By Staff

‘Ohope’, 23 Byron Avenue, Margate, United Kingdom CT9-1TU

Our story starts during heady days of the British Empire, in the Autumn of 1906. At the world famous shipyard of Workman Clark & Company, who were sited on the banks of the River Lagan, Belfast, Northern Ireland. The firm were builders of many fine steamers and other vessels for which the United Kingdom was renown.

On the stocks and nearing completion was official number 120717the steamship ‘Star of Japan,’ built as a cargo steamer 440 feet long, 55 feet in the beam and drawing just over 30 feet draught and of about 6,236 tons. Quite a large vessel for this period of time. She was built to the order of Messrs. J.P.Corry & Company of London but more correctly Belfast, for the general Colonial trade and was specially arranged for the conveyance of frozen meat and other products from New Zealand and Australia. Her three main holds were insulated and fitted with refrigerating machinery. Interestingly, accommodation was provided for a number of first class passengers. Her main engines were, of course, driven by steam taken from four boilers working under How-den’s forced draught principle.

The engines of 601 nominal horsepower were in the classic style of the times, i.e., a vertical triple expansion. The vessel’s sea trials were completed by 2nd October, 1906, and shortly afterwards she was put to work! As already mentioned, ‘Star of Japan’ was owned by Messrs. J. P. Corry & Company under the name of the Star Line, i.e., all the firm’s vessels started with the title of ‘Star of. . . ‘ and the Company’s activities were worldwide, having been started by James P. Corry & Company during the mid-1850s. Both J. P. Corry & Company and Workman Clark & Company had very close working and business connections over the years, both families being connected by marriage.

My interest in the ‘Star of Japan’ and her cargo was fired after seeing the most excellent video ‘Classic British Engines’ by Tim Macaire and Patrick Knight, who are well known to readers of the Stationary Engine magazine here in England. In particular, one of the oil engines on the tape is a Richard Hornsby ‘Lamp Start’ of 6 HP, No. 29161, of 1908, and the story is told she was ‘shipwrecked’ on a vessel named ‘Star of Japan,’ then salvaged and returned to the United Kingdom and eventually re-sold.

Having always been interested in ships and the sea, I decided that a visit to my local library was in order to see what further details could be found. A quick look at the Dictionary of Disasters at Sea, Vol. 2, by C. Hocking told me ‘The British cargo ship Star of Japan was wrecked at a place called Pedro de Galle, on the west coast of Africa, on April 8th, 1908.’ She was on a voyage to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, out of London, carrying general cargo.

On reading this stark report, it only spurred on my interest to find out more details of the vessel’s loss and the apparent recovery of her cargo together with its return to these shores. Bearing in mind the place where she foundered was over 2,000 miles away, whatever she was carrying must have been of utmost value!

First of all I contacted Ray Hooley, in Lincolnhe holds the works archives of the firms of R. Hornsby and Sons, Ruston Procter and Ruston Hornsby. Requesting details of R. Hornsby oil engine #29161, he very kindly looked through the sales registers for 1908. Imagine my surprise when studying photocopies of the register, #29161 was not the only engine dispatched from the Spittlegate Iron Works at Grantham, Lincolnshire, during the month of March, 1908. The other engines of this particular shipment were numbers 26407, 26493, 26589, 26885, 26924, 27030, 27334, 27371-73-75 and lastly 29169. They were all differing horse powers and for various duties. In passing, close study of the register, which is only for part of the year 1908, reveals an enormous number of countries the firm of R. Hornsby and Sons dealt with the list reads as a map of the world Turkey, Egypt, South Africa, Russia, New Zealand, India, Malaya, Greece, Portugal and of course here in England, to name a few.

Secondly, another letter was sent to the Haines family, who now owns number 29161, with a request for an opportunity to photograph their engine. I was made most welcome down in deepest West Sussex, in Southern England, and of course related the story of their engine’s travels. It now earns its keep on occasions driving a generator on the belt in the garden. It is protected from the elements by a purpose-made lean-toin the correct style as in working days.

Anyway, bearing in mind that each one of the oil engines previously mentioned were priced at much less than 100.00 ex works in 1908, and that I am assured the price for a 6 HP oil engine was 69.00. What was the rest of her loaded cargo worth ?

Further enquiries, at her home port of Belfast, indicated she loaded with her cargo at the Royal Albert Dock, London, then an absolute and prime port for the world’s shipping sadly not so, nowadays. The Hornsbys, I am sure, came to the Docks individually crated, by rail and were checked by the company’s agents before being put on board. Her cargo, as far as can be ascertained, was most varied. For instance, there was at least one traction engine, made by one of the foremost makers of such engines in this country, most probably a Burrell or a Marshall, as those manufacturers did great trade with New Zealand and Australia during this period. There was also a very large shipment of water pumping machinery for the New South Wales government. It is believed that these were by Tangye of Birmingham, England. They were, I am sure, destined for the ill-fated irrigation schemes on the Murray River, also detonators(!), together with a very large amount of charcoal, which caused a lot of problems during the salvage operations. It should be noted that the heavy machinery was placed in the lower holds. In all, her cargo totaled 6.700 tons.

