Fremantle Stuff > books and papers > Hitchcock 1921e

Early Days of Fremantle:

Wreck of the s.s. “Georgette”:
A Western Australian Grace Darling

J.K. Hitchcock

Hitchcock, J.K. 1921e, 'Early Days of Fremantle Wreck of the s.s. “Georgette” A Western Australian Grace Darling, Fremantle Times, Friday 4 March 1921: 2.

"The 'Georgette' has gone down!"  Such was the terrible report which, on  Saturday night, December 2, 1876, was  flashed through the telegraph wires over  the length and breadth of the colony,  and excited a widespread feeling of  alarm amongst the friends and relatives  of the passengers and crew, about whose  fate the wildest rumours soon began to  circulate. 

Nowadays we are accustomed tp catastrophes  of one kind and another that  few can realise the consternation that  was created, "by the news of this event.  At that time the population of the  whole State did not exceed 27,000 people,  and but few of these had ever  seen a larger steamer than the  "Georgette," or known of a vessel, to  leave the port of Fremantle with such  a large complement of passengers as  she was carrying. She, however, would  be considered very small in the present  day, being a screw steamer of only 212  tons net, and 337 tons gross register.  She was built at Dumbarton in 1872,  and was for a short time engaged in  the coal trade between Cardiif and the  Continent, when she was purchased by  Messrs. Cc|nnor (and McKay for employment  on the Western Australian  coast. It is hardly correct to say, as  some do, that she was the pioneer of the  coastal steam service, as, prior to her  advent a little steamer named the  "Xantho," belonging to Mr. C. E. Broad  hurst, had been running between Fremantle  and Geraldton until her career  was ended in December, 1872, by contact  with a reef in the vicinity of Jurien  Bay.

The "Georgette" arrived in Fremantle  from Glasgow in September, 1873,  and thereupon was placed in the coasting  mail service under contract with the  Government. Early in her colonial  career she met -with ill luck, for, on the  return trip from Albany she struck on  the Murray Reef on October 19, 1873,  and narrowly escaped becoming a total  wreck. At the time she was in charge  of the chief officer, the captain who  brought her out having left her at Albany  in order to return liome by the  P. and O. steamer. She was got off  and repaired, but the mishap cost the  chief officer his short-lived promotion to  master. On her last ill-fated voyage  she was proceeding to Adelaide for  overhaul, via Bunbury, Busselton and  Albany, carrying about 50 passengers, a  crew of 22 and a cargo consisting- principally  of jarrah timber, hides and  wiiale oil.

As the names of the crew and passengers  will be familiar to many old residents  of Fremantle it may not be  without interest if I mention them here.  Crew; John Godfrey, master; William  Dundee, chief officer; John Dewar, second  mate; Wm. Sinclair, chief engineer;  J. Horrigan, second engineer; W. Horton,  steward; R. Cruise second steward;  Ann Breman, stewardess; J. Wilson, E.  Johns, T. Lennon, Firemen; J. Hearns,  W. Cameron, A. Brand, A. McLeod, J.  Schroder, R. Munce, T. McGovern, V.  Turpin, A.B.'s; John Brown, cook; J.  Norman and ~J. Plaice, boys. Passengers  : Saloon, for Adelaide, Mrs. E.  Harris, Mrs. Herbert Dixon and infant,  Miss Dixon Master Geo. Leake, J. P.  Dempster, W.- S. Dempster, Thos. Connor  (part owner), Mr. Poole, Mr.  Geddes, J. P. Lambe, M. Crawthorne;  steerage, Mrs. Jane Weeks, Mrs. E.  Maxwell and two children, Mrs. Conlin,  Mrs. A. Stammers, Mrs. Simpson and in  fant, Mr. Oliver, Mrs. Susan Davis and  child, John Maloney, S. Wells, J. Anderson,  T. Savage, F. Goldsworth, J.  Denny, W. Gill, W. Walter, Miss C.  Hall, Miss C. Welch, H. Hobbs, W.  Trainor, R. Flanagan, Mr. and Mrs.  Weston, Mr. and Mrs. H. Miers, Jas.  Johns, H. Fisk,- Mr. Le Mesurier, Mrs.  Osborne, and Master Osborne.

The "Georgette" left Fremantle on  the morning of Wednesday, November  29,. 1876 ,and landed at Bunbiiry a few  pasengers whose names are not inclued  in the above list. Clearing from  Busselton on the afternoon of the 30th  all went well until the vessel reached  about mid-way between Cape Naturaliste  and Cape Hamelin, distant from the  coast about 25 miles, when it was discovered  that she had sprung a leak,  and was making water rapidly. Thia  was about midnight; the sea was tolerably  smooth, and the moon shone  brightly ,thus favouring operations for  preserving life. The , pumps soon became  disabled, and finding that the  water must very soon extinguish the  furnace fires, Captain Godfrey, who  displayed the most commendable coolness  and courage throughout, ordered a  course to be shaped for land with the  greatest speed the engines would give.  There were about twenty women and  children on board, and, of course, their  welfare was the first consideration.  Fifteen miles from land the life boat  was lowered and filled with passengers,  but soon afterwards she was stove in  against the side of the steamer. She  contained sixteen passengers, mostly  women and children, and of these six  were drowned, namely, Mrs. Susan  Davis and child, Mrs. Maxwell and two  children, and Mrs. Herbert Dixon's  daughter, aged eight years. A lad  named Obosrne was at first supposed to  be drowned, but was afterwards found  dead in his bunk; it was thought that  he died in a fit caused by fright. The  remainder of those in the water were  rescued by J. Dewar, second officer, and  J. P. and W. S. Demptser (passengers),  and, being placed in another boat which  was lowered for their assistance, they  ultimately reached the shore next day  at a place called Minninup.

