News from 1887: Death of Capt Bence


Mark Baber

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MAB note: Bence's death occurred on 14 November, but in the pre-wireless
days of 1887, did not become known in England until Coptic arrived there on
Christmas Eve.

The Times, London, 26 December 1887

SUDDEN DEATH---A painful case of sudden death on board the Shaw, Savill, and
Albion Company's steamship Coptic two days after leaving Wellington was
reported on the arrival of the Coptic in Plymouth Sound on Saturday evening.
The captain of the Coptic, Mr. Robert E. Bence, complained of a severe cold
on the chest two days before the ship left Wellington, and was under medical
treatment for the same. Captain Bence navigated the ship out of harbour
himself on November 12, but went to bed a little earlier than usual that
night, and on the following morning sent for the chief officer and told him
that as he did not feel very well he purposed remaining in bed for a day or
two. At 9 15 p.m. on the 13th the chief officer visited Captain Bence in his
cabin and had a long conversation with him, and he said he was much better.
The chief officer saw Captain Bence again at half-past 12 that night, and he
then complained that he was unable to sleep, but was much better. That was
the last time Captain Bence was seen alive, for shortly before 6 the
following morning his servant found him dead in his cabin. The ship was
stopped and the body buried the same day in lat. 49 31 S., long. 169 43 W.
Deceased,who was a native of Devonshire, leaves a wife and family. [Several
unrelated sentences about the death of a clergyman at the conclusion of
Christmas Day services have not been transcribed.]

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Mark Baber

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Evening Post, Wellington, 6 February 1888
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,
http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspas t?a=p&p=home


The Death of Captain Bence, S.S. Coptic
---
Yesterday's mail brought to a gentleman in this city a letter from one of
the officers of the s.s. Coptic, in which an account is given of the illness
and death of Captain Bence. The writer says:-- "Poor, dear old Captain Bence
is dead and buried. Can you realise it? Had I not been an eye-witness of all
that has passed I could hardly believe it myself. I will endeavour to tell
you all about it, but I am so upset I am afraid it will be but a rambling
account. You know he was not very well the last few days in port, but
neither himself nor anyone else thought much about it. Well, you saw him to
the last on Saturday. When I went on the bridge I said to him, 'You don't
look too well.' He said: 'No. I thought when I got in this New Zealand trade
I should be ail right, but I have suffered from more changes of climate here
this time than ever I did in the Now York trade.' He got the steamer outside
the Heads all right, set the course, and went below and had something to
eat. About 7 p.m. he turned in, saying there was a good clear stretch across
the ocean, and he would lay up for a few days and get all right by the time
we got amongst the ice. On Sunday morning Kempson (chief officer) went to
him and had a talk about ordinary matters of the ship. He said he did not
feel any worse, but complained that he had not shut an eye all night, and
thought he would be better if he could get some sleep. The day passed
without any change. I had a fairly long yarn with him about 7 p.m., and, do
you know, something told me he was a deal worse than any of us knew about,
the doctor and himself included. I saw the doctor about 8, and asked him
what he thought. He said he was pretty bad, but it was only cold, and he
would be all right in a day or two. I said, 'Doctor, that man is worse than
you think. He has got a repetition of what laid him up in the Atlantic
trade, and my idea is he will not get over it.' Little did I think how soon
my words would come true. The doctor said, 'Nonsense; I have just taken his
temperature, which certainly is a little high, but nothing serious.' Monday
morning came, and no visible change. He still complained that he could not
sleep, but his breathing seemed no worse, and, in fact, towards evening
seemed slightly easier. He ate light food throughout, and was regular in all
his habits. At 6 p.m. I saw him, and he said he felt easier, but did not
want to talk much, but liked to listen. I said I would get him a book of
light reading, which might send him to sleep. I did so, and he said it would
do. I then wished him good night, and that was the last time I saw him
alive. Kempson was on deck from 8 p.m. to midnight, and at about a quarter
to 12 it got foggy, so that he rang the stand-by on the telegraph, and
thought he would tell the captain what he had done in case he should hear it
and wonder what was the matter. He went below and found Captain Bence awake
as usual, and, if anything, feeling better. After a few minutes conversation
he wished him good night, and that was the last time he was seen alive. At 7
a.m. next morning the captain's boy went into the cabin and saw him sitting
on the commode with his coat on. Thinking nothing wrong, the boy went
outside and waited about 10 minutes, but, on re-entering, found him still in
the same position, and on speaking to him realised the awful fact that he
was dead. Had it not been for the pallor of his cheeks he would have looked
as if asleep. The hands were not clenched, nor was there a sign of any pain.
His heart must have stopped very suddenly indeed, and it seemed as if he had
dozed off to sleep never to wake again. He must have got up about 1 or 2
o'clock, and died shortly afterwards, for the body was cold at 7. He had
turned up his light and put on his uniform coat when he got up. It was an
awful shock to us all. His worst symptoms seemed those of a severe cold. No
power on earth could have saved him. He many a time told me on the quiet
that the New York doctors told him should he ever have a second dose of what
they were treating him for, he would never get over it. We buried the poor
old man at 4 p.m. It was a solemn sight- one of the most so I have ever
seen- and more than one old salt shed tears. You will understand our
feelings, and, with us, sympathise with his poor wife and five fatherless
girls."

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Mark Baber

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Otago Daily Times, 18 February 1888
Retrieved from the National Library of Australia web site,
http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper


THE LATE CAPTAIN BENCE
---
The many friends of Captain Robert Bence, of the s.s. Coptic, would learn
with regret his sudden death, which took place on the 14th November last,
two days after leaving Wellington for London. After leaving port he was
confined to his room, suffering from a severe cold on his chest. He was
treated by the doctor, who saw him frequently-the last time being at 11 p.m.
on the day previous to his decease. On entering the captain's room at 6.50
a.m. on the 14th November, his servant found him sitting up and quite
motionless. He called the doctor, who found that life had been extinct for
several hours, the immediate cause of death being paralysis of the heart.
The funeral took place at 4 p.m. the same day in the presence of all the
ship's company, the service being read by Mr C. H. Kempson, the chief
officer who after this sad event took command.

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