I have added a photograph of the RMS Normanby to my little stash of steamship carte-de-visite photos with accommodation plans on the back. The photo of the Normanby joins the ones of Hibernian and Denmark which I have already mentioned here.
The Normanby has a special interest for me because of its connection with Queensland, and the colonial government’s efforts to develop the northern shipping route that linked the colony to Asia and Europe through the Torres Strait. Before this route was opened, most ships from overseas arrived in Queensland only after calling at the southern colonies. The government built port facilities, dredged rivers, erected lighthouses, and offered profitable contracts to shipping companies to carry mail along this route.
The first of these contracts was awarded to the Eastern & Australian Mail Steam Co, a company formed in 1873 to operate a four-weekly mail and passenger service from Sydney to Brisbane, Batavia (now Jakarta), Singapore and Hong Kong. One of the first ships in the company’s fleet was the RMS Normanby, built in Glasgow and launched in 1874. The prefix RMS stood for Royal Mail Ship, a mark of quality and reliability.
When the newly-built Normanby arrived Queenslanders were keen to know about the ship, and its promise of faster communication with the old country. Local newspapers fanned that interest. Here is the Brisbane Courier’s description of the first and second-class passengers’ accommodation—see the plan on the back of the carte-de-visite, below:
Below, the accommodation is very comfortable. The saloon is aft, and of considerable length, with state rooms on both sides. The panelling is of varnished teak, picked out with white and gold, and looks very handsome. Over the tables punkahs are hung, so as to fan the passengers while at meals, but, as a matter of fact, during the voyage from Singapore hardly a meal was eaten below, the skylight lids on deck being made to project so as to admit of passengers sitting at them conveniently. On these the meals were served, and all the advantage of additional coolness and fresher breezes secured. There is a spacious ladies’ cabin with a bath-room and other conveniences attached, and a passage opening forward from the main saloon leads to a series of offices, including several bath-rooms, &c, an ice-room capable of storing about two tons, a surgery, lamp-room, steward’s pantry, mail-room &c. This passage eventually opens into the quarters for Chinese passengers, which occupy a complete section of the ship on the same level as the saloon, from side to side. A very neat arrangement permits of the berths here being built in a few minutes, or stowed away according to the number of passengers. The place is ventilated by a number of round port-holes, and is nice and airy but in these round openings are fitted in large square ports of great size, which can be opened in fine weather, and will make discomfort from confined air an impossibility. Further on, but only accessible from the deck, is the second cabin accommodation, also very airy and good, and opening from it is a cabin for females, stretching right across the width of the ship, and thus securing a thorough draught from the opposite port-holes. This is a capital cabin of its class, and will contain nine persons without invading a couple of sofa seats, which can, if necessary, be made into additional berths. There are separate cooking places for Europeans and Chinese. The former are served from a regular ship’s galley, whose door is a neat tesselated pavement, while the latter have a fireplace sheltered outwardly, but open to the deck near the bows. A very large staff of stewards, cooks, &c., are kept. These are for the most part Chinese, and appear a docile and very cleanly set of servants. The head steward and second steward are Europeans, The ship is steered from the bridge, which is well forward, so that the steersman can command a perfect view ahead. On the bridge, also, is a neat chart room, nicely fitted with cushioned seats, for the officers, and a very cool and breezy spot at all times. Double awnings protect the after-deck from the heat of the sun, being arranged like a tent and fly.
—from ‘The Torres Strait mail steamer Normanby’, Brisbane Courier, 14 December 1874
in 1877 the Normanby, steaming north, hit an uncharted rock near Pine Islet. The hull was damaged and the ship started to take in water. Immediate action by the captain and crew saved the ship, its passengers and crew. Here is the story as told by a Sydney newspaper:
The picture on the first page of our supplement shows the position of the steamship Normanby on Percy Island. This group is about sixty miles off the coast of Queensland, in about the latitude of Cape Palmerston. The steamer, on a northward trip, left Moreton Bay on August 11, at 10 p.m., immediately after receiving her mails. Made a good run to Keppel Bay, and, after a detention of two hours, resumed her passage thence at 10 a.m. on Monday, 13th. Had a light fair breeze all day, keeping up about ten knots. At half-past 9 p.m. she suddenly struck a rock. The pilot in charge being at his post on the bridge, Captain Reddell at once took command on deck, singing out, ‘Boat stations,’ and at once every officer and man was at his allotted station, the boat-falls were cleared and half lowered, and the momentary confusion ceased. Meanwhile, it having been found that the forehold had made four feet of water in some three minutes, the ship was steered at full speed directly for the nearest available beach, which was reached in about twenty minutes, the distance being about two miles. By the time she grounded on the beach the ship was very much down by the head from the weight of water accumulating in the fore compartments, and it would seem probable that on the rapid execution of this manoeuvre depended the safety of the ship and passengers, as in a short time more she would have refused to steer, the water would have burst into the engine-room, and the ship gone down by the head. However, having got her nose on the beach, the donkey-engine managed to pump the after-compartment clear of what water leaked through the joints of the fore-compartments, and the ship was in comparative safety for the time. The view in our supplement was sketched by Mr. B. Barker, and shows the position of the Normanby as seen from the steamship Brisbane. She was about one mile from the shore, her stern up clear, her head down. On the low foreshore of the island are the tents and huts of the crew and passengers. Above and beyond are a series of green hills partly covered with brushwood. Round the point to the right of the picture is a fine little creek.
