Off Cape Leeuwin
Pericles was built under Special Survey by Harland and Wolff, Ltd in Belfast (yard No. 392) at a cost of £240 000 for G. Thompson & Co. Ltd’s Aberdeen White Star Line. Launched on 21 December 1907, it had a straight stem, two decks, an awning deck, eight bulkheads and steel wales sheathed with wood. The twin-screw steamer had one funnel, four pole masts, a bridge deck 47.6 m long, a forecastle 19.5 m long, and six cargo hatches. Steam for the two quadruple expansion engines was produced in three double-ended and two single-ended boilers, giving it a speed of 14–15 knots. The ship was fitted with a cellular double bottom extending the full length of the hull, had eight watertight compartments and bilge keels. The accommodation was lavish and extremely comfortable. A newspaper reported:
No less than four decks are utilised for the accommodation of saloon passengers, although only 100 are carried. The dining saloon, which is on the main deck, is a broad spacious apartment extending the full width of the ship. Large portholes are fitted for light and ventilation, while an auxiliary arrangement of fans is also provided in order to ensure comfort and fresh air in all weather.
The predominant colour of the carpet and upholstery is crimson, and the floor polished oak parquetry. The walls are of carved white panelling, relieved with gold, and with a dado of oak, and the ceiling is white. The saloon, library and lounge are situated at the forward end of the bridge deck, and are divided by a handsome glass screen, each room having a separate entrance.
The staterooms in the deckhouse on the bridge deck…are particularly light and airy, being nearly 10 ft in height…(Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1908, quoted in Plowman, 2009: 96).
Under the command of Captain Alexander Simpson, commodore of the shipping line, the Pericles was en route to London via Fremantle and the Cape of Good Hope with a large mixed cargo of 32 000 boxes of butter, 35 000 frozen mutton carcases, 6 000 bales of wool, hides, 3?000 cases of apples (picked up in Hobart) of which 500 cases were carried on deck, 25 tons of tallow, coconut oil and 600 tons of lead and sundry other items. The lead had a high gold and platinum content, and was being shipped to Europe. At that time there was no place in Australia where these precious metals could be extracted from the lead. There were 298 passengers bound for South Africa and England, and a crew of 163. The ship had been to Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart then Melbourne, taking on board cargo and passengers from each port. The Pericles was deeply laden and had a draught of 8.53 m forward and 8.23 m aft. The vessel and cargo was insured for £750 000, of which one-third was vessel and two-thirds cargo (£90 000 of this was for the butter alone). The departure of the Pericles from Melbourne had been delayed for three days by a coal strike, and the ship sailed on 24 March 1910 on its voyage to Fremantle. Captain Simpson had made about 80 trips to Australia in his forty-six years at sea.
Just after noon on 31 March 1910, five days after leaving Melbourne, the Pericles passed White Topped Rocks, with the coast about five miles to starboard. At 3.32 p.m., in clear weather and with good visibility, the steamer travelling at 14 knots struck an uncharted rock near St Alouarn Islet, 6.5 km south-east of Cape Leeuwin. It passed over the rock, but the damage to the forward plates was so great that within three minutes there were 5 m of water in the forward hold. The chief engineer, W.L. Robertson, and his crew worked waist deep in water attempting to shore up bulkheads and keep the pumps going.
The steamer Strathfillan was steaming southwards to the west of the Pericles at the time but, despite turning his vessel broadside on to the Strathfillan and blowing the whistle and flying distress signals, Captain Simpson could not attract its attention. He therefore ordered the passengers and crew to abandon ship, which was carried out in an orderly manner within 25 minutes.
Passengers were helped into lifejackets and then into fourteen lifeboats, which were rowed towards the shore where fires had been lit by the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse staff to guide them to the best landing place in Sarge Bay. An officer could not be put in command of each boat, as that would have left none to look after the launching of later boats. Several of the officers who had stayed behind and only boarded the last boat therefore jumped overboard and swam to those boats which were without a responsible person in charge. All passengers and crew were saved, but the one-eyed ship’s cat, Nelson, was drowned. The ship drifted with the swell and south-east wind for a short while before going down by the bow, canting to starboard at the same time. All the boats landed during daylight except the last, that containing the captain, who had stayed behind close to his ship until it had sunk. This boat did not reach shore until 7.00 p.m.
The steamship Monaro took most of the passengers to Fremantle the day after the wrecking, embarking them from the Flinders Bay Jetty during rough weather in what was described as a fine example of seamanship. Some thirty or so passengers elected to make their way overland to Fremantle.
