The Dunbar Tragedy – 1857

The Dunbar shipwreck, by Samuel Thomas Gill, courtesy the State Library of New South Wales.

The loss of the Dunbar in August 1857 was one of the more tragic and distressing shipwrecks to occur in Australian waters.   On the morning of Friday 21 August people living in Sydney’s East awoke to find wreckage and mutilated bodies dotted along the rugged coast and inside the harbour mouth.   A large ship had come to grief, but its identity would remain a mystery for much of that day.

The weather on the night of 20 August was thick with heavy rain, strong winds and a powerful swell creating mountainous waves.    The Dunbar had sailed from London 81 days earlier and was making its way up the New South Wales coast nearing the end of its voyage.  

She passed Botany Bay around 8.30 in the evening.  Then Captain James Green headed out to sea on a starboard tack under closely reefed sails.    They then changed course again heading towards the entrance to Sydney Harbour.   The captain sent the Second Mate to the forecastle and asked him to keep a good lookout for the North Head.  

By Day and Son; Thomas Goldsworth Dutton; William Foster –, Public Domain,

Suddenly the Mate called out “breakers ahead,” as churning white water at the base of the cliffs materialised out of the inky gloom.   It was now a little after midnight.  Captain Green ordered the ship round but the surging seas drove her broadside onto the rocks before she could respond.  

Passengers were jolted awake by the violent impact and streamed on deck in panic, most still dressed in their night attire.    But before any thought could be given to getting them into the lifeboats another wave smashed the Dunbar into the cliffs and she immediately started breaking up. 

Passengers and crew alike were swept into the surging sea and dashed against the rocks.  Others were crushed between heavy timbers and splintering wood.  

There were 122 people on the Dunbar as she neared Sydney Harbour.   She had a crew of 59 and was carrying 63 passengers.   Most of the passengers, including families with young children, were residents of Sydney returning home after spending time in England.  

Incredibly, one of the crew managed to survive.    As the ship broke apart John Johnson grabbed hold of a plank with three other men to keep themselves afloat as they were tossed around in the turbulent white water.   Two of their number soon lost their hold but Johnson and the ship’s Boatswain were dumped high on the rocks by a large wave.    Johnson scrambled higher but before the other man could do likewise, he was caught by another wave and sucked back out to sea.    Johnson continued climbing until he reached a narrow ledge and could go no further.   

The Sailor Rescued. Courtesy the National Library of Australia 211620415-22

The next day he heard people on the clifftop above him and saw several ships pass by but failed to attract anyone’s attention.   He remained a second night on the ledge before a young lad spotted him from near Jacob’s Ladder.  The boy, Antonio Wollier, volunteered to be lowered down to the ledge by a rope to rescue the survivor.  

Meanwhile, the grim work of recovering bodies began.    Some brave souls were lowered over the cliff at the Gap where as many as 20 bodies had collected among the rocks.   They had been so badly battered that none were ever identified.    Other bodies were found inside Sydney Harbour where they had been swept by the current.   Most were buried in a mass grave in the Newtown Cemetery.

Sydney Harbour. Courtesy Google Maps.

An inquiry concluded that Captain Green, hampered by the foul weather, had either thought he was approaching the North Head or mistook the Gap for the entrance to Sydney Harbour.   As a result of this catastrophe and another similar shipwreck nine weeks later a lighthouse marking South Head was built.       

John Johnson was later employed as a lighthouse keeper in Newcastle and in 1866 he rescued the only survivor of the steamer Cawarra when it sank trying to enter that harbour.

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

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