Monday 7 August 2017

The Mythology of the Hambro Tragedy

It is a story woven into the tapestry of the Loch Ness saga, but whether it has anything to do with the monster of said loch has been a matter of debate and speculation. In its own right it is a story worthy of publication - famous sporting wife of rich banking husband dies in a boat explosion on Loch Ness. Four people survive and one does not. Searches were made for the body and divers were sent down into the inky depths of the loch to find and recover the body, but no body was ever found.

Winifred Hambro is shown above and the basic story can be read from a contemporary account in the Yorkshire Post of the 31st August 1932. Mr. Hambro's final act was to erect a memorial to his wife which stands above Glendoe to this day.

Other contemporary sources of the time tell us that the Hambros were likely regular visitors to Loch Ness as an older report from the Inverness Courier (12th August 1930) describes the first trials of a 60mph speedboat by Mr. Hambro. As to the actual search for the body a few days later, we are told of how the Scott II was involved but the search was postponed for a week as stormy weather threw water into the boat's wheelhouse. Ultimately, the search was given up when soundings showed that the depth of the loch 12 feet from the shore was a remarkable 342 feet.

However, after this, more sinister stories began to weave themselves around the tragedy. We're talking about tales of divers being confronted by great cavernous underwater caves and ashen faced divers racing to the surface after being terrified by giant eels. Moreover, there was the question of why Mrs Hambro, an accomplished swimmer, simply disappeared from view? Was she taken by the monster and dragged down to a grisly death?

Heady stuff, but what is fact and what is fiction?


Speedboat Tragedy on Loch Ness 


Lost After Leap from Burning Craft

The body of Mrs. Hambro, wife of Mr. R. O. Hambro, the banker, who lost her life after a speedboat burst into flames on Loch Ness, Inverness-shire, on Sunday, had not been recovered last evening.

Mrs. Hambro and her husband, their two sons and a governess set out for a trip down the Loch in beautiful weather, with Mr. Hambro at the wheel of the speedboat, which was of the most modern type. When they were six miles down the Loch, where it is over 100 feet deep, and when the speedboat was over 40 yards away from shore, there was a loud explosion and the boat burst into flames.

Mr. and Mrs. Hambro, both excellent swimmers and their two sons jumped into the water. The nurse, although a swimmer, decided to stay in the burning boat, which began to drift slowly towards the shore. Mr. Hambro, looked after the two boys and kept them afloat, and he soon swam the 40 yards to the shore.

Mrs Hambro was swimming strongly behind, but before reaching the shore she disappeared. The governess was still in the burning vessel, but when it went near the shore she leaped into the water and ultimately reached the edge. The tragedy was seen from the Inverness-shire side of the Loch, over a mile distant, and Mr. J. M. Kydd. son of Mr. Kydd, of the Invermoriston Hotel, set out in a fast motor-boat to the scene. When he arrived Mr. Hambro, his sons and the governess had reached the shore, but no trace of Mrs. Hambro could be found.

Mr Hambro has been Chairman of Hambros Bank since March 31 last, and is also Managing Director. Mrs. Hambro, was formerly Miss Winifred Martin Smith, a prominent woman golfer. In 1919 she won the Ladies' Parliamentary Handicap, and, with Miss Wethered the "Eve" foursome in 1923. The same year she represented England in the international matches against Scotland. In 1929 she won the Sussex Women's Championship at Cooden Reach. Mrs. Hambro was a member of several well known golf clubs, including Ashdown Forest Ladies' Club, of which she had been captain.

To this we may also attach the report from the Scotsman for August 30th 1932 (the Colonel Lane mentioned just happened to become the author of the first book on the monster):

Details of a speedboat accident which occurred on Loch Ness on Sunday afternoon reached Inverness yesterday. Mrs Hambro, wife of Mr R. O. Hambro, of Glendoe, a shooting lodge above Fort Augustus, was drowned, and her husband, two young sons, and a governess, had a miraculous escape with their lives. 

As the afternoon was sunny, the party left for a run down Loch Ness, which was as placid as a lake. Mr Hambro steered the boat, and when it was speeding along about three miles down the loch, just opposite Invermoriston, there was a loud explosion, and the boat became enveloped in flames. 

