Of all the events in 1912 the one that still captures the imagination is the loss on her maiden voyage of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic in April. Although not a single passenger was lost as a result of the loss of Oravia on the Billy Rocks in November of the same year, mainly thanks to the new wireless station in Stanley, those on board that night had no foreknowledge of such comfort.
We are reminded of this fact in a letter from a passenger to her parents. Wynnifred (Win) Felton née Rowen had been booked to travel on the Titanic but had a premonition and cancelled it!
Win (as she signed herself) was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Rowen the last of a series of career American consuls to live in Stanley from 1898 to 1908. Win was aware of the loss of the City of Philadelphia on the same rocks in 1896 with the loss of all hands, and would have known first hand of the loss of Thetis a local barque which went missing in 1901 with all hands (and the presents for her April 1899 wedding with Jack Felton.) She also had her two young children (Dorothy and Louis) with her.
The illustrations for the stamps are based on her gripping description of events and we hope that some of the drama and excitement will be conveyed in the abridged excerpts below.
My Dearest Mama & Papa
I know you will be very anxious to get this letter and to know we are all safe and sound in spite of our having bumped into the Billy Rocks. I did not want you to have another dose of it like you did at the “Titanic” time.
I was just settling off to sleep when I felt the engines stop and I thought “Thank Heaven, we are in Port William and the Captain (W.C. Poole) is going to anchor and we will have a calm quiet night”. Just then there was a bump and a long grinding noise and the ship shook violently. My first thought was it was the anchor going down – my next was “Nonsense! You have been on a good many ships and you never heard an anchor make a noise like that!” So I nipped out of my bunk and rushed into the passage and other people were doing the same. The first person I met was a girl of 18 coming down to reassure her mother who was in the cabin next to ours. She said “It’s all right, it’s all right!” I said I felt sure it was not all right and just then Jack came tearing down and said to get some clothes on quickly as we were on the rocks!
Just before the bump Jack was in the smoke room and he went out to have a look at the lighthouse and when he went back he said to the rest of the men “I am going down to wake my people up to get some clothes on for if he don’t change his course in five minutes we will be on the Billy Rocks.” The others all laughed and pooh poohed and said they were at least five miles off. While they were still arguing the bump came! Jack was right as usual.
I ran to the children and he ran after me and said he would see to them and for me to get dressed. He woke them up and Dorothy cried a little but Louis was very brave. He said he knew something was wrong because Daddy said just the same words he did at the time of the fire. “Jump up little boy and put some clothes on!”
[We] all scrambled for the deck where everyone was putting on lifebelts and the 3rd class people were screaming and rushing about but after they got their belts they calmed down and on the whole were very brave. Of course some of the women cried a great deal and there was one woman with two tiny children and a lame husband. I did feel sorry for her. The officers were all so brave too and got the boats ready to be lowered if there was need. Thank Heaven they had the wireless in Stanley that night for it was the greatest blessing and we were in communications with the shore all the time. But of course none of the tugs had steam up and that takes a long time so it was nearly two hours before they got there. There were a number of whalers in harbour at the same time so when help did arrive there was plenty of it. So we had a lot in our favor as it would have been pretty bad for all of us. They said that the tugs and the whalers could not come next to us on account of the rocks so the women and children had to be put into the open boats and oh my dears I thought I had known what fear was at the time of our fire, before I got the children out but it was just nothing compared with having to go down that swaying, jerking ladder and getting into the bobbing, jumping whaleboat.
Our officer in charge and a crew of men knew nothing at all about pulling an oar. The result was we were just drifting out to sea and getting farther and farther away when the Samson came out and dear old Captain Thomas happened to see us just as we were going out of sight and he came after us. They shouted for him to go to the steamer but he kept right on and got us and I must say I feel so thankful that he had the sense to do it for I shudder to think what might have happened as our boat was leaking badly. I hope I am not a coward, I don’t know but I must confess I felt simply terrified in that pouring rain, the harsh voices of the men shouting orders all combined and the knowledge that our crew did not know a thing about boats, all made it horrible and I just clutched Louis tight – Miss Whiting had Dorothy and I could not speak a word – I could scarcely breathe – and then we managed to get to the tug Samson.
