Digging into the Gilgai's history - we stole the ship!

If you have not read the previous post, A Peak into the Past and a Very Touching Story, do so now or this will be too confusing.
To continue the story of the postcards ...............

The SS  Gilgai  was a cargo steamship with quite a history -  
5,512 gross tons. Lb: 128.1 x 16.1 metres. Steel single screw steamship built by Wigham Richardson at Low Walker as the Wildenfels for DDG Hansa, Bremen. Quadruple expansion engine. Service speed 11 knots.
Later sold to S & E Fili Accami Genoa (Salvatore & Emanuele) and renamed Sursum Corda. 1937 sold to I.N.S.A. and renamed Manon. Sunk by torpedo from submarine near Madras 15.00N/80.30E 7th October 1942  (1)

 She became part of the Australian Commonwealth Line, which came in to existence to serve Australian needs during WW1 due to the absence of shipping to move the wheat and wool Australian had that was acquired by the British.  In fact, she was an ex-enemy ship (Or as my husband put it "So we stole the ship?").

S.S. Gilgai

I wanted to try to date the voyage mentioned in the postcards, wehave some clues-
  • They start at St Vincent on 20th January, and arrive in Boston on the 2nd or 3rd of Feb.
  • We know she was in Durban before this period.
  • There is mention of conscription in England.
  • We know the ship was part of the Australian fleet in WW1
      I started by searching newspapers on Trove, and found an entry in the Adelaide Daily Herald of 24th December, 1915 of the ship leaving Port Adelaide for Boston on November 13, 1915.

                         Gilgai, s, for Boston, November 13) 


    In a book called "Log of Logs" by Ian Nicholson I found where the information about ship voyages can be found - 

    This turns out to be a very useful book if you are researching voyages to/from Australia.  It contains a wealth of information and where to obtain even more information from.  It also contains another list of references that would be very useful.

    Log of Logs by Ian Nicholson  can be found at : http://zenodo.org/record/6901/files/LogofLogsVol1.pdf

     So this find took me to the Australian War Memorial, where the Official History of Australia at War is online - 12 volumes for WW1 alone!  What a fantastic resource for us to use.
    Here is what the AWM says about the books :

    Two volumes only.

    The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 is a 12-volume series covering Australia’s involvement in the First World War. The series was edited by the official historian Charles Bean, who also wrote six of the volumes, and was published between 1920 and 1942. The books, with their familiar covers, “the colour of dried blood” in the words of one reviewer, rapidly became highly regarded internationally. Bean’s work established the tradition and set the standard for all subsequent Australian official war histories.

     After using the wonderful <Ctrl F> and going through several volumes, I finally found this entry:
    GILGAI.  Formaly the Hansa Liner Windenfels captured at Port Phillip Heads on the 18th of August, 1914.  Employed by the Navy Department as a cargo carrier, she left Port Pirie on the 8th of March, 1915, with a full load of ore for Galveston, via Durban, and returned with wheat from Bahia Blanca.  Then, after another round trip to America, she sailed from Albany at the end of August, 1916, with wheat for Naples, which she reached by way of Durban, St Vincent, and Gibraltar-on the 29th October.  Thence forward she carried, besides foodstuffs from Australia to Europe, coal from Calcutta to Australia (during a coal strike), and paper from New York and Botwood (Newfoundland) to Australia.  On the 1st of May, 1918 she was transferred to the Commonwealth Government Line.
    So this confirms she was an Ex-Enemy Merchant ship, captured and put into service for the Australian Navy.  These were maned by Australian officers and seaman from that point on.  Her commanders were : T. Moore; W. MacGowan; J. Buchanan; H.C.C. Mills.

    Now when was she sailing when the postcards were written?  We have some clues-
    • The postcards are of St Vincent
    • They start at St Vincent on 20th January, and arrive in Boston on the 2nd or 3rd of Feb.
    • We know she was in Durban before this period.
    •  There is mention of conscription in England.

    Some searching on Trove,  found this article concerning the encounter with a German raider's searchlights from the Bendigo Advertiser, Thursday 6th April, 1916:

    Rather  difficult to read, so here is a transcript:




    Swan Hill, 5th April.
    A son of Mr. James Hurst, engineer, of Swan Hill, who is a wireless operator on the s.s. Gilgai (formerly the German steamer Windenfels), in a letter to his father, describes the narrow escape of the Gilgai from capture by the German raider Moewe in the Atlantic. The Gilgai, which left Sydney for Boston, U.S.A., some time ago, carried a valuable cargo, and when in the vicinity of Dakar, young Hurst was in wireless communication with the British steamer Sussex. The Sussex operator broke off suddenly in the middle of a sentence, but the Gilgai did not know that a hostile vessel was in the vicinitv. When north of Bermuda, the Gilgai was passed by a brilliantly lighted passenger  steamer, which afterwards proved to be tho Appam. Some distance behind the latter vessel was a steamer which was playing its searchlight on the Appam. Tho steamer following was the Moewe which evidently did not see the Gilgai, tho hours or darkness proving the salvation of' the Gilgai. The officers and the crew are under naval discipline, and although no large guns carried, the Gilgai would not be peaceably taken. The Gilgai was the first merchantman to enter Boston harbor flying the Australian naval ensign.

     So this appears to fit, and it is likely that the ship was sailing to Boston, leaving Port Adelaide in November 1915, encountering the Moewe in February 1916, with Captain Moore commanding.

    So who wrote the postcards?  There is no name, and very few clues:
    • The writer was on board the SS Gilgai in December 1915 to February 1916, traveling from St Vincent, Cape Verde to Boston, USA.
    • He was not the captain or 2nd officer, as these are referred to in the postcards
    • He refers to someone, possibly a son in Australia, as Jack
    • He refers to his wife always as My Darling Girlie
    • He had a friend on the SS Calulu
    • He may have been in charge of the offloading of cargo or the engines.
    • He bought his wife a trinket made of seeds and a table centerpiece while overseas (perhaps they are still in the family?
    I will ask my fellow genie Maria on the Genies Downunder Podcast to mention the story and we can see what happens, hopefully it will be recognised by someone's family and they can be re-united with the postcards.

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    (1)  2007-11 ©John E Hoskin/Flotilla-Australia  http://www.flotilla-australia.com/acl.htm (1)


    1. Hi Barb, I noted that the Bendigo Advertiser article identified the wireless operator as the son of Mr. James Hurst. The postcard dated February 2nd says the 4th (officer) told him the sparks had received the SOS. So young Hurst is sparks. He refers to the 2nd and himself staying on board for the coaling. I suspect that he is only counting the officers as at least some of the crew would have been needed for the process, thus including himself as an officer. The National Archives website has a number of entries listed for Gilgai in 1915-1916 - excluding the Post Office in the NSW and the men who enlisted who were born there. Some of these may include crew lists.


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