On 21st August 1875, the funeral of 74 year old Captain Thomas Stokes took place at Hamworthy Church, conducted by the Rev. Macnamara Patey. According to the Poole and South Western Herald, the ceremony was attended by ‘a large number of the master mariners, pilots, shipwrights and other inhabitants of the town’. Captain Stokes was a well-respected local man but the level of public interest had been aroused by the circumstances of his death which had been sudden, tragic and controversial, involving the highest in the land.
Thomas Stokes was an experienced yacht-master and for the last three seasons had been captain of the 120 ton schooner yacht, Mistletoe, owned by Mr. Edward Stanley Heywood, member of a well-to-do family of Manchester bankers. All of the Mistletoe’s crew came from Poole and the yacht was well known in the town. That summer, Mr. Heywood, his wife and sisters-in-law had been staying in Ryde on the Isle of Wight and cruising in the Solent and nearby waters. In the early evening of Wednesday 18th August, the Mistletoe was returning from a trip out to the Nab Lightship with Mr. Heywood and his sisters-in-law, Eleanor and Annie Peel on board. It was a calm, bright day with light winds and the yacht was making only 3 to 4 knots as she tacked towards Ryde.
Meanwhile, Queen Victoria, accompanied by Prince Leopold, Princess Beatrice and several ladies in waiting, was embarking at Cowes on her steam yacht Alberta (the tender of the royal yacht, Victoria and Albert) to cross to Gosport where she would catch the train for Balmoral. The Alberta, a paddle steamer of 393 tons, was under the command of Captain David Welch R.N. Also on board was the captain of the Victoria and Albert, His Serene Highness Prince Ernest of Leiningen and several other high-ranking naval officers.
What happened next was to be the subject of two inquests, a case at the assizes and an Admiralty inquiry. The two vessels were approaching each other more or less at right angles, one tacking slowly and the other travelling at 15 knots (about 17 m.p.h.). By the time those on board realised that they were dangerously close, it was too late. The Alberta struck the Mistletoe by the main mast, riding over her and almost cutting her in two. One of the most vivid descriptions of the collision came from the Queen herself who was on the deck and later described the moment in her diary. ‘I saw the tall masts and large sails of a schooner looming over us. In an instant came an awful, most terrifying crash, accompanied by a very severe shake and a reel. . . Then only a frightful alarm seized me, lest some of our people, who always stand in the bows of the vessel, might get hurt.’
For several minutes confusion reigned. Some of the Mistletoe’s crew managed to scramble up the tangle of rigging on to the deck of the Alberta, aided by the crewmen from the Alberta. Captain Stokes was being helped up by his nephew, able seaman John Stokes, William Rowthorne, boatswain, and crewman Henry Brown from the Mistletoe. Then the order was given to reverse the Alberta to free the wreckage. As the vessels tore apart, Thomas Stokes was hit by part of the falling mast and knocked into the sea. John Stokes was also thrown into the sea and pulled down to the bottom by the Mistletoe which filled with water and sank almost immediately. Fortunately he managed to free himself and reach the surface again.
The separation of the vessels interrupted another rescue. George Hiscock, the steward of the Mistletoe, had got up to the deck of the Alberta and with the assistance of some Alberta crew members, helped Miss Eleanor Peel on board. He then got hold of Miss Annie Peel’s hand and according to his later testimony ‘got her part over the rails, her feet only being outside, when the rigging slipped away . . . The mate, Nathaniel Turner was down in the rigging assisting to get Miss Peel up . . when the rigging slipped it pulled Miss Peel and my arm over the bow. I held on till my arm was bent over the rail by the strain of the drag of the rope and her weight and I said “I must let you go”. I then had no strength in my arm. Miss Peel and the mate then disappeared, entangled in the rigging. I think they went straight down under the bow of the Alberta’. Hiscock was left with a broken arm.
One of the officers of the Alberta, Commander Fullerton who had also held on to Annie Peel’s hand as long as possible was pulled down by the sinking ship but managed to get back to the surface and was picked up by one of the boats. Mr. Heywood was rescued clinging to a rope, exhausted and nearly unconscious. Thomas Stokes was also picked up from the sea but never regained consciousness and died on the deck of the Alberta. Of Annie Peel and the mate, Nathaniel Turner, there was no sign.
Everyone was in shock. In the Queen’s words: ‘shock & the complete disappearance of the yacht will never be forgotten by any of us who were present! In vain they searched, no sign or trace of the poor missing one was to be seen & so we had to go on finally, having first cut off part of the rigging of the unfortunate Mistletoe’. She had no doubt where the blame lay. ‘None on board thought anyone was to blame, excepting the Mistletoe, who changed her course at the last moment, when we were already quite close to her. These yachts are really most imprudent.’ This was also the line taken in the official court circular which was rapidly transmitted around the empire. ‘Considerable difficulty has been experienced in obtaining trustworthy particulars of the accident, but from what can be gathered there seems good reason for believing that the ill-fated yacht alone was to blame.’
Reports from Portsmouth however, took a rather different view of the incident. ‘People could scarcely believe their eyesight when they read that on a calm, bright summer’s evening, a yacht, specially devoted to the service of the Queen, and therefore presumably officered and manned by the very pink of the service, and having at the time the sovereign of these realms on board, had run into and sunk one of the numerous pleasure craft that at this season of the year are skimming about the Solent thick as flies in sunshine.’ Among these vessels came the Alberta,’ crossing the Solent at the splendid speed for which the royal yachts are specially designed. . . Without prejudicing the case, it must be stated that a strong feeling prevails that, considering the Mistletoe was going very slowly, the Alberta ought to have been kept clear of her.’
The stage was set for the controversial courtroom dramas that were to follow. . .
(To be continued)
Poole and South Western Herald / The Times / The Journal of Queen Victoria