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The Wreck of the Dunbar

The Wreck of the Dunbar

Nat Williams tells the stories behind the Library’s treasures

Ribbon Retrieved from the Wreck of the Dunbar, 1857,

Some of us are bad travellers. We might imagine that our plane, a modern technological marvel, is going to crash at the first sign of turbulence. Thankfully, we only have to subject ourselves to 20 hours of flying in voyaging today from England to Botany Bay. In the nineteenth century, voyagers had to be made of sterner stuff to cope with the rigours of shipboard life. Weeks of sailing or steaming across the oceans to Sydney and beyond demanded strong stomachs, determination and courage. Tales of shipwreck circulated very regularly in the press and were no doubt disheartening to some prospective migrants, but still they came, taking a calculated risk.

The culmination of the 81-day passage of the ill-fated Dunbar not only terrified its passengers and crew, but also shocked the whole population of Sydney. At midnight on Thursday 20 August 1857, the Dunbar sailed not into Sydney Harbour, as expected, but onto the rocks at the foot of The Gap. Within five minutes, the ship started to break up in the ‘excessive violence’ of the surf that was rolling in, and the screams commenced. By the following morning, Sydney was becoming aware of the tragedy. Of the 63 passengers and 59 crew there was to be only one survivor, a young Irish crewman named James Johnson. Remarkably, he was rescued clinging to the rocks below The Gap after more than 30 hours by Antonio Wollier, an apprentice jeweller, originally from Iceland, who climbed down to save him.

The scene of carnage was widely and frankly published in the papers and in accounts: mutilated bodies, a dead woman still clutching her baby, sharks, severed limbs and heads jumbled in the roiling seas. The terrible scene was reported to have ‘exercised a sort of hideous fascination’ for the people of Sydney, who were unaccustomed to seeing such horror on their doorstep. People travelled out to The Gap to watch, ‘many dreading lest they should have to recognize the familiar face of friend or relative’. Alternatively, some hoped that they might see relatives washed safely onto the rocks as Johnson had been.

Apart from the human flotsam and jetsam there were ‘washed ashore a quantity of sundry articles, such as carpeting, hats, candles, silk, children’s toys, shirts, prints, clothing, bagging, and linen drapery’. One of the more surprising objects to be found in our collection is a piece of ribbon apparently taken from the wreck. This fragile and rather lovely piece of detritus was found by a Mrs Rita Spector in an antique market in London, in 1965. Pinned to the ribbon was a contemporary handwritten note declaring that the ribbon had come from the wreck of the Dunbar with a little more information about the event. Mrs Spector sent the ribbon as a gift. The Library wrote thanking her for her kind thought and she then responded sending a promotional flyer containing a map of ‘The Antique Supermarket’ where she obtained the ribbon and presumably worked offering, ‘you may like to call in one day’.    

Twenty thousand Sydney residents mutely watched, in the prevailing ‘general gloom’ on 24 August 1857, as the lengthy Dunbar funeral procession passed by. It followed only a day after the inquest. The drowned were buried in St Stephen’s Church, Newtown, where an annual commemorative service is still held. The devastating loss of the Dunbar prompted the inauguration of the Hornby Lighthouse on South Head. This tragic event is well documented in the Library’s collections, in often confronting newspaper accounts in Trove and in thousands of items held in the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Nat Williams is the Library's Treasures Curator. The Treasures Curator is supported by Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund. Readers might be interested in Graeme Henderson’s account of the wreck of the Dunbar in NLA Publishing’s Swallowed by the Sea: The Story of Australia’s Shipwrecks, and in Dreadful Wreck, a song penned in 1857 to commemorate the disaster, here performed by Sydney’s Warren Fahey