SS Elbe (1881)

From SpottingWorld, the Hub for the SpottingWorld network...
SS Elbe
Career (Germany) German Empire Flag
Class and type: toccolours
Name: SS Elbe[1]
Owner: Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen
Ordered: 1880
Builder: Messrs John Elder & Co., Govan, Glasgow, Scotland
Launched: April 2nd, 1881
Fate: Sunk in the North Sea after collision 1895
General characteristics
Displacement: 4,510 gross tons
Length: 416.5 ft (126.9 m)
Beam: 45 ft (14 m)
Propulsion: Double-expansion engines turning single propeller
Speed: 16 knots
Complement: 179 First Class, 142 Second Class 796 Third Class or steerage

SS Elbe was built in the Govan Shipyard of John Elder & Company., Ltd, Glasgow, in 1881 for the Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen[2]. The Elbe had double-expansion engines which provided power to her single-screw propeller. She was a fast ship for her time being able to reach the speed of 16 knots, but small cargo capacity, along with her high consumption of coal, would soon make her uneconomical. She had a straight bow, two funnels and four masts[3]. She was launched on 2 April 1881. After sea trials she made her maiden voyage on 26 June 1881, leaving Bremen for New York via Southampton. The Elbe had accommodation consisting of 179 first-class passengers, 142 in second class, and 796 in steerage. She was a very popular ship with immigrants from Europe to the United States and was virtually always sold out in steerage. The Elbe spent most of the next ten years working the North Atlantic service but she also made three voyages to Adelaide in Australia, two of which were in December 1889 and 1890.

Disaster in the North Sea

The night of 30 January 1895 was stormy[4]. In the North Sea conditions were freezing and there were huge seas. SS Elbe had left Bremerhaven for New York earlier in the day with 354 passengers aboard. Also out at sea on this rough night was the steamship Crathie, sailing from Aberdeen in Scotland, heading for Rotterdam. As conditions grew worse the Elbe discharged warning rockets to alert other ships of her presence. The Crathie either did not see the warning rockets or chose to ignore them. She did not alter her course, with such disastrous consequences, that she struck the liner on her port side with such force that whole compartments of the Elbe were immediately flooded. The collision happened at 5.30 am and most of the passengers were still asleep.

File:Locatie Noordzee.png
Location of the collision of SS Elbe

The Elbe began to sink immediately and the captain, von Gossel, gave the order to abandon ship. Amid great scenes of panic the crew managed to lower two of the Elbe's lifeboats. One of the lifeboats capsized as too many passengers tried in vain to squeeze into the boat. Twenty people scrambled into the second lifeboat of which 15 were members of the crew. The others were four male second-class passengers, and a young lady’s maid by the name of Miss Anna Boecker, who had been lucky enough to be pulled from the raging sea after the first boat had capsized. Meanwhile on the other side of the Elbe, Captain von Gossel had ordered all the women and children to assemble there but no other lifeboats were launched because the ropes on the derricks were all frozen up, and so they perished along with Captain von Gossel. Within 20 minutes of the collision SS Elbe had sunk and the only survivors were the 20 people in the one surviving lifeboat. These people now had to endure mountainous seas and below-zero temperatures and they were 50 miles from land. Things looked bleak; the Elbe's distress rockets had not been seen by any passing vessels and so no one knew of their predicament. After five hours in the raging storm, their luck changed. A fishing smack from Lowestoft called the Wildflower found them. In desperate conditions the brave crew of the Wildflower struggled to pull the twenty distressed survivors from the lifeboat which had begun to break up. The skipper of the Wildflower, William Wright, said later that the survivors would not have lasted another hour in those conditions and believed that the only reason they had stayed alive for five hours, was due to the expertise of the Elbe's crewman aboard the lifeboat.

Steamship Crathie

The Crathie had also been badly damaged in the collision but, astonishingly, and to the great shame of the captain and its crew, she carried on with her voyage to Rotterdam. When later asked why they had not stayed on to help the Elbe and her passengers, the captain said that he feared that his ship would sink, and in any case he did not hear any cries for help coming from the liner. It appeared to him that the Elbe was steaming away from his position[5].

Miss Anna Boecker

Of the twenty who survived the sinking, only one was a female. Anna Boecker[6], was a shy, quiet maid in the employment of an elderly Lady, and they were traveling together to Southampton. In the panic and confusion of the collision she had been unable to save her Lady employer. She joined the terrified crush of passengers lowered into the first lifeboat. When it capsized under the sheer weight of numbers, Anna ended up in the ocean. All of the others from her lifeboat clambered back onto the sinking ship. Anna was alone in the treacherous sea until the survivors in the second lifeboat spotted her floundering in the water and pulled her up to safety.


The SS Elbe incident resulted in a court case which took place in Rotterdam in November 1895. The court found that the steamship Crathie was alone at fault for the collision. Amazingly the Captain was merely censured for leaving the disaster, a verdict that astounded the maritime world at the time. The blame was put squarely on the first mate, who had left his post at the bridge at the critical time to chat in the galley with other crew members, and therefore had failed in his job of operating the ship's warning lights. The captain, officers and sailors of the SS Elbe received no rebuke from the court either, which caused some concern amongst the German public. The brave crew of the fishing smack Wildflower each were given, by Kaiser Wilhelm II, a silver and gold watch bearing his monogram and £5 as a gesture of thanks for saving the lives of the twenty German citizens. They also received other medals and gifts in the following years.


In the early part of 1993, a group of Dutch amateur divers searched and located the wreck of the Elbe on the sea bed. They managed to salvage a large quantity of the glasswork and tea sets from the wreck site. [5]


de:Elbe (1881)