In April 1912, two ships set out to cross the Atlantic, one the newest, the other the oldest in the world. Only one made it safely to harbour…
We would commonly say “set sail across the Atlantic”, but the first, embarking from Southampton on its maiden voyage on the 10th April, was a “state of the art” iron and steel steam ship, the White Star Line’s RMS Titanic.
However, set sail is exactly what the second, which left Glasson Dock, Lancaster on its last voyage on 15th April, did. Reported at the time to be the “oldest working ship in the world”, apparently commissioned in 1790, the Success was a three mast vessel, constructed of Burmese teak.
The Success had a remarkable history, but it’s final voyage became a footnote, only reported in the Lancaster newspapers, overshadowed by the publicity given to the launch of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic and the tragedy which unfolded on its first voyage.
The Success had been due to set sail from Glasson at the same time as the Titanic but has had problems mustering a crew for the journey… Seafarers are, traditionally, deeply superstitious men.
“She was due to sail over a week ago, but could not put to sea as a number of the first crew, superstitious of the gruesome old vessel and its associations with some of the most horrible episodes of English penal life, declared it was haunted by the ghosts of dead malefactors, and refused to remain on board.”
The Success had been in Britain since arriving from Sydney, Australia in 1894 and had toured English ports as an exhibition ship.
As the exhibition ship’s brochure shows, the Success was billed as the “Australian convict ship” built in 1790. This date would make the ship the oldest wooden ship afloat.
The vessel was equipped as a ‘museum’ of the penal ships which transported convicts to Australia, and included life size wax figures and artefacts which were claimed to have belonged to famous criminals, such as the “original armour and headgear of Ned Kelly, the iron clad bush ranger”.
After several years as a visitor attraction in Britain, Success was sold in 1910, its new owners planning to take the exhibition to America.
The ship finally sailed from Glasson Dock on the day the Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic and sank. An article appeared in the Lancaster Observer the following Friday, and that is the last heard of the Success until exactly three months later when the paper reported her progress. Although an old sailing ship, she had on this voyage been equipped with modern communications, a Marconi wireless, and during her passage had communicated with other vessels. The July report came from the Cunard liner the Franconia which, over those three months, had passed the sailing ship no fewer than five times as it travelled between Liverpool and Boston and had talked to the radio operator on each occasion. The success had encountered severe gales, been blown off course and nearly capsized. She had require resupplying with food and fresh water from the Franconia. But the Success finally arrived safely in Boston over a month later.
This was not to be the final drama in the ship’s remarkable history.
The Success had, in fact, been launched as a merchant ship in 1840, trading around the Indian subcontinent. In 1842, the ship was chartered to carry settlers from Britain to Australia and over the next ten years made many voyages around the world, taking ‘indentured labour’ from India to the West Indies, as well as the first emigrants to the Perth area of Australia. However, in 1852 when it arrived in Melbourne at the height of the ‘Gold Rush’, the entire crew deserted to go prospecting.
The Gold Rush had led to a large influx of population and a huge increase in crime. Unable to accommodate all their convicts, in 1854, the government of Victoria followed the British example, and acquired five ships, including the Success, to act as prison hulks. Following several escape attempts and two murders committed by the inhabitants of the Success, it was decided that prison ships were not sufficiently secure to hold male prisoners and by 1860, the ship was used only to hold women and children. The vessel was subsequently converted into a storage ship and remained at anchor near Melbourne for the next thirty years.
It was in 1890, when the Success was sold on, that it was fitted out and assumed its persona as an ‘authentic convict ship’ musuem. The Observer article lists some of the hype, including the suggestion that it was the very ship that took the “six men of Dorset”, the Tolpuddle martyrs, over to Australia. Unfortunately, the museum ship did not prove a great success in Sydney harbour and was abandoned and skuttled by its owners. Sold to other entrepreneurs in 1892, Success was refloated and refitted, and did a tour of Australian ports before setting sail for England.
When the ship had crossed the Atlantic to America, it toured the ports of the Eastern seaboard and Great Lakes. The Success had many changes of ownership. The ship is believed to have once again become a cargo ship in 1917, but sank after being damaged by sea ice. Refloated for a second time, she resumed her role as a convict museum ship and even featured in Chicago’s World Fair of 1933. After several years on display at Cleveland, Ohio, the now dilapidated vessel was towed to moorings on Lake Eerie. Sunk once again in a storm in 1942, it was not until 1946 that the Success was finally wrecked following a fire which destroyed everything above the waterline. Artefacts from the Success are now exhibited in Sandusky Maritime Museum in Ohio.
This story comes from articles in the newspaper archive of Lancaster Community History Library and documents held by Lancaster Maritime Museum. You can learn more about this history at The Sailing Ship Success