On the night of 18th August 1875, en route to Balmoral, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal about a day of ‘terrible and undying recollections’. A few hours before, the royal steam yacht Alberta had struck and sunk the schooner yacht Mistletoe while crossing the Solent, with the loss of three lives. The Mistletoe’s owner, Mr Edward Heywood spent the night of the 18th at Admiralty House, recovering from exposure and exhaustion. The body of Poole mariner, Thomas Stokes, master of the Mistletoe, rested at Haslar Hospital where another crew member, George Hiscock, was being treated for a broken arm. The bodies of Mr Heywood’s sister-in-law, Annie Peel, and the mate, Nathaniel Turner, still lay under the waters of the Solent.
On the following day, divers located the wreck of the Mistletoe and found the body of Annie Peel trapped under the mainsail. Nat Turner’s body was not recovered. That afternoon, the coroner’s inquest on the bodies of Thomas Stokes and Annie Peel opened at the India Arms, Gosport. The tragedy had attracted much publicity and rumours and counter rumours were rife. Some of the Alberta’s crew were saying that Thomas Stokes had been incompetent or drunk, that the Mistletoe had got too close in order to catch sight of the Queen or that the yacht had fatally changed her course at the last minute. In Gosport most public opinion seemed to be with the Mistletoe and there was indignation at the speed of Alberta’s crossing of the crowded waterway.
Those attending the inquest presented an amazing cross-section of Victorian society. They included His Serene Highness Prince Ernest of Leiningen, who was the Queen’s cousin and captain of the royal yacht, several high-ranking naval officers, a rich, middle class banker (Mr. Heywood), members of the Gosport jury and ordinary working class sailors. Members of the highest rank found themselves in the rare and uncomfortable position of answering for their actions before those they considered their social inferiors.
On the first day crew members of the Mistletoe gave evidence of the collision and its aftermath. They all denied that any actual order had been given to get close to the Alberta. When they realised that collision was likely, the coxswain, Henry Brown had helped the captain to ‘port’ the helm to try to avoid or at least reduce the impact. However, the yacht’s sails had apparently no time to shake before she was struck. All the men stressed that Thomas Stokes was an experienced and reliable captain. In the words of William Rowthorne, the boatswain, ‘There was not a more careful man than Captain Stokes. I have been with him for years, and I know he was not the man to get near a steamer or a racing yacht.’ It became clear that the backing of the Alberta to separate the two vessels had caused the Mistletoe to sink and knocked several people into the sea when they were close to being rescued, resulting in the three fatalities.
The following day, Mr. Heywood was called to give evidence. He positively denied trying to get near to the Queen’s yacht, saying that ‘I should think doing it a great impertinence.’ He said that the Alberta had altered course when the vessels were very close and he felt that she had turned the wrong way to avoid the Mistletoe. When the Mistletoe sank, he had been taken down with her and on coming to the surface, managed to cling on to a rope until he was rescued. Heywood described Captain Stokes as ‘a very able, steady and sober man and a good sailor’. George Hiscock, the steward of the Mistletoe, appeared with his arm in a sling and gave evidence of his unsuccessful attempt to rescue Annie Peel during which his arm had been broken.
The first Alberta crew member to take the stand was the ship’s master, Staff Captain David Welch R.N. He described how several yachts had come close to the Alberta, changing course at the last minute to run alongside. When he first caught sight of the Mistletoe, he expected her to do the same. Having judged that the Alberta would pass astern of the Mistletoe, he crossed the bridge to look out for vessels on the starboard side, from where the funnel hid the Mistletoe from his view. About half a minute later, the Mistletoe’s jib appeared in front of them. Captain Welch immediately ordered the helm to be put ‘hard a starboard’ and with Prince Leiningen rushed to telegraph the engine room to slow or stop the engines. When questioned about the Alberta’s speed, the captain replied ‘We always go at high speed when running for a train . . . I do not consider there is any more, if as much danger in my running at that speed than if I were going at half that speed’. He also explained that out at sea, there would be a look-out forward on the Alberta but no look-out was kept between Osbourne and Portsmouth. After hearing from the chief engineer, Mr. Richard Sleeman, the inquest was adjoined until Monday 23rd August.
On Saturday, Thomas Stokes’ funeral took place at Hamworthy Church, attended by many leading mariners of the town. Annie Peel’s funeral was held on Tuesday 24th at St. Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury, Manchester. The same day, the wreck of the Mistletoe was raised with difficulty, being almost in two pieces. It was towed to shallow water and later beached at Gosport.
Meanwhile the inquest had resumed with evidence from Prince Ernest. Members of the jury were not backward in pressing their aristocratic witness about the speed of the Alberta and the cause of the collision. He stressed that Captain Welch was in command of the Alberta and when on board, he never interfered with the captain in any way, but that he himself carried the ultimate responsibility for the Queen’s safety. After the collision, the Alberta’s engines were slowly reversed. ‘My object in doing this was to prevent if possible any of the yacht’s spars from falling on the yacht’s forecastle’, thereby endangering lives. Another witness, Commander J. Fullerton, said that he thought the backing of the Alberta had made the Mistletoe sink more rapidly and contributed to the loss of life, but could not give a reason for why she had been reversed. He agreed with Captain Welch in thinking that the Alberta’s speed was perfectly safe. ‘In fact, I said to Captain Welch “Quite right, old chap.”’ All the witnesses from the Alberta felt that it was the Mistletoe altering course that had caused the collision. The Coroner then said that he had asked for an assessor from the Board of Trade, and adjoined the inquiry until Thursday.
Throughout the hearing there had been what the press called ‘ebullitions’, noisy expressions of feeling from partisan members of the public, who were largely anti-Alberta. In Balmoral, Queen Victoria was kept informed by letter and telegram and her sympathy for the Mistletoe’s owner and crew was giving way to indignation. ‘I was greatly shocked to see that Mr. Heywood threw blame on the Alberta!! There seems throughout to have been great unseemliness & bad behaviour in Court. Much worried.’ There was good reason for her concern. Most of the press was decidedly hostile. The Penny Illustrated Paper, for instance, commented that ‘for our part we think it a miracle that nothing worse has happened before, her Majesty’s transit from Osbourne to Portsmouth being always made at a rate of speed that cannot be too highly reprehended.’ It even seemed possible that the officers of the Alberta might face a charge of manslaughter.
When the inquiry resumed on Thursday 26th, more evidence was given by Alberta crew members. Charles Rodgers, first class signalman, reported John Stokes from the Mistletoe as saying ‘It was all that old fool’s fault at the helm.’ a statement which Stokes denied saying about his own uncle. On Friday, the Coroner read over the extensive evidence and the jury retired to consider their verdict. Finally, after eleven hours and two interviews with the Coroner, they returned to court to announce that they had failed to reach a verdict. The Coroner then took the unusual step of referring the case and binding over the jurors to the next Winchester assizes. In Balmoral, the Queen was informed. ‘Jury after being locked up without food or light for 11 hours, could not agree on their verdict. 11 were for manslaughter (!!), 2 for accidental death. They are discharged & bound over to appear before the Judge at the Assizes at Winchester. This is too monstrous. Mr. Hardy said he had never before heard of such a proceeding.’
The case was not going to be quickly or easily settled.
To be concluded . . .