Saved by a Football

The Wreck of the Stella
The Wreck of the Stella, The Graphic, April 8 1899, adapted

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 the team’s players were aboard the SS Vera on their way to 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 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, those on board 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. Fewer than half of those on board made it into the lifeboats.

Among the survivors was a 15-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 five 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 of the survivors lost their grip and slipped under the water. Bening was distraught and exhausted. He “wanted to let go” but he was prevented from doing so 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, sitting waist-high in seawater, as it drifted towards France.

Survivors of the Stella disaster
Survivors of the Stella Disaster, Illustrated London News, April 15 1899, adapted

The other lifeboats had drifted in different directions. The two that were spotted by the SS Vera 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 it was 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 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 to the scene of the Stella disaster, collapsing 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.”⧫

*Claude and Bening’s father, also named Bening Arnold, had a long and interesting life. As a boy, Bening Snr ran away from his Essex school and travelled on a barge to London to make his fortune. He worked as an apprentice in the printing trade and claimed to be the first man to print music from set type. He later became a chronometer maker and antique dealer. He was 66 at the time of the Stella disaster. Emilie, 28 years his junior, was his second wife. “The deceased lady was of great assistance to her husband in the business, and was highly accomplished,” noted a counsel at the inquiry into the disaster. “Consequently her death was a great loss to Mr Arnold.” Bening Snr took up lawn bowls at the age of 80 and continued playing for more than two decades. He died in 1930 at the age of 106. At the time of his death, he was believed to be the oldest man in England. His passing was reported in London’s Daily Herald under the headline: “Death of Oldest Man in World to Play Bowls.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Singular Discoveries newsletter.

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Paul Brown

Paul Brown

Writes about history, sport, true crime, adventure. The Guardian, FourFourTwo, Longreads, etc. www.stuffbypaulbrown.com