The Survivor of the 1881 Torpedo Explosion
"James Jasper, who was the only survivor, is an A.B. of the Cerberus, and has been two years in the colonial service. He is a married man, and resides in Williamstown." The Argus, 7 March 1881
Click for larger image of James
Sub-Lieutenant Houston saving James Jasper
Australasian Sketcher, 12 March 1881
In the engraving above, the colour of James Jasper's face, neck and hand suggests that he was of non-European origin.
Barnes was married, but had no children; the rest of the seamen were unmarried, except Jasper, who had a wife and two children.
The Geelong Advertiser, 7 March 1881
James Jasper, aged 25, and an able seaman on board the Cerberus, stated : James Hunter, Harry Timberley, James Wilkie, and myself manned the gig, and took in Mr Groves and Barnes and a 70 lb torpedo attached to a float. Timberley and Wilkie pulled the midship oars, and I pulled the bow one on the port side. The torpedo was in the stern sheets on the starboard side, and Mr Groves held the wire communicating with the ship to keep the strain off it. After backing for about 80 yards, the two men amidships "laid on their oars." The torpedo was then placed over the starboard side by Mr groves, Barnes, and Hunter, but as the oar on the side fouled the wire they leant over to see what was the matter, and endeavoured to clear it. I did not do so, but I looked towards them; and one remarked that if any accident happened I would be safe. Whilst they were trying to extricate the oar the torpedo exploded. I don't remember hearing the report or any other experience until I was in the water. My head seemed to be under severe pressure, but I struck out for the vessel when I found the boat had been smashed, and my shipmates were not to be seen. I soon felt I was losing strength, and had I not been assisted by Mr Houston, I am certain I could never have reached the ship. After he gave me the form he swam to a buoy, nothwitstanding that he was almost exhausted, and kept afloat until he was rescued. I don't know how I can thank him enough. I was kindly treated by the officers and men, but my injuries are not more than a severe shaking, and bruises on my legs and face.
The Geelong Advertiser, 7 March 1881
James Jasper sworn.
Mr. James Jasper 5th April 1881
1535. What are you? - Able seaman
1536. You were in the boat on the 5th of March, with Mr. Groves and others? - Yes.
1537. You were there at the time of the accident? - Yes.
1538. Can you tell us what was in the boat - the torpedo and the firing wire, some of it? - Yes.
1539. Was there anything else you saw - did you see any battery in the boat? - No.
1540. You know a boat battery? - I cannot say I understand it.
1541. You know one when you see one? - Yes.
1542. You did not see one? - No.
1543. Was there anything in the boat of consequence belonging to the torpedo work that you saw ? - I saw nothing.
1544. Was there any conversation of any consequence bearing upon the work you were doing from the time you left the Cerberus til the time the torpedo was put into the water. Did Groves say anything to you or anyone else as to what he was going to do, as to whether they would have to be cautious? - He gave the ordinary directions.
1545-6. Were you pulling an oar? - No.
1547. Where were you sitting? - On the port bow.
1548. You saw the torpedo in the stern sheets? - Yes.
1549. You saw the wire leading from the torpedo to the ship? - Yes.
1550. Which way did it lead - It led from the stern of the boat forward over the oars outside of the gunwale.
1551. Did you see what was the cause of the delay after the torpedo was put over the side? - I saw one of the oars was foul of the torpedo.
1552. In what way was it foul; could you describe it - I could not say which way it was foul.
1553. Did they try to pull the oar in? - Yes, one man tried to clear the oar.
1554. You would be able to see what kind of usage the case had - did it bump against the boat? - No.
1555. Was there no sea on? - Very little.
1556. Was there any poking at the case with a boat-hook or anything ? - When the torpedo was slung, it was slung with what they call a bale-sling. My thumb is supposed to be the torpedo (an illustration) The torpedo ran fore and aft; and the only knock they gave it was alongside the ship; they tightened the strap.
1557. How was that done ? - With the boat-hook; that was before we left the ship's side at all.
1558. Was there no bumping alongside of the boat when it was overboard - was there any blow made at the torpedo when it was in the water to draw it clear or anything ? - Not that I saw.
1559. You would have heard anything like a blow? - I should have seen it; I was looking at it.
1560. Did it appear to you as if the oar was foul of the wire or the sling ? - I could not say how it was foul.
1561. How long a time after the case was overboard do you think elapsed before the explosion took place ? - I should think about a minute or a minute and a half, that was after it was over the side.
1562. When the oar fouled that firing line - do you think that it fouled the firing line or the bight of the firing line seized on the head of the torpedo ? - It was impossible for me to see how it was foul; I know it was foul, because they were trying to clear it when the explosion took place.
1563. Had anybody said anything during this foul ?- Timberly said to me "If anything was to happen, you would be in the best place." Groves said " he would look out that nothing happened until they were clear of it.
1564. Do you think that referred to Mr. Murray? - I cannot say, but I suppose it referred to somebody on board the ship.
1565. Was there anything else in the boat that might cause a contact - you did not see any copper wire about ? - The rowlocks that the oars were pulled at were brass.
1566. There was nothing in the shape of a box or anything that might contain a battery? - Not that I saw.
1567. If there was anything there should you have seen it? - Yes.
1568. Did you see anythng in the shape of a boat battery in the boat? - No. if it had been there, I should have seen it, I should have known it, if I had seen it.
The witness withdrew.
Torpedo Report, 1881, ROBT. S. BRAIN, ACTING GOVERNMENT PRINTER, MELBOURNE.
"The seaman Jasper, the only survivor of the late torpedo accident at Queenscliff, has been offered compensation by the Government. When the Berry Ministry was in office, the Chief Secretary promised Jasper a Government appointment, wherein the duties would not be severe, but Mr, Berry did not fulfil his promise. The matter has since been taken in hand by Mr. Croker, of Anderson and Croker, and that gentleman has so far succeeded that the present Government has promised to place a sum upon the estimates as compensation, and also to consider his claims to the first vacancy which, in his shattered state, he can fill. Jasper has a wife and family dependent upon him for support."
The Argus, 22 September 1881
To James Jasper, sole survivor of the Torpedo accident off Queenscliff, for injuries sustained ..... £250
Victorian Government Gazette, No. DCCXXIV (24 December 1881)
"the bowman, Jasper by name, badly injured. He recovered, but was never again fit for service." Lieutenant G. Prideaux, Spindrift, October 1930.
"One seaman, Jasper, who was in the bow of the boat, escaped with his life, but he was seriously injured. and never really recovered from the effects of the explosion, though he lived several years." Lieutenant G. Prideaux, The West Australian
, 31 July 1937
A man by the name of James Jasper (son of James Jasper), Mariner of Williamstown (born in Porto Bello, Scotland c. 1856) married Mary Ellen Coghill on 15 October 1879.
A man by the name of James Jasper (son of James Jasper) born c. 1856 died in Hepburn, Victoria in 1905.
JASPER.— On the 17th May, at the residence of her mother, Nelson-place, Wllliamstown, Nelly, the beloved wife of James Jasper, and eldest daughter of the late Magnus C. Coghill, aged 22 years 11 months and 17 days.
The Illustrated Australian News, 13 June 1883
The Argus, 5 March 1881