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Rescue! – how were men rescued from the shipwrecked Walter Hood?

According to third mate William Tickler’s account, those aboard the Walter Hood first see other men on the beach on the morning of Friday 29 April. Who they are, and how they came to be there is a matter of dispute among locals who were living in the area at the time.

A number of men were keen to be remembered as the one who discovered and then rescued men from the Walter Hood and, as their stories were told, retold and retold over the following decades, it’s not surprising that what actually happened became muddled and embellished.

The southern end of Wreck Bay is about 12km (as the crow flies) from Milton and, in 1870, there were very few people living in that area. That anyone found the wreck and was able to help those who had swum ashore, and get help for those who hadn’t, is remarkably good luck.


Walter Hood wreck headline in Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1870, page 5

George Robinson’s account

This story appears as a letter to the editor of the Hobart Mercury written in December 1870 by someone with the pen name ‘A Lover of Fair Play’. In the letter, he/she is offended by the paper’s recent reporting of two men being recommended for bravery awards for their efforts in trying to rescue men from the stricken ship.

The letter continues with the story that Robinson woke on the morning of 28 April having had a fearful dream that a ship was in distress near Redhead (now Bendalong). He immediately sent an Aboriginal boy he employed to check – he returned with the news that there was indeed a ship wrecked in the bay. Robinson then rode to Wreck Bay with blankets and supplies to help anyone he might find there. On finding a man and a boy (presumably Williams and Robinson) exhausted on the shore, he lit a fire, rolled them in blankets and then left for more help, risking his life by riding at night through the terrible floodwaters to reach Ulladulla.


A flurry of memories from 1925

In 1925, discussion in the Sydney Morning Herald about a new memorial for victims of the Walter Hood shipwreck provoked a number of letters to its editor, each writer claiming a pivotal role for a different hero:

Patrick Donnelly’s account

On 14 May 1870 the Town and Country Journal published an account by Patrick Donnelly about the finding of the wreck and the subsequent rescue of survivors. He confirms that his stepfather, Robinson, who lived about “three or four miles from Narrawellan Beach” had the dream, that he sent Donnelly out to check.

In 1925, Donnelly writes a new account. This time he says that it was him who had had the dream of the wreck and both he and Robinson went to the beach before anyone had swum to shore.

On 28 March 1925, 55 years after the event, GB Lowery writes to the Sydney Morning Herald about his friend, “PH Donnely of Tomerong” (in other references this man, his name is spelled as ‘Donnelly’). According to Lowery, Donnelly had the dream about the wreck, (not Robinson). He was also the first to reach the wreck and that it was his stepfather who then rode 45 miles to Terara (near Nowra) to get help, which didn’t arrive for 4 days. During that time, Donnelly and another local man, Joseph Whatman, rescued eight of the seamen and found clothes and food for them. While rescuing one of the men, Donnelly was also attacked by a shark. Two men, Bailey and Harrison also came to the beach from Ulladulla and bravely tried to swim out to the wreck, but failed.

Donnelly is George Robinson’s stepson.


John Harrison’s account

Harrison’s version of the rescue appears in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald written by his daughter on 24 February 1925. She says Harrison, who was visiting Ulladulla, went to the beach to help with the rescue. He tried several times to swim to the ship and succeeded on one attempt but the line they gave him broke as he swam back to shore. He was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s silver medal for his bravery.


Samuel Bailey’s account

Bailey’s role in the rescue also appears in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, published on 28 March 1925. In it, Bailey’s daughter disputes that Harrison was the only hero of the day, telling how her father swam three times out to the wreck until he was too exhausted. She describes Samuel Bailey’s citation for bravery by the Royal Humane Society and how he was also awarded a silver medal.


Robert William’s account

In April 1927, when the new memorial cairn was dedicated, Robert Williams, a survivor of the Walter Hood was living in Kurri Kurri. He spoke to a reporter of the Cessnock Eagle and Maitland Recorder which published his account of the wreck and rescue. He says:

“And here, I wish to state that I was the only one who assisted in getting the other survivors from the wreck till another coloured man, a native of Berbico, British Guiana, was helped ashore by me on that Thursday”.

