Painting of the shipwrecked Catherine Hill by Terry Callen, courtesy of Newcastle Maritime Museum Society)
Ex HMAS Adealaide, 1877
The best-known wreck off our shores is not a shipwreck in the normal sense, but an official scuttling. The 138-metre escort frigate served in the Royal Australian Navy until towed out to sea at the end of her service.
The ship lies in around 35 metres of water, a five-minute boat ride off Terrigal Haven. It’s home to an abundance of marine life and is a must-dive spot for experienced scuba divers. Most of the ship’s original structure is in place, and holes were cut to provide divers safe access inside.
Look out for sergeant bakers (dragon snappers), moray eels, striped mados, yellow tail kingfish, crimson banded wrasse and rock cod, as well as visiting wobbegongs and grey nurse sharks.
SS Lord Ashley, 1877
The tale of the shipwreck of the Lord Ashley is shrouded in scandal and a touch of mystery. She was always a slow and unpopular ship and, in Newcastle Harbour in 1877, her crew considered her unseaworthy and dangerously overloaded. They deserted her and the captain ordered their arrest. He did not attend their trial; he was busy offloading 50 tons of coal to make her eligible to leave port! A new crew went on board but also refused to sail in her.
By coincidence, on her next voyage the Lord Ashley leaked so badly, that she had to be abandoned off Terrigal Reef. The crew launched the lifeboats and all made it to shore. The heavy surf broke the ship in two on the rocks, the funnel and mizzen mast went over the side and wreckage was strewn across the length and breadth of the bay.
The Lord Ashley was insured for the princely sum of £7,000. Was she wrecked? Or was she scuttled? A conversation between the captain and the engineer, overhead by local shipbuilder Shem Davis, indicates that if the insurance company had heard them, there would not be any insurance paid out. The circumstances of the ship’s demise have been debated for many years.
[The Lord Ashley Bar at the Crowne Plaza Terrigal Pacific is named after the ship and her namesake, the real Lord Ashley, who is famous for replacing child labour in the UK with school education, and much more.]
SS Commonwealth, 1916
188-ton wooden steamer foundered at Foggy Reef. Now a dive site.
Wooden steamer lost steering and was carried onto Skillion Rock.
SS Galava, 1927
The 420-tonne collier was passing Terrigal when water suddenly began leaking through the bow’s hull plates. There was no time to launch lifeboats or fire distress rockets and most of the crew dived over the side as she sank. One swam to Terrigal beach, another to Avoca and the captain to Wamberal. Five crew in all were saved but seven died.
Now a dive site, the wreck lies in 51 metres of water. Wobbegongs, nannygai (red snapper), leatherjackets and seapike abound around the wreck.
SS Kiama, 1951
The cargo of the coastal collier Kiama shifted soon after leaving Newcastle and she capsized in Toowoon Bay. Only six of her 12 crew survived. The wreck is now a dive site.
CAVES BEACH / MOON ISLAND
SS Bonnie Dundee, 1879
At 8 pm on a bright moonlit night, those on the deck of the 130-foot iron steamer, Bonnie Dundee saw the SS Barrabool coming straight towards them. Strangely, reports say the Barrabool was going astern when she hit the Bonnie Dundee, cutting her in two. She sank in just over three minutes. All the women on board drowned, unable to leap across to Barrabool as the men had done. Several weeks later, a shark caught off Sydney’s Northern Beaches contained clothed human remains which were identified as belonging to the cabin boy.
The wreck lies in two pieces, 5 km off Caves Beach south of Moon Island and is accessible to experienced scuba divers.
SS Advance, 1908
Advance was to collide twice with another vessel. The first time, the 180-tonne, iron screw steamer tug, struck the steamer Tuncurry off Norah Head. Two years later, under heavy fog in Newcastle Harbour, she collided with the barque Inverna but continued on her way. Advance’s condition was dire by the time she passed the Swansea Bar and the tug sank six kilometres south of Moon Island with the loss of seven of her eight crew. The wreck is difficult to explore and is partially buried.
Janet Dickson, 1870 [Jenny Dixon]
Residents around Jenny Dixon Beach often talk of seeing the ghost of a young dark-haired girl in a long white dress, with her arms outstretched in a call for help. She is said to be a survivor of the shipwreck of the coal schooner, Janet Dickson in a storm off Noraville, and that she continues to look for her son who died in the wreck. Over the years, the ship’s name was talked of as ‘Jenny Dixon’ after which the local beach was named. (Another ghost, the Phantom Hitchhiker, has also been encountered by many locals around Jenny Dixon Beach.)
The ship’s bell, salvaged many years later, now tolls at Toukley Primary School.
