Keilawarra | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

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When the 784 ton iron steamer Keilawarra plunged beneath the seas at night on 8 December 1886 it created history.  The shocking loss of life rocked maritime centres around Australia.  The scale of the disaster, the needless loss of life and tales of cowardice raised alarm, then anger. How could a respected ship, with a well-known skipper be rammed by another vessel when both in sight? Why did over forty souls perish in such gruesome and tragic circumstances? Why did so few women survive?

These questions are still being answered today with the amazing discovery of the wreck in deep water near North Solitary Island in New South Wales.  After 114 years, the historic wreck site serves as a permanent marker to those drowned and a reminder of the dangers of coastal sea travel during the nineteenth century.

The 61 metre ss Keilawarra was a fine steamship powered by a compound marine engine generating 140 horsepower. The vessel was launched in Fife, Scotland in 1878, for the legendary Howard Smith line.

The surviving crew of Keilawarra were housed at the Sailor's Home in the Rocks.

Read a contemporary poem about the disaster

photo: Contemporary painting of collision. Courtesy: Clarence River Historical Society.
Contemporary painting of collision. Courtesy: Clarence River Historical Society.
photo: Captain Buttrey of the Keilawarra who
Captain Buttrey of the Keilawarra who "went down with his ship". Courtesy: Peter Jonstone.


Site information

Site ID: 1084
Type: Steamer screw Construction: Iron
Primary industry: Transport Sub-industry: cargo - coastal
Gross tonnage: 784 Net tonnage: 486
Length (mtrs): 61.05 Beam (mtrs): 8.839
Draft (mtrs): 5.867 Cargo: Passengers, and cargo
Engine: Compound
Country built: UNITED KINGDOM State built:
Port built: Fife, Kinghorn builder: J Key & Sons
Port registered: Sydney When built: 1878
Registration number: 50/1879 Official number: 79507
Sources: SMH 11/12, 10/12, 21/12/1886 RBS Parsons, R 'Wrecks of Steamships in NSW', p28
Comments: Total number of lives lost varies from about 35 to 48. Register entry is unclear but says 6 lost from the 'Helen Nicoll'. Parsons says 29 lost from the 'Keillawarra', ie a total of 35. Other reports range from totals of 36 to 40 to 48.

Lost event

When lost: 1886/12/08 Where lost: Solitary Islands, between Nth & Sth Solitary Is
Wrecked/Refloated: Wrecked Sinking: Collision, Helen Nicoll
From port: Sydney To port: Brisbane
Master: Capt Buttrey Owner: Howard Smith & Co
Crew: 23 Passengers:
Crew deaths: Passenger deaths:
Total deaths: 35~


Maximum latitude: 29.99483333333 Minimum latitude:
Maximum longitude: 153.40650000000 Minimum longitude:
Datum used: WGS84
  Datum    Latitude    Longitude    Zone    Easting    Northing
AGD66 29.99483800145280 153.40650000000000 56 539208.32110840700000 13318294.38966820000000
AGD84 29.99483800145280 153.40650000000000 56 539208.32110840700000 13318294.38966820000000
GDA94 29.99483336127710 153.40650000000000 56 539208.18075048800000 13318282.38037630000000
WGS84 29.99483336045960 153.40650000000000 56 539208.18075064800000 13318282.38038100000000


Found: Yes Inspected: Yes
Protected: Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 Jurisdiction: Federal
Protection notes:
Signage: Web address: