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SS Gothenburg

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SS Gothenburg.jpg
SS Gothenburg
Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svgUnited Kingdom
Launched1 April 1854
RenamedRMS Celt, 1857
FateSold, 1862
Victoria (Australia)Victoria
Out of service1875
RenamedSS Gothenburg, 1866
FateWrecked, 24 February 1875.
NotesRebuilt 1873
General characteristics
Tonnage501 tons
Length197 ft (60 m)
PropulsionSails & propeller
Sail planBarquentine
Complement34 crew

The SS Gothenburg was a steamship that operated along the British and then later the Australian and New Zealand coastlines. In February 1875, Gothenburg left Darwin, Australia and while en route to Adelaide it encountered a cyclone-strength storm off the north Queensland coast. The ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef north-west of Holbourne Island on 24 February 1875. Survivors in one of the lifeboats were rescued two days later by Leichhardt, while the occupants of two other lifeboats that managed to reach Holbourne Island were rescued several days later. Twenty-two men survived, while between 98 and 112 others died, including a number of high-profile civil servants and dignitaries.

Description and history[edit]

Gothenburg was built in 1855 at Lungley's building yards in Millwall, Essex.[1] The vessel was 501-tons, 197 feet long, with a 120-horsepower (89 kW), coal-burning engine. Records at the time described Gothenburg as barquentine rigged, with its funnel set well aft between the main and mizzen masts and was fitted with four lifeboats, two port and two starboard.[2][page needed]

Gothenburg was launched stern-first on 1 April 1854. Although on launching it collided with the steamship Clyde, which sank in the River Thames. Gothenburg was severely damaged at the stern, including extensive propeller damage.[3]

The North of Europe Steam Navigation Company, operated her between Irongate Wharf, near the Tower of London, and Sweden.[4] In 1857, she was acquired by the Union Castle Line and renamed as RMS Celt.[1][page needed] In June 1862, McMerkan, Blackwood and Co. of Melbourne purchased her for the Australian trade and in that year she made a protracted voyage from England to Australia by sail.[5][page needed][6] She was one of the most modern vessels working around the Australian coastline in the 1860s, and became a popular ship as she was considered reliable.[7] After many years on the Australia-New Zealand run, her owners transferred her to the Australian coastal service.[8]

In 1873, she was lengthened and refitted in Adelaide to enable longer distances under steam and greater passenger and cargo capacity.[5][9][page needed] Following her modifications, her name reverted once again to Gothenburg.[10][11]

SS Gothenburg docked at Port Adelaide wharf after her lengthening in 1873.

In November 1874, several shipowners were contracted for two years from the South Australian government to provide ten round trips between the colonial capital of Adelaide and its furthest outpost, Port Darwin.[7] Port Darwin was feeling the effects of a gold rush at Pine Creek and growing quickly as a trade post with the Dutch East Indies. However, all the local banks sent their money, together with government paperwork and the Royal Mail, around the east coast to Adelaide.[12] On successful completion of each voyage, the South Australian government would pay the owners £1000 sterling.

When Gothenburg left Port Darwin on Tuesday, 16 February 1875, Captain Robert George Augustus Pearce[13] was under orders to make best possible speed. Pearce had been her captain on the Adelaide-Darwin run for some time and had built up a solid reputation. He was a man of the sea, a man of sobriety and kindness and was well respected by his fellow sea captains.[6]

Captain R. G. A. Pearce

Amongst the approximately 98 passengers and 37 crew (surviving records vary) were government officials, circuit court judges, Darwin residents taking their first furlough and miners.[12] Also aboard was the French Vice Consul Edouard Durand and James Millner, the medical officer in George W. Goyder's 1869 expedition to found the first colony at Port Darwin. There were also several prisoners aboard, bound for the Adelaide jail. Locked in the Captain's cabin was approximately 93 kilograms (3,000 ozt) of gold valued at £40,000 consigned to the ES&A Bank in Adelaide,[11] worth approximately US$2.6 million in 2008. Durand reportedly also carried a tin box with him containing gold sovereigns and coins worth in excess of £3,000.[6]

