10th April 1930

SS St Sunniva wrecked off Shetland

Built by Hall, Russell and Co, the SS St Sunniva was one of the first cruise ships. A report in the Shetland Times of 5 March 1887, when it was still under construction, revealed that it was being “fitted up expressly for cabin passengers”, with electric light, and would have a cruising speed of 14 knots an hour.

The plan was to run cruises to the Norwegian fjords every fortnight between May and September. Once she was launched and taken out for sea trials, she achieved a higher-than-expected cruising speed of fifteen and a half knots, with her engines putting out 1800 horsepower.

Rescue mission

On 7 August 1896, the John O’Groat Journal quoted reports in the Daily News from “some time ago” that the steamer had “rescued the greater part of the passengers and crew of the General Chanzy, a French tourist steamer, which went ashore near Bergen”. Early reports had claimed that the captain of the SS St Sunniva had refused to help unless his services were paid for. This was later refuted by French Admiralty, and by the French passengers who had clubbed together to buy gifts for the Sunniva crew.

After several years of steaming about the fjords, the Sunniva was refitted for use as a mail boat and passenger ship for domestic trips in the face of increased competition within the Norwegian cruise market. The deck space was increased, but some of the staterooms were removed to make space for cattle.

SS St Sunniva grounded

In 1928, in what could have been a sign of things to come, she went ashore at Peterhead in dense fog and her passengers had to be taken off in lifeboats before she could be refloated. The district coast guard officer “heard a crash from seaward, and immediately summoned the Life Saving Brigade and the lifeboats,” reported the Aberdeen Press and Journal of 30 April 1928. “The vessel was lying broadside on about 500 yards from the shore… it was bumping on the shore in a locality where jagged reefs of rocks run seaward for a considerable distance and are submerged at high water.”

Fortunately, she was not too badly damaged, but worse was to come two years later when she was again caught in dense fog. “Rescue ships dashed to the uninhabited Scottish island of Mousa on which thirty passengers and the crew were marooned following the wreck of the mail steamer St Sunniva,” wrote a reporter in the Daily Mirror of 11 April, one day after the steamer had run aground. “It is feared that the St Sunniva will become a total wreck but the mails may be saved.”

Unfortunately, the mail was not as lucky as had been hoped, as 130 bags of it washed overboard. Only four of them had been recovered by the end of the month, and of them only one could be rescued. The mail in the other three had been soaked to a pulp.

Passengers evacuated

The ship was 24 hours out of Aberdeen, heading for Lerwick, and came aground in the very early morning. As a result, many of the passengers had been forced to evacuate while scantily clad, having been roused from their beds. “To add to the discomfort of the passengers… there was a drizzling rain, and when they finally reached the shore they were in a pitiable condition. The castaways found shelter in a hut which is provided for shipwrecked mariners,” the Daily Mirror continued. “A fire was lit and the party made themselves as comfortable as possible. Many were suffering from shock.”

The passengers were eventually rescued, but the same could not be said of the SS St Sunniva. Although divers explored the damage below the waterline with a view to possibly refloating and repairing her, she was declared a complete loss and, according to points raised in the Commons concerning the lost mail, by Sir Robert Hamilton, then MP for Orkney and Shetland, “the underwriters have abandoned all attempts to salve the cargo”.



Other events that occured in April

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