The Stranding of the Oroya, 1895

My guest today is Suzan Lauder. She has a passion for Regency history, but a chance purchase of a book that turned out to be written by her great-great-great-grandfather in 1896 inspired the following post.

“The traveller who makes up his mind to undertake a journey round the World may well be excused if, as the day and the hour approaches when he must start, he feels like he were on the eve of a great experience in life, an experience which may be associated with events important and far-reaching in their results.” These are the opening words of Notes of a Trip Round the World written by my great-great-great-grandfather Hugh Lauder of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1896. I’ll refer to him as Mr. Lauder, since the alternate is rather cumbersome!

Hugh Lauder in 1896.

Hugh Lauder in 1896.

He and his business partner, Mr. John Brown were co-owners of Hugh Lauder and Co. “The Emporium[i],” originally a draper’s in Kilmarnock. The department store was left in the capable hands of sons Hugh Lauder Jr. and James Brown while their elders had an adventure. They boarded the steamship Oroya of the Orient Line at Tilbury Docks on the Thames on 22 February 1895. Mr. Lauder described the ship: “She was indeed a veritable floating palace… At dinner time, 6.30 p.m., we sat down to a luxurious and a well-appointed table, whilst a fine instrument band discoursed sweet music outside.” The next day, as they passed Plymouth, he waxed poetic about the explorers who had taken the same route to new lands hundreds of years before, and when they lost sight of England, he quoted Byron. He was a good writer!

Santa and Robert Burns on a Lauders Emporium Advertisement in the Burns Chronicle and Club Directory. © The Robert Burns World Federation

Santa and Robert Burns: A Lauder’s Emporium ddvertisement in Burns Chronicle and Club Directory, 1892. © The Robert Burns World Federation.

As they set off, about 60 officers and stewards were in the infirmary. This is a fair chunk of the 150 crew who served 240 passengers. Mr. Lauder and Mr. Brown brought photos from home to share with people they met along their trip, and he quipped about those from Kilmarnock who would appreciate seeing “the auld toon.” Indeed, the book tells of meeting people at nearly every stop who hailed from “Auld Killie.”

In Gibraltar, the gentlemen saw the American Man of War Chicago[ii] and “observed Tommy Atkins[iii] in every variety of uniform.” The town visited on the Spanish frontier was unimpressive, with its sewer running down the middle of the street. I suppose the experience would be similar to arriving in a third world country with different sanitation standards than meet our expectations in northern developed countries.

Their first view of Naples took place on the 2nd of March. How striking it must have been! Vesuvius was “belching up fire every now and again.” A battle ship, the Ramilles, was in the berth normally occupied by the Oroya, and boasted an impressive crew member: the Duke of Cambridge.[iv]

The Kilmarnock gentlemen toured Pompeii, comparing it to Sodom and Gomorrah: “…what we saw in that once thronged but now dead city was a louder and more enduring sermon than any we ever listened to from the lively.” When they returned, the Oroya was in her usual berth.

They awoke the morning of March 4 to thumping, and discovered the ship was aground, broadside to shore about 120 yards out, “…her vast bulk thus forming a breakwater, once in the lea (sic) of which small boats were sheltered from the stormy billows.” Distress signals were sent, with no recognition on shore. Mr. Anderson, one of the Directors of the Orient Co. who sailed with them, decreed that third class passengers must be taken ashore. Mr. Lauder notes “It was touching to see the little children clinging to their dolls.” The first tender barely got to shore with its precious cargo, nearly being swamped several times, but “eventually got the Custom House in safety.” When launched for the return trip to the Oroya, the tender was swamped and bailed several times. Rather than send more tenders, “a strong hawser[v] was now eventually made fast on shore, by means of which many fruitless attempts were made to reach land.” By then, the shore was packed with thousands of observers, and the military and marines were keeping order. Mr. Anderson lamented on his decision against hiring a steamer earlier in the day, but he’d balked at the £10,000 cost.

The Royal Mail Ship Oroya, Circa 1892, Photo by Charles Bayliss, Courtesy of State Library of Victoria

The Royal mail ship Oroya. Circa 1892.

After hours of anxiety, a break in the storm allowed more passengers to be taken ashore in Oroya’s tenders and a few “native boats,” which were “tossing like toys on top of the breakers.” One of the latter was underway to collect passengers when a wave overwhelmed it and washed all its crew into the sea. Aboard the Oroya, drama broke out as a second boatswain refused to board the rescue boat. He was taunted and berated for his fears and worries about his family should he be lost, too. Another sailor took his place, but more misfortunes led to their boat only saving one person. Five others, swimmers and a fellow who held onto an oar, were rescued by Neapolitans who had tied themselves to shore, but four of the boat’s crew drowned. By then, 2/3 of the passengers were on shore, but with the gale increasing, orders were issued that no more would be rescued at the time.

Aboard the Oroya, the remainder of passengers and crew had a difficult night. No one went below to the berths—seasickness is worse below decks. Mr. Lauder and Mr. Brown walked the decks all night, and the area was well-lit by four searchlights from shore set up by the military. Two gun boats “which looked like phantom ships far out” hovered nearby, ready to assist when the storm eased, and “the appearance of Mount Vesuvius was likewise made suddenly impressive by means of this great electric exhibition.” At 2:30 a.m., another vessel, John Bright of London, tried but failed to move Oroya.

The weather calmed and the two gentlemen finally got a short period of sleep from 4-6 a.m., and “we were allowed to leave in the tender and gained terra firma about seven.” Their new adventure involved the cost of being what they quipped as “shipwrecked mariners” since the daily allowance for first class passengers of seven shillings six pence covered only half the hotel bill and the Neapolitans “lose no chance of fleecing the Britisher.” Lower class passengers got five pounds a day. The weather turned cold, and they were able to view Vesuvius covered in snow.