In three days of fine weather, Gothenburg travelled 1,500 kilometres (900 mi) from Palmerston (Darwin) to Somerset on Cape York. The weather began to worsen so the ship stopped to take on ballast at Somerset. While she was anchored, conditions deteriorated to a point where both anchor chains parted.[14] After the loss of the anchors, Gothenburg was forced to prematurely steam out 13 kilometres (7.0 nmi) because of strong currents; at that point, she brought up for the night.[6]

Two days later, Tuesday 23 February, Gothenburg passed Cooktown at about 2:00 pm.[15][page needed] The wind and rain severely increased and cloud cover became so thick it blocked out the sun. Despite this, she continued the journey south into worsening weather, in a deep water passage between the North Queensland coastline and the Great Barrier Reef, known as the inner route. Although taking this route provided some protection from the open sea, captains had to navigate and thread their way through a number of then uncharted reefs.[12] All passengers and crew expected to be in Newcastle on Sunday evening for a scheduled stopover.


SS Gothenburg is located in Australia
SS Gothenburg
Wreck of Gothenburg

On the evening of 24 February 1875, the ship was still heading south in almost cyclonic conditions with fore, top and mainsails set and the steam engines running at full speed. Flooding rains lashed the entire Queensland coast and Captain Pearce reportedly could not see land or sun.[6] At approximately 7:00 pm, and for reasons undetermined, he altered course and shortly afterwards, at full speed (11 to 12 knots), hit a section of the Great Barrier Reef at low tide 31 miles (50 km) north west of Holbourne Island. Gothenburg struck with such force that she was left high up on the reef. Immediately, an order came out to lower the sails. At first, there was no panic and many passengers returned to their cabin bunks expecting Gothenburg would come off the reef at high tide.[16][full citation needed]

In an attempt to refloat her, Captain Pearce ordered Gothenburg to be lightened forward. Water casks used as ballast and passengers were positioned aft in an endeavour to refloat her as the tide rose, but without success. Finally, a fatal attempt was made to refloat her, by reversing the engine hard. The vessel came half off the reef, but holed herself badly and then slewed broadside to the waves, in a much worse position.[2][17][page needed] However, with the tide rising and some cargo now being dumped overboard, all aboard still expected Gothenburg to float free. With strong winds changing direction and seas increasing, the boiler fires were extinguished by water rising through the damaged stern. Around midnight, the chief engineer came on deck to report that the engine room was flooded and the engine was of no further use. With heavy seas now rushing down hatchways and into the cabins, Gothenburg was doomed and Captain Pearce was forced to admit that the situation had become desperate.[17][page needed]

Steamer Gothenburg

The storm made launching the lifeboats almost impossible. At about 3:00 am, Captain Pearce ordered the two port lifeboats lowered, each with four crew on board. While being passed astern one of the boats broke the painter and became adrift. Her crew tried hard to pull up to the ship's side, but it was impossible in the heavy squall. The other was accidentally let go and both boats, in heavy seas, were unable to be retrieved.[15]

At about 3:30 am on Thursday, 25 February, Gothenburg continued to heel over. The deck became so steep that passengers and crew had to climb over the rails to get on her side.[6] At about 4:00 am, the two remaining starboard lifeboats were lowered and were rushed by the passengers. One starboard lifeboat, crammed with women and children, capsized when others tried to board it. Some half dozen men righted her in the water, but, damaged and without oars, food or water, it quickly drifted away and was never found.[18] The second starboard lifeboat also capsized when the sea crashed over, washing all the occupants into the sea. One passenger recalled the sea on the downwind side of the ship being covered with human heads bobbing up and down like corks.[7] Five or six men and one woman climbed onto the upturned hull. The boat was still connected to its painter, but it was unable to be recovered from the heavy sea and wind which swept the woman off and drowned her.[15] A passenger, John Cleland, swam to the connected, but upturned lifeboat and further secured it with a rope tied to Gothenburg. In less than fifteen minutes, nearly 100 people had drowned; washed away or trapped in their water-filled cabins.[6] By this time, several sharks were circling the wreck.[2]

