South Shields Local History Group

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Amelia Earhart or South Shields Yemeni Sailors?

SS Norwich City (Photo: Jane Powell)

1929 SS Norwich City Shipwreck
In 1929 the British ship SS Norwich City departed from Melbourne, Australia bound for Vancouver, Canada.  Thirty-five sailors were on board including twenty-five British sailors from Hartlepool, Hull and elsewhere.  Ten Yemeni-Arab sailors, some of whom had settled in the South Shields area, were also on board.  Half way to Honolulu, Hawaii the ship encountered cyclonic weather and ran aground at Gardener Island now known as Nikumaroro Island.

South Pacific Islands (Photo: TIGHAR)

Yemeni Sailors
Many of the Yemeni had lived together in a South Shields boarding house at 132 Commercial Road.  The original building, which has been demolished, was located near modern-day 70 Commercial Road near the Dolly Peel pub.  

(South Tyneside Libraries)

Seamen from Yemen and its neighbouring countries migrated to South Shields during the 19th century up to and after World War 1.  Their jobs on board ships were menial.  The working conditions were poor.  They often laboured in the engine room as fireman, trimmers and donkeyman where it was brutally hot. Their work, and therefore their lives, were not easy.

A barefoot fireman shovelling coal into the boiler of a British Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company steamship, ca. 1900 (Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company Archive)

1937 Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan Disappear
The American woman Amelia Earhart became the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic as well as setting many other aviation records.  In 1937 Amelia, and her navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared in the Pacific region while attempting to circumvent the globe at the equator.  It has been suggested ( Amelia and Fred ended up at Nikumaroro Island.

Kenton Spading, who visited South Shields from the 2nd to the 5th of August 2023 from his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, is the author of a book titled: “Amelia Earhart’s Shoes” which discusses the mystery of the disappearance.  He spent an entire day with South Shields historian Terry Ford exploring the city, interviewing residents and searching for clues about the missing sailors.

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan

The 1940 Bones Discovery
When the Norwich City ran aground in 1929 the island had been uninhabited since approximately the mid-1890s.  It remained uninhabited until December 1938 when the British Western Pacific High Commission (WPHC), including cadet officer Gerald Gallagher, dropped off ten Gilbertese colonists tasked with planting coconut trees.  Gallagher, who attended officer training school at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire east of Blackpool, was overseeing the Pacific Islands Settlement Scheme.

Nikumaroro Island, Formerly Gardner Island

In April 1940, while clearing land, the colonists discovered a human skull/cranium on the Southeast end of Nikumaroro Island and buried it.  Gallagher, visited the site exhumed the skull and recovered twelve additional bones and various artefacts including, quoting Gallagher:

“Part of” [a shoe] “sole” [that] “appears to have been a stoutish waking shoe or heavy sandal”. My conclusion … [that the] shoe was a woman’s… [is] based on the sole of shoe which is almost certainly a woman’s … probably size 10….. Bones look more than four years old to me but there seems to be very slight chance that this may be remains of Amelia Earhardt (sic)”.

The shoe sole, perhaps from a “heavy” sandal, led Gallagher to surmise the castaway could have been a woman and therefore Amelia Earhart.

SS Norwich City shipwrecked on the reef at Nikumaroro Island (Photo by United States Army Air Force)

Gallagher, and other WPHC officers, were cognizant of Earhart’s disappearance due to Earhart’s fame and her husband offering a $2,500 reward, equal to $53,000 today, for news of her whereabouts.

Gallagher shipped the bones to the WPHC headquarters in Fiji.  However, by the time the bones arrived in 1941 Pearl Harbour was only months away.  Soon, the Pacific region was in chaos. The Japanese were jumping from island to island, killing natives, British soldiers and citizens.   During this period the bones were lost.

Kenton Spading, author of the book, Amelia Earhart’s Shoes, suspects they were buried somewhere in Fiji.

Doctor Hoodless Examines the Bones
Before they were lost, Dr. D.W. Hoodless at Fiji’s Central Medical School measured the bones. Kenton discovered the doctor’s forensics report in the British archives at Hanslope.  Kenton’s colleague Dr Richard Jantz, who specializes in human skeletons, re-examined the doctor’s report.  Dr Jantz, with the assistance of forensic image expert Jeff Glickman, went a step further.

