The Malta Independent 20 January 2022, Thursday

The SS. Sardinia Disaster

Malta Independent Thursday, 8 August 2013, 10:02 Last update: about 9 years ago

Since time immemorial, Malta was always considered as a hub of maritime and mercantile activities. This success story was underlined this year with Malta classified as the largest ship register in Europe and seventh largest in the world. The wealth of experience that Malta obtained throughout the ages has not gone without cost because several maritime disasters can be traced throughout Malta’s maritime history in times of war and peace.

The thought of maritime disasters usually takes us immediately to  April 12, 1912 when, The Titanic, the world's largest passenger steamship at the time, struck an iceberg in the Atlantic and sank on its maiden voyage, killing at least 1,496 people. It may also take us to St. Paul’s shipwreck on Malta, which happened through divine intervention and without loss of life. 

But maritime disasters can be traced back to the first Punic war between Rome and Carthage.  A Roman fleet had just rescued a Roman army from Africa and was caught in a Mediterranean storm. It is estimated that some 90,000 men lost their lives.

Maritime disasters are usually classified in two categories: peacetime and wartime (pre-First World War and post- Second World War). Peacetime disasters happen outside the realms of war through weather conditions, faulty design or human error.  The magnitude of the disaster is measured in the terms of death toll and casualties suffered. For instance, Wikipedia lists some 162 peacetime maritime disasters. 

The Maltese waters are dotted with shipwrecks that are explored as attractive diving sites.  Some of these bear the marks of disaster, whilst others were purposely sunk as a touristic attraction. There are other stories of peaceful maritime disasters in Maltese territorial waters such as the worst tragedy that ever hit Gozo in terms of loss of lives and the worst maritime disaster in terms of loss of local population lives.  This happened on 30 October 1948 when 23 men lost their lives in the channel between Malta and Gozo when their vessel (a ‘luzzu’) gave way to the turbulent seas and overturned.  This story is recounted in Maria Sultana’s Feature, ‘Luzzu tal-Wahx’ (Ghajnsielem online).

Another maritime disaster in peacetime was the grounding of the M.V. Star of Malta in July 1955 with the loss of two lives off Dragonara point.  

The SS. Sardinia disaster is considered as the worst peacetime maritime disaster in Maltese waters with regard to loss of lives. The Daily Graphic (a British newspaper) of November 26, 1908 gives a very detailed account of the SS. Sardinia disaster and spells out the unfolding of this catastrophe that was witnessed by thousands of people in the Grand Harbour area.  This tragedy has also been researched by Carmen Lia in her book, ‘SS. Sardina: Tragedja fl-Ibhra Maltin’ (2008)

The SS. Sardinia belonged to the Ellerman and Papayanni Line. It weighed 1,514 tons.Originally, the ship left the Hebburn yard of Hawthorn,  Leslie’s on the Tyne in 1888 as the Gulf of Corcovado, for the Greenock SS Co. Ltd.

On its last and fateful short voyage in Maltese waters, the SS. Sardinia was travelling from Liverpool carrying passengers and general cargo; it was due to set sail from Malta, then to reach the Egyptian port of Alexandria and continue on to Mecca, thus completing her journey.

The ship was carrying 200 passengers and many lives were lost at sea when flames overwhelmed the vessel so quickly that it was impossible to render assistance.  The ship was carrying 25 first-class and six second-class British passengers when she left Liverpool.  The large increase in the number of passengers is accounted for by foreign passengers for deck passengers.  These were foreign passengers, Arabs, who pitched their tents on the upper deck to obtain shelter for the four-day passage.  There were some 12 passenger in the steamer who had booked in London.


MAKING A SPECTACLE...the beached Sardinia, built at Hebburn on the Tyne.

The SS. Sardinia beached at Fort Ricasoli


This steamer caught fire about one mile off Grand Harbour at 11am and was abandoned A great panic prevailed among the passengers and crew who jumped overboard.  A strong wind rendered any attempts at rescue hopeless but Admiralty tugs stood by to assist where possible. By 2.55pm the bodies of over 40 victims had already been recovered including that of the captain who behaved heroically, remaining at his post until the end. The crew were much incensed at the conduct of one of the chief cabin attendants, who was the first to jump overboard with a lifebelt, while the captain and the rest of the stayed on board and as long as anything could be done strove heroically to save the ship.  The Captain was Charles Littler from Birkenhead.  The crew also displayed noble conduct, handing out lifebelts to the terror-stricken passengers.  The British passengers were all saved with the exception of Mr. Grant’s son who perished. In all, only 10 passengers and 23 members of the ship’s crew were saved.  Undoubtedly, the sinking of the SS. Sardinia is considered as Malta’s counterpart sinking of the Titanic, albeit on a small scale.