—from ‘Stranding of the steamer Normanby’, Sydney Mail and New South Wales advertiser, 1 September 1877.
Nobody was hurt during this mishap. Temporary repairs were made and the ship was taken to Brisbane where a Marine Board enquiry decided that no blame is to be attributed to the master, but that on the other hand great credit is due to him for the energy he displayed and the methods he adopted to enable the vessel to be brought to this port in safety. Next, the Normanby was properly repaired in Sydney, at Mort’s Dock, and returned to service.
In 1880 the Normanby was sold to Catts Brothers of Singapore then, in 1892, to the Ocean Steamship Co and transferred to the Dutch flag. On 5 December 1896 the Normanby was wrecked near Pulau Bintang while on passage from Manila to Singapore.
The Bellevue demolition
Lest we forget. On this day in 1979 the Queensland government demolished the Bellevue Hotel in Brisbane—an act that has become a symbol of callous disregard for the community’s interest in its cultural heritage.
Collapse of the campanile
Since I wrote the piece about St Mark’s Square I have added some old postcards to my collection, and discovered more about the events that lead to the collapse of the campanile in 1902.
These events were reported in detail by the Venice newspapers as they happened, and a modern journalist has compiled a detailed chronology.* Here is my summary—with acknowledgments to Google Translate and to my daughter Sally for their help in translating from Italian.
Our story begins when water was seen leaking through the roof of the small loggia at the foot of the eastern side of the tower. The Office for the Preservation of Venetian Monuments appointed the architect Domenico Rupolo to direct repair work. In June 1902 workers began to replace the lead roof sheeting of the loggetta.
Monday 7 July—Rupolo noticed a crack in the brick wall of the tower near the roof of the loggetta and immediately reported this to the Regional Office for the Preservation of Monuments.
Tuesday 8 July—Rupolo thought the crack was getting bigger.
Wednesday 9 July—when Rupulo and his assistant Antonio Moresco looked closely at the crack they saw it was even wider, and realised that the inside of the wall was crumbling; the crack was so big a person’s hand could fit into it. For the second time, Rupolo reported to the regional office. He asked the authorities to order people out of the square.
Thursday 10 July— the crack had travelled up the wall at the north side of the windows of the tower.
Friday 11 July—one of the keepers reported stones falling inside the tower. There was a flurry of letters to and from the Regional Office for the Preservation of Monuments.
Saturday 12 July—the cracks were now visible to everybody. They had extended up to the fifth window and were getting wider. By now the Prefect of Venice had appointed a committee of engineers to deal with the emergency.
The committee determined the source of the problem: an old crack caused by a lightning strike in 1747 and subsequently repaired. To keep the tower safe while final repairs were planned, they decided to install temporary reinforcement of steel rods. A small wooden fence was built around the base of the tower to protect the many onlookers from falling rubble.
Sunday 13 July—the crack had reached the belfry. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon the committee made another inspection. They saw that all the glass tell-tales that had been fixed across the crack had broken—evidence that the crack was getting worse. At 4 o’clock the committee met the Prefect of Venice: they reported that the tower was in a serious condition. They did not think it would fall, but they did think there was a risk of a partial collapse in the following days.
The prefect ordered precautions: the tower was closed to the public and the ringing of the bells was stopped. An evening concert in the Piazza was cancelled.
Monday 14 July—at 5.30 am, Rupolo was already in the square, working out the details for the reinforcement. A new set of glass tell-tales, fixed across the crack that was repaired the day before, had all broken. The crack was getting bigger. When some rubble and larger stones fell near where he was standing, Rupolo sent the workers away.
The architect and engineer briefed the prefect who asked them how long the tower could stand; Rupolo thought a collapse was unlikely during the next four or five days. Meanwhile, in the Venice Arsenal, metal workers were making up steel cables to reinforce the corner of the tower.
Just after 9 am the committee arrived to inspect the tower, but the architect Rupolo advised them not to climb: he had seen the gap getting wider over the last three hours. The architect and his assistant could not convince the keeper of the tower, Pietro Caroncini, that he should leave his quarters inside the tower. They had to drag him out. The fence was moved, to enlarge the barricaded area around the base of the campanile.
