The Dunbar is probably Sydney’s famous shipwreck, but 23 years before that terrible event left its scar on Sydney, another ship was wrecked inside the harbour, killing eleven people and leading to permanent changes in maritime safety precautions.
Not many people remember the wreck of the Edward Lombe in August 1834 now, overshadowed as it was by the wreck of the Dunbar, but it was the first major fatal wreck in the harbour.
Ships and shipping were the aviation industry of colonial Sydney – anyone or anything coming or going, did so by ship. Sydney was a maritime town – the industry touched every facet of life in Sydney, everyone knew the crews and the sailors. Like planes, there were lots of different kinds of ships too for different purposes, including barques, schooners, sloops and brigantines, for transporting passengers, convicts and goods. Shipping made Sydney an intercolonial city, connected with the whole world.
The Edward Lombe was a copper lined, three-masted timber barque of 352.6 tonnes, built in Yorkshire in 1828 by one of the largest shipyards in England. In 1834 she was still a reasonably new vessel, and had made at least two voyages to Australia already. She would make various stops in different colonies, dropping off and collecting passengers who were travelling between colonies or countries, as well as goods and mail.
On her voyage to Sydney in August 1834, she had just departed Hobart with 7 passengers, 22 crew and a general cargo of spirits, salt and other merchandise, as well as a new commission to collect a shipment of sugar from Mauritius on her way back to England. Her captain, Stuart Stroyan, had only joined the vessel in March 1834 and this was his first voyage to Sydney.
Shipping was of course a dangerous business at the time. With no engines, ships were subservient to the weather. The Edward Lombe was becalmed for a few days on her way up to Sydney, but then the wind picked up and she started making good time. Unfortunately the wind soon becomes a proper gale, and a terrible storm sets in. Ships would trim their sails and sit stormy weather out off the coast, rather than try to make it through the treacherous reefs into Sydney Harbour, and this is what the captain of the Edward Lombe planned to do on the evening of the 25 August. However this was not to be. The wind was so high that it pushed the vessel towards the coast – Stroyan saw the light from South Head and decided the only thing to was to steer for the heads, where hopefully they could find shelter.
At about half past nine that evening the ship made it through the heads, and with no pilot to guide them, Stroyan decided to let go of an anchor about two ships’s lengths off the small rocky outcrop known as Sow and Pigs reef off Middle Head. The wind was so strong that the cable snapped almost immediately. They dropped another anchor, but this was not strong enough to hold the ship and her stern was dashed on the rocks at Middle Head.
The ship was doomed.
Two passengers and Captain Stroyan tried to cut a lifeboat free, but were swept to their deaths by a wave that crashed over the boat.
When stuck, wooden ships come apart reasonably easily, and in this case the Edward Lombe literally split in half. Held together only by cables and ropes, with the cargo pouring out, the front half of the ship swung round and everyone on that half of the ship was killed.
Two more men were drowned as they attempted to cast a line to the shore from the stern, while another was dashed on the rocks but, miraculously, was thrown by the waves onto the bows of the wreckage and climbed onto a high rock, which he managed to cling to all night.
By morning the survivors were huddled together on the remaining deck, the huge waves having crashed over them all night. The alarm was raised by a smaller boat heading out to sea who spotted the wreck and made their way, at considerable risk to themselves, to their aid.
In all eleven of the 29 people onboard died, including 5 of the 7 passengers.
In the weeks following, as some of the bodies were recovered and inquests and inquiries were held, several recommendations for improvements to navigational aids were made. A temporary light was established on the Sow and Pigs, and by 1836, a permanent floating light ship had finally been placed there. It had already proved so useful that at least one newspaper expressed the hope that it might soon be superseded by a small lighthouse. In 1912 the light ship was replaced by a buoy with a gas light that was in turn replaced by the Western Channel Pile Light.
Read more about the wreck of the Edward Lombe and its aftermath in Hugh Tranter‘s great entry, The Wreck of the Edward Lombe, on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_wreck_of_the_edward_lombe
Mark Dunn is the author of ‘The Convict Valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier’ (2020), the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!