Oruba (1889) had a service life of 37 years and a rather unusual history. Built as a passenger liner, she was purchased by the Admiralty during WW1 and disguised as a Capital ship to mislead the Germans. After that she was scuttled to act as a breakwater during the Dardanelles campaign. I will refer to her simply as Oruba in the rest of this article.

This article includes information and photos of life on board, and describes an encounter with the highly interesting but disgraced Archduke Leopold of Tuscany - disgraced by his assaulting the future Habsburg Emperor Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 led to the start of WW1.

Oruba at an unknown location. State Library of Victoria H81.85/55 . [7]

Care needs to be taken when looking for images of this vessel as there was another Oruba which started life as Marathon in 1903 and acquired the name in 1920. The 1903 was built with a single funnel though a second dummy funnel was added at a later date. She had a more prominent bridge, a bowsprit and initially four masts - though some images show here with one and eventually two. The Oruba covered on this page was completed in 1889 and always had two funnels - both active.

Basic Data

Item Value
Type Passenger Ship
Registered owners, managers and operators Pacific Steam Navigation Co.
Builders Naval Construction and Armaments Co.
Yard Barrow
Country UK
Yard number 1654
Registry N/K
Official number 96310
Signal letters N/K
Call sign N/K
Classification society N/K
Gross tonnage 5,857
Net tonnage 3,351
Deadweight N/K
Length 131.1 Metres
Overall Length N/K
Breadth 15 Metres
Depth 10.4 Metres
Draught N/K
Engines Single triple-expansion steam engine
Engine builders Naval Construction and Armaments Co.
Works Barrow
Country UK
Boilers N/K
Power 1,030 hp; 7,000 IHP
Propulsion Single screw
Speed 16.5 knots
Cargo capacity N/K
Passenger capacity 1st. Class: 126
2nd Class: 120
3rd Class 400
Crew N/K
An early postcard showing Oruba with four masts. Note the closeness of her funnels. [1]

Career Highlights

Date Event
20 March 1889 Launched by Miss Lucy Ruston at Barrow
1890 Transferred to Orient Line
1906 Transferred to Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.
1914 Purchased by The Admiralty
1 January 1916 Scuttled at Kephalo Bay Mudros.

Service Pre WW1

Arteries of the British Empire

Ships such as Oruba provided the links between Britain and its Empire. Many of the passengers on Oruba would have been emigrating to Australia or New Zealand. Some would have been travelling as servants of the British Empire; others travelling to follow their professional trades or other occupations.

Oruba was built for the Pacific Steam Navigation Co's Britain to Valparaiso service. In 1890 she was transferred to the Orient Line service and sailed from London on 4 July 1890 for Melbourne and Sydney via Suez.

I believe this image is of stationery from Oruba [6]

In February 1906 she was transferred to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. and continued on the Australia service until 16 October 1908 when she commenced her last sailing to Australia. Oruba was the first vessel to use the newly opened Outer Harbour wharf at Port Adelaide. Before this had been built, when the weather was bad, passengers sometimes had to disembark at Semaphore by launch - boarding the launch using a bosun's chair.

A postcard or letter head probably issued around the time Oruba moved to the Royal Mail line [6]

I don't know when they started removing masts from Oruba but by the time of the image below there were only three of them.

Postcard showing Oruba approaching Port Said from the Suez Canal. [6]

And by the time of this image there were only two masts.

Oruba with two masts at an unknown port . [6]

Oruba was later used on the service to Buenos Aires.

Oruba leaving Southampton - date not known to date. [6]

Voyage of the Walters Family in 1893

I am indebted to Angela Walters for the following information and photographs that she discovered during investigation of her ancestors.

Angela’s husband's grandparents and father sailed on Oruba in 1893 whilst returning to England from New Zealand. Grandfather William Charles Flamstead Walters and his wife had gone there in the early 1880s where he had been a Classics master at Christchurch College, Christchurch but he was dismissed despite his popularity. Angela says that there seems to have been a personal "delicate" reason behind this return and she may have more to say about this when her own research is published. Grandfather would later become Professor of Ancient History at King’s and Queen’s Colleges London.

