandfather was Benjamin Powell Wilkins, born 14th October 1843 in Swansea. He went to sea as an apprentice to J Rosser in 1857 and subsequently gained his certificates as a second mate, and on 24th June 1871 as first mate.

He married Jane Protheroe in Swansea in 1867, but after this time he appears to have lived in Rotherhithe and later in West Ham, Essex. The couple had one son, Ivor Wilkins, born c. 1872.

Benjamin joined the CS Robert Lowe in London as first mate on 10th September 1873, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. According to Lloyd’s Register the ship arrived in Halifax on 2nd October and left on 3rd October “with the new cable to be laid between Prince Edward Island and Cape Torentino.”

A telegram dated 21st November reported that, “The Robert Lowe repairing ship of the Anglo American telegraph company has gone ashore at Shagrock Cove near Placentia, Newfoundland. Two boats’ crews have landed, but two boats with their crews amongst whom was Captain James Tidmarsh were still missing.”

Later that day a second telegram was sent stating, “The missing boats of the Robert Lowe are either lost or safe ashore before this. There are good hopes that they may have landed safely on the West side of St. Mary’s Bay. The chief officer must have landed at Holyrod. The vessel seems to have been lost near St. Shotts, wind south easterly blowing strong. A tug will be sent in the morning to bring here all the missing crew that are found.”

On 22nd November 1873 a further telegram reported, “A tug was despatched last night with instructions to Captain Tidmarsh or in his absence to Mr. Welkins to stand by the wreck of Robert Lowe and save all property possible. The tug will search for all the missing boats and bring here all saved.”

On the 9th December 1873 it was reported that, “The Robert Lowe telegraph repairing steamer, [Captain] Tidmarsh, from Placentia to St. Johns, struck heavy, 20th November, near St. Shotts, during thick weather and in a few minutes filled and settled down; the Master and 17 of the crew were drowned.”

I believe that Mr Welkins should read Wilkins and was in fact my great great grandfather, first mate of the ship, who was saved. He later applied for a renewal of his certificate, which he claimed was lost in the wreck of the Robert Lowe with all his personal property and effects. Shown is an extract from his application for renewal of his certificate.

...the said Certificate was lost or destroyed at St Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland on the twentyith of November 1873 on board the S.S. Robt Lowe which steamer was lost or wrecked at the above place and all effects totally lost.

The New York Times of 24 November 1873 reported on the wreck:

WRECK OF THE ROBERT LOWE.
CONFIRMATION OF THIS SAD RUMOR—EIGHTEEN LIVES LOST

TORONTO, Nov. 23.--The following particulars have been received regarding the Anglo-American cable steamer Robert Lowe from the surviving officers: After connecting Lamanche and Placentiatown by cable, the steamer left the latter port at 4 P.M., on the 19th, bound for St. Johns. At 4 A.M., on the 20th the weather thick and the wind high, the ship struck heavily near St. Shotts, and in a very few minutes filled and settled down so fast that it was impossible to get the life-boats afloat. Three other boats, containing twenty-three people, succeeded in getting clear of the wreck, and remained by it till daylight. Capt. Tidmarsh was on the bridge at the time of the disaster, perfectly cool, and took in the whole situation at a glance. He ordered the boats to be cleared away, and perished by sticking to his vessel to the last.

Five minutes after striking the ship's poop was under water. Mr. McKenden, of the Heart's Content staff, and Day, the second steward, were drowned in the cabin. The rest were swept off the decks by heavy seas, which, in a few hours, reduced steamer to atoms. On Friday five bodies were picked up and buried. The following are the names of the lost:

J. Tidmarsh, Commander; F. Powlain, Chief Engineer; Pargent, Third Engineer; Pugh, Fourth Engineer; Bublock, Engineers' Storekeeper; McIntyre, carpenter; Quartermasters, Young, Slackwards, Warren, and Anderson; able seaman, Wagstaff; Day, second, and Benares, third Steward; Gales, chief cook; Doolin and Gallagher, firemen; McKenden, electrician, and G. P. Wilkins.

Saved—Chief Officer [Samuel] Denton, Second Officer Hawson, Second Engineer Stafford, Boatswain Collins, Storekeeper Richardson, Quartermasters Robinson, Payne, Chauncey Williams, Burton, and Hooston; Able Seamen Sullivan, Reid, Cunningham, Dickenson, Welch, and Higgins; Fireman Lowden, Chief Steward Jacklin; a boy; the butcher, and Miller, a passenger.

Although B.P. Wilkins (misprinted as G.P.) was reported by the Times as lost, this was, of course, in error. Having renewed his lost certificate after the wreck, Benjamin went back to sea and during 1874 sailed on the Great Eastern. He passed his Masters exam and received his certificate of competency as a Master Mariner on 11th September 1879.

In February 1886 Benjamin sailed from London on the Pembrokeshire, bound for Nagasaki, and was at Yokohama about 17th April, where it is believed the photograph above was taken.

I have records proving that he continued his career until 1911, although during the latter years the voyages were infrequent. He last sailed as 2nd or 3rd mate aboard the Achilles which sailed from Swansea to Reval and Riga on 8th February 1911. Its return was about May or June of the same year and Benjamin was found dead at the Regents Canal Dock 28th June 1911. The cause of death was found to be heart failure accelerated by starvation.

Last revised: 1 August, 2013

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