Sailing ship Modwena

By Allan Jackson - 2005

On Page 6 of my diary I mentioned the sailing vessel Modwena, which had operated out of Durban for a time and then been scuttled nearby. I wrote:

"I was talking about the many shipwrecks which litter the approaches to Durban and about the fact that a goodly number of these were vessels which had outlived their usefulness and been scuttled. A book by Tony Large, In Deep and Troubled Waters [see Sources], which recently came my way mentions one such luckless vessel.
"She was the Modwena and had been the private yacht of sewing machine magnate Mortimer Singer. She was a sailing barque and, when Tony knew her, she was owned by prominent Durbanite T.B. Davis and used for trading between Durban and Madagascar. Tony's father commanded her on his last two seagoing voyages, but she was later paid-off because she was uneconomic.
"Tony remembers seeing her swinging round a buoy near Salisbury Island before she was taken out and scuttled sometime in the early 1930s. Going by a picture I've seen, Modwena was a really pretty ship and it's a great pity she wasn't preserved."

And that's where I thought things would rest until I received a surprising e-mail from Jim Stevens in Canada. He wrote on 26 September 2005:

"I am trying to find out about a schooner named the Modwena. I have a painting of the boat and it is the last one my grandfather Joseph Charles Kingston Stevens sailed on. He emigrated to Canada about 1923 or 1924 I guess. Is there any imformation on it you could pass on?"

I soon passed Jim's message on to Tony Large who sent us copies of pictures he had obtained of Modwena. It isn't entirely clear where or when they were taken.

Pictures courtesy Tony Large - Click images to view enlargements

Jim then wrote the following to Tony and I on 6 October 2005:

"When I was about 10 years old my uncle, who lived with my grandparents had a painting done. I was told it was the last boat my grandfather sailed on. My grand father immigrated to Canada around 1923 to 1925 I am guessing. When my grandparents had passed away the family got into a bit of a tiff over the estate and I didn't see the painting again. My aunt and uncle died and when my cousin was over at their place getting a few things there that belong to him, he saw the painting set to go in the dumpster.
"My grandfather was one hell of a man and loved by anyone who knew him. He was born in 1888 and lived in Penzance, England. He was indentured to be a barber and was one when he came to Canada. I understand his father, my great grandfather owned boats that ran coal or tin from the Penzance area. "

He later sent us a picture of his painting of Modwena.

Picture courtesy Jim Stevens

Tony Large wrote on 29 November 2005:

"I can just give you the bare bones about Modwena. Built in Glasgow in 1908 for a man named Edgar Thornton, he sold her to Mrs Marian Thornton in 1910. I presume she was his wife and I have learned that she was a keen and competent yachtswoman who raced in the English Channel, but not in Modwena. In 1912 Modwena was sold to Sir Mortimer Singer who lived (the family having migrated from the US to England early in the century) in Devon. Singer presumably sailed her in the English Channel as a large yacht until the first war and I gather that she was laid up while the fighting went on.
"After WW One Modwena appears in Durban, owned by TB Davis and now, I'm reasonably sure, registered with Lloyds as a small merchant vessel. I suspect that TB Davis owned and operated her from 1918 to 1924. This has to be the era of your grandfather and my father, and they may well have sailed together. How we'll ever find this out, Heaven knows.
"Just wait on this one. I've got an idea or two but don't hold your breath!
Our relatives took her to Madagascar and Mauritius and at some time she must have run aground for there are records of a Court of Enquiry in South Africa into the 'wreck' of the Modwena in 1924. I have applied to get a copy of these documents. Obviously the 'wreck' didn't sink her for she was sold to Mrs B Davidson, also of Durban and thereafter she is called Strathclyde, is fitted with diesel engines and her occupation is fishing. She must have become uneconomical to run for, as I mentioned before, she was moored in Durban Harbour when I was a boy and my brother remembers her being towed out to sea in or about 1935 and scuttled. As far as I know, Mrs Davidson still owned her then.
"Sir M Singer committed suicide in 1929 and I am looking for his will. I do know that there was a sale of his 'effects' at the large London auction house of Christies in 1931 and I have approached Christies for a catalogue of what was put up for sale. They replied that they do not keep old catalogues. And all for a glimpse of Modwena!
"TB Davis died in 1942 in Durban and I'm informed that his will was simple. What happened to all the memorabilia I cannot guess, but still hope to find out. His children are long dead and I'm slowly finding relatives in the UK and in South Africa, whom I propose to approach."

Tony has since received two pictures of Modwena from the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. They were apparently taken on Southampton Water in 1913. I do not have permission to reproduce them here but she does look like a real beauty.

One additional source of material on Modwena is Windjammer 'Prentice, the memoirs of Captain Vincent Large. The book is the fascinating story of how Vincent went to sea as an apprentice on the sailing vessel Shakespeare and, although the book is largely about his exploits during the two voyages he had aboard Shakespeare, there is a section describing his time aboard Modwena. I'll write that up when I have a minute.


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