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Hearts of Oak

SS Amazon


Destruction of the Steamship by Fire with Great Loss of Life


The Aftermath


Although there were a few sections of the Amazon collected at sea,

just one came to rest ashore.

On the 19th January 1852 at Swanpool Beach, Falmouth.

A 16ft by 4ft piece pitch pine from the Amazon,

with a string of a lady's night-cap attached, was washed ashore,

not a half mile from the house where Captain Symons was born.



The inquiry was instituted by the directors of the Royal Mail Steampacket Company, and most of the interviews, as well as statements made previously produced inconclusive answers as to the origin of the fire.

There was much speculation and comparison with other fires, there was much speculation as to whether or not any fire prevention should have been fitted or the vessel treated, there were thoughts as to the behaviour onboard, though modified by the acceptance that this was no ordinary situation; on top of this were the concerns as to ship design and arrangement, and of attendance and searches that could have and should have been requested and made.


Relief Fund

The Relief Fund grew, from the first contributions of the Royal Mail,

and from Her Majesty Queen Victoria;

citizens of the United States of America

and all over Great Britain contributions came in.

The Fund realised 14,000 pounds sterling.

Various payments were made according to the desolation.

Annuities, apprenticeships, pensions, some single payments.

Despite the fact of my knowing precisely what theses sums were,

I will not sully the name or memory of the people who suffered by laying out,

in accountancy, just what they received.

A certain number of grants were made, orphan institutions gave places to 21 such orphans,

and a very generous and kind lady (Miss Noel) of Romsey took in three orphans into her own home.



The ferocity and speed of the fire was such as to terrify the passengers into complete panic, which is absolutely understandable, given the choices and the threat. The panic and confusion left the crew in complete confusion, as on top of having to handle the ship, and the fire, against all sense and reason because of the water pumps not being available, and fearing for themselves, they had to try and prevent the passengers from being harmed or lost by the boats not being managed properly by the passengers. The crew were confronted by passengers on fire, passengers who had given up all hope and had thrown themselves into the raging heart of the fire; as if that were not enough – they were battling a raging sea. Fellow crew men were struggling with the boat cradles and getting injured, passengers and crew were being hurled into the certain jaws of death below.


Causes and Effects

It has to be said that it is extremely unlikely that any hot or burning material could possibly have “found it’s way” from the furnace into the store. Spontaneous combustion was suggested, and quoting a similarity with a land based fire, in Newfoundland, which resulted, it was postured, from spilt oil, spun yarn and the heat of the air. That was tested and was based on a larger amount of oil than was evidenced in the inquiry regarding the Amazon. The Newfoundland tests came to the conclusion that spontaneous combustion occurred after three hours of smoke production. The flame suddenly had then burst forth from the smoking spun yarn. Personally I am not convinced as to the similarities, nor of the possibility of any material spontaneously combusting due to the heat from the engines or boilers, in the storeroom.


Other evidence pointed to the possibilty of the fire have started below. The Second Engineer William Angus maintained the fire started in a space below, possibly in floor space, which was still filled with shavings and other building debris; that space would have been hotter than the air space in the boiler and engine rooms, and if any light oil was there, it could possibly have spontaneously combusted; that space could well also have retained the remains of the painter’s work, as they had been reported to have been at work up until the last minute, resulting in the possibility of either spilt material, a turpentine rag or even a bottle of turpentine, for that matter remaining on board in that area. The preparation of the ship’s timbers for painting would have required a great deal of turpentine.


All the red herrings of the heated bearings and the heat of the machinery and boilers had no substance and only lead reason away from the true possibilty of another source for the fire. I can rule out the possiblity when Mr Angus McInnes who was an experienced lamp trimmer came out of the store at 11.50, having filled the lamp and having lit it, perhaps the dripped oil had been lit by a discarded smouldering taper; Angus McInnes would have been much more aware than to allow such a thing to happen.  As an architect, I was constantly checking on site to ensure that all such material was cleared out of floor voids. It is a hazard of building anything of timber.


As to the spread of fire, it would appear from investigations, that the Danzig pine that was used for the upper deckings was not properly seasoned, and was quite new. The pressure was on to build light, for speed; even then quality went to the wall when economies were pressured from the accounting department. And so, oak was set by, in favour of pine, a timber known to be full of resin and gases which will ignite and spread flame rapidly. The other advantage in using pine, is of course, that it is easier and quicker to work and complete.




Raymond Forward