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The Lost Voyage of the "SS Ambrose"
by Jim O'Neil


In the late 1890s and early 1900s the South American rubber trade boomed and the Booth Iquitos Steamship Company was established in 1901 to cash in on the boom - and I do mean cash! One explorer in 1898 wrote that after selling a consignment of rubber in Iquitos " we brought a cart round to carry our money away. It weighed one hundred and twenty pounds. There was no paper in Iquitos. It was the custom to go shopping with a wheelbarrow".

booth line boat on the Amazon
A Booth Steamship Company boat on the Amazon
  The Amazon runs from the Atlantic through Brazil to Manaus (view map), some 1,000 miles inland and famous for its Opera House. The head of navigation lies another 2,000 miles inland at Iquitos in Peru. The bubble burst in 1913 when plantation rubber from South-East Asia replaced the wild Amazonian produce. The Iquitos Line was absorbed by the Booth Steamship Co. that same year.

The Ambrose, yard number 496, of 4,000+ grt (the exact figure is unclear - several are recorded) was built by Raylton Dixon at Cleveland, Middlesborough, in 1903. Her dimensions were 388ft long, 47ft 6in wide and 29ft deep. She was launched on March 31, 1903, and her maiden voyage was to Manaus, departing Liverpool on September 20. (Some sources state incorrectly that she was not delivered until October, 1903.)

She set new standards in passenger travel, sacrificing cargo capacity in favour of passengers - 149 First-class and originally 330 Steerage-class.

For passengers travelling the 1,000 miles on this route down the Amazon River to Manaus there would have been numerous attractions. Shoals of alligators were a common sight (see picture below) as well as the giant water liles (pictured right) that typically grew along the banks of this mighty river.

water lilies on the Amazon

There is no record of any problems with the Ambrose until 1906.
Amazonian "Victoria Regia Lilies" would have been seen by passengers travelling on the Ambrose

Voyage 16 began at Liverpool on August 30 that year, under Capt John Spedding with a crew of 102 (another man was later taken on board at Leixoes) including my grandfather, Thomas John O'Neil, then aged 21, and shown in the crew list as a trimmer. Her destination was Manaus which they reached on September 26 and where they remained until 10:00 on October 3, when they sailed to Para na' Trinidade, arriving at 15:15.

From this point there are three different versions of what happened next. Version 1 is that found in reports and documents which the company made public. Version 2 is that found in the internal records of the company and Version 3 is family legend, handed down via my father and uncles, as grandfather died before I was born.

Version 1 was reported to the annual general meeting of the directors on June 11, 1907, and reads as follows: "With a view to strengthening the company's position in the passenger service, important structural alterations have been carried out in the Ambrose at Messrs R. & W. Hawthorn Leslie & Co's yard, enlarging and improving her passenger accommodation. The cost of these alterations has been written off." Further down in the same report it states: "The various services of the company have been carried on with regularity and without serious accident."

Presumably this story was given out to avoid any loss of confidence in the company and therefore loss of income, but the internal records paint a different picture. Version 2 starts with a handwritten note in the margin of the record of voyage 16: "3 Oct. When entering Para na' Trinidade at 3:15pm struck the ground very heavily. Vessel sustained very severe damage."

tommy oneil
Tommy O'Neil c.1905

The Ambrose was in Para for seven days, two hours, compared with two days, four hours, on her next voyage, which indicates that some form of investigation or temporary repairs may have been carried out.

Alligators in the Amazon as pictured from a Booth Line Amazon Cruise   This brings us to Version 3 - my family legend. The story as told to me runs as follows. The return trip to Liverpool, that is the homeward leg of voyage 16, was crewed by no more than 10 men working and sleeping alternately, right across the Atlantic with the ship on her side the whole time, by which I mean 45 degrees. During the time she was working her way out of Amazonian waters my grandfather sat on the back end with a .303 rifle to keep the alligators off.
Shoals of Alligators seen from a Booth Line Amazon Cruise

The crew list states that all crew were paid off at Liverpool but in view of the fact that the company were not even admitting to any accidents to any ship in the financial year, perhaps they were paid off as if they were in Liverpool? If so, did they reutrn on another ship? And what about cargo and passengers?

The company records show that the Ambrose arrived in Liverpool on October 27 and allowing for the fact that extra calls were made on the homeward leg of the next voyage, 17, the time taken for the two passages was essentially the same, which seems unlikely in a vessel which had a heavy list on voyage 16.

The legend continues that when the Ambrose arrived at Liverpool the crew were accorded a civic reception. This does not ring true, considering the secrecy concerning the accident, and I can find no press reports about it. The crew were then apparently offered £100 each if they would work one more day to steam the ship round to Glasgow, but they had had enough and refused, telling the company to tow her to the ship-repairers. This part of the story would almost certainly not have been documented anyway.

She left Liverpool on October 28 and was taken to Hawthorn Leslie's yard at Hebburn on the Tyne for repairs. She left there on March 30, 1907, a period of 153 days, 15 hours. The local press reported that the Ambrose "..has undergone a scheme of improvements, one of which is to provide accommodation for another 150 persons". Note the word "improvements", not "repairs". However, the company records again take a different line - a marginal note of the voyage 17 record sheet reads: "At Hawthorn Leslie & Co's yard, Newcastle on Tyne, for damage repairs and new long poop."

The balance sheet dated March 31, 1907, a public document, shows that no less than £17,000 was spent on "alterations to Ambrose", which works out at 8.6 per cent of their operating profit for the year.

rms ambrose dining saloon The Ambrose returned to service on March 30, 1907, and led an uneventful life until December 10, 1914, when she was requisitioned by the Admiralty, renamed HMS Ambrose and converted into an armed merchant cruiser. She was purchased by the Admiralty in June, 1915, and converted into a submarine depot ship. In 1938 she was renamed HMS Cochrane and in 1946 she was broken up by T.W. Ward at Inverkeithing.
The Dining Saloon of the RMS Ambrose

Despite contacting record offices and libraries I can find no more documentary evidence to support the family legend*, but I still believe it to be true due to an event which took place some time before the Second World War. My father's family were listening to BBC Radio one day when the story of this voyage was broadcast in a "Great Events of 1906" - type programme.

Family legend has it that when the programme finished, my Uncle Bill said to my grandfather: "I bet you remember that!", or words to that effect, and my grandfather replied, "Yes, I was on her!"

As the Ambrose had 102 crew plus an unknown number of passengers on voyage 16, I feel sure that this same legend, in one form or another, must be known to other families somewhere in the world, and I would be pleased to hear from anyone.

You can contact me here.


Sources - Primary

  1. Booth Line Records, Liverpool R.O, ref 387/BOO
  2. Telephone conversation with Bill O'Neil, 4 Jan 1992

Sources - Secondary

  1. Up de Graff, F.W. Head-Hunters of the Amazon, Herbert Jenkins, 1923, pp 133/134
  2. Engineering, 10 Apr 1903, p.504
  3. Gibbs, C.V.R., British Passenger Liners of the Five Oceans, [publisher?] 1963, p.352, Liverpool R.O ref. H387.2GIB
  4. Daily Chronicle, 28 Feb 1907
  5. Sea Breezes, 1979, p.105
  6. Heaton, P.M., Booth Line, Starling Press, 1987, p.58
  7. Lloyd's List, October 1906

It would be invidious to single out names - let me just say that I am grateful to all the hard-pressed staff in record offices in Liverpool, London, Newcastle and in Newfoundland, and also to Sea Breezes magazine and the BBC.

This article was first published in Sea Breezes, the worldwide shipping magazine, Vol 69, No 597, Sept.1995.


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