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Wreck of Clipper Catherine Adamson

Shipbuilder: Alexander Duthie & Co.; 1855 Owner: H. Adamson, Aberdeen

(A recent newspaper extract believed to be from the Sydney Morning Herald)
On the night of October 23 1857, the 888 ton clipper ship Catherine Adamson was caught off the edge of North Head in an 80 mile per hour gale and sank. Since that day the wreck has slept in 5 fathoms of water, virtually undisturbed and rarely visited in more than 100 years.  In 1957 Ben Cropp examined the wreck site but it has been only recently that a regular visitor has explored what remains.  Stephen Wagstaff, a professional diver, underwater explorer, adventurer and owner of a small maritime museum has made many dives to the Catherine Adamson bringing back crusty souvenirs of the once proud ship. Stephen whose file cabinet includes information of more than 4,000 Australian ship wrecks, tells the Clipper's story.

Carrying gold from the minefields, wool and mail from the colonies, the Catherine Adamson had made a record run of 68 days to England in 1856. She was a true credit to her Captain and to her crew. This time she had made the journey in 87 days out from Falmouth. She was heavy with cargo and ready for fat profits when she anchored outside Sydney's headlands. In fact she was called the "booze barge". Because of her load of scotch whisky, gin, beer and other spirits.  Captain Smart and a Crew of 34 with 8 passengers watched with assurance as the pilot, young John Hawkes boarded the Catherine Adamson to steer her into Sydney harbour. Two facts however troubled the Captain.  A very strong southerly was blowing waves against the North Heads treacherous rocks and just 2 months earlier in similar conditions another clipper ship, the Dunbar, with a 122 immigrants had been lost with all hands save one.

The Dunbar (Sunderland) approaching the harbour earlier on 20th August 1857, made a miscalculation of position in respect to port Jackson due to the rain and darkness which was  to have disastrous consequences. On squaring up for the run into port, Captain Green apparently believed that they were approaching North Head. When the shout 'breakers ahead!' was heard, the Dunbar drove onto boulders at the foot of South Head.  One man out of the complement of 121 persons, Able Seaman James Johnson, found himself hurled onto a rocky ledge and, scrambling higher, became the sole survivor. The remaining 58 crew and all 63 passengers perished.

At The Gap, (Watsons Bay) a brave fellow volunteered to go down and send up some of the mangled corpses now and then lodging on the rocks beneath - now the trunk of a female from the waist up; now the legs of a male; the body of an infant; the right arm, shoulder and head of a female; a bleached arm and an extended hand; then the leg, a thigh, a human head would be hurried along the sea, dashing most furiously, as if in angry derision of our efforts to rescue its prey. One figure, a female, tightly clasping an infant to the breast, both locked in the firm embrace of death, was seen for a moment. Then the legs of some trunkless body would leap from the foaming cataract caused by the receding sea, with feet seen plainly upward in the air to the abyss below, to be again and again tossed up to the dismay of the sorrowing throng above. Illustrated Times? 3 October 1935 (Mitchell Library cutting).

Catherine Adamson _
Pilot Hawkes argued with Captain Stewart that he had been successfully bringing in ships for more than 5 years. Rather than waiting for a really nasty gale to arrive and perhaps keep the Catherine out for more than a week, incurring enormous expense, the best move was to weigh anchor and sail immediately.  To no avail the Captain argued that it seemed too dangerous.  The young pilot's will prevailed and the ship headed for the entrance.  Then the troubles began. The winds increased to cyclone velocity and blew away the fore sail.  The Captain again argued that they should return to sea before it was too late but the stubborn pilot was convinced of his judgement and headed the Captain towards Spring Cove for shelter. Increasing winds and waves were against them. Soon they found themselves within 15 metres of the breakers of North Head and the pilot and desperate Captain ordered both anchors released.  But the anchors kept slipping and sliding.  The frantic passengers and crew could hear the breakers pounding against the rocks just a short distance away, but they could see nothing in the midnight darkness. They were hardly comforted when distress flares were fired into the night.

Meanwhile, the paddle steamer Williams homeward bound from the Hunter River pulled along side and offered help. The offer was at first not heard because arguments continued on board.  Young Hawkes was for sending for help to the tug Washington achored at Watson's Bay and powerful enough to pull them out.  Paddle steamer Captain Creer shouted through his megaphone for the pilot to send him a rope. "You haven't got the power. Fetch a tug" Hawkes screamed back into the wind. "We're 20 horsepower stronger than any tug" the angry Creer shouted. "Send us a rope you fool". 

Still the arguing continued aboard the Adamson. Finally, a gig and towrope were dispatched but the rope broke. Then there was a second attempt and when the rope finally reached the paddlesteamer, the gig unattended smashed into the paddle wheels of the WilliamsCaptain Creer sensed the need for immediate action and he shouted through his megaphone "Slip your cables".  Again the response was argument aboard the Catherine Adamson. No-one seemed capable of taking command, cutting the anchors free and allowing the Clipper to be towed off by the breaker line.

