Mystery of the Forth: The forgotten Falkirk sailor who disappeared 111 years ago
The forgotten story, and mysterious death, of a Falkirk sailor has been recalled - 111 years to the day he disappeared.
Captain WIlliam Grosart Brown was the first man to be interred at Grangemouth Cemetery, but the story of how he ended up there has all but vanished with the passing of time.
Now, college communications lecturer, Lorne Grant, has pieced together his final journey which led the Falkirk Herald to dub it “the mystery of the Forth.”
Appropriately, it has been recalled today (March 16), the very date he set sail, never to be seen again in 1910.
It is the second forgotten figure Lorne has researched and brought to a new audience.
In 2019, he pieced together the tragic tale of forgotten Falkirk seafaring hero Henry Ison.
Now he has turned his attention to Captain Brown, a man who set sail from Grangemouth and perished on the Fife coast amid huge mystery.
Lorne said: “It began with a ‘sensational rumour’ – but the ‘Mystery of the Forth’ was only solved when the firth finally gave up its secret.”
This is his story of a man who was laid to rest first in Grangemouth cemetery, officially known as Grandsable Cemetery after the cottage which stood on the grounds in the 19th century.
Captain Brown shares the cemetery with a number of better known Falkirk footballers, as well as Rangers legend George Young, whose headstone can also be found among the rows of granite and sandstone.
The cemetery was also the final resting place for a number of pilots given its proximity to what was then RAF Grangemouth, along with an abnormal number of men who were lost to local mining and shipping incidents.
But the story behind the its first internee continues to fascinate - and Lorne is able to shed more light on why the Herald report his demise as “A Mystery of the Forth.”
William Grosart Brown was born in 1874, the son of a Grangemouth timber merchant.
Living in Wallace Street with wife Christina and daughter Anna, Brown was an experienced ship master, sailing with the Rankine Line between Grangemouth and Rotterdam and, latterly, captaining the steamship Glanmire on its weekly run to Amsterdam.
Brown eventually severed his connection with the firm to put his thorough knowledge of the Forth’s depth, currents and hazards to better use as a maritime pilot, manoeuvring large ships through the firth’s congested waters and in and out of Grangemouth docks.
A special pilot boat would transport him to and from his temporary charges, returning him to the port when the job was done.
On Wednesday March 16, 1910, Captain Brown and his assistant, Moir, left Grangemouth aboard the SS Cape Antibes, his pilot boat shackled to the rear of the ship which was bound for Montevideo with a cargo of coal.
The steamer was scheduled to leave with the morning tide but, owing to the stormy weather, stayed in port until the afternoon when she set out in a fierce gale.
That Saturday’s Falkirk Herald, under the headline ‘Sensational Rumour’, reported that the pilot boat had drifted ashore at Burntisland.
It stated the pilot boat was fully equipped and the oars and rudder were properly lashed inside, giving the impression it had broken loose from the steamer while on tow in the boisterous weather and been washed up on the beach - leaving Brown and Moir on board the Cape Antibes, to be put ashore at its first port of call.
According to the Herald, “Although the incident has been productive of quite a sensation, nothing serious is anticipated.”
By the next day, the mood had changed significantly.
At Flamborough Head, the steamer had signalled all was well and it was then confirmed the statement regarding the pilot boat was false and made in the hope of relieving public anxiety. In fact, its rudder was set and the sail was hanging overboard – the men had been in the boat and oaring for shore.
Finally, a telegram was received from the Cape Antibes in Madeira noting that both men had left the vessel in the vicinity of Burntisland.
All hope was dispelled and the town’s gravest fears were realised. It was concluded that Brown and Moir had lost their lives in the Firth of Forth.
Widespread sympathy was felt for their bereaved families.
The Falkirk Herald reported “Captain Brown’s quiet and unassuming disposition had gained him the respect of the shipping community and he was a popular figure in Grangemouth, as well as a comparatively young man for a pilot at 36.”
His assistant left behind a wife and eight children.
It would be six months before their fate would be confirmed. In late September, Anstruther police contacted their Grangemouth counterparts to say a body had been washed ashore at Crail.
Though unrecognisable after almost eight months in the water, Master’s papers were found in the clothes, including one headed ‘SS Cape Antibes, Firth of Forth, March 16, 1910’.
On the morning of Friday September 30, 1910, three of Brown’s relatives travelled to Crail and identified his body, bringing him home to Grangemouth by train.
He was buried that afternoon at Grandsable, becoming the cemetery’s first internment. Moir’s body was never found.
The Falkirk Herald covered Captain Brown’s funeral, saying it was “of a semi-private nature, the cortege being composed largely of relatives and of the local pilots, who paid their respects to their departed colleague.”
As a final sting in this tale, on October 21, 1915 the SS Cape Antibes was sunk by a mine between Cape Gorodetski and Cape Orloff at the entrance to the White Sea, on a voyage from Barry to Arkhangelsk, with the loss of her six crew.
The mine had been laid four months earlier by SMS Meteor, an auxiliary cruiser in the Imperial German Navy.