It is believed that the fire originated in the fore hold where a quantity of naphtha was stored.  The ship was kept off the mouth of the harbour owing to the danger from the power magazine and finally ran on to Ricasoli Rocks.  At that time, the number of victims was not yet known.  Examinations of the bodies recovered showed that some were drowned and others burned to death.

By 4pm, the number saved was nine European passengers, 21 of the crew and 40 Arabs.  The missing were five European passengers, 18 of the crew and a 100 Arabs.



A postcard photo showing the SS. Sardinia on fire as hundreds watch from Ricasoli

A survivor’s description

The disaster was witnessed by thousands of people gathered on the bastions round the harbour.   There were heart-rending scenes at the customs house, where naval tugs and launches were constantly arriving carrying survivors and the recovered bodies of victims.

When the steamer struck the rocks there were several volcano-like eruptions of smoke and flames.

One of the survivors gave the following graphic account of the catastrophe,

“We left Liverpool with a full cargo of machinery and Manchester goods for Alexandria.  Our bunkers had been supplied with enough coal at Liverpool to last us until our return to Malta.  The Sardinia left Malta at 9.45 this morning.  We had just got outside the harbour, and the crew were engaged in securing the port anchors, when suddenly a cry of ‘Fire’ was heard and fumes were seen to issue from a ventilator on the port side.  A hose was promptly turned on and a stream of water was poured down the ventilator.  This, however, did no good, as in a few minutes flames started out of the other ventilators and in less than 10 minutes the whole vessel amidships was enveloped in flames.

The Arab passengers - 140 Moorish pilgrims, going to Mecca –were told to leave the hatch, to which they clung desperately, but they declined to move.  All of those who remained forward perished, except some of those who jumped overboard”.


Frantic with terror

Heart-rending scenes ensued among the Arabs, among who were many women and children.  They wept and embraced one another, but refused to save themselves by jumping overboard, although urged to do so by the crews of the numerous boats which were standing by to render assistance. 

Boats of all kinds packed with local fishermen and seamen departed the port in order to try and help any possible survivors. Reaching the SS. Sardinia itself would have been catastrophic, as it was still ablaze, and anyone who might still be alive was compelled to jump into the cold November water of the Mediterranean in order to escape the flames.

The fire soon rendered the ship’s boats unserviceable.  The hatches blew off with loud explosions, probably causing loss of life.  The engine appeared to be going all the time.  Escape from the engine-room being cut off, the staff bellows all perished.

Further inquiry showed that the fire originated in No 2 hold – it was believed that this happened through the carelessness of the pilgrims.  The ship’s wheel was abandoned and the vessel circled helplessly three times close to the shore.  Repeated explosions occurred coupled with dense smoke and flames 200 feet high.


The final death toll was proportionately very high:

Two European passengers,

16 crewmembers

More than 100 Arab passengers

Three bodies were later recovered from the sea and buried in Ta’ Braxia Cemetery.

The body of an unidentified European was washed up on 8 December. The bodies of the 1st Mate, R. Frew (aged 37) and Engineer J. Niel (aged 38) are buried in Ta’ Braxia Cemetery. Fireman Charles Mooney’s body was buried in Addolorata Cemetery.

Only the bodies of 23 Arabs were recovered; they were transported to the Central Civil Hospital, and the following day they were buried in the Turkish cemetery in Marsa. The funeral for 45 year-old Captain Charles Litter and Scottish-born 2nd Engineer Douglas Hislop took place on the 27th at Ta’Braxia cemtery, in the outskirts of Floriana.

The funeral was also celebrated in honour of a small child, Donald Grant, aged 3, who was travelling with his parents, Jessie and James Gordon Grant, of the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC), who were both saved. As they were both still recovering in hospital when the funeral took place, the Superintendent of the ETC and his wife acted as chief mourners. The infant’s coffin was carried by four colleagues of the ETC. Captain Littler’s body was later reburied in England, where his widow and son from a previous marriage lived.




Among the survivors were:

James Hennings

Richard Walton

Richard Olson

Thomas Kensella

Peter Christopher

Susan Tath

Mary Baker

Henry Rowtree

Mary Berry

J. Grant and Wife

John Bunwin

A.J. Allen

John Knox Hamilton

Richard Watson

Albert Waring

Parick Collins

Chares Colvin

John Barrell

Richard Sutton

Charles Bloxan

Robert Devine

John Thomas

John Cook

John Mughan

John O’Conner

George Piper Phillips

Kate Gilmour

Thomas Leslie

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