Mr Hambro and Mrs Hambro, who were both good swimmers, decided to abandon the boat and swim ashore, a distance of over 100 yards, and at a very deep part of the loch they tied a life belt round the two boys, who were aged 6 and 13 years. Miss Calvert, the governess, decided to remain on the burning vessel. Mr and Mrs Hambro leapt into the water with the two boys, and Mr Hambro, pushing the boys in front of him, was successful in reaching the shore. Mrs Hambro, who was swimming strongly behind, before reaching safety suddenly collapsed and disappeared. 

The boys' governess was still in the boat, which after a bit drifted towards the shore. When the hull got near the rocks she left it, and was able to get to the land. 

The accident was observed on the opposite side of the loch by Lt.-Colonel Lane, Invermoriston, who raised the alarm. Another eye-witness, Mr Ian Kydd, son of the hotel-keeper at Invermoriston, set out in his father's motor boat, but by the time he reached the scene of the tragedy the occupants had reached the shore, all but Mrs Hambro. A search was made, but no trace of her could be found. 

The survivors were later taken aboard Mr Kydd's motor boat, and it recrossed the loch to the Invermoriston side, where the party were quickly conveyed to the hotel. Other boats arrived on the scene. Up till last night a search was being made for Mrs Hambro's body, but without success. The depth of the water where the accident took place is from 150 to 200 feet.

The tragedy has created much pain in the Fort Augustus district, where Mrs Hambro was very popular, and had, when North at the shooting season, taken a keen interest in local activities. She was at a flower show held in Fort Augustus on Saturday.


In his book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others", Rupert Gould picks up on the story two years later addressing the issue of underwater caverns. It seems the Press had publicised comments from divers claiming they had seen such structures, but Gould pooh-poohs the story suspecting the story "emanated from persons who knew very little about diving". One such media story came from a letter by Harold Frere to the Inverness Courier (20th October 1933) in which he states "the divers who looked for Mrs Hambro's body reported that they discovered an overhanging shelf deep down under the loch surface." and it seems this soon became rather more cavernous.

However, the matter is not too difficult to resolve as Paul Harrison tells us in his "The Encyclopaedia of the Loch Ness Monster" that the diver employed by Hambro went down to a depth of 150 feet in pursuit of the body. Since visibility at that depth is virtually nil, it is highly unlikely anything of a cavernous nature would be visible. Of course, one could say that the diver may have inferred the presence of such a gaping maw by feeling his way around. However, tracing out a huge cavern by foot and hand sounds a major task. Nevertheless, the door is left slightly ajar.

Subsequent sonar investigations have not found such caverns, though it is possible the diver did indeed encounter rocky outcrops or overhangs and decided (without going further in) that there was a void beyond. Note that Gould makes no mention of rumours of giant eels, since in 1932 such stories were still in the womb of the yet to be born Nessie story.

Such was the story and rumours in 1934 and the Hambro episode disappeared from view for thirty years as other stories dominated the lore of the loch. By 1969, the story took a new twist when David Cooke in his "The Great Monster Hunt", took up the tale of the Hambros once again.

Cooke had done the rounds of the loch in preparation for his book, picking up stories and collating them for publication. He recounts the tragedy (getting some things wrong such as stating Mrs. Hambro was the only swimmer) and tells us that divers had been sent down by an insurance company to recover not only the body but also valuable pearls Mr. Hambro said his wife was wearing and wished to put a claim against.

Cooke then tells us of divers going down once but coming up with whitened hair refusing to dive again and babbling of giant eels and treacherous currents. Cooke, having tantalised, dismisses the talk about whitened divers and giant eels by again referring to the blackened depths as well as the disorienting effects of not knowing which way is up. He also refers to long ribbons of "clinging slime" at such depths, as if to suggest this could simulate the effect of giant eels brushing past you.

The source of these stories seems clear enough as Cooke says "some people tell that" which suggests he had picked up these from either locals or LNIB people. Nicholas Witchell is his 1974 work, "The Loch Ness Story", says pretty much the same thing but excludes references to giant eels.

A year later, Tim Dinsdale wrote of the Hambro story in his book, "Project Water Horse" and acknowledged the wild swings in this story, citing a dozen variations he was aware of. Tim had got in contact with an elderly Highlander who had a relative that was in service at the Glendoe Lodge  when the Hambros were living there and recounted a story similar to the one quoted from the Yorkshire Post above. He added that Mrs. Hambro "just disappeared, suddenly and without sound or splashing".