A Preliminary Inquiry into the loss of the Pericles was held by the Fremantle Harbour Master, Captain Irvine, on 5 April 1910. He recommended to the Colonial Secretary that a Court of Inquiry should be held. This inquiry was held at the Fremantle Courthouse on 7 April 1910 before E.P. Dowley, Resident Magistrate, W.G. Walter, Resident Magistrate and two nautical assessors, Captain Robert Laurie and Captain F.L. Parkes. It was pointed out that in charting the area around Cape Leeuwin the soundings had been made at one mile intervals, and it was therefore possible to miss an object like a pinnacle of rock such as that on which the Pericles had come to grief.
For the information of the Court of Inquiry, and because of the danger to shipping of an uncharted rock, the court was adjourned while the government steamer Penguin under the command of Captain James Airey was sent to the area to locate both the wreck and the rock on which the Pericles had struck. By sweeping with a long line Captain Airey located the wreck and advised the authorities by telegram:
Exact position of Pericles is south 3 deg. west (magnetic) from the Leeuwin Lighthouse, a distance of two miles seven chains. The depth of water is 16 fathoms alongside, and there is three fathoms of water on the derricks and spars, increasing to twelve fathoms on the portion of the wreck of the vessel which is lying about east (quoted in Millar, 1978: 105).
On 14 April the Court of Inquiry concluded that:
Proper care and vigilance were exercised in the navigation of the vessel by the master and officers, and proper steps were taken to fix her position, and from time to time to verify such position.
The vessel was kept on the course stated in the evidence given by the Master.
Such course, as set and steered, was one which, in all the circumstances of the occasion, the Master was justified in considering a safe and proper one.
While on such course as stated in the evidence, the vessel struck a submerged obstruction which is uncharted and thereby foundered (quoted in Fyfe, 1999: 16).
The wreck was a hazard to shipping as the derricks and spars were not far below sea level. This prompted a Notice To Mariners signed by the Chief Harbour Master, C.J. Irvine, in the Government Gazette of 22 April 1910 stating the position of the uncharted rock to be approximately:
Lighthouse bearing north 2 deg. west (magnetic), distant 7 miles. Latitude 34 deg. 28 min. 50 sec. south, longitude 115 deg. 9 min. 5 sec. East. Depth of water over rock about 24 feet.
The wreck itself lay in:
16 fathoms (96 feet) of water, with from two to three fathoms over her spars. The Lighthouse bearing north 3 deg. west (magnetic), distant 2 miles and 7 cables. Latitude 34 deg. 24 min. 35 sec. south, longitude 115 deg. 8 min. 10 sec. east.
However the search for the rock was unsuccessful, so the Penguin was recalled on 4 May 1910. In mid-May it was noted that one of the masts or a derrick was standing up out of the water some 2 m, and three days later was projecting 3 m above the sea. It was surmised at the time that the ship, which had sunk canted to starboard, had gradually rolled to a more upright position.
In December 1910 HMS Fantome was also sent to locate the rock, but after four days without any success it was concluded that the Pericles, in hitting the pinnacle, had probably knocked it over or at least knocked part of it off.
A great deal of the lighter cargo of the Pericles was washed ashore over subsequent weeks. Local residents collected boxes of butter and apples, barrels of coconut oil, empty barrels, doors and other timber, while the steamer Una salvaged 1 800 boxes of butter and some tallow, most of it in good condition. Three syndicates of local men with bullock teams were formed to collect any cargo washed up, and ‘it is recorded locally that each syndicate made £1 000’ (Cresswell, 2003: 116).
It was reported that in 1919 a firm named Ball and Sons searched, supposedly without success, to find the wreck site. This would seem to be J.E. ‘Jimmy’ Ball and his two sons who, according to an article in the Sunday Times published fifty years later on 12 January 1969, found the wreck and salvaged fittings from it. The informant for that article, Bill Riley, operated the air pumps aboard the Florrie (described as a flat-bottomed steamboat) from which the Balls were diving.
One of the lifeboats was acquired by a fisherman, Bob Smith of Busselton, who had it converted to cutter rig, named it Rose, and used it for fishing for many years. It was washed ashore, with Smith still on board, during the cyclone which struck Geographe Bay in 1937 (see entry). Another was purchased by a Bunbury man, John Forster, so that his family and friends could go fishing and crabbing. A third lifeboat was bought by Lionel Pearce, equipped with a mast and sail and also used as a fishing boat. This boat was still sailing as late as 1957.
The site is located 5.6 km south of the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse at a depth of about 35 m.
The wreck site is approximately 180 m long and 70 m wide, with the prominent features being three large boilers and the port engine standing upright. There is also the starboard engine (which is lying on its side), the two propeller shafts, propellers, anchors and copper pipes together with part of the vessel’s framing. Some ingots of lead are scattered near the propeller shafts in the stern area of the wreck.