The time delay caused the Williams to swing broadside and in the confusion the towline was lost. At the same time the Catherine Adamson had drifted perilously close to the 1st line of breakers. The Williams tried to get closer but failed, so Captain Creer set off for Watson's Bay while Captain Stewart aboard the Catherine Adamson saw his last hopes disappear into the darkness.  The crew and passengers pleaded for a lifeboat. The request was granted and a small lifeboat filled with crew and passengers.  When it was only halfway down the side of the hull the beautiful Clipper ship struck the cliff.  The lifeboat and crew hung dangerously midway between breakers and ship.  "Cut the lines" some-one screamed.  The line was cut just as the Captain, having leaped over the Clipper's bulwark landed in the stern of the lifeboat.  The last they all heard in the darkness was the cracking of the mizzen mast.

A passenger, Archibald Blair recounted that, "the mizzen mast was down when we got onto a nearby steamer and the other masts were also coming down". Some of the crew were seen in the topgallant forecastle and as the steamer left the scene, those on board could hear the screams of the men in the rigging of `save us, save us!'. By the time the steamer arrived back from Watsons Bay, the ship was beam ends onto the rocks, and only the forecastle and bowsprit were to be seen rising out of the surf ".

One hour later when a tug finally arrived the trim Catherine Adamson had been thoroughly wrecked and sunk. There was no sign of life except for 3 bulls and 2 horses which had escaped their pens on the deck of the Clipper. They stood drenched and bewildered at the foot of the cliff.  Flotsam and jetsam was everywhere and the news of the wreck brought pout dozens of local scavengers. It was Crown property as untaxed bounty so they hid everything in nearby bushes to avoid detection by the Police.  A few bodies were recovered, the rest were taken by sharks.  The bodies, including the drowned pilot, were buried in a common grave along with the dead from the Dunbar at St Stephen's Church in Camperdown. Only 5 people had been saved, 1 of them being Captain Stewart.  Subsequently, the Captain tried to recover at least part of his cargo, but their was much argument over the salvage rights and eventually he received nothing.  By 8 to 5, a jury found him blameless for the disaster and the fault was attributed to the young dead pilot - Hawkes.

Catherine Adamson Relics

Today the Catherine Adamson still holds some of its original cargo and it is these treasures which Stephen Wagstaff has brought back to Sydney.  "The water is always dirty from the sewerage" he said.  "In fact sometimes you can barely see in front of himself".  But with patience and curiosity we've found some excellent relics such a cannon, brass ship's spikes, solid brass weights, cracked pieces of a dinner service and all sorts of cow bells.  "Each has a story to tell, a bit sad and melancholy, a bit mysterious too, but every new find adds to the picture off that confusing scene of argument and uncertainty aboard the Catherine Adamson on that fateful night in 1857" Stephen said.


She was on her 3rd voyage, an Aberdeen Clipper, of 886 tons, and was commanded from her launch by Captain Stewart, a man of great energy and perseverance, and who, we regret to hear, has lost by this catastrophe the hard earnings of a busy and industrious life." 

Mr. Leathes was the brother of Mr. Leathes, the Secretary, of the London and Liverpool Fire and Life Insurance Company.  The Rev. Jacob Jones, a Congregational Minister, had accepted an invitation in connexion with the New South Wales Home Missionary Society. He was pastor of the Independent church at Melksham, near Bath, and for 6 years was a student at Springhill College, Birmingham.  Mr. Ramsay was the second brother of Mr. Robert Ramsay, of Darling Downs.  Mr. Pilot Hawkes, we regret to say, has left a widow and 4 children.  He arrived in this colony on the 26th of September 1838, as chief Officer of the Lady Fitzherbert. Afterwards he commanded several English and colonial vessels, and finally, for the last four or 5 years, has filled with considerable credit one of the posts of pilot at the Sydney Heads.  The Washington steamer was despatched with her usual promptitude so soon as the unhappy news reached the city.  Great credit is due to Captain Creer, of the Williams steamship.  He remained below to render all the assistance in his power until 7 o'clock on Saturday morning, when he came up to the Hunter River Wharf.

