21 January, 2012

The wreck of the Charlemont

The Barwon River has never really played a significant role in Australia's shipping trade. Punts and ferries were used to to cross the river in the early days of European settlement prior to bridges being built and the Wathaurong used bark canoes, however the Barwon has never really been used for the mass transport of goods and people.
The various weirs and breakwaters  along the lower reaches of the river and a variety of low bridges make navigation impossible for large vessels and nor is its depth suitable for the purpose. Consequently, the only real link between the river and shipping (the daily passage of container ships and the Spirit of Tasmania past the river mouth not withstanding) is the several shipwrecks which have taken place on the reefs and beaches surrounding Barwon Heads.
View west and south from Barwon Heads Bluff
One of the best known shipwrecks to occur off the coast only a few hundred metres from the mouth of the river was that of the Earl of Charlemont. The vessel was a three masted, ship-rigged, 878 ton clipper, with a crew of 37 and carrying 366 passengers - immigrants from England. She departed Liverpool on 13th March, 1853 on her maiden voyage with the intention of making a quick stop in Port Phillip before heading onwards to Sydney with the majority of her immigrant passengers.
However, in a heavy fog at 4am on 18th June, 1853 she struck a reef - now known as Charlemont Reef - only a few hundred metres south west of Barwon Heads Bluff. Some reports indicate that three lives were lost, including that of a passenger who suffered a heart attack shortly after the ship struck the reef, however media reports of the day indicate no loss of life. The passengers and crew were landed on the beach below the Bluff by means of running a line from the stricken ship to the shore. Three lifeboats capsized in the heavy conditions whilst attempting to achieve this aim and a line was only secured when a passenger was able to swim the rope to crew members on the shore who had scrambled down the broken mast and rigging and swum to shore. The survivors were then taken ashore in one of the rescued lifeboats which was secured to the line. Women and children went first, then the invalids and married men and then the remaining passengers and crew. This operation took until 8:30 that night to complete.
It was not long before the alarm was raised and someone sent overland from the Heads to investigate. However, being unable to cross the Barwon in rough conditions he returned and sent word to Geelong where the police magistrate was informed of the situation on Sunday morning.  The master and second mate from the pilot boat Boomerang were able - at some risk - to swim across to the immigrants to help with the rescue effort which also included the removal of the passengers' luggage from the stricken vessel.
By Monday, the ship Anonymous was sent in parkland near the Barwon Heads Bridge the scene in an attempt to provide assistance, but was unable to make a safe landing and returned to its base at Williamstown.
The immigrants meanwhile, found shelter on the property of Mr McVean. This gentleman provided them with supplies and assistance until more could be sent from Geelong on drays. Those who couldn't be accommodated in either his house or outbuildings found warmth around large fires until the authorities arrived and their transfer to Geelong began.
Anchor salvaged from the Earl of Charlemont
Despite his passengers attributing no blame to their captain he - Captain Garner - was found guilty at a later inquest of negligence and had his captain's license suspended.
Over time and with the "assistance" of wreckers, the ship broke up and its remains sank to the sea floor. It was not until 1961 that they were rediscovered by local divers who with the help of a group of divers from the Barwon Grove Skindivers in 1972 were able to raise the ship's anchor which today stands in parkland near the Barwon Heads Bridge. The ship's bell was also salvaged and can be found in All Saints Church. What is left of the wreck still lies on the sea floor and continues to draw the attention of interested divers. The following blogs posted here, by a local diver show photos and give a description of the site as he found it in 2011.
The wreck of the Earl of Charlemont is also remembered in various other ways. Local author and member of the dive team which raised the ship's anchor in 1972 - Brian Latter - has devoted an entire book "Breakers Ahead - Wreck of the Earl of Charlemont" to the topic. Then of course there is Charlemont Court, Ocean Grove and at a point some distance inland but not too far from the banks of the Barwon River, Charlemont Road runs south from the swampy land which surrounds Reedy Lake and Hospital Swamp.
Road sign in Marshall
In addition, the name Charlemont has recently been selected for one of the new suburbs to be built as part of the Armstrong Creek development in the same area.


  1. My great-grandfather, David Webster, was ship's carpenter on the Earl of Charlemont and, according to the family story handed down, he 'fashioned a cradle' to steady or in some other way make it possible for the lifeboat to be safely brought to shore via the line.
    He married a nurse who tended him and other survivors at the Geelong Hospital, built the Heritage listed stone cottage at 23 O'Connell Street. He later moved to Williamstown, where he became the first superintendent of the Alfred Graving Dock (ship-building dockyards).
    His son, also David Webster, became the Chief engineer of HMV Cerberus, flag-ship of the Victorian Navy. And a great-grandson, Neville Williams, became a Vice-Admiral in the British Navy. Comment by Joan Webster OAM

  2. My great grandfather was a young man milking his cows at 3 o'clock in the morning when he herd a distress siren from the Earl of Charlemont and alerted the police.His name was John Bogan a local to the area.