The steamer SS Ercolano plied the waters of the Mediterranean in the 1850s. On April 24, 1854 the ship left Genoa at 2:00 PM on April 24, 1854 bound for Marseilles with eighty passengers. Passenger Captain Edward Knight boarded the ship with his wife, Charlotte Owen Harris (a member of the Harris family of Eldon House in London, Ontario). Edward Knight later wrote that he had seen his wife and two very young sons, Edward and Robert, to bed “early before dark and I went to see them several times. The last time was about half past nine o’clock.” Fellow passenger Sir Robert Peel, 3rd Baronet explained that “The weather was rough, and the ship was rolling, my carriage for safety was placed in the middle of the vessel. Though I had a cabin I did not go down to it, but remained on deck, and I will never forget one poor little child, how merrily it sang and dance round the deck. The little fellow was lost, together was his father, two brothers, and others of the family.” The storm increased in ferocity and those aboard could make out the shoreline about twelve miles away near Villafranca. One passenger—possibly M. Samson—later reported that “After having supped with Sir Robert Peel, I went on deck to smoke a cigar. The night was very dark, and the sea extraordinarily rough. I was walking backwards and forwards, and was astonished at not seeing any one at the helm. The captain was in his cabin. I perceived a light at a certain distance, and I informed the helmsman, who made no reply. I repeated my warning with uneasiness, because it appeared to me that the light was coming towards us." All of a sudden a frightful shock was felt. The masts gave way.” It was about 11:30 PM and Peel, who was seated in his carriage on the main deck, explained “the vessel all of a sudden came into collision with another vessel. The carriage was cut in two, and I was thrown against the bulwarks of the vessel. I recovered from the shock in an instant, but it was a miracle that I was not killed.” The Ercolano had struck the Sicilia. The unnamed individual who had attempted to warn the helmsman got into a boat two sailors were launching and commented “this was how I was saved.” Meanwhile Edward Knight rushed to aid his wife, Charlotte, and their two young sons, but later wrote to his wife’s family “that I could not get there, the deck being crushed down before the door. I broke into the adjoining cabin, but found I could not get through to theirs. I then got a partition from the gentlemen’s cabin and climbed up on deck where I found the maids, one jammed up to the knees, among the ruins on the deck. I put her out and asked where was her mistress. She could not answer but the other maid pointed down into the cabin but only said, you can’t save them, save yourself. I then began tearing up the ruins of the deck to get down into the cabin, but the lantern went out and the next moment as I was moving a piece of timber fell from above and took off my left thumb at the first joint. I tied my neck handkerchief around it then finding that the ship was all broken up amid and the remains of the deck w[h]ere I was only being just above water and seeing no more of the maids I went toward the quarter deck. As I got there all the remaining persons at that end of the ship jumped overboard, except one . . .” Charlotte Knight, the two young sons, and the servants were all lost. Another ten English passengers were lost as well. In addition to Edward Knight and Sir Robert Peel three other English men were among the survivors. In all about thirty-six passengers and twelve crew members were lost. Two survivors were later plucked from the wreckage near Nice.
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