Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

Dunbar disaster

Camperdown Cemetery, St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown: the Dunbar story

Mass grave for victims of the 1857 shipwrecks, Dunbar and Catherine Adamson. Including private graves for Dunbar victims

Approaching the harbour in 1857, miscalculation of leeway due to the rain and darkness 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.

Dawn gradually unveiled the enormity of the tragedy to the community of Sydney, still a relatively small country town. The death toll of 121 lives staggered the contemporary population. In today's terms it would be the equivalent of six fully laden Jumbo jets crashing into Botany Bay at one time.

Thousands were drawn to the scene and the morbid task of identifying relatives, friends and business associates soon began. James Johnson clung to his precarious hold on the rock ledge until the morning of the 22 when he was noticed from the cliff top. He later served in the lighthouse at Newcastle and, ironically, assisted in the rescue of the sole survivor from 60 killed aboard the steamer Cawarra at the Oyster Banks, Newcastle, in 1866.

The victims of the Dunbar were buried at Camperdown Cemetery, O'Connell Town (now Newtown). Some 20,000 people lined George Street for the funeral procession held on Monday, 24 August. Banks and offices closed, every ship in harbour flew their ensign at half mast and minute guns were fired as the seven hearses and over one hundred carriages moved by. Officers of the Mounted Police led the hearses and were followed by the band of the Artillery companies (Illustrated Sydney News, 15 September 1887).

Dunbar graves include the mass tomb erected by the NSW Government; the memorial to the Waller Family (which includes the Dunbar carved on the top); the headstone to William Butler Williams, midshipman aboard the Dunbar, aged 16 years; and the grave of John Ridley Jerram, another Dunbar victim.

An account of Dunbar wreck scene

At the Gap, a brave fellow volunteered to go down and send up some of the mangled corpses now and then lodging on the rocks beneath us - 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. Printed in the Illustrated Times? 3 October 1935 (Mitchell Library cutting).


From an article published by, "Old Chum", The Truth, 10 and 31 May 1925, came the following description of the funeral ceremonies:

Long before the hour of the funeral, the shops and places of business, and those in nearly all the side streets were closed, and the footway on both sides of George Street, from Campbells Wharf to Park Street, three-quarters of a mile, was crowded with citizens whose faces indicated the sympathy and sorrow with which they felt at heart.

It was estimated that there were upwards of twenty thousand people lining George Street. The first funeral was that of Mrs Hanna Maria Waller and Mary Dowling Waller, her eldest daughter, who were found washed up in Middle Harbour. The procession consisted of a hearse, two morning coaches and a number of private carriages. About 3.30pm, the hearse containing the remains of Mr P Downey, a well respected architect, slowly passed down King Street. The cortege consisted of three morning coaches and about forty private carriages. As the hearse passed around the corner into George Street, the people raised their hats and showed every manifestation of the respect to the remains of one so well known. Then followed the funeral of Mr Myers' children - a hearse and single morning coach - diffusing a sad and melancholy feeling throughout the beholders. Mr and Mrs Myers and six children were aboard the Dunbar although it was unknown how many of the children's bodies were recovered.

At 5pm, the main funeral procession moved slowly forward, conveying to their last resting place the strangers who almost at the termination of their voyage, had been thrust out on that wild and unknown sea that rolls around the world - eternity. The long line of hearses, seven in number, slowly proceeded along with solemn and mournful sounds of music. Six hearses were followed by an open hearse in which was the casket containing the body of Captain Steane of the Royal Navy. Captain Steane's hearse was followed by officers and sailors of HMS Herald and Isis. Then came four morning coaches, in the foremost of which was Mr Johnson, the sole survivor of the disaster; a detachment of artillery, a body of police, the carriage of Stuart Donaldson, Colonial Treasurer and other dignitaries. Mounted police formed a guard of honour alongside the carriages. Private carriages followed and then six closed carriages conveying public men.

The procession reached Camperdown Cemetery a little before 7pm. A single grave was dug for the reception of the unidentified remains, and here again, the sight was very mournful. Darkness had fallen over the scene and, despite the moon; it became necessary to use torches, which gave the melancholy proceeding a very weird and ghostly aspect.

The remains of Captain Steane were buried in a separate grave. The six hearses were drawn up one by one, to the gravesite. At the head of the grave stood the sole survivor, Johnson. The remains were then deposited into the grave. Reverend Charles Campbell Kemp, Rector of St Stephen's, then read the funeral service. A Memorial Service has been held annually by the Rector of St Stephen's in respect for those drowned and to mark the enormity of the tragedy, even today.

The enormity of the disaster may be formed from the fact that 37,000 copies of the two daily papers, Sydney Morning Herald and Empire, containing the particulars of the wreck, were sold on Saturday August 22 before 9pm.

The scene was recorded in a lithograph published in the Illustrated Sydney News.

How to get there: St Stephen's Anglican Church, 189 Church Street (off King Street), Newtown. Sydney. Telephone: 02 9557 2043

Page last updated: 31 August 2012