The Mystery of the Three Chimneys

From ‘Otago Daily Times’, 7 October 1869.

The special correspondent of the [London] Times who accompanied the Great Eastern during the laying of the French Atlantic Cable, after describing the course which it was intended the cable should take, says :— “This course would have brought the Great Eastern close to the northward of the supposed gaunt spires of rocks called the ‘Three Chimneys,’ and which, as laid down in the Admiralty chart, were confidently believed to exist. When this was mentioned some months ago in the Times, a controversy at once arose in these columns, some naval men utterly denying the existence of these extraordinary rocks; while the other side tendered the evidence of eye-witnesses, who averred that they had actually seen them.


 I.K. Brunel’s Great Eastern laid the French Atlantic telegraph cable in 1869.

The matter is now set at rest, and if ever the ‘Three Chimneys’ had an existence they have none now. The Atlantic cannot afford to lose the small amount of interest which attached to the supposed presence of those solitary peaks, but facts are stubborn things, and it has now been placed beyond a doubt, that they are not to be found, at least in the latitude and longitude in which they appear on the charts. Lieut. Johnstone in the course of his soundings went over the exact spot where they are indicated in the chart, and found more than 2000 fathoms water [12,000 feet], with deep water all around, and not the slightest trace of rock or shoal in any direction. The sooner, therefore, they come out of the Admiralty Map the better, and it would be curious to know how they ever got there at all.”

This mysterious rock formation was first reported by a Captain de Clas Fernel who claimed to have “approached within two leagues of it” on 10th July 1729 and “remained two hours in sight of it.” The position varied on charts and its existence was considered “very doubtful” by the turn of the century.

Then, in 1824, a Mr Heron of Greenock, Scotland, chipped in with – “I am informed by the master of a merchant-vessel that the Chimneys actually exist, for a whole watch as well as himself saw them. They were seen about twilight, and three heads were distinguished. From an observation taken at the preceding noon, it was inferred that their latitude, as laid down on the chart, is very near the truth.”

Captain Roallens of the brig Eagle was quoted in the ‘Nautical Magazine’ for 1843, claiming he saw it in July 1842 from a distance of four miles. “It formed in three distinct points, the highest 80 feet.”

The following year, Captain William Skiddy, in command of the Packet Ship Garrick, “determined, first opportunity, to run for and, if possible, see this danger.” The opportunity came twice, running 10 miles north and 10 south of the supposed position, “having on both occasions clear, beautiful weather” but “nothing could be seen from the royal yard*.”

So the question remains – assuming Fernel, Roallens and the other witnesses hadn’t been raiding the rum locker – what did they see, and where did they see it?

Background information from ‘Memoir of the Dangers and Ice of the North Atlantic Ocean’, George William Blunt, Third Edition, 1848.

*royal yard – the highest yardarm on the main mast.