According to Angela, this photo was taken during a "Crossing the line" ceremony. This custom started in the Royal Navy but was later adopted on passenger ships for entertainment. The lady on the left is known only as Mrs. Weir. The lady on the right is Mrs. Ethel Mary Aileen Walters, née Skyring. [3]
This photo was also taken during the "Crossing the line" antics. Mrs. Weir is holding a rope on her lap to the left of the lifebelt, Master Rupert Cavendish Skyring Walters is seated to the right of the lifebelt wearing the Captain's hat/cap and next to him wearing the Union flag as a skirt is his mother, Mrs. Ethel Mary Aileen Walters (née Skyring). The names of others in the group are not known. [3]

Rupert Cavendish Skyring Walters, B.Sc., M.Inst.C.E., M.Inst.W.E., F.G.S. was born at Christchurch, New Zealand on 21 July 1888. He became a Water Engineer and died in Gerrards Cross, England on 19 February 1980. Mrs. Ethel Mary Aileen Walters, née Skyring, was born in Scotland on 22 May 1863 and acted for Ben Greet's Company using the name "Sarah Sarsden". She was the daughter of Major General Francis Skyring, Royal Engineers (1814-1868) and wife of William Charles Flamstead Walters, M.A., Professor of Classical Lit. K.C.L. & of Classics & Ancient History Q.C.L. (1859-1927). She died at Eastbourne on 22 October 1902.

On further examination of the two preceding photographs, I have reached the conclusion that they probably show some kind of on-board entertainment rather than a "Crossing the Line" ceremony as there is no evidence of King Neptune. I would also expect to see nets, tridents, seaweed and other such paraphernalia and maybe people getting wet. It was usual to stage various forms of entertainment during long voyages and passengers would join in the fun. I am no expert on this, but it appears to me that there are two minstrels, a Pierrot (the person in the rather odd pose and a white costume at the back), a Chinaman and maybe Mrs. Ethel Walters is dressed as Britannia. I have no idea what the others are supposed to represent. Goodness knows why they all look so miserable!

This is one of the items from Mrs. Ethel Walter’s autograph book - a Christmas greeting with a picture of a ship in heavy seas. June 1893 - "in the monsoon". [3]

Further Drawings from 1893

Angela kindly provided two more images from this voyage that are described below.

A sketch by Ethel Mary Aileen Walters made on Oruba whilst approaching Gibraltar. Her father Captain Charles Francis Skyring was resident Army engineer at the Gibraltar garrison and his father Major George Skyring, R.A. had died on Gibraltar. His oldest brother was Assistant Surveyor Lt William George Henry Skyring (born 1797) who was on H.M.S. Beagle surveying South America; he later commanded H.M.S. Aetna and was surveying the coast of West Africa but on the 23rd of December 1833 he was murdered by natives on Cape Roxo and his body rescued and buried at sea. Family verbal embroidered history told he had "been eaten by cannibals". [3]
A painting on a leaf - presumably also by Ethel Mary Aileen Walters and made on the same voyage. Sadly it is damaged but it is remarkable that it has survived at all. The background was thought to be Capetown - but as the voyage took the travellers through the Suez Canal, they would not have called there. The ship depicted is not named but it does not resemble Oruba particularly. Probably the artist has just invented the view with her imagination. [3]


Poetry seems to have been a popular way of passing time on board and Angela has sent me examples from this voyage from her family archives.

A song in German written 10 June 1893. I can't make out the signature. [3]
A poem by Ethel Walters and reply by someone with the initials TSH from June 1893. [3]
A poem by Lindsay Day(or possibly May) from 1 July 1893 also written on pre-printed stationery. [3]
A poem by T or J.S. Allen from 3 July 1893. This is written on pre-printed stationery. [3]

Ex-Archduke Leopold of Tuscany

The voyage was made more interesting for the Walters family by the presence on board of Archduke Leopold of Tuscany, (2 December 1868 to 4 July 1935) who was in disgrace and bound for Naples.

Archduke Leopold as a young naval officer before his fall from grace. [3]

Leopold's disgrace resulted from an incident that had occurred on the Austrian Naval ship Elisabeth. Leopold had struck none other than Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Josef von Habsburg-Lothringen, the heir to the Habsburg Monarchy. It seems that there was a quarrel between these two men on the bridge during which Leopold had hit Franz in the face, in front of other crew members, and caused his nose to bleed - an unforgivable insult to the Royal personage. Franz would later become the Emperor Franz Joseph whose assassination led inexorably to the start of WW1.

