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On this day in history – 5th June 1913: ‘Lady Elizabeth condemned’

Weighing 1,155 net tons, the 223-foot-long sailing vessel Lady Elizabeth usually cut a fine sight as she hove into port.  But, as she headed for Port Stanley in March 1913, she looked anything but, with her wooden deck and canvas sails in tatters and her steering compromised.  Her captain and crew were exhausted.

She’d been at sea for six months; having left Vancouver in western Canada, with a huge shipment of lumber bound for Delagoa Bay in Mozambique in southeastern Africa, on 4th December 1912. According to shipping records Lady Elizabeth’s cargo comprised 1,725 tons of wooden planks, one foot by one inch, stored in her 21-foot deep hold and another 275 tons of planks (132,387 feet) stacked on her open deck.

She had run into a ferocious storm as she rounded Cape Horn and paid a severe price.  Her rigging was torn away and the sails ripped to shreds. 

Four members of her crew, a Norwegian, two Swedes and a Finn had been washed overboard and another sailor had four broken ribs that would require medical treatment if and when they reached land. With the missing men had gone the ship’s lifeboats and the cargo stored on her deck Further structural damage to her steering and bulwarks made her almost unmanageable.

In command was Captain Petersen, who ordered his remaining crew to batten down the hatches, and headed for the nearest safe haven – The Falklands.  If he could get her there, he reasoned, she could be repaired, such was her sturdy nature, and they could continue their journey. Otherwise her Norwegian owners stood to lose the cargo delivery fee.

The Lady Elizabeth had been built by one of Britain’s most famous shipwrights: Robert Thompson Jnr on the River Wear in Sunderland. Launched in 1879, from his Southwick yard, she was now owned by a Norwegian company, who had bought her for £3,250 in early 1906. 

Lady Elizabeth
Lady Elizabeth beached in Whalebone Cove © 2023 Mark Spicer

15 miles from the safety of Stanley, as captain and crew tried to navigate Berkeley Sound, the Lady Elizabeth ran into a rock at or near Volunteer Point.  In statements after the event, Captain Petersen refers to the rock as “Uraine” or “Volunteers”.  As she reeled away from the brutal collision, the crew noted a six-foot gash in part of the hull. They also believed there was a hole near the keel.  Petersen refused to give the order to abandon ship and instead managed to enlist the help of the steam tug, Samson, which had been based in the Falklands for just such emergencies.  According to the Falkland Islands Magazine and Church Paper, published in April 1913: “The Lady Elizabeth was towed into Stanley by the ‘Samson’ under the charge of Captain Thomas on March 15th”.

The exact date of her arrival in Stanley is the subject of some debate.  According to the “Falkland Islands Shipping Report” she arrived on March 14th (under the command of Captain C. Petterrsen), while the Lloyd’s of London Register has her in Stanley on March 13th, with Captain K. Petersen in charge.  

There then follows, by all accounts, a heated back-and-forth debate about her fate between the London Salvage Association and Captain Petersen.  According to one typed despatch, sent to London on 14th April 1913, the lumber cargo below deck had not been destroyed and it was Petersen who thought his ship damaged beyond repair: “The Captain is I fear aiming at condemnation, as he is very obstinate on the question of damage to the hull through striking the rock,” states the report.

But the April 1913 “F.I. magazine and Church Paper” tells a different story: “We hear that she will be re-fitted after all and will be able to continue her voyage.”

The article, of course, turned out not to be true, as was confirmed by an official despatch from the Falkland Islands Company manager in Stanley to his head office in London: “I am very sorry that the condemnation of the LADY ELIZABETH was quite unavoidable. Copies of telegraphic messages from and to the London Salvage Association are enclosed, although you will probably have seen most of them as I advised them to confer with you as to the disposal of the cargo. I have now obtained sufficient documentary evidence that the cost of repairing would exceed the value of the ship, and have, as Norwegian Consul, handed the Captain the necessary certificates for condemnation.”

As Captain Petersen and his crew made preparations to return home to the UK, their ship was bought by the Falkland Islands Company. According to John Smith’s 2013 ‘An Historical Scrapbook of Stanley’ the FIC did well from the transaction: “They bought the ship for £1,000 and the cargo of timber, which was worth £7,000, for £2,250.”

The Lady Elizabeth was quickly converted into a ‘hulk’, to store coal and remained in the harbour for the next 22 years, until 17th February 1936, when her mooring lines were broken by a storm and she drifted into nearby Whalebone Cove where she beached and remains to this day.

It is said that in June 1984, she was ‘re-assessed’, using the original notes from her condemning in June 1913, and it was confirmed that the foot-long hole in her keel was indeed the reason why she could not stay afloat.  It was concluded that if she could be towed to a dry dock, she could be repaired to sail again.  The assessment and conclusion were meaningless because there is no dry dock facility in the Falklands.

To mark the 110th anniversary of the official demise of the Lady Elizabeth, Mark Spicer, Falkland Islands resident, who works at the airport and in his spare time flies camera drones to capture unusual shots of Falklands shipwrecks, spent many hours filming the Lady Liz.  His amazing footage gives a ‘never-seen-before’ birds-eye-view of the famous wreck and allows everyone to see up close, perhaps for the first time, the condition she is now in.

The Trust is again grateful for Mark Spicer’s wonderful drone filming.  This latest drone footage was taken on 3rd April 2023, which makes it the most recent detailed video survey of the entire wreck.  It clearly shows how the iconic ship is being eaten away by the elements. Find out more about the Lady Elizabeth.

“Lady Elizabeth is one of the finest surviving examples in the world of a 19th century, British-built, all-iron, inter-oceanic sailing ship. She is the quintessential Cape Horner and has become the dominant iconic symbol of Port Stanley. Some might even say the Falklands. She is our Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Tower Bridge rolled into one. For me on a fine evening, nothing beats watching the sunset over the Two Sisters with the Lady Liz in the foreground. But she is made of perishable metal, and cannot be a joy forever. In places she is now paper thin. People talk of saving her as a museum, but for a community of our size and limited means, that is not realistic. But what we could do is have a rescue-plan in place that would allow for the recovery of certain key features - the anchor deck with the fo’c’sle below, the main deck house with its galley and bunk room and, of course, the poop area with its steering mechanism. If nothing is done, the Lady Elizabeth will one day sink into oblivion, just like the Capricorn and Jhelum.”
Mensun Bound Trustee | Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT)
Mensun Bound
FMHT Trustee

See more stunning photos of the Lady Elizabeth interior as well as the Actaeon and Garland, taken by Falkland photographers.