The SS Gracchus: an ordinary Jarrow-built ship with an extraordinary life

November 29 is the anniversary of the sinking of a Jarrow-built ship with a very colourful history.

The 3,925-ton, 110m-long SS Gracchus was built at the legendary Palmer’s shipyard in Jarrow, and launched into the River Tyne on July 27, 1902. She would be torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine 42 years later.

The launch of the passenger-cargo steamer, attended as usual by the great and good of the time, was reported by the Gazette.

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Our reporter said the ship was: “A finely modelled steel screw steamer built to Lloyds class 100A… 36 first class passenger cabins… all available deck space is arranged for carrying horses…

SS Gracchus, built in Jarrow in 1902, had an extraordinary maritime life. Courtesy of Allan Green.

“Palmer’s are also constructing the triple expansion steam engine… naming was by Mrs Fraser, wife of JS Fraser, representing the owners… refreshments were served in the Model Room following the launch.”

Gracchus was built following an order from Archibald Currie and Co of Melbourne, Australia at a cost of £64,750 – equivalent to around £8.5million in 2021.

Archibald Currie himself was an Australian ship owner, but originally from Ayrshire. He visited Tyneside in 1883 where he made an order from Palmer’s for his first steamer Bucephalus, named after Alexander the Great’s horse.

Mr Currie was described as a “dour Scotch sea captain … who looked as though he had never laughed in his life”. But he must have been pleased by the work done in Jarrow because he later ordered Gracchus – named after a second century BC Roman politician.

Gracchus went into regular trade on Currie’s India/Australia service, with exotic calling ports including Calcutta, Madras, Sydney and Melbourne.

The main cargo out of Australia to India in the days of the Raj was for cavalry horses for the (British) Indian Army. The vessel would return with rice, oil, jute and tea.

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The horses shipped to the cavalry tended to be somewhat spirited. One was referred to, with typical Australian bluntness, as Bill the ******* owing to the steed’s violent lack of cooperation towards his rider.

Then came World War One. In 1917, Gracchus was pressed into service for the Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) as a transport ship.

This deployment triggered an official protest by Germany against the participation of “savage” colonial soldiers in a conflict between “civilised” European nations.

Gracchus was busy transferring horses and men to the new battlefields, where Palestine and other places were freed from centuries of Ottoman rule.

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In 1923, five years after the war, she was sold to the Hashiya Company of Japan, and given the less romantic sounding new name Daiboshi Maru No 6. She was eventually and fatally dragged into Japan’s war effort.

After 21 years service in Japan, and a total of 42 years from launch, she was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine USS Spadefish in the Yellow Sea, off the west coast of Korea, on 29 November 1944, 77 years ago today. This led to the reported deaths of 46 men.

SS Gracchus was not in herself a particularly remarkable ship. But what a life. If she could talk, what a story she would tell – just like many an old sailor.

And it all started in Jarrow’s great shipyard.

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