Shortly after sunrise the vessel was  run on a sandbank, a short distance  from land, near the Margaret River, in  the neighbourhood of Mr. A. P. Busscll's  farm, and those still on board  eventually reached the shore with the  greatest difficulty. Meanwhile the most  intense excitement prevailed in Perth  and Fremantle as news filtered through.  The telegraph offices in both places were  kept open all night in anticipation of  further particulars reaching Busselton,  and the operators were besieged by anxi  ous enquirers, numbers' of whom had  friends or relatives on board. On Monday,  December 4, the small steamer  "Start" was despatched from Fremantle  for the scene of the wreck, having  on board Marine Surveyors, Captain  Owston and Mr. James Storey (shipwright).  At Bunbury Captain Hairis,  of the "Charlotte Padbury," joined the  party, and from Busselton they proceeded  overland to the wreck. They  found that most of the passengers' luggage  hadj been saved, but that the vessel  and cargo were irrecoverable. The  schooner "lone" had previously been  despatched from Busselton, but she returned  without having been able to effect  communication with the wreck,  though she brought back to Busselton  five of the passengers and three of the  crew of the life boat whom she had  found at Minninup.

It was in the difficult and dangerous  operation of landing the passengers from  tlie wreck through the heavy surf that  Miss Grace Bussell rendered heroic service,  and earned for herself the title of  "The Western Australian Grace Darling."  This young lady, who was only  16 years of age, was an expert horsewoman,  and was out searching for cattle  in the early morning when she descried  the "Georgette" in her perilous  position, with most of the passengers  still on board, and every rising surge  threatening to engulf her. Without a  moment's hesitation 1 Miss Bussell  plunged into the surf on horseback, and  it is said that on her first return to the  shore she carried a woman on her back  and a, baby in her arms, bringing both  to safety. For four hours 6he bravely  kept at her task, and when at "last  every person was landed she rode eight  miles to her father's farm for assistance  and clothes for the helpless women and  children. Wet and exhausted she fainted  on reaching home, and for a time  could not communicate to her father  and brother what had happened. On  learning the fact the Bussell family  hastened to the assistance of the shipwrecked  people whom they brought to  their homestead and treated them with  the greatest hospitality until means  were ' available for conveying them to  Fremantle.

Miss Grace Bussell was awarded" the  medal of the Royal Humane Society, and  undouoteoiy her deed of heroism deserves  to oe bracketed with that of  urrace Darling, daughter of the Jt'arne  island liglit-Keeper, whose daring action  in saving life from the wreck of the  steamer Forfarshire in 1838 caused her  name to become a housenold word all  over Europe. The following lines from  a poem written in praise of Grace  Darling are equally true of Grace  Bussell:—

'Mid the warfare of wind and wave,
And dash of the blinding spray,
That chilled not her hope, nor hand,  nor heart,
Nobly the maiden played her part,
Winning the hard-fougiit day.
Swiftly the tiding flew
Of the Jieorine's deed of} love;
And her courage ten thousand bosoms  stirred,
And the name of "Grace" was a household  word,
Dearest, all names above.

Miss Bussell became the wife of the  late Surveyor-General Brockman, and  was the mother of Brigadier-General E.  Drake-Brockman, C.B.O., M.C., D.S.O.,  who is one of our Federal Senators.  Another son is Mr. K. E. Drake-Brockman,  who is a candidate for the Claremont-Cottesloe  seat at the forthcoming  State elections.

The Bussell family, after whom Busselton  is named, settled in the Margaret  River district as far back as  1834, and named their homestead  "Cattlechosen" from the fact that the  rich pasture land which they selected  and still hold, was discovered through  following their straying cattle to the  locality, the bovines being good judges  of tha kind of country that best suited  them.

The two Dempster brothers, tfho also  played a conspicuous part in rescuing  the ''Georgette's" passengers, were  members of an, old Western Australian  family. Their grandfather was th  ownert of the "Eagle," which traded in  the early days between Australia and  Timor, and he was among the first settlers  on the Swan. Their father, Captain  Dempster, relinquished a seafaring  life to engage in agricultural pursuits  in the Toodyay district from whence he  conducted a notable exploring expedition  into the interior in the year 1861.  The lure of the sea, however, was often  too strong for him, and up to 1868 he  made occasional trips to Mauritius in  command of the "Mary - Ann," an ol  bluff-bowed, square-stemed, topsail  schooner of 104 tons register, of which  he was the owner.

Before taking command of the  "Georgette" Captain Godfrey, who was  formerly a member of the water police  force, had been in charge of various  coasting vessels. After the loss of the  steamer he became master of Messrs.  J. and W. Bateznan's brig "Laughing  Wave," which was employed chiefly in  the China trade, and it was from her  that he disappeared one night whilst on  a voyage from Fremantle to Wyndham.  It was supposed that he walked overboard  whilst in a state of somnambulism.

Tlie "Georgette's" chief officer, William  Dundee, was afterwards well kown  as master of different sailing vessels engaged  in the coastal trade. Latterly  he made a speciality of contracting for  the delivery of luggers from jjtie builders  to the owners at Broome, and it  was whilst taking one of these-vessels to  the pearling grounds that he and his  crew were lost in a cyclone a few years  ago.

I omitted to mention that when the  "Georgette" first arrived in Fremantle  in 1873, she created a commotion similar  to that which is often noticeable when a  train steams into an out-back hamlet,  and the whole population flock to the  station to gawk at the passengers. The  "Georgette" berthed at the Long Jetty,  the first section of which had just been  completed, and if she had been the  "Great Eastern" she could not have attracted  a larger crowd. Many employers  gave their hands an hour or two off  to go and view the novel sight. Truly  we were a primitive community in those  days! 

References and links

J.K. Hitchcock page


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