SS Ceres, 1836
Ceres’s claim to fame is that she’s said to be the first Australian-built paddle-wheel steamship to sink in Australian waters. In August 1836, she was seen with sails set heading from Newcastle to Sydney and keeping close in shore in anticipation of strong winds later. That evening, as the 52 passengers sat down for their evening meal, the vessel struck Bullen Agglen Rock off Bungaree Norah. The impact stove in the bow and the inrush of water quickly extinguished the fires in her boilers. Passengers and crew made for the ship’s boat but it could only carry 13 people at a time so four trips had to be made to shore. The ship’s cargo of 60 sheep swam to shore as the vessel settled in seven metres of water. The sheep were seen bobbing up and down in the waves, the lanolin in their wool keeping them afloat. Fortunately, all but one survived. The flock was later walked back to Newcastle.
The ship’s bell hangs at St John’s Theological College, Morpeth.
Ex HMAS Paterson, 1951
The 45-metre paddle steamer operated as a minesweeper during World War II before being returned to her owners in 1945. She tempted fate twice. The first was in November 1947 when she sprang a leak and became beached near Bird Island before being re-floated. Then in 1951, while carrying a cargo of 5,712 bottles of beer to Newcastle, she again sprang a leak and sank near the Norah Head boat ramp. All crew managed to row ashore in a lifeboat except for a stowaway who refused to leave the ship and drowned.
Wooden paddle steamer, beached.
The barque ran aground at Bull Rock in bad weather. Wreckage is scattered.
Screw steamer ran into rocks during a fog at Norah Head.
TSS Nerong, 1917
Twin-screw steamer foundered in a strong gale and lies 5 km east of Norah Head.
Screw steamer ran aground in fog at Pelican Point.
MV Nimbin, 1940
The first Australian merchant ship to strike a German-laid mine.
Gwydir II, 1942
Collided with SS New Hebrides off Norah Head and was run ashore. Referred to as ‘the curse of the Gwydirs’.
CATHERINE HILL BAY
Catherine Hill, 1867
The two-masted schooner, Catherine Hill was built at Wisemans Ferry and just a year after her launch was caught in heavy seas. The ship’s log recorded that: ‘At daylight, the weather was fearful and sea terrific’. The 59-tonne schooner was thrown over on her beam ends. She recovered but was struck again. The captain tried heading to the nearest beach, but the waves breached her again and two crew were washed overboard to their deaths. The remaining crew made it ashore, but the heavy seas shredded their clothing, inflicting cuts and bruises, and washed them naked up onto the beach. The bay was later named Catherine Hill Bay to commemorate the wreck.
SS Shamrock, 1903
The steam collier had just loaded 2,000 tonnes of Wallarah coal when she struck a rock after leaving the wharf. Her new captain had only taken command of her a few days earlier. She beached just 45 metres from shore and could not be refloated. Diver access is from the beach near Catherine Hill Bay Surf Lifesaving Club.
SS Illaroo, 1903
Steam collier carried broadside onto the beach during high seas.
SS Wallarah, 1914
High seas forced the steamer collier onto a reef near the jetty and she was driven onto a reef. Her boiler is still visible.
SS Lubra, 1920
The steamer stuck the wreck of a sunken ship, tearing a hole in her hull. She beached in Catherine Hill Bay. Lubra became the last major wreck recorded in the Bay.
BIRD ISLAND / BIRDIE BEACH
Elizabeth Jane, 1852
The 39-tonne wooden schooner was laden with a cargo of wool and tallow when she was caught in a gale. She was holed but made it onto Birdie Beach. The captain, passengers and all but an unfortunate crew member, who was ill in his bunk, were saved. The captain later delivered the ship’s mail to the post office in a slightly damaged, wet state.
HMAS Allenwood, 1951
Previously used as a minesweeper by the Royal Australian Navy in World War II, the Allenwood ran aground on a sandbank at Birdie Beach in foggy conditions. She could not be re-floated and was dismantled. Often, after big seas, her wreckage becomes visible again on the beach.
SOLE SURVIVOR OF THE BRIG ESPERANZA TOLD OF THE HORROR OF BEING SHIPWRECKED OFF BIRD ISLAND IN 1868:
‘A huge sea hit the ship and … The steward went to the cabin and brought out the little girl, the captains wife followed him. I … called out to her to make haste and get up in the rigging, but unfortunately her dress got caught in the cabin door and the lurch of the vessel threw her forward where she caught hold of an iron railing. Again another huge wave struck … sending her across the deck onto the skylight completely covering her in water. She was washed back and forth across the deck … another huge wave hit and washed her overboard. I never saw her afterwards.’
PSS Maitland, 1898
The most famous historic shipwreck off the Central Coast has a bay named after her, as well as a bombora and the Maitland Gal – the dramatic storm that caused her sinking. The storm claimed the heavily laden paddle steamer with the loss of around 29 lives out of 62 passengers and crew.
