Sensation! – NSW’s response to the Walter Hood shipwreck
For 18 years, each summer-autumn the Walter Hood had been a welcome sight in Sydney Harbour. As a colony still 30 years before Federation, the ties between NSW and England were still very strong. Most settlers still had family back ‘home’ and waited for each inbound ship, hopeful of news from family and friends.
More importantly, each ship brought news of what was happening overseas. In 1870, the Overland Telegraph which linked Australia to the rest of the world was still two years off, so arriving ships with their London newspapers were essential for informing the people about politics, international events, fashion and music.
The Australian colonies were also dependent on the ‘Mother Country’ for 70% their manufactured goods. Ships arrived with steel goods from Sheffield, cotton from Manchester, household goods, clothing and furniture.
In return, Britain bought around 80% of Australia’s exports. By 1870, the major export was wool, with tallow and whale oil making up essential ballast, supplemented by gold during the 1850s boom and an increasing amount of ore from the newly developed copper, lead and zinc mines.
Although ships and navigation had vastly improved since Captain Phillip landed in 1788, the journey by sea from Britain to Australia was still long and dangerous. Sailing ships from London took around 90-100 days to reach Sydney and about the same to return via Cape Horn. Although there was increasing competition from steamships, as there were few opportunities for coal loading en route, in 1870 the sailing clippers continued to be the fastest and cheapest way to import and export goods.
By 1870 there had already been hundreds of ships wrecked off the east Australian coast. Each ship lost also meant drowned sailors and passengers or, at best, the loss of valuable cargo.
News of the wreck of the Walter Hood hit Sydney when a telegraph arrived from Terara (remarkably the telegraph had survived the flooding which swept away the rest of the little town) on 30 April. Terara telegraphed a message from the Chief Officer of the Walter Hood (Hewison) and addressed to Messrs. Montefiore, Joseph and Co, the ship’s agents:
“Terara, 10.45am – ship a total wreck between Ulladulla and Jervis Bay lighthouse. Eleven men lost, and thirteen on the wreck. Ten saved. Captain lost. No aid can be rendered from the shore. Lifeboat or steamer should be sent at once”
The NSW Colonial Secretary also received a similar telegram. As there was no telegraph south of Terara, Sydney did not yet have news from Ulladulla about how the Illalong had steamed to Wreck Bay and rescued men from the wrecked ship that same morning.
The steamer Thetis was quickly despatched but news that the men were already rescued arrived by telegram at 1.10pm. Word quickly spread throughout the city that the Illalong would arrive around 7-8pm that night, and a large crowd of well-wishers (and gawkers) arrived at the wharf to greet her.
On 2 May 1870, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a big story about the wreck, headlined:
You can read the full story in the SMH here:
Newspapers around the country picked up what was a sensational story for the day and, by mid-May, everyone had heard of the terrible and dramatic events that were the wrecking of the Walter Hood.
As the news broke, representatives of the shipping agents, Montefiore, Joseph and Co and their insurance underwriters were rushing to Wreck Bay to try to secure the remaining cargo.
With the beach filled with scavengers loading up what they could, would there be anything left at Wreck Bay for them to retrieve?