Aktualności ze świata miłośników twórczości Tolkiena

The SS Guelph and the ocean voyage of little Tolkien

Added on April 14, 2009 by Richard “Galadhorn” Derdzinski
Translated by Jarek “Noatar” Schramel

We have recently written quite a lot about the biography of J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith. Today we want to get you interested in some new bits of information. Piotr Kaniewski, better known among the Polish Tolkien admirers as “Ring”, has sent us a very interesting article about a ship that carried Mabel Tolkien and her sons from South Africa to England. That ship has a colourful history, although it has basically nothing to do with Tolkien.


The SS Guelph was launched at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and (the first titbit!) it was the same shipyard where the famous Titanic was built. What’s more, the Titanic was equipped with exactly the same windows and passenger benches as the Guelph. There is some other link joining this ship with the Titanic’s tragic story, but we will go back to it later. The ship’s name came from Guelph, a city in Canada. The SS Guelph was 347 feet 9 inches (106 m) long, with a tonnage of 4,917 GRT, and a top speed of 11.5 knots (21 km/h; 13 mph).


The ship entered service on the Southampton-Tenerife-Cape Town-Durban Intermediate service. In 1900, the Guelph began to serve the Union Castle Line; she was also used as a Boer War troopship. On July 27, 1909 an event happened which helped the Guelph go down in the history of marine fiction. While sailing by night in difficult weather conditions (with the wind blowing at 90 km/h) and in heavy seas, the Guelph crew spotted the lights of a large vessel. They tried to contact it in Morse, using the signal lamps. But of the signals they picked up they were able to understand only three (or, as some sources report, two) letters: T A H.

The mysterious ship is assumed to have been the SS Waratah – a steamer that had carried over 200 passengers and 120 crew members from Australia through Durban and Cape Town to London. The Waratah set sail from Durban on July 26, and was seen the next day by the crew of another ship. It was probably on that day that the two ships met; a story like many others, we could say, if it weren’t for the fact that the Waratah disappeared somewhere between Durban and Cape Town, and even today no one can say what really happened to her. The Waratah has come to be referred to as „Australia’s Titanic”, and her disappearance is held to be one of the most baffling nautical mysteries of all time. Many attempts have since been made to locate the wreck of the Waratah, with the last search carried out in 2004. However, all of them failed.

Let us now get back to the SS Guelph. In 1910, she was deployed by the Union Castle on the London-Suez-East Africa route as competition for the Deutsche Ost-Afrika Linie. In 1913, the ship was sold to Royal Mail S.P. Co. for their new Canada-West Indies-British Guiana passenger/cargo service and renamed Caraquet. She was still in service for a couple of years and ended her life on June 25, 1923 when she was wrecked on a reef near Hamilton, Bermuda. The wreckage of the ship has survived to the present day and remains a popular diving site.


In The Tolkien Family Album, p. 18, there are some recollections of Tolkien’s voyage to England on board the SS Guelph. Though the future writer was then only 3 years old, he remembered all the voyage preparations. It was April, 1895. The Professor recollected his parents filled with deep emotions before their first long (and, as it turned out, total) separation. It was his father who had made a large inscription on their travelling trunk; it read: A.R. Tolkien. As for the voyage, J.R.R. Tolkien clearly remembered only two things: himself standing on board the ship and gazing at the surface of the Indian Ocean, under which a lot of brown and black figures of divers could be seen, who would catch coins thrown into the ocean by the passengers; and the sight of a large port town, which rose up on the neighbouring hills. Many years later he realized that it must have been Lisbon. In the book, there is a commemorative picture of the trunk, which is still in the possession of the Tolkien family.

We would like to thank Piotr Kaniewski most warmly for sending us this article.

Kategorie wpisu: Biografia Tolkiena, In Westron (English)

3 Komentarzy do wpisu "The SS Guelph and the ocean voyage of little Tolkien"

Galadhorn, dnia 16.04.2009 o godzinie 14:02

Do you have an idea what could be the route of SS Guelph in 1895? Cape Town – Indian Ocean – Suez Channel – Mediterranean Sea – Lisbon – Atlantic – North Sea – Southampton (England)?

TAO, dnia 17.04.2009 o godzinie 10:53

Why Suez & Mediterrean? The route was, as stated above (in reversed order), Durban – Cape Town – Tenerife (island at the western shores of Africa) – Southampton. So SS Guelph sails the Indian Ocean waters only during the first part of her yourney (Durban – Cape).

Galadhorn, dnia 17.04.2009 o godzinie 12:54

TAO, thanks a lot! You’ve resolved our problem. Great!

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