At nine in the morning of 4th June 1853 the sailing vessel Meridian left England from Gravesend Dock for Sydney, Australia. Among the 105 people on board was Rev James Voller, erstwhile pastor of Zion Chapel, Princes End, Tipton. With him was his wife and three children. The ship was barely a year old, was well-built and fast for her size (579 tons). She was described in one account as 'over-masted', that is, capable of maintaining sail appropriate to a much larger vessel. At the time the route to Australia was lucrative and the Meridian carried plenty of cargo (fetching over £4 per ton). The Meridian was commanded by an experienced navigator, Captain Richard Hernaman, described by Mr Voller as 'a captain whose talents and manners admirably fitted him for his position'. There is evidence that the vessel was under-crewed. One account claimed that in addition to the captain and three mates only ten of the 23 crew could be considered as able-seamen and up to the job. This deficiency was to prove significant as matters later transpired.
The first few weeks were uneventful and probably enjoyable for the passengers who were looking forward to a new life in the colonies. Mr Voller and his family were among the 26 cabin passengers, these included Alfred Lutwyche – a barrister – who was later to publish an account of the voyage. In addition, there were 84 steerage passengers and, all told, there were 41 children under 16 on the voyage.
Lutwyche records: 'We were … favoured with one of the finest passages ever that was made, out-sailing everything but a Spanish man-of-war schooner, till we reached the 20th degree of latitude. After that we met with baffling winds, calms, and squalls, and soon afterwards a smart gale ...'
Battling against a fierce storm, the Meridian headed towards two of the remotest islands in the Indian Ocean, St Paul and Amsterdam Island. The exact circumstances are less than clear but it appears that the combination of a navigational error and lack of an adequate watch caused the vessel to hit the rocks outlying Amsterdam Island. It was just before 7:00pm on Wednesday 24th August. Most of the passengers had retired to bed and were unprepared for the sudden disaster. Voller's later recollection was that 'the whole ship seemed to quiver like a leaf in the wind and it literally trembled from stem to stern … accompanied by a fearful crashing noise, as if the ship were in the jaws of some giant monster ...'
Captain Hernaman rushed onto the quarter deck to size the wheel but was swept overboard by a huge wave that swept over the imperilled vessel. He was not seen again. In his account Mr Voller reveals his own thoughts at this crucial point: 'I gave up myself and family for lost … We resigned ourselves to our fate, with a calmness which I can only trace to His mercies who guides our souls in all seasons of peril.'
However, his hopes rose somewhat as the broken ship settled on the rocks. By this point the sea was pouring into the cabins so the passengers were in severe danger. James Voller managed to rescue the captain's wife from her cabin but in doing so almost lost one of his own children: 'the cabin was half filled with water, and the furniture tossed about and broken. I felt under the bed to find my little girl, dreading almost to feel what I expected to find her lifeless and mangled body - … by what seemed to be a special mercy, however, she was entirely unhurt.'
The terrified passengers gathered on the poop deck with the vessel breaking apart under them. Voller records that may people were praying for deliverance: 'some who had probably never prayed before, and whom I had but too often heard cursing and swearing' - he preached to them whilst the storm continued to rage around them. It is amazing that all the passengers survived this part of the ordeal and that none were drowned as tons of water entered the vessel. One of the mates – an ancient mariner, claimed never to have experienced such a sea. As the ship broke up it became imperative to get ashore. But how? There was no obvious means of escaping the sea that roared about them.