Postcard of the wreck of the Victor off Newcastle

Wreck of the Coaling Brig Victor

Mariners used to describe the port of Newcastle as a ‘hellhole’ with over 200 vessels having been wrecked in and around the mouth of the Hunter River.

Numerous lives have been lost in local waters; the wreck of the Cawarra in 1866 is still considered one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters, with only one of the 61 passengers and crew on board the vessel surviving the wreck. Many of the victims of the Cawarra disaster were buried in a mass grave in the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral.

In spite of huge advances in technology and major changes to the port to improve its safety, Newcastle waters continue to take a toll.

The 1974 storm that claimed the Norwegian vessel MV Sygna caused the closure of both Newcastle and Sydney ports, and major damage was caused along a large part of the coast. The 2007 ‘Pasha Bulker’ storm saw the ship beached within metres of where the TSS Maianbar ran aground in fine weather in 1940.

While it’s just a matter of time before, once again, the crowds take to the foreshore to see the latest victim of our coast, this month’s postcard for Lost Newcastle Postcard Patrons features a shipwreck from 1866.

The story of the Victor and the incredible rescue in large seas was recorded in the Illustrated Sydney News on 16 April 1866:

On the 16th ult, the brig Victor, of and for Melbourne from Newcastle, with coals, was becalmed off the latter port, and slowly drifted ashore until the captain, not liking the vessel’s position, attempted, unsuccessfully, to wear her, and immediately afterwards she bumped heavily.

The steam tug Prince Alfred went to her assistance and got her in tow, but unfortunately the line broke, and a heavy sea catching her, she went bodily on the rocks, about three quarters of a mile from Nobbys, close to the. Harbour master’s residence, and at once commenced to breakup.

The City of Newcastle (s.), Captain Summerbell, steamed as close as she could with safety, and then lowered the life boat, but the sea was running too high to approach the wreck, on the forecastle of which, were assembled the crew ; and after several ineffectual efforts the boat returned.

A messenger was then despatched for the port lifeboat, which started in tow of the Rapid. Had the unfortunate mariners been dependant on her for safety none would ever have reached the shore.

Fortunately a brave seaman, Mr. Vegesach, chief officer of the Royal Exchange, seeing their danger, secured a line round his body, and, at the imminent risk of his life, swam through the breakers, and reached the vessel safely ; and a large line, secured to the bulwarks, having been drawn ashore, the crew, with the assistance of by-standers on the beach, were safely landed, much exhausted.

And almost immediately after, every vestige of the wreck disappeared, with the exception of some floating spars and pieces of timber, which were being crushed to fragments against the rocky cliffs.

The crew lost everything they possessed, and were relieved by the charitable inhabitants of the port, who supplied them with clothing, &c.

A public subscription has been started to procure a suitable testimonial for Mr. Vegesach, to whose gallantry the men owe their lives, and we trust that the first Albert Medal which reaches’ Australia will be one bearing his name.

On 4 February 1939, another article appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate which hinted at the identity of Mr Vegesach*:

‘A recent Illustration in the “Newcastle Morning Herald” showed the dismasted brig Victor, as she lay a total wreck to the south of Nobbys in 1860.

The vessel was driven ashore during a storm after she had completed her loading, consisting of 400 tons of coal for a Melbourne buyer. The voyage was destined never to be made.

The brig got well away to sea, but met the full fury of the gale which sent her back almost to the point at which she began her voyage. She struck the rocks in the vicinity of the present Ocean Baths but, being heavily laden, was far out in the surf when she grounded.

That no lives were lost was due to the gallantry of the chief officer of another sailing vessel, the Royal Exchange.

Edward Vegesack* swam with a light line to the Victor. Several attempts were made before he took the line to the members of the crew, who had themselves been unable to cope with the seas.

The circumstances were brought under the notice of the authorities by Captain John Vine Hall, of the Panama, New Zealand and Australian Royal Mail Company, and others, who found that the crowd of people about the ocean front at the time cordially supported the efforts to have Vegesack honoured.

He had, it was said, not only risked his life by being carried to sea and drowned, but was in danger of shark attack. The suction of swirling waters about the vessel drew him from sight at one time, and the impression was that he had lost his life. He was found near the other side of the vessel, however, and was hauled on board.

It was many months before the arrangements for the presentation, in recognition of his action could be finalised, but according to the facts in possession of Mr. F. A. Cadell, a member of the Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society, it was done handsomely.

He received from his admirers a Troughton sextant bearing the following inscription:

“Presented to Edward Vegesack, by admirers of his daring conduct In swimming on board the brig Victor, March 17, 1866, wrecked near Newcastle, and saving the crew.”

On top of this wording in circular form are the words, “Palman qui meruit ferat” (‘Let him who has won it, wear the palm”). In addition, he received a gold watch costing £32, which was brought from England, and had been made by the celebrated firm, Crisp and Company, 81 St. John’s Road, London, and a pair of night glasses.

Vegesack had left Newcastle, and the presentation was made long after the incident associated with the wreck of the brig. He had forgotten all about it, but Captain Vine Hall and other seafaring people were busy in the meantime.

Invited to “meet a few friends” when his ship returned to port, Vegesack confessed to “the surprise of his life” when handed the gifts, accompanying which was a round sum of money.

The sextant and other gifts, he said, in a characteristic seaman’s speech of half a dozen words, would be treasured. He refused to accept the gold believing that one seaman should always help another. The gold, at his request, was divided among’ the crew of the Victor, who had lost everything but their lives.

But who was ‘Mr Vegesack’?

Online genealogy forums suggest that Mr Vegesack was not just the hero of the Victor shipwreck, but possibly the son of a Swedish noble family.

It’s possible that the man referred to in the rescue story of the Victor was Emil Edward von Vegesack, born in Sweden c1831.

His Certificate of Naturalisation says that he arrived from Sweden at the age of 28 having arrived on the ship Prince Alfred in 1859. At the time of his naturalisation, he was ‘residing in Sydney’ and ‘being desirous of commanding a British vessel trading between Port Jackson and other Ports, and of becoming a permanent resident in the said Colony and of holding real property therein’.

Genealogy forums suggest that he was the son of Baron Eberhard Ferdinand Emil von Vegesack and Ulrika Christine Sofia Lythberg. 

The same forums claim that in 1867, Emil Edward von Vegesack was killed – along with all of his shipmates – ‘while bartering for tortoiseshell at a small island in the Solomon group’. 

A tragic end for the hero of the Victor.

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