Lost at Sea!
Unravelling the mystery of the SS Virago
For more than 140 years mystery has surrounded the fate and location of a missing ship.
The passenger and cargo vessel SS Virago set sail from Hull on 31st May 1882 carrying 1,000 tons of machinery and 700 tons of coal, bound for Constantinople and Odessa. On board were 25 officers and crew aged 18-49.
She was sighted at 6am the next morning off Dover, but never seen or heard of again.
In 2009, an underwater cable survey turned up an unidentified wreck in the dangerous waters of the Raz Blanchard two miles from where I type this very missive. This stretch of water is known as the Alderney Race for is ferocious tidal currents between the island where I live and the Normandy coast of France eight miles to the east.
This summer past, a dive team led by Richard Keen made several descents to a depth of 45m to examine what they expected to be a World War II wreck. Instead they found an iron-hulled steamship some 86m in length with an extremely interesting cargo.
Keen, no stranger to finding wrecks, knows how to do dive research. It was his team that found a Roman trading ship nicknamed the Asterix in Guernsey’s St Peter Port harbour on Christmas Day 1982. You know you have a dive fanatic when he prefers finding ancient history beneath the waves to turkey and all the trimmings.
Initial research in the standard wreck lists failed to identify the name of the vessel. After all, the Virago was never meant to be sailing through the Race as her course was intended to be north of Alderney towards Brittany and the Bay of Biscay.
It was only after more detailed investigation of regional and national archives that Keen and his team finally solved the mystery. It could be none other than the 1,800-ton Wilson Line Virago out of Hull, lost with all hands and without trace on 3rd June 1882. An enquiry at the time failed to establish a cause or location of the wreck although days later two empty lifeboats bearings the ship’s name were found several miles north-east of Alderney in the English Channel.
Keen has his own thoughts as to what might have happened, but for now he’s keeping mum on that. The priority was to find the crew list – and here’s another example of this brilliant island community where I live: within days of a presentation and special viewing of a film made by Keen with the support of the Henry Euler Memorial Trust (a charity dedicated to the research, interpretation and presentation of Alderney’s maritime history), two island residents found the crew list online, including the Master John Stephens and the first and second mates.
The next priority is to track down the descendants of those who lost their lives, starting in the Hull area before extending to other parts of Yorkshire. Alderney is now irrevocably linked to the port of Hull and already there is talk of a Memorial similar to that on the island remembering the 75 crew of the submarine HMS Affray which sank in the Hurd Deep, 7.5 miles north-east of Alderney in 1951, marked with a Memorial stone and plaque in Braye Harbour.
As soon as Richard Keen goes public with his theories of why Virago sank with all hands so far off-course, I’ll let you know.
A final note from me, the son of a Royal Navy commander, about the bravery and talent of the Dive Team. They can only dive in the Alderney Race on neap tides in summer due to the treacherous currents. At 45m deep, they have only a brief opportunity to work and coming up takes half-an-hour due to decompression requirements. And they have been tangling with the huge if rusted agricultural steam engines and other mechanical equipment that were Virago’s cargo.
Speaking as someone who needed a large G&T after diving to a mere 12m in calm waters to look at exotic fish, I doff my cap.
The more novels I write, the more I realise how much I love the sea despite its treachery. Earlier this year I finished Sea of Flames which tracks the story of a small Greek vessel caught up in the world-changing clash of East v West that was the Battle of Actium (31 BC).
In all bar one of my historical novels so far, the sea and its ships play an important part in the stories told. From the invention of an embryonic ‘torpedo’ in Libertas, not to mention the retractable keel, and the sea battles of Agrippa and his spy recruit Titus Villius Macer in the Agents of Rome novella trilogy.
More on ancient sea-faring will surely follow, as will further newsletters on the Dig Alderney Iron Age and Roman archaeology finds when we resume down and dirty next year.
Meanwhile, catch up with my books and writings on my Linktree page.
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Terrific post, Alistair. I’m agog to hear more about the Virago wreck.
A mystery beautifully unravelled for us. Thank you