Sunday, May 03, 2009

North Coast Memories - SS Fitzroy

Over on the New England Australia blog I have started an irregular series called Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast.  This gives me another excuse for a somewhat nostalgic peek back into the past. SS Fitzroy Coffs Harbour  Those interested can find the series here.

In preparing Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Coffs Harbour Surf Music, I came across this photo from the NSW State Library.

The photo by J H Howarth shows the SS Fitzroy at the Coffs Habour Jetty. The caption says c1925. That is almost certainly wrong for reasons that I will explain in a moment. But look at the picture first.

The Fitzroy maintained a weekly service between Sydney and Coffs Harbour carrying passengers and cargo. Notice how crowded the ship is. At 623 tons, it is not a big ship. Passengers, crew and cargo were all crowded aboard.

You can see the railway lines on the Jetty. These brought logs from the surrounding forests including the Dorrigo. The luggage with the initials JH has presumably been offloaded or, more likely, is waiting to be loaded. The women in the front in the long dress and hat leaning to the side is watching passengers being unloaded in a basket by crane. There is no gangway.

This method of loading and unloading passengers was apparently quite common. A few years back I was talking to Eric Reeves who attended the Armidale Teachers College in the 1930s. To get home for holidays, one of his friends used to take the train from Armidale to Sydney and then catch the steamer to Woolgoolga. The wharf at Woolgoolga stretched out into the sea from the beach. There he would be swung in a basket from the ship to the wharf.

For those who do not know Woolgoolga, it is on the coast north of Coffs Harbour. It is just over 212 kilometres from Armidale, a bit over 3 hours by road. The long trip to Woolgoolga by Sydney is a sign of just how bad transport could be in New England even in the 1930s. The first tarred road to the coast dates, I think, from the late 1950s or early 1960s.

From the clothes that people are wearing, it does look as though the photo was taken after the First World War. However, it could not have been 1925.

On the afternoon of Saturday 25 June, 1921, the Fitzroy left Coffs for Sydney. During the night the ship ran into a cyclonic storm. Around 6.30 am on the Sunday a large quantity of water came aboard. The ship began to list increasingly to port. Water was discovered pouring in, apparently from an open ash-shoot and from a smashed port hole. 

The crew attempted to jettison the cargo, but there was no steam for the winches. The engineer then announced that the position was hopeless. The crew prepared the boasts for launching, but the captain felt that there was too much risk of them being overturned or smashed if launched. Instead, he decided that it would be better to let them float off as the vessel sank.

Now look again at the photograph. You can see the two boats at the back, plus one on the side not far back from the funnel. There would not be a lot of room once those boats were swung out. The ship was listing badly and tossing heavily. Getting the boats safely into the water would have been quite a task.

Around 8am, the timber deck cargo shifted, causing the ship to capsize off Cape Hawke near the Manning River. Two of the boats with people in them floated off, but one immediately capsized. Of the 35 people on board, 31 were drowned. One survivor, seaman Olaf Johannson, managed to swim for 14 miles through raging seas to reach the shore.

A few kilometres over the horizon, the SS Our Jack, 281 tons, was also sunk. The SS Brundah came to her aid, rescuing four of her crew of ten.

The North Coast seas could be quite dangerous, leading to a lot of wrecks over time. It is quite an eery feel looking at that photo and knowing what is in store for the ship in the not too distant future.            


Jack Loney, Wrecks on the New South Wales Coast, Oceans Enterprises, 1993, ISBN 0646110810, 9780646110813, p 137, accessed via Google Books, 3 May 2009.

Argus, Melbourne, 26 July 1921 carries a report on the commission of inquiry into the sinking. Accessed on-line 3 May 2009. There are some discrepancies between Jack Loney's account and that in the Argus. The most important one is that Loney suggests that four out of 26 survived.  


Your Secret Admirer said...

I was holidaying some years ago with my wife and mother-in-law at Coffs Harbour. We had dinner several night in a row at some of the restaurants nearest to that jetty. On a couple of moonlit nights we walked on the jetty you describe, it was an incredible structure, full of historical memory.

Back in the 1970s I had not seen the jetty during a school-age camping trip I'd taken to Coffs with a bunch of friends.

But returning to show off the region to relatives I was myself struck by the wonderful way the locals had kept up with change. Tourism was re-inventing the region combining the wonders of that old jetty with the delights of the nearby modern Asian-influenced restaurants.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, SA. I think that you are quite right about the Jetty's reinvention.