Glickman used photographs to approximate the length of Amelia Earhart’s long bones.  Jantz compared her height and bone lengths to Dr. Hoodless’ measurements of the castaway’s bones.

“Earhart’s height and bone measurements approximately matched the bones of the castaway,” said Kenton. “The castaway could have been Amelia Earhart.”

However, since 1998 Kenton has been working on a theory of his own.   He hypothesized the bones belonged to one of the Arab sailors from South Shields or one of the British sailors.  Kenton added: “You’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops to get Amelia Earhart on that island.  What about the Norwich City sailors that were lost that we know were at the island, right?  They’re really good candidates for the bones.”

Saleh Ragee, who resided in South Shields, is so far the most likely candidate for the missing bones

Saleh Ragee

Beginning in 1998 Kenton travelled to England from his home in Minnesota to the British Archives at Kew and Hanslope Park. He located seaman’s cards for some of the lost sailors including the lost South Shields sailors, notes written by Gallagher and Dr. Hoodless’ report.

Said Metanna from South Shields is also a candidate

Said Metanna

Kenton said: “Seaman’s cards were like a drivers licence.   Some contain the sailor’s photograph, their height, eye colour and hair colour.  So I thought if I can get all of the seaman’s cards of the Arab and British sailors I can get their heights and if they are within the range of the castaway’s height I’ve got a castaway candidate.”

After reviewing the cards Kenton found heights for two lost British sailors: Thomas Scott and Francis Sumner and three lost Arab sailors: Saleh Ragee, Said Metanna and Ayed Nair.  From the height measurements on his card, Saleh Ragee at is so far the most likely candidate to be the castaway.

SS Norwich City Crew Members who Perished After the Ship Wreck on Gardner Island, November 29, 1929
 Name   (1)Age  (1)Height (2)Notes
Crew Members Buried on Gardner/Nikumaroro Island
1John James Leslie, Carpenter56(3)(4)  Buried on the Beach on Gardner/Niku Is.
Residence: Regent Street, Hull, UK
2John Thomas Jones30 7/24/18995 ft. 5.25 in.(4)  Buried on Gardner Is. Birthplace: Cogan, Wales
Residence: Cogan. A suburb of Cardiff, Wales.
3One of the Arab’s Below (4)  (4)  One of the Arabs Listed Below was also Buried on the Beach.
Crew Members who Were Missing After the Shipwreck (4)
1James William Horne31??(3)  Birthplace West Hartlepool, UK
Residence: Sandringham Street, Hull, UK
2Thomas E. Scott275 ft. 9 in.+Birthplace: West Hartlepool, UK, 1902
Residence: Hurworth Street, West Hartlepool, UK
3Francis Sumner185 ft. 3 in.Birthplace: Hull, UK, 1911
Residence: Clarence Avenue, Hull, UK
4Redman Yousef23??(3) (4) (5)  Birthplace: Aden, Yemen, 1904, His Central Register CR1 Card height and eye/hair color fields are blank.
Residence 132 Commercial Rd, South Shields
5Saleh Ragee22       or 37?5 ft. 6 in.(4) (5) Birthplace: Aden, Yemen, Ragee’s Central Register Cards (CR1+CR2) list his birth year as 1892 thus age 37. Residence 132 Commercial Rd, South Shields
6Said Metanna295 ft. 4 in.(4) (5)  Birthplace: Aden, Yemen, 1899.
Residence 132 Commercial Rd, South Shields
7Ayed Naif305 ft. 9 in.(4) (5)  Birthplace: Aden, Yemen
Residence 132 Commercial Rd, South Shields
8Ahmed Hassan27??(3) (4) (5) Residence 132 Commercial Rd, South Shields
9Ali Hassan31??(3) (4) (5) Residence: 16 Prince’s Dockside, Hull, UK.
Niku Castaway??5 ft 4 in to 5 ft 11 in5 ft. 6 in. to 5 ft. 8 in is the most likely height estimate for the castaway’s bones. The range in column 3 is the 90% confidence limit for the true average.
Amelia Earhart405 ft. 7 in.Some sources list her height as 5 ft. 8. in.
(1) Source of Name, Sex and Age: Public Record Office (PRO), Kew, England, BT 334/89 92813, “Deaths at Sea 1929-1932”.  With the exception of Ragee, confirmed by Central Register cards.
(2) Source of Height, Eye and Hair Color, Birthday, Place of Birth: PRO, Kew, UK, BT349 and BT350 “Central Index Register [CR] of Seaman, 1918-1941”.
(3) The search for CR cards, in particular CR1 and/or CR10 cards listing height, for Horne, Yousef (CR10), Ahmed Hassan, Ali Hassan and for good measure Leslie, is ongoing.  Searching additional records, such as crew agreements, lists and perhaps Royal Navy records, is ongoing.
(4) In addition to Leslie & Jones 1 of the 6 Arabs above was buried on the beach on Gardner Island. 
(5) A Welsh newspaper listed the address for 5 lost Arabs as: 132 Commercial Road, South Shields, UK (a boarding house). Ali Hassan is listed elsewhere as residing at 16 Prince’s Dockside, Hull, UK.
Crew Agreement for Norwich City showing 132 Commercial Road/Street
Register of Deceased Seamen showing 132 Commercial Road