As for PH Donnelly’s claim, published in the Ulladulla and Milton Times that he was responsible for rescuing men from the ship, William “emphatically” says:

“I am challenging that statement in the paper named”

Williams had also earlier written down his account for RH Cambage CBE, who published a well-researched and very detailed account of the wrecking of the Walter Hood in the Ulladulla and Milton Times in 1926. In his statement, Williams asserts that as he swam away from the wreck he was carried out to sea more than a mile but, being a strong swimmer, was able to get to eventually get to shore. He then swam out to help in the boy Pritchard, then Hewison (who was in a terrible condition by the time he got to the beach), Cullen, Murray, Gale and MacPherson (from British Guiana). MacPherson then helped the Smith brothers get from the rocks where they had landed onto the beach. Williams then helped in Croy. He says:

“There was no one who assisted to get the crew ashore but myself and another coloured man by name MacPherson”

Williams also remembers Robinson coming to the beach on Thursday 28 April although, in his version, a man he calls ‘Hepburne’ arrives there looking for two bullocks that had got away. After seeing the wreck and the survivors on the beach, he goes for help and Robinson is the first to arrive, but probably not until early evening.


Great bravery on the beach but no rescue possible

Whoever it was that found the wreck and its survivors just clinging on to life, an eye witness account from a reporter from the Town and Country Journal tells that it is indeed George Robinson’s brave ride through the night to Milton and Ulladulla, pushing his way through dangerous floodwaters, that leads to the rescue of the remaining 13 men stranded on the wreck. He arrives there in the early hours of Friday 29 April and alerts the town’s people to the drama on their doorstep.

In Milton, two young visitors, John Harrison and Samuel Bailey, hear of the men’s desperate situation and volunteer to go to the wreck and try to swim out with a lifeline. They bravely swim out several times through the dangerous surf and rip, and Harrison even makes it to the wreck, but the line pulls apart as he swims back. Both men are later awarded silver medals by the Royal Humane Society for their efforts.

Many others also ride to the beach, taking blankets and food and offering what assistance they can to survivors. This tallies with Tickler’s account of seeing many people on the beach on the afternoon of Friday 29 April.


Walter Hood rescue by Illalong drawing in Jervis Bay Maritime Museum

Steamer Illalong arrives just in time!

When news of the wreck arrives in Ulladulla, luck is finally with the survivors left on the ship. The paddle steamer Illalong, on its way from Sydney to Batemans Bay, arrives in Ulladulla Harbour around midnight on Friday 29 April. Aboard is E. Manning, the owner of the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company who immediately gives the captain, Robert Tranent, orders to quickly unload and steam back to Wreck Bay.

The Illalong arrives at Wreck Bay while its still dark but those trapped aboard the Walter Hood see her lights and know that help is finally on its way! How loudly they cheer her! Captain Tranent tries to lower a boat but, in the dark with the seas so rough, decides its safer to wait until daybreak to begin the rescue. He keeps the Illalong‘s lights on through the night to reassure the stricken men.

At first light the boat is sent to the wreck and, with careful manoeuvring, they finally manage get alongside and help the first men into the boat. Mr Manning vividly describes the scene for the Town and Country Journal (7 May):

“First opportunity, one man; second one man; third, two men; fourth, one man; fifth, two men; sixth, three men; seventh, two men, eighth, one man – being the last of the thirteen”

Once all are safely aboard, the Illalong immediately departs for Sydney.

Paddle steamer Illalong in 1854. Image via Flotilla Australia


But, sadly we have five dead men washed ashore, lying on the sand of Wreck Bay. What should be done with their bodies?



Despair! - crew cling desperately to life and the wrecked Walter Hood
Respect - inquest, and burial of those who died