1885 Tristan da Cunha Lifeboat Tragedy & Impact of WW1


With few passing ships or trading opportunities, 15 of Tristan's men made an attempt to reach the passing ship "West Riding" off the island on November 28th 1885 despite bad weather. Rowing a recently donated ship's lifeboat they headed east never to be seen again.

The cause remains a mystery but the 15 men were presumed drowned and, given the relative scale, few communities can have suffered a more devastating blow. The City of Sparta called at Tristan on Boxing Day 1885 and documented the total population that day at 92 including 13 widows left by the lifeboat tragedy and just four adult men including Peter Green now aged 77 and 69 year old Andrew Hagan.

The British Government now organised an annual supply ship to help support the community on Tristan da Cunha. At the same time the islanders were offered free passage to Cape Town if they wished to leave and ten chose this option in 1889. A further 13 departed during 1892 and the population had fallen to 50.

1905 Tristan da Cunha girl milks cow
Circa 1905 - A young girl milks a cow on Tristan da Cunha


Wrecks around Tristan da Cunha in 1892 helped the community add new names and bloodlines to their number. Two of these arrivals, Andrea Repetto and Gaetano Lavarello of Camogli in Italy, stayed and added their surnames to those still present today. By 1899 the Tristan community had rebounded to 74 across 18 families.


Tristan da Cunha islanders circa 1905
Tristan da Cunha islanders circa 1905


More Isolation and World War 1


Tristan da Cunha experienced severe isolation again during World War 1. The Admiralty stopped the annual supply ship and it's said that Tristan had no incoming mail for up to 10 years until HMS Yarmouth arrived in July 1919. The 1920s saw the arrival of Rev M Rogers who organised the building of St Mary's Church and ran school lessons. The first scientific expedition to Tristan da Cunha arrived from Norway led by Dr Erling Christopherson. Their surveyor, Allan Crawford, created the first detailed map of the island.