The Fate of the Mistletoe 3 – Conclusion

By the end of August 1875, public opinion was sharply divided on who was to blame for the collision between the Alberta and the Mistletoe. In a letter to Queen Victoria, Prince Ernest of Leiningen, captain of the royal yacht, complained bitterly about public attitudes revealed during the recent inquest. He thought that the people of Gosport had shown ‘hatred & animosity towards the Navy & the Yacht’ and the Gosport jury had been ‘prejudiced and unjust’, a sentiment echoed to a certain extent by the Times.



Meanwhile, the Admiralty had started a court of inquiry into the incident. After hearing the evidence from the witnesses, they concluded that Prince Ernest, being in attendance on the Queen, could not be held responsible and that responsibility rested with Staff Captain Welch. The Court felt that ‘the speed had nothing to do with the collision’ but that there was ‘no necessity for the Alberta to have steered a course which brought her so close to the Mistletoe’. They also felt that the backing of the Alberta was correct, for fear of the schooner mast falling on her. Captain Welch was to be reprimanded. The results of the inquiry were reported to Queen Victoria in Balmoral and produced a rather indignant entry in her diary. ‘To my surprise it does not entirely exonerate Capt: Welch, though it completely does Ernest.’

As the naval report was not made public at the time and the inquest on the first two victims of the tragedy had been adjoined to the assizes, it seemed that public interest would die down for a while. This was not destined to be the case. On 1st September, a crew member of the yacht Florinda spotted a man’s body floating in the sea off Ryde. The body was brought ashore at Portsea and although much decayed, was identified by its clothes, a knife and a pipe as that of the Mistletoe’s mate, Nathaniel Turner.

Guildhall, Portsmouth

Guildhall, Portsmouth

The following day, a second inquest opened at the Guildhall, Portsmouth under the Borough Coroner, Mr. W.H. Garrington. The jury was composed of ‘some of the principal tradesmen of Portsea’. The Coroner made it clear that he would not tolerate any outcries of feeling and that ‘any person manifesting anything like approval or disapproval of anything the witnesses said should be immediately ejected’. After evidence was heard on the identification of the deceased, the inquest was adjoined until Monday when an assessor from the Board of Trade, Captain Harris, would attend. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Turner’s body had been transported back to Poole where he had lived with his wife at Baiter. His funeral was held at Poole cemetery on Friday 3rd September, the service being conducted by the Wesleyan minister, the Rev. G. Savery.

On Monday, the wreck of the Mistletoe which had been lying on the shore at Gosport, was auctioned by Messrs. King and King. It was eventually sold for £130. Meanwhile the inquest resumed and over the next few days, evidence familiar from the first inquest was heard again. On Wednesday, the relevant entry from the log of the Alberta (written by Captain Welch) was read out. It seemed to suggest that the Mistletoe had sailed parallel to the Alberta for a while, a suggestion denied by other witnesses. One fact to emerge on Friday was that at the speed she was making, the Alberta would have taken 100 to 150 yards to stop. The question of whether those at the helm of either vessel should have made different decisions was never and probably could never have been resolved.

On Saturday 11th September, the court was crowded for the Coroner’s summing up. The jury retired to consider their verdict and this time there was no deadlock. The verdict was death by drowning caused by an accidental collision. However the jury did add a rider. They felt that there had been an error of judgement on the part of the navigating officer of the Alberta, that a slower rate of speed, during the summer months especially, would be more conducive to public safety and that there should be a more efficient look-out kept. It was a public rap over the knuckles for the Alberta’s distinguished crew, but it could all have been much worse.

QVOn leaving the court, Captain Welch and Prince Ernest were hooted at by the crowd in the High Street. Queen Victoria noted in her diary that ‘the bad spirit & inimical feeling shown towards my Officers & the Yacht are dreadful, & I am most indignant.’ However it was ‘as well as could be expected & Ernest L. also telegraphed all had ended well & satisfactorily.’ The case faded from the news for a while although a request made by Col. Ponsonby on behalf of the Queen at the end of September that sailing yachts should not get too close to the Royal Yacht, was considered to be insensitive and badly timed.

Back in Poole, Mr. Robert Belben and other local men had taken up the case of the widows and orphans of Thomas Stokes and Nathaniel Turner and had appealed via the press for donations to help them. The Mistletoe’s owner, Mr. Heywood had already contributed generously and Colonel Ponsonby had written to indicate that the Queen had ordered a sum of money to be sent to the widows. Mrs. Stokes was eventually given £500 and Mrs. Turner £400 with the condition ‘that in accepting these sums they will undertake not to bring forward hereafter any claim upon Her Majesty’s Government.’

Prince Ernest

Prince Ernest

When the adjoined inquest reopened at the Winchester assizes in December, it was rather an anti-climax. The judge reviewed all the evidence and the jury retired but they were unable to reach a verdict and were discharged. In April, Mr. Heywood was offered £3000 in compensation for his yacht and George Hiscock, whose arm had been broken, received £75. The case faded from public interest. It was not until April 1876 that the results of the naval enquiry were made public. The same year, Prince Ernest was made a Rear Admiral and later went on to become Admiral.

One interesting aspect of the tragedy was light it cast upon Victorian society with its underlying divisions and tensions. The case revealed both the unpopularity of the monarchy and aristocracy in some quarters and the resistance of the establishment to questions on their conduct. There was also an element of anti-German feeling. A scurrilous rhyme published in the Weekly Hampshire Independent sets the tone. Under the title ‘A Dummy Captain’ it begins:

‘In distant climes there lived a king who often took a trip  /  Across the waters of his realm and kept a private ship.  /  He’d captains three to keep a watch, and twenty men to steer,  /  He’d brave commanders gaily laced to help the engineer.  /  But over them there reigned supreme a boss of all the crew –  /  His cousin-German, all-Serene, the Prince of Cariboo.’

and ends:

‘An accident one day occurred – they ran a schooner down.  /  Some folks in sight of Royalty were rude enough to drown.  /  The prince was in a dreadful state until a captain said  /  “We’ll have to let the public know the blame is on my head.  /  Although you hold supreme command, with this you’ve nought to do,  /  Your dolce-far-nientiness, my Prince of Cariboo”.

The captain kept his word, and swore the Prince was never known  /  To interfere on board the ship supposed to be his own:  /  He merely held the highest rank and drew the highest pay,  /  And hid behind a funnel when a boat got in the way.  /  The natives heard the captain’s tale and cried “If this be true,  /  A real and royal officer is Captain Cariboo.”



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