Newcastle has a long maritime history, but sadly part of that history includes a coastline that is now littered with numerous shipwrecks that cost many lives. But sometimes, the hardworking lifeboat crews and rocket brigades were able to save the lives of passengers and crew of ships wrecked on our coast.
The Newcastle Rocket Brigades were in operation from 1866 until 1974, often working alongside the lifeboat crews, and were a crucial part of trying to save the lives of those on board vessels that foundered along our coast.
The job of the Rocket Brigade was to attach a line from the beach to a distressed vessel in order to enable a ‘breeches buoy’ or other device to be hauled to the ship and return passengers and crew safely to the shore.
“If the ships were too close to the shore, the lifeboats wouldn’t be able to get to them. So if a ship was beached but there was still so much water raging around them, people couldn’t get off safely.”
The Newcastle Lifeboat Service operated from 1838 until 1946, but the Rocket Brigade was still in service until 1974 and was last used on the Sygna. Indeed, one of my volunteers was trained around 1965.”
Deb Mastello says Newcastle was an incredibly difficult port, “It was so dangerous to come in here, especially before the breakwater was built. Ships that tried to come in between Nobbys and the mainland – that was just craziness.”
There are over 200 shipwrecks that are known of around our part of the coast and Deb assumes there are more, “They’re just the ones we know of. Who knows how many left and were never seen again. We have records of some of those.”
Many of our local beaches gained their names from shipwrecks, Susan Gilmore Beach at the northern end of Bar Beach is just one.
“The Susan Gilmore was coming north on the 4th of July in 1884. She ran into a bit of trouble and they tried to tow her in but the seas were too rough and it came ashore.”
“A couple of our steam tugs attempted to pull the Susan Gilmore off the beach but couldn’t do it, so the Rocket Brigade was called in to action.”
“Depending on which beach, they would have to pick up all of their equipment – it wasn’t just the rocket, it was stands, tripods and ropes – and they’d have to carry it all to the beach. If they were lucky they might have a cart they could use to load up and have the equipment horse-drawn to the beach, but they were probably exhausted by the time they got there.”
“They would have to find the shipwreck on a dark and stormy night, because these things never seem to happen in the middle of the day, and they would have to fire a rocket to the vessel.”
“Attached to the rocket was a light piece of rope and they’d have to fire it over the ship – bearing in mind they were dealing with storms and perhaps 100km per hour winds. All being well, the light rope would be secured to the ship and a heavier rope would be pulled from the beach up to the ship.”
“Then, a pulley would be pulled up and attached to that would be a ‘breeches buoy’ which was large lifering with a big canvas bag in it and two holes in the bottom for your legs. So you got into it and it was a sort of flying fox arrangement, in a storm in the middle of the night to the beach.”
“The wife of the Captain of the Susan Gilmore actually got dunked a couple of times but all people on board were rescued including two dogs, a cat and a canary.”
The rocket that Deb Mastello brought in from the Newcastle Maritime Centre collection came from the southern Rocket Brigade, there was another Rocket Brigade on Stockton, “Our rocket cart was also used down at Catherine Hill Bay.”
Some of the vessels attended by the rocket brigade
At 11pm on 4th July, 1884, the Susan Gilmore struck a short stretch of sand beyond a ring of rocks – Bar Beach. The seas were too rough for the lifeboat to venture near so the Rocket Brigade fired a line over the wreck, and with a breaches buoy hauled in the Captain’s wife and son, the some of the crew. All were saved.
On the night of 5th June, 1888, the weather was bad, seas enormous. The Berbice, heavily loaded, foundered near the present Stockton Surf Clubhouse. With seas pounding and waves sweeping over her, the Rocket Brigade went to assist. The first 2 rockets that were fired from the Rocket Cart missed the ship; a third went over the rigging where the crew sheltered. The rescue task was extremely perilous but all the crew was brought ashore in a breeches buoy, dragging each man through the raging surf to the safety of the beach.
Early in the morning of 27th December, 1895, the Barque Durisdeer, was wrecked off Stockton Beach. The tug’s towline parted near the heads and it is believed that the line fouled on one of the many wrecks in the area. In the early hours of the morning the brigades fired a line over the wreck and, despite all odds were successful in bringing all 18 crew members ashore. Captain Webster was the last to leave.
