The Ovington Court

By Allan Jackson - 24 July 2003

Picture courtesy Mike Rochfort.

The Ovington Court aground on Durban beach on the morning of 26 November 1940.

Interesting note: Since I first posted this picture I have been shown the original which has an undated note on the back saying that the young boy in the foreground is "now our champion jockey". I wonder who he was.


<== Click to view a wallpaper-sized enlargement (1024x767px).

The Ovington Court was a 6000-ton cargo freighter with a crew of 38 which arrived off Durban with a cargo of sugar [worth £22000] from Mauritius sometime before 25 November 1940 and anchored in the outer anchorage together with a large number of other ships which were waiting to gain entry to the port. [So the current situation is nothing new then!!] The ship's anchor dragged that evening at around 6pm in the very heavy surf and the ship began to drift towards the beach which it struck about four hours later.

The Natal Mercury on the 26th November gives a brilliant description of the scene as the ship drifted towards the beach with a searchlight on the Bluff casting a "blue glare, silhouetting the foam-topped waves and bringing the vessel out in relief against the blackness of the sea". So many people arrived at the beach that soldiers and sailors had trouble keeping them from hindering the rescue operation.

The port authorities began to fear that the ship would begin to break up in the heavy surf and it was decided to try and attach a rope to it by means of rockets fired from the beach. The equipment was rushed to the scene and two rockets were fired trailing ropes behind them and both were successfully retrieved and made fast to the ship.

It was then decided by Captain George Linsell [Linsdell??] of the Ovington Court to abandon ship and pack as many of the crew as possible into the two available lifeboats which were to use the two ropes to get themselves safely to shore. The Mercury records that a wave of cheering went up from the beach as the first boat was sighted making its way to the beach where a magnesium flare had been lit by rescue workers.

The first boat landed safely but tragedy struck soon afterwards when the second, and smaller, boat capsized soon after being launched from the ship throwing its 12 occupants into the water. Municipal and voluntary lifesavers and members of the public immediately took to the sea with lifelines and eventually managed to recover all twelve of the victims but four of them later died in Addington Hospital. The Mercury lists the dead as having been cabin boy Gordon Hunter, aged 15, Michael Kennedy, Mahomed Abdoo Shaali and Said Ben Said.

The remaining eight men on the Ovington Court waited out the night on board and were then all brought to shore one by one in a breeches buoy. Following the tradition of the sea, Captain Lindsell was the last person to leave his ship and arrived ashore complete with the ship's monkey in his arms. The monkey's name is not recorded but he apparently managed to get loose during the crossing from the ship but thought better of it when he saw the heavy surf.

There does seem to be a bit of a mystery about why there wasn't enought steam pressure to allow Ovington Court to steam away from the beach. Another issue was raised in the Mercury's leading article on the 27th November which asked the hard question why a tug was not made available in the four or so hours while the Ovington Court was adrift. The writer concluded that an inquiry was needed to determine the responsibility for this and for the unreasonable delays experienced by shipping waiting for bunkers [coal].

Added 7 August 2003:

Owen Coetzer, a former colleague at Natal Newspapers, writing in the Sunday Tribune on July 22, 2001, added a few more details to the story.

  • An SOS radioed from aboard the Ovington Court was received at the Jacobs Naval Station by Radio Officer Bill Titley at 8.11pm.
  • At 8:20pm Captain Harold Yates on the tug T Erickson received instructions from the port office to go to Ovington Court's assistance but to wait until the tug had taken a thick rope aboard.
  • At 8:25pm a huge wave struck Ovington Court and cascaded into the engine room putting out the boiler fires and thus removing her last hope of steaming out of danger.
  • T Ericksen passed through the harbour entrance at 9:40pm. but Captain Yates, believing Ovington Court to be beyond help, returned to the harbour.
  • Captain Linsell radioed the lighthouse keeper on the Bluff at 10:30pm and asked what help he could expect from the shore.He was informed that a rocket apparatus was being sent to try and get a rope aboard the floundering ship.

Several questions still remain unanswered in Owen's account of the wreck including why there wasn't enough steam in the first place, and why the engineroom hatches were open allowing the seawater in.

More Pics - added 14 September 2003

Picture courtesy Janine Anderson.

Picture courtesy Janine Anderson.

Recently I was very fortunate to meet Joan Lousada who was fourteen years old and living with her family in Sandringham on the corner of Gillespie Street and Tyzack Street near South Beach in 1940 and was an eyewitness to some of the events surrounding the wreck of the Ovington Court. She told me that she often used to walk on the beach with her father who had been a seaman before the mast and still took a keen interest in the sea.
She remembers that there were between 30 and 40 ships moored offshore when they took a walk just before dark on the evening of 25 November. She remembers that the surf was exceptionally heavy that night and noticed that one of the ships seemed to be dragging its anchor but her father reassured her that the crew would soon get the ship out of harm's way and they went home to supper.
The Ovington Court ran aground during the night and she said that her family had hurried down to the beach early the next morning to find that ropes (or wires) had been fixed from ship to shore and that the captain was being hauled ashore from the ship in a breeches buoy. The picture at the top of this page was taken by Joan's mother with a Box Brownie camera just as this was happening.

Joan disagrees with the Mercury's report, above, which said that the four victims of the wreck died in Addington Hospital and asserts that at least two bodies were recovered from the beach.