EXCAVATION AND ARTEFACTS
In January 1957 Tom Snider, an American submariner who had been put ashore at Fremantle due to illness, again located the wreck and formed the Universal Salvage Company. He did salvage work on the wreck from 1957 until 1961, with particular emphasis on recovering the lead with its high silver and platinum content. The company recovered some 400–500 tons of ingots, the first shipment of 100 tons leaving Bunbury for London in early March 1957, and Snider presented the harbour-master at Fremantle, Captain F.H.B. Humble, with two bronze valves from the wreck. In 1961 Tom Snider was killed in an air crash in the north-west of Western Australia, but his widow continued salvage work until a little later she sold the salvage rights to Tom Pike of Augusta, who had worked as a diver for the Universal Salvage Company. In 1989 Pike advised the Western Australian Museum of the location of the wreck. By that time the owner of the wreck of the Pericles was Frank Lehane, and his widow subsequently gifted the wreck to the Western Australian Museum.
The Pericles had two propellers, plus a third chained to the deck as a spare. At least three propeller blades each weighing two tons were salvaged and sold to a scrap metal merchant in Fremantle.
A bell from the Pericles is on display at the Augusta Historical Museum. An Aberdeen White Star Line house flag, removed at the time of the wrecking by one of the ship’s engineers, John Winning Watson, was presented to the Western Australian Museum by Dr Richard Watson, nephew of the engineer.
Peter Buzzacott of the Pericles Research Group has done a lot of work over recent years mapping and photographing the site. As the wreck of the Pericles is now protected by law, further disturbance of the site is not permitted.
STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE
The Pericles is the only vessel wrecked on the Western Australian coast to have been powered by a quadruple expansion compound engine. This makes the wreck technically important for the study of large early 20th century steam engines and their associated equipment.
The three Leeuwin lighthouse keepers, Joseph Lyons, David Miner and Ernest McDonald were given awards by the Royal Humane Society in recognition of their efforts during the rescue. The Reverend W. Scott Clarke was given a gold watch and his daughter, Miss A. Scott Clarke, a gold brooch for their efforts in caring for the survivors when they first came ashore.
As the Monaro had very limited accommodation, the officers gave up their quarters so that the female survivors could be made comfortable. A verse was subsequently written:
All honour to the Monaro, her captain and her crew;
They had to do the hard work, and well they did it too.
The liner she’s a lady, her course is cut and dried:
Our liner’s down below the sea, from the Leeuwin four miles wide (quoted in Gregory, 1928: 202).
In 1900 the assistant surveyor on HMS Penguin (a different vessel from the Western Australian Government steamer Penguin sent from Fremantle after the accident) was Lieutenant Charles Richard Wynn Brewis. He was on board that vessel when it was used to survey the waters off Cape Leeuwin. During his seven year tour of duty in Australian waters he married a girl from Hobart, Corry Jeanette Crosby, daughter of William Crosby, M.L.C. Brewis and his family returned to England in 1903. In 1910 Mrs Brewis and their three children visited her parents in Hobart. Their return passage to England was on board the Pericles, which struck an uncharted rock in the area which had been surveyed by her husband some ten years earlier.
Tom Snider was searching for other wrecks to salvage when in 1961 he was killed in a plane crash. He had obtained the salvage rights to a number of wrecks including the Orizaba and the Michael J Galoundris. He located the wreck of the Pericles by being towed at a depth of about 20 m suspended on the anchor line of a small boat.
The Pericles is the largest vessel to be wrecked in the area and time span covered by this book.
Officer requested to accompany the survivors on the Monaro to give assistance if required. “I beg to state that I gave the stewards every assistance on the journey between Flinders Bay and Fremantle by keeping some of the roughest of the 3rd class passengers from the saloon to which they crowded for the purpose of obtaining Drink which the Captain prohibited and also some of them from the lady’s sleeping compartments”.
12 life boats landed crew and passengers near Leeuwin lighthouse. No lives lost.
Bearing Cape Leeuwin LH N48°W course N56°W true, altered course N62°W. St Alluran Is N17°W 1509, vessel struck at 1532. Continued for 15 mins before striking 31/03/1910. Thought to be 34°09’ 115°09’ though 26 fathoms. According to LH keeper 2.75 miles S1/8E
Owner George Thompson & Co Ltd. (Aberdeen Line)
Master Captain Alexander Simpson
Builder Harland & Wolff Ltd
Country Built Northern Ireland
Port Built Belfast
Port Registered Aberdeen
When Built 1908
Gouped Region South-West-Coast
Sinking Struck submerged uncharted rock
When Lost 2281
Where Lost Off Cape Leeuwin
Position Information GPS
Port From Melbourne (Sydney)
Port To Fremantle (London)
Cargo Passengers and general
Minimum Depth of site 36.00
Engine Twin-screw, quad. exp. 23”x 34”x 48”x 69” -51” 1075NHP, boilers 215lbs
Official Number 127153
Unique Number 1402
Sunk Code Wrecked and sunk
File Number 2009/0178/SG _MA-51/88
Chart Number BA 1037
Protected Protected Federal
Date Inspected 1991/06