On Tuesday 27 October, Paviors’ Upper Warden, Neil Sandberg, gave an illustrated talk for the Paviors Company via Zoom. His subject was the ‘Salvage of the SS Egypt’ which took place in the 1920s. The session was attended by 30 Paviors and their families.
The meeting was opened by the Master, Hugh MacDougald, who also gave a brief eulogy for Past Master Tom Barton, who had recently and suddenly passed away.
The SS Egypt was en route from Tilbury to Bombay when, in dense fog on 20 May 1922, was in collision and sunk off the coast of France. The ship was carrying a cargo of gold and silver bullion with a value of over £200 million at today’s prices. Most of the 350 passengers and crew on board the vessel managed to escape in its lifeboats and were later picked up safely, but 96 unfortunately lost their lives.
The ship was insured through Lloyds of London and Neil Sandberg’s grandfather and great uncle negotiated with Lloyds for the rights to salvage the vessel. Neil’s ancestor, Peter Sandberg, was an entrepreneur and inventor, and engaged an Italian salvage company to undertake the work. However, the ship had sunk in over 60 fathoms of water, which was twice the depth of any previous salvage operation. The wreck was not located until 1930, when one of the ship’s derricks was found when retracting one of the position marker-buoys being used by the salvage team.
The salvage operation made use of an experimental diving pod, designed by Peter Sandberg, that was lowered to the wreck and used to direct a grab that picked up the bullion. The pod had a telephone connection to the salvage vessel, but operated unusually by recycling the air in the pod to scrub it of carbon dioxide. The first step was to use explosives to blast a way down through the various levels of deck to reach and provide access to the bullion cargo-hold. The grab was also innovative as it had an inner and outer section to ensure that none of the salvaged bullion was dropped.
The salvage operation was not completed until 1933, by which time over 98 per cent of the bullion on board the vessel had been recovered. This was a remarkable achievement and no lives were lost during the salvage operation.
Neil was able to provide a very personalized account of the salvage operation, based both on public and family records. His talk was quite fascinating and very interesting. At the conclusion, he was thanked on everyone’s behalf by the Master.
The presentation is now available to watch on by clicking here.