The day the lifeboat didn’t come

The entrance to Newcastle harbour was one of the most dangerous in the world. The Oyster Bank (a sand bank, despite its name) claimed dozens of ships.

Nationality: Australian (built in Scotland)

Vessel type: Collier, iron paddle steamer

Date lost: 15th July 1877

Cause of loss: Foundered during a gale

Number of Casualties: 18 (all hands)

Discovery date (if applicable): [n/a]

Location/water depth: Stockton Bight (1km north of Newcastle harbour, NSW) / 13.7m

7am, Sunday 15th July 1877
A fierce gale was raging as the paddle steamer Yarra Yarra attempted to enter Newcastle harbour. Having departed Newcastle fully laden with coal the day before, she’d turned back to avoid the worsening storm. She hadn’t escaped and now, watched by anxious crowds on shore, she struggled to survive.


Newcastle’s lifeboat was first-class and the signal gun had already fired to summon its crew. The harbour’s water was calm but there was confusion about deployment procedures. It wasn’t clear who could authorise firing the second signal gun that would order the boat out. The lifeboat wasn’t launched.


Swamped by huge waves, the Yarra Yarra was driven north to the dreaded Oyster Bank and beyond. She sank rapidly and all hands were lost.


Newcastle was anguished, angry and ashamed that 18 men could die in sight of safety, seemingly without anyone lifting a finger to help.

 

A humane legacy

  • Captain Summerbell was 24 with two young children. His father watched from the shore as the tragedy unfolded.
  • At least five other crewmen were married.
  • The disaster had marked social impacts and motivated the formation, ten days later, of the National Shipwreck Relief Society of NSW to benefit widows and orphans.

 

Urls

https://dmzapp17p.ris.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/wreck/wre...

http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/MaritimeHeritage/researchcentre/w...

http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/maritimeheritageapp/resources/Mar...

 

Newcastle essentially had no lifeboat service until new arrangements were agreed 11 months later. The press was scathing.

Chief Officer Millet swam 1600m in pounding seas before being overcome. Ironically, he’d won several awards for rescuing others. The Society granted his widow roughly 3 months’ pay.

The wreck is a potential archaeological goldmine and has the earliest known marine steam engine in NSW (Archaeological Survey, 1989).

 

 

Objects of interest (artefacts, images or other collection items) associated with the shipwreck story.


Artwork, oil on board
Painted by Terry Callen (local historian and artist), 1975
250H x 305mm

Tallow lubricator, cast brass
Llewellins & James (maker), Bristol
345H x 275 x 185mm

Engine fitting, brass
170H x 83mm diameter

Cylinder head cover, No. 57, cast bronze
Caird & Co,, Greenock, 1851
110H x 530mm diameter

 

AMMC Member Institution

Newcastle Maritime Museum

submitted by Geoffrey Hindmarsh

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