THIS is the amazing story of John Judge — a story of despair, courage in abundance, elation, salvation, and eventual heartache.
He was born in Passage West to Samuel Judge and Mary King — hence the family story that a Judge did indeed marry a King!
Samuel was born in 1845 and he and Mary wed on August 14, 1869, when they were both 24, at St Mary’s RC Church in Passage West. Samuel was a shipwright, as was Mary’s father George King, so the sea was in John’s blood.
Born in 1873, John was the second child in a family of six. Tragically, his twin brothers, Edward and Samuel, died of illness at seven months old when John was a toddler, and another brother, George, died at birth when John was eight.
In 1907, aged 33, John Judge was a sailor on a ship called The Dundonald, a four-masted steel barque. On February 17, it set sail from Sydney, Australia, bound for Falmouth in Cornwall with a cargo of wheat.
Before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, this entailed hitching a ride east on the ‘Roaring Forties’, the strong westerly winds south of the Equator.
However, just over a fortnight into the voyage, on March 7, disaster struck when the ship was forced onto rocks in a storm and sank on the west coast of the intriguingly-named Disappointment Island.
This uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean is almost 300 miles south of New Zealand’s South Island, and five miles north-west of the larger, but also uninhabited, Auckland Island. It is thought to have got its name from its disappointing lack of resources, or from the fact so many ships were wrecked there.
Disappointment was an under-statement for John Judge and the 15 other survivors of The Dundonald, who managed to scale the rocks to access the island. Devastation more like.
Twelve of their colleagues had drowned, including Captain JT Thornburn and his son, James. One man, Walter Low, actually made the shore but slipped off the cliff back into the sea and was never seen again
Astonishingly, Corkman Judge and his crew-mates lived for more than seven months on the three square miles of Disappointment Island, deep into the southern hemisphere winter.
“For the first three days we ate raw mollymawks (a type of albatross) until our supply of matches dried out enough to light a fire,” recalled John. “We managed to keep the same fire going for our stay on the island — a barren outcrop with limited supplies of timber — while constantly being bombarded by storms that struck the island.
“We managed to dig into the ground and roof the hole with sod to make shelter. Our clothes and tools mainly came from salvaged materials from the wreck or from seals and the limited number of trees.”
Sadly, their number was cut to 15 when the mate Jabez Peters died of exposure on March 25. He was buried in the sand.
The crew realised they had finite resources and were aware of a depot on nearby Auckland Island, containing food and supplies in the event of a shipwreck.
John said: “All the islands had depots, except it appears for Disappointment Island, because it was felt nobody would be able to scale the rocks to gain access.”
The men managed to build a coracle, a small boat, using oars from branches, but their first few attempts to sail the five miles to Auckland Island failed.
However, this Cork version of famous castaway Robinson Crusoe and his 14 Man Fridays eventually managed to escape their island prison in October.
“We landed on Auckland Island and four men hiked their way through rough terrain to reach Port Ross (a natural harbour), where they located the food depot and a boat,” said John.
They erected a flag at half-mast to indicate a shipwrecked crew to passing boats. Then they waited...
Their patience was rewarded on November 16, when, as luck would have it, an Antarctic scientific expedition dropped by Auckland Island. Captain John Bollons and the NZGSS Hinemoa had called into the harbour to refresh, saw the half-mast flag, and launched a boat to find the castaways.
The Hinemoa carried on with its expedition and left extra supplies and a cook to look after the castaways until its return two weeks later.
The scientists recognised the significance of the coracle the men had used to escape Disappointment Island. “They asked us to bring it with us and it was later exhibited at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch to raise money to help us get back home to Ireland,” said Judge. The coracle is still on display there to this day.
The crew of The Dundonald finally got to Bluff, the southernmost town in mainland New Zealand, at the end of 1907. John then sat down on January 1, 1908, to write a letter to his mother Mary, his brother Arthur and older sister Minnie. He started off: “Dear Mother, I don’t know if this is going to find you dead or alive for I am only half alive and have been very unlucky.”
John went on to explain how he had been on night watch on March 7 when his ship went down. “I came on deck at midnight, the other watch went down below. Little did they think it would be their last sleep and they would be battling for their lives in a half-hour.
“At 12.40am land loomed right up in front of us, the seas breaking mountains high on the tall cliffs. Here we were looking death straight in the face.
“In ten minutes, she struck (the rocks), some of us got washed to the fore rigging after she went down. I got on the mast when I got there. I was nearly drowned, my eyes rolling in my head. I lashed myself to the mast. I was there all night, till day. To hear the shouts of the drowning was frightful amid the roars of the sea on the rocks.
“I was on the forecastle head clutching the rial when she went from under my feet. I was sucked down and was washing around for a long time, swallowing the seas, a-longing for the end, when at last I caught the rigging.
“I could hear and see some poor fellows for a long time, some hanging to some rope, then the water would cover them, and you could hear the cries getting weaker all the time.
“At daylight, I saw one man was up on the cliffs. How he got there is a mystery. We threw him a rope and he made it fast ashore, we made the other end fast to the fore gallant yard and climbed ashore up in mid-air.
“When we got ashore, we found 12 were drowned. What a queer lot we were — no boots, no coats, no caps and on an island no man had ever put foot on before.
“We started eating grass or anything we could get out of the ground. We thought we came ashore here to die after all, but no, we soon found albatross and mollymawks hatching in their nests and started on them, eating them raw for some days before we found a few matches in our clothes.
“We were sleeping in our wet clothes for four days before we got sun to dry them, sleeping on the surface of the ground.
“After a month, we started to make holes in the ground. We got some sticks put over for a roof and some grass put over that and we found it used to keep the rain and storms off us, but it was sinful cold inside the damp walls and no covering, we lined the walls with grass.
“From the skins of the birds, we made caps and socks, and after a while we got some seals and made blankets and boots and were getting on fine.
“Then we lived here on this island for seven months and eight days, eating seals and putting our heads in a pool of water to drink. When you want soup, tea or coffee, it is hard that.”
John went on to describe how the men built their boat.
“We had a piece of canvas and got some crooked wood, lashed them together with rope we made from grass and a few rope yarns we had, then we sowed the canvas around her, and the boat was made.
“The canvas we sowed with its own thread and needles made out of bones from birds.”
The Corkman recalled how the food depot on Auckland Island also contained clothes and blankets. “Now we had a wash and cut our hair, for we were real wild men then after seven months and a half without taking our shirts off.”
Of the moment the Hinemoa was spotted, he said: “Well, our thoughts then I leave for the reader to judge — we thought our eyes were deceiving us, but there she was, and we gave them three cheers and when they answered our cheers, I thought I’d faint.”
John and his castaways were local celebrities in Bluff. “There is a band promenade at 3 o’clock in our aid,” he wrote. “The people are taking very kindly to us. We are living here in the best hotel — I don’t know who is paying...
“Dear Mother, I can’t write half of our hard time, but you will see all on the papers I send,” concluded the dramatic missive.
John Judge eventually returned home by steamer to Passage West, where he worked for a while as a dock labourer and lived on Cork Street.
He married Kate Mahoney in 1909, and they lived in Liverpool for several years in the 1930s.
Tragically, John was to lose his life at sea after all — and very close to the land of his birth.
On December 5, 1939, he was working on the cargo ship SS Navasota when it was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine 50 miles west of the Fastnet Rock — 37 of the 82 crew were lost and, sadly, this time John was among them. He was listed presumed drowned aged 62.
The author’s wife is related to John Judge, and letters and newspaper cuttings documenting his remarkable life will be donated to the maritime museum in Passage West at the request of the Judge family.