In the gale, her deck cargo broke loose causing the paddle steamer to take on water and, just before dawn, the ship crashed onto rocks. Her bow was driven high into the air and the hull was broken apart by the heavy seas. Passengers and crew in the hull had little hope of survival. Those in the shattered stern made it ashore late in the afternoon and the next day. Miraculously, one of the survivors was a baby, Daisy Hammond. Many years later, Daisy revisited the wreck and, when she died at the age of 90, her ashes were scattered over the wreck site at her request.
Little remains of the wreck today beyond fragments of hull and a boiler, visible at low tide. A replica of the ship’s bell is on display at the Maitland Bay Information Centre, and the original bell and a number of other rescued artifacts are on display at Henry Kendall Cottage & Museum in West Gosford.
TSS Hall Caine, 1937
The 40-metre wooden twin-screw steamer was off Cape Three Points, Avoca when it started taking on water at 4.30 pm. At 6 pm Hall Caine rolled over and sank in 54 metres of water between Maitland Bay and Killcare. A court hearing later recorded that: ‘The reasons the ship sank were that the hull was rotten, the hand pump was in bad order, and not properly fitted with a strainer, and other pumps could not be worked because the boilers could not supply sufficient steam’.
The wreck, though known to anglers, lay unrevealed to divers until 1976.
BROKEN BAY AND BOX HEAD
The unfortunately named sloop, Hazard, was driven onto rocks at Box Head during a squall. The captain got into the ship’s boat but was unable to persuade his only crew member, a young boy, to join him. The boy was washed overboard but was dragged from the surf by local Aboriginals. The less fortunate captain drowned after his boat capsized.
Denmark Hill, 1839
One accident at sea is bad luck, two is extremely unfortunate, but beyond that you need to wonder what more is behind the misfortunes. Perhaps it goes back to the superstition that changing a ship’s name incurs the wrath of Neptune. The barque Denmark Hill was launched in Boston under a different name. She was captured as a ‘prize’ by the British in armed conflict with America in the ‘War of 1812’, after which she was renamed and then served as a troop ship, merchant ship and later as a whaler.
• In 1815, while acting as a British troop transfer ship, Denmark Hill ran aground on Margate Sands, England but was refloated.
• In 1839, she was loading coal in Newcastle and ‘fell on her side’ but was righted and set sail for Sydney. As a result of that incident, Denmark Hill had apparently sprung a leak and was leaning dangerously at sea. Her pumps became choked with coal. The pumps were brought up on deck to be cleared but the cargo of coal shifted into the vacant space and the pumps could not be reinstalled. She sought refuge in the lee of Bird Island where she was taken in tow by the tug, Sophia Jane.
• While under tow, Sophia Jane ran into Denmark Hill and two crew fell overboard and perished. The water in the hold rose to five feet and the captain, knowing they could not stay afloat until morning, asked that his ship be beached. Denmark Hill was run aground on a sandy beach in Broken Bay, where she still lies.
• In 1842, the cutter Rover struck the wreck of Denmark Hill and foundered nearby.
Ex HMAS Parramatta, 1934
After serving in World War I, Parramatta was sold to the NSW Penal Department in 1930 to house prison labourers. Following an outcry over the conditions for prisoners, Parramatta was sold as a blue metal transport and then later as a water storage vessel during the Depression. In 1934, while under tow, she broke loose at Milson Island and drifted towards the opposite shore at Cascade Gully. Here she remains as a heritage-listed shipwreck, minus sections of her bow and stern that were cut from her in 1973 for off-site memorials.
Ex HMAS Swan, 1934
The torpedo-boat destroyer was decommissioned in 1928 and, along with Parramatta, was sold several times. In a sudden gale in 1934, both vessels broke free of their tow ropes and Swan was carried down river. She sank at Little Wobby near Dangar Island and lay in 20 metres of water, forgotten, until 1994 when local diver and shipwreck historian, Greig Berry, rediscovered her. Her position, lack of visibility and currents prevent diving at the wreck.
REIDS MISTAKE, LAKE MACQUARIE
The French-owned, 330-tonne brig had left Sydney with just ballast on board when she was caught in a gale. Blown far north, she arrived off Newcastle where her captain requested an immediate return to Sydney. She sailed as far as the entrance to Lake Macquarie before being wrecked on the beach at Reids Mistake, where she remains.
A small, iron steamship of unknown name, and thought to be a fishing vessel or tug from the 1900s, sank in the shallow waters of the Swansea channel 100 metres off the beach. It is visible from passing boats and is encrusted with sponges and corals as well as being home to a variety of marine life. Unfortunately, her location is unsuitable for snorkelling or diving.
Greig Berry provided invaluable help in compiling this article. His book, Shipwrecks of the New South Wales Central Coast Vol I, is an authoritative account of 19th century shipwrecks. It is available from the author: $25 including postage from email@example.com