Wreck of SS Admella

Graham Jaunay © 1996
The SS Admella so named for her circuit [Adelaide, Melbourne, Launceston] under the command of Captain Hugh McEwan) left Port Adelaide early on Friday, 5 August 1859, on her usual run to Melbourne with eighty-one passengers and a crew of twenty-eight. Her cargo consisted of ninety-three tons of copper, flour for the Victorian goldfields, general merchandise and seven horses, including four racehorses. Three more passengers and one fireman were taken on at Semaphore, making the total complement one hundred and thirteen. The owners of three of the racehorses, Messrs. George and Hurtle Fisher, sons of the President of the South Australian Legislative Council, were among the passengers.
At about 1 pm, when abreast of Cape Willoughby light on Kangaroo Island, the heavy ocean swell threw the racehorse, Jupiter, on to his back in his box. While he was being put back on his feet Captain McEwan ordered the ship's bows turned out to sea into the swell and her speed reduced for about an hour. Then she returned to her normal course, steaming parallel to the shore, but further out to sea. By midnight she had covered a further seventy-five miles and although the weather was foggy, her master expected she would make Cape Northumberland before daylight. All believed the Admella to be many miles off-shore, but a few minutes before 5 am she struck a sunken reef with an almost imperceptible bump and the following swell lifted her a further twenty or thirty feet on to the rocks, impelling her with such force that she lay on the summit of the ridge, keeling over with her starboard side high out of the water. Pictured: The approx wreck site indicated 4 km NW Cape Banks.
Engines were immediately stopped and for a few seconds the only sound was the crashing of breakers on the rocks. Orders were given to clear the boats, but within fifteen minutes the Admella had broken into three sections. First, the funnel crashed down on to one of the lifeboats as the steamer heeled further over, until her beams gave way under the strain. Over the portion of the reef where the midship and fore section lay there was a greater depth of water than where the aft section rested on the reef. Finally, the ship snapped apart at the bulk-heads, bringing down the rigging, chains and blocks and sweeping several passengers and crew into the sea. The first victims were George Fisher and Dr Vaux, of Adelaide, also G Holbrook, who was on his way to England. Perhaps they were the lucky ones. At the same time all the horses were pitched overboard. Almost all the women and children were on the bow section while more than forty clung to the poop, held reasonably steady by the cargo of copper in the hold. A few rockets were discovered and fired in the hope of attracting the attention of light-keepers at Cape Northumberland, fifteen miles away, but they were damp and failed to ignite correctly.
Daylight revealed a deserted coastline about a mile away, and plans were being formulated for an attempt to reach shore when a steamer was seen in the distance. Signals were hurriedly erected on the remaining mast and rigging, the ship's bell rung, but the vessel, Admella's sister ship Havilah, passed without seeing them.
Webb, the man in charge of some of the horses, was seen soon after floating on part of a horse box and trying to paddle with his hands, and then another man named Purdon swam off to a piece of timber hoping to get ashore from it. After floating about half a mile away from the wreck the current took them both out to sea. Next, one of the ship's boats was seen floating keel up close to the wreck and a young Danish seaman named Holm volunteered to swim to it with a line attached to his waist. He reached the boat but the line parted and he spent almost the whole day attempting to avoid being swept out to sea, only to be finally washed off and drowned.
All now realised that their only hope lay in someone reaching the shore and bringing help. The second mate volunteered to swim ashore, but he too disappeared in the raging seas around the reef.
No water could be found in either part of the wreck and there was no food on the fore section. In the poop a piece of ham was located, but all were afraid it would further increase their thirst. However, a small bag of almonds was discovered and doled out. During the first night on the wreck another ship, SS Bombay, passed so close that the steady beat of her engines could be heard, but of course there were no rockets, blue lights or lamps to attract attention, and the frantic cries and signals went unnoticed in the dark.