The collier Wallarah was wrecked in Catherine Hill Bay April, 1914. The Rocket Cart, drawn by four horses, left Stockton with eleven men to travel the twenty six miles through the bush of Charlestown and the rough country to the south. Upon arrival eleven men were already ashore, but the remaining six were rescued by rocket apparatus in less than half an hour. The Government employees were docked a day’s pay for being absent from work although they received sevenpence for brigade duty.
In June, 1928, the coastal steamer Uralla was caught in a storm damaging her steering. She ended up wrecked on Stockton Beach. The Rocket Brigade was called, but the crew was already safe.
Most people in Newcastle and the Hunter were looking forward to a relaxing long weekend, planning a few days off. As we now know it was anything but a relaxing long weekend.
The Newcastle and Hunter Region will never forget the weekend when storms and floods closed down the heart of Newcastle, the Pasha Bulker went aground on Nobbys Beach and the levee system around Maitland was pushed to its limit.
On Thursday night, June 7, 2007, the Bureau of Meteorology warned of potential extreme weather conditions with a low pressure cell developing just north of Newcastle.
Over the next 12 hours this low generated gale force south easterlies that buffeted the city until midday on Friday, June 8, redeveloping in the middle of the afternoon as a line of thunderstorms that ceaselessly battered Newcastle throughout the evening, causing life threatening flash flooding in low lying area.
There was disastrous damage caused by the flooding but more was to come. At 2am on Saturday, June 9, a second low hit the city.
A family of four and a nephew were killed when a section of road collapsed under their car as they drove along the Pacific Highway at Somersby on the Central Coast. Two people died when their four-wheel drive was swept off a bridge by floodwaters at Clarence Town and a man died near Lambton when he was swept into a storm-water drain.
The following day, a man died when a tree fell onto his vehicle at Brunkerville. Another man died during a house fire that, it is believed, was started by a candle being used during the blackouts caused by the storm. The total death toll rose to ten.
Newcastle has its very own castle turret on top of The Hill in the form of the Leading Light Tower or Beacon Tower. It was one of two built to assist captains in bringing their ships safely into the port. The coast around Newcastle is littered with hundreds of shipwrecks and the pair of towers built in 1865/1866 helped to increase the safety of vessels entering the Hunter River.
The Leading Light Tower (or Beacon Tower) on the corner of Tyrrell and Brown Streets on The Hill looks a little like an old shot tower, but it’s not. It’s one of the navigational towers that was built in Newcastle in the mid-19th century to allow safe navigation into what was then quite a treacherous harbour
Listen to Carol Duncan’s interview with heritage strategist Sarah Cameron.
“At that time transportation by sea was pretty much the only way you could get goods in and out of Newcastle so the beacon tower – originally one of a pair built in 1865 – was important to allow captains to bring their vessels into the port unaccompanied and to safely navigate the heads.”
Sarah Cameron – Heritage Strategist
In an era of satellite navigation, the tower is low-tech. “It really does look quite medieval but at the time it was pretty high tech. We were really starting to invest in the port. After many shipwrecks the NSW government recognised the importance of trying to protect goods coming in and out of the harbour and to facilitate the expansion of our coal export trade which was really starting to gain momentum.”
This one was built in 1865 but there were two. “The other one was down on Tyrrell St towards to beach so a ship would come around Nobbys head, line up the two towers and once they got them into a line they knew that they were clear of the reef. However, it was designed in Sydney, perhaps not designed by local maritime engineers and there were problems with its effectiveness.
After the loss of a number of ships on the notorious Oyster Bank, the lights became known by mariners as the ‘misleading lights’. Navigators argued that the towers were too close together so the margin of error was around 200 feet. In a big sea, that 200 feet could be crucial. In 1917 the government put in new towers in Church Street and the harbour foreshore where they remain to this day but they’ve been moved around and are now modern structures,” said Sarah.
Built in 1865, the Cawarra disaster happened just the year after the foundation stones for the Lead Light Towers were laid: “Yes, this tower was originally only seven metres tall. It was ineffective once the parsonage was built down on Tyrrell Street and obscured the view of this top tower from the heads. So James Barnet, who was the colonial architect of the time, rebuilt it on the same base but extended it to 20 metres.”
