Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Wreck of the Sovereign

In the early years of the colony, steamers plied their way up and down the east coast of Australia.  They were much faster than overland travel and were essential to trade and communication.  Steamers of the time used a combination of sail power and steam driven paddle wheels.

Advertisement for a Steamer Company 1865

In March 1847 the steamer Sovereign was having difficulty leaving Moreton Bay on her way south to Sydney.  She was attempting to cross the bar at the southern entrance to the bay, between Stradbroke and Moreton Islands.

The Sovereign has been detained a week at the sea bar in consequence of the boisterous state of the weather. She had not left the Bay when the William spoke her on the 10th inst. The Tamar went out by the northern passage.[1]

Three day later the news reached Brisbane Town that a terrible fate had befallen the Sovereign.

The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 13 March 1847




THE melancholy intelligence of the total loss of the Sovereign steamer on the spit outside Amity Point, reached town at a late hour last night. This distressing event occurred in consequence of both engines having broken down while attempting to go over the bar.

She broke up a few minutes after striking on the spit, and the boats were destroyed at the same time. Only ten persons have been saved; and of those, three were so seriously wounded and disabled, that they were conveyed to the Hospital immediately on their arrival in town.

We cannot find words at present to express our feelings on being made acquainted with this sad catastrophe. In common with many others, we have to mourn the loss of friends thus hurried prematurely before their Maker. At the late hour at which we write, the greatest excitement prevails - many of the inhabitants are well nigh distracted at the loss of their relatives and friends.[2]

Among the ten survivors was the commander of the Sovereign, Captain Cape.

The Captain states there was no wind at the time the engines broke down; that he let go the anchors, notwithstanding which the rollers bore her rapidly on the spit, about four miles distant from Moreton Island, where she became a complete wreck in a very short time.[3]

Understandably the fact that the mail bag was recovered from the wreck was good news for the settlement. The mails were the main form of communication at the time, not only carrying personal messages but used for commercial dealings and government business.  The telegraph would not arrive in Queensland until the 1860s.

The "SOVEREIGN'S" MAIL. - When the mailbag was brought to Brisbane, and opened at the Post Office, the letters of course were found to be very much injured by the salt water; but being very closely packed and tied together, the outer parts only were destroyed by friction, after they became wetted.[4]

Fisherman's Hut at Amity Point

As the corpses were found they were buried nearby on Moreton Island. They made for a gruesome sight.

BODIES FOUND. - On Tuesday, the bodies of Mr. Brown, the second officer of the Sovereign, and Frederick McKellar, better known by the name of "Scotchy," were found on Moreton Island, about eight miles distant from the spot where the survivors of the wreck were saved.

The persons who discovered the remains were John D. Flynn, a fellow-servant of McKellar, Gray the ferryman. Murphy the constable and a man named Johnson, who remained on the Island for the purpose of interring the bodies, in the event of their being washed up on that part of the coast.

McKellar's corpse was much disfigured by the eagle-hawks; as was also that of Brown by the fish. On the person of the former, cheques and orders amounting to £76 were found enveloped in a piece of moleskin, which was sewn to his belt, and which has since been placed in the hands of the Police Magistrate.[5]

The  Moreton Bay Courier vowed to pursue the issue of the cause of the disaster referring to the talk around Brisbane Town the Sovereign was old and unseaworthy.

We shall calmly and dispassionately, and with a view to elicit the truth respecting the rumour generally current, that this ill- fated vessel was not sufficiently seaworthy for a voyage of upwards of 400 miles of sea navigation.[6]

The  Moreton Bay Courier reported that not only was the Sovereign in poor structural condition, but that her engines were designed for river navigation rather than steaming though the open sea.

From the opinions which have been elicited from the most competent persons who have examined the wreck, and from those who were previously acquainted with her condition, it is apparent that the timbers of the vessel were originally very defective as regards the planking and the fastenings, and greatly weakened subsequently by the number of treenail and bolt holes from repeated repairs; while the inner planking was perfectly rotten.

This will account for the facility with which the hull broke up, even before taking the ground. If we are correctly informed, the engines were the same as those which were on board the King William IVth—a vessel built entirely for river navigation: collectively of 35 horse-power, they never were calculated to encounter for any length of time the boisterous navigation between this place and Sydney, with no port of refuge between Moreton Bay and Port Stephens.

