South Australian Shipwrecks

South Australian Shipwrecks

One of the great hazards for early immigrants was being shipwrecked on the uncharted Australian coast, where guiding beacons were few and far between. After having survived an often terrible voyage of several months on board a crammed sailing ship, many would be wrecked within sight of the Australian, or even South Australian, coast. Australia's worst maritime disaster occurred in August 1845, when the barque Cataraqui, bound for Melbourne with 375 migrants and 38 crew struck a reef in Bass Strait. There were only nine survivors.

The Ethel

Well over 800 ships have been wrecked along South Australia's coastline, including passenger, cargo, whaling and fishing vessels. Most of the passenger and cargo ships came to grief during their approaches to Kangaroo Island, St Vincent Gulf and at the bases of Fleurieu and Yorke Peninsulas. The majority of the accidents occurred between 1865 and 1910. During these years numerous ships would arrive at Port Adelaide from England and Europe bringing food, manufactured goods and most of all migrants. At the same time there was the coastal trade between Robe, Kangaroo Island, the three South Australian Peninsulas, Perth and Hobart. Many came to grief near the Port MacDonnell area on their way to, or from Melbourne.

The vast number of ships that went aground during these years were sailingships. Many were wrecked because of inadequate knowledge or charts, poor navigation skills or handling but also as a result of the unpredictable seas and weather. At the same time there were also a number of steamers that went down, including a large number of paddlesteamers which were wrecked in the Murray River, particularly between the early 1860s and the late 1880s.

The first known vessel to sink in South Australian waters was the cutter from Matthew Flinders' Investigator in 1802. Eight men were lost and Flinders named the headland Cape Catastrophe. One of the most notorious shipwrecks occurred near Cape Jaffa. In 1840, the 136 ton brig Maria left Port Adelaide for Hobart with twenty-seven passengers and crew. After having experienced some shocking weather she was forced onto the beach but everyone came ashore safely. When they set out for Encounter Bay they were attacked and killed by the local Aborigines. Some of the bodies were only later discovered by Inspector Pullen of the Mounted Police.

This was followed in 1847 by the William and in 1848 by the sinking of the Tigress. This two-masted 225 ton wooden brig, built in 1840, also was the victim of gale-force winds. Having left Scotland with a cargo of fire bricks and a general cargo of books, food, drinks, bottles, clothing and building supplies it had barely reached South Australia when disaster struck. During the evening of 26 September a gale blew and she was swept onto a reef south of the Onkaparinga River. Next morning several attempts were made to reach the shore during which both Captain Alexander Guthrie and a passenger, Francis Frew drowned. Some of the cargo was salvaged but during another storm in October the ship broke up.

In June 1850 the three-masted Grecian, built at Sunderland, England in 1841, sailed for Port Adelaide carrying a general cargo and seventeen passengers. Having made good time and experienced little trouble she was wrecked approaching Outer Harbour during a bad storm. Luckily only one life was lost.

Five years later the Nashwauk, built at Nova Scotia and measuring 762 tons, left Liverpool for South Australia. She carried a general cargo and three hundred immigrants, including 130 single girls. On 13 May 1855 she struck a reef near Moana. No lives were lost this time but according to legend the girls 'behaved in a most discreditable manner' after the wrecking. Among these passengers was Katherine Hennesy from County Clare, Ireland. She married Charles Crew of Crystal Brook at Sevenhill on 5 December that same year.

One of the most serious and tragic disasters occurred in August 1859 when the 360 ton iron steamer Admella, built in 1857 at Glasgow for the Australian intercolonial trade was wrecked. When she left Port Adelaide on 5 August, her holds were crammed with flour for the Victorian gold fields, copper from the Kapunda mine and racehorses for Melbourne. With 113 people on board, and under the command of Captain McEwan, whose thirty years experience had given him the reputation of being 'one of the best sailors on the Australian coast', she went on the rocks at Carpenter's Rock on 6 August.

This ship, named after the three ports she served, Adelaide, Melbourne and Launceston, was said to be the fasted, safest and most luxurious vessel on the Melbourne-Adelaide run. Her fastest voyage had once been made in forty-two hours. The ship soon broke up in three parts and during an attempt to swim ashore several men drowned. Adam Linsay Gordon, on hearing the news, rode to the nearest telegraph station to get boats for the rescue. He then returned to the beach to help with the rescue work. Two ships sailed past without noticing the wreck. When the weather improved and the sea calmed two men made a raft and reached the shore. The surviving eighteen men and one woman, who had been clinging to the stern of the wreck for seven days and nights, were finally rescued. Later Gordon wrote a poem about the Admella, The ride from the wreck.