Cold, and drenched with spray, there was further consultation as to who would make the attempt to reach the shore on a raft. Five of the passengers offered 100 pounds each if they were saved, so a decision was made to build a raft next morning. Survivors on the fore section crossed to the poop during the morning when a rope was finally fastened after many anxious moments. Fifteen men made the crossing, although three men and two children were lost.
No women attempted to cross. They remained with their children and a few of the men also stayed. Their deaths came within a few hours when the forepart broke up. Sailors set to, making a raft, the only tool available being a meat chopper. The mizzen boom was cut in two and a portion of the main boom was chopped off. These they lashed together and, with a rope fastened to it. They launched the raft overboard with John Leach and Robert Knapman in charge. Captain McEwan told them that if they reached the shore they were to proceed to the Cape Northumberland lighthouse.
For three hours in the afternoon the seamen battled with the breakers as they steered their raft towards the shore. It finally grounded, and in order to save themselves from being carried out again they dived into the sea and dug their hands into the sand, holding on as each succeeding breaker carried them further forward, until they gained the sandy beach. After recovering their strength they signalled to their companions on the wreck, then set out for the lighthouse, struggling all night through swamps and over sandhills. At last they reached the lighthouse and told Head keeper, B Germein of the disaster.
Wasting no time, Germein set out for the nearest post office at Mount Gambier on a horse to report the wreck to Adelaide and Melbourne, but he was thrown, and so Peter Black, a local station owner, completed the ride to Mount Gambier.
Within a few hours word of the wreck had spread like wildfire and men and women began converging on the beach opposite the wreck where they found the body of one of the horses and piles of wreckage, including a damaged lifeboat. Three other horses were grazing nearby.
There was no lifeboat closer than Portland in Victoria, almost two hundred miles away, but Germein arranged for a small boat at the lighthouse to be sent overland by dray. By the time it arrived the damaged ship's lifeboat had been hauled ashore and repaired, although rough seas threatened to delay rescue attempts for at least another day.
By now the sea had gutted all cabins and any places of refuge or shelter, forcing the survivors to climb into the rigging or cling to the side of the hull and steeply angled deck. Meanwhile two fishermen from Robe, and SS Corio from Adelaide had reached the wreck, but both were powerless in the heavy seas.
Early on Thursday the 11th, Germein attempted to launch his boat, but it too was swamped. Captain Quinn, on the Corio, approached close to the wreck and finally decided to launch the pilot boat which she carried. Manned by seven men, it battled the seas for almost an hour before being forced to land on the beach.
The fifty-odd survivors left on the Admella set about building yet another raft only to see it also drift away. To add to their miseries those still capable of following the rescue operations saw both boats launched from the beach, then capsized and swamped in the surf.
The SS Corio, running short of coal, decided to return to Robe but as she left SS Lady Bird appeared over the horizon from Portland, towing the lifeboat and whaleboat, while SS Ant also arrived from Robe.
At about 9 am on Friday the lifeboat left the steamer and pulled in to the wreck, approaching from the western or weather side. When only a short distance away two rockets with life lines attached were fired and several attempts to throw a line over the wreck were made, but all failed. Soon after, several huge seas swept over the lifeboat destroying six of the oars and breaking the rudder, but during a lull the exhausted crew succeeded in escaping and returning to the Lady Bird.
Captain Fawthrop, captain of the boat, immediately ordered the oars replaced and the boat readied for a second attempt, but found the seas too high and dangerous. Next morning calmer seas enabled Germein in his boat, and the pilot boat, to approach the wreck and fasten a line. One enormous wave took Germein's boat right over the wrecked ship's boiler, but he returned inside it on the crest of the next huge wave. Three of the survivors, Captain McEwan, Thomas Davey and Andrew Fuller managed to haul themselves into Germein's boat and they were then taken aboard the pilot boat and put ashore. In the surf it capsized, but all on board were rescued. Meanwhile, Germein had rescued another survivor using the Admella's lifeboat, but this man was drowned when the life boat was also capsized in the surf. The Portland lifeboat and whaleboat, supported by a boat from the Ant had now returned and anchored near where they had been the previous day. The bow man in the lifeboat heaved a line over the wreck and after it was fastened eighteen men and one woman were rescued, making the total a mere twenty-four out of the original one hundred and thirteen.
