News

Collisions and compensation

By Simon Ruppert

Although Francis Capell was a man of 44 years, a call for NSW volunteers to join a campaign to rescue General Gordon at Khartoum filled him with martial spirit.

He enlisted in the battalion that was to be sent to Sudan.

On March 3, 1885, Capell and his battalion embarked aboard the steamer Iberia at Circular Quay.

The steamer left for the Heads at 3.15 pm.

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Accompanying the ship was a flotilla of small boats and the steamer Nemesis, all loaded with well-wishers.

Aboard Nemesis was Francis's wife, Margaret, and their five-year-old son. They had boarded Nemesis to see Capell off on his adventure.

At the Heads, his job done, the captain ordered the engines of Iberia halted so he could disembark.

Mr Capell was on the troopship’s deck to farewell his wife and child.

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Mrs Capell and her son stood on the crowded deck of Nemesis. She held the young child up so that his father could see him.

Nemesis, its engines also stopped, swung closer and closer to the portside of Iberia.

Iberia’s captain realised the danger. He ordered full ahead all engines in an attempt to slip past the drifting ship.

He successfully avoided serious damage to his ship. However, its port lifeboats smashed into the decks of Nemesis.

The impact killed Mrs Capell, her son and Maria Sessle, another woman there to farewell the battalion.

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Mrs Sessle had also been holding up her son to wave farewell to his father, Frederick Sessle. The boy was injured in the collision.

Francis Capell was also injured. His hand had been crushed.

Hand bandaged, he continued on to the ship’s first port. Then he sailed back to Sydney in time to appear at the inquest into the death of his wife and Mrs Sessle.

Capell’s hand refused to heal. Instead, it grew gangrenous.

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Just a month after the funerals of his wife and son at Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery, Capell was buried in the very next row.

After the collision, funds were started to provide for the four remaining Capell children and the two Sessle children. The Sessle fund quickly raised $2000.

However, for reasons not clear at this distance in time, the Capell fund stalled at $100.


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The infant Rugby League held a benefit for the Capells but priced its tickets at 10 cents.

They were too expensive. Few came.

It has been suggested that people were reluctant to contribute to the support of the Capell children because they regarded the collision as an incident of war and therefore expected the colonial government to support the children.

However, that is illogical in view of the money raised for the Sessle children.

By mid-1885, the colonial government agreed that its Patriotic Fund would pay $100 towards the support of the Sessle children and fund an endowment of $200 for each of them.

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It would be paid when they turned 21.

The government also agreed that its Patriotic Fund would invest $1000 for the Capell children.