On the arrival of our reporter at the Heads on Saturday, at 8 am, the wreck of the ill fated Catherine Adamson had entirely broken up, some broken spars and a few packages alone remaining to mark the site of the catastrophe.  On reaching the quarantine station, he found the police boat from Watson's Bay, and a boat from the Woolloomoloo, busily engaged in securing as much of the cargo as possible, great quantities having been drifted ashore by the floodtide; 4 bodies, apparently seamen, were also recovered, and subsequently the body of the pilot, Mr. Hawkes. About noon the Washington steamer returned from Sydney, having on board the Port master and his boat's crew, Captain McLerie, with a strong police force, and also a large number of merchants and gentlemen; amongst whom we observed the Hon. S. A. Donaldson, and the Hon. R. Jones, Colonial Treasurer; the Rev. Canon Walsh, A.M., the Rev. W. Cuthbertson, A.B.; Mr. A. Fairfax, and Mr. Graham, J.P.s; these parties immediately landed, and lent their able assistance to save every particle of cargo that came within reach. The Custom-house, Police, and other boats, which, had also come down from Sydney, pulled out in the more open water, and secured many casks and bales which were put onboard the steamer - Mr. Graham as Lloyd's agent being there to receive them. The wind moderated considerably towards the afternoon, which induced several of the small steamers, loaded with passengers, to visit the scene of the wreck, the principal portion of which had drifted into Spring Cove and on the shores in the immediate vicinity. The Washington, after taking on board the single females from the immigrant ship Boanerges, then came up to Sydney, bringing with her the bodies that had been recovered. T he police force, under Inspectors Weale, Reid, and Mortimer, were indefatigable in preventing the destruction or loss of property, scattered over the beach, and remained at the Heads all night. The Vanquish schooner was at anchor off the Quarantine Station; and on being boarded, Captain Kemp reported that he was in company with the Catherine Adamson from off Botany, and that they entered the Heads together with the true wind at W., but veering in squalls from S.W. to N.W.; the 2 vessels made several tacks together, and were so close at one time that the pilot was heard distinctly calling to the men to be smart in working the ship, or he should have to anchor.  About 10.30 p m. the Vanquish, then on the starboard tack, crossed the bows of the Catherine Adamson, and shortly after went about, when a heavy squall came on from the southward, which must have brought the ship dead on a lee shore. She then burnt blue lights, and the Vanquish, in stretching into Spring Cove, passed her quite close, and found that she had anchored with the rocks close under her heel. Captain Kemp says that at this time there was not much sea on, and the wind, although blowing strong, did not prevent him from carrying all sail.

In addition to the large and valuable cargo onboard were 4 horses and 2 bulls, all of which were lost, with the exception of 1 bull, which succeeded in reaching the shore in safety. During the early part of the morning he was seen in the centre of a mass of broken spars and other wreck, straggling to make the land, which, to the surprise of all who saw it, he reached in safety.  Some M.S. sermons, private diary, and pamphlets, evidently belonging to Mr. Jones, and part bearing his signature, were found and were given over to Mr. Cuthbertson.  The particulars as to the Captain and Chief Officer both leaving the ship, and how it happened that some of the passengers remained onboard, will of course come out at the inquest, which will be held at the King's Arms Inn, Lower George  street, this morning.

Monday Morning
The search for the remaining bodies was continued throughout the whole of yesterday, but none of those lost by the wreck of the Adamson were found. The lower part of the person of a female was discovered, and it is supposed was one that perished in the Dunbar. The Washington steamer proceeded to the wreck early yesterday morning.  The Premier (steamer), engaged by Mir. Graham, agent for Lloyd's, followed, having on board Captain M'Lerie, Captain Puckley, Mr. Parker (the coroner), the Captain and Chief officer of the Catherine Adamson, and persons desirous of recognising the bodies of the passengers. During the day a large quantity of broken cargo was received, consisting of boots, hats, casks of all kinds, cloth, woollens, candles, &c. The bay, from the place where the vessel struck, round to "Manly Cove, was closely" searched, every crevice of the rock being visited, but up to 5 o'clock there was no appearance of any bodies. A quantity of cargo was brought up to town by the Washington; Premier, Aquarius, and William IV. steamers. A small parcel of medical works, containing a letter addressed to Dr. Muller, 15th, Elizabeth Street, was picked up and given over to the police. A piece of a veneered desk, with Jacob Jones engraved on brass, was also found. A number of wreckers were detected in taking away valuable articles from the wreck, which were taken possession of by the Water Police, and placed in charge of Mr. Graham.  The
names and residences of the parties were taken.

An inquest was opened before the City Coroner, touching the deaths of 6 persons, including that of the pilot, whose bodies had been recovered near the scene of the late melancholy disaster at North Head.  After viewing the bodies, the jury proceeded to receive evidence, in which duty they were occupied up to a quarter to 5 pm, when the inquest was adjourned. It was shown in the course of the examination that the cutting away of the ship's masts could have been of no possible utility; on the contrary, that it was a prudent course to keep them standing, as they served to steady the vessel when, the swell set in from S.E. So far as it has gone, the evidence seems to prove that everything was done that could be devised under the circumstances to save the ship, both by her own crew and the men on board the Williams.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013