Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gothenberg Gold

The Wreck of the Gothenberg

On the twenty-fourth of February 1875, the Steamer Gothenberg was making her way from Port Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia. At the time the Northern Territory was administered by South Australia and the most practical way to travel between Adelaide and Darwin was by boat, the alternative being a long overland trip. The Gothenberg had been contracted to carry the mails the two capitals.

The Steamer Gothenberg
On board were eighty-five passengers and thirty-five crew. Only twenty-two would survive.

Among the passengers was the Queen's Bench of South Australia, including Mr. Justice Wearing who were returning from holding sessions at Darwin.

In the captain’s cabin was a strongbox containing 3000 ounces[1] of gold, the property of the English, Scottish, and Australian Chartered Bank.

Details of just how the “Gothenburg” came to grief were recalled years later by 83 years old retired engineer, Mr. T. C. Pengelly, a crewman on one of the rescue boats, the Bunyip.

The vessel called at Townsville after leaving Darwin, but in negotiating the reef off Cape Upstart mistook for the passage an indented portion of the reef known as 'The Horseshoe." The result was that the forward portion of the hull was driven high up on the reef, and as the back of the vessel   broke, the after part fell into the water.[2]

Cape Upstart 1843,  by Edwin Augustus Porcher
A detailed account of the wreck of the Gothenberg was published in 1911.

She was running under both steam and sail before an increasing gale in which she rolled heavily.     Suddenly the rolling ceased and the passengers were just congratulating themselves on the fact, when the Gothenburg ran on to a reef 40 miles north-east of Port Denison, and 28 miles N.N.E. of Cape Upstart. Sails were at once taken in and the passengers all ordered aft.

Attempts to refloat the vessel failed, and a gale of such severity was blowing that further disaster came upon the travellers before the boats could be brought into use. The steamer swung round broadside on to the reef and the heavy seas swept her decks, washing off sheep, dogs, and everything not fast on the deck. The port boats had already been  lost in a vain endeavour to reach the starboard side and the starboard boats were swinging in the davits, containing food and water, ready to receive the women and   children, but the ship heeled over so much   that the boats could not be lowered. [3]

First reports of the disaster appeared in the Brisbane press a week after the disaster. A steamer happened to come across a lifeboat contained four crew members of the Gothenberg.

News of what seems, with present information, to be a serious catastrophe, is brought by the “Leichhardt”, steamer, which arrived from the North last night. A few hours after leaving Bowen harbor the “Leichhardt” picked up a boat containing four men, named Harry Nelson, fore-cabin steward; Salvee Hermonson, A.B.[4];   William Burns, lamp-trimmer; and Joseph Hudson, coal-trimmer, of the steamer “Gothenberg”, from which the boat had been washed away twenty-four hours' previously. [5]

The Leichhardt immediately changed course and steamed to the wreck but found no survivors amid the mangled remains of the Gothenberg.

The Gothenberg under full sail and steam
The Leichhardt, on the men's story being told, at once reversed her course and steamed for the spot where the Gothenberg had been left by the boat. The scene was reached the same afternoon, and the wreck of the Gothenberg discovered sunk nearly to the eyes of the lower rigging. The funnel was gone and the fore-mast toppling. 

A boat's crew was sent to search the rigging, but not a living soul was found, the only signs being parts of a lady's shawl, a comforter, and a straw mattress, hanging to one of the yard-arms. From tho masthead of the Leichhardt an anxious lookout for the other boats was kept, but not a sign of them was in sight.[6]

Over the next days and weeks other survivors were found on nearby islands and atolls but the total loss of life was finally put as ninety-eight souls.

Understandably, the news of the wreck spread quickly though the colony and reached the ears of two enterprising men in Brisbane. They were particularly interested in the mention of gold on the abandoned boat. Putwain owned the only diving apparatus in the colony and Captain Phillips was the master of the Florence Irving then berthed in Brisbane.  

Recognising the potential profits in salvaging the gold, they formed a partnership and set sail for the wreck. Putwain later told his story.

