Revelry! – a bounty-filled beach meets remote regional residents
When news of the Walter Hood shipwrecked finally reached Milton in the early hours of Friday 29 April the reaction was immediate. Several men quickly gathered provisions to help the survivors and rode through the floodwaters to reach Wreck Bay. But many others followed, with other things on their mind…
Two men visiting Milton, John Harrison and Samuel Bailey joined the group, knowing they were good swimmers and so could maybe get help to those on the wreck. Another man rode on to Terara to get word through to the nearest telegraph station to alert Sydney to the terrible events. The men who had swum to shore were no doubt saved from exposure by the quick action of those who came to Wreck Bay.
But what happens in a remote regional town when people hear that a ship, laden with all sorts of enticing and valuable goods is spewing its cargo onto the beach? Yes, hundreds of locals heard of the shipwreck but also quickly realised that there would be a cornucopia of goods, without any obvious owner, spreading themselves over the sand.
And, to make matters worse – or better, depending on your point of view, there was hundreds of gallons of alcohol!
In 1870, the district of Milton-Ulladulla was a small and remote settlement. The population of the whole area from Conjola to Termeil was about 3,000 people. To get to the towns from Nowra or Batemans Bay it was a long and arduous ride across steep heavily timbered hills and across swamps and rivers. The majority of the settlers were timber cutters, tenant dairy farmers and labourers who found it tough going making a living.
Milton township was barely 10 years old and its only significant buildings were the original small part of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, the Star Hotel and the Methodist parsonage. In 18 June 1870, the Town and Country Journal described the area:
“But notwithstanding the abundance of the necessaries of life in the district, supplies of any kind are very difficult to procure – the small farmers and settlers, who seem a simple-minded people, preferring to send all their farm produce to the Sydney market, although they may be offered a higher price on the spot. Good water can be procured, and fresh meat once a week at a small town named Milton, three miles inland, by giving notice to the butcher.”
The scene at Wreck Bay on 29 April 1870
“When we arrived at the beach, there was a dreadful scene of disaster, destruction, and confusion. The beach was completely covered with wreck. Casks, cases, and bales of merchandise were strewn about in every direction ; broken packages, blankets, clothing, and casks smashed to pieces showed the force of the gale at the time the ship had struck.”
Time to party – and pick up a ‘bargain’!
So what happened when hundreds of people from Milton-Ulladulla appeared on the beach at Wreck Bay that weekend and found the sand littered with goods? Not to mention casks and casks of beer and wine?
The Town and Country Journal writer describes it vividly:
While it is shocking, it’s also understandable that people living in such a remote place took advantage of what they saw as goods without an obvious owner. Probably to them it wasn’t stealing in the conventional sense – more like picking up ‘gifts from heaven’ that the sea had delivered.
But of course someone else did own it – the ship’s insurance companies – and two local constables and several of the Walter Hood crew did all they could to try and protect the cargo from the hundreds of people who arrived on the beach to scavenge. Local JP Hindmarsh and Coroner Wareham tried to warn the crowd that what they were doing was against the law, but the drunken revelry continued. As the contents of the ship was valued at £27,440, there was a lot to grab. A box addressed to Hardy Bros, the well-known Sydney jewellery shop was found broken open.
A large portion of what the crowd wanted was alcohol and there were hundreds of bottles of beer and casks of beer and wine on the beach. And they knew, as alcohol was a dutiable good, that they had to either drink them then and there or quickly remove them before customs agents arrived.
And what a time they had! One drunken wrecker called Jack Summers even passed out head first into a cask of ale. He would have drowned if someone hadn’t seen his legs sticking out.
There was even a story that a group of local Aboriginal people had found a trunk of theatrical costumes and were parading along the beach in different outfits (possibly in fitting parody of those around them).
Meanwhile, the telegrams from Terara with the news of the terrible fate of the Walter Hood and her crew were starting to arrive in Sydney.