Fairy Queen (1875/10/08)
Exmouth N W Cape
Fairy Queen (ex Rhio).
The 115-ton wooden-hulled two-masted Dutch vessel Rhio was built in Singapore at an unknown date and after being sold to Swan River Colony identities Messrs W.E Marmion, (Aubrey) Brown and Gill in the July of 1875 sailed from there on 3 August 1875 for the north-west pearl fishery. There were 37 divers and crew onboard and one stowaway. One diver was named ‘Sahber’ and another was called ‘Allie’. He was from Muscat and had been engaged by Marmion at Singapore. The pastoralist and pearler William Marmion was the managing owner and the master was Andrew Edgar. Few details of Fairy Queen survive, and though it appears also described as a ‘schooner’ by Edgar describes it as being ‘brigantine-rigged’ .
While in the ‘China Sea’ they were beset by a heavy squall and sustained damage to the fore topmast and this was repaired. In transiting the Sunda Strait under reduced sail in early September another storm hit and the tiller and rudder head were damaged and a jury rig was fabricated in order to keep the schooner on course. In the traverse south across the Indian Ocean in the SE Trade winds they again suffered damage to the rigging and in gales nearer the coast in c. 25-26° S they were beset with strong south westerly winds forcing them to head west during the night and lie ‘snug’ till dawn. Though they had travelled as far south as Cape Cuvier, by 7 October the conditions forced Edgar to abandon his attempt to make Shark Bay and to seek shelter in Exmouth Gulf.
After running northwards all night they sighted Point Cloates bearing ESE ‘about 18 miles’ and continued north. At 6PM Edgar went up on the foreyard to keep watch and by 6.45 visibility was so bad he could ‘scarcely see the land’ forcing him to take a star sight to ascertain his position.
I came down from the foreyard and took a meridian altitude of the star Aquila- I found it gave me 21 °49” the latitude of the Cape being 21°47”.
At around 9PM on 7 October the reef at North West Cape was seen abeam and they rounded the Cape and with the land still barely visible Edgar looked for shelter in its lee. Finding the seas too rough to anchor they proceeded into the Gulf under reduced sail in order to ride out the night. At midnight deducing he was somewhere nearby Y Island Edgar headed back west on a port tack again under reduced sail. Confident they were still well out in the gulf he went below at 3AM on to rest. Before doing so he issued orders for soundings to be taken continuously and for him to be called back on deck before the hour was up so they could ‘wear ship’ with the land still ‘a good way off’. As instructed he was recalled to the deck by the mate at 3.45 AM and after taking the helm and with the schooner still coming into the wind Edgar felt that there was a malfunction with the jury tiller. He describes that he had felt it ‘knock about my legs and realising something had gone wrong with the wheel, ‘put my hand on the Barrel’ and on feeling around in the dark he realised the wheel ropes had slipped off rendering the Brigantine again rudderless. Edgar then describes the events that followed.
Before I could get things right the mate sung out Breakers ahead. I sung out let go the anchor and before it would hold she struck heavy on the starboard bilge . . . at around 4AM the vessel washed up on to the beach the sea breaking over her’.
Edgar was not sure whether they were on a sandbank or on the shore and to make matters worse, deck planks began to open up as the dawn broke. Realising that they were shorebound on an ebbing tide, the crew set about lightening the ship by taking everything they could ashore. The divers also ‘carried the starboard anchor out underwater’ and hove on the cable in order to keep the wreck from driving further up the beach. The port anchor which had been earlier let go was retrieved and connected with a ‘new 5-inch hawser’ was carried out over the stern into deeper water by boat in readiness for an attempt to refloat the ship at high tide.