However (unlike Tim's musings about the death of speed boater John Cobb), he ascribes no cryptozoological suspicions to this, citing the icy cold water as that which dragged her down. The story of the unnerved divers is again ascribed to the blackness of the darkness that surprised them.

Now quite where the story of giant eels came from is not seen in any primary source and I will assume for now it was more likely the speculations of 1960s monster hunters rather than any direct report from divers.


But what about the idea that Mrs. Hambro herself was the victim of a large, unknown animal? I don't see that quoted or discussed in the list of books I consulted (though that does not preclude it lying in the corner of some book somewhere) and wonder if it is more the product of the Internet age, finding its origin in some article or discussion forum?

Be that as it may, is there any merit to this idea? Clearly, there is no direct evidence of such a thing but, on examining the original reports for the first time, several questions were raised in my mind. Firstly, Mrs. Hambro was evidently an athletic woman and a capable swimmer. How did she not manage to swim the forty yards to shore? Indeed it seems she was only a few yards from shore when she sank.

Tim Dinsdale above talks of her succumbing to the cold waters and I accept that finding yourself in the loch is a life threatening situation if you do not get yourself out within 30 minutes (as attested to in this modern report of a rescue). But in that case how did her six and thirteen year old sons and Mr. Hambro escape this predicament?

Also, if she did get into trouble, she was near her family swimming as a group towards shore, how did they not manage to come to her aid? After all, people do not simply sink like a stone.

Moreover, what was it the governess, Miss Calvert, saw that made her decide the better option was to stay on a burning boat rather than swim to shore (she is also described as a swimmer)? Surely an odd choice given the circumstances. If only one could talk to Miss Calvert today and clear up this matter as I regard her as the main witness to these unfortunate events (perhaps a coroner's report exists somewhere).

Of course, none of this proves a large creature was involved and we may rather speculate that Mrs. Hambro suffered a heart attack due to a cold shock which would seal her fate. That seems unlikely given her youth and athleticism, but again, one would say that this is less unlikely than being dragged underwater to your death by a thirty foot predator.

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  1. Looking at the clothes women wore in the 30s it's no wonder Mrs Hambro drowned, she may have been a good swimmer in a bathing costume but not fully dressed.

    1. Olaf Hambro was 46 years old at the time and was trying to guide two frightened boys to safety. I would expect him to drown more than his wife.

  2. We had an Iron Man athlete turn up to swim with us at Dores around September time last year.

    Tipped up full of bravado with all the gear and asked if our route was going to be across to the far bank (around Wellington layby) and back again (total distance approx 4km there and back)? He seemed bemused when we told him it was only round the set of orange buoys we showed him (total distance around 1km all in)

    Anyway, this guy was a strong athlete and very experienced open-water swimmer. He got out about 50 metres and totally freaked out. The cold, the darkness and the drop-off completely threw him.

    It took me the best part of an hour to coax him back onto the beach. He kept stopping to tread water and was getting colder and colder.

    When he eventually got back to the beach he collapsed on the shingle just outside Steve Felthams van and started crying real tears.

    He has never come back to the loch to swim. He said in all his years of swimming in open water it's the closest he's come to feeling in real danger. I've since swum with him a few times elsewhere and he's a stronger swimmer than I am.

    My point is - pay no attention to how strong an athlete or swimmer Mrs Hambro supposedly was. Getting plunged into deep, dark and cold water can throw the best of us.

    1. Point taken, RP. But three made it, one did not. What did they have that the other did not?

    2. We'll never know.

      There was a similar incident off the coast of Gairloch a few years back. A couple of dads out in a kayak with 3 kids. Relatively close to shore.

      The kayak overturned. All made it to shore bar one of the dads, again apparently a strong swimmer, whose body was never found.

      I guess the overwhelming shock of finding yourself in that kind of scenario can affect everyone differently, and can overwhelm even those perceived to be the strong one of the party.

    3. RP McMurphy, did the swimmer explain what he felt in the water and why he took so long to come back in? Was it panic due to the knowledge that the loch bed was hundreds of feet down or was there more to it? Thank you.