The search continues for the heights of the British sailor James William Horne, who was born in West Hartlepool and lived on Sandringham Street in Hull, and the heights of the Yemeni Redman Yousef, Amed Hassan, Ali Hassan.

Shoe Parts: Did Gallagher Find a Norwich City Arab’s Sandal?
Gallagher stated the following about the shoe parts he collected which apparently were near the bones:

“[We found] part of [a shoe] sole [that] “appears to have been a stoutish waking shoe or heavy sandal my conclusion … [that the] shoe was a woman’s… [is] based on sole of shoe which is almost certainly a woman’s … probably size 10.”

Five of the lost Norwich City seamen were Arabs from Yemen.  Arab seamen often wore sandals and sometimes went barefoot on board ships.  This was due to economics, Arabic tradition, and the extremely hot conditions below deck in the engine room where they often toiled.  Another reason to wear open sandals or to work barefoot was, for example, to provide a better grip on the decks of dhows and for religious reasons (easier to bath your feet).  Sandals are an essential part of the tradition, religion and lifestyle of Arabic nationals.

Men’s Arabic sandals can have a distinctive look that might appear feminine to the eyes of a westerner such as Gallagher. The soles of Arabic sandals often have elaborate stitching patterns, as do the uppers.  In the Arabic sandals, shown below, note their “feminine” look to the western eye/culture and their thick “heavy” soles.  The soles themselves often have intricate designs sewn into them unlike, say, shower sandals or casual sandals worn by men in the western world.

Traditional Arabic men’s sandal with a fancy stitched sole (Photo Desert Boutique Shop)
Norwich City Crewmen Survivors
1. Captain D. Hamer, Master2. J. Thomas, Chief Officer3. H.C. Lott, Second Officer
4. C.O. Caldeleugh, 3rd Officer5. W. Willis, Chief Engineer6. D.F. Harkness, Apprentice
7. G.B. O’Brien, Apprentice8. D.T. Ross, Apprentice9. T.G. Stephenson, Apprentice
10. P. Stockbridge, Cook11. H. Pearson, Messroom Boy12. G. Bradshaw, Galley Boy
13. J.R. Harrison, Boatswain14. G. Islister, A.B.15. A. Walker, A.B.
16. J.C. Hitchcock, A.B.17. A. Leiper, A.B.18. H. Rowlands, Second Engineer
19. T. Clark, Wireless Operator20. C. Durant, Cabin Boy21. Cassim Hassan, Donkeyman
22. Abdul Hassin, Fireman23. Mohamed Noss, Fireman24. Abdul Wahab, Fireman
The SS Norwich City sailors signed onto the ship at Hull on August 27, 1929.

Kenton’s Request for Information
“It’d be interesting to know if there are any family members of the sailors still living in the area,” said Kenton. Perhaps they have photographs or other records.  Perhaps they’d be interested to know their loved ones haven’t been forgotten.”

If he can access additional height information or photos of the sailors, Kenton will be able to determine their long bone lengths and get closer to the truth of whether the bones were of a South Shields Yemeni sailor or Amelia Earhart!

If you know anything about any of the men mentioned, about the SS Norwich’s final voyage or would like to assist with research contact Kenton Spading at:

Kenton Spading
Terry Ford

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