Chapter 14 - The 'Winton'
Milnerton - or more accurately Milnerton Beach - made a spectacular entry into the legal annals of South Africa on the night of July 28, 1934, with a shipwreck that aroused attention, not only in this country, but also overseas.
The origin of the trouble went back years earlier and was of quite a different character - none other than the establishment in 1920 of the once famous Klipheuvel Wireless Telegraph Station. Its group of giant masts, each over 250 feet high, were then the tallest structures in South Africa, if not in the Southern Hemisphere. Even airmen bound for Cape Town had to take notice of them, particularly at night, and for this reason, to comply with safety regulations, red lights were affixed.
Unfortunately some of these lights were also visible at sea and so brought about the destruction of the freighter "Winton".
Owned by the Avenue Shipping Co. Ltd., an English concern, the "Winton" was of 4 388 tons and was bringing a cargo of Australian Wheat to Britain. Her Master, Capt. C. J. Mordaunt, was an experienced seaman, but he had never before visited Table Bay. Hence he was unaware, when he entered these waters in quest of bunkers, and was feeling his way towards the Docks, that, in addition to the navigation lights erected there by the Harbour Authorities, there was a very similar and very misleading one at Milnerton.
Shortly before 9 o'clock on Saturday evening, July 28, 1934, the "Winton" was slowly moving into Table Bay when Mordaunt confused the red light on the Wireless tower overlooking Milnerton with the light on the breakwater. Next moment the vessel was ashore on the Milnerton Beach with her 6000 tons of wheat.
Back in 1901 the Houston liner "Hermes" had been lost almost in the same place and only three months earlier, in 1934, a similar calamity had occurred to another steamer, the "Indian Prince". Immediate requests for help from the "Winton" were sent to the Docks and the Harbour authorities ordered out three tugs, the "Ludwig Wiener", the "J. W. Sauer" and the "Eland", to pull her off, unfortunately without success. Though the crew of 34 managed to reach the shore, they lost nearly all their belongings and as they departed, it was found that there was 23112 ft of water in the forward hold and 26 ft in the aft one.
Hundreds of sight-seers and others found their way to Milnerton Beach, normally a fairly lonely place in those days, while the Cape Town papers were full of the latest news and latest rumours.
Behind the scenes discussions proceeded as to the possibility of salvage and great attention was aroused by the news that Capt. H. C. F. van Delden, the famous expert, who had already made his name with several successful jobs along the South African coast, most recently with the vessel "Rosandar", was thinking of taking on the "Winton". Despite preliminary discussions nothing fresh happened for a week, when it became known that through spontaneous combustion, the wheat forming her cargo had caught fire and that there was considerable danger of an explosion. Cables flashed between the Avenue Shipping Company in London and their agents in Cape Town. On August 10, 1934, the "Winton" was offered for sale to the highest bidder. Although the ship itself had broken her back and giant seas were rolling over the hull, hopes still existed that the cargo, valued at 42 000 pounds, might be saved and on August 14 it was announced that she had been sold as she lay, for 500 pounds.
Fresh excitement arose about the formation of a salvage syndicate, including members of the well-known Knysna firm of Thesen, but there was no more question of saving either the ship" or her cargo and M. I. MacFarlane, C. L. Schuddingh, Cape Town contractor, and Norman Jeffes, who had bought the wreck, found that their money had been lost.
In terms of the Law an enquiry began into circumstances of the wreck by a tribunal under the chairmanship of the Chief Magistrate of Cape Town, Mr. J. M. Graham, along with two nautical experts, Capt. G. Cruickshanks and Capt. R. Hardy.
While the acrimonious arguments proceeded additional excitement was caused when another vessel, the "Dacre Castle" under charter to the Elder Dempster Line, was nearly wrecked in the same place.
Repercussions continued for a long time and three years later on November 23, 1937, proceedings began in the Cape Provincial Division of the Supreme Court by the Avenue Shipping Co. Ltd. (which itself was now in Liquidation) against the Administration of the South African Railways & Harbours, as owners and operators of Table Bay Docks and of the country's lighthouses and navigation lights. Mr. Justice A. v.d. Sandt Centlivres was on the Bench and several leaders of the Cape Town Bar were in action, headed by the famous Beauclerk Upington, K.C., with him Harry G. Lawrence (afterwards a member of General Smuts' Cabinet) and Donald B. Molteno, the well-known legislator, on behalf of the Plaintiffs, and W. H. Mars, K.C., with him Frank Reid, K.C., and Graham Duncan for the Railways.
For over three weeks the proceedings continued, providing many columns of reading matter in the Cape Town press, but the main dispute hinged on the action of the Civil Aviation authorities in placing the red warning lights on the masts at Klipheuvel in such a way as to create confusion with those of Table Bay Harbour.
Another major issue was to determine the limits of responsibility of Overseas Communications Ltd., owners of the Wireless Station, and of the S.A.R. & H. Not only did Capt. Mordaunt testify to the care which he himself had taken, but evidence was given by such witnesses as the Signalman in charge of Table Bay Look-out Station and various experts, nautical and other.
As it happened, it was destined to be Upington's last major case. Not till January 25, 1938, did Mr. Justice Centlivres deliver his judgment, which began with these words: "On the night of July 28, 1934, the motor vessel, 'Winton' carrying a valuable cargo of wheat, stranded on the beach at Milnerton in Table Bay and became a total wreck. This event gave rise to six actions, which were consolidated for the purposes of trial. The first two actions are brought by the company, now in voluntary liquidation, which owned the 'Winton'. In each action the owner of the 'Winton' claims the sum of 104 500 pounds, which is said to represent the value of the vessel, together with the freight payable in respect of the cargo carried in the vessel. The remaining four actions are brought by companies which claim to have been the owners of the cargo of wheat carried by the 'Winton' at the time of her stranding, the amount claimed in each case being .42000 pounds. All six actions are grounded on negligence."
At great length and with a vast application of learning, His Lordship analysed the evidence, going back to December 1933 when the first air lights had been installed on the masts. .
"The conclusion," he said, "at which I arrive is that the co-existence of the Breakwater and Milnerton Lights did not constitute a danger to the 'Winton' when she entered Table Bay on the night of July 28, 1934, that in these circumstances there was no negligence on the part of either of the Defendants and that the stranding of the 'Winton' was due solely to the grossly negligent manner in which she was navigated. Judgment must therefore be entered with costs for the Defendants in each of the six cases. "
By this time the "Winton" had completely broken up but even after close on half a century, the memory of the case survives. What is more, shortly after the Second World War, the "Atlantica", a small ship under the Brazilian flag, went ashore very near where the "Winton" was lost. Fortunately she was successfully towed off.
Milnerton Beach now has its own lighthouse to prevent any further such incidents.