The Zanoni sank in 1867, without loss of life, during a freak storm on a trip between Port Wakefield and Port Adelaide. The crew was picked up but the wreck of the Zanoni was not found until 1983. Another wreck which was not located for over a hundred years was the Geltwood. This ship, on her maiden voyage, sank in June 1876 off the coast of Millicent during a storm with hurricane-force winds. The tragedy resulted in the death of Captain Harrington, his wife, twenty-five crew members and one passenger. Most of its cargo was looted. The wreck was located in 1983.

In 1875 the Aurora was lost by fire. Luckily there were no injuries or loss of life. Its passengers later wrote to Captain Johnston,

Dear Sir,

We feel that we ought not to part from you without some expression of our sympathy and regard. Although our voyage has not had the pleasant and prosperous ending we once anticipated, we are sensible it is not owing to any want of care and vigilance on your part. The attention you paid to the comfort of the passengers while on board the Aurora, the steps you took to extinguish the fire when discovered, and your consideration for our safety when it was known that there was no hope of saving the ship, demand our grateful acknowledgements. That we were all transferred to the Melmerby without loss or injury to any one is, under God, largely attributed to the prompt and energetic course pursued by you....... We remain , Dear Sir, Yours very truly,
Henriette Haussen, Mary S. Alexander, C. Haussen, Rev C. Manthorpe, Henry Field, Thos. H. Akroyd, T.H. Strehz M.D., Frank H. Stokes, C.S. Mc Allum, C.E. Manthorpe, H.W. Field, Louise V. Einen, Priscilla Peters, Amelie Jocey, Alice G. Cahill, A.L. Jocey, Agnes Anderson, David Anderson, Henry Mottram, Robert Kirk, Louis Jocey and Henry Wedemeyer.

In June 1888 the Star of Greece, built in Belfast in 1868, arrived at Port Adelaide to deliver a 22 ton gun for the defence of Adelaide. On 12 July she left with 16,000 bags of wheat for England only to be blown ashore near Aldinga during a violent storm. Although only 200 metres from the beach she was soon broken up taking seventeen crew members with her.

The Ethel ran aground near Cape Spencer in 1904. An unsuccessful attempt was made by the tug Euro in May to tow the Ethel back out to sea. A very small part of her is still visible on the beach.

The 1,500 ton clipper Loch Vennachar on her journey from England to Port Adelaide in 1905 disappeared between the Neptune Islands and Port Adelaide on 6 September. Some debris was found later but it was not until 1976 that the remains of this ship were found on the western tip of Kangaroo Island. The loss of this three-masted clipper, and her 27 crew, has remained one of Australia's greatest sea mysteries. William Barry was the only crew member from South Australia.

The sinking of the four-masted, steel hulled The Norma was no mystery. This fully laden barque, built in Glasgow in 1893, was awaiting improved weather conditions before sailing for England. She was safely anchored off Semaphore Beach on 21 April 1907 and loaded with 31,000 bags of wheat when rammed amidships by the Ardencraig who had misjudged the distance between them. The Norma sank almost immediately with the loss of one life. That same morning the coastal steamer Jessie Darling, bound for Port Adelaide ran into the submerged Norma while trying to pass the Ardencraig. She sank within a few minutes on top of the Norma but was later recovered without any loss of life.

The 3,000 ton steamer Clan Ranald built in 1900, left Port Adelaide for South Africa in January 1909 with a cargo of wheat and flour. Although listing to starboard she was allowed to leave after an inspection. When near Troubridge Island, the ship suddenly lurched onto its starboard side, probably because the load had shifted during the deteriorating weather. Within eight hours she rolled over and sank, taking forty crew members with her.

Unfortunately it were not only ships on their way to South Australia which were wrecked. Several ships with South Australians on board on a return visit to England have also disappeared. On 27 July 1909 the 9300 ton SS Waratah of the Blue Anchor Line, captained by Josiah Ilberg disappeared near South Africa. Among its 118 crew and 93 South Australians who perished were Agnes and Helen Hay. The ship, or any of its wreckage, was not found until 1999.

Bound for South Australia


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