The Loss of the SS Cawarra: Bad luck or an avoidable tragedy?

“Foundering of the S.S. Cawarra off Newcastle.’ Source: Australian News for Home Readers, 27 Aug 1866, p. 4.

When, in 1866, the board of Inquiry into the Loss of the Steam Ship Cawarra handed down its report, it was met with some incredulity. For, after pouring over the evidence for six weeks, they could only conclude that the catastrophe was the result of bad luck. That was despite evidence presented to them that the steamer had been grossly overladen when she left Sydney.

The SS Cawarra was a 439-ton side paddle steamer owned by the Australian Steam Navigation Company and was employed on the regular Sydney – Brisbane passage.    Around 6 o’clock on Wednesday 11 July 1866, she steamed out Sydney Heads bound for Brisbane and Rockhampton.   A crew of 36 managed the steamer and there were also on board 25 passengers.   Her hold was packed with general cargo.   More supplies were stowed on deck for the northern settlement of Rockhampton had not been visited for some time and basic provisions were running low.

A strong south-easterly breeze was blowing as the steamer cleared the heads and began heading north.   During the night the weather only worsened.   By the following morning, the winds were at gale force and they were accompanied by heavy rain and high seas.    Captain Henry Chatfield decided to shelter at Newcastle until the weather moderated before he continued north.   The distinctive outline of Nobby Head was sighted at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and shortly after they rounded the headland to enter the port.

However, as the Cawarra was approaching the mouth of the Hunter River she was pounded by a series of large waves that swept over her deck and pushed her around so she was now facing Nobby Head. 

“Position of Cawarra previous to foundering …” Source: Illustrated Sydney News, 16 Aug 1866, p. 5.

It is thought that Captain Chatfield, realising his ship was in serious peril, ordered the foresail to be set and tried to steam back out to sea.    However, just then the ship was hit by more several huge waves. Water poured below deck and extinguished the steamers fires.   Dead in the water and pounded by heavy seas she started to fill with water and began sinking by the bow.   Chatfield ordered the lifeboats to be got away but in the tumultuous conditions, they proved no refuge from the treacherous conditions.  

By 3 o’clock the Cawarra was driven onto Oyster Bank and crew and passengers could be seen gathered on the poop deck or clinging to the rigging by people watching the tragedy unfold from Nobby Head.   Fifteen minutes later, with the foredeck already underwater, the mainmast and funnel toppled into the sea taking with them everyone sheltering on the poop.   The foremast went a few minutes later tossing the remaining three or four men into the sea.    She quickly sank. It was as if the Cawarra was never there but for pieces of wreckage and cargo washing ashore.

Sixty people lost their lives but one man somehow survived.     Frederick Valliant Hedges had joined the Cawarra’s crew 8 months earlier.   He had sought refuge in the mainmast rigging as the ship settled by the bow but was flung into the sea when the mast went over the side.    He was found clinging to a red buoy by a boat sent out from the lighthouse.   Ironically, one of Hedges’ saviours was John Johnson, who had been the sole survivor of the Dunbar shipwreck in Sydney nine years earlier.

The Rescue of F.V. Hedges, the only survivor from the Cawarra. Source: Illustrated Sydney News, 16 Aug 1866, p. 4.

The tumultuous weather wreaked havoc on shipping up and down the coast.   Four more vessels foundered or were driven ashore at Newcastle, another was wrecked near Port Stephens to the north.   In all 14 other ships were lost in that storm between Sydney and Port Stephens adding another 17 fatalities to the grim list.  

It is perhaps easy to blame the weather for the Cawarra’s loss.   In fact, the commission established to investigate the circumstances found just that.   Their report concluded: “We are of opinion that the catastrophe was one of those lamentable occurrences which befall at times the best ships and the most experienced commanders, and which human efforts are powerless to avert.”

However, that explanation did not sit well with everyone.    It had the whiff of a cover-up. There had been accusations that the Cawarra was overladen when she left Sydney.   She was reportedly loaded with 450 tons of coal and cargo which was about fifty tons more than the ship’s builders recommended.   An engineer and surveyor from the Steam Navigation Board testified at the inquiry that he thought the ship was overloaded and sitting noticeably lower in the water than it usually did.   But, when he raised his concerns with his boss and a representative from the ship’s owners they both dismissed his concerns telling him the Cawarra was a strong ship.

The omission that overloading could have contributed to the loss of the ship and sixty lives was even raised in the New South Wales parliament, but seemingly to no avail.   The outspoken former clergyman and politician, Dr J.D. Lang called for the Commission’s findings to be rejected pointing out contradictory evidence presented at the inquest. 

Samuel Plimsoll. Wikimedia/creative commons.

There were calls for a line to be marked on the hull of cargo ships to indicate when they were fully loaded.   However, it would be another ten years before British parliamentarian Samuel Plimsoll was able to coax his fellow members to act.   He was appalled by the number of ships and lives being lost due to overloading.   In 1876 the British Parliament enacted legislation that mandated markings on the side of cargo ships that would disappear below the waterline should the vessel be overloaded.   It would become known as the Plimsoll Line and is still in use today.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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