It was all to no avail as the rising tide revealed that the hull planks had also opened up, that some of the copper sheathing had fallen off and that the ship had began to sink in the sand with its port gunwhale underwater. Over the next two days they ‘stripped the ship and got everything above high water mark’. There they found that their fresh water casks had been contaminated by the sea and they had only one cask left from which to drink. With this and the fact that the vessel was clearly breaking up in mind, all thought of a successful refloating evaporated. Soon after midday on 12 October they abandoned the Brigantine and the equipment in the beach and set off in the 5 boats for Tien Tsin ( also referred to as Port Walcott and Cossack). They all succeeded in reaching the Mary Anne Patch two days later, but not without considerable difficulty and one capsize. Edgar and some of the crew were then taken by the cutter Swan to Cossack arriving on 18 October where Edgar provided the details recorded above in a letter to the sub collector of Customs that he penned the following day. Fairy Queen and the equipment ashore was sold at an auction held at Cossack on 21 October for what was then described as a ‘trifle’, the successful bidders apparently acting on behalf of the owners.
On 8 November a formal court of Inquiry was held before Resident Magistrate R.J. Sholl, (who was also the sub-collector of customs), a JP assisting and a ‘Nautical Assessor’, A.E. Merrale, the commander of the pearling schooner Flower of Yarrow which was then in port. On hearing the evidence, which provides further detail to Edgar’s letter above, the court deliberated and produced the following verdict
We find that the weather at the time was squally with strong puffs of wind and that the night was very dark. We also find that previously the steering gear had been carried away and temporarily repaied, and that it was carried away again when the “Fairy Queen” was close to the reef, rendering her unmanageable at the time. We find that the position of the Fairy Queen at the time was wholly due to an insufficient knowledge of the tides and currents on the part of Capt. Edgar, but in the ‘absence of reliable directions and charts we cannot recommend the suspension of either Captain Edgar or the Mate.
The Cutter Albert is known to have been despatched to recover the goods on the beach, and that the salvage of whatever remained at the site thereafter would have been extensive over the years, especially given the number of pearlers that frequented Exmouth Gulf through to the mid 1880s. Other than a note about Albert, little else appears about the wreck other than in a reference to Capt Tuckey recovering the two survivors from the wreck of the Stefano at a place close to the then still visible wreck of the Fairy Queen.
Further though it lay ashore and in the lee of the Cape, the easterlies there can be very strong, often whipping up quite high seas. These and the effect of cyclones, such as that which beset the Stefano and others since, when combined with salvage of the timbers for firewood and repairs to passing ships, the effect of teredo worms would have quickly reduced the wreck to the waterline and then down to the sand level and it was soon lost to living memory. It also appears that the area is prone to cyclic covering and uncovering with sand.
Fairy Queen in modern times
On 23 May 1972, the then Director of the Museum, Dr WDL Ride received a note from the Civil Commissioner for the Commonwealth Government at Exmouth confirming that a wreck had been located in the ‘Exclusive Use Area of the United States Naval Communications Station Harold E. Holt . . . ‘approximately 50 yards from shore’ In forwarding on underwater photographs taken by members of the Cape Underwater Diving Association, the Commissioner also advised that it lay ‘adjacent to the United States Navy pier at Point Murat’ and that the divers were keen to ‘carry on investigations and probably bring ashore one of the anchors, or alternatively a piece of wreckage .
J.A. Labnowski an American at the base, had first sighed the wreckage, but in preparing to leave for home soon after, he advised local historian and curator of the North West Cape Museum, Doug Bathgate. T. J. Coleman a well-known local diver then reported the wreck to the Western Australian Museum on their behalfs and like Labnowski provided a plan showing the whereabouts of the site. At the time the Museum was concentrating on the Vergulde Draeck (1651) excavation north of Perth and was also gearing up to examine the Tria1 622l wreck in the Montebello Island group. As an example of the situation at the time, Graeme Henderson, then Assistant Curator of Maritine Archaeology under Jeremy Green, wrote in a memo to his superiors that there were four sites requiring inspection in the region. These were wreckage at Gnaraloo Bay reported by A. Fleming in August 1970, a ‘site’ between Barrow Island and the Monte Bello Islands by J. Van Uden in 1971, wreckage near Point Cloates by J. Moffett in July 1972 and the Labnowski site. In requesting permission to recover a cannon from the Labnowski site—which of all those then on the Museum books was the only one that eventually turned out to be a wreck—Henderson had an eye to its identification via the characteristics of the gun and any markings that might be on it . His request was approved to a budget estimated by the then administrative officer of allowances and vehicle costs of $300. Again this provides some indication of the situation in those years. Henderson and his assistant Museum diver Colin Powell then effected the recovery of the gun and this article in the West Australian was the result.