    4. As it happens, I was at the picnic site south of Dores two days ago. A group of Polish people were lunching (disposable barbecues) and one woman and two men went swimming. I guess each of them reached 50 metres out, with no sign of distress at all. My guess is that as the Prof. says, her clothing was a factor.

    5. The account says it was a fine day, so I would guess clothing was not exactly onerous.

      I would also say she was only perhaps 4 yards from the shore when she disappeared. The psychology of deep, dark water becomes outbalanced by the psychology of a fast approaching safe haven ...

    6. GB Have you ever tried swimming (breast stroke/crawl) in a dress/long skirt? Waterlogged clothes could add around 10lbs in weight that would be 2 bags of spuds.

      I would imagine the males wore shirts and trousers giving a lot more bodily movement in the water.

    7. The plain fact of the matter is we don't know what she was wearing. I would imagine upper class women had a more varied wardrobe to choose from for various holiday situations.

    8. Will Souter - he said he just found the combination of the dark and cold overwhelming.

      David Evans - the point of my story is that, while plenty of folk swim in the loch quite happily, that doesn't mean everyone will, and fitness and experience isn't necessarily a good gauge of who will and won't find it a struggle.

      Roland - Am I also right in saying that of the Hambros that went in the water - 2 were in some sort of lifevests (the kids) and it's inferred the father had hands-on them, therefore de facto in contact with a buoyancy aid himself?

      Therefore Mrs H was the only one in the water unaided. Is that correct?

    9. Yes, the kids used life belts/jackets.

    10. RP McMurphy, thank you for your reply. My assumption is that the darkness he didn't like was the peat-stained Loch water, is that correct? I can understand that feeling. The loch water doesn't look quite normal compared to that found in most lakes. It's curious that the swimmer became disoriented and unable to remove himself from an unpleasant situation. A strong swimmer too. It would be interesting to speak to the man but I gather you'd not have any contact details for him?

    11. I do, but he's a bit embarrassed by the whole thing and would likely take not too kindly to discovering I'd been talking about his episode on an Internet forum.

      Let's leave him anonymous I think ;-)

  3. Frere? Any relation to Richard?

  4. This is one year before the monster sightings began in force which should eliminate the thoughts ( terror ) of a really large possible aquatic predator lurking in the water. That thought would make some people paralysed in the water plus the dark and cold aspect. This was not the case.
    Would an ROV have any chance of finding skeletal remains ? It is odd that a woman known to be a good swimmer just vanished so quickly...

    1. Good question, especially if there are some rather expensive jewelry potentially with the body. However, it seems we are talking at least 340ft down, can't see a ROV being any use at all. Even that sonar missile that found the nessie prop would struggle.

      I would guess at a silting rate of 1mm/year that is about 8cm of silt, so some of the skeleton should still be visible.

    2. The waterbull grabbed her legs,pulled her down and swallowed her...Or the waterhorse pulled her down for snacking later,or the horse eels grabbed her.Remember the loch may have more than one monster species.
      I feel mrs Hambro wasn't eaten in vain,( cycle of life) rip.

  5. As GB established rather convincingly in his book, the loch did have a reputation with the locals for harboring something unusual even before the Nessie business captured the public's imagination in 1933. I can't help but wonder if the governess was a local lass, knew of the Loch's reputation, and that was why she elected to stay in the boat rather than get in the water. We'll never know.

    1. Yeah paddy the kelpie stories surrounding Loch Ness existed amongst the locals and without any doubt locals did know of a strange beastie in the loch. The lore of the loch monster couldn't be enough to prefer remaining on a flaming boat though?? Not even if you believed 100% in Nessie! If you're feeling heat from the flames and tasting the smoke onboard a burning boat yet the monster keeps you from swimming to a shore that is not far away ( although a cold swim ) then you must really have heard directly from eyewitnesses and be convinced. What a story the survivors would tell...

      Would anybody believing in a monster in the loch who would choose to remain on a boat in flames even board a small vessel at all ?

    2. Who knows, but for sure it was no small fire as the boat eventually sank.

  6. Probably told to go out there and look busy.

  7. There are some discrepancies in the two accounts: Was the distance to the shore 40 yards or 100 yards?

    1. I was always under the impression it was more like 100 yards.

      But even 40 is an intimidating distance from shore when you are fearing for your children and probably suffering from a degree of shock.