Artist impression of the wreck of the steamer Gothenburg

Those still on board Gothenburg tried to cling to the rigging, but throughout the early morning of 25 February, several more people were drowned after they were swept overboard by large broadside waves.[2][19] Many passengers associated with the gold diggings were unwilling to let go of their gold and money belts, as it was probably their life savings; these individuals insisted on keeping them tied and once overboard reportedly drowned very quickly.[14]


By morning of 25 February, only the masts were visible protruding from the water, with 14 people clinging to the rigging, where they remained for the next twenty four hours in cyclonic weather.[15] At low tide, Gothenburg sank stern first and the wreck fell apart. However, the remaining starboard lifeboat, which had capsized, was still held by her painter and the rope attached by Cleland. At first light on 26 February the weather eased and the survivors managed to right the boat and bail it out; they prepared a makeshift sail and paddled for the mainland. About seven hours later they realised they could not make mainland, so they altered course for an island that could be seen in the distance. When they arrived, they were met by four of the crew from one of the port lifeboats. Their lifeboat had been severely damaged on the rocks on the opposite side of the island in an attempt to land there the day before.[17]

Gothenburgs's Turtle Shell Roll

The other port lifeboat, with four crew on board, was picked up by the steamer Leichhardt at an island at the entrance to Whitsunday Passage. The steamer immediately reversed course back towards the wreck, which she reached at approximately 3.30 pm on Friday, 26 February. Gothenburg was a complete wreck; the funnel was gone and she had sunk to the eyes of the lower rigging. Leichhardt's Chief Officer and four hands went alongside, but nothing other than her masts could be seen above the water except for the body of a naked man floating nearby. They assumed the other victims had been taken by sharks.[20] Leichhardt searched for survivors until last light and then made way for Bowen where the alarm was raised.[17]

At Holbourne Island, the other 18 survivors were living off raw bird's eggs and rain water that had pooled in the island rocks.[16] Because rescue was uncertain, they engraved ship details and their names on the concave side of a large turtle shell, in the hope that it would be found in the future. On Sunday, 28 February 15 of them set off in the starboard lifeboat for an island about 20 miles away to the south, which appeared to be closer to the main shipping lane. A rescue ship, sent looking for survivors, picked up the group and took them safely to Bowen. Another rescue ship, Bunyip from Townsville, subsequently returned to Holbourne Island and rescued the three remaining survivors.[2]


Although reports vary, records show that between 98 and 112 people drowned.[21] Most records state the death toll at 102. Only 22 people survived (12 crew and 10 passengers).[22] All 25 women and children aboard and all the officers died.[23]

Thomas Reynolds

Edward W. Price, Magistrate and Commissioner Circuit Court of the Northern Territory, who remained behind in Darwin, lost his wife and six children.[24] Devastated by the news, he was given six months leave on full pay by the government. The retired fifth Premier of South Australia, Thomas Reynolds and his wife, Anne, both drowned as did Eduard Durand, the French Vice Consul.[18]

Other notable passengers who died were Dr James Millner and his family, Justice William A. Wearing QC,[25][page needed] Circuit Court Judge; Joseph Whitby, acting South Australian Crown Solicitor; Richard Wells, NT Times & Gazette editor; Lionel Pelham, a senior public servant; Commander Andrew Ross of the Royal Navy; C. J. Lyons, Justice Wearing's senior assistant; William Shoobridge, Secretary to several mining companies; A. L. McKay, Government Surveyor; and several Overland Telegraph employees.[26]

Never before in Australian history had so many high-profile public servants, dignitaries and diplomats died in a single tragedy.[17] Many passengers who died were Darwin residents and news of the tragedy severely affected the small community, reportedly taking several years to recover.[27] Most of Gothenburg's crew were from Melbourne and as a result of the shipwreck, 11 widows and 34 children were left destitute in Victoria.[7]

