The ship Dunbar (1854-1857): New South Wales' worst shipping tragedy
With the loss of 121 people out of 122 aboard, the loss of the wooden ship Dunbar had a major impact on Sydney. The wreck in 1857 is still the worst peacetime disaster to have occurred in New South Wales. It is remembered each year by memorial services held at St Stephens Church, Newtown, where many Dunbar victims were buried in a mass grave.
The Dunbar was a well-known vessel that catered for wealthy travellers between Britain and Sydney. The awful scenes that greeted Sydney's population drove home the dangers of long distance sea travel. They witnessed the macabre spectacle of lifeless bodies being flung up against the South Head cliffs, as if in mockery. Sharks fought off those trying to recover the dead.
Dunbar. Drawing: Tim Smith
In 1852, shipowner Duncan Dunbar ordered a new vessel from James Laing & Sons of Sunderland at a time when the Australian gold rushes created a demand for passenger ships. Named after its influential owner, the Dunbar was said to be the largest vessel ever built at the shipyard. The first class ship had a hull and internal frames of British oak and decks of East India teak. Because of the Crimean War, Dunbar's was first used as a troop ship, finally voyaging to Sydney in 1856.
The doomed clipper arrived off Sydney Heads at night on Thursday 20 August 1857 after 81 days at sea. Heavy rain impaired vision, obscuring the cliffs at the entrance to Port Jackson.
Captain Green had made a number of visits to Port Jackson and had been captain on the Dunbar on its 1856 voyage. On squaring up for the run into port, Green may have believed they were overshooting the entrance at North Head and tried to make a quick turn in. However, when the shout "breakers ahead!" was heard, the Dunbar was still south of the entrance almost under the Macquarie Lighthouse. The ship broached and was driven by the swell heavily into the towering black cliffs. Another theory has the officers mistaking "The Gap" for the entrance to the harbour when tacking towards the Heads.
In any event, the impact brought down the topmasts while mounting seas stove in the lifeboats. Lying on its side against the cliffs, the ship began to break up almost immediately. One crewman, James Johnson, found himself hurled onto the rocks where he managed to gain a finger hold. Scrambling higher, he became the sole survivor looking down on a sea of bodies.
Dawn gradually unveiled the enormity of the tragedy. The death toll staggered the population. James Johnson clung to his precarious hold on the rock ledge until the morning of the 22nd when he was noticed from the cliff top.
Some 20,000 people lined George Street for the funeral procession on Monday 24 August. Banks and offices closed, every ship in harbour flew their ensigns at half mast, minute guns were fired and seven hearses and over one hundred carriages slowly moved by. The later loss of the Catherine Adamson just 9 weeks later prompted construction of the red and white Hornby Lighthouse on the tip of South Head, to mark the actual entrance.
Dunbar anchor displayed at The Gap, north of the wreck site. Photo: Mark Spencer
The remains of many of those lost in both the Dunbar and Catherine Adamson wrecks were buried in this common grave at Newtown Cemetery. Photo: David Nutley
Cliffs above the Dunbar site. Photo:David Nutley
The Dunbar site lies at the foot of the South Head bluffs, just south of The Gap and almost directly below the Signal Station. The site is exposed to the Pacific Ocean and is often turbulent.
The Dunbar wreck site
Dunbar site plan. Drawing by: Tim Smith
Located as early as 1910, an anchor was initially recovered and later displayed at "The Gap", as a monument to those lost. Salvage work has continued over many decades, particularly since the site's "re-discovery" by SCUBA divers in the early 1950's. With limited understanding of heritage conservation at that period and no protective heritage legislation, the rare archaeological site was effectively destroyed. Today informed divers understand the need to preserve the limited surviving remains.
Many of the recovered relics have subsequently been lost or seriously affected by a lack of professional conservation treatment. A considerable amount of information on the vessel and its contents has been lost by this salvage. An amnesty under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 during the early 1990's resulted in some major collections being documented for the first time.
Today little remains of the wreck site, which is marked by a scatter of pig iron ballast blocks. A Porter's anchor lies beneath a rock overhang, while an Admiralty style anchor lies approximately four metres to the south and mirrors that recovered for "The Gap". Isolated sand pockets contain smaller items related to the vessel and cargo, including metal sheathing tacks, glass and ceramic fragments.
Importance of the Dunbar
The Dunbar wreck site and its associated relics are a significant component of Australia's maritime heritage bacause of the shipwreck's impact on the developing colony of Sydney, its influence on the improvement of navigational aids and its potential for interpretation through public education programs. The wreck site maintains an important and continuing association with descendants of the victims and one of the most well known Australian sea tragedies.
The Dunbar is a gazetted Historic Shipwreck, (24 October 1991), under Section 5 of the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. The listing applies to the shipwreck and all relics associated with the shipwreck.
- Heritage Office, NSW Shipwreck database, accessable through the Australian National Shipwreck Database
- Mead, Tom., nd, The Fatal Lights. Dolphin Press, Sydney, NSW, Australia
- Nutley, D. 1991, Dunbar: Wreck Inspection Report. Prepared by the (then) Heritage Branch, Department of Planning, Sydney, NSW
- Nutley, D. & Smith T., 1992, The Dunbar: Conservation Management Plan. Prepared by the (then) Heritage Branch, Department of Planning, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Page last updated: 31 August 2012