The Lady Bird was boarded at about 10 am, and after exchanging signals with those on shore she returned to Portland.
At the end of a week's waiting, interest in the wreck had reached fever pitch; and telegraph offices throughout the colonies were crowded, while newspapers printed extra editions only to see them sold out immediately they were released.
A surge of relief swept the country when it was known that the handful of survivors were safe and recovering quickly. For a few weeks crews who had participated in the rescue were treated as heroes, especially Captain Greig and the crew of the Lady Bird. When things had quietened down the committees appointed in Melbourne, Adelaide and Portland to handle relief money spent their funds on monetary awards, medals, the publishing of a book dealing with the wreck and a donation to the Sailors' Home.
In Adelaide the committee used its money for monetary awards while those in Portland used the funds to pay accounts for lodging and for clothing the survivors; also doctors' bills and other sundries associated with their care once they were landed at Portland. The medals were eventually presented by the Governor at a function in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne, on 25 June, 1860.
A Commission appointed to inquire into the loss of the Admella decided the principal cause was a strong inshore current, adding that the Bombay was probably fortunate not to suffer a similar fate. More efficient means of inserting watertight bulkheads were needed as they had contributed to the premature destruction of the vessel and heavy loss of life. Captain McEwan was cleared of any blame but was criticised for not taking regular soundings when uncertain of his position.
And what became of the remains of the Admella? Late in August goods salvaged or washed ashore were auctioned on the beach opposite the wreck and a week later her remains and the cargo brought 850. Subsequent salvage attempts were not a total success as the ship, in breaking up, had made recovery of the valuable copper difficult and the ocean was seldom very calm.
In 1860 the remains were sold again to R Anderson, of Mount Gambier, and H Chant, who then set about recovering more material. Before disposing of the remains Anderson used some materials recovered to build a cottage at Port MacDonnell. Gradually the wreck almost drifted from memory until 1957 when skindivers recovered copper, and after forming a syndicate, raised more than 250 tons of the metal.
The Admella has left us many interesting relics. For years metal plates from the ship were used to reinforce and secure crumbling walls in the Robe gaol. The maritime museum at Port MacDonnell has a restored signal cannon from her, many items from the ship, pieces of cargo, and an excellent display of photographs. Local residents could direct visitors to the cottage built by Anderson using wreckage from the ship. At Cape Banks a cairn commemorates the wreck, and at Cape Northumberland near the site of the early lighthouse is a memorial commemorating the deeds of head light keeper Germein who played a prominent role in the rescue. Of course we must not forget the famous lifeboat used by Fawthrop and his gallant crew, still on display at Portland. A small collection of relicts can also be found at the Maritime Museum Port Adelaide.
And yet, even today, some questions remain unanswered, not least of what became of the supposed treasure carried by passenger James Whittaker, who lost his life refusing to leave his cabin.
1. Mossman, Samuel (1859); Narrative of the shipwreck of the Admella, intercolonial steamer, on the southern coast of Australia/drawn up from authentic statements furnished by the rescuers and survivors. Printed and published for the Committee of the Admella Fund by J. H. Moulines and Co. Melbourne. Appendix A (pp. 103-104)
2. Register newspaper
3. John Whittaker
4. SA Deaths Indexes
5. State Records of SA: GRG2/45 Item 28 Interim Report re Wreck of the Admella from Commissioners to Governor MacDonnell; GRG51/220 Department of Marine and Harbors Letter Book; GRG51/285 Department of Marine and Harbors Misc Records
6. Sandra Jones (descendant of James Bowie) and Lesley Rasti
7. Observer 13 Aug 1859 Suppl p1; 20 Aug 1859 p5; 27 Aug 1859 Suppl p2; 5 Sep 1859 p7

