Titanic’s forgotten predecessor: SS Norge – an Atlantic catastrophe

A painting of the SS Norge sinking, courtesy of the Maritime Museum in Denmark.

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The second worst civilian maritime disaster in the Atlantic after the Titanic, the sinking of the SS Norge, off Rockall, with the loss of 635 souls, is being commemorated by an exhibition touring the Outer Hebrides.

The display about the Norge maritime disaster more than a century ago, and the role played by the people of Stornoway in looking after survivors, is set to open at Comunn Eachdraidh in Ness, Isle of Lewis in September.

It tells the tragic story of the foundering of SS Norge on a reef close to Rockall on its journey to New York, in 1904. It was carrying nearly 800 souls – Russian Jews, Norwegians, Finns, Swedes and Danes – and more than half were mothers and children. With only enough lifeboats for 215, only 160 survived and 635 perished.

A colour photograph of the SS Norge, courtesy of Norway Heritage.

Most of the lifeboats drifted in the Atlantic for days before being found by chance – one close to the Faroes, around 500 miles from the sinking – and the survivors from two of the closer lifeboats were landed at Number One Pier in Stornoway.

Some went on to be cared for in the Lewis Hospital and others in private homes. Sadly, a number of them did not survive and they are buried in the cemetery at Lower Sandwick.

The last place to pick up a signal from the ill-fated ship had been Lloyd’s Station at the Butt of Lewis on June 27, the day before she sank.

Rockall, the British uninhabited islet in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 160 nautical miles west of the Scottish islands of St. Kilda.

The disaster remains the second worst civilian maritime disaster in the Atlantic, after the sinking of HMS Titanic in 1912 with the loss of 1,500 lives, and it made headline news around the world when the story broke a week after it happened.

With no radio communications, it was a Grimsby trawler that was first with the news, having come across the first lifeboat of survivors and taken them all the way back to its home port, a journey of five days. From that point, though, news travelled fast – by telegraph – and within 36 hours the tragedy was being reported in every newspaper in America and elsewhere.

Young survivors of the SS being treated in the Lewis Hospital, supplied by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Heritage Services.

One of Point and Sandwick Trust’s community consultants, Tony Robson, led the creation of the exhibition, titled Titanic’s Predecessor: SS Norge – An Atlantic Catastrophe.

Tony said he had felt compelled to produce the exhibition because it was a ‘huge event’ that was ‘not talked about’. He also wants to ‘highlight maritime history and the need for a maritime museum on Lewis’ and to demonstrate that our maritime history is multi-faceted.

In Tony’s view, the story of the SS Norge was eclipsed by the Titanic because the Titanic had carried so many rich and well-to-do passengers, whereas the SS Norge was ‘full of refugees’.

Tony said the arrival of the lifeboat survivors in Stornoway would have been ‘sensational by today’s standards’ and he described as ‘wonderful’ the response from the town.

The organiser of the SS Norge exhibition Tony Robson, with the book which inspired it.

‘The exhibition tells the great way Stornoway looked after them and there were huge crowds when the recovered survivors left Stornoway, going on to America. It is an epic story.’

There is also the possibility that similar exhibitions could appear in museums across Europe, after a number expressed an interest in receiving the files for the information panels, during discussions with Tony. Some have already downloaded the files, including a museum in Russia. Other interested museums included the Estonian Maritime Museum in Tallinn, the National Museum of Poland and the Maritime Museum of Denmark.

Tony obtained funding from Western Isles Development Trust and the Western Isles Lottery towards the cost of printing the informative banners, plus additional money from the local lottery to restore the lettering on the gravestone in the Sandwick cemetery.

The restored gravestone in Sandwick Cemetery.

The exhibition opened at Breasclete and will be on show at the Comunn Eachdraidh in Ness in September, from September 4 (11am-4pm), with the opening hours thereafter being Monday-Friday 10am-4.30pm. The exhibition moves to Harris Distillery in October.