The cover shown in Figure 1 has a blue marker that reads “BESCHADIGD DOOR RAMP HARWICH BOOT” (damaged because of disaster with Harwich boat). It concerns a letter from London (U.K.) to Amsterdam. The flaps of the envelope (Figure 2) had become lose, probably because the glue had washed away. However, the apparent contents – one sheet containing a stock market report (See Figure 3) – was glued to the closing flap (by a previous owner, I assume). The sheet was dated February 20, 1907, and there was an Amsterdam arrival marking of February 22, 1907.
A little digging in old newspapers revealed that the s.s. Berlin had crashed on the North Pier at Hoek van Holland during a heavy storm at 5:45 in the morning of February 21. As the ship tried to enter the river, despite a north-western storm with force 11, the Berlin was blown of course and onto the North pier, with the front pointing to the New Waterway and the rear to sea (see Figure 4).
About 90 minutes later the front of the ship broke off and sank. It took most of the passengers with it, as they had fled to that part of the ship because they saw the rescue boats there. Unfortunately, the storm prevented the rescuers from being able to save any of these passengers. A number of survivors huddled on the rear of the ship, and it took more than 24 hours before they could be rescued.
The s.s. Berlin (Figure 5) was a steel ferry, owned by the Great Eastern Railway. The ship was constructed in 1894 in Kingston upon Hull, and measured 1,745 register ton. The ‘Berlin’ had been in use as a ferry between Harwich and Hoek van Holland for the last twelve years.
The disaster with the ‘Berlin’ was in its time a very large, if not the largest shipping disaster, and was the impetus to have all shipping mishaps investigated by the government. The Shipping Act was drafted to facilitate this. The question was raised why Captain Precious and pilot Bronder attempted to enter the harbor despite the ferocious storm and the fact that earlier that night two ships had not dared to enter the New Waterway.
Contemporary newspapers direct some blame to the fact that the ‘Berlin’ carried mail (Figure 6), and that its captain was subject to undue pressure to arrive on time, regardless of the weather conditions. The committee investigating the cause of the disaster observed that the pilot had an advisory role only and that the captain had final authority. The committee accused captain Precious of overconfidence and bad seamanship; he should have kept the ship on sea until the storm had subsided.
An appendix to the report made clear that a degree of carefulness would have been advisable when approaching the New Waterway. This appendix lists 26 British ships that had experienced trouble entering the harbor during the decade preceding the disaster, including two with the ‘Berlin’.
In addition to the marking shown in Figure 1, at least one different type of marking was used on mail recovered from the wreck of the s.s. Berlin. An example is shown in Figure 7. In this case, the marking reads “BESCH. RAMP. S.S. BERLIN” with “BESCH” being an abbreviation for “BESCHADIGD” (damaged).
A Dutch tv program was broadcast in 2007, commemorating the disaster.