“We were cast adrift from the Florence Irving when near the scene of the wreck at noon the same day, and the steamer proceeded on her voyage to the Northern Ports. The wreck was found lying with her head N.E. and S.W., with a strong list to port, the stern in about ten fathoms of water, and the bows in about five fathoms, with her foremost yards lying awash.

Diver Putwain in the Wreck of the Gothenberg
(Illustrated Sydney News, Thursday 8 April 1875)

I found much difficulty in getting down, in consequence of the strong current and heavy wash on the reef, and finding it was impracticable to go down from the boat I rigged a temporary stage from the maintop of the steamer, which was a few feet out of water.

I then descended for the second time, and took a short survey of the ship. I found her broken abaft[7] the fore chains, and the funnel partially down, but the deck is not started abaft of where she is broken, and the captain's cabin was broken away except the roof and combings.

After a diligent search, I found the box supposed to contain the gold on the lee side of the combings of the captain's cabin, and at once slung it, and placed the box in a convenient position for hoisting to the surface.”[8]

Putwain then came upon a gruesome scene, two women locked in a deathly embrace, their long hair swirling with the current.

 I then endeavoured to descend the cabin stairs, but could only get down a few steps, in consequence of not having sufficient length of tube, but here a melancholy sight presented itself, for at the port side of the vessel, and at the foot of the saloon stairs, I saw the bodies of two women, one apparently having her arm around the other.

I was anxious to get to the spot to obtain, if possible, a portion of their hair (which was flowing loosely around them) or some other relic that might be identified by their friends and serve as a memento of their loss, but unfortunately I was unsuccessful for reasons previously mentioned.

Finding that at this time I could not do further good at the wreck and after making the gold secure in the boat I proceeded to Bowen, and duly reported all the circumstances to the authorities, and deposited the gold in the Australian Joint Stock Bank.[9]

Bowen Queensland ca. 1873, looking towards the sea.

Having left the gold at the bank, Putwain and his partner pursued their claim for their share of the value of the gold under the rights of salvage from an abandoned vessel. Negotiations started before the Admiralty Court in November that year.

The Admiralty Court is engaged in the salvage case of the gold in the "Gothenberg."

The Bank offered Putwin £1000, which he refused, asserting his expenses reached nearly £500 and the value of the salvage was between £9000 and £10,000.[10]

After Putwain rejected the initial offer, a long legal battle ensued which ended with a ruling by the Privy Council in London in 1877. The ruling was reported in The Times.

The Times (London, England), Friday, Jan 12, 1877

This was an appeal from a decree of the Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Queensland of the 1st of December, 1875, in a suit for salvage.

The respondents asserted that in this act of salvage they had incurred large expenses, and they claimed £4,000 for the recovery of the gold. The bank tendered them £1,000, which they refused, and the suit was then instituted, the Judge, in the result, awarding the respondents £2,909, being one-third of the value of the box, £302 for expenses, and the costs of the proceedings. From that decree the present appeal was preferred.

Sir Robert Collier, Member of the Privy Council 1870, caricature.

For the appellants it was contended that the amount awarded was excessive and, in the real circumstances of the case, out of all proportion to the services rendered; that the narratives of the salvage and of the risks run were much exaggerated; and that the respondent Phillips was not a salver; and was not entitled to be a party to the suit.

On the other hand, it was urged that but for the services of the respondents the gold would have been lost, that great risk to life and property was incurred, and that the decree was justified by the evidence.

Their LORDSHIPS, after a brief deliberation, intimated their intention to advise Her Majesty to affirm the decision of the Court below and to dismiss the appeal, with costs. [11]

 © K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] About 85kg., worth over £9,000 in 1875 and more than 25 million dollars at 2012 prices.
[2] Townsville Daily Bulletin Thursday 9 April 1936
[3] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 28 March 1911
[4] Able Seaman.
[5] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 2 March 1875
[6] The Brisbane Courier Tuesday 2 March 1875
[7] To the rear.
[8] The Queenslander Saturday 20 March 1875
[9] The Queenslander Saturday 20 March 1875
[10] The Northern Miner Saturday 20 November 1875
[11] The Times (London, England), Friday, Jan 12, 1877

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