Figure Colin Powell with the Fairy Queen Cannon.
Two anchors were also seen on the trip. Later on being deconcreted at the Museum’s Conservation laboratory in Fremantle, the cannon was found to have the inscription SJS and a crown on its barrel. On inquiring of HM Armouries in the Tower of London Henderson was advised that the cannon which also carried a crown and the initials SJS on its barrel was most likely British and likely to have been constructed c. 1860. In writing to The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of History and Technology in Washington D.C. in the US he received reply that they agreed on the date and added that
Your gun was no doubt carried on the pearling schooner for several reasons. First for signalling, second for throwing a line in an emergency, and last possible defence against pirates. That it may have been used to “impress” the natives is another good guess. Signalling with a gun was standard practice at sea at that time and most vessels were equipped with at least one small gun for that purpose. (Mendel Peterson Pers. comm. Director Underwater Exploration Project to GH 6/3/1973
In examining the use of the term “impress” in this instance, Henderson found that islands near North West Cape and elsewhere, including Shark Bay were regularly used as ‘Barracoons’ or depots for kidnapped Aborigines, and small signalling cannon or swivel guns kept on pearling vessels would ‘doubtless have made it easier for the pearling masters to suppress their divers’ ( 170-5) . On inquiring further Henderson was advised by another expert, a Brigadier O.F.G. Hogg that at 1.37-metre-long it and the bore size indicated that it was a 2-pounder cannon manufactured between 1790 to 1860 and that the letters were derived from the Portuguese Order of St James of the Sword, which was introduced into Portugal from Spain in 1290. It was also considered possible that the gun could have been bought from an arms dealer in Singapore or from Portuguese sources in Timor.
Despite this conflicting evidence, in utilising his card index listing all the known losses in the region, and cross referencing it against the size of the anchors, by the end of 1973 Henderson had succeeded in identifying the wreck as the Fairy Queen. His research showed that it was carrying indentured labourers however and in most likely not needing the gun to help suppress the crew, it was most likely for signalling or for defence.
Subsequent to the confirmation of identity, it was resolved at a meeting of the Museum Trustees in December of that year to ‘recommend to the Minister the historic wrecks known as “Fairy Queen” be vested in the Museum on behalf of the crown for the purposes of the Museum Act 1969 (Rez 326/73.). Again this is a reflection of the situation at a time when there was no shipwreck legislation in Australia and perhaps globally, bar the Museum Act. That the finders were given a reward of $100 by the Trustees of the Museum, an apparently small sum today, needs be viewed against the mean annual wage at the time. When the Maritime Archaeology Act 1973 was declared soon after the wreck was protected under the Museum Act, the provisions of the Museum Act in respect of historic wrecks and relics were superseded by it and the wreck was then vested in the Museum under Section 6 (1) of the Act.
On 10 June 1974 Scott Sledge, the then Inspector of Wrecks and Warren Robinson, another of the Museum divers, joined local diver Peter Burbage of Exmouth in the recovery of an anchor . He had early located two anchors, one of which the team found was either missing or buried in the sand. They recovered the remaining anchor which they found c. 10m from shore in 3m of water at low tide. This anchor which was found in a ‘stowed position’ with the stock not set and the ring laid back along the shank, with no cable attached was raised using large fuel drums. Its configuration and the finding of several ballast stones and some ceramic sherds that were concreted to it indicate that it was lying within the wreck and that it had not been deployed during the wrecking. Despite excavating down to 12 inches ( c. 300mm) around the site, no other wreckage was seen, however. With the assistance of the Civil Commissioner the Museum was able to have the USN deploy one of its cranes at the jetty and the anchor was loaded onto Sledge’s vehicle for transport south. The police were subsequently requested to investigate the loss of the other anchor.
