Saved by a Football; PLUS Erik Larson
Shipwreck survivors' soccer salvation; PLUS Erik Larson recommends.
The footballers from Watford FC were crossing the English Channel when their ship’s lookout spotted two lifeboats. It was 7 AM on March 31, 1899, and players from the English Southern League team were aboard the SS Vera on their way to the islands of Jersey and Guernsey for a series of friendly matches. Huddled in the lifeboats were survivors of the wreck of the SS Stella, a passenger steamship that had sunk 15 hours earlier with the loss of 105 lives. The tragedy has become known as the “Titanic of the Channel Islands”. Less well known is the role played by the Watford players in the rescue of the survivors, and the story of how one young victim owed his life to a leather football.
The Stella was wrecked on the Casquets, a group of rocky islets to the west of Alderney. The 250ft passenger ferry was steaming from Southampton to Guernsey through thick banks of fog. It was carrying 147 passengers and 43 crew. Shortly before 4 pm on March 30, passengers heard the foghorn from the Casquets Lighthouse, and the ship’s lookout yelled, “Turn her away!” It was too late – the ship struck the rocks and sank within eight minutes. Only around half of those on board made it into the lifeboats.
Among the survivors was a 14-year-old boy named Bening Arnold, who was travelling with his mother, Emilie, and his 11-year-old brother, Claude. Bening and Claude were playing chess when the ship struck the rocks. The captain, William Reeks, gave the customary order for women and children to be evacuated first. “One of the seamen told us there was no danger,” Bening later recalled. “Consequently, we did not hurry much.”
However, as the ship began to list, the situation became panicked. People rushed for the lifeboats, one of which capsized. Claude became lost in the chaos and, as the last of the boats rowed away from the submerging ship, Bening and Emilie were left behind. Emilie took Bening’s football – which he carried with him everywhere – and tied it around his waist. Then the ship slid beneath the surface, its boiler exploding as it went down.
Bening was sucked down in the vortex of the sinking ship. He recalled feeling as though something was pulling on his feet. But the buoyancy of the football around his waist brought him to the surface, where he struck his head on something and “went blank”. When he awoke, he was clinging to the hull of the capsized lifeboat, along with 13 others. As the waves buffeted the boat, several exhausted survivors lost their grip and slipped under the water. Bening was prevented from following them by fellow passenger Edgar Anderson, who repeatedly “boxed his ears” to keep him awake. Eventually, a massive wave righted the boat, and Bening and the others clambered inside. They sat waist-high in seawater as the boat drifted towards France.
The other lifeboats had drifted in different directions. The two that the SS Vera spotted were recovered with the assistance of the Watford players. One of the 67 survivors on board, WP Harwood, recalled how the players gave up their berths to the freezing and exhausted shipwreck victims and, “during the intervals between their own sea-sickness”, rubbed their frozen arms and legs in an attempt to revive and comfort them, “with happy results”.
“Their self-sacrifice will never be forgotten,” Harwood told the Watford Observer, “and I rejoice to bear testimony to this illustration of the fact that athletes develop not only muscle but heart and character, and in fact all that constitutes manliness. The Watford footballers – God bless them.”
Bening’s lifeboat was recovered by a tugboat off Cherbourg. He was in critical condition, and observers thought that he could not possibly live, but he did eventually recover. He then had to be prevented from taking a rowboat out to sea to search for his brother and mother. Claude’s body was later found floating off Alderney. Emilie’s body was not recovered. Emilie’s husband, Claude and Bening’s father, was awarded £692 in compensation. The wreck of the Stella was located by divers in 1973, upright and intact, 150 feet below the surface of the English Channel.
The Daily Telegraph reported Bening’s story under the headline “Saved by a Football” and called his survival “a remarkable circumstance”. “When he was sucked into the vortex of the sinking steamer,” the newspaper reported, “the football brought him to the surface.” In later life, Bening served in the First World War and attained the rank of Major. He died at sea, near the scene of the Stella disaster. He collapsed while rowing a dinghy out to his yacht off Alderney in May 1955, aged 70.
Back in 1899, the Sporting Life newspaper published a poem credited to “CJM” about Bening Arnold and his football. It ends with the lines: “They cling together, now chums in a mortal strife; Immortal football saved young Arnold’s life.” ⧫
There’s more to be told about Bening Arnold, and particularly his father, who lived to be “the oldest man in England” and also “the oldest man in the world to play bowls”. I’ll return to those claims, and the aftermath of the Stella tragedy, in a subsequent newsletter. As for Watford FC, the present-day team won promotion in April and will play in the English Premier League during the forthcoming 2021-22 season.
Now this week’s recommended section with very special guest Erik Larson:
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Erik Larson is a master of narrative nonfiction. His books immerse the reader in historical worlds filled with rich, rigorously-researched detail. His colourful characters – murderers, inventors, meteorologists – are brought vividly to life, and their narratives are proper page-turners. It’s often said that his books “read like novels”, although they have the distinct advantage of being true. Larson’s best-known book is The Devil in the White City, the gripping tale of serial killer HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. He has also written about the last voyage of the Lusitania (Dead Wake), Hitler’s Berlin (In The Garden of Beasts), the transatlantic chase for the murderous Dr Crippen (Thunderstruck), and the 1900 Galveston hurricane (Isaac’s Storm [a personal favourite]).
In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson places the reader in London during the Blitz — the devastating Nazi bombing campaign of 1940 to 1941 — among the broken bricks and shattered glass, leaking gas and wailing air raid sirens. Winston Churchill had just become Britain’s prime minister. The book tells how he negotiated those impossibly difficult first few months of leadership and how the Churchill family and those closest to them survived almost a year of continuous bombing raids. The book’s title comes from an observation made by Churchill’s private secretary John Colville as he watched a dramatic night-time raid.
Erik Larson was kind enough to tell us about The Splendid and the Vile and offer his own recommendation:
Paul: The Splendid and the Vile is a book about Churchill’s first year of leadership, but it’s also about his family and those around them attempting to survive the devastating and prolonged bombing campaign. What drew you to tell the story of the London Blitz through the experiences of Churchill and his family?
Erik: I did not set out to write about Churchill. I wanted to find out how on earth Londoners managed to survive the German air campaign of 1940-41, which at its peak—the so-called Blitz—included 57 consecutive nights of bombing. At first I thought about trying to find a typical London family; but then I thought, why not write about the quintessential London family, the Churchills, and how they managed to get through the day. With that as my window, I was actually able to find, and say, new things about Churchill in that period. The German campaign happened to coincide perfectly with his first year as prime minister, a narrative gift.
Paul: Can you recommend something like-minded readers might enjoy and tell us why you enjoyed it?
Erik: Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. It's one of those rare books that draw you deeply into another world, and hold you there. Her prose is elegant and spare; her characters beautifully drawn.
Next time: Attacked by Her Python
Thanks to Erik, and thanks to you for reading, subscribing, and sharing. If you think your friends or followers might enjoy this newsletter, please forward it by email or post the link on social media. If you don’t already subscribe, just click on this button — it’s free:
Here’s a Splendid and the Vile-related video by Public Service Broadcasting:
Main sources: Daily Telegraph, 4 April 1899, Watford Observer, 8 April 1899, image from The Graphic, 8 April 1899.