The Last Voyage

On the 24th March, 1908, the ‘Star of Japan’ left the Port of London bound for Australia and then on to one of the most scenic parts of New Zealand, possibly to discharge her cargo at the North Island ports of Napier and Gisbourne. It was to be her fourth voyage to the southern Hemisphere. By the end of March, the vessel, under the command of a very experienced Master Mariner, Captain Frederick Whyte Wyatt, was approaching her last resting place. And at 4:05 a.m. on 2nd April the weather being fine and clear, wind variable, the second officer saw a line of breakers, dead ahead. He ordered the vessel’s main engines to be worked full astern, but it was too late, she struck the reef and became firmly stuck. A few days later, a storm shifted the ship upon the reef in about 20 feet of water. She was then stuck fast. It is most interesting to note, that on the 10th of April, a full eight days after the disaster, Lloyds of London received the message of her loss. Wireless had not yet come into general use!

Measures were put into operation straight away to salvage her cargo. As it was quickly realized the ‘Star of Japan’ was a total loss. Lloyds of London instructed the Salvage Association (which still deals with such things today), to carry out immediate work, and various vessels from Gibraltar and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, then later ships from England, came to collect the salvaged cargo.

A rather nice shot of the men who were later, perhaps, to build the batch of Hornsby oil engines which were shipped on the ‘Star of Japan.’ Seen here at Grantham, England, in the late 1890s with an Akroyd fan assisted start engine, which was a forerunner to Hornsby oil engine no. 29161. Note the foremen in the Billycock Hats!

The Belfast Newsletter, her home port local newspaper, informed its readers in graphic detail about her loss and included the fact she was valued at the time at 80,000 today’s value would be about 4,800,000 and her cargo worth anything from 100,000 to 200,000 and was so varied a character that it could not be easily estimated. (Today’s value between 6,000,000 to 12,000,000). All through the long summer of 1908, all types of vessels arrived at the wreck site at Pedro de Galle for the purpose of salvage. For instance, on the 8th and 15th of May, a total of nearly 6000 packages were taken off. But as the months passed, the ship was starting to grind itself into pieces. By mid-July more than 4,000 tons of cargo had been removed or salvaged. This of course included the shipment of Horn-sby oil engines. By the start of September, the ‘Star of Japan’ was starting to break up badly and was left to her fate in the Atlantic swell. Fortunately, no lives were lost.


As we have seen, most of the cargo was salvage done of the first items being the 300 to 400 tons of dynamite! This was returned to England, on the steamer Elwick at a place at the start of the River Thames, called Hole haven, because it was found to be in an unstable condition and Port of London regulations forbids such cargo to be brought up river, even today. The oil engines eventually arrived back at Grantham about September/October time, as did all the other items of machinery of the other manufacturers around the country. I feel sure that the oil engines had been under water, and interestingly they were not scrapped, but rebuilt and then resold. I have often wondered what were the thoughts of the engine erectors at the works when the damaged engines arrived, most certainly finding parts smashed and covered in rust. Though I do note from the sales register for the same year, a further 6 HP engine #26492 which was ordered by the Hornsby office at Sydney, Australia and dispatched also in March of 1908, but not in our order of engines was also returned and repaired. A double voyage to down under of 32,000 milestoday I do not suppose it would be considered worth the cost it was sent out again in April of that year.

The Haines family Hornsby #29161 is at present the only known survivor and was sold in November of 1908 with No. 29169 to Messrs. Newman and Company of Stansted, in the County of Essex, who I believe were agricultural engineers. Although nothing is known of the history of #29161 after it went to Messrs. Newman & Company, Ray Hooley has it on record as being fitted at the Lincoln Technical College in 1967. It was for the use of the engineering students to evaluate the workings of the oil engine principles. By 1970 it had gone to a well known Lincoln scrap dealer. Luckily it was not sent the same way as a lot of other ‘old iron.’ In 1973 it was in the ownership of a garage owner at Ancaster, not far from Lincoln. During 1975 it moved down to Stamford, home of the world famous Blackstone Oil Engine Company, which still builds high speed diesel engines for all applications today. In recent years it resides in the loverly West Sussex countryside still in full working order as one would expect from a ‘Classic British Engine,’ without doubt a much traveled Hornsby!

The final resting place of the 6 HP Hornsby oil engine No. 29161 which was dispatched from the Spittlegate Iron Works, Grantham, Lincolnshire, England on 24th March 1908 on the steamship ‘Star of Japan.’ Note the correct style Hornsby blowlamp for heating the hot bulb, and the position of the firm’s transfer, to the right of the governor.


I would like to thank the following for their help in compiling this story: Mr. Ray Hooley, Belfast Public Library; Auckland Institute and Museum New Zealand; Mr. K. O’Sullivan, New Zealand; Mr. T.R. Corry of James P. Corry Holdings Ltd., Belfast; World Ship Society, Guildhall; Library, London; Mr. R. S. Craig; the Salvage Association; Lloyds Register of Shipping, London; and finally the Haines family.

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