At about 9:30 a team of firemen brought a long ladder so that the crack could be examined closely. Once the ladder was put against the tower, stones and bits of debris started falling noisily on the ground. The fireman in charge sensed that the tower might collapse at any moment. He pulled the ladder away, and drove back the onlookers who had gathered around. He shouted the order to evacuate the square, which was deserted in a few minutes, and he placed guards on the entrances to isolate the area. Meanwhile the architects ran into the nearby shops and evacuated everybody there.
At about 9:40 there were only twelve people around the tower—five municipal guards, two guards of public safety, two workers, the architect Rupolo, his assistant Moresco, and the engineer Gaspari. After a few minutes they heard a deep rumble that seemed like a groan of pain: debris erupted from the crack. The dozen people dashed away. A huge two-metre boulder came away from the corner and crashed down, followed by a shower of stones and bricks. The crack widened suddenly, spewing stones. The capstone with the angel seemed to swing in the air, until it disappeared when the bell tower collapsed on itself.
A scream rose in unison from the crowd huddled under the Procuratie Vecchie. The noise of the collapse was heard in many parts of Venice. The whole of the Piazza San Marco shook as if there had been an earthquake.
A dense cloud of dust rose, obscuring the sun not just in the square but from everywhere in the city. People in the distance thought it was a storm coming. The dust fell on the roofs of houses and on the streets. A stampede of curious people came to watch the engineers and city officials.
When the dust cleared the onlookers saw a conical pile of debris more than ten meters high and smelled gas gushing out from some street lamps knocked over in the square. Fortunately, because the square had been evacuated just before before the collapse, nobody was killed.
The Basilica had survived unscathed: a stout column that stood in the square had blocked the pile of debris that would otherwise have damaged the delicate corner columns of the church.
Not so the Loggia of Sansovino that was buried by the collapsing masonry. The roof of the Sansovinian Library had collapsed, along with the first floor facade, so that the interior was visible from the square.
From the rubble two symbols of the campanile emerged:
The first was the golden angel that, since 1822, had stood on top of the tower where it rotated to show the direction of the wind. It ended up in front of the main door of the basilica, smashed into many pieces.
The second was one of the large bells, which survived the collapse undamaged.
Following the collapse the people of Venice mobilised to rebuild the tower, which is a story for another day.
*The journalist Leopoldo Pietragnoli used those newspaper stories to compile a chronology, ‘Cronaca di una fine annunciata’ [Chronicle of an expected end], a chapter in the book Il Campanile di San Marco: il crollo e la ricostruzione [The Campanile of San Marco: the collapse and reconstruction] (Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 1992). I did not have a copy of Pietragnoli’s book, but I have had access to Giandri’s web summary—Il campanile di San Marco—Il crollo [The campanile of San Marco—the collapse].
Putting “ Swim for the reef ” on the map
The Queensland Environmental Defenders Office should be pleased with its Swim for the Reef fundraiser on 23 January 2016. Teams of swimmers clocked up 5,700 laps (285 km)—that’s about a tenth of the length of the Great Barrier Reef itself.
A couple of weeks before the event my friend Jo Bragg, CEO of EDO Qld, asked if I could produce a map to plot the progress of the swim. We agreed a map of the Great Barrier Reef, marked with a line to represent the distance swum, would be a tangible expression of the abstract idea of swimming for the reef. I said “yes, I can do that” and “give me a day or two to work out how”.
Instead of having a paper map displayed in one place, I thought it should be published on the web and regularly updated during the event (to support the social media campaign). I wanted to show the islands and reefs in detail (to reinforce that the Great Barrier Reef is a real place). And I wanted the path of the swim to follow the typical track taken by ships as they weave through the hazards.
I discussed the project with Thom Blake who has done more online mapping than I have. I followed his suggestion to use MapBox to create and update the map. MapBox Studio did the job, and it was free, though I found it confusing and poorly documented.
The base layers came from the wonderful OpenStreetMap, which I think of as the wikipedia of online maps. Unfortunately, underwater reefs have not yet been included in OpenStreetMap.
Fortunately the GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) website provided a kml data file which I used to show all the reefs on the map.
I decided to show the accumulated distance swum by the participants, laid out along a route that a ship might take from the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (just north of Fraser Island) to the northern limit of the area in the Torres Strait. I used a GBRMPA map of designated shipping areas to plot a course as far as Cairns. For the tightly regulated route north of Cairns I used the exact route specified by AMSA (the Australian Maritime Safety Authority). The whole route is drawn on the map as a thin red line. Then, as I received reports from the EDO people who were keeping count of the laps, I added a thicker red line to show progress.
I expect that next year the event will make an even bigger splash (and raise even more money to support the EDO). I’ll try to make the map better too—there is room for improvement.