    2. I wouldn't swim in Loch Ness for love or money. A burning boat would be about the only thing that could get me to swim in that body of water. And once in I'd turn into Johnny Weissmuller until I reached the shore!

  8. Shades of henry murdoch

  9. I have always wondered if this incident was the basis of the TV episode The Convenient Monster in the Saint series, starring Roger Moore. I remember seeing it as a teenager in the 70's.

  10. I recently watched a video of a man drowning.Believe me,he did splash and flail about,its no myth.
    Now an apex predator would quickly pull its victim quickly and silently under,as indians watched ogopogo pull a horse by its nose under when it tried to drink from lake okanagan.It was silent and swift.henry murdoch included.

  11. In British Columbia and Alberta there are many lakes fed by glacial waters coming down from the mountains, these lakes are chilly even in mid summer heat. People have often jumped in those lakes in hot weather to cool off not knowing they are going from heat to cold - immediately !
    This stuns people and they sometimes have the sensation of losing their breathe as the body is in shock.
    The Hambro incident occurred in August which means it could have been a fairly warm day, maybe the Lochs chilly temperature had an impact on Mrs. Hambro and seized her muscles. Very unfortunate for the family, must have been horrible for them.
    I'm a swimmer and love the water, I never decline a jump into a lake or ocean. When I dipped a foot into Loch Ness before a swim my first thought was " HOLY @#%* " that water is quite cold.

    Thinking of Robert Badger and his underwater sighting of what had to be Nessie what he saw was enough to frighten the hell out of him. Something big enough to easily pull a human down from the surface.

    1. Mr Badger came across as entirely sincere when describing what was underwater. I can't say I'd swim in Loch Ness. I'd feel very uncomfortable doing so.

  12. If the creature attacked, dragged down and ate the swimming woman, wouldn't these creature be doing such predatory behaviour on a regular basis (which they don't seem to be)?

    1. Yes, I covered that elsewhere. So, an attack looks unlikely. A creature brushing past her underwater would have dire effect though.

  13. A former colleague worked on ferries between Northern Ireland and Scotland told me his co-workers threw him into the water on his birthday, in the summer months. He was unprepared, and he told me within a minute he was struggling, no doubt due to the heat leaving his body quickly (even in the summer months the sea is considerably colder that your body and therefore there is a constant flow of heat from hot to cold). Loch Ness is pretty cold all year round I believe. The poor woman maybe succumbed to physics, pure and simple. Why it didn't effect her family the same way is unknown to me, as kids would lose heat quicker.
    As we cool below a certain temperature, our brain chemistry does not operate in the same manner (as chemical reaction rates are proportional to temperature), and therefore out ability to control our limbs diminishes. We also can't think coherently. And maybe some folks are effective more than others. It sounds like something the military would have experimented with, people's tolerances of cold water.

  14. There's another possibility that could account for Mrs. Hambro's sudden disappearance: Cramps.

  15. My colleague was a pretty fit guy. He couldn't believe the effect that the water temperature had on him, and presumably at that time of year, it was considerably higher than the one you quoted for Loch Ness. It hit him pretty quickly. As far as I remember, they had to fish him out as he went into some kind of thermal shock. It's not what someone would expect during the summer, but the sea (or Loch Ness) is a much bigger system than we are. It just keeps taking heat due to the difference in temperature of our bodies and the system itself. The equilibrium it reaches is far below our own body temperature, so the system keeps taking. I don't think everyone reacts the same way either. I have 3 children and one always got much colder than the others. It's funny, he's the fittest as well.

  16. John, some of your comments are getting ridiculous!

  17. One factor that has not been mentioned before is that the Hambros had 3 sons not 2. Perhaps the governess stayed in the burning boat to look after the third boy-he was not one of those in the water by all accounts. Why was he not with the rest of the family? Would there be a Procurator Fiscal's (coroner's) report if no body was found? Would the whole thing have been hushed up if the explosion actually killed her? A quick search for online biogs indicates that while Winifred Emily Ridley-Smith is mentioned as the wife of Ronald Olaf Hambro her "drowning" is not mentioned. The whole thing seems a bit fishy to me and the deeper one looks into it the murkier it becomes and I'm not talking about the Loch! If only Hercule Poirot had been there...