Added - 14 September 2003
Since writing the above I have met Doreen Monckton who remembers going down to the beach the night that the Ovington Court ran aground and she said she could clearly remember cars on the beach shining their headlights out to sea in an attempt to help illuminate the scene.

Added - 31 May 2004
I have had correspondence from Derek John Butler-Briggs who attended the adjacacent Addingtom Primary School at the time of the wreck and who was among the first local kids to swim out to it. He was also on the beach some while later when a heavy sea stove in the ship's side, lifting her rear deck, causing the bridge to collapse.

Added - 26 September 2004
The following picture is undated but must have been taken not long after the wreck.

Picture courtesey Jack Cann

The picture is marked on the reverse:

The Photographer
South Beach, Durban.

<= Click image to view wallpaper-sized enlargement (1024x768px).

Added - 11 June 2006

Picture courtesey Johnny Vassilaros

This photo of the remains of the Ovington Court was taken in about 2004 by Johnny Vassilaros from his paddle ski. Johnny is currently chairman of the Durban Paddle Ski Club, and has also contributed a history of the club which can be viewed here.

The low brown building just off the beach on the left is the former site Addington Primary School whose pupils must have had a grandstand view in the days following the wreck.

<= Click image to view an enlargement.

Added - 22 July 2010

Video courtesey Walton Family

I was recently given a selection of video clips from Durban's past and I have posted the first today. It's of the Ovington Court which ran aground on Addington beach on 25 November 1940.

On the end of the clip is a brief sequence looking from the Umhlanga area back to the harour mouth, and showing the large number of ships waiting to be let into the harbour.


Added - 6 August 2010


An eyewitness account of the events surrounding the Ovington Court wreck has been posted here.


Added - 16 January 2011

A newspaper clipping was received from Patricia Speed about her father Lance Henry Harbour, who rescued three of the Ovington Court's crew. Eagle-eyed readers will note that the name of the vessel is not mentioned in the article. Not naming ships in news stories would have been ususal under wartime conditions.

Lance Henry Harbour

Gallant S.A. Seaman

I wrote yesterday the many brave things had been done on Monday night when a 6000 ton steamer ran aground on Durban Beach.

I am going to tell you now about one of them – the gallantry of a young South African Seaman, Lance Harbour of the Seaward Defence, whose photograph is reproduced in this page.

Seaman Harbour, who hails from East London, rescued three members of the crew from the boiling surf.

Dived From Pipe Line

When one of the lifeboats of the stricken vessel overturned, Harbour dived from the end of a pipe line to rescue one of its occupants who had been knocked unconscious and fractured his leg.

It was a difficult and dangerous task, despite the strong currents and broken surf he succeeded in getting the injured man on to the pipe, along which he was moved, inch by inch to the beach.

Although exhausted, Harbour went back and brought two more men to safety.

"Others Out There"

After his third rescue, Harbour collapsed, and just before losing consciousness he was heard to say "Don't worry about me – there are others out there."

But that was not the end of his adventures. Recovering consciousness in Addington Hospital and realising where he was, Harbour waited until the nurse turned her back, slipped out of the ward, and went back to the beach, where he helped with the rescue work until dawn.

Harbour lost his trousers while rescuing survivors, but the night was dark and in any case, Harbour was far too busy to worry about that.

Added - 29 September 2011

Pic courtesy Pat Sligo.

My informant Pat Sligo has sent in this picture, which was taken by his father a couple of days after the wreck and the stern-mounted gun had been removed.

<= Click image to view enlargement.

Added - 11 December 2018

A further eyewitness account of the aftermath of the wreck has been submitted by Alan Young. He wrote:

At the time, as a seven year old, we; mother and two elder brothers, [father was serving in the army] were living in Westcliffe flats corner West and Cato Streets. This was a short distance from the south beach and each day after school we would go to the beach and stay until dusk.

On the morning of 27th November 1940, much excitement when we learned of the stranding of the Court. Couldn't wait to get home and rush down to the beach to see the action. The stranding, as you point out was due to dragging her anchor and this was due to a tremendous north east gale which had been blowing for a few days.

Eventually the weather settled and, because she lay parallel to the beach she cut a path in the surf and it was possible to walk out calf deep to the ship although close up the wave action had scoured a deep trench a few metres wide. I was too scared, but many people including my brothers were swimming around to the sea side of the vessel and climbing aboard via a rope ladder. Someone pulled out a large bunk draw, tossed it overboard and used it as a canoe to paddle around the ship! All this was great fun for many but it could be dangerous because of the slippery sloping deck and a number of people fell and hurt themselves.

A few weeks later a south west gale came through and after a few days a huge surf was running. This proceeded to batter the ship relentlessly and we watched from the shore as parts of the superstructure began to fail and be washed overboard culminating in the funnel toppling. Quantities of flotsam were washed ashore amongst which were small caskets of mustard!

As the years went by she slowly settled into the ocean bed but it presented a problem for surfers and swimmers and an unsuccessful attempt was made to dynamite the remains some years later. It also became popular for snorkeling and I recall octopuses being caught on the wreck.

Today, only at extreme spring tides can any remains be seen, a testament to the power of the ocean. Thank you for a wonderful memory jogger.

Kind regards, Alan Young (Durban born and bred)


** A breeches buoy is a device attached to a wire or rope between two points into which people can be fastened and pulled from one point to the other. It is often used for transferring people between ships at sea and as a means of escape from a ship in difficulties.


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