by Annemarie Boot, Intern, Iziko Maritime Archaeology
On rare occasions archaeologists get the chance to work with shipwrecked objects that are virtually undamaged by seawater. The silver-coloured coffee pot pictured here provided the Maritime and Historical Archaeology Laboratory at the Iziko Social History Museum with just such an opportunity. This pot has spent more than 120 years with the same family and was brought to the museum to consider its addition to the maritime archaeology collections.
The current owner of the pot reported that it was initially from the SS Thermopylae, as can be seen on the ship’s crest that adorns one side of the pot. The SS Thermopylae sailed for the Aberdeen White Star Line (often just called the Aberdeen Line), that was eventually bought by the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line as well as the White Star Line in 1905. The White Star Line was one of the passenger lines at the forefront of their trade but was, however, not without its share of disaster. The RMS Titanic also sailed for this line before the ship’s tragic end. The last voyage of the SS Thermopylae in turn, ended 13 years earlier, on the night of the 11th of September and the morning of the 12th of September 1899 near the Green Point and Mouille Point lighthouses.
The experienced captain is said to have mistaken his distance from the coast because of a thick haze that was present that night. Captain William Phillip, Jr. was unaware of a strong landward current in the area and was calmly keeping an eye on the lighthouses on shore when the Mouille Point light suddenly appeared much closer than it had a few moments ago. He had just given the order to change direction when the ship struck a reef. This strange effect of fog or haze on perception is better understood today. Psychologists have studied the way we struggle to estimate distance in fog while driving and have noted, for instance, that we struggle to estimate speed in foggy weather. It is for this reason that safe driving tips sometimes involve warnings for these circumstances and is one of the reasons why we can look at this event with a degree of understanding.
Fortunately, human error did not continue to have a great effect on events after the ship’s collision. Once the problem became clear it seems that the crew worked quickly and diligently to save people on board. Engineers who worked to keep the boilers filled specifically took risks to ensure that the ship stayed afloat for longer and could have been at the centre of an explosion if flooding affected the boiler’s fires. On shore, a Mr Bertie Roux seems to have been one of the first members of the public to have set out to aid the ship. He was soon followed by harbour tugs with lifeboats attached. As explained by the coffee pot’s owner the pot passed from the ship to her family because her ancestor was among the groups of people who went out to help.
Women and children were allowed to use the first lifeboats and were followed by the crew in a procedure commonly known as the Birkenhead Drill (this term comes from the British troopship the HMS Birkenhead that wrecked on the South African Coast in 1852). While the weather was initially calm it had worsened by the time the captain and two of his senior officers began trying to get off the boat. They had lost access to their lifeboat but fortunately a second lifeboat came their way, and they were taken to shore. By the next morning much of the cargo of frozen rabbit meat and mutton was spread across the beach, but thanks to the diligence of the crew and those lending aid no lives had been lost.
Salvage on the vessel was done after its wrecking until at least 1906 when it became important in the Salvage Association of London vs SA Salvage Syndicate Ltd case, and it is possible that the coffee pot owner’s ancestor obtained the pot in this way. This was not the story the owner told, however, and there is no clear reason to doubt the owner’s account, beyond the normal expectations of small errors in human memory and misunderstandings in communication.
Turning to the pot itself several details on its exterior and some on its interior are worth investigating. Four marks, for instance, are arranged in a similar way to hallmarking at the base of the pot and the outline of a roman lamp with a flame is present above this arrangement. The pot itself has a very lustrous silver colour that is notable for its age, but this quality can be misleading. This silver colour is from silverplating, as can be seen from the EP marking at the bottom of the pot. There are also a few scratches outside and inside the pot that reveal a green coppery metal. Because hallmarking is only done for pure silver and because none of the markings belong to a known assay office the marks mentioned above cannot be considered hallmarks.
The roman lamp and the ‘R&B’ trademark below suggest that this object was manufactured by the company called Roberts and Belk. They were established in 1809 as Furniss, Poles and Turner and were involved in creating silver and later electroplated items. According to AC Silver, who deal with silver and antique jewellery, the company was well known for its skilful manufacture of silverware. The Hawley Sheffield Knives website notes that they managed to stay in business until somewhere after 2007.
While silver plated coffee pots of the same shape seem fairly commonplace, and there are clearly other examples of eating utensils bearing the Aberdeen White Star Line’s crest, the coffee pot is one of few items that seem to bear the SS Thermopylae’s name. The other items that have survived and are in public awareness include the ship’s bell and a chair that is said to have been washed up on the beach. From an archaeological perspective, inscriptions like these are very helpful in tying together artefacts and a ship as well as in providing very necessary identification for shipwrecks themselves. This in turn allows artefacts to be linked to the historical documents as well as accounts from that time.
It is also worth considering the value of electroplated silver, which, while much lower than silver itself was still more valuable than materials such as Britannia metal, brass or certain types of ceramic, at least in the late 1860s. In addition, and as noted before, the pot was manufactured by a respected silver and silver electroplate maker. This indicates that the pot might have had a relatively high value at the time the current owner’s ancestor received it. Further, according to the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 16 November 1891, the Thermopylae had accommodation for saloon passengers and third-class passengers.
In this case the higher value of the pot would likely place the pot’s usage in the saloon or another high-status area, indicating that the current owner’s ancestor or someone in charge of his team could have been in contact with some of the crew or passengers who had a higher status on board the ship.
In the first phases of investigation therefore this pot reveals that the owner’s ancestor must have provided aid that was quite valuable when the ship wrecked. This aid was likely part of a sequence of actions that made this shipwreck a paradoxically well-managed disaster instead of a catastrophic loss of life. Crew and passengers from ships like the Birkenhead and RMS Athens that wrecked on the South African coast were not nearly as lucky. On a final note, the type of information and possible glimpses into the past provided by this coffee pot shows the archaeological value of artefacts like these and the value they will probably have in larger collections.