One hundred and sixty years ago, a large sailing vessel called the Dunbar was wrecked near the Gap, just south of Sydney Heads, with the loss of 121 lives. It is still one of the worst disasters in New South Wales.
After 81 days at sea, the Dunbar arrived off the coast of Sydney on 20 August 1857. It was a dark and stormy night. Captain John Green was a veteran of the Sydney voyage, but something happened that fateful night, and the ship turned towards the cliffs, perhaps mistaking the Gap as the entry to the harbour.
The impact of the pounding seas and the rocky cliffs at the Gap, smashed the ship, breaking the masts and breaking the ship up almost immediately. The 122 passengers and crew on board were flung into the thrashing sea.
There was just one survivor – crewman James Johnson was hurled onto the rocks where he managed to gain a finger hold, enabling him to climb to a relatively safe ledge. He spent the night alone, marooned, watching the lifeless bodies of his shipmates flounder and wash below. Johnson was only spotted the next day and rescued, the sole survivor.
The wreck of the Dunbar shattered Sydney society. It was a dreadful reminder of the dangers of sea travel and the isolation of Australia from Britain.
The loss of life was mourned by the whole city. At the funeral procession on Monday 24 August, every ship in harbour flew their ensigns at half mast, guns were fired every minute, banks and offices were closed, and seven hearses and over 100 carriages passed in front of the 20,000 people who mutely lined George Street.
When the Catherine Adamson was lost off North Head just nine weeks later, claiming another 21 lives, the accidents prompted the colonial government to construct another lighthouse to mark the actual entrance to Sydney Harbour: this was the Hornby Lighthouse on the tip of South Head.
James Johnson went on to become the lighthouse keeper at Nobbys Head, Newcastle. In a strange twist of fate, when the Cawarra was wrecked there off the Oyster Bank in 1866, James Johnson and Henry Hannell saved Frederick Hedges, sole survivor of 60 aboard.
James Johnson lived to the age of 78 and is buried at Sandgate Cemetery in Newcastle.
Click here to go to the Dictionary and read the entry on the Dunbar Shipwreck.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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