Dunbar: Dun and Dusted

Hi, it’s Oli again. This time I’m going to tell you about another one of my tasks as an intern at the museum in the curatorial department, which is writing about the infamous Dunbar wreck.

As one of the most significant wrecks in Sydney’s waters, it is important for the museum’s history of the wreck to be complete and accurate. To this end, I found myself reading Kieran Hosty’s book Dunbar 1857, Disaster on Our Doorstep, which paints a fascinating history of the wreck, according to the archaeological discoveries from the wreck site (just south of The Gap, near South Head, Sydney). I am tentative to admit the fact that I didn’t get much work done that day was on account of the book, which is complete with hundreds of images of various artefacts salvaged from the wreck, and provides a vivid insight into a tragic page of Sydney’s past.

Here are some highlights from the story of the Dunbar:

After a fast voyage from England to Australia, Dunbar approached Port Jackson on the night of 20 August 1857, in a rising gale and bad visibility. The Macquarie Light could be seen between squalls, however the night was very dark and the land almost invisible. Shortly before midnight the veteran Captain Green estimated the ship was six miles away from the harbour’s entrance and ordered the vessel on, keeping the Macquarie Light on the port bow.

Buckles removed from the Dunbar wreck, now preserved at the museum.

Shortly afterwards breakers were sighted ahead, and Captain Green, believing the vessel had sailed too far towards North Head, ordered the helm hard to port. Dunbar struck the cliffs just south of the Signal Station at South Head, and the ship immediately began to break up. All 63 passengers and 58 of the crew perished in the disaster.

The sole survivor was James Johnson, an able seaman on watch at the time of the wreck. He was hurled into the surging ocean, where he was thrust by the waves into the cliffs and onto a rocky ledge – he climbed as far up the cliff-face as he could, and managed to get out of the reach of the waves. Johnson would remain there for two days, before being hauled up by a rope lowered over the cliff-face.

Many Sydneysiders knew the people on the ship and large crowds were drawn to the scene of the wreck to watch the rescue of Johnson, the recovery of bodies, and the salvage of cargo – newspapers were filled with graphic descriptions of the wreck for weeks after.

A small selection of the vast number of coins removed from the Dunbar wreck, now preserved at the museum.

The victims of Dunbar were buried at St Stephens Church in Newtown, and an estimated 20,000 people attended. Banks and offices closed, every ship flew their ensigns at half-mast, and minute guns were fired as the procession went past. Later, there was an outpouring of letters demanding the upgrade of the lighthouses, and the issue was raised in Parliament and recommended by the jury of the Dunbar inquest. This recommendation was followed in 1858 when Hornby Lighthouse was constructed.

The museum has a fascinating collection relating to this disaster and my job has been to proof the entries in our collection management system to ensure all the information is correct.

NB. Many of the artefacts in the museum’s Dunbar collection were removed from the wreck by hobby divers during the 1960s and 1970s, before the advent of laws protecting significant historical maritime sites.

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