After several days of adventures exploring the area, the gents from Kilmarnock boarded the Nubia, a smaller but still excellent ship in the view of Mr. Lauder, with its crew “half made up of Lascars,[vi]” to continue their trip onward to Cairo. The Oroya was “still fast in the sand-bank,” as they left the harbour, with onlookers waiting to plunder. Mr. Anderson had estimated the value of the vessel at £180,000 and the cargo “worth as much again.” She eventually resumed her trip to Australia, and accounts of passengers for the balance of the trip were not flattering to the ship’s seaworthiness and comfort. Mr. Lauder reflected upon the possibility the captain could lose his standing as a navigator as a result of the Naples fiasco.

The Orient S.S. Oroya Ashore at Naples 1895, by Frederick Edward Gould Lambart, 9th Earl of Cavan, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Orient S.S. Oroya ashore at Naples 1895.

The Naval Court was held on the 26 and 27 of March the same year—impressive compared with today’s incident reports after transport incidents! According to the Board of Trade Wreck Report, the trouble started when winds began to pick up in the wee hours of March 4, 1895 while the Oroya was anchored inside the breakwater of Naples Harbour. A vessel under anchor normally points towards the direction the wind is coming from, but the Oroya was broadside to wind due to a strong current in the harbour. This makes the boat more uncomfortable than usual because of the side to side rocking motion, but worse, the Oroya was being pushed dangerously towards shallow water. The captain decided to use the engines move the vessel stern first, that is, he backed up. Once clear of the breakwater, the engines were stopped and reversed. The captain tried to circle to starboard (right when heading forward), but the boat had been blown further off course, and there was no longer space for the turn. He tried to back up yet again, but between the current and the wind pushing the Oroya onshore, they became grounded broadside to wind. The Oroya kept moving into the beach until firmly fixed in the sands.

The court judged that the captain didn’t back up far enough initially; he should have tried to turn port (left when heading forward) instead of starboard; an anchor should have been readied in case of trouble (it may have been able to help them from being blown off course several times); and there was not enough crew for the size of the ship, particularly executive crew. The accident which took the lives of the four seamen was called regrettable but acquitted the fourth officer of all blame in the incident. Three Italian fishermen were praised for their assistance in saving five lives. Captain Routh was given a three month suspension, much less of a penalty than Mr. Lauder dreaded.

The investigation report was brief and simple, quite different from the detailed and personal eyewitness account of a first class passenger, a gentleman and merchant!


This article is in honour of the lost seamen of the Oroya: J. Bass, William Hallam, John Veysey, and J. Skinner.


  1. Notes of a Trip Round the World, Hugh Lauder, Kilmarnock: Dunlop and Dresden, “Standard” Office, 1896. The photograph of Hugh Lauder is taken from one of the bookplates.
  2. The advertisement “Santa and Burns” for Hugh Lauder & Co first appeared in The Annual Burns Chronicle and Club Directory First Series, volume No.1, 1892, published by The Burns Federation and is reproduced here by permission of The Robert Burns World Federation. © The Robert Burns World Federation. @robertburnsfed
  3. Photograph “Royal Mail Ship Oroya circa 1892” by photographer Charles Bayliss, State Library of Victoria, from Philatelic Database Tumblr.
  4. Photograph “The Orient S.S. Oroya Ashore at Naples” is from With the Yacht, Camera, and Cycle in the Mediterranean (1895) by Frederick Edward Gould Lambart, 9th Earl of Cavan, courtesy British Library and Wikimedia Commons.
  5. Portcities, Southampton, BOT Wreck Report for ‘Oroya’, 1895 (sic), Board of Trade, SSC Libraries, out of copyright.

About the author:

As a child and youth, Suzan Lauder wanted to become a writer. Though writing as a part of an engineering, marketing, and management career wasn’t what she had in mind, reading Jane Austen’s work in 2009 inspired her to return to writing fiction. Her first novel, a Regency romance with a mystery twist called Alias Thomas Bennet, was published by Meryton Press in 2013, followed by publication of a short story, Delivery Boy, in Meryton Press’s 2015 holiday romance anthology, Then Comes Winter.

(ed. Christina Boyd). Suzan is currently finalizing a Pride and Prejudice inspired novel, Letter from Ramsgate, for an October 2016 release by Meryton Press.

A member of RWA and JASNA, she delights in learning about fiction writing techniques, Regency history, and Regency costuming. In 2015, she wrote a popular 34-part series, the Thrift Shop Regency Costume Experiment.

Along with Mr. Suze and two rescue cats, she splits her time between an ocean view loft on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada and a tiny colonial casita in an historic neighbourhood in Mexico.

You can connect with Suzan Lauder in the following ways:


[iii] Tommy Atkins: Slang for a common soldier of the British army. (Wikipedia) First known use 1883. (Merriam-Webster)
[iv] Prince George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge was the only son of Prince Adolphus, the seventh son of George III. At the time, he served as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces (military head of the British Army). (Wikipedia)
[v] Hawser: A very thick rope or cable for towing or tying up a ship. (Merriam-Webster)
[vi] Lascar: An Indian sailor, army servant, or artilleryman. From Hindi and Urdu lashkar army, 1615. (Merriam-Webster)

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  1. saskia wessex on August 29, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Thanks great article…love also the fashion and beauty posts

    • Suzan Lauder on September 2, 2016 at 9:52 pm

      Thanks, Saskia! This is one of the best historical blogs I’ve found! So much fun!

  2. Oroya on April 12, 2018 at 6:22 am

    Thnx for a great article, Suzan.
    Is this the same Oroya that had the UK – Australia route, 1892?
    Amazing find! You must have been so excited.

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