In October 1977 this was located during construction for the boat ramp nearby. It was described by the Civil Commissioner as being ‘encrusted in coral, and its condition appears reasonable, except for bad corrosion on the outboard end of the stock.’ After learning that yet another anchor had been found in the late 1980s by local divers Peter and Rodney O’Halloran, it was raised by diver Peter Lake. On being advised of the finders displeasure, in June 1989 the author wrote on behalf of the Museum seeking its return to the public domain following conservation. In a similar fashion to the popular Museum/PWD anchor walk at Fremantle, this anchor together with al others lying around town and two anchors lying under the Jetty at the Harold E. Holt Base (that were believed to have been earlier recovered form the SS Mildura at a time and by persons unknown) were to be gathered together, conserved by local interests and then put exhibition in the town. Around this time one of the first wreck trail pamphlets for the State of Western Australia was produced. School children from the town joined at the Department of Maritime archaeology in Fremantle to produce a pamphlet entitled ‘Wrecks of the Coral Coast’ and from that small beginning the name stuck to become used in subsequent tourist brochures and descriptions ( as did the ‘Silver Coast’ for the lower mid-west region).
After apparently been uncovered by Cyclone Orson another cannon was also reported to the Museum along with what appeared to have been previously buried wreckage. In company with the finder Henning Neilsen of Neilsen Diving Exmouth the author, then the Museums Inspector of Wrecks together with the Museum’s diving conservator Jon Carpenter recovered a gun identical to that earlier raised and took it to Fremantle for conservation. It was then recommended that on conservation one gun be returned to Exmouth for exhibition there. CMDR J.F. Cooper RAN at the Harold E. Holt base then wrote seeking to obtain the cannon and offering to mount it on a suitable carrige to a design produced by WAM. In being conserved, the cannon recovered in 1972 (FQ 2674) was duly loaned for display in the foyer of the main admin building for safety, security and climatic control reasons. It was set on a carriage built by P. A. Hall, the Facilities and Works Officer at the base with advice from the Museum’s chief diver and carriage-builder Geoff Kimpton.
There it remained until after the decision of the RAN to withdraw from the station in 2002 it was decided that the gun would best be returned to WAM where it now resides. For their part the various anchors were gathered together, conserved under Museum supervision and placed at various locations around the town.
In September 1992 a team led by Jeremy Green visited the site and though finding it largely buried, they were then able to ‘fix’ it with the then relatively new GPS Systems. Lately Green has fixed in far more accurately and the wreck appears on the Google Earth facility along with all other sknown wrecks on the West Austrlaian coast.
Edgar, A., Letter to the Sub-Collector of Customs. Roebourne. 19/10/1875. CSR 809: 147-150.
Edgar, A., evidence at Court of Inquiry into the wreck of the Fairy Queen, Cossack, 8 November 1875, C.S.R. 809, fol. 154-158.
Fairy Queen File, Department of Maritime
Former Rhio. Note site is in State Waters by baseline
Owner Messrs Marmion, Brown and Gill
Master Captain Andrew Edgar
Country Built Singapore
Port Built Singapore
Port Registered Singapore
Gouped Region North-West
Sinking Struck land
When Lost 1875/10/08
Where Lost Exmouth N W Cape
Position Information GPS
Port From Singapore
Port To N.W. of WA
Cargo Shell (Pearling)
Official Number 71529
Unique Number 224
Sunk Code Wrecked and sunk
File Number 354/77, 152/72
Chart Number AUS 744
Protected Protected State
Date Inspected 1992/09 JNG