Passengers and Crew of the Ship Admella


Twentyfour individuals - 11 passengers and 13 crew members survived.

Crew that survived

• 1. Hugh McEwan, master
• 2. James Hutcheson, first mate age 33
• 3. GB McNair, purser
• 4. George Hills, fore cabin steward age 23
• 5. George Ward, cabin boy
• 6. John McDermott, second cook
• 7. David Peters, fireman age 24
• 8. Robert Wright, trimmer
• 9. Robinson Duchering, lamp trimmer age 23
• 10. Charles Locke, able seaman
• 11. John Welch, able seaman
• 12. Robert Knapman, able seaman (got ashore and went for help)
• 13. John Leach, able seaman (got ashore and went for help)
Passengers that survived

• 1. Hurtle Fisher, Adelaide
• 2. Miss Bridget Ledwith, Adelaide (her plight mentioned Observer 27 Aug 1859 Suppl p2b)
• 3. James Miller, Victoria
• 4. Benjamin Rochfort, Adelaide
• 5. Patrick Carrick
• 6. Thomas Davey
• 7. Michael Forrester
• 8. Patrick Glynn
• 9. Thomas Richardson
• 10. James Webb
• 11. Andrew, servant to Mr Rochfort

The Observer 20 Aug 1859 p5 adds to the above official list with a passenger named Dyer and a seaman named Fuller.
The 150 anniversary celebrations web site include Hugh McInnes and Thomas O'Halloran.


This figure varies between reports from 81 to 89 but at this stage we have only 83 names. The 150 anniversary celebrations web site claim 89 died. The Cape Banks memorial says 77 perished.

Crew that perished

• 1. Walter Brown, second engineer age 24
• 2. Miss Clendinning, stewardess
• 3. James Hare / Hur, cabin steward age 33
• 4. Soren Holm, able seaman
• 5. John Johnson, second mate
• 6. Margaret Meagher, fore cabin stewardess
• 7. Simon Munro, first engineer age 33
• 8. J Orr, first cook
• 9. Unnamed aassistant steward
• 10. Unnamed aassistant steward
• 11. A seaman
• 12. A seaman
• 13. A seaman
• 14. A fireman
• 15. A fireman

The Observer 5 Sep 1859 p7b names seven crew not named above but, apart from one, does not identify their position: B Germain (coxswain), Henry Smith, Charles Allmack, William Maben, Henry Wylie, Thomas Anderson, William Baker. An earlier issue 20 Aug 1859 p5 adds to the above list with an unnamed 1st steward, an unnamed trimmer, an unnamed stoker and two unnamed seamen. It fails to name Holm. This has the potential to increase the persished crew by four to 19.

Passengers that perished

• 1. George Fisher, Adelaide (also recorded in the Register Personal Notices 18 Aug 1859)
• 2. Mrs Glynn
• 3. Cpt Harris, master mariner, Adelaide
• 4. Henry Holbrook, Adelaide (Death certifcate issued in Adelaide; recorded in the Register Notices 18 Aug 1859))
• 5. James Magarey, Geelong (recorded in the Register Personal Notices 22 Aug 1859)
• 6. Miss Nugent, Adelaide
• 7. Dr Vaux, Ship Norfolk
• 8. James Whittaker, ex-convict and proprietor of Sir John Franklin Hotel, Kapunda
• 9. Patrick Arthur
• 10. Fernando Bade
• 11. Benjamin Baker
• 12. John Battrick
• 13. Mrs Catherine Beith nee Weir age 31
• 14. Catherine Beith age 10
• 15. Jane Beith b. 1857 Norwood SA
• 16. John Beith b. 1855 Norwood SA
• 17. Robert Beith age 8
• 18. Mrs Madeline Bowie nee Beith age 39 w/o James
• 19. John Carmichael, unm
• 20. Edwin Chambers
• 21. Mrs Coxell
• 22. child Coxell
• 23. James Davidson
• 24. John Davis
• 25. George Forrester (recorded in the Register Personal Notices 26 Aug 1859 as Forster)
• 26. Mrs Forrester (George Watkins' sister; recorded in the Register Personal Notices 26 Aug 1859 as Emma Forster)
• 27. Wilhelm Alfred French (recorded in the Register Personal Notices 24 Aug 1859)
• 28. Mrs Gold
• 29. Mrs Goode
• 30.Henry Grosse
• 31. Edward Haynes
• 32. Wilhelm Hermann
• 33. Edwin Jackson
• 34. Mrs Kerwin
• 35. Kerwin child
• 36. Kerwin child
• 37. Kerwin child
• 38. Richard King
• 39. Patrick Lennan
• 40. Mrs Lennan
• 41. Thomas R[olfe] Mensforth (Register Personal Notices 20 Aug 1859)
• 42. Thomas Murray
• 43. Bridget Murray
• 44. John O'Brien, age 19
• 45. Eliza Paul
• 46. Mrs Ramsay
• 47. William Rosewell
• 48. Wilhelm Schultz
• 49. Charlotte Short
• 50. Charlotte Short b. 1857
• 51. Henry J Short b. 1854
• 52. John Short, child
• 53. Thomas Short b. 1856
• 54. William Taylor
• 55. John Tregeagle
• 56. Walter Underwood, a youth (recorded in the Register Personal Notices 24 Aug 1859 as Edward)
• 57. George Watkins (recorded in the Register Personal Notices 26 Aug 1859)
• 58. Hester Watkins (recorded in the Register Notices 26 Aug 1859 as Hester Watkins Williamson)
• 59. John Watson
• 60. Mrs Watson
• 61. Watson child
• 62. Watson child
• 63. Mrs Weatherall
• 64. Allan Sebastian Webb (Death certifcate issued in Adelaide; recorded in the Register Notices 23 Aug 1859))
• 65. Mr Williamson
• 66. Mr Wood

