The SS Berlin Disaster

 New York Times Headline.

STEAMER LOST WITH 142 LIVES; Some Persons Clung to Part of the Berlin, but it is Feared All Are Dead. LIFEBOAT FLUNG BACK Desperate Efforts at Rescue All Day Yesterday Off Hook of Holland. OPERA SINGERS DEAD English King’s Messenger Also Among the Drowned — Cause of Disaster Unknown.

The Great Eastern Railway Company initiated a service from Harwich to Hook of Holland in 1893, when a railway line from Hook to Rotterdam was opened; with onward links to northern and eastern Europe. Great Eastern ordered three steamers from Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd, Hull, to operate the new service. The sisters were named Amsterdam, Berlin and Vienna, to publicise some of the rail connections from the Hook of Holland.

The usual boat-train left Liverpool Street Station at 8.30 p.m. on Wednesday, arriving at Harwich at 10 p.m. The Berlin sailed shortly afterwards. All was well with her and a capital start was made. It was a rough night, but there was no fear for her safety. She was a splendid vessel, and had crossed many times on much worse nights than that. She was carrying a large number of passengers than usual for the time of year, this being accounted for by the booking of the German Opera Company who had been performing at Covent Garden.



The “Berlin” left Parkeston Quay, at about 10 p.m. on the 20th February 1907 bound for the New Water Way, Hook of Holland, under the command of Captain Precious with 96 passengers, a crew of 52, all told, very little cargo, and 1.00 tons of coal in the bunkers. her draught of water was about 12 ft. forward and 15 ft. aft, and her freeboard below the upper deck would be 3 ft. 7 ins. The weather at the time the vessel left the port was very bad; a strong gale was blowing from the N.W., and some passengers who had booked passages decided at the last moment to remain behind. The “Berlin” proceeded to sea and had a very rough passage across the North Sea, but was well up to time when she passed the Maas Light Vessel, some 7 3/4 miles from the entrance to the New Water Way, Hook of Holland. Here it is customary for the Dutch pilot to take charge, but only to a qualified extent, as by Dutch law pilots are not allowed to take executive charge, but only show the masters, if necessary, the way into the harbour.

Berlin breaking in half Amidships

Berlin breaking in half Amidships

Berlin was a steel ship of 1,745 Grt; 302 feet 5 inches long, with a beam of 36 feet; twin screw, powered by two triple expansion steam engines producing 5,800 Ihp, giving her a speed of 15 knots.  In this case the master and pilot were both on the bridge, and the pilot may be taken to have been assisting the master in the navigation. As the vessel approached the gas buoy, situated about three-quarters of a mile from the extreme end of the north breakwater, she encountered heavy breaking seas, causing her to roll very heavily, and shortly after she passed it, at a speed of 15 to 16 knots per hour, one sea struck her on the port quarter, causing her to broach to for some 5 points to the northward of her course. The helm was put hard-a-port, the starboard engines stopped and reversed full speed astern and the port engines kept full speed ahead. Under the action of her rudder and engines she was brought round with her head to the southwest, but whilst executing this manoeuvre she drifted, through the action of tide, wind, and sea, too close to the northern extremity of the breakwater to clear it, and before anything could be done she struck it with her port bilge” the first time not heavily” but the second time she impaled herself on its submerged extremity, from which all efforts to remove her proved futile. Whilst lying in this condition, with a heavy list to starboard, exposed to the full force of  the north-west gale, the seas soon made a complete breach over her fore and aft. Proper discipline was maintained, and there was a remarkable absence of panic. The master remained on the bridge and gave the necessary orders, sent up rockets and blue lights, and directed the chief officer to clear away the boats. Whilst this was being attempted by part of the crew, heavy seas broke over the boat deck, smashing it up together with the boats and men, carrying the wreckage overboard and on to the heads of those passengers who were on the deck below.

About this time the chief engineer reported the fires were drowned out, and that the engine room was filling with water. Shortly after, the bridge with the master and all who were with him were washed overboard.