We were all hoisted up over the side and then I had the most horrible of all my experiences. I had seen Dorothy lifted on board and someone said she had been taken down to the cabin so I went down and she was not there! After the awfulness of that moment I ran up the stairs and struggled along the deck calling her name and she did not answer. I shrieked and shrieked for her and still she did not answer and I was certain she had fallen overboard as the night was so dark and the tug’s sides were so low. I nearly went crazy and then someone said there was another cabin and she was in that! Oh the relief I just collapsed when I saw she was safe and just don’t know what happened. I just sobbed and sobbed, it was horrible.
Well eventually the Samson managed to get alongside the Oravia and the men all came on board quite comfortably without the horror of the little boats! And if they had only known she was going to try we would have been spared all that but none of the whalers would come alongside and we all think it was so plucky of Captain Thomas – he had about 300 on that tug and he got us all safely to land although it was a marvel for one of the whalers had a drunken Captain or something and kept trying to run us down!
It was most awfully hard to leave Jack on the wrecked ship and I begged to be allowed to stay with him but the officers would not let me nor would Jack hear of it and of course I could see that all on board could easily get away as there were so many whalers, etc, to help so I had to go. But nothing would have induced me to leave him if there had been any chance of him being left behind. I had told Miss Whiting where to take the children.
When we got on deck I could see there was no immediate danger and I began to feel a little safer until I met one of the officers and asked him to tell me exactly where we were. He looked at me for a minute and saw I was quite calm and then he said “We are on the Billy Rocks”! That name struck terror to my heart. This is the first occasion of any lives having been saved from ships that have struck those rocks and thank God all were saved this time. We lost a great deal of freight but we keep saying it might have been much worse for no lives were lost.
It was just pouring with rain when we landed at the new stone jetty by the new Custom House. We went over and looked in and there was Muriel and Gertie waiting for us. They said it was so awful waiting and watching and the first load of people had only been partly dressed and all had life belts and a number of mothers had got separated from their children and one woman was carrying a baby and when she unwrapped it she found it was not her own! I must say I think the Stanley people behaved very well indeed and they opened the big drill shed down by the East Jetty and the people sheltered there until they were parceled out to whoever would take them for the night. It was a very serious question where to house and feed four hundred people in this small place. But I think everyone did their very best and all seemed grateful.
[Later that night] we could not sleep, so I got up and came down and found poor little Muriel had been up all night wandering about trying to find different people who had been on the wreck. Mrs Buckworth had been on the whaler and did not get on shore until 6.30. She was in a boat that was half full of water and she felt something against her knee and put her hand down and felt a baby’s head! She discovered it was a baby up to its neck in water and not making a sound! Wasn’t it awful! It seems scarcely possible we were really wrecked on the Billies.
It is very hard to lose so much again. We have much to be thankful for as we were in great danger and I am sure the Lord was watching over us. They are having an enquiry now and I am afraid it is going against the poor old Captain. He was such a dear old man and we feel so sorry for him.
Everyone did what they could for the shipwrecked people and they have nothing but praise for the Falkland Islands folks from the Governor down.
I know just how glad you will be to hear we are safe and quite unharmed and I feel we cannot be thankful enough to God for having watched over us. There was a Thanksgiving service in the churches the Sunday after. God be with you. Ever your loving Win.
We acknowledge with thanks the help and assistance of Malcolm Barton and also John Barton and Leif Pollard for allowing excerpts of their great grandmother’s letter to be published.
Designer: Victor Ambrus
Printer: BDT International
Process: Stochastic Lithography
Perforation: 14 per 2cms
Stamp size: 28.45 x 42.58mm
Sheet Layout: 20 (2 x 10)
Release date: 28 August 2012
Production Co-ordination: Creative Direction (Worldwide) Ltd