The Biographical Index of South Australians lists an Aldborough R Davies and William Dyer (33) whose names are not on any lists. They may be the unnamed crew members. Willam Dyer is named in the Observer newspaper of 20 Aug 1859 p5 as a survivor.

Some web sites (including Admella 150th Anniversary - now closed - and Ahoy Mac's Web Log) name two surviving passengers from the forecabin, Hugh McInnes and Thomas O'Halloran, but neither give their source and a search of documents listed above failed to find these names.

Only two death certificates were issued in South Australia.

Pictured above: Admella memorial at Cap Banks Lighthouse. Plaque detail below.

The Admella disaster remains the greatest loss of life in the history of European settlement in South Australia.

Admella plaque at Cape Banks

Near dawn on August 6th 1859 S.S. Admella struck a reef
about four kilometres north west of here and in a short
time broke into three sections losing all her life boats.
After numerous brave but fatal attempts to reach
the shore a little over a kilometre away two seamen
Leach and Knapman on the second day struggled through the
raging surf and set off for Pt Macdonnell.
The next day telegraph from Mt Gambier sounded the
general alarm. For a week she lay helpless
while steamers that were attempting a rescue and
people on the shore were frustrated by the elements
and watched helplessly as one by one the passengers
and crew dropped from exposure and exhaustion to a
watery grave.

Of the 101 passengers and crew on board 24 including
one woman survived
18 women and 14 children were among the 77 who perished


An Anne Avage nee Ledwith claimed in a letter to the newspaper that she was the only female survivor rather than her younger sister, Bridget and indeed her obituary in a Ballarat newspaper, her headstone and her photo in the Portland Maritime Discovery and Visitors' Centre support this doubtful claim. Subsequent research make strong arguments (but do not provide the hard evidence) that Bridget Ledwith who died in 1864 and is buried with her parents, James and Ann, at Morphett Vale was the survivor.

After many years of debate this matter was finally settled in early 2020. The death certificate of Ann Ledwith in 1864 stated that she died of spitting of blood (a symptom of TB) and miscarriage. A letter from Michael Kenny dated 5 Sep 1863 to the Admella Relief Fund attached a medical certificate from a Dr Trotter in Victoria in which it was stated that Miss Ledwitch from the Admella, suffered from a severe asthmatic condition (in other words TB). Therefore, Bridget was the person who died in 1864 as she was the only family member who died of TB. It is noted that Ann Avage who lived until 1917 and died from bronchitis and cardiac failure was never recorded as having TB or TB-like symptoms. Furthermore it is very unlikely she could have borne nine children if she had suffered from TB in her early twenties!
Thank you to Warwick Thomas for these final points of clarification.

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