The passengers had all been summoned on deck and supplied with life-belts. Life lines for the passengers to hold on to were stretched along the deck where practicable, under the direction of the second officer, but from time to time many of them were swept off the exposed deck into the sea. The second officer was last seen in the act of going forward where several of the passengers had taken refuge.


Berlin Wreck

The Hook Lighthouse-Keeper recorded that Berlin was running well for mid channel and under proper control, when she suddenly veered off course. The ship had been struck on her port quarter by a huge wave, causing her to swing northwards. Captain Precious and Pilot Bronders struggled to regain control, but just as the ship’s head was coming back onto her original course, Berlin was struck again on her port quarter, by another heavy sea and was swung northwards, so that she was impaled on the very end of the granite breakwater at the entrance to the New Waterway. If the giant waves had struck while she was a few yards further out, Berlin would have entered harbour without harm, but instead she was wrecked within a few feet of safety.

The seas swept over the entire ship. A passenger, Captain Parkinson, decided to offer Captain Precious help and advice, but just as he reached the bridge ladder, he saw both Captain Precious and Pilot Bronders swept overboard by tremendous wave. Between one and two hours after the stranding the vessel broke in half close to the steering engine house, the forward part falling into the Water Way and carrying with it to their death all the passengers and crew who were clinging to it. The after part remained impaled on the breakwater with about 25 passengers and 7 of the crew, all of whom had taken refuge under the partial shelter of the engine room skylight, where they remained huddled together all that day and the succeeding night, their number diminishing as the weaker ones were killed by exposure or were washed overboard. At 4 o’clock on the Friday afternoon, 11 of the survivors were rescued by the life-boat men, who passed a line from the breakwater to the vessel and dragged them into their boat. Three ladies who were too exhausted to descend on to the breakwater by these means remained on board till about 10 o’clock on the following morning, when they were rescued by Captain Sperling who climbed on board from the breakwater and lowered them down into his boat.

Rescue Attempt

The Dutch steam life-boat President van Heel, with a crew of nine men commanded by Captain Jensen, went out to assist. The weather conditions were deteriorating and it was only with the utmost difficulty that she could get out at all, but she succeeded at last in coming within three fathoms of Berlin. The seas lifted the lifeboat up and tossed her high above the wreck and disaster seemed certain until the captain succeeded in getting the boat’s anchor to hold. The lifeboat fired two rockets and the second established communication, but only for a few minutes, as the line fouled wreckage and was severed. Then the lifeboat’s anchor chain parted and she was forced to back away, to clear and return to the harbour for a fresh anchor and more rockets.

At 06:00 Berlin broke in two amidships, abaft of the engine room. The fore part of the ship slid down the inner side of the breakwater, drifting for some 80 yards, before sinking with all those within. The after part remained firmly embedded on the piles and stones of the breakwater.

The President van Heel went out again and at one point was within 10 yards of the wreck, but she could not get a line aboard. Later in the day she tried again, but only succeeded in rescuing Captain Parkinson, who managed to swim out to the lifeboat.

Wreck of the Berlin

Wreck of the Berlin

On the following day she put out to the wreck three times, but still the sea was so tremendous that nothing could be done. Then at 13:30, she left the harbour in the teeth of a blinding snowstorm. Accompanying her was the pilot boat Helvoetsluis, with Prince Henry of the Netherlands aboard. On approaching the wreck, Captain Jensen of the life-boat, with five volunteers from both the lifeboat and pilot boat, boarded a small boat and succeeded in landing at the end of the North Pier and ascend its iron beacon. From this vantage point, they were at last able to throw ropes to the deck of the wreck. These enabled 11 persons to be pulled to safety, joining their rescuers on the beacon. The 3 remaining women survivors on the ship were too terrified to follow. Despite the perilous conditions, the party on the beacon succeeded in regaining the pilot boat, after which the falling tide drove the rescue vessels back into the harbour.

Lifeboat Skipper - Martin  Sperling & Crew

Lifeboat Skipper – Martin Sperling

A Dutchman, Captain Martin Sperling, then set out in a yawl from the salvage vessel Van der Tak and at great risk from the waves and Berlin’s bilge keel, manoeuvred alongside the wreck, climbed aboard and lowered the three remaining women passengers to the yawl. Captain Sperling regained the yawl and succeeded in bearing away and return to the safety of the harbour.


Lifeboat Skipper Martin Sperling was awarded a Silver Medal by the Lloyds Committee for his crew’s heroic efforts saving passengers, Skipper Martijn Sperling (far right) is pictured with his men, brothers Lees [Leendert] & Kees [Cornelis] Sparling & Georg Moerkerk (second left). Noted for his thick brown moustache & quiet demeanour. Sperling is a short, square man with a calm face, heavily wrinkled forehead & a thick brown moustache; he has something morose about him but is not curt or angry’, noted a reporter.

The heroic actions of the Dutch seaman resulted in the rescue of 15 people from Berlin – six women and four men passengers plus five crew. Sadly 128 people were drowned (48 crew and 80 passengers) within a short distance from the shore.

Notable Passengers

One notable passenger on the vessel was Mr Herbert, a King’s Messenger travelling with diplomatic bags, including ones for Berlin, Copenhagen and Tehran. Included in the Tehran bag was the jewelled sword and decorations and all his other orders and ribbons including the insignia of the Knight Grand Commander of the Royal Victorian Order belonging to Prince ala-as-Saltanch. Although it is believed that Mr Herbert’s body was recovered on 16 March, the family asked for it to be treated as unidentified. The sword was recovered in early April.


The correct number of persons on board the Berlin at that time was apparently not immediately known. Messages in English newspapers ranged from 128 to 180 persons on board. It is now known that 128 of 144 persons on board were killed, including about forty crew members.

At the formal inquiry at Caxton hall, the loss of the s.s Berlin was put down to an error of judgement during an exceptional North West gale, not allowing for the new waterway and exceptional NW gale, not allowing for the strength of the wind and tide. Part of the insurance money was donated by the Great Eastern Railway to St.Gabriels, Church, Parkeston to move, rebuild and renovate the organ at the new church of St .Paul’s in memory of those who lost their lives.

Captain Precious

Captain Precious

In command was captain precious,the senior Captain of the fleet, an old servant whom had risen through the ranks during his 26 years with the Great Eastern Railway company. He could only account for the weather being the cause of the disaster, a terrific gale was blowing at the time. He leaves a wife and several children, all of whom except are grown up. Two are in the employ of the G.E.R. at Parkeston, and a daughter is in a G.E.R. refreshment room at Ipswich. He also leaves an aged father and mother, who live at Harwich, the father being a pensioned Customs officer. A man of wonderful nerve, Capt. Precious was equalled by few for coolness and judgement in a fog or moments of danger. He served on several of the other seven boats belonging to the Company, and was widely known and highly esteemed. Mr Busk, the manager of the G.E.R. Continental Department, told a Chronicle representative that Capt. Precious was a most able man, and the Company had the greatest confidence in him.

“Capt. J Precious, the officer commanding the boat, was a fine man, and most competent officer, aged 45 years. He took no risks whatever. He had been in the service of the G.E.R. Company from a lad, and had been over this route thousands of times. He was the senior captain of the fleet.”

“Capt. Precious’s son, a young fellow some 20 years of age, called at Liverpool Street. The officials at once told him that the report was true that his father, Capt. Jack Precious, was amongst those who had gone down. Overcome by emotion young Precious put his handkerchief to his eyes and without making any comment, walked quietly away.”


The Body of Captain Precious was found washed ashore, 17 miles from the scene of the disaster in a “good state of preservation”.

Capt. Precious Memorial.

Capt. Precious Memorial.

The body was returned on the Amsterdam in a Dutch coffin and taken to Parkeston mortuary and laid to rest in Dovercourt churchyard, 6 able seamen from the “Dresden” acted as pall bearers.

“Mrs John Precious and Family wish to Thank the many Friends for the kind sympathy shown to them in their painful and sudden bereavement through the disaster to the S.S. “Berlin”, in the death of their Husband and Father.


The Following is the official list of the officers and crew of the SS Berlin:

  • J PRECIOUS, captain, Main Road, Dovercourt married.
  • C MOSELEY, chief mate, Manor Road, Dovercourt married.
  • J WYATT, second mate, Gwynne Road, Dovercourt married.
  • H DENNANT, 1st engineer, Station Road, Dovercourt, married.
  • R W KENDALL, 2nd engineer, Cliff Road, Dovercourt married.
  • W GREGORY, 3rd engineer, Waddesdon Road, Dovercourt.
  • S ELLIS, carpenter, Maria Street, Harwich, married.
  • J HARVEY, A.B., Bathside, Harwich, married.
  • N RAYMENT, A.B., Golden Lion Lane, Harwich, married.
  • A PELLS, A.B., Canon Street, Bathside, Harwich, married.
  • T GOULD, A.B., Canon Street, Bathside, Harwich married.
  • G EASTER, A.B., Wellington Road, Harwich married.
  • H SAMKIN, A.B., Tyler Street, Harwich married.
  • A BRITTON, A.B., Victoria Terrace, Dovercourt.
  • T HARPER, O.S., Victoria Terrace, Dovercourt.
  • H FISHER, O.S. , Adelaide Street, Parkeston
  • J FARTHING, deck boy, Hamilton Street, Parkeston.
  • C GIBBONS, deck boy, Victoria Terrace, Dovercourt.
  • H CARRIEL, donkey man, West Street, Harwich, married.
  • B CATCHPOLE, fireman, Hordle Street, Dovercourt, married.
  • A WATERS, fireman, Myrtle Terrace, Bathside, Harwich.
  • G GILBERT, fireman, Mill Lane, Dovercourt, married.
  • D SMITH, fireman, Victoria Street, Dovercourt, married.
  • A POND, fireman, Victoria Road, Harwich.
  • J ROUSE, fireman, Princes Street, Parkeston.
  • H GIBSON fireman, Victoria Street Dovercourt.
  • J RYECROFT, fireman, Canning Street, Bathside, Harwich, married.
  • C SYRETT, fireman, Maria Street, Harwich, married.
  • A COPPIN, fireman, Martin Road, Ipswich.
  • H GOSLING, fireman, Butler Terrace, Wrabness, married.
  • A HOWLETT, fireman, Hamilton House, Parkeston.
  • H ROBINSON, fireman, Mistley Heath, Maningtree, married.
  • A CHAPMAN, fireman, Pepys Street, Harwich.
  • W MOOR, chief steward, Cliff Road, Dovercourt, married with six children.
  • J KEDGLEY, second steward, Victoria Street, Dovercourt.
  • G BULLOCK, head saloon steward, Nelson Road, Dovercourt, married with 5 children.
  • A E COOPER, second cabin steward, Gwynne Road, Dovercourt, married, with five children.
  • W CARTER, salon steward, Main Road, Dovercourt, married.
  • E SALTER, saloon steward, Maria Street, Harwich.
  • J KEEN, assistant steward, Lee Road, Dovercourt.
  • A DURRANT, assistant steward, Vansittart Street, Harwich.
  • F MEAD, assistant steward, Little Church Street, Harwich.
  • W WILDING, pantry boy, Hamilton Street, Parkeston.
  • T BULMAN, cook, Nelson Road, Dovercourt.
  • M PUTTOCK, cook’s assistant, Coke Street, Harwich.
  • Mrs BULMAN, stewardess, widow, Nelson Road, Dovercourt.
  • Miss BROWN, stewardess, Garland Road, Parkeston.
  • Miss MALLOWS, extra stewardess, Fernlea Road, Harwich.
  • Mrs ELLIS, second cabin stewardess, widow with three children, Hordle Street, Dovercourt.

FISHER, FARTHING, CARTER, POND, RYCRAFT survived the wreck. Charles MILLS, Fourth Engineer not listed – also drowned.


‘Oh, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, who had, no doubt, some nobel creatures in her, dashed all to pieces’ –

lament from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act 1)


Many communities so attached to and reliant upon the sea, experience the grief of disasters; February 1907 brought this grief home to the people of Dovercourt, Harwich and Parkeston.

Scarcely a street was not affected and for many days the sad little funeral processions wended their way through the town with shuttered windows and Half-mast flags, and grown men weeping openly in the street.