“Barnet was the government architect of the day and he’d have had a team working for him. He was responsible for many of the great buildings in NSW including Sydney’s Customs House, Darlinghurst Courthouse and the Australian Museum.” Sarah adds, “You can see his trademark in this tower in that it looks like a castle or chess piece. It’s quite whimsical and fitting for New-Castle! Architecturally it is quite a folly, you have to wonder why anyone would bother.”
The tower used to have a roof over it and a burner in the bottom of the tower which was lit at night so that when ships were entering the heads at night the slot windows would illuminate from within.
“This one has survived which is great for our city as it’s a real icon. The other one of the pair was demolished although the base is still in the front yard of a house down the hill so the archaeological resource remains. It was actually in the garden of the harbour master.”
The doorway to the tower has now been sealed so any maintenance by council engineers has to be done via a cherry picker, but the harbour master was responsible for ensuring that the towers were lit, and stayed lit.
Other navigation devices at the time included the obelisk on Obelisk Hill and Flagstaff Hill which is where Fort Scratchley stands.
“The lighthouse at Nobbys was built in 1854, so there was a whole series of navigational infrastructure put in by the colonial government in order to expand the port and make sure that our coal export trade was able to provide economic benefits to the nation.”
The French barque Adolphe is just one of many shipwrecks that litter the entrance to Newcastle Harbour, yet 110 years after the disaster, this vessel is still one of the most visible. Carol Duncan spoke with Deb Mastello of the Newcastle Maritime Centre. [ABC Radio 2014]
A walk along the 2km stretch of Stockton Breakwall known as the Shipwreck Walk will allow you to see the remains of the Adolphe – yet the remains of The Sygna wrecked in 1974 are expected to be gone within the next decade.
Having sailed from Antwerp, the Adolphe was ultimately heading for Sydney to load wheat, however in large seas the ship came to grief on Newcastle’s notorious ‘Oyster Bank’ in 1904 after colliding with the wreck of another vessel, the Colonist, whilst being manoeuvred in to port by the tugs ‘Hero’ and ‘Victoria’.
The terrible irony of the story of the Adolphe is that it shouldn’t have actually come in to Newcastle at all.
In 1904 there were competing tug companies working in the port and the company that had chartered the Adolphe used its own operators.
When the Adolphe arrived off Newcastle, the captain waited in vain for the tug operators to arrive.
Eventually, the Adolphe was readied to be brought in to port by a competing tug company and it was on the way in that the message was seen at Nobbys Signal Station from the owners of the Adolphe to NOT enter Newcastle, but to continue straight past onto Sydney.
In large seas, the Adolphe was hit by three waves – the first of which broke the rope securing the Adolphe to the Victoria; the second save pushed the Adolphe toward the Oyster Bank (already littered with wrecks); and the third wave lifted the Adolphe and deposited the ship on top of several other wrecks including the Colonist, the Wendouree and the Cawarra. The Cawarra disaster in 1866 itself remains one of the worst in Australian maritime history.
While the loss of the Adolphe was a terrible loss for the company, all 47 persons on board the ship were safely removed and indeed the Australian Consul-General for France came to Newcastle to officially recognise the work of the lifeboat crew.
The rescue of the ship’s crew has gone down in local maritime history as one of the most remarkable in local waters.
Pleased to be able to share – my great great grandfather Henry Martin, far right, holding the boat.
This is taken in the water around the Pilot Station where he worked as crew of the “Victoria” Lifeboat. (Olive Hoggan’s (also her gr.g/father) photo.)
Henry Martin d.1899, No 2, Pilots Row, Newcastle, now called the Boatmens Cottages on Nobbys Rd. opposite Fort Scratchley. The 1st rescue while working on the “Victoria”, we have record of, is the “City of Newcastle”.
The little boy in the photo is Charles Henry Martin, son of Henry Martin, so dates the photo to approximately 1880.
Anyone who is keen on Newcastle’s history owes a great debt of gratitude to Ralph Snowball.
End of Dyke, Newcastle, NSW, 19 July 1900
Thousands of his glass negatives have been preserved and digitised by the University of Newcastle Archives and Cultural Collections and browsing through them on Flickr is bound to lead to hours disappearing down this fantastic historical rabbit-hole.
Photo: Ralph Snowball collection held by the University of Newcastle