Diving for the Gothenburg Gold

Wood engraving published in The illustrated Australian news for home readers. Photo courtesy SLV.

On 24 February 1875 the steamer Gothenburg ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and sank during a ferocious storm with the loss of over 100 lives.   A fortune in gold also went to the bottom.

That the Gothenburg had sunk with 3,000 ounces (93 kgs) of gold belonging to the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank did not go unnoticed when the ship was reported lost.   Brisbane salvage diver James Putwain partnered with the owner of the small coastal steamer and the two started steaming towards Bowen as quickly as they could.  

There, Putwain hired a small fishing boat and some local men to help with his air pump.   By noon on 7 March, they were at the wreck site, only six days after hearing of the disaster.  The steamer continued north, leaving Putwain and his team to bring up the gold. 

Putwain first tried diving from the fishing boat but a strong current prevented him from reaching the wreck.   He then built a platform attached to the wreck’s mainmast and set up his diving apparatus on that.   Donning his heavy diving suit and helmet, he climbed down the rigging to the sunken ship’s deck and soon made entry into the captain’s cabin.   On this first attempt his air hose became entangled in the wreckage.   Putwain had some anxious moments until he cleared it and returned to the surface to give more explicit instructions to his new and inexperienced assistants.  

S.S. Gothenburg docked at a wharf. Photo Courtesy SLQ

His third descent met with success.   Putwain found the safe containing the gold in the remains of the  cabin and had it hoisted to the surface.   Before leaving the wreck he tried descending further into the ship but only got a little way before running out of hose.   But there, he saw the haunting vision of two women suspended in the water seemingly embracing.   Unable to get close enough to identify the bodies, he returned to the surface with the macabre image burned into his memory. 

With the gold secured he returned to Bowen to report his find to the Harbourmaster and deposit the precious metal in the local bank.

Then the enterprise got mired in legal wrangling.   The English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank offered James Putwain and his partner £1,000 for retrieving the £9,000 worth of gold.   Putwain and his partner felt £4,000 was more appropriate compensation.   The case went to the Vice Admiralty Court in Brisbane, where Putwain claimed he had spent nearly £500 in the salvage operation, that it had been a risky endeavour and that the box was found in a precarious position where it could have easily plummeted into deeper, inaccessible, water to be lost for ever. 

The bank argued that the amount demanded by the salvors was excessive and Putwain’s account of the salvage operation was exaggerated.     Nonetheless, the judge found in favour of the salvors, awarding them approximately one third the value of the gold, £3,000.   

Not happy with the verdict, the bank appealed the decision before the Privy Council in London.    Almost two years after the Gothenburg sank the Privy Council found in favour of the salvors and upheld the original judgement, ordering the bank to pay Putwain and his partner.

A second salvage operation was mounted in the weeks after the Gothenburg was lost.     The diver Samuel Dunwoodie arrived on the wreck on 14 March, a week after Putwain, unaware that the gold had already been retrieved.    Nonetheless, Dunwoodie recovered much of the cabin luggage and many of the personal effects belonging to the passengers.   His team also removed the ship’s two steam winches before the weather turned foul, forcing them to abandon the wreck.

The tragic story of the Gothenburg shipwreck is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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