Inside the Collection

Sydney’s most famous shipwreck – the ‘Dunbar’

Ambrotype of John Pascoe, third officer on the ‘Dunbar’
P3185 Ambrotype in case, of Master Pascoe, mid-shipman drowned aboard the Dunbar, metal, glass, wood, leather, textile, photographer unknown, Australia, 1850-1857 (Interior)

On 20 August 2017 it was the 160th anniversary of New South Wales’ worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the ‘Dunbar’. On a pitch-dark rainy night with a gale blowing a total of 121 passengers and crew of the sailing ship, ‘Dunbar’, lost their lives not long after midnight. This was not far from Sydney’s South Head lighthouse and only few kilometres from the safety of one of the world’s “finest and easily accessible harbours”. The captain is said to have misjudged the entrance to the harbour with tragic results.

Dunbar was a first-class, three-masted ship built of best British oak and East India teak declared at the time as “the finest merchant ship afloat”. Her main mast alone weighed 9 tons. The ship was launched at James Laing’s shipyards, Sunderland, England, only four years earlier for the London shipowner, Duncan Dunbar & Co. and was commanded by Captain James Green, described as a “cautious, vigilant and experienced sailor”. If the portrait of the ship’s third officer, John Pascoe, is anything to go by, Captain Green’s compliment of 59 crew members were well turned out and professional. Young Pascoe, who hailed from Cornwall, was only 18 when his life was tragically cut short in a ship which no-one could have anticipated would be wrecked.

After leaving Gravesend on 24 May 1857, and a rapid but uneventful 81-day voyage out to Australia, you can image the excitement of the 63 Dunbar passengers that night as they neared their voyage’s end. As mothers put their children to bed they would be telling them they would wake up in Sydney. Many of the passengers were from established colonial families returning to Sydney after a trip back “home”. The ship’s demise was quick, it struck rocks, and passengers (mainly women) ran up on deck screaming, waves washed over the ship and pushed Dunbar broadside, the top masts crashed down and water quickly entered the hull.

You can scarcely imagine the horror in Sydney when news soon spread that an unidentified ship had come to grief. From daylight people flocked to the cliffs above, appalled at the sight of bodies and body parts being dashed back and forth across the rocks near The Gap. Only one person survived the disaster. Able Seaman James Johnson had a miraculous escape by being washed up on a rock ledge and clung there for over 36 hours before being found and rescued.

Timber and debris from the ‘Dunbar’ entered the harbour and accumulated in bays. Human bodies and the carcases of bulls were located floating as far as The Spirt in Middle Harbour. Parts of the teak deck and masts, clothing including waistcoats, gloves, trousers, and bedding were at various locations.

The outpouring of grief in Sydney was palpable as families expecting a loving reunion were shocked and distraught. Many would have known someone or knew of someone who had died. We can appreciate these feelings 120 years later when a Sydney-bound Blue Mountains commuter train derailed and hit bridge stanchions at Granville in 1977. It was Australia’s worst rail disaster where 84 died and 210 were injured.

Back in 1857 some 20,000 mourners gathered along George Street to pay their respects as the Dunbar’s funeral procession passed. Friends and family who could identify their loved ones had their bodies handed over to them for burial. Eighteen bodies, not claimed, were buried together in Camperdown Cemetery (St Stephens Church, Newtown). Some were identified by laundry marks on their underwear or personal effects such as jewellery and tattoos. Johnstone, the survivor, identified some of the passengers and crew by sight.

Wooden cotton reel, from the 'Dunbar' wreck
Wooden cotton reel, from the ‘Dunbar’ wreck, made in England by Jonas Brook and Bros. MAAS collection A7825-20. Image: Chloe Appleby.

The Dunbar was carrying a large and diverse cargo including a piano, saddles, livestock, haberdashery supplies including reels of cotton, a large number of candles, boxes of boots, casks of beer, boxes of raisins, Manila hats, tablecloths and stationary. Some of the lighter material was washed up in the Harbour with haberdashery supplies floating in Mosman Bay. In the Museum’s collection is this small cotton reel, the provenance for which notes that Watson Augustus Steel collected the reel washed up on the shore after the wreck in 1857.

Timber from the wreck was made into furniture, tableware and souvenir boxes. This turned timber goblet 235 cm high is one such memento. It seems macabre to us today to make money from tragedy and in 1977 it would have been unthinkable to make metal trinkets from the crushed carriages from the Granville rail disaster, but times have changed.

Wooden goblet made from the flotsam of the 'Dunbar' wreck
Wooden goblet made from the flotsam of the ‘Dunbar’ wreck. MAAS collection A7826. Image: Chloe Appleby.

Before photo journalism the written word was used to paint a picture of the Dunbar tragedy. Contemporary accounts conveyed the scene in extraordinary and disturbing detail. Sydneysiders in 1857 couldn’t get enough of the Dunbar disaster. A pamphlet entitled ‘A Narrative of the Melancholy Wreck of the Dunbar’ sold in its thousands while poems and paintings followed and a portrait of the survivor, James Johnson, was available from the celebrated city photographers, Freeman Brothers.

The Dunbar is remembered by memorial services at the churchyard where the Dunbar victims were interred and many would be familiar with one of her anchors displayed at The Gap. The location of the wreck, south of The Gap and near the Signal Station and appropriately named Dunbar Head, was forgotten for almost 100 years. In the 1950s and 1960s it was rediscovered by SCUBA divers. Many souvenirs were taken from the wreck which is now protected under legislation.

The Museum has a large collection of finds. Probably the most poignant is a silver pencil case said to have been found by divers in Captain Green’s desk.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, August 2017

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