At Bowen, twelve survivors left with Captain Lake on the ship Victoria headed for Sydney. They all got free passage from McMerkan, Blackwood and Co, the owners of Gothenburg.[28] The four survivors from the second port lifeboat that were picked up by the steamer Leichhardt, remained with that ship and subsequently made way for Brisbane.[7][28]

From left: Robert Brazil, John Cleland and James Fitzgerald in 1875

Two weeks later a hard-hat diver, sent down to recover the gold and other valuables, found the bodies of two women at the foot of the saloon staircase, one with her arm around the other. The diver tried to reach them to take a lock of hair or some other personal item that could be identified by their loved ones, but the restriction of the air line made it impossible. The gold in the Captain's cabin was recovered after much difficulty.[29] While recovering the gold, several sharks that were caught near the wreck were found to contain human bones, remains and jewellery.[2][6]

There were three heroes identified that tragic night, all attested to by all the other survivors, for their attempts to save other passengers.[7] In recognition of their bravery, on 26 July 1875, the Governor of South Australia, Sir Anthony Musgrave, presented passengers James Fitzgerald and John Cleland and crewman Robert Brazil with gold medals and a gold watch.[16] The Gothenburg Relief Fund Committee also presented each of them with a gold chain.


The report of the Marine Board of Queensland determined that:

the loss of the Gothenburg may in a great measure be attributed to an unexpected offset seawards, caused by heavy floods in the Burdekin and other rivers discharging themselves into the sea at that portion of the coast; at the same time they do not consider that due caution was observed in the navigation of the vessel, as they are of the opinion that some attempt should have been made to sight Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse, or Cape Upstart, and, failing that, that the lead should have been used, which, on this part of the coast, is a sufficient guide for keeping clear of the Barrier; a vessel carrying a depth not exceeding 15 fathoms (27 m) or 16 fathoms (29 m) being well clear of that danger, while a less depth would show an approach to the shore of the mainland.[23]


There was also much speculation at the time in the Adelaide and Melbourne press on why the lifeboats had not been launched earlier. Survivor James Fitzgerald pointed out in his recollection that, had the lifeboats been filled to capacity, no one would have survived the severe weather conditions experienced. He also commented that passenger vessels were not required to carry enough lifeboats, concluding that there were insufficient places for all Gothenburg's passengers and crew.[30] It was not until RMS Titanic sank some 37 years later in 1912, that it was made compulsory for all British registered ships to carry sufficient lifeboats for everyone on board.[31][page needed]

Present day[edit]

Today, only parts of the deteriorated iron hull and the coal fired square boilers of Gothenburg remain. The wreck lies between 9 and approximately 16 metres (52 ft) of water on the western side of Old Reef, 130 kilometres (81 mi) southeast of Townsville.[32] The Gothenburg shipwreck is registered on the Queensland National Estate (place ID #8923) as a Heritage site, and is protected under Section 7 of the (Commonwealth) Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, which requires that divers have a permit to enter the 200m protected zone that has been declared around the wreck.[33] Its official location is: Old Reef, Great Barrier Reef, 75 kilometres (47 mi) north-east of Ayr, at 19°22′06″S 148°03′21″E / 19.36833°S 148.05583°E / -19.36833; 148.05583Coordinates: 19°22′06″S 148°03′21″E / 19.36833°S 148.05583°E / -19.36833; 148.05583.[34] The reef around the wreck provides good diving with an extensive coral garden. A strict non-disturbance policy applies to marine flora and fauna as well as to the fabric of the wreck. Pelagic fish and reef sharks are common.[35][unreliable source?]


Gothenburg Crescent with Darwin in the background.