Drunk and in the wrong as Franz may have been, Leopold's action led inevitably to the end of his social status. If we accept Leopold’s account, Franz Joseph (or F.F. as Leopold referred to him), was vindictive and arranged the termination of his Naval career and social ruination. Leopold renounced his title of Archduke of Tuscany.

Disembarking Elisabeth at Sydney, Leopold left Adelaide on Oruba on a passage to Naples. The end of his royal life was rapidly approaching and in his book "My Life Story: From Archduke to Grocer" - External Ref. #33 he recounts his subsequent life making a living peddling strings of Wienerwurst on the sidewalks of Vienna, selling life insurance, and finally keeping a grocery store. He drew an interesting contrast between his own career and that of Sir Thomas Lipton, saying "while he shot up the social ladder, I shot down". His autobiography is certainly a very interesting read; it is not difficult to see why he did not fit in with the Hapsburgs...

I would very much have liked to have met Leopold and was thinking that anyone with as many names as Archduke Ferdinand needed taking down a peg or two. At least that was the case until I found that Leopold's full style was "His Imperial and Royal Highness Archduke Leopold Ferdinand of Austria, Prince Imperial of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, Prince of Tuscany". But this was modest by comparison with his father whose names were Ferdinand Salvator Maria Joseph Johann Baptist Franz Ludwig Gonzaga Raphael Rainerius Gennarius. And that is without the titles. The Habsburgs were certainly not mean with names and titles whatever their other faults.

In his 1924 book, Leopold says that he travelled “strictly incognito” but he obviously revealed himself to at least some of those on board. He describes his time on Oruba in these terms:

The fact that I travelled strictly incognito enabled me to mix with the rest of the ship’s passengers as one of themselves and how I revelled in the change! Freed from the obligation of having to follow the conventional mode of conduct, expected of a Royal Archduke travelling abroad, I joined in all the usual fun of such voyages, from deck quoits and billiards to flirting with pretty girls. That I should indulge freely in the latter diversion was, of course, only natural for a youth of my age. But even had I been as old as I am today, I would probably have made just the same silly ass of myself. The sea has the power of stirring sex-feeling in even the most orderly and sedate. Throw men and women together aboard a ship and no matter what their age nor how prim and proper they may have been in the past - as to just what may happen, you can never tell. As likely or not, a missionary will be caught kissing a ballet dancer. Why, even on this particular trip on the Oruba, an elderly millionaires who had hitherto been the soul of discretion, confessed to me secretly that she had become enamoured of a cabin-boy!

Leopold apparently wrote his memoirs because he was close to bankruptcy and needed the money. I hope he did well from it; there are plenty of copies of the book available on the second hand market so it must have sold quite well.

From a Walters photo album from the voyage. Ex-Archduke Leopold is believed to be one of the two European men standing at the rear. If so I would guess it is the one on the left holding the instrument that I think is a balalaika. [3]

Leopold became friendly with the Walters party and, during the long voyage, constructed a “four-hander chess board” which is still in the possession of the Walters family. It has his secret mark "H.I. & R.H." (His Imperial & Royal Highness) on one of the sides. Angela Walters has a letter from him dated 4 July 1894 in which he says that he intended to have such a chess board made up but it is not known whether he did so.

Leopold's chessboard. [3]
The chessboard shows an inscribed quotation that had been given to Leopold by William Charles Flamstead Walters and was presumably considered appropriate to Leopold's situation. It is a Latin tag from the 12th Century writer and theologian Walter of Châtillon "Incidit in Scyllam qui vult vitare Charybdim" - "Wanting to avoid Charybdis, he runs into Scylla". This was itself a reference to Homer's Odyssey in which the hero, while rowing through a narrow channel, is threatened by the monsters Charybdis on one side, and Scylla on the other. A modern equivalent would be "between a rock and a hard place". There is also the date - 23rd June 1893 - in Roman numerals. [3]
The chessboard showing Leopold's "H.I. & R.H" marking. [3]
Mrs. Waters signature from the chessboard. [3]
Oruba Oruba
Letter from Leopold to Mr. Walters dated 4 July 1894 in which he says he ordered the chess board - but does not say whether he had actually taken delivery of it. Note the letter bears a crest and he signs himself "Archduke Leopold". [3]
Magnification of Leopold's signature from the above letter. [3]

I can't work out whether Leopold thought he was going to make money out of his new idea for a chessboard or whether he was just amusing himself out of boredom. The letter below and diagram about 'capital positions' probably made sense to him but I can't say I have a clue what he was on about.

Oruba Oruba Oruba Oruba
The above images are Leopold's notes on his chess game. [3]

Archduke Leopold in Later Life

Leopold wrote again to Mr. Walters in 1903 and he expresses his relief at no longer having to watch everything he said because of his position. By this time he was using the name Leopold Wölfling. He was clearly far from impoverished at this time as the letter came from the Continental Hotel in Montreaux.

Oruba Oruba Oruba
The above images are of Leopold's 1903 letter to Mr. Walters. [3]

Leopold's interest in pretty girls was clearly not a one-off matter and even extended to his marrying a dancing girl in July 1903. Actually it seems that "dancing girl" may have been a euphemism for prostitute but, to give Leopold his due, he turned down an offer from his parents of 100,000 florins to leave her and decided to renounce his crown instead. He was obliged to leave Austria and became a Swiss citizen - no doubt welcomed by the gnomes as a result of a 200,000 crowns settlement and an annual income of 20,000 crowns from his parents. He took the name of Leopold Wölfling - from a mountain.

Cutting from the New York Times of 26 July 1903 and reports the marriage of the ex-Archduke to a dancer. [4]
Cutting from the Hobart Mercury from 28 July 1903 reporting the marriage of Leopold to Mdlle. Adamovic [4]

Leopold's allowance from his parents finally stopped at the end of WW1 and he was left to fend for himself. He opened a delicatessen in Vienna and apparently also acted as a tourist guide to make ends meet for a while.

Ex-Archduke Leopold outside his grocery shop in Vienna taken around 1920. [6]

Leopold married two more times in 1907 and 1933 and died on 4 July 1935 in Berlin.

Observations of a Solar Eclipse in 1900

The records of The Royal Society - External Ref. #32 - record that on 9 May 1900, Ralph Copeland, PhD, F.R.A.S, F.R.S.E. left Edinburgh for Santa Pola on the south-east coast of Spain on Oruba . Copeland later completed a report on his observations of the Total Solar Eclipse that took place there on 28 May. It seems that members of the expedition were dropped off by Oruba at Gibraltar - presumably en route for Australia. The expedition leader included in his account his thanks to the managers of the Orient Steam Navigation Company for transporting the telescopes and other astronomical instruments without charge.

He Shot up the Oruba

On May 25 1913, whilst on the South American service, there was a very unpleasant event on board involving a "drink-crazed" passenger called Lionel Cunningham as can be seen from the press report below.

Cutting from the New York Times of 5 June 1913 regarding the shooting incident. [4]

Service in WW1

In late 1914, Winston Churchill - then 1st Lord of the Admiralty - came up with the idea of disguising merchant ships as capital ships to fool the Germans. Overall 14 vessels were converted by Harland and Wolff who fitted wooden additions to the superstructure, dummy guns and funnels etc. Unfortunately the Germans were not fooled and apparently the construction activities were reported in the New York Times. Oruba was purchased by the British Admiralty in 1914 and was modified to look like the super-dreadnaught battleship, HMS Orion.

Cutting from Ships Monthly of July 2011 showing Oruba disguised as HMS Orion [6]

This conversion must have been an interesting challenge as HMS Orion was also 177 Metres in length - some 36 metres longer than Oruba and her beam measurement was 27 Metres compared with Oruba's 15 Metres.


On 1 January 1916 Oruba was scuttled at Mudros (now Moudros) Harbour at Lemnos, Greece as a breakwater. Another account describes her as a 'blockship' but this doesn't really make any sense. Mudros had been taken over by the British to support the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. No further information has been obtained about exactly why this was done but it is presumed that it was an attempt to improve the harbour facilities. An account of the time said a breakwater was "much needed". After the main campaign ended in 1915, Mudros remained the base for blockade of the Dardanelles. Later it was the site of the signing of the armistice between Turkey and the Allies.

Image Credits

  1. From the site owner's postcard collection
  2. Provided to the site owner by an email correspondent who did not know the original source
  3. By courtesy of Angela Walters
  4. By courtesy of the New York Times archive
  5. By courtesy of Ships Monthly.
  6. Source unknown
  7. By courtesy of the State Library of Victoria