Culture and heritage

Maritime heritage

The ship Yarra Yarra (1851-1877): a Stockton Oyster Bank victim

The Yarra Yarra foundered in a gale whilst trying to re-enter Newcastle Harbour on 14 July, 1877. The infamous Oyster Banks had claimed another vessel. On this occasion there were no survivors. An iron paddle steamer with a colourful history, the Yarra Yarra had an extensive working life, participating in the Australian coastal trade for twenty five years. The vessel ended its service, like many other coastal steamers, as a collier operating between Sydney and Newcastle.

Background history

The Yarra Yarra was built by W. Denny and Brothers at Dumbarton, Scotland in 1851 for the Australasian Steam Navigation Company. Fitted with a two cylinder Caird and Company side lever engine generating 200 horse power, the vessel could carry enough coal for seven days continuous steaming. Initially intended for the passenger trade, the Yarra Yarra had accommodation for 50 passengers in the saloon, 30 in the forecabin and 20 as steerage in the forecastle.

The 337 ton steamer had a length, when built, of 166' 5'' (50.72m), a breadth of 25' (7.62m) and a depth of 13' (3.96m).

The vessel's maiden voyage to Sydney was completed on 4 April 1852. The Yarra Yarra began a service that same year between Sydney and Launceston, via Melbourne. Cargoes at this period reflected the vessel's association with the growing gold rushes of the 1850's. On one voyage to Melbourne, the Yarra Yarra carried 51 cabin class passengers together with 360 in steerage. Cargoes comprised basic foodstuffs and the necessary means of transport to the fields, including horses and boots. The steamer performed well on the Melbourne - Sydney service and could make up to twenty return trips in a single year.

The vessel was re-directed to the Sydney - Brisbane service in 1854. By the end of the decade, this service had been extended to Rockhampton with occasional trips to Melbourne. Lengthened by 17 feet (5.18m)in 1862, the Yarra Yarra, now 555 tons gross, remained operating on the Queensland coast for most of the 1860's, spending some time in the Grafton service during 1871. The port of Sydney served as the major entrepot during this period. Goods imported to Sydney included agricultural produce, skins, hides, wool and other raw materials.

In 1874, the Yarra Yarra was sold to Captain Summerbell of Newcastle who re-plated the hull and converted the vessel into a collier. Re-registered in Sydney, the steamer carried coal from Newcastle to Sydney with occasional intercolonial voyages.

The shipwreck

Yarra Yarra wreck site plan. Drawing: Tim Smith

Yarra Yarra wreck site plan. Drawing: Tim Smith

On Saturday 14 July 1877, the Yarra Yarra left the safety of Newcastle Harbour with 500 tons of coal bound for Sydney. The weather deteriorated, turning into a full gale by evening. The steamer was forced to return to Newcastle early next morning, however the harbour now offered no safe haven. Huge waves were being whipped up and breaking across the entire entrance. The Yarra Yarra was headed for disaster when severe seas struck the vessel near the Cawarra Buoy. The signal man on shore, anticipating the danger, fired the gun to get the life boat ready. It was probably too late, the vessel appeared to lose steerage and turned broadside to the waves. A tremendous wave then struck the ailing steamer, carrying away the foremast. The Yarra Yarra heeled over and sank by the stern taking all eighteen on board to the bottom. Harsh criticism was made of the lifeboat committee and their inability to offer effective assistance during the disaster. The incident led to the re-organisation of lifeboat procedures and the establishment of the Royal Shipwreck Relief Society of New South Wales.


The remains are situated about one kilometre north of Newcastle Harbour in Stockton Bight and are subject to moderate - heavy swell and sea conditions. The wreckage is located at a depth of 13.7m (45 feet) and covers an area of approximately 50 x 10 m. The remains lie upright on sand, the level of which is constantly changing. Most wreckage is located within a 10m radius of the engines. The site is subject to tidal run off patterns associated with the outfall of the Hunter River. This seriously effects on-site visibility.

Yarra Yarra location map

Yarra Yarra location map

The Yarra Yarra wreck site

Yarra Yarra engines on site. Photo by: John Riley

Yarra Yarra engines on site. Photo by: John Riley

Yarra Yarra engines. Drawing by: John Riley

Yarra Yarra engines. Drawing by: John Riley

The two scotch boilers with a common uptake, are the most prominent feature of the site (Figure 3). The impressive side lever engine lies forward of the boilers and although incomplete, contains most of the component parts in their approximate positions. The cylinders are readily located with their crossheads and side rods in place (Figure 4). The crank shaft has fallen aft and lies between the engine and the boilers. The port and starboard paddle shafts are disconnected from the engine and are located horizontally on the sand, to either side. Portions of the vessels' lower hull are exposed at the bow, beneath the engine components and immediately aft of the main boilers. Further sections of iron hull probably exist beneath current sand levels. A donkey boiler lies just off to starboard near the remains of the lower section of the foremast. The anchor, some chain, and a winch are located in the bow area. Divers have noted the existence of the stern post when sand levels have shifted.

Importance of the Yarra Yarra

The p.s. Yarra Yarra was a colonial trader whose tragic loss had significant social repercussions and led to the review of life-saving practices in the Newcastle area. The loss also had a direct influence on the broader development of shipwreck policies and life-saving procedures through the subsequent establishment of the Royal Shipwreck Relief Society. Technically the site is enhanced by the presence of the earliest known marine steam engine in New South Wales. The integrity of the wreck remains, together with the absence of contemporary salvage activity, imbues the site with the potential for scientific study of details of design/construction and modification to this long serving vessel.

Listing information

The Yarra Yarra is a gazetted Historic Shipwreck, 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
  • Parsons, R., 1981, Australian Coastal Passenger Ships, p.192.
  • Callen, T., 1986, Bar Dangerous: A Maritime History of Newcastle. p.127.
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 April, 1852
  • Launceston Examiner, 18 August, 1852
  • British Register of Shipping, Port of Sydney. No.59 of 1852
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May, 1866
  • Nutley, D. & Smith T., 1991, p.s. Yarra Yarra - Wreck Inspection Report. Prepared by the (then) Heritage Branch, Department of Planning, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Page last updated: 31 August 2012