That they were not properly fitted is proved by the fact that the plummer boxes, in which the engine shafts revolve, were the first to give way. There was no wind at the time to cause any additional strain, un- fortunately so, as it turned out; for had there been a breeze, the safety of the vessel might have been ensured by making use of the sails.

Paddle Steamer Rigged for Sails

Then there was the question of the cargo of timber and bales of wool - whether it was properly secured and whether the steamer was overloaded.

The cargo consisted mostly of wool, of which forty bales were stowed on deck; besides a large quantity of billet-wood and coals. When the vessel was first struck by the sea three or four persons were either killed or disabled by the wool bales and the billets; two others had their limbs broken, and Mr. Dennis was severely injured in the head. The public can judge whether a vessel in such a state was fit to go to sea, or whether the passengers and crew had even a reasonable chance of escape.

Neither the agent nor the master can be blamed for sending the vessel to sea with so much lumber on deck. The Company have several steamers and several masters, and have had at least four different agents; but the practice in all cases has been the same. Moreover, complaints have frequently been made by the passengers of the mode in which the cargo has been stowed in the cabin and on deck, as it deprived them of that accommodation which they reasonably expected, and which they liberally paid for.

The fact that the Sovereign was attempting to use the South Passage to exit Moreton Bay was also called into question.  It was a shorter option to the North Passage around the top of Moreton Island but was far more perilous and would be avoided in the future.

With regard to the southern entrance into Moreton Bay, it may be observed that this place remained undiscovered until about the year 1826. Notwithstanding the previous examination by Flinders, Oxley, and others, some person unfortunately found what was asserted to be a shorter route to Sydney by forcing a vessel out to sea through the surf and shoals of the Amity Point passage.

Although the safety and superiority of the northern entrance had been established by Lieut. Flinders in 1797; and subsequently by the Hon. Capt. Rous in the Rainbow, by Sir James Stirling in the Success, and by Captain Freeman of the merchant schooner William, who came in, at night, about three years ago, and frequently since that time without difficulty, it was abandoned on the recommendation of less competent persons, and the pilot was stationed permanently at Amity Point, where, in bad weather, it is impossible to get out to board vessels in the offing, when his services are required.

The  Moreton Bay Courier  did not call into question the conduct of the Captain and crew, rather lauding their professional behaviour.

We cannot conclude without noticing the gallant and energetic conduct of Capt. Cape, who in the hour of unexpected danger manifested that promptitude and coolness which, situated as he was, did him infinite credit. The crew likewise did not, as it has too often happened on similar occasions, become panic-struck and bewildered; but imitating the noble example set them by their commander, left no means untried that could by any possibility have ensured the safety of the passengers and vessel.

Two months later, in May 1847, a poet, self-styled as “Malwyn”, inspired by a newspaper report of the sad demise of the Sovereign, contributed a poem to the Port Phillip Herald in Victoria.


(From the Port Phillip Herald.) 

They have parted from the shore,
To reach it never more;
And now are on the wave,
And now-are in their grave!  
It is a tale soon told;
Twice-thrice-the billows rolled,
One shriek-and we can mark
No longer that poor bark; 
O'erwhelmed from keel to mast, 
 The surges have her fast,
With two score souls-asleep
Under the waters deep.

There was a shriek; yet two
Stood calm amid that crew;
A husband and a wife
They had been linked in life 
By ties of holier kind
Than those the many bind;
And now in death's dark hour,
They felt Religion's power:
No more of storms for them,
Of Earth's unquiet weather -
The waves' roar was their requiem,
They've gone to Heav'n together!*

* "There is no hope for us, Mary, we shall go to Heaven together!" were the words of Mr. - to his wife just before the vessel sunk.[7]


The Sovereign was not to be the last vessel to come to grief in the South Passage. 

Eight years later, the Aurora, a German emigrant ship from Hamburg, mistaking the South Passage for the safer route to the north, was wrecked on Moreton Island.  Unlike the Sovereign all on board were safely brought ashore on the island after the Captain was able to run the crippled ship aground on the beach.

To this day fishing boats continue occasionally to become victims of the turbulent waters of the Amity Passage.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 13 March 1847
[2] The Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 13 March 1847
[3] The Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 13 March 1847
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 20 March 1847
[5] The Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 20 March 1847
[6] The Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 20 March 1847
[7] The Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 15 May 1847

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