The northern Darwin suburb of Millner was named after Dr James Millner who, together with his family, lost their lives on Gothenburg. Most streets in the northern Darwin suburb of Coconut Grove and some in the adjacent suburb of Millner, were named after local Darwin residents, interstate visitors and crew who lost their lives during the shipwreck.[36] Gothenburg Crescent, in the inner Darwin suburb of Stuart Park, was named after the ship.[37]

The large turtle shell, which was engraved by the 18 survivors at Holbourne Island, is displayed at the South Australian Museum, on North Terrace in Adelaide.[16]

Other references[edit]

By August 1866 there was a pub named The Gothenburg in Flinders Street west, Melbourne.[38] It had an image of the vessel above the entrance.[39] The pub, which had a raffish reputation, was renamed the Crown and Anchor around 1870,[40] five years before the tragedy.


In 1875, a detailed list of all passengers and crew was published by J.H. Lewis, Printer & Publisher, albeit with several errors and spelling mistakes.[26] That document was used as the main source of the following survivors' table.

The survivors' surnames have been reconciled against rescue ships' log books, other records and a photo of the engraved turtle shell. Known discrepancies have been clarified, where possible, in the comments section.[7]


Full known passenger list[edit]

Full known crew list[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Murray, Marischal (1933). Ships and South Africa: A Maritime Chronicle of the Cape, with Particular Reference to Mail and Passenger Liners from the Early Days of Steam down to the Present. London: Oxford University Press. OCLC 8228940. Retrieved 19 February 2008.[page needed]
  2. ^ a b c d e f Holthouse, Hector (1971). "The Gothenburg's Gold". Cyclone. Adelaide: Rigby. pp. 16–24. ISBN 0-85179-290-1. OCLC 251985.[page needed]
  3. ^ "Multum in Parvo". Liverpool Mercury etc. No. 2574. Liverpool. 4 April 1854.
  4. ^ Murray, Marischal (1953). Union-Castle Chronicle, 1853–1953. London: Longmans, Green. OCLC 1962878. Retrieved 19 February 2008.
  5. ^ a b Plowman, Peter (2007). Coast to Coast: The Great Australian Coastal Liners. Dural, New South Wales: Rosenberg Publishing. ISBN 978-1-877058-60-8. OCLC 174284555. Retrieved 19 February 2007.[page needed]
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h McInnes, Allan (1982). "Wreck of the Gothenburg". Royal Historical Society of Queensland. XI (3): 26–44. ISSN 0085-5804. OCLC 5823772.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Wilson, Helen (1992). "The Loss of RMSS Gothenburg". Journal of Northern Territory History. 3: 67–86. ISSN 1034-7488. OCLC 31683149.
  8. ^ Hocking, Charles (1969). Dictionary of disasters at sea during the age of steam including sailing ships & ships of war lost in action 1824–1962. London: Lloyd's Register of Shipping. p. 280 (pdf). ISBN 978-0-900528-03-3. OCLC 47378.
  9. ^ Parsons, Ronald (1981). Australian coastal passenger ships. Adelaide: Magill, S. Aust. p. 86. ISBN 0-909418-20-9. OCLC 27577759.[page needed]
  10. ^ "The Gothenburg". Supreme Court Library. 2000. Archived from the original on 17 November 2007. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  11. ^ a b "Historic Shipwrecks: Gothenburg". Queensland Government. 20 December 2006. Archived from the original on 14 November 2007. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  12. ^ a b c Shoobridge, Gonzalo E. (14 July 2000). "The SS Gothenburg's Tragedy". Archived from the original on 30 September 2006. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  13. ^ Pearce was invariably referred to as Robert or R. G. A. Pearce in communications, however some contemporaries referred to him as "James", but with what knowledge or otherwise it is impossible to know.
  14. ^ a b "Gothenburg". Shipwrecks. 2003. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Shipwrecks Audio Transcript: Gothenburg.
  15. ^ a b c d Crowley, Frank K. (1980). "The Gothenburg Tragedy". Colonial Australia, 1875–1900. West Melbourne: Nelson. ISBN 978-0-17-005410-2. OCLC 7032667.[page needed]
  16. ^ a b c d "The Wreck of the Gothenburg: Presentation to the Bowen Historical Society". Bowen Independent. 1978.[full citation needed]
  17. ^ a b c d e Edwards, Hugh (1978) [1976]. Australian and New Zealand shipwrecks and sea tragedies. Phillip Mathews. OCLC 27505119.[page needed]
  18. ^ a b SS Gothenburg (2009). Queensland Museum. Retrieved 16 June 2009. Archived 2 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Meston, Archibald (4 August 1907). "Tragedies of the Sea". Archived from the original on 11 March 2005. Retrieved 1 January 2008.
  20. ^ Meston, Archibald (20 October 1923). "Wreck of the Gothenburg". Archived from the original on 12 March 2005. Retrieved 18 January 2008.
  21. ^ "History of Northern Territory Health Services" (PDF). Northern Territory Library. 26 February 1985. Retrieved 31 December 2007. (page 2)
  22. ^ "Wreck of an Australian Steamer; Loss of more than 100 lives" (PDF). The New York Times. 9 May 1875. Retrieved 1 January 2008.
  23. ^ a b Heath, G. P. (23 February 1875). "Report of the Marine Board of Queensland". Gary Standen. Archived from the original on 1 March 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  24. ^ "Edward William Price" (PDF). Government House Northern Territory, Office of the Administrator. 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 February 2012. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  25. ^ Searcy, Alfred (1909) [1907]. In Australian Tropics. Australia: G. Robertson. ISBN 1-152-33175-2. OCLC 152275931.[page needed]
  26. ^ a b Lewis, J. H. (1875). The Wreck of the "Gothenburg" on her voyage from Port Darwin to Adelaide. Adelaide: J. H. Lewis. pp. 5–24.
  27. ^ "Previous cyclones in Darwin". Cyclone Tracy. Northern Territory Library. 21 April 1998. Archived from the original on 6 February 2008. Retrieved 7 January 2008.
  28. ^ a b "Mariners and ships in Australian Waters: Leichhardt". State Records Authority of New South Wales. 4 March 1875. Archived from the original on 6 September 2007. Retrieved 3 January 2008.
  29. ^ "Underwater Eden: Encountering the Great Barrier Reef". 2000. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  30. ^ "Narration of wreck by Mr Fitzgerald, passenger". The Argus. 20 March 1875. p. 5.
  31. ^ Lord, Walter (1978) [1955]. A Night to Remember. England: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-553-01060-3. OCLC 37337880.[page needed]
  32. ^ "Gothenburg Wreck". World Dive Site Atlas. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  33. ^ "Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976". Australian Commonwealth Government. 1976. Retrieved 30 March 2008.
  34. ^ "Gothenburg Shipwreck". Aussie Heritage. 29 January 2007. Archived from the original on 17 September 2007. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  35. ^ "Gothenburg Shipwreck". Sport Extreme. Archived from the original on 9 September 2005. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  36. ^ "The Origin of Suburbs, Localities, Towns and Hundreds in the Greater Darwin area (Coconut Grove)". Northern Territory Lands Group. 21 June 2007. Retrieved 1 January 2008.
  37. ^ "Place Names Register Extract: Gothenburg Crescent". Northern Territory Government. 26 October 1966. Retrieved 18 January 2008.
  38. ^ The Argus, 2 August 1866, p.1
  39. ^ Paul McGuire, Inns of Australia, William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1952, p.89
  40. ^ "District Court". The Australasian. Vol. X, no. 263. Victoria, Australia. 15 April 1871. p. 20. Retrieved 15 November 2020 – via National Library of Australia.
  41. ^ "A Survivor of the Gothenburg". The Evening Journal. Vol. XXXVI, no. 10275. South Australia. 23 December 1903. p. 2. Retrieved 16 November 2020 – via Trove.
  42. ^ "A Survivor of the Gothenburg". The Express and Telegraph. Vol. XLVIII, no. 14, 279. South Australia. 4 April 1911. p. 4 (4 o'clock). Retrieved 16 November 2020 – via Trove.