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.


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.


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.


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. She had berths for 218 first and 120 second class passengers. Berlin was only carrying 90 passengers and 53 crew when she left Harwich at 22:00 on 20 February 1907, under the command of Captain John Precious.



She immediately ran into a north-westerly gale, but nevertheless made good progress through the night and was approaching the New Waterway about 05:00.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A second notable victim was Hendrik Spijker of the Spyker car company. Following his death in the sinking investigations revealed that the company’s finances were in a parlous state, leading to the company’s bankruptcy declaration.

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 Eaer. 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

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.”

Harwich